Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (A complete guide)

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology that comprises eight tiers of human needs. 

What is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology that comprises different tiers of human needs. From the bottom of the hierarchy upward, the original five needs were: physiological (i.e., food, water, shelter), safety, love/ belonging, esteem and at the top, self-actualization. 

His belief was that needs lower down in the hierarchy need to be satisfied in order for a person to meet the higher up needs. 

Instead of focusing on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people, Maslow formulated a more positive account of human behavior which focused on what goes right. He was interested in human potential, and how we fulfill that potential.

Who was Maslow? 

Abraham Maslow was a humanist psychologist who first introduced the concept of the hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. He also mentioned it in his book Motivation and Personality

Maslow was interested in what makes humans happy and what things they do to achieve happiness. This was in contrast to some of the other schools of thought at that time such as psychoanalysis and behaviorism. These schools of thought focused more on problematic behaviors rather than motivation to achieve happiness. 

A main part of Maslow’s belief system was that people are born with a desire to achieve self-actualization, which was the highest need of his original five-tier pyramid. In order for self-actualization to be achieved, all of the basic needs must be met in order of priority, such as the need for food, safety, love, and self-esteem. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  (A complete guide)

Did Maslow change the hierarchy over the years of his work?

Yes. In the 1960s and 1970s Maslow developed his concept further to include seven, and then eight levels in his perceptual hierarchy. The first two added were cognitive and aesthetic needs, and then later he added transcendence needs at the very top. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  (A complete guide)

What does each level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs mean?

1.    Physiological needs: These include biological needs that are vital to human survival. Some examples are food, water, air and shelter. Other examples include warmth and sexual reproduction. Maslow included sexual reproduction in this level of the hierarchy because it is essential to the survival of the species. If these needs are not met, the human body cannot function optimally. Maslow considered physiological needs to be the highest priority as all other needs become less important until these basic needs are met.

2.    Security and safety needs: Once the physiological needs are met, the needs for security and safety become more prevalent. People tend to like predictability, order and control in their lives, so this contributes largely to behavior. Some basic safety and security needs are financial security, emotional security, health and wellness and safety against accidents and injuries. Behaviors or actions that are motivated by this level of the hierarchy include job searching, obtaining health insurance and proper healthcare, adding money to a savings account and moving to a safer neighborhood. Security can also be provided by family and society e.g. police, business and schools.

The first two levels of the hierarchy (physiological and safety and security needs) are often referred to as the basic needs. 

3.    Belonging and love needs: The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the need for social acceptance or love and belonging. After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the next level humans turn to is social. This is about friendship, intimacy, trust, receiving and giving love and having acceptance. In other words affiliating with others and being part of a group (work, friends, family).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  (A complete guide)
Level 1: If the basic needs of food, drink, shelter etc. are not met the human body cannot function optimally

4.    Esteem needs: This is the fourth level in Maslow’s hierarchy and he categorized this one into two categories, namely:

a)   esteem for oneself as in dignity, independence and achievement

b)   desire for respect or reputation from others as in status or prestige

Maslow averred that the need for respect or reputation is stronger in children and pre-adults, and is a precursor of real self-esteem and dignity.

5.    Cognitive needs: Added in the 70s, this is about knowledge and understanding, curiosity and exploration, the need for meaning.

6.    Aesthetic needs: Also added in the 70s, this relates to the more esoteric appreciation and search for beauty and balance.

7.    Self-actualization needs: The original final level, this is the realization of a person’s potential, their self-fulfillment and personal growth. Maslow described this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. 

These needs are very personal depending on choice and circumstance. For example, one person may wish passionately to become an ideal parent, another an Olympic athlete and a third a sought-after artist.

8.    Transcendence needs: The final, top tier added last, where a person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self. For example, the pursuit of science, religion, mystical or sexual experiences, or those with nature. 

As each need level is satisfied, so the next becomes a focus. So, once a person has plenty of food available, he or she then starts to think about safety, after that is achieved then social needs come into play, and so on.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  (A complete guide)

One person may want to be an ideal parent, another an Olympic athlete

How did Maslow’s theory get refined over time?

Maslow continued to refine his theory based on the concept of a hierarchy of needs over several decades from 1943 to 1987. At first, he stated that each level had to be 100% complete for the next to kick in, but he refined that to re-propose that the order in the hierarchy “is not nearly as rigid” as he may have implied in his earlier description.

Maslow noted that the order of needs might be flexible based on external circumstances or individual differences. For example, that for some individuals the need for self-esteem is more important than the need for love. For others, the need for creative fulfillment may supersede even the most basic needs.

Maslow (1987) also pointed out that most behavior is multi-motivated and noted that “any behavior tends to be determined by several or all of the basic needs simultaneously rather than by only one of them”.

What is a summary of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

·      human beings are motivated by a hierarchy of needs

·      needs are organized in a hierarchy of prepotency, in which more basic needs must be more or less met (rather than all or none) prior to higher needs

·      the order of needs is not rigid, but instead may be flexible based on external circumstances or individual choices

·      Most behavior is multi-motivated, that is, simultaneously determined by more than one basic need.

Are there any modern responses to Maslow’s theories? 

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 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 ethnicities. Thus questioning the population validity of Maslow’s findings.

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, 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.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  (A complete guide)

Self-actualization is the realization of a person’s potential, seeking personal growth and peak experiences

What behavior leads to self-actualization?

·      experiencing life like a child, with full absorption and concentration

·      trying new things instead of sticking to safe paths

·      listening to your own feelings in evaluating experiences instead of the voice of tradition, authority or the majority

·      avoiding pretense and being honest

·      being prepared to be unpopular if your views do not coincide with those of the majority

·      taking responsibility and working hard

·      trying to identify your defenses and having the courage to give them up.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

1.    What are the original five levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

The five levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are physiological needs, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. In this theory, higher needs are satisfied only after people have sufficiently satisfied the previous need. 

2.    What are the seven basic human needs?

The seven fundamental human needs are: 

·      subsistence, safety, security

·      understanding and growth

·      connection or love and leisure

·      contribution and creation

·      esteem and identity

·      self-governance or autonomy and freedom

·      significance and purpose.

3.    How does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs work?

Maslow’s theory proposes that motivation is the result of a person’s attempt at fulfilling the basic needs as defined in the hierarchy. 

4.    What is the purpose of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory used to describe the motivations of human behavior. 

5.    What are the characteristics of self-actualizers?

·      they perceive reality efficiently and can tolerate uncertainty

·      accept themselves and others for what they are

·      spontaneous in thought and action

·      problem-centered as opposed to self-centered

·      unusual sense of humour

·      can look at life objectively

·      highly creative

·      resistant to enculturation, but not purposely unconventional

·      concerned for the welfare of humanity

·      capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience

·      establish deep, satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people

·      peak experiences

·      need for privacy

·      democratic attitudes

·      strong moral/ethical standards.

6.    Why is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs important?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory has made a major contribution to teaching and classroom management in schools. Rather than reducing behavior to a response in the environment, Maslow adopts a holistic approach to education and learning. 

Maslow looks at the complete physical, emotional, social and intellectual qualities of an individual and how they impact on learning.

7.    Is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still relevant?

Psychologists now conceptualize motivation as pluralistic, whereby needs can operate on many levels simultaneously. A person may be motivated by different levels of needs at the same time.

Contemporary research by Tay and Diener (2011) has tested Maslow’s theory by analyzing the data of 60,865 participants from 123 countries, representing every major region of the world. The survey was conducted from 2005 to 2010 and the results of the study support the view that universal human needs appear to exist regardless of cultural differences. However, the ordering of the needs within the hierarchy was not correct.

“Although the most basic needs might get the most attention when you don’t have them,” Diener explains, “you don’t need to fulfill them in order to get benefits. Even when we are hungry, for instance, we can be happy with our friends. “They’re like vitamins,” Diener says about how the needs work independently. “We need them all.”

If you want to read more about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, try this reading material:

A Theory of Human Motivation

This brief 1943 Abraham Maslow offering is reprinted here and is well worth reading. It is not to be considered a “cheat-sheet” to the considerable work of the psychologist, but it does introduce his “hierarchy of needs” from which so many other fundamental concepts are derived. This makes it a fine and cost-effective place to begin.

Meet Maslow: How Understanding the Priorities of Those Around Us Can Lead to Harmony and Improvement

Everyone has needs, but how many of us actually know what those needs are? Sure, we can point out the basic ones – eating, breathing, and sleeping – but what other types of needs are there? Well, with the help of Abraham Maslow, this book talks all about needs. Meet Maslow is all about learning what he referred to as the Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid designed to teach us what every human really needs in order to excel.

Enlightened Teaching: Elevating Through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This book is an educational philosophy that incorporates mindfulness in the school setting. Enlightened Teaching follows the ideas of Dr. Shefali Tsabary presented in her book The Conscious Parent in an effort to awaken the consciousness of individuals who work with students. Instrumental in developing mindfulness is the recognition that many students are suffering from emotional wounds.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – – March 2020

The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – – December 2019

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  (A complete guide)

Aura Des los Santos

Aura Des los Santos is a Clinical Psychologist with two masters degree in Education. One focused in Higher Educacion and the other in the research of Psychology of Education. Her experience is focused on working depression, anxiety and personal development. She frequently writes articles in the area of psychology, education, travel and general culture.