Discover the uses of this fundamental psychology theory.
Have you ever heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Perhaps it came up in an introductory psychology course you took or a popular media article on some topic in the social sciences that you read. Maslow’s idea is that some human needs are more pressing than others and that we can use this knowledge to understand what motivates human behavior.
In the middle of his career as a professor of psychology, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs whose popularity and influence would lead to him to being the tenth most cited psychologist of the twentieth century (Haggbloom et al., 2002). Maslow studied both human and animal behavior, allowing him insight into both complex and very basic needs. In creating his hierarchy, Maslow (1943, 1954) first divided human needs into five categories: physiological needs, safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. He then proposed that these needs could be ranked by how important or basic to human functioning they were. Finally, Maslow proposed that our ability to have these needs met would impact our psychological health. Specifically, he thought that our psychological health would be most negatively impacted by not being able to meet the more fundamental needs towards the bottom of the pyramid.
List of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (From Most Basic to Most Advanced)
I. Physiological Needs. These are the things that most, if not all, organisms need to survive, such as the ability to breathe, stay warm enough or cool enough, get sleep when we need it, and have enough food and water to survive.
II. Safety and Security. The second set of needs provides for our safety and security. This includes being physically healthy and having the physical and interpersonal resources we need to survive, such as a home to live in. For children, this means having a reliable caregiver that keeps them healthy and provides for their physiological needs.
III. Love and Belonging. Once safety and security are established, we focus on feeling connected to others, such as having a romantic partner and friends in our lives.
IV. Self-Esteem. Nearing the top of the hierarchy, our needs become centered on feeling good about ourselves. Are we recognized and respected for our contributions? Do people seem to like us for who we are or what we’re good at? We take these cues from other people and use them to support our positive beliefs about ourselves.
V. Self-Actualization. The most advanced need Maslow describes is that of being engaged in meaningful activities that align with our values and express who we are. Imagine a highly-paid and successful lawyer who does not find her work personally meaningful or believe in its purpose. Although all her other needs might be met, she likely would not feel she is self-actualized.
How did Maslow determine this order of needs? Maslow (1943, 1954) placed physiological needs as the foundation of the pyramid because they are mostly driven by automatic biological processes in the body. You never have to think very hard to determine if you’re sleepy, hungry, cold, or having trouble breathing, do you? These needs are so basic that, as Maslow put it, somebody who feels unloved, worthless, unsafe, and hungry, will probably want to address their hunger before any other need.
Maslow characterized the next level of needs as being related to safety and security, and he stressed that without these needs being met, we would start having trouble meeting our physiological needs. Maslow used the example of a child or infant’s experience to make this hierarchy clear: without access to a reliable caregiver, a child is unlikely to feel safe, and more likely to lack the food, shelter, and clothing they need.
Once people feel safe, Maslow reasoned, they next focus on belonging and love. Maslow observed that people who did not feel that they belong – who do not feel loved – are much more likely to have psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, or addiction. These psychological issues, in turn, make it harder to meet our needs for safety.
While being loved and knowing we belong is meaningful to us, the higher-order need that builds on this need is our desire to be seen as good for who we are and what we do. This meets our need for self-esteem and self-respect.
When all other needs are met, Maslow argued that we focus on doing the things that best suit us, that give us the most self-fulfillment. He called this self-actualization. While other needs look fairly similar from one person to the next, Maslow thought that this last need would be unique to each individual: only you can know what experiences will be most fulfilling for you.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has endured in economic, psychological, and sociological research and practice for years because it attempts to answer a fundamental question: what motivates us to address one need over another? Maslow’s hierarchy has been confirmed by psychology research to be generally true and helpful – all other things being equal, we will put our need to belong above our need to self-actualize, our need for safety and security above our need for self-esteem, and so on (Lester, 2013).
Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., …, & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139-152.
Lester, D. (2013). Measuring Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Psychological Reports, 113(1), 1027-1029.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.