Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory by Abraham Maslow, which puts forward that people are motivated by five basic categories of needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. He then created a classification system which reflected the universal needs of society as its base and then proceeding to more acquired emotions. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is used to study how humans intrinsically partake in behavioral motivation. Maslow used the terms “physiological”, “safety”, “belonging and love”, “social needs” or “esteem”, and “self-actualization” to describe the pattern through which human motivations generally move. This means that in order for motivation to arise at the next stage, each stage must be satisfied within the individual themselves. Additionally, this theory is a main base in knowing how effort and motivation are correlated when discussing human behavior. Each of these individual levels contains a certain amount of internal sensation that must be met in order for an individual to complete their hierarchy. The goal in Maslow’s theory is to attain the fifth level or stage: self-actualization.
Maslow’s theory was fully expressed in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. The hierarchy remains a very popular framework in sociology research, management training and secondary and higher psychology instruction. Maslow’s classification hierarchy has been revised over time. The original hierarchy states that a lower level must be completely satisfied and fulfilled before moving onto a higher pursuit. However, today scholars prefer to think of these levels as continuously overlapping each other. This means that the lower levels may take precedence back over the other levels at any point in time.
“A Theory of Human Motivation”, original 1943 article by Maslow.
Key Takeaways: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- According to Maslow, we have five categories of needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization.
- In this theory, higher needs in the hierarchy begin to emerge when people feel they have sufficiently satisfied the previous need.
- Although later research does not fully support all of Maslow’s theory, his research has impacted other psychologists and contributed to the field of positive psychology.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization and transcendence at the top. In other words, the theory is that individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher level needs. However, it has been pointed out that, although the ideas behind the hierarchy are Maslow’s, the pyramid itself does not exist anywhere in Maslow’s original work.
The most fundamental four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – except for the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher-level needs. Maslow also coined the term “metamotivation” to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment.
The human brain is a complex system and has parallel processes running at the same time, thus many different motivations from various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy can occur at the same time. Maslow spoke clearly about these levels and their satisfaction in terms such as “relative”, “general”, and “primarily”. Instead of stating that the individual focuses on a certain need at any given time, Maslow stated that a certain need “dominates” the human organism. Thus Maslow acknowledged the likelihood that the different levels of motivation could occur at any time in the human mind, but he focused on identifying the basic types of motivation and the order in which they would tend to be met.
According to Maslow, when a lower need is met, the next need on the hierarchy becomes our focus of attention. These are the five categories of needs according to Maslow:
The physiological need is a concept that was derived to explain and cultivate the foundation for motivation. This concept is the main physical requirement for human survival. This means that physiological needs are universal human needs. Physiological needs are considered in internal motivation according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This theory states that humans are compelled to fulfill these physiological needs first to pursue intrinsic satisfaction on a higher level.
These refer to basic physical needs like drinking when thirsty or eating when hungry. According to Maslow, some of these needs involve our efforts to meet the body’s need for homeostasis; that is, maintaining consistent levels in different bodily systems (for example, maintaining a body temperature of 98.6°).
Maslow considered physiological needs to be the most essential of our needs. If someone is lacking in more than one need, they’re likely to try to meet these physiological needs first. For example, if someone is extremely hungry, it’s hard to focus on anything else besides food. Another example of a physiological need would be the need for adequate sleep.
If these needs are not achieved, it leads to an increase in displeasure within an individual. In return, when individuals feel this increase in displeasure, the motivation to decrease these discrepancies increases. Physiological needs can be defined as both traits and a state. Physiological needs as traits allude to long-term, unchanging demands that are required of basic human life. Physiological needs as a state allude to the unpleasant decrease in pleasure and the increase for an incentive to fulfill a necessity. To pursue intrinsic motivation higher up Maslow’s hierarchy, Physiological needs must be met first. This means that if a human is struggling to meet their physiological needs, then they are unlikely to intrinsically pursue safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization.
Physiological needs include:
- Food and water
Once people’s physiological requirements are met, the next need that arises is a safe environment. Our safety needs are apparent even early in childhood, as children have a need for safe and predictable environments and typically react with fear or anxiety when these are not met. Maslow pointed out that in adults living in developed nations, safety needs are more apparent in emergency situations (e.g. war and disasters), but this need can also explain why we tend to prefer the familiar or why we do things like purchase insurance and contribute to a savings account.
Once a person’s physiological needs are relatively satisfied, their safety needs to take precedence and dominate behavior. In the absence of physical safety – due to war, natural disaster, family violence, childhood abuse, etc. in the absence of economic safety – (due to an economic crisis and lack of work opportunities) these safety needs manifest themselves in ways such as a preference for job security, grievance procedures for protecting the individual from unilateral authority, savings accounts, insurance policies, disability accommodations, etc. This level is more likely to predominate in children as they generally have a greater need to feel safe. It includes shelter, job security, health, and safe environments. If a person does not feel safe in an environment, they will seek safety before attempting to meet any higher level of survival.
Safety and Security needs include:
- Personal security
- Emotional security
- Financial security
- Health and well-being
- Against accidents/illness
According to Maslow, the next need in the hierarchy involves feeling loved and accepted. This need includes both romantic relationships as well as ties to friends and family members. It also includes our need to feel that we belong to a social group. Importantly, this need encompasses both feeling loved and feeling love towards others.
Since Maslow’s time, researchers have continued to explore how love and belonging needs impact well-being. For example, having social connections is related to better physical health and, conversely, feeling isolated (i.e. having unmet belonging needs) has negative consequences for health and well-being.
After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves feelings of belongingness. According to Maslow, humans possess an affective need for a sense of belonging and acceptance among social groups, regardless of whether these groups are large or small. For example, some large social groups may include clubs, co-workers, religious groups, professional organizations, sports teams, gangs, and online communities. Some examples of small social connections include family members, intimate partners, mentors, colleagues, and confidants. Humans need to love and be loved – both sexually and non-sexually – by others. Many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and clinical depression in the absence of this love or belonging element. This need is especially strong in childhood and it can override the need for safety as witnessed in children who cling to abusive parents. Deficiencies due to hospitalism, neglect, shunning, ostracism, etc. can adversely affect the individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships in general.
Social Belonging needs include:
This need for belonging may overcome the physiological and security needs, depending on the strength of the peer pressure. In contrast, for some individuals, the need for self-esteem is more important than the need for belonging; and for others, the need for creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs.
Our esteem needs involve the desire to feel good about ourselves. According to Maslow, esteem needs include two components. The first involves feeling self-confidence and feeling good about oneself. The second component involves feeling valued by others; that is, feeling that our achievements and contributions have been recognized by other people. When people’s esteem needs are met, they feel confident and see their contributions and achievements as valuable and important. However, when their esteem needs are not met, they may experience what psychologist Alfred Adler called “feelings of inferiority.”
Esteem needs are ego needs or status needs. People develop a concern with getting recognition, status, importance, and respect from others. Most humans need to feel respected; this includes the need to have self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem presents the typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People often engage in a profession or hobby to gain recognition. These activities give the person a sense of contribution or value. Low self-esteem or an inferiority complex may result from imbalances during this level in the hierarchy. People with low self-esteem often need respect from others; they may feel the need to seek fame or glory. However, fame or glory will not help the person to build their self-esteem until they accept who they are internal. Psychological imbalances such as depression can distract the person from obtaining a higher level of self-esteem.
Most people have a need for stable self-respect and self-esteem. Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs: a “lower” version and a “higher” version. The “lower” version of esteem is the need for respect from others and may include a need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The “higher” version manifests itself as the need for self-respect, and can include a need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom. This “higher” version takes guidelines, the “hierarchies are interrelated rather than sharply separated”. This means that esteem and the subsequent levels are not strictly separated; instead, the levels are closely related.
Self-actualization refers to feeling fulfilled, or feeling that we are living up to our potential. One unique feature of self-actualization is that it looks different for everyone. For one person, self-actualization might involve helping others; for another person, it might involve achievements in an artistic or creative field. Essentially, self-actualization means feeling that we are doing what we believe we are meant to do. According to Maslow, achieving self-actualization is relatively rare, and his examples of famous self-actualized individuals include Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Mother Teresa.
“What a man can be, he must be.” This quotation forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. This level of need refers to the realization of one’s full potential. Maslow describes this as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. People may have a strong, particular desire to become an ideal parent, succeed athletically, or create paintings, pictures, or inventions. To understand this level of need, a person must not only succeed in the previous needs but master them. Self-actualization can be described as a value-based system when discussing its role in motivation. Self-actualization is understood as the goal or explicit motive, and the previous stages in Maslow’s Hierarchy fall in line to become the step-by-step process by which self-actualization is achievable; an explicit motive is the objective of a reward-based system that is used to intrinsically drive completion of certain values or goals. Individuals who are motivated to pursue this goal seek and understand how their needs, relationships, and sense of self are expressed through their behavior. Self-actualization can include:
- Partner Acquisition
- Utilizing & Developing Talents & Abilities
- Pursuing goals
How People Progress Through the Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow postulated that there were several prerequisites to meeting these needs. For example, having freedom of speech and freedom of expression or living in a just and fair society aren’t specifically mentioned within the hierarchy of needs, but Maslow believed that having these things makes it easier for people to achieve their needs.
In addition to these needs, Maslow also believed that we have a need to learn new information and to better understand the world around us. This is partially because learning more about our environment helps us meet our other needs; for example, learning more about the world can help us feel safer, and developing a better understanding of a topic one is passionate about can contribute to self-actualization. However, Maslow also believed that this call to understand the world around us is an innate need as well.
Although Maslow presented his needs in a hierarchy, he also acknowledged that meeting each need is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Consequently, people don’t need to completely satisfy one need in order for the next need in the hierarchy to emerge. Maslow suggests that, at any given time, most people tend to have each of their needs partly met—and that needs lower on the hierarchy are typically the ones that people have made the most progress towards.
Additionally, Maslow pointed out that one behavior might meet two or more needs. For example, sharing a meal with someone meets the physiological need for food, but it might also meet the need of belonging. Similarly, working as a paid caregiver would provide someone with income (which allows them to pay for food and shelter), but can also provide them a sense of social connection and fulfillment.
Testing Maslow’s Theory
In the time since Maslow published his original paper, his idea that we go through five specific stages hasn’t always been supported by research. In a 2011 study of human needs across cultures, researchers Louis Tay and Ed Diener looked at data from over 60,000 participants in over 120 different countries. They assessed six needs similar to Maslow’s: basic needs (similar to physiological needs), safety, love, pride and respect (similar to esteem needs), mastery, and autonomy. They found that meeting these needs was indeed linked to well-being. In particular, having basic needs met was linked to people’s overall assessment of their lives, and feeling positive emotions was linked to meeting the needs of feeling loved and respected.
However, although Tay and Diener found support for some of Maslow’s basic needs, the order that people go through these steps seems to be more of a rough guide than a strict rule. For example, people living in poverty might have had trouble meeting their needs for food and safety, but these individuals still sometimes reported feeling loved and supported by the people around them. Meeting the previous needs in the hierarchy wasn’t always a prerequisite for people to meet their love and belonging needs.
Maslow’s Impact on Other Researchers and Criticism
Maslow’s theory has had a strong influence on other researchers, who have sought to build on his theory. For example, psychologists Carol Ryff and Burton Singer drew on Maslow’s theories when developing their theory of eudaimonic well-being. According to Ryff and Singer, eudaimonic well-being refers to feeling purpose and meaning—which is similar to Maslow’s idea of self-actualization.
Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary built on Maslow’s idea of love and belonging needs. According to Baumeister and Leary, feeling that one belongs is a fundamental need, and they suggest that feeling isolated or left out can have negative consequences for mental and physical health.
Although recent research appears to validate the existence of universal human needs, the hierarchy proposed by Maslow is called into question.
Unlike most scientific theories, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has widespread influence outside academia. As Uriel Abulof argues, “The continued resonance of Maslow’s theory in popular imagination, however unscientific it may seem, is possibly the single most telling evidence of its significance: it explains human nature as something that most humans immediately recognize in themselves and others.” Still, academically, Maslow’s theory is heavily contested.
Maslow studied what he called the master race of people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy. Maslow studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.
In their extensive review of research based on Maslow’s theory, Wahba and Bridwell found little evidence for the ranking of needs that Maslow described or for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all.
The order in which the hierarchy is arranged has been criticized as being ethnocentric by Geert Hofstede. In turn, Hofstede’s work has been criticized by others. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs fails to illustrate and expand upon the difference between the social and intellectual needs of those raised in individualistic societies and those raised in collectivist societies. The needs and drives of those in individualistic societies tend to be more self-centered than those in collectivist societies, focusing on improvement of the self, with self-actualization being the apex of self-improvement. In collectivist societies, the needs of acceptance and community will outweigh the needs for freedom and individuality.
Ranking of sex
The position and value of sex on the pyramid has also been a source of criticism regarding Maslow’s hierarchy. Maslow’s hierarchy places sex in the physiological needs category along with food and breathing; it lists sex solely from an individualistic perspective. For example, sex is placed with other physiological needs which must be satisfied before a person considers “higher” levels of motivation. Some critics feel this placement of sex neglects the emotional, familial, and evolutionary implications of sex within the community, although others point out that this is true of all of the basic needs.
Changes to the hierarchy by circumstance
The higher-order (self-esteem and self-actualization) and lower-order (physiological, safety, and love) needs classification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not universal and may vary across cultures due to individual differences and availability of resources in the region or geopolitical entity/country.
In one study, exploratory factor analysis (EFA) of a thirteen-item scale showed there were two particularly important levels of needs in the US during the peacetime of 1993 to 1994: survival (physiological and safety) and psychological (love, self-esteem, and self-actualization). In 1991, a retrospective peacetime measure was established and collected during the Persian Gulf War and US citizens were asked to recall the importance of needs from the previous year. Once again, only two levels of needs were identified; therefore, people have the ability and competence to recall and estimate the importance of needs. For citizens in the Middle East (Egypt and Saudi Arabia), three levels of needs regarding importance and satisfaction surfaced during the 1990 retrospective peacetime. These three levels were completely different from those of the US citizens.
Changes regarding the importance and satisfaction of needs from the retrospective peacetime to the wartime due to stress varied significantly across cultures (the US vs. the Middle East). For the US citizens, there was only one level of needs since all needs were considered equally important. With regards to satisfaction of needs during the war, in the US there were three levels: physiological needs, safety needs, and psychological needs (social, self-esteem, and self-actualization). During the war, the satisfaction of physiological needs and safety needs were separated into two independent needs while during peacetime, they were combined as one. For the people of the Middle East, the satisfaction of needs changed from three levels to two during wartime.
A 1981 study looked at how Maslow’s hierarchy might vary across age groups. A survey asked participants of varying ages to rate a set number of statements from most important to least important. The researchers found that children had higher physical need scores than the other groups, the love need emerged from childhood to young adulthood, the esteem need was highest among the adolescent group, young adults had the highest self-actualization level, and old age had the highest level of security, it was needed across all levels comparably. The authors argued that this suggested Maslow’s hierarchy may be limited as a theory for developmental sequence since the sequence of the love need and the self-esteem need should be reversed according to age.
Definition of terms
The term “self-actualization” may not universally convey Maslow’s observations; this motivation refers to focusing on becoming the best person that one can possibly strive for in the service of both the self and others. Maslow’s term of self-actualization might not properly portray the full extent of this level; quite often, when a person is at the level of self-actualization, much of what they accomplish in general may benefit others, or “the greater good”.
Human or non-human needs
Abulof argues that while Maslow stresses that “motivation theory must be anthropocentric rather than animalcentric,” he a largely animalistic hierarchy, crowned with a human edge: “Man’s higher nature rests upon man’s lower nature, needing it as a foundation and collapsing without this foundation… Our godlike qualities rest upon and need our animal qualities.” Abulof notes that “all animals seek survival and safety, and many animals, especially mammals, also invest efforts to belong and gain esteem… The first four of Maslow’s classical five rungs feature nothing exceptionally human.” Even when it comes to “self-actualization”, Abulof argues, it is unclear how distinctively human is the actualizing “self”. After all, the latter, according to Maslow, constitutes “an inner, more biological, more instinctoid core of human nature,” thus “the search for one’s own intrinsic, authentic values” checks the human freedom of choice: “A musician must make music,” so freedom is limited to merely the choice of instrument.
In his later years, Abraham Maslow explored a further dimension of motivation, while criticizing his original vision of self-actualization. By this later theory, one finds the fullest realization in giving oneself to something beyond oneself—for example, in altruism or spirituality. He equated this with the desire to reach the infinite. “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos”.