Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity.

Maslow studied what he called exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.”[3] Maslow also studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is represented in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and lowest levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top.[1][4]

Deficiency needs

The lower four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “D-needs”: physiological (including sexuality), security of position, friendship and love, and esteem. With the exception of the lowest (physiological) needs, if these “deficiency needs” are not met, the body gives no physical indication but the individual feels anxious and tense.

Physiological needs

For the most part, physiological needs are obvious – they are the literal requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met (with the exception of clothing and shelter), the human body simply cannot continue to function.

Physiological needs include:
• Breathing
• Food
• Sexual activity
• Homeostasis

Air, water, and food are metabolic requirements for survival in all animals, including humans. The intensity of the human sexual instinct is shaped more by sexual competition than maintaining a birth rate adequate to survival of the species. The theme of genetic heritage over survival is treated at length in The Selfish Gene.

The urge to have sex is so powerful that it can drain psychic energy away from other necessary goals. Therefore every culture has to invest great efforts in rechanneling and restraining it, and many complex social institutions exist only in order to regulate this urge. The saying that “love makes the world go round” is a polite reference to the fact that most of our deeds are impelled, either directly or indirectly, by sexual needs. — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Safety needs

With their physical needs relatively satisfied, the individual’s safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior. These needs have to do with people’s yearning for a predictable, orderly world in which injustice and inconsistency are under control, the familiar frequent and the unfamiliar rare. In the world of work, these safety needs manifest themselves in such things as a preference for job security, grievance procedures for protecting the individual from unilateral authority, savings accounts, insurance policies, and the like.
For most of human history many individuals have found their safety needs unmet, but As of 2009 “First World” societies provide most with their satisfaction, although the poor – both those who are poor as a class and those who are temporarily poor (university students would be an example) – must often still address these needs.

Safety and Security needs include:
• Personal security
• Financial security
• Health and well-being
• Safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts

Social Needs

After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third layer of human needs is social. This psychological aspect of Maslow’s hierarchy involves emotionally-based relationships in general, such as:
• Friendship
• Intimacy
• Having a supportive and communicative family

Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group, such as clubs, office culture, religious groups, professional organizations, sports teams, gangs (“Safety in numbers”), or small social connections (family members, intimate partners, mentors, close colleagues, confidants). They need to love and be loved (sexually and non-sexually) by others. In the absence of these elements, many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and clinical depression. This need for belonging can often overcome the physiological and security needs, depending on the strength of the peer pressure; an anorexic, for example, may ignore the need to eat and the security of health for a feeling of control and belonging.


All humans have a need to be respected and to have self-esteem and self-respect. Also known as the belonging need, esteem presents the normal human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People need to engage themselves to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution, to feel accepted and self-valued, be it in a profession or hobby. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People with low self-esteem need respect from others. They may seek fame or glory, which again depends on others. Note, however, that many people with low self-esteem will not be able to improve their view of themselves simply by receiving fame, respect, and glory externally, but must first accept themselves internally. Psychological imbalances such as depression can also prevent one from obtaining self-esteem on both levels.

Most people have a need for a stable self-respect and self-esteem. Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The higher one is the need for self-respect, the need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom. The latter one ranks higher because it rests more on inner competence won through experience. Deprivation of these needs can lead to an inferiority complex, weakness and helplessness.

Maslow stresses the dangers associated with self-esteem based on fame and outer recognition instead of inner competence. He sees healthy self-respect as based on earned respect.


“What a man can be, he must be”[5]. This forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. This level of need pertains to what a person’s full potential is and realizing that potential. Maslow describes this desire as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.[6]. This is a broad definition of the need for self-actualization, but when applied to individuals the need is specific. For example one individual may have the strong desire to become an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in another it may be expressed in painting, pictures, or inventions [7]. As mentioned before, in order to reach a clear understanding of this level of need one must first not only achieve the previous needs, physiological, safety, love, and esteem, but master these needs. Below are Maslow’s descriptions of a self-actualized person’s different needs and personality traits.


A self-actualized person “can accept their own human nature in the stoic style, with all its shortcomings, with all its discrepancies from the ideal image without feeling real concern”[8]. This means that a self-actualized person can clearly see human nature in all its good and evil without the distortion from false social norms. Maslow uses basic animal acceptance to prove this point. He states that self-actualized people tend to be good and lusty animals, hearty in their appetites and enjoying them mightily without regret or shame[8]. This involves a basic acceptance of nature and the way things are rather than trying to change things (for example: disgust with body functions or having a food aversion) to suit one’s neuroses. This doesn’t mean these people lack morals, guilt, shame, or anxiety; it means that they have the ability to remove all unnecessary forms of these processes.

Problem Centering

Most people, when thinking of problems in their life, focus on what affects them and their own problems and issues; this applies particularly to insecure people. Self-actualized persons focus not on themselves, but for some greater good. These people attack problems as a “task they must do” and are concerned with “the good of mankind in general”.[9]

The Need for Privacy

The self-actualized can be solitary, with no human contact, and do no harm to themselves. In fact most of the self-actualized like “solitude and privacy to a definitely greater degree than the average person”[10]. This gives them a level of detachment and an ability to remain calm and aloof even in situations where a personal problem or misfortune arises.

Morality and Discrimination between Means and Ends

Maslow found that those who are self-actualized are very strong ethically. They have definite moral standards and do not experience the daily chaos of discerning right and wrong like most common people.[11] When dealing with means and ends they have the ability to clearly distinguish between the two. Also, Maslow found that they enjoy the means to an end: unlike most people who just see it as a means and want to finish it as soon as possible. For example, driving to a destination annoys most people but a self-actualized person would enjoy the drive, the experience of travel. It is also in their ability to take the most trivial and mundane activities or objects and turn them into a game or perhaps a dance.[12]

Sense of Humor

Maslow discovered that most self-actualized people do not have the same sense of humor as the average person. For example: they do not laugh at hostile humor (hurting someone to laugh), superiority humor (laughing at someone’s short comings), or authority-rebellion humor (laughing at unfunny, smutty jokes)[12]. A self-actualizing person’s sense of humor relates to philosophy and finding humor in humans who forget their place in the universe or when they act foolishly. It doesn’t attack people, rather states a message that happens to be funny. Self-actualized people don’t merely tell jokes to laugh, but to send a message or educate; “akin to parables or fables”[12].


Discussion thus far may give the impression that a self-actualized person seems perfect and above any problems or shortcomings of the common man, but this is not true. Maslow even states it is a mistake to wish for perfection or expect perfection because it cannot be obtained[13]. The self-actualized person also has basic human imperfections such as wasteful habits, vanity, pride, partiality to their family and friends, and temper outbursts. Maslow also discovers that, in the view of normal society, self-actualizing persons can appear quite ruthless. He attributes this to their strength and this makes it possible to make cold calculated decisions based on logic. For example a man who found his life-long, trusted friend was actually dishonest would end the friendship abruptly without any regret or any other emotional pangs[14] (Maslow 229). This may seem brutal to the common man, but it just exemplifies the strength of the self-actualized person at work.

The desires to Know and to Understand

This becomes the need after a person achieves self-actualization. Maslow understands the quest for knowledge can be the common man simply filling a basic need or the self-actualized man reaching his pinnacle, but these are only parts to the quest for knowledge not the entire picture. The list below shows Maslow’s examples of when the quest for knowledge is to satisfy merely a curiosity and not merely to fill a lesser need:

1. Something like human curiosity can easily be observed in the higher animals. The monkey will pick things apart, will poke his finger into holes, will explore in all sorts of situations where it is improbable that hunger, fear, sex, comfort status, etc., are involved. Harlow’s experiments (174) have amply demonstrated this in an acceptably experimental way.


 2. The history of mankind supplies us with a satisfactory number of instances in which man looked for facts and created explanations in the face of the greatest danger, even to life itself. There have been innumerable humbler Galileos.




3. Studies of psychologically healthy people indicate that they are, as a defining characteristic, attracted to the mysterious, to the unknown, to the chaotic, unorganized, and unexplained. This seems to be a Per se attractiveness; these areas are in themselves and of their own right interesting. The contrasting reaction to the well known is one of boredom.

4. It may be found valid to extrapolate from the psychopathological. The compulsive-obsessive neurotic (and neurotic in general), Goldstein’s brain-injured soldiers, Maier’s fixated rats (285), all show (at the clinical level of observation) a compulsive and anxious clinging to the familiar and a dread of the unfamiliar, the anarchic, the unexpected, the un-domesticated. On the other hand, there are some phenomena that may turn out to nullify this possibility. Among these are forced unconventionality, a chronic rebellion against any authority whatsoever, Bohemianism, the desire to shock and to startle, all of which may be found in certain neurotic individuals, as well as in those in the process of deacculturation. Perhaps also relevant here are the perseverative detoxifications described in Chapter 10, which are, behaviorally at any rate, an attraction to the dreadful, to the not understood and to the mysterious.


5. Probably there are true psychopathological effects when the cognitive needs are frustrated (295, 314). The following clinical impression are also pertinent.

6. I have seen a few cases in which it seemed clear to me that the pathology (boredom, loss of zest in life, self-dislike, general depression of the bodily functions, steady deterioration of the intellectual life, of tastes, etc.)8 were produced in intelligent people leading stupid lives in stupid jobs. I have at least one case in which the appropriate cognitive therapy (resuming parttime studies, getting a position that was more intellectually demanding, insight) removed the symptoms. I have seen many women, intelligent, prosperous, and unoccupied, slowly develop these same symptoms of intellectual inanition. Those who followed my recommendation to immerse themselves in something worthy of them showed improvement or cure often enough to impress me with the reality of the cognitive needs. In those countries in which access to the news, to information, and to the facts were cut off, and in those where official theories were profoundly contradicted by obvious facts, at least some people responded with generalized cynicism, mistrust of all values, suspicion even of the obvious, a profound disruption of ordinary interpersonal relationships, hopelessness, loss of morale, etc. Others seem to have responded in the more passive direction with dullness, submission, loss of. capacity, coarctation, and loss of initiative.

7. The needs to know and to understand are seen in late infancy and childhood, perhaps even more strongly than in adulthood. Furthermore this seems to be a spontaneous product of maturation rather than of learning, however defined. Children do not have to be taught to be curious. But they may be taught, as by institutionalization, not to be curious, e.g., Goldfarb (158).

8. Finally, the gratification of the cognitive impulses is subjectively satisfying and yields end-experience. Though this aspect of insight and understanding has been neglected in favor of achieved results, learning, etc., it nevertheless remains true that insight is usually a bright, happy, emotional spot in any person’s life, perhaps even a high spot in the life span.[15] (Maslow 94-95)


Maslow also states that even though these are examples of how the quest for knowledge is separate from basic needs he warns that these “two hierarchies are interrelated rather than sharply separated” (Maslow 97). This means that this level of need as well as the next and highest level are not strict, separate, levels but closely related to others and this is possibly the reason that these two levels of need are left out of most textbooks.

 Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation.

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