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 different levels of needs. He’s considered to be the founder of the humanistic psychology approach, and took an optimistic view of human potential rather than focusing on pathology.
The 5 levels of human needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is represented as a pyramid with five levels of human needs. Each level of need should be satisfied (or mostly satisfied) before moving up to the next, culminating in self-actualization. While Sigmund Freud argued that human drives were not available consciously, Maslow believed that people were well aware of these motives as they sought to move ahead in their lives.
Here is a visual representation of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
The first four levels of need are known as deficiency needs, or d-needs, since when they are not met it 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 food and water.
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, and job and financial security.
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.”
Moving through the pyramid
The ability to meet different needs will vary over time, and life events can cause upwards or downwards movement in the level of needs. This means there isn’t a simple one-way journey up the pyramid.
Maslow identified fifteen characteristics of a self-actualized person, including the ability to tolerate uncertainty, self-acceptance, high levels of creativity, strong moral/ethical standards, and concern for human welfare.
Later modifications were made to the model, including cognitive and aesthetic needs inserted below self-actualization, and transcendence added above self-actualization. According to Wikipedia, Maslow 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.”
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?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.