Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a humanistic theory of motivation based on his observation that humans are a perpetually wanting animal. Maslow proposed five basic needs that become goals that guide human behavior. Lower-level needs are biological and experienced by everyone, whereas upper-level needs are psychological, experienced more rarely, and by fewer people. Typically portrayed as a pyramid (see Figure 1), the five basic needs are inter-related but arranged in order of their relative potency to influence behavior: physiological needs (level 1); safety needs (level 2); love needs (level 3); esteem needs (level 4); and the need to self-actualize (level 5). Thus, physiological needs are more influential than safety needs, and so on, up the hierarchy of needs. The theory posits that human behavior is motivated by the desire to achieve and maintain the conditions that make it possible to satisfy these needs.
Figure 1 Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow proposed subhierarchies within each of the five levels. The physiological needs will be met according to the relative urgency to eat, drink, dispose of bodily waste, sleep, and breathe. If those needs are sufficiently satisfied, safety needs then begin to influence human behaviors, such as maintaining shelter, joining a labor union, and buying health insurance. Love needs are associated with belongingness and motivate individuals to create and maintain intimate relationships, have a family, and join a street gang or religious organization. The esteem needs may be satisfied by both negative and positive social behaviors, such as committing crimes to gain recognition or educating yourself to increase self-confidence. The need to self-actualize refers to maximizing one’s potential and experiencing periods of peak achievement. Some psychologists refer to self-actualization as “flow,” athletes describe “being in the zone,” and artists describe their sensation of time becoming irrelevant while experiencing peak creativity. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs unites physiological needs with psychological needs within an easy-to-understand humanistic theory of motivation.
Critics attack Maslow’s hierarchy of needs both conceptually and empirically. For example, the stereotypical self-actualizing, starving artist seems to contradict the necessity of first satisfying safety needs or physiological needs. A response to that argument asserts that Maslow’s hierarchy explains why there probably are not many self-actualizing, starving artists and that individuals differ in their perception of and need for safety. Researchers have had difficulty creating an empirical test of self-actualization, although creativity researchers have been addressing that issue, partly through brain imaging. Some researchers report different needs within the hierarchy, whereas others have found cross-cultural evidence in support of Maslow’s theory. In spite of these criticisms, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been widely adapted as a guide to individual therapy as well as human relations in the workplace, and as a general explanation of human motivation.
- Archives at Brandeis University. Abraham Maslow & Harry Rand Lecture. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://lts.brandeis.edu/research/archives-speccoll/findingguides/archives/soundrecordings/lectures/Maslow.html).
- Maslow, Abraham H. 1943. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review 50:370-96.
- Maslow, Abraham H. 1958. Understanding Human Motivation. Cleveland, OH: Howard Allen.
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