The Psychology Behind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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August 15, 2019
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Abraham Maslow felt as though conditioning theories did not adequately capture the complexity of human behavior. In a 1943 paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow presented the idea that human actions are directed toward goal attainment. Any given behavior could satisfy several functions at the same time; for instance, going to a bar could satisfy one’s needs for self-esteem and for social interaction. His theory later became known as the human hierarchy of needs.

Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Theory is extremely well-known and has had an imense success, even though it has a series of limits. According to this theory, human needs are organised in a hierarchical structure – at the base are the physiological needs and at the top the motivation to self-actualize.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Structure

The hierarchical model elaborated by Abraham Maslow has the following categories of needs:

  • physiological needs: food, water, sexual needs, sleep, homeostasis, breathing
  • security needs: financial security, protection, emotional balance
  • love and group affiliation: the need to be part of a group, acceptance, the need to give and receive affection
  • self-esteem: prestige, approval and appreciation, the need to achieve goals
  • cognitive needs: the need to understand, know, explore and discover
  • aesthetic needs: need of beauty, order, symmetry and harmony
  • auto-actualization, auto-realization and harnessing of one’s own potential: the need to utilize one’s own creative potential, finding fulfillment

Deprivation and Growth

Abraham Maslow distributes these needs into two categories:

  • deprivation needs – which occur when something in missing and include the first four classes of needs 
  • growth or development needs: which express the human need of being successful, of knowing, of harnessing one own’s potential and include the last three classes of needs

Maslow’s system implies an order of priority, which means that a superior class does not manifest unless the inferior needs have been at least partially satisfied. Thus, if physiological needs (hunger, thirst, sexual wants) are met, other needs begin to develop, such as security and material comfort (the need to be safe, the need to have a place to live and so on). once these are satisfied, the requirement for affection and friendship begin to appear. In this way, as soon as the wants of an inferior level are satisfied, a superior need immediately takes their place.

The American psychologist states that the higher in the hierarchy a need is, the more specifically human it is, and satisfying it produces content and determines a pleasant tension in the organism. Although satisfying the superior needs is not vital for the organism, they are more important for subjectivity, enriching the spiritual sphere of the personality and boosting its social performance. The superior needs have a sort of functional independence and impose themselves as more significant as the inferior ones are satisfied. Personal improvement, social accomplishments and self-surpassing, fueled by the motivation to grow, are commuting progressively to higher and higher levels of organisation and are pregnantly involved in the creation process, thus moving further on the scale of the hierarchy of needs.

Progression through the Hierachy of needs

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

In addition to these needs, 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. However, Maslow also believed that this call to understand the world around us is an innate need as well.

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, Maslow 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 a sense of social connection and fulfillment.


The highest motivation can only be achieved only if the other needs have been previously fulfilled. Maslow (1970) has studied self-actualized individuals – well-known personalities that have harnessed their potential in exceptional ways – Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa and has discovered a series of motives that are different from those described in the pyramid of needs. He called them metamotives. The level of metamotives is characteristic to the persons capable of using their potential qualities and self-realize independent from the context. Maslow also created a portrait of these persons (which represent a minority) and described the behaviours that can potentially lead to self-actualization:

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.

(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 own 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.

Although people achieve self-actualization in their own unique way, they tend to share certain characteristics.  However, self-actualization is a matter of degree, ‘There are no perfect human beings’ (Maslow,1970).

It is not necessary to display all 15 characteristics to become self-actualized, and not only self-actualized people will display 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.

The New Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow published his theory in the 1940s, but he lived until the 1970s. During these decades he took in some of the criticism he faced toward his approach and adapted it in his later work. For instance, he cleared out that you do not have to fulfill a need 100% before you can reach the next stage. Otherwise, you would have to stop working the moment you are hungry or feel sleepy.

Maslow's New Hierarchy of Needs Structure

But his most significant change was adding an apex to the pyramid: self-transcendence. You can compare it to a spiritual need to transcend our thoughts. We have to see ourselves as part of the broader universe to develop common priorities and goals. Once this need is fulfilled, we can see beyond our individual well-being to the needs of us all.

This sixth need, to feel part of something bigger and to develop joint strategies as humans, is essential for our life today. It is what inspires people to fight climate change, hunger or poverty. It is our ability to not only look after ourselves but see that we are part of something bigger.

The ways to reach self-transcendence are familiar to us today. They include mindfulness or flow. Maslow thought that these techniques could help individuals achieve a broader perspective. 

But these methods are not only tweaks to optimize the mind. They are vitally important tools to fight the most significant issues humans are facing together. To come together as a global community and find solutions together.


The most significant limitation of Maslow’s theory concerns his methodology. Maslow formulated the characteristics of self-actualized individuals from undertaking a qualitative method called biographical analysis.

He looked at the biographies and writings of 18 people he identified as being self-actualized. From these sources, he developed a list of qualities that seemed characteristic of this specific group of people, as opposed to humanity in general.

From a scientific perspective, there are numerous problems with this particular approach. First, it could be argued that biographical analysis as a method is extremely subjective as it is based entirely on the opinion of the researcher. Personal opinion is always prone to bias, which reduces the validity of any data obtained. Therefore Maslow’s operational definition of self-actualization must not be blindly accepted as scientific fact.

Furthermore, Maslow’s biographical analysis focused on a biased sample of self-actualized individuals, prominently limited to highly educated white males (such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, William James, Aldous Huxley, Beethoven).

Although Maslow (1970) did study self-actualized females, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa, they comprised a small proportion of his sample. This makes it difficult to generalize his theory to females and individuals from lower social classes or different ethnicity. Thus questioning the population validity of Maslow’s findings. 

Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to empirically test Maslow’s concept of self-actualization in a way that causal relationships can be established.

Another criticism concerns Maslow’s assumption that the lower needs must be satisfied before a person can achieve their potential and self-actualize. This is not always the case, and therefore Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in some aspects has been falsified.

Through examining cultures in which large numbers of people live in poverty (such as India), it is clear that people are still capable of higher order needs such as love and belongingness. However, this should not occur, as according to Maslow, people who have difficulty achieving very basic physiological needs (such as food, shelter, etc.) are not capable of meeting higher growth needs.

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Your Thoughts about the Hierarchy of Needs

We strongly recommend that you note down any thoughts related to the Hierarchy of Needs, such as linked behaviours, emotions, situations or other associations you make. You can later view these in your Dashboard or Reflect pop-ups to compare them with your present behaviours so you can change or adapt them and continue your Evolution. Read more about this feature and how it can help you. 

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