Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What is it that motivates human beings to take action? According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, people are driven to engage in behaviors by a hierarchy of increasingly complex needs.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology, comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are physiological, safety, social (love and belonging), esteem, and self-actualization.

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. 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.

1. Physiological Needs

At the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid is the physiological needs, which include such things as the need for food, shelter, 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 to give something for the rest of the pyramid to be built upon.

2. Safety Needs

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 (protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear), 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.

3. Social Needs

Once the needs at the first two levels of Maslow's hierarchy have been fulfilled, the social needs begin to take higher 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.

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.

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 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 significant contributions to society.

Maslow believed that there were 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.

The 'lower' version is where people can fluctuate from and keep dropping back to. We might get a solid dose of external validation, and that propels us to the higher level, but it is never sustainable. When we experience a lull in external validation, we will suddenly drop back to needing others to fulfill our esteem needs again. So it is essential to genuinely and fully develop our esteem needs at the 'upper' level to move onto the next level in the hierarchy.

5. Self-Actualization

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 be. This level is about self-awareness, personal development, and exploring our potential. You start to explore more of who you are and what you are about. You develop self-discipline, create goals, and uncover your purpose. You strive to develop yourself and encourage yourself to achieve and grow. This is a powerful stage of life.

Beyond Self-Actualization

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 merely go away. Instead, people are always striving to do more to do better and to become more. Self-transcendence involves looking outside of oneself and getting a greater awareness and connection with human beings on a much wider level.

At this level, our concerns move from ourselves to others, and we dedicate our lives to serving others in whatever way feels right to us. Maslow identified that people operating at the highest level of personal development have' peak experiences' that are described in ways that mirror spiritual experiences, spiritual awakenings, or profoundly 'transpersonal' (beyond our physical self) experiences.

Characteristics of Self-actualized People

Although we are all, theoretically, capable of self-actualizing, most of us will not do so, or only to a limited degree. Maslow (1970) estimated that only two percent of people would reach the state of self-actualization. He was especially interested in the characteristics of people whom he considered to have achieved their potential as individuals.

By studying 18 people, he considered to be self-actualized (including Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein) Maslow (1970) identified 15 characteristics of a self-actualized person.

Characteristics of self-actualized:

1. They perceive reality efficiently and can tolerate uncertainty;

2. Accept themselves and others for what they are;

3. Spontaneous in thought and action;

4. Problem-centered (not self-centered);

5. Unusual sense of humor;

6. Able to look at life objectively;

7. Highly creative;

8. Resistant to enculturation, but not purposely unconventional;

9. Concerned for the welfare of humanity;

10. Capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience;

11. Establish deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people;

12. Peak experiences;

13. Need for privacy;

14. Democratic attitudes;

15. Strong moral/ethical standards.

Behavior leading to self-actualization:

(a) Experiencing life like a child, with full absorption and concentration;

(b) Trying new things instead of sticking to safe paths;

(c) Listening to your feelings in evaluating experiences instead of the voice of tradition, authority or the majority;

(d) Avoiding pretense ('game-playing') and being honest;

(e) Being prepared to be unpopular if your views do not coincide with those of the majority;

(f) Taking responsibility and working hard;

(g) Trying to identify your defenses and having the courage to give them up.

The characteristics of self-actualized and the behaviors leading to self-actualization are shown in the list above. Although people achieve self-actualization in their unique way, they tend to share specific characteristics. However, self-actualization is a matter of degree, 'There are no perfect human beings' (Maslow,1970a, p. 176).

It is not necessary to display all 15 characteristics to become self-actualized, and not only self-actualized people will show them. Maslow did not equate self-actualization with perfection. Self-actualization merely involves achieving one's potential. Thus, someone can be silly, wasteful, vain and impolite, and still self-actualize. Less than two percent of the population achieve self-actualization.

Needs Don't Follow the Order Maslow Suggested

While research has supported the notion that these needs are essential, most experts dispute the idea 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.

Research Supports 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 throughout 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 of one another. 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 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.

Hierarchical order here ranges from the most basic needs to the most advanced needs. It is, of course, possible to feel a sense of social belonging (for instance) when you lack food or shelter; it's just a lot harder. If you're struggling with the needs that lie further up the list, it might be worth considering whether all your basic physiological needs are being met. For instance, among teenagers, sleep deprivation has become the norm rather than the exception, with surveys reporting between 50% and 90% of teenagers failing to meet this basic physiological need.

If you would like to explore Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs further you can download a free guide called  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Self Study by clicking here.