In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a model of human motivation that was based on a hierarchy of needs, both physical and psychological, that people are motivated to meet. He identified five levels of human needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Rather than moving linearly through these different levels, Maslow believed that we move back and forth between different levels of needs. We may partially meet one type of need and then move on to another type, or we may target multiple types of needs at the same time.
While Sigmund Freud argued that human drives are not available consciously, Maslow believed that people are well aware of these motives as they seek to move ahead in their lives.
The hierarchy of needs is typically represented as a pyramid, although Maslow himself didn’t actually come up with the pyramid. The pyramid suggests that we work our way from the base of physiological needs up to the top of self-actualization needs, which isn’t consistent with Maslow’s theory.
The first four levels of need are known as deficiency needs, or d-needs, since not meeting them creates conditions of deprivation. The top level is growth or being needs, also known as b-needs. These needs come from a wish for personal growth. At this point, an individual experiences what Maslow called metamotivation as they seek to continually better themselves.
The base level of the pyramid involves physiological needs, the basic needs for survival like air, food, and water. Sex is considered a physiological need as it’s necessary for the continuation of the human species.
The next level is safety. The particular safety needs that predominate will depend on an individual’s environment, but examples include physical safety, safety of loved ones, health, and job and financial security.
Love & belonging
Next is love and belonging, including family, friendships, and intimacy. Maslow considered group acceptance to be important; this could involve small or larger groups. Depending on the pressures of the peer group, this level may start to take priority over lower levels of need.
The next level is esteem, including self-respect and being valued and respected by others. Maslow identified two types of self-esteem: “lower” self-esteem is fuelled by the respect of others, whereas “higher” self-esteem is driven by self-respect.
At the top of the pyramid is the need for self-actualization. Simply Psychology offers the following quote from Maslow regarding self-actualization:
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 identified fifteen characteristics of a self-actualized person, including the ability to tolerate uncertainty, acceptance of the self and others, high levels of creativity, strong moral/ethical standards, and concern for human welfare.
Maslow later described transcendence as “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”
Self-actualizing people reach transcendence when they devote themselves to a calling outside themselves and search for Being-values. These Being-values include truth, beauty, goodness, justice, effortlessness, and playfulness.
Usefulness of the model
While various scholars have contested the validity of the hierarchy of needs, it’s still widely used; I first learned of it when I was in nursing school. I think part of the appeal is that intuitively it feels about right. Perhaps in a very literal sense, it’s not always accurate, but I think it still has a lot to offer in understanding human behaviour.
I suspect that mental illness can affect our prioritization of needs in multiple ways. I wonder if depression may shift focus to lower-level needs, while mania may artificially shift attention to higher-level needs. Perhaps in PTSD, people may get stuck trying to meet safety needs. And maybe in borderline personality disorder, people have an impaired ability to meet love/belonging and esteem needs. It’s an interesting way of looking at the bigger picture of mental illness, even though it doesn’t capture the subtleties.
Were you already familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? What are your thoughts?
- PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women’s College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath
- Psychology Notes HQ: Abraham Maslow’s Humanistic Psychology
- Scientific American: Who Created Maslow’s Iconic Pyramid?
- Simply Psychology: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- Wikipedia: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.