The Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory

In order to understand people’s behavior, it’s necessary to understand how human motivation works.  Humans have different needs, which are varied and complex, and these determine and direct human behavior. 

The concept of need has long history within social thought.  In a traditional sense, needs have been conceptualized as something infinite, unlimited, and changing. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

If we analyze Maslow’s ideas, needs acquire other types of terminology:  motivation, metamotivation, motive, desire, hierarchy of needs, self-actualization. 

According to Maslow, a motivated person is someone who feels desire, will, needs, anxiety.  And this causes the person to do something.  Therefore, motivation, for Maslow, has different levels and the need varies in the level of power.

Maslow’s Theory of the Hierarchy of Needs

Within his motivational theory, in 1943 Maslow proposed the well-known “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” published in an article titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.”

Maslow postulated that human needs are organized in a hierarchical or pyramidal way, so that needs are met progressively. 

This means that the needs located at the base of the pyramid would be higher priority than the needs located higher up on the pyramid. 

When the needs at the base are met, the human can seek to satisfy the next level of the pyramid.

This means that the satisfaction of subordinate needs creates other higher  needs for humans, which do not arise to be satisfied while the immediately preceding needs are not met. 

Maslow’s pyramid is divided into five levels or layers.  These layers are organized hierarchically in relation to the importance that the needs have for being met. 

This means that the higher needs are subordinate to those below. 

So the different needs that Maslow proposes are: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. 

There have been many different studies that have taken place since Maslow’s Pyramid.  It has been applied to the world of organizations, for example. 

Another study attempted to relate Maslow’s different needs with human happiness, concluding that there was a correlation between the pyramid and happiness. 

Characteristics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

To understand the theory that Maslow proposes, we should keep in mind a series of assumptions that must occur:

a) Only when a level has been adequately satisfied, the next level can take place.

If a motivation or a need is not satisfied, human behavior tends to satisfy it.  If it doesn’t, the human will not pass to the next motivation, and for that reason, will not be able to develop.

b) Therefore, not all people will be found in the same place in the pyramid. Depending on personal circumstances, each person will be located at some moment on the pyramid.

c) Not all people will reach the last level or top of the pyramid, self-actualization. Some people might try to reach it while many others will spend their whole life at lower levels.

d) The pyramid is hierarchy, as we have already said. When some needs are met, other needs begin.

However, if at a certain moment if the individual is at a higher level and one of the lower needs stops being satisfied, tension will build in the body. 

This unmet lower need is the need that will take control of the person, of their motivation, and it will take control to plan and mobilize the body in order to satisfy it.  

e) The frustration of satisfying different needs comes with a threat to the body, and these threats produce an alarm reaction in the body and mobilize it.

What is Maslow’ Pyramid?

Maslow’s pyramid is part of a psychological theory about human motivation that was proposed by Abraham Maslow. 

The pyramid indicates that the actions that we carry out support an ultimate need, so it’s intended to cover a range of needs. 

These human needs are in the form of a pyramid, building on each other, so that we start covering the most basic or primary needs (those that are found at the base of the pyramid).

As we reach them, our motivations are substituted for those immediately above until we reach the ultimate need, the need at the top of the pyramid.  

Maslow’s hierarchy is important because it represents the introduction of a change of vision within psychology and it connected psychoanalysis and behaviorism. 

History of Maslow’s Hierarchy

During the late 50s and early 60s, on one hand, we had behaviorism psychology.

This considered the human as a passive subject, so the individual is like a machine responding to a stimulus.

On the other hand, we also had psychoanalysis, which considers humans as helpless, driven by their unconscious conflicts. 

It is in that time, in the context of those two predominating paradigms, when so-called “third force” or the trend of humanistic psychology develops. 

Humanistic psychology aims to integrate the main paradigms of the time, psychoanalysis and behaviorism, in order to create a systematic, evidence-based psychology.

Maslow is considered by many as the founder of this school of thought.  It was precisely the positive aspects of humanity that awakened his interest.

Humanistic psychology perceives the human as an individual that is sensitive to its environment, and even if subjected to certain conditions, he or she will be an active subject in the construction of his or her knowledge and experience. 

Maslow considers people as active beings and supposes a revolution in psychology, not only because of the arrival of the third force, but also because he doesn’t focus on people’s psychopathological behaviors as the psychologists until his time did. 

The most important influences on Maslow’s thoughts were psychoanalysis, social anthropology, Gestalt, and Goldstein’s work. 

He was concerned about the fact that the knowledge that we had about human behavior and motivation came from psychopathology.  However, for Maslow, these patients did not reflect the motivations of the general population. 

In this way, his theory succeeded in uniting psychoanalysis, behaviorism and humanistic psychology.  According to him, no approach is superior to the others, because they are all relevant and necessary. 

Types of Needs

1- Physiological Needs

Those at the bottom of the pyramid.  They refer to satisfying the minimal conditions that allow a human to function. 

They are everything to do with food, thirst, breathing, rest, sex, shelter, and homeostasis (balance in the body, the effort that the body makes automatically to maintain consistency and a normal state). 

If a person feels that these needs are not met, they will not feel urge to fulfill the needs immediately above, since their motivation is directed at meeting their physiological needs. 

They are needs that people are born with, while the other needs emerge later throughout a person’s life. 

We can locate them in some specific parts of the human body and they are pressing because of their repetitive nature.  Most of these needs can be met with money. 

These needs are the most basic, the strongest and they mean the least for a person in search of self-actualization. 

2- Safety Needs

These are the needs that are referred to as the tendency to feel safe, that we are in a stable environment, that we are able to organize and structure our environment.  Humans do not like living in uncertain environments. 

These refer to the needs that allow us to maintain order and safety in our lives.  Here safety becomes the force that controls personality. 

Humans have a need for safety, but only when the physiological needs are satisfied first.  Then we find the need for stability, order, protection, and dependence. 

Many times humans show the need for safety through fear of different things.  People show fear towards uncertainty, confusion, the unknown.  And all of this is reflects the fear of the lack of safety. 

Within these needs, we can find worry over savings, acquiring assets, having a predictable future, so there is no risk to our personal or familial integrity.

Many people only make it to this level. 

3- Love/Belonging/Social Needs

Humans are social animals.  For this reason, once the previously mentioned needs are satisfied, the need to belong to a group will emerge. 

Humans need to feel that they form part of particular organizations, but these are needs which are “less basic” or “more complex” than those previously mentioned. 

This need is subordinated by the need to prioritize the physiological and safety needs first. 

Within the need for affiliation, we find affection, love, belonging to a group, being connected to a land, and thus not feeling lonely. 

We can find examples in the act of forming families, having groups of friends, belonging to social groups, neighborhood groups, having children, etcetera. 

It should also be noted that the individualism and competition within society goes against this need. 

4- Recognition or Esteem Needs

All humans need to value themselves, a self-esteem or recognition need. 

These needs are associated with the psychological makeup of humans. 

This self-esteem is constructed in part from the esteem of others.  Humans need to be recognized, have self-esteem, feel safe and validated within society. 

If people do not manage to satisfy this need, often feelings of unhappiness and low self-esteem emerge, and they consider themselves inferior to others. 

Within the esteem need, Maslow distinguishes between:

a) Lower Esteem Needs: these are lower needs, which include respect to others and oneself, dignity, attention from others, maintaining reputation, having fame, status.

b) Higher Esteem Needs: these include respect of oneself and toward oneself, including competence, achievement, independence, self-confidence and freedom.

5- Self-Actualization

This need is located at the top of the pyramid proposed by Maslow.  These are metaneeds.  They are the highest or most subjective needs. 

In the process of human development, there is a tendency to fulfill desires of being more and more human. 

These are difficult needs to describe, but they include satisfaction of one’s own individuality in every aspect. 

This involves developing the personal, internal and unique needs of each person.  This implies developing in a spiritual way, achieving moral development, finding sense in one’s own life, being altruistic. 

People who seek self-actualization must be free to be who they are.  It includes the need to satisfy our personal capabilities, developing our potential, doing what we are skilled in, expanding our metamotivations (seeking justice, creating order, beauty…).

This last desire or aspiration is different for each individual, since each person will feel self-actualized as a result of different experiences or situations that don’t necessarily coincide with those of others. 

For example, one of the aspirations that individuals may have that make them feel self-actualized might be becoming the boss of their own business, while for others it might be creating a family. 

Within this need for development or self-actualization, is a necessary condition that the human has satisfied all of the previous needs.  However, this does not guarantee in any way that the person achieves self-actualization

As we have already explained, the need for self-actualization is person dependent.  It is unique, personal, and changes depending on the person.  It is related to the growth potential of each individual. 

Within these needs, we also find self-transcendence, which refers to the community and contribution to humanity, going beyond the individual self. This is altruism, a motivation that we can consider as superior even to self-actualization. 

Self-actualization is dynamic and involves the use of one’s capabilities in creative and rich ways.  These people tend to be clearer, more objective, and they are not overly affected by their emotions.  They dedicate themselves to a career or cause, and they tend to be committed to something beyond themselves. 

 With regard to needs, Maslow classified them in two ways:

a) Deficiency or Basic Needs

Basic needs are those that make reference to the physiology of individuals, safety, and the feeling of belonging or affiliation. 

They are also called primordial needs, and they are located at the bottom of the pyramid. 

b) Growth or Secondary Needs

These are also called higher needs or developmental needs, those which are more complex and located in the upper part of the pyramid. 

They are different needs because those in the first group refer to a shortcoming that the human attempts to compensate for or fulfill, while those in the second group, for self-actualization, refer to reaching one’s own personal development. 

When basic needs are not met, the individual must seek to meet them because there are unpleasant consequences that result.  However, the higher needs do not involve deficits; they involve seeking growth and personal realization.  

Additionally, Maslow establishing that the hierarchy of needs organized in two blocks represents a growing and accumulative sequence from the most objective to the most subjective. 

Criticisms of Maslow’s Theory

Maslow’s Pyramid theory has also received criticism.  Authors such as Wahba and Bridwell (1976) reviewed the theory of the hierarchy of needs in a publication. 

The criticisms were aimed precisely at the order of the hierarchy, since that is a central aspect of the theory and it is necessary to meet some needs before being able to develop others. 

However, those authors (and others who have also questioned the theory) consider that the order in pyramid form is not necessary when it comes to meeting needs, and that an individual could try to satisfy different needs at the same time. 

Other authors consider that the pyramid could vary and that it depends on how cultures’ position different needs within the hierarchy. 

Characteristics of Self-Actualized People

As a result of the studies conducted for the theory of motivation and the hierarchy of needs with seeking self-actualization as the final need, Maslow established a series of characteristics that self-actualized people possess. 

The central concept of his theory is self-actualization.  He defines it as “the realization of a person’s full potential, becoming fully human, becoming everything that the personal is capable of, concerned with achieving a complete identity and individuality” (Maslow, 1968).

There are 16 traits that these people demonstrate (there are few that actually achieve self-actualization):

  1. They are realistic about life and have an efficient perception of reality
  2. They accept themselves, others, and the world that surrounds them, so they respect for themselves, others, and nature
  3. They are spontaneous, simple and natural
  4. They consider problems that go beyond their immediate needs
  5. They need intimacy but also solitude
  6. They are independent, autonomous
  7. Wide, non-stereotyped vision of the world
  8. They can have spiritual experiences
  9. They maintain deep and intimate relationships with others
  10. They identify with humanity
  11. They are creative people
  12. They have democratic attitudes and values
  13. They don’t confuse means with ends
  14. Sense of humor without being cruel
  15. They are socially non-conforming
  16. Need for transcendence, to contribute to humanity

In his theory, Maslow does not explain transcendence in depth, since very few people reach it. 

For Maslow, satisfying these needs and all of the motivations surrounding them, is the impulse that leads people to develop in the different aspects of life and to develop their personality. 

When people are not able to satisfy their needs, they seem unsatisfied because they experience frustrating and selfish feelings.  People become stuck in the level that they don’t manage to meet. 

The ideal is to reach self-actualization, the top of the pyramid that allows a person to develop and realize their full potential.  However, very few people achieve that. 

What do you think about human needs?  Do you think that Maslow’s pyramid is real?

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  4. Página web: La teoría de la Motivación y la Jerarquía de las Necesidades de Maslow:
  5. Página web: Necesidades humanas básicas.
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  7. Vázquez Muñoz, M. P., Valbuena de la Fuente, F. La pirámide de necesidades de Abraham Maslow. Facultad de Ciencias de la Información, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.


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