Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of human motivation. It suggests that behaviors are by a series of increasingly complex needs. The hierarchy is usually depicted as a pyramid. The most basic needs make up the base and complex needs are found at the peak.
The five levels of the hierarchy of needs are:
- Physiological Needs
- Safety Needs
- Social Needs
- Esteem Needs
- Self-Actualization Needs
Let’s take a closer look at the hierarchy and how it explains motivation.
5 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 to higher-level needs.
Key facts about the hierarchy of needs:
- People are motivated to fulfill certain needs
- Some needs take precedence over others
- Basic needs need to be fulfilled first
- Lower-level needs arise from deprivation
- Needs become increasingly complex as you move up the hierarchy
- Higher-level needs arise from a need to grow as a person
1. Physiological Needs
At the base of Maslow’s pyramid are physiological needs. Examples of physiological needs include the need for
Maslow placed these needs at the pyramid’s base because they are essential for survival. These foundational needs must be fulfilled to provide something for the rest of the pyramid to be built upon.
For example, imagine how hard it is to focus on other things when you are hungry, thirsty, or cold. When faced with a physical need or some environmental discomfort, you usually focus on meeting those needs before you do anything else.
2. Safety Needs
Once the physiological needs have been mostly fulfilled, the safety needs begin to take precedence. Examples of safety needs include:
- Work security
- Protection from danger
- Having life insurance
- Living in a safe neighborhood or community
The needs at this level of a hierarchy can include needs that encompass physical safety and economic safety. Physical safety needs can include protection from 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.
3. Social Needs
Once the needs at the first two levels of Maslow’s 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. Examples of social needs can include:
- Relationships with family members
- Romantic partners
- Relationships with co-workers or classmates
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.
Other researchers have also explored the importance of love and belonging on human development and well-being. Research has shown, for example, that having social support is critical to mental health.
Being lonely or lacking social connections can harm a person’s physical and emotional health.
4. Esteem Needs
After the social needs have been addressed, the need to gain esteem and recognition becomes more important. All people need to feel appreciated and respected. People like to be recognized for their work and accomplishments, whether they are related to work, school, hobbies, or some other area of life.
Examples of activities that can fulfill esteem needs include:
- Academic accomplishments
- Professional recognitions
- Participating in a team sport
- Serving a role in a community position
- Filling a role in a club, organization, or religious group
By gaining recognition for these accomplishments, people gain a sense that they are making important contributions to society.
Maslow believed that there was lower and higher levels 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.
Research suggests that self-esteem, or how you feel about yourself, is an important predictor of well-being. People who have stronger esteem related to themselves and their relationships with others tend to feel more satisfied with their lives, find greater meaning in life, and feel happier.
Maslow believed that self-actualization was at the peak of the hierarchy.
Definition: 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. Self-actualization might involve reaching the maximum physical and athletic ability of an athlete. 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 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.
Types of Needs
Maslow’s theory also distinguished between two key needs types: deficiency and growth.
The first four levels of the hierarchy are deficiency needs or d-needs. These needs arise due to deprivation. Not having food or water leads to a physiological urge to fulfill those unmet needs.
When these needs are not fulfilled, the individual may be left with feelings of tension or anxiety. As a result of this deficiency, people are motivated to take actions that will relieve these negative feelings.
The highest level of the hierarchy is known as a growth need because it is motivated by a desire to develop as a person and not because something is lacking.
The History of the Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow was a humanist psychologist 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.
The Humanistic Perspective
How did humanism differ from these other two schools of psychology? Humanist thinkers felt that psychoanalysis tended to be too pessimistic and focused solely on the negative aspects of human nature. On the other hand, behaviorism 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 Psychological Review. In it, he outlined the basic five-stage model he believed people move through. He identified these five categories of needs 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. He further expanded upon and articulated his theory in his now-classic 1954 book Motivation and Personality.
In his later years, Maslow increasingly came to believe that another level existed beyond self-actualization, which he referred to as self-transcendence.
Once a person becomes self-actualized, the actualizing tendency doesn’t go away. Instead, people always strive to do more to improve and become more.
Definition: Self-transcendence involves looking outside of oneself and getting a greater awareness and connection with human beings on a much wider level.
More recent additions to the hierarchy have suggested an eight-stage model that is structured in the following way:
- Physiological needs
- Safety needs
- Love and belongingness needs
- Esteem needs
- Cognitive needs (the need for knowledge and understanding about the world)
- Aesthetic needs (the need for beauty and balance)
- Self-actualization needs
- Self-transendence needs (spiritual, mystical, other experiences that transcend the self)
Problems With Maslow’s Theory
While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has become incredibly popular in psychology and areas such as education and business, the theory is lacking in empirical research and scientific support.
Needs Are Not Necessarily Hierarchical
While research has supported the notion that these needs are important, most experts dispute that these needs follow the order that Maslow described or that a hierarchy exists.
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.
- Even people that have not fulfilled lower-level needs still pursue upper-level needs for esteem and self-actualization.
- People living in impoverished areas who struggle to fill their basic physiological and security needs still seek ways to grow and develop as people.
Research Method Problems
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.
Some problems with this approach:
- 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 findings are based largely on Maslow’s own opinions and assessments. While he 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 culture. It is difficult to say if his findings would generalize to similar individuals, women, minorities, or people who live in non-Western cultures.
Cultural Differences 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.
Support for Maslow’s Hierarchy
In research published by Tay and Diener (2011), the researchers analyzed participants from more than 120 different countries. They found over the course of their five-year study that there appear to be universal human needs across different cultures.
Their research also suggests that while these needs exist in cultures worldwide, they do not follow the order in Maslow’s hierarchy. Instead, Tay and Diener suggest that the needs are dynamic and not independent.
Even if you are hungry and seeking shelter, you still need 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 be.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs described five different types of needs that people experience.
These needs help to motivate human behavior, and people usually strive to meet their more basic needs before fulfilling those that are more complex.
Maslow’s hierarchy may not follow the order in which it is usually presented, but his theory does offer a valuable framework for understanding how different needs motivate human behavior.
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