maslows hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: A Simple Explanation

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was proposed in 1943, and has been one of the most resilient ideas in the history of behavioral psychology. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory that is comprised of a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted in the form of a pyramid.

Maslow’s motivation to develop this theory was his burning desire to find the answers to life’s most difficult questions (why are we here, and what is our purpose), which he believed could be answered through psychology. Maslow’s orthodox upbringing, and his era’s focus on materialism, led him to the conclusion that the answer must be a blend of these things, rather than the attainment of one.

As a humanist, Maslow believed that all people have an innate desire to become self-actualized. Though in order to achieve this need for self-actualization, the levels of more basic needs must first be met. With these ideas in mind, he was led to develop the Hierarchy of Needs.

The integrated wholeness of the organism must be one of the foundation stones of motivation theory.

Abraham Maslow

This article will provide an overview of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and will cover each level of the pyramid. All information in this article is pulled from Maslow’s original paper, A Theory of Human Motivation.

From the bottom of the hierarchy of needs towards the top, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging needs, esteem, and self-actualization. Each level of the pyramid is built upon the foundation, and without foundational needs being met, Maslow suggests that it is not possible to reach and sustain higher levels.

maslows hierarchy of needs pyramid
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?

Abraham Maslow

The Classic 5-Tier Model of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow believed that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. For example, beginning with the foundation, our most basic need is for physical survival (food, water, shelter), and these needs will be the first motivators that drive our behavior.

Once one level is fulfilled, the next tier up would motivate us.

1. Physiological Needs

These are the biological needs that are required for survival. If these foundational needs are not met, the human body cannot function at its optimal level. Maslow considered physiological needs as the most potent of all, because they separate life from death, and have the ability to make the other needs appear as non-existent.

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Sexual Desire
  • Maternal Responses
  • Homeostasis

In Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, he gives particular emphasis on the hunger drive, and mentions when you ask a hungry man what his vision of utopia is, he will typically describe it as a place where there is always plenty of food. Without meeting these basic needs, the desire for higher needs (writing poetry, community, respect, philosophy) become irrelevant. Moreover, once these basic needs are satisfied, they become of little importance, and the individual can begin focusing on the next level.

An individual who is in this stage of motivation, is only driven by hunger. Their full attention is honed in on finding their next meal. If someone is made chronically hungry and thirsty, their higher needs become obscured. This person’s goals and desires would be far different than someone who has met these basic needs.

2. Safety Needs

If physiological needs are relatively well satisfied, a new set of needs emerges, which Maslow classifies as Safety Needs. These needs include:

  • Insulation from Threats
  • Seeking Stability (Predictability)

Regarding safety needs, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs elaborates upon the example of a child. He infers that adults share the same needs for safety, however adolescents express these needs in more obvious ways. For example, a child’s whole world view may change after separating from a parent, a happy environment may instantly transform into terror. This child’s behavior would then be motivated by seeking their parent (safety).

Maslow also touches on the broader aspects of the safety need, “seeking stability” (preference for the familiar rather than unfamiliar, and the known rather than unknown). Maslow gives the examples of an individual’s need to adopt a world-view (including science) or religion that organizes the universe and the people in it, into a coherent and meaningful whole.

In neurotic adults who are in this stage of needs, behaviors would be resemble someone who is always behaving as if an impending disaster was about to strike. Maslow believed that compulsive-obsessive disorders are driven by an irrational need for safety.

3. Love Needs

If the previous two needs (physiological and safety) are well gratified, the next set of needs that would arise are love based needs:

  • Love & Affection
  • Belongingness
  • Friendship
  • Mate
  • Children

An individual who is in the Love Needs will feel with intensity the lack of fellowship with friends, a partner, community and/or offspring. He will strive for affectionate relationships with people in general and more particularly, a place in his group. This desire can be extremely powerful, and this individual may even forget how when he was hungry, he had no desire for love.

Maslow makes it clear that love is not synonymous with sex. Maslow considers sex as a purely biological need, however sex is multi-faceted and can be combined with these needs for love and affection.

4. Esteem Needs

Maslow says that all people (except for a few pathological exceptions) in our society have a need or desire for a stable and high evaluation of themselves. This evaluation of self would be based on real capacity, achievement and respect from others, it is comprised of the following:

  • Self-Respect
  • Self-Esteem
  • Esteem from Others
  • Strength
  • Achievement
  • Independence
  • Freedom
  • Prestige

In Maslow’s words, satisfaction of the esteem needs leads to self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world. On the other hand, not meeting these needs leads to feelings of inferiority such as weakness and helplessness.

5. Self-Actualization

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.

Abraham Maslow

Even if all the previous needs are met, Maslow suggests that a feeling of discontent may still arise. This discontent would take the form of a need for self-actualization, or a desire to be all one can be. Self-actualization needs can come in the forms of:

  • A Search for Knowledge
  • Desire for Truth and Wisdom
  • An Urge to Solve Cosmic Mysteries

This level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is perhaps the most famous, and sought after by many self-help and spiritual communities. Maslow summarizes the need for self-actualization as a desire to know and understand. Self-actualization needs are needs of self-fulfillment, namely, for one’s tendency to become actualized in what they are potentially. This self-actualization need might also be defined as the desire to become more and more of what one is, or to become all that one is capable of becoming.

Interestingly, in a separate paper, Maslow goes into depth on the traits of “self-actualized” people. Many of the most successful people throughout history resemble “self-actualizers,” and it could be a psychological corollary of success. For more on the traits of self actualized people, you can read here: Maslow’s 15 Traits of Self-Actualized People.

The Degree of Fixity of the Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow shares that not all needs are fixed, and the order can differ based on the individual. The hierarchy of needs is not as rigid as it might appear, and it is true that many exceptions to the hierarchy of needs exists.

For example, there are people who consider self-esteem to be more important than love. This is perhaps the most common reversal in the hierarchy of needs, and is usually due to the development of the notion that the person who is most likely to be loved is a strong and influential person and might inspire fear and respect. This person who lacks love may try very hard to appear confident and aggressive.

Another example of a common need reversal might be a creative person (self-actualization) who places all needs as secondary to their creativity, and would strive to express their creativity even without having satisfied their base needs.

Maslow also gives three more examples of role reversals: aspiration may be permanently deadened or lowered (doesn’t strive for anything higher than base level needs), psychopathic personality types (permanent loss of love needs), and when a person may have never experienced the need for hunger or other base needs (they may have gone a really long time valuing higher needs, and wouldn’t take upon themselves the necessity to satisfy lower needs if ever placed into that level of needs).


Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is a theory of motivation. Humans are driven by wants that exist within a hierarchy, and when one need is fulfilled, another is sought after. This seeking of gratification is what drives and animates an individual’s behavior. Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs appears to be rigid, he does admit there are many exceptions to each level’s importance, and they may differ from individual to individual.

Source Cited: Maslow, A.H. (1943).“A Theory of Human Motivation”.In Psychological Review, 50 (4), 430-437.

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