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Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - A Theory of Human Motivation

Updated on May 2, 2014

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow was one of the great American psychologists of the 20th Century. He was born in 1908 and died at the age of 62 in 1970. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was his most famous work and was proposed in his paper of 1943 ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’.

Maslow took a new approach to a psychology and motivation which in the mid-1900s was concerned mainly with the fixing of peoples problems and making sick people better. His approach concentrated more on how people can positively improve themselves and what their desires and motivations are and how they can reach their human potential. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates a roadmap for how a person can reach their ultimate potential and the stages they must pass through to get there.

In Maslow’s 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ he focused on what motivates humans to reach their personal and spiritual goals and determined that to reach our ultimate goals you would first have to conquer your more basic needs. Thus Maslows Hierarchy of Needs was born.

The book that started it all...

Maslow's Pyramid

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs originally identified 5 levels of basic human needs, however he later extended his theory and identified a further 3 levels of motivation in the Hierarchy. The Hierarchy of needs was arranged in such a way that you were only motivated by a human need if you had already satisfied the previous human need in the hierarchy. Therefore you would only be concerned with the esteem needs such as the respect of others if you had enough food to eat and water to drink.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is usually displayed in the form of a pyramid. The Pyramid identifies the more basic human needs at the bottom of the Hierarchy and the more spiritual human needs at the point of the Pyramid. So you ascend from basic to spiritual needs from the bottom to the top of the Pyramid.

Abraham Maslows Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Additional considerations

Although the levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are standard across all societies, the extent to which they need to be satisfied before moving up the hierarchy can differ from culture to culture. For example in the Western World the requirement for food and drink is great and 3 square meals a day may be required to move on the next level, however in Central Africa where food and water are less available a single meal and a glass of water a day may be enough to satisfy that need before thinking about the safety and security needs.

In this way the western societies often concentrate more on the lower level of the hierarchy whereas Eastern cultures can move more quickly through the lower levels of the Hierarchy of Needs and concentrate more on the more spiritual higher end of the Pyramid. Thus, some people argue that prosperity is actually a blocker to achieving the higher states such as self-actualisation and transcendence.

The 8 levels in Maslows Hierarchy of Needs.

The 8 levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are as follows:

1. Biological Needs

These are the very basic needs a human has for survival. Including:

  • Water
  • Air
  • Food
  • Sleep

2. Safety Needs

When the physical human needs are satisfied, the human mind turns to thoughts of safety and security. This is both physical safety and emotional safety in terms of an ordered world and lack of fear. These include:

  • Protection
  • Order
  • Security
  • Law
  • Stability

3. Belongingness and the Need for Love

Now that basic human needs and safety and security have been achieved the human becomes motivated by a need for love and belonging. Social needs and the need to be loved and to love take over, the absence of which can lead to depression and anxiety. These include:

  • Family
  • Acceptance
  • Being in a social group
  • Having friends
  • Being able to interact and communicate with others

4. Esteem Needs

The next level of human motivation is the need for self-esteem. This is where someone is satisfied with how their life is both personally and professional and they believe they are successful in all that they do. These include:

  • Good reputation
  • Respect of others
  • Job satisfaction
  • Personal status
  • Responsibility

5. Cognitive Needs

The next level in the Hierarchy of Needs is achieving Cognitive Needs. This is the need to be intellectually challenged and to increase our intelligence and understanding of the world. This includes:

  • Self-awareness
  • sense of meaning
  • Desire to explore and travel
  • New experiences

6. Aesthetic Needs

Now that many of our basic needs have been satisfied humans become motivated by beauty, art, nature, music and other aesthetically beautiful things. These include:

  • Beauty
  • Balance
  • Understanding and appreciation of art and music.

7. Self-actualization

The next level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the desire for self-actualisation. This is the desire to be the best that we can be. Maslow said that “what a man can be, he must be.” These needs include:

  • Personal Growth
  • Feeling personally fulfilled in all elements of life.

8. Transcendence

The final level of the Hierarchy of Needs is achieved only when all other levels in the hierarchy have been achieved. This is the desire to help others self-actualise now that you have self-actualised yourself. This level includes:

  • Desire to help others self-actualise
  • Altruism

Some great further reading...

Criticisms of the Hierarchy of Needs

Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a widely accepted, there are many critics of the theory. Some argue that not all humans have the capacity to achieve the higher states such as self-actualisation and transcendence. Others argue that the different levels are pursued at the same time rather than one after the other and that personal preference can determine which levels of the pyramid people actually aim for the most.

As with most psychological models and theories Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs may behave differently for different people, but should be applied in general as opposed to individual examples.


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