Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Published on 23 May 2023 at 09:22
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Image not by website or writer. The entire article is written and made by PTW Student Victor Hoang.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology that explains the five levels of human needs, created by Abraham Maslow on how humans are inspired to satisfy needs in a hierarchical order. From the bottom upwards, the five needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The hierarchy goes from the most basic to the most advanced needs, with the ultimate goal being to reach the highest level. His theory differs from more physiological representations of motivations as it’s seen as not just concerned with tension reduction and survival, but also human growth and development.

In this theory, higher needs emerge when people feel they have sufficiently fulfilled previous needs. Although later research doesn’t fully support Maslow’s theory, his research has impacted other psychologists and contributed to the field of positive psychology.

In this theory, higher needs emerge when people feel they’ve fulfilled previous needs. Although later research doesn’t fully support his theory, Maslow’s research impacted other psychologists and contributed to the field of positive psychology. In order to better understand what motivates people, Maslow proposed that human needs can be categorized into a hierarchy, ranging from more concrete needs (food and water) to more abstract concepts (self-fulfillment). When lower need is met, the next need on the hierarchy becomes our focus of attention.

He first introduced the concept in a 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, and again in his book, “Motivation and Personality.” While some of the existing schools of thought at the time tended to focus on problematic behaviors, Maslow was more interested in learning about what makes people happy and what they do to achieve that aim. As a humanist, he believed people have an inborn desire to be self-actualized, that is, to be all they can be. To achieve this goal, more basic needs must be met, including food, safety, love, and self-esteem; he believes that these needs are similar to instincts and play a major role in motivating behavior. While portrayed as a fairly rigid hierarchy, he noted that the order in which these needs are fulfilled aren’t always linear.

He argued that survival needs must be satisfied before individuals can satisfy higher needs; the higher up the hierarchy, the more difficult it is to satisfy the needs, because of interpersonal and environmental barriers that inevitably frustrate us. Higher needs become increasingly long-term and psychological instead of physiological and short-term, as in lower survival-related needs.

Types of Needs

There are two types of needs on the pyramid:

  • Deficiency Needs: Needs that you develop due to deprivation, including physiological, security, social, and esteem needs. You have to meet these to avoid unpleasant results.
  • Growth Needs: The highest level of Maslow’s pyramid. Unlike deficiency needs, self- actualization needs are motivated by the desire to grow as a person and reach one’s full potential.

Deficiency Needs

Deficiency needs are concerned with basic survival and includes physiological (food, sex, and sleep) and safety needs (security, freedom from danger). Associated behaviors are seen as ‘deficiency’ motivated, as they are a means to an end. Deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and are said to motivate people when they’re unmet. Also, motivation to fulfill such needs will become stronger the longer they’re denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food, the hungrier they’ll get.

Maslow initially said individuals must satisfy lower-level deficit needs before progressing to meet higher growth needs. However, he later clarified that satisfaction of a need isn’t an “all-or-none” phenomenon, his earlier statements giving the false impression that they have to be completely satisfied before moving on. When a deficit need is satisfied, it’ll go away, and activities become habitually directed toward meeting the next set of needs yet to be satisfied. These become our salient needs; however, growth needs continue to be felt and may even become stronger once they’ve been engaged.

Growth Needs

Growth needs are psychological needs and are associated with the realization of an individual’s potential and the need to “self-actualize”. These needs are achieved more through intellectual and creative behaviors. They don’t stem from a lack of something, but from a desire to grow as a person. Once growth needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level, called self-actualization.

Everyone can and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. However, progress is disrupted by failures to meet lower needs. Life experiences, such as loss of job or divorce, may cause individuals to fluctuate between levels of the hierarchy. Therefore, not everyone will move through it, but may go back and forth between different types of needs.


The baseline of the hierarchy, essentials people need for physical survival. These include air, food, drink, shelter, clothing, warmth, sleep, etc. Failure to meet these prevents homeostasis in the body. Physiological needs are the most essential since you can’t meet the others until this one is satisfied. Motivation at this level comes from survival instincts.


After meeting physiological needs, your next needs are associated with feeling safe and secure in your life. Safety needs are obvious from childhood, as children react in fear and anxiety when these needs aren’t met. They also involve desire for order, predictability, and control. Examples include emotional or financial security, law, stability, well-being, health, and freedom from fear.

For adults in developed nations, safety needs are more apparent in emergency situations (e.g. war, disasters), but this explains why we prefer the familiar or why we purchase insurance and contribute to savings accounts. Along with physiological, safety needs form the “basic needs”.

Love and Belonging (Social)

The third level in the hierarchy, involving the feeling of belonging and acceptance. It’s motivated by a natural desire for human interaction, including romance, social connections, and belonging to a group. Failure to meet these needs causes loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Motivation at this level is the need for emotional relationships, including mutual love and respect.

Since Maslow’s time, researchers have explored how love and belonging impact well-being. For instance, having social connections is related to better physical health, whereas feeling isolated negatively affects health and well-being.


The first of the higher needs, motivated by desires to feel good about yourself. Maslow’s listed two categories: Self-Esteem (feeling confident about yourself) and Respect (feeling valued and recognized by others). When esteem needs aren’t met, you may feel unimportant, unconfident, incompetent, or unprotected. According to Maslow, respect and reputation are vital for children and adolescents and come before real self-esteem or dignity.

At this level, it becomes increasingly important to gain respect and appreciation from others, as people have a need to accomplish things, have their efforts recognized, and make contributions to the world. Participating in professional activities, education, and hobbies can all play roles in fulfilling esteem needs, making people feel confident in their abilities. Together, both esteem and social needs make up the “psychological needs”.


The highest level on the pyramid. These needs include realizing your potential, fulfillment, self- development, and peak experiences. It's the desire to accomplish all that you can and unleash it. Reaching this level is difficult, as people are focused on satisfying more urgent needs first. Individuals may have different ideas of self-actualization; for one, it may involve helping others, but for others, it involves artistic or creative achievements. Essentially, it means feeling that we are doing what we’re meant to do.

Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others, and interested in fulfilling their potential. Maslow describes self-actualization loosely as the full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities, potentialities, etc. Such people are fulfilling themselves and doing the best they’re capable of doing, developing to the full stature of which they are capable.

Growth of self-actualization refers to the need for personal growth and discovery that is present throughout a person’s life. For Maslow, a person is always “becoming” and remains so. In self- actualization, a person comes to find a meaning in life important to them. It’s important to note that self-actualization is a continual process of becoming rather than a perfect state of a “happy ever after”.

Characteristics of Self-Actualized People

Although we’re all theoretically able to self-actualize, most of us won’t, or only to a small degree. Maslow estimated that only 2% of people could reach this state. By studying 18 people (such as Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein), he identified 15 characteristics of self-actualized people:

  1. Perceive reality efficiently and 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. Establishes deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people.
  12. Peak experiences.
  13. Need for privacy.
  14. Democratic attitudes.
  15. Strong moral/ethical standards.

Behaviors leading to self-actualization:

  1. Trying new things instead of sticking to safe paths.
  2. Listening to your own feelings in evaluating experiences instead of the voice of tradition, authority or the majority.
  3. Avoiding pretense (“game playing”) and being honest.
  4. Being prepared to be unpopular if their views don’t coincide with those of the majority.
  5. Taking responsibility and working hard.
  6. Trying to identify their 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; no human is perfect. It’s not necessary to display all 15 traits to become self-actualized, and not only self-actualized people will display them. 

Maslow didn’t 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.

How to Progress Through

The hierarchy of needs is often presented as a pyramid of needs, organized from the most basic needs to the most complex. Theoretically, you have to meet these needs progressively, but even so, you don’t need to satisfy one to move to the next. Maslow’s theory also advocates that most people focus on meeting their needs partly, as a result of meeting lower needs on the hierarchy.

He postulates that there are several prerequisites to meeting these needs; having freedom of speech/expression or living in a fair society aren’t specifically mentioned in the hierarchy, but he believed having these makes it easier for people to achieve their needs. Maslow also believed that we have a need to learn new information and better understand the world around us, partly because it helps us meet our other needs and makes us feel safe. Developing an understanding of a passionate topic can lead to self-actualization.

While he presents it as a hierarchy, Maslow acknowledges that each need isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon. People don’t need to 100% satisfy one need for the next. He suggests that lower needs are typically the ones people have made the most progress towards. Additionally, he said one behavior can meet at least two needs (e.i. sharing a meal meets both physiological need for food and belonging need). Similarly working as a paid caregiver provides income and a sense of social connection and fulfillment.

Testing Maslow’s Theory

In the time since Maslow published his paper, his ideas haven't always been supported by research. In a 2011 study of human needs across cultures, researchers Louis Tay and Ed Diener looked at data of over 60,000 participants in over 120 countries, finding six needs similar to Maslow’s: basic needs, safety, love, pride and respect, mastery, and autonomy. They found meeting these needs indeed links to well-being. In particular, basic needs being met was linked to overall assessment of one’s life, and feeling positive emotions was linked to meeting needs of feeling loved and respected.

Though Tay and Diener found support for some of Maslow’s basic needs, the order that people go through them seems more of a rough guide than a strict rule. E.g. People in poverty might’ve had difficulties meeting needs for food and safety, but still sometimes reported feeling loved and supported by the people around them. Meeting previous needs in the hierarchy wasn’t always a prerequisite for people to meet their love and belonging needs.

Criticisms of Maslow’s Theory

Maslow’s theory became wildly popular both in and out of psychology, with fields of education and businesses particularly influenced by it. But it’s not without criticism. Chief among them are:

  • Needs don’t follow a hierarchy: While some research has shown support, most of the research for the theories hasn’t been able to substantiate the idea of a needs hierarchy. Wahba and Bridwell of Baruch College reported that there’s little evidence for Maslow’s ranking of these needs and even less evidence that they’re in hierarchical order.
  • Difficult to test: Others note that his definition of self-actualization is difficult to test scientifically. His research on it was based on a very limited sample of individuals, including those he knew and biographies of famous individuals who he believed to be self-actualized.

Some of the more recent critiques suggest Maslow was inspired by the belief systems of the Blackfoot nation, but neglected to acknowledge it. He studied the Northern Blackfoot tribe as an anthropologist. However, this foundational basis disappeared over time, causing him to misuse the concepts he was originally there to assess.

Impact on other Researchers

Maslow’s theory has had strong influence on other researchers, who’ve sought to build on his theory. Psychologists Carol Ryff and Burton Singer drew on Maslow’s theories when developing their theory of eudaimonic well-being, which refers to feeling purpose and meaning–similar to Maslow’s idea of self-actualization. Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary built on the idea of love and belonging needs; according to them, feeling that one belongs is a fundamental need, and they suggest feeling isolated or left out leads to negative consequences for physical and mental health.

Despite criticisms, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs made an important shift in psychology. Rather than focus on abnormal behavior and development, his humanistic psychology was focused on development of healthy individuals. It was discovered in 2011 by researchers from the University of Illinois that, while fulfillment of needs was strongly correlated with happiness, people from all over the world reported self-actualization and social needs were important even when many of the basic needs were fulfilled, which suggests that while needs can be powerful motivators for human behavior, they don’t necessarily take the hierarchical form Maslow described.

Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy

When applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in your life, you may experience improvements in some areas. To reach the highest level of development in this motivational theory, you must be self-actualized. Identifying your needs and ensuring that those needs are fulfilled can help boost your chances of success.

Expanded Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s five-level pyramid can be expanded to include cognitive, aesthetic, and transcendence needs. The pyramid is now made of more levels, which include:

  • Physiological and Biological Needs: air, water, food, shelter, sex, health, sleep, etc.
  • Safety Needs: protection, security, stability, law, order, freedom, etc.
  • Love and Belongingness Needs: friendship, trust, intimacy, acceptance, being part of a group (friends, family, workmates), loving and feeling loved in return.
  • Esteem Needs: Classified into two categories.
    • Self-esteem: dignity, self-fulfillment, mastery, independence
    • Need to feel recognized, accepted, and valued by others.
  • Cognitive Needs: Arise when you start getting curious and desire to explore and gain knowledge, as well as understanding and wanting to know more about what interests you. This centers on knowledge.
  • Aesthetic Needs: Appreciation, stability, search for beauty and form, etc. People might fulfill this need through enjoying or creating music, art, literature, and other expressions.
  • Self-Actualization Needs: Realizing your potential, achievements, self-growth, and peak experiences. You get the desire to be the best you can be.
  • Transcendence Needs: Motivated by values that go beyond the personal self, such as supernatural experience, nature connection, aesthetic experience, sexual experiences, service to others, religious faith, and pursuit of science. Maslow believed that humans are driven to look beyond the physical self in search of meaning.


Your motivation is dependent on a hierarchy of needs, organized in a pyramid to show needs that should be first met prior to higher needs. Even so, the order of these needs aren’t inflexible, as they can be adjusted depending on individual and other circumstances. Motivation is highly determined by more than one basic need, which may result in satisfying several needs at once.

Whether you accept Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or not, his theory shines a light on the many needs we have as humans. 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 respectful and caring.

The pyramid of hierarchy can be summed up in four descriptions:

  1. Human beings are motivated by hierarchy of needs.
  2. Needs are organized in a hierarchy of prepotency in which more basic needs must be more or less met (rather than all or none) before higher needs.
  3. The order of needs isn’t rigid but may be flexible based on external circumstances or individual differences.
  4. Most behavior is multi-motivated, that is, simultaneously determined by more than one basic need.


Why is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs important?

  • The basis of his theory is that we’re motivated by our needs as humans. If some of our most important needs are unmet, we may be unable to progress and meet other needs. This can help explain why we might feel stuck or unmotivated. It’s possible that our most critical needs aren’t being met, preventing us from being the best version of ourselves. Changing this requires looking at what we need, then finding a way to get it.

What’s at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

  • Self-actualization, a need referring to the desire to reach our full potential. According to Maslow, this need can only be met once all the other needs are satisfied. Thus, it comes after physiological, safety, love and belonging, and esteem needs.

What are some weaknesses of Maslow’s theory?

  • Some criticize Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on the basis that our needs don’t always exist in a pyramid format, or that one need is more important than another. There’s also concern that his idea of self-actualization can’t be tested. Others suggest that Maslow’s theory is weak as it was based on research that was misattributed or lost the original topic being studied.

How many levels are there in the pyramid of needs?

  • Five. The bottom two are basic needs (physiological and safety), next are psychological needs (social and esteem). At the top is self-actualization, said to be at (or in the pursuit of) their full potential.


Referential Sources:

This article is written by PTW Student Victor Hoang.

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