What is it that motivates human being to take action? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people are driven to engage in behaviors by and increasingly complex hierarchy of needs.
Let’s take a closer look at the hierarchy and how it explains motivation.
What Is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
Abraham Maslow was a humanist psychologist who is often referred to as the father of the humanist movement within psychology. Humanism emerged in response to the two prominent schools of thought at the time: psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Humanist thinkers felt that psychoanalysis tended to be too pessimistic and focused solely on negative aspects of human nature. Behaviorism, on the other hand, was too mechanistic and allowed little room to consider things such as free will.
Maslow first introduced his theory in a 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” published in the journal Psychological review. In it, he outlined the basic five stage model he believed people move through which he identified as “physiological,” “safety,” “belonging” / “love,” “esteem,” and “self-actualization.”
Maslow continued to refine his theory by studying people he considered exemplary including Albert Einstein, Frederick Douglass, and Eleanor Roosevelt. His further expanded upon and articulated his theory in his now classic 1954 book Motivation and Personality.
The Five Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is most often depicted as a pyramid. This suggests that the base level needs must be met before an individual can move upwards in the hierarchy to higher-order needs. Maslow identified the first four levels of the hierarchy as deficiency needs, or d-needs. When these needs are not fulfilled, the individual may be left with feelings of tension or anxiety.
At the base of this pyramid are the physiological needs, which include such things as the need for food, water, air, homeostasis, and sex. Maslow placed these needs at the base of the pyramid because they are essential for survival. These foundational needs must be fulfilled in order to give something for the rest of the pyramid to be built upon.
Once the physiological needs have been mostly fulfilled, the safety needs begin to take precedence. These safety needs include work security, protection from danger, health, and well-being.
The needs at this level of a hierarchy can include needs that encompass physical safety and economic safety. Physical safety needs can include being protected from things such as war, conflict, violence, and natural disasters. It can also mean maintaining health insurance and getting regular checkups.
Economic safety needs might involve maintaining a job, paying bills, adding money to a savings account, and purchasing life insurance.
Once the needs at the first two levels of the hierarchy have been fulfilled, the social needs begin to take greater precedence. These needs are centered on belongingness, or a need to form and maintain lasting social connections. These can include relationships with family members, romantic partners, friends, and acquaintances.
In order to fulfill these social needs, you might seek out groups or activities where you are likely to find like-minded individuals. Religious groups, social clubs, sporting activities, and workplace associations are just a few places where you might forge social connections.
After the social needs have been addressed, the need to gain esteem and recognition becomes more important. All people have a need to feel appreciated and respected. People like to be recognized for their work and accomplishments, whether these are related to work, school, hobbies, or some other area of life.
By gaining recognition for these accomplishments, people gain a sense that they are making important contributions to society.
Maslow believed that there was a lower level and a higher level of esteem. Lower level esteem involves a need to receive applause, accolades, or awards from other people. Higher level esteem is all about gaining inner self-respect.
Maslow believed that self-actualization was at the peak of the hierarchy. Self-actualization involves the need to fulfill your total potential and to become the best that you can possibly be.
“What a man can be, he must be,” Maslow summarized. What this entails exactly depends upon what is important to the individual. For an athlete, self-actualization might involve reaching maximum physical condition and athletic ability. For a musician, it might involve achieving a high level of accomplishment with their instrument.
It is important to realize that self-actualization is not a destination or end-point. You don’t become self-actualized and suddenly just stop growing and changing as a person. Instead, self-actualization is characterized by the actualizing tendency, or the need to continue becoming better and more self-aware.
In his later years, Maslow increasingly came to believe that another level existed beyond self-actualization, which you referred to as self transcendence. Once a person becomes a self actualized, the actualizing tendency doesn’t simply go away. Instead, people are always striving to do more to do better and to become more. The self transcendence involves looking outside of oneself and getting a greater awareness and connection with human beings on much wider level.
Support and Criticisms of Maslow’s Theory
While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has become incredibly popular, not only in psychology but also in areas such as education and business, the theory is lacking when it comes to empirical research and scientific support.
Needs don’t follow the order Maslow suggested
While research has supported the notion that these needs are important, most experts dispute the notion that these needs follow the order that Maslow described or that a hierarchy exists at all. Even Maslow himself believed that the needs he described did not necessarily follow a strict hierarchy and that these needs could exist and interact in a dynamic and continually changing way.
Consider, for example, that even people that have not fulfilled lower level needs still pursue upper level needs for esteem and self-actualization. Even people living in impoverished areas who struggle to fill their most basic physiological and security needs still seek out ways to grow and develop as people.
Problems with Maslow’s research method
One problem with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is that the research he conducted while developing his theory centered on analyzing the biographies of famous individuals who he felt were exceptional and self-actualized. The list of people he studied largely centered on white men living in the Western world, although he did include a few well-known women in his sample.
The problem with this approach is that his findings are based largely on his own opinions and assessments. While Maslow might have felt an individual met his definition of a self-actualized person, others might disagree.
His sample was also biased because it included only a small sample of people who largely grew up in a similar cultural. It is difficult to say if his findings would generalize to similar individuals or to women, minorities, or people who live in non-Western cultures.
Cultural differences may exist
Even Maslow’s definition of what it means to be self-actualized suffers from cultural bias. What may be perceived as being a fully-realized and self-actualized person in an individualistic culture such as the United States may not be the same as what one might find in collectivist cultures such as China and Japan.
Research does support the existence of Maslow’s needs
In research published by Tay and Diener (2011), the researchers analyzed participants from more than 120 different countries. What they found over the course of their five-year study was that there do appear to be human needs that are universal across different cultures.
Their research also suggests that while these needs exist in cultures all over the world, they do not follow the order presented in Maslow’s hierarchy. Instead, Tay and Diener suggest that the needs are dynamic and not independent from one another. Even if you are hungry and seeking shelter, you still need the support from your family and friends. Even if you are working toward building friendships and gaining social support, you still have a desire to become the best person you can possibly be.
Maslow’s hierarchy may not follow the order in which it is usually presented, but his theory does offer a useful framework for understanding how different needs motivate human behavior.
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Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.
Kendrick, D.T., Vladas, G., Neuberg, S.L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives in Psychological Sciences, 5(3), 292-314. doi: 10.1177/1745691610369469.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.
Maslow, A. H. (1962). Towards a psychology of being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company.
Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354.