What Is… Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's hierarchy of human needs: physiological, safety, love & belonging, esteem, self-actualization

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.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization

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.

Physiological needs

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?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

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 headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

19 thoughts on “What Is… Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”

  1. When you first presented the hierarchy I thought, I’m familiar with this! Then I realized I was thinking of the food pyramid lol! But I actually had heard of this before. I like your theories about how Maslow’s hierarchy relates to mental illness.

  2. I was aware of this beforehand. It’s useful. I actually have one of Maslow’s books that I bought cheap second-hand, although I haven’t read it yet.

    My difficulty with it is that, because I’m a thirty-five year old virgin, technically I’m not fully meeting even my basic physiological needs. On one level that seems right to me, and makes me feel justified in wanting to find a partner/spouse so much. But at the same time, it seems wrong to think that I can’t go up the pyramid at all because of being stuck at the bottom, and I’ve never been sure if that’s a correct reading of the pyramid. Because I definitely do achieve things (partially or completely) higher up the pyramid, including some things at the very top. Also, saying that sex is a basic need like food or water seems wrong to me. It is a basic need, but one can go without sex for very long periods; one can’t go without food and water for more than a few days.

    1. My understanding was that Maslow’s original conceptualization was that lower needs must be met before moving up, he became more flexible on that as the theory evolved.
      I agree with you regarding sex. While it’s certainly a primal physiological drive, I don’t see it as necessary for higher level functioning.

  3. I have heard of the Maslow Hierarchy once before, actually when I was first placed in my mental health facility, but it was never truly discussed for whatever reason, they never explained.
    I find this rather interesting. By examining the pyramid, I’m actually trying to see where my strengths are. I’m always trying to better myself, but I have such doubt over certain things and situations.
    As far as human contact for me goes… This is the most interactive I am with people. Here, right here. I feel comfort and security. Elsewhere, I feel uptight most of the time.
    Relationships are fairly non-existent because I believe I created that for my own protection.
    To be honest, I don’t see myself as that complex, but when I visualize these types of formats (If you will) – I find myself not understanding my self at all. Or find it to be more complicated.
    Does that make a bit of rational sense to you?

    1. I think we all try to meet our needs as best we can, and when they can’t be met in more obvious ways we have to look elsewhere. I also get a lot of needs met through the online community that I’m not able to meet elsewhere.

  4. Strangely (for this is a period of coincidences between my blogging ‘world’ and my real life) I was discussing this pyramid with my therapist last month at our visit. I know my self esteem was badly damaged by my childhood trauma and not improved by my mother or society in general as a youth and young adult, so having self respect has been problematical. It explains A LOT though. For me it’s been illuminating learning of this pyramid.

  5. I LOVE Maslow’s Hierarchy – we always talked about it a lot in my education/teaching degree – specifically in regards to the ridiculous expectation of children coming to school to learn (which is arguably a function of or means to self-actualisation), when they hadn’t eaten, slept, were sick, had dealt with arguing or abusive parents, etc etc.
    I think it’s also interesting to note that an individual can climb their way up the pyramid (i.e. you can have creativity and lack prejudice while still having no to poor self-esteem), but it’s a lot more arduous, and draining, and makes it difficult to ascertain other elements of self-actualisation or esteem, such as problem-solving and achievement.

  6. This is a great post summarizing Maslow’s theory of hierarchical needs! I think this strongly ties into the field of positive psychology today, where health is approached with more of a mentality of making people thrive as opposed to simply not having diseases. I just wrote on this in my own blog, and I am trying to tie it back into some theories that are being presented today. It is all with the intent to make people feel more positive about life! Feel free to check out my blog and leave any contributions that you would like. Keep up the good work!

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