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  • Writer's pictureAnda Bolojan

Understanding Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of the best-known theories of motivation. As a humanist, Maslow believed that people have an inborn desire to be self-actualized, that is, to be all they can be.

To achieve this ultimate goal, however, a number of more basic needs must be met. This includes the need for food, safety, love, and self-esteem.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

What is the Hierarchy of the Needs?

In order to better understand what motivates human beings, Maslow proposed that human needs can be organized into a hierarchy.

This hierarchy ranges from more concrete needs such as food and water to abstract concepts such as self-fulfilment. According to Maslow, when a lower need is met, the next need on the hierarchy becomes our focus of attention.

And these are the five categories of needs, according to Maslow.

1. Psychological

These refer to basic physical needs like:

  • food

  • water

  • breathing

This means 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.

2. Safety

Once people’s physiological requirements are met, the next need that arises is a safe environment. Some of the basic security and safety needs include:

  • financial security

  • health and wellness

  • safety against accidents and injury

Our security 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.

3. Love and Belonging

According to Maslow, the next need in the hierarchy involves feeling loved and accepted. Some of the things that satisfy this need include:

  • friendships

  • romantic attachments

  • family relationships

  • social groups

  • churches and religious organizations

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, contrarily, feeling isolated (i.e. having unmet belonging needs) has negative consequences for health and well-being.

4. Esteem

Our esteem needs to involve the desire to feel good about ourselves. According to Maslow, esteem needs include two components.

  • feeling self-confidence

  • 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.”

5. Self-Actualization

Self-actualization refers to feeling:

  • fulfilled

  • 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.

Progressing Through the Pyramid of Needs

Maslow proposed that there were several conditions for meeting these needs. For example, having freedom of speech and freedom of expression or living in a just and fair society isn’t specifically mentioned within the hierarchy, but he believed that having these things makes it easier for people to achieve their needs.

In addition to these, 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.

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, he 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 with 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 need to feel loved and respected.

However, although Tay and Diener found support for some of Maslow’s basic needs, the order which 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.

Final Words on Understanding Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Whether you accept Maslow's hierarchy of needs or not, his theory shines a light on the many needs we have as human beings. And even if we don't all place these needs in the same order, keeping them in mind when interacting with others can help make our interactions more caring and respectful.




A Theory of Human Motivation - Abraham H. Maslow

The Laws of Human Nature - Robert Greene

The Charge: Activating the 10 Human Drives - Brendon Burchard



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