The hierarchy of needs is a theory put forward by the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow. It is a charted set of human requirements to be fulfilled to achieve complete development and self-actualization.
These needs are presented in a pyramidical diagram, showing the different stages from bottom to top. These needs include:
The pyramid describes how people need to fulfill the bottom-tier needs to move towards more spiritual needs.
The hierarchy of needs shows the motivations for human actions. The basic psychological needs like food, water, sleep, warmth, and shelter, need to be met first before we can think about other secondary needs.
Deficiency Needs vs. Growth Needs
The five-stage needs model can be further divided into two categories, i.e., “deficiency” needs and “growth” needs.
Deficiency needs include the first four needs from the bottom down, whereas growth needs include the fifth need for “self-actualization.”
When the first four needs are unmet, they create a deficiency, which motivates people to take action and overcome the deficiency.
The longer these needs go unmet, the stronger the motivation will be. For example, the longer you starve, the more hungry you get.
When we satisfy deficiency needs, we can only then fulfill our growth need of self-actualization.
The growth needs do not arise from a deficiency of something, rather it stems from the need for growth and connecting with your higher self.
Although initially, Maslow claimed that we need to overcome the needs on the lowest level to go up higher. However, we don’t need to satisfy these needs 100%, as they do not follow an all-or-none condition. Maslow cleared it up later that his earlier sayings got misinterpreted. Developing another need is not dependent on a hundred percent satisfaction of previous ones. Even if they are sufficient enough, we can move onto the next level.
Moreover, this pyramid is not unidirectional; life changes and setbacks can make you go back to a level that you previously had covered. For example, divorce, losing a job, grieving the loss of a loved one. Major life changes can change the course of your journey.
Five-stage Model Hierarchy
Maslow suggested that people are motivated by their unmet needs. Some needs take precedence over others, like food, water, and sleep are the needs that need to be met before you can think about, let’s say love and belonging.
Our most basic need is our physical survival, and most of our actions are driven by those needs. However, when these basic needs are met, our needs evolve too. And then, our actions are defined by those motivations.
Following are the five needs that Maslow thought drove human behavior:
1. Physiological Needs
Physiological needs are our most primal biological needs, including air, water, food, clothing, warmth, sleep, etc.
If these are not met, the human body cannot function properly. Therefore, Maslow declared them the most important human needs as all other needs become secondary in context to basic physiological needs.
Life without oxygen is unimaginable, and we can’t breathe or stay alive without it. The same goes for food and water. Our bodies would give up without them.
So to achieve anything else, we need to cater to our biological needs first, for survival.
2. Need for Safety
Once our physiological needs are fulfilled, we tend to focus more on our need for safety. Sense of safety and security are integral to our well-being.
We need proper housing, shelter, clothing, health, and safe environments. Humans need order and protection in their lives; our safety needs also encompass emotional safety, financial stability, law and order, and mental and physical well-being.
Our need to survive without the fear of the outside world needs to be met before moving ahead to other needs.
Employment, job security, salary, and a safe working environment are needed to meet our needs for safety and security.
Similarly, social institutions like the police, judicial systems, and democracy are also there to meet our safety needs. We know our basic human rights will protect us from any unforeseeable harm.
Our retirement and passion needs also are a perfect example of the fundamental human need for safety.
3. Need for Love and Belongingness
Humans are social animals, we need each other for survival. From the beginning of time humans have stayed in groups, as communities, in order to have more fulfilling lives.
Once we have fulfilled our physiological and security needs, our focus turns towards our need for love and belongingness.
Our families and community can make up for that need. This need can be fulfilled by friendship, achieving intimacy, as well as providing and receiving affection. Others include feeling the need to affiliate, connect, being part of a group, trust, and intimacy.
Our emotional and social needs fall under our need for love and belongingness. In order to avoid mental health issues like depression and anxiety, which stem from social isolation and loneliness, it is important to feel loved and accepted.
Our need to be a part of something greater than ourselves, to be a part of a community or a group, is also an example of us looking to meet our love/belonging needs.
4. Esteem Needs
Self-worth, accomplishment, and respect are important to fulfill our esteem needs, the fourth level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The esteem needs are divided further into two categories:
(i) Esteem for Oneself
(ii) Respect & Appreciation from Others
Our esteem needs come somewhere in between our most basic survival needs and higher spiritual needs.
The need to be respected, achieve something big, and be recognized comes after we have met our other survival needs. Self-respect and being respected by others is an important developmental step. Children, adults, elderly all need to feel these things to feel valued as an integral part of society.
These esteem needs can also be seen with the second last developmental stage by Erik Erikson, which is generativity vs. stagnation.
In this stage, according to Erikson, one of the main conflicts in middle age is generativity vs. stagnation.
In your middle ages, you are in a place in your life where you have achieved your basic survival, safety, and love/belonging needs. You are at a place where you have peaked your career, and the next phase in life feels like giving back to the community or society.
This need is also an esteem need; some people write their life stories, some from NGOs to help others, while most have children to leave something behind in the world when we are no more.
5. Self-actualization Needs
To attain your maximum potential, being the best that one can be is very spiritual. When our basic deficiency needs are met, i.e., our bodily and worldly needs are met, it’s time for our soul to grow.
The need to nurture one’s soul, attain peace, and leave behind a legacy for future generations to benefit from, falls under the umbrella of self-actualization.
It is the desire to realize one’s potential, work on self-fulfillment, and accomplish all needed to connect with one’s highest self.
Buddhist monks give up all their worldly desires, live peacefully, are content, and live longer lives than most because they are connected with their inner self and are in harmony with the universe.
We see billionaires working hard for the betterment of humankind, they have all the money, but they need something more to meet their self-actualization details.
For instance, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are working on the Mars Colony; it isn’t just for themselves, but the advancement of humanity.
Another important figure who talks about self-actualization is the famous positive psychologist “Carl Rogers.”
He wrote in his book that,
“The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory. London: Constable.).
It is interesting because Carl Rogers tells us that our self-image (what we think of ourselves) and ideal self (the person we strive to become) need to be congruent with each other to self-actualize. When we are connected with our inner self, we are not exhausting our defense mechanisms and are surrounded by an environment of unconditional positive regard; only then can we attain self-actualization.
Summary of Maslow’s Model:
Maslow’s theory of motivation stems from the idea that when people don’t have something to eat, their actions will be motivated by that need i.e., hunger. But what happens when you do have that need covered.
In Maslow’s own words:
“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?
At once other (and “higher”) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge and so on. This is what we mean by saying that the basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency” (Maslow, 1943, p. 375).
However, Maslow kept working on his original theory, so it evolved with time. In his later editions, he retracted his previous statements saying that the hierarchy of needs is not as rigid as we claim it to be.
He stated that individual differences and external factors vary, and individual behavior can be motivated by different needs simultaneously. Moreover, the priorities are different too for people.
For example, some people have a heightened need for self-esteem compared to the need for love and belonging. Some people want artistic fulfillment more than they need the basic physiological needs to be fulfilled.
Hence, concluding that human behavior is multi-motivated by certain different or all basic needs simultaneously, rather than one single or individual need.
To sum it up,
- Human behavior is motivated by a hierarchy of needs.
- The hierarchy of needs is organized in a structure that suggests basic needs must be more or less met before moving on to higher needs.
- External circumstances and individual differences imply that the order of needs is flexible and not rigid.
- Behavior is multi-motivated and is simultaneously determined by more than one basic need.
Eight-Stage Model Hierarchy
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been further expanded over time into a total of 8 stage models. The additions made include the cognitive, aesthetic, and transcendence needs.
They go in the pyramid as:
- Physiological Needs
- Need for Safety
- Need for Love & Belonging
- Esteem Needs
- Cognitive Needs
- Aesthetic Needs
- Self-Actualization Needs
- Transcendence Needs
- Knowledge & Understanding
- Need for Meaning & Predictability
Humans have this innate desire to learn and expand their intelligence. Therefore they are prone to gain more knowledge of the world around them, how it works, and its purpose. They need to develop and mature their cognitive skills, which are needed to ascend towards self-actualization. If cognitive needs are not fostered, it leads to identity confusion and despair.
For example, the continuous evolution of science and technology.
It includes appreciation and quest for:
Beautiful imagery and aesthetics have a positive impact on our well-being. Connecting with nature lets us see how everything in the universe is interconnected. We get to see ourselves as a part of something big. They need to be surrounded by nature, and beauty leads to the higher need for self-actualization. Being able to appreciate the beauty of nature and the world we live in leads us to see the beauty in life and creation itself. Which helps us value life.
For example, walking barefoot on grass can generate feelings of groundedness, absorbing strong energies from the earth.
Or the need to decorate your house, make your surroundings pretty and neat, and buy a pretty dress.
Humans actions are motivated by values that transcend beyond the physical self, and these include:
- Mystical Experiences
- Aesthetic Experiences
- Experiences with Nature
- Philanthropic Experiences
- Pursuit of Science, Religion, or Faith
Humans are spiritual beings and have this in-built need for connecting to something greater than themselves. Maslow divided the top tier of the pyramid to include the need for self-transcendence. When these needs are met, it leads to feelings of integrity that go beyond human imagination.
For example, religion helps people connect with something greater than themselves.
Sufi saints and prophets, who sacrificed their lives for a greater purpose, exemplify transcendence.
Maslow said the following about self-actualization in his publications:
‘It refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.
The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions’ (Maslow, 1943, p. 382–383).
Self-actualization is the realization of one’s potential, to know what you are capable of and what you can achieve. The need to self-actualize is a growth need. We can’t say that self-actualization is the happily ever after stage, and it’s not. I think it is when you start living to your fullest potential. It is an ever-growing state.
To reach this stage, one needs retrospection, to look within. See yourself for how you are, get to know yourself, your ego, and shadow self, and nurture the child inside us. We need to unlearn what we have been conditioned to believe, resolve our deepest conflicts, and work on bettering ourselves. Socrates said that he is the wisest man because he knows nothing, as only a fool would claim that. So get to know more, spend your life in the pursuit of gathering knowledge.
Knowing our strengths is important, but we need to see the whole picture to reach our full potential. Our strengths and weaknesses are alike. Acceptance that we are not perfect is the key. Acknowledging our shortcomings can help us work on our weaknesses, and only then can we reach our fullest potential.
Self-actualized people have an open perspective towards life and its beings. They know that being stagnant means only death; they know nothing remains the same, and the world is ever-changing. So they keep growing and working on themselves.
Self-actualization is the process of experiencing life for what it is and not the illusion. The more real and euphoric experiences a person has, the more self-actualized they become.
As humans, we are all unique, and hence our quest for self-actualization leads us all down different paths. For some, it’s achieved through art; for others, it’s excelling in sports, and for some, it can be becoming a religious preacher. We all have individualistic paths to self-actualization.
Characteristics of Self-Actualized People
We all have it within us, the capability to self-actualize, but only a few of us can self-actualize. Only 2% of people reach the state of self-actualization. Maslow studied a total of 18 people and identified 15 traits that are common to self-actualized people.
These characteristics include:
- They perceive reality efficiently and are tolerant of uncertainty.
- They accept themselves and others for what they are.
- Have spontaneity of thought and action.
- They are not self-centered but problem-centered.
- Possess an unusual sense of humor.
- They can look at life objectively.
- They possess a high level of creativity.
- They are usually resistant to enculturation but not purposely unconventional.
- Have concern for the welfare of humanity.
- Great ability to have a deep appreciation for basic life experiences.
- Ability to connect and develop deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people.
- They have peak experiences.
- They value their need for privacy.
- Possess democratic attitudes.
- They have a strong sense of moral/ethical integrity.
Antecedent Behaviors for Self Actualization:
There are a few behaviors that we can adopt that can lead to self-actualization. You can adopt the following behaviors to experience your life to the fullest:
- Be open to experiencing life like a child, fully absorbing and concentrating on little details.
- Be more open to taking risks and trying new things; get out of your comfort zone, don’t stick to the safe path.
- Listen to your intuition, your gut feelings in evaluating experiences, rather than complying with the voice of tradition, authority, or the majority.
- Avoid pretense, say no to game playing, and stick to being your honest and authentic self.
- Don’t look for popularity; when your views don’t coincide with the majority, you are prone to be disliked or misunderstood by people.
- Take responsibility for your actions and strive to work hard to be a better version of yourself every day.
- People say that being able to conceal your traumas takes strength, but the truth is facing them requires more strength and courage. So commit to identifying your defenses and having the courage to give them up.
The dynamic approach that changed the face of psychology was the change of focus from what’s wrong to what is good and what could be. The shift from psychodynamic and behavioral approaches to a more humanistic and holistic approach; was the game-changer.
It centers on the idea that human beings can grow, evolve, and overcome their shortcomings when treated with unconditional positive regard. It took the shift from the initial presumed lack of self-control and responsibility that came with the previous school of thought.
We take control of our actions when we know that our character, behavior, and consequences are our responsibility, which again stems from the ability to self-actualize.
Its practical application has had numerous impacts on various fields of human life, including the corporate sector, organizations, communities, and especially in education.
When we say that our behavior is motivated by our needs, we should know that our actions get affected if not met properly.
A student can’t learn if he is hungry; he is physically incapable of functioning properly on an empty stomach.
Similarly, if the student doesn’t feel valued or respected, it is impossible to foster an effective learning environment. When we provide them with an environment conducive to their growth and learning, they grow and prosper immensely by trusting and respecting the students and their strengths and needs.
So, by keeping in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can create better learning environments for our students. It can help them become successful in school and achieve great heights in the future.
We will be producing productive, self-actualized members of society. Individuals familiar with their potential will go to lengths to keep growing and evolving, which will lead to a better society filled with individuals who are aware of their true potential.
As Maslow said:
“A humanistic educational approach would develop people who are “stronger, healthier, and would take their own lives into their own hands to a greater extent. With increased personal responsibility for one’s personal life, and with a rational set of values to guide one’s choosing, people would begin to actively change the society in which they lived”. (Maslow, 1971)
To learn more about humanistic educational approaches:
READ: (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature NY: Viking, 1971. [p. 173-188])
Despite being evolved, Maslow’s theory has faced several criticisms over the years. A few of these criticisms are as follows:
The research method employed by Maslow was a qualitative analysis of biographies of 18 self-actualized people. The qualitative method in scientific research is not valid and accurate and cannot be generalized to different populations. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult to empirically test Maslow’s theory in the context of establishing causal relationships.
Biased and Limited Sample
The sample size for this study was very limited; 18 is not a good enough sample size to be generalized on a large scale. The sample was also contaminated with personal bias, as these 18 people were self-actualized in Maslow’s opinion. They were all white, cis males who have had success in life, but their success can’t be measured or seen as absolute.
There were a lot of factors, like privilege and access to knowledge and resources, that led them to self-actualization. But again, who are we to determine whether they were or not.
Inability to be Generalized
The small sample size and a homogeneous sample limit this theory’s generalizability. This theory doesn’t consider people from different socio-economic, ethnic, gender, and racial backgrounds. Hence, lack the scientific basis to hold for all people.
For example, it didn’t involve a well-distributed sample that involved people of a different gender. Although Mother Teresa and Eleanor Roosevelt were part of the study, it’s still not enough to make assumptions based on a few women.
Similarly, different races have generational traumas that continue to be passed down genetically, so we can’t overlook these differences when considering a scientific theory.
The later rectifications by Maslow did point out that these needs are not strictly adherent to the hierarchal stages literally, and there are exceptions. However, one of the early model’s basic criticisms was that behavior could be motivated by a higher level of needs, even when the lower needs are not fully met.
For instance, there’s extreme poverty and hunger in India, but people do need to love and be loved and for a sense of belonging. Therefore, disproving Maslow’s initial claims.
Moreover, there’s proof that most successful artists have lived in extremely dire conditions in the history of times, with their physiological needs not being met. But their art was motivated by their needs of esteem, aesthetics, and self-actualization.
As a theory of motivation, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has had several implications and uses in different industries and sectors, despite the backlash, criticism, and limitations. It is a part of business studies, marketing strategies, academics, social studies, and whatnot.
This theory played an important part in the shift from psychodynamic and behavioral approaches to holistic approaches in psychology.
Despite the criticism, studies have shown that people worldwide do share the same needs at one point or another.
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