Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Five needs that form the basis for human behavioral motivation

The psychological theory is referenced with regard to management and organizational behavior.
Deena Theresa
Brain conceptual artwork.
Brain conceptual artwork.

Jorm Sangsorn/iStock 

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published the paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review, which theorized that human decision-making was backed by a hierarchy of psychological needs. Not too long afterward, he proposed a theory named the "Hierarchy of Needs," in which he stated that five core needs formed the basis for human behavioral motivation.

Though other human development models were designed to explain human desires, Maslow classified humans in a way that depicted the basic needs of society first and then proceeded to more acquired emotions.

These are physiological needs, safety needs, social needs (e.g., love and belonging needs), esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. The needs are usually represented in the shape of a pyramid (there are observations that Maslow himself didn't create the pyramid; more on that later), with basic needs at the bottom and complex needs at the top. According to Maslow, the needs come in a particular order. As each level of needs is satisfied, the desire to fulfill the next set kicks in so that humans address the higher-level needs only after their basic needs are adequately fulfilled.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Five needs that form the basis for human behavioral motivation
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

1. Physiological needs:

The most basic human survival needs are generally placed at the base of the pyramid, indicating that they are the most essential. They include food and water, sufficient rest, clothing and shelter, overall health, and reproduction. Some of these needs have to be fulfilled to meet the body's need for homeostasis (maintaining consistent levels in different bodily systems) and basic survival. According to him, an individual can move up the pyramid only after fulfilling physiological needs.

2. Safety needs:

Once physiological requirements are met, the next need is a safe environment. Safety is core - from the time we're children, we gravitate towards safe environments. An unsafe one is usually met with anxiety or fear. According to Maslow, safety needs are more apparent for adults living in developed nations. This need can also explain why we prefer the familiar or why we contribute to a savings account. Safety needs include protection from violence and theft, emotional stability and well-being, health security, and financial security, as well as security that the basic physiological needs will be fulfilled in the future too.

3. Love and belonging needs:

The third level of Maslow's hierarchy relates to human interaction. It is also the last of the "basic needs." Love and belonging include friendships and family bonds, including bonds within a biological family and chosen family (such as a spouse). Physical and emotional intimacy is included here; physical and emotional relationships are imperative for feeling a sense of belonging and kinship. Additionally, being members of various social groups also contributes to meeting this need, such as being a member of a team at work or a union or membership in a club or other group.

Most Popular

4. Esteem needs:

The higher needs begin with this level. The primary elements of esteem needs include self-respect, recognition, status, and self-esteem. Maslow specific that self-esteem in itself can be divided into two types: esteem that is based on respect and acknowledgment from others, and esteem that is based on individual self-assessment. The latter comprises self-confidence and independence.

5. Self-actualization needs:

Self-actualization refers to the fulfillment of your full potential as a person and occupies the highest level in the pyramid. This particular need looks different for everyone. While it might involve academic achievements for one individual, helping others might elicit a sense of self-actualization for another. Self-actualization needs include education, skills development, caring for others, and broader goals such as traveling and pursuing personal dreams. Maslow believed that achieving self-actualization was rare; his examples include Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa. Maslow said of self-actualization: "It may be loosely described as the full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities, potentialities, etc. Such people seem to be fulfilling themselves and to be doing the best that they are capable of doing. They are people who have developed or are developing to the full stature of which they are capable."

Maslow separated the last need - self-actualization - from the rest. While he called the latter a growth need, the other four lower levels were termed deficiency needs. His theory states that if one fails to meet the deficiency needs, they'll experience unpleasant results, such as illness, self-doubt, and loneliness. Though self-actualization can make one happier, it becomes a priority only after basic needs are met and is not strictly necessary for survival.

Criticism and impact

Maslow's concept has definitely been the subject of criticism over the years. According to some researchers, needs don't follow a hierarchy. There was little evidence for Maslow's ranking of these needs and even lesser evidence that they are in a hierarchical order. Other critics note that the theory is rather difficult to test scientifically. His research on self-actualization was apparently based on a small sample of individuals and included subjective analysis of the self-actualization of famous personalities.

Some others believe that the 'higher' level needs are just as important as the lower ones. In a study published in 2011, researchers from the University of Illinois attempted to put the hierarchy of needs to the test.

They looked at data from over 60,000 participants in more than 120 different countries and assessed six needs similar to Maslow's: physiological needs, safety, love, pride and respect, mastery, and autonomy. They found that meeting these needs was indeed linked to well-being. Having physiological needs met was linked to people's overall assessment of their lives, and feeling positive was linked to meeting the needs of feeling loved and respected.

However, they found that, while the fulfillment of the needs was strongly correlated with happiness, people from cultures all over the world had reported that self-actualization and social needs were also important, even when some of their most basic needs were unfulfilled. According to their analysis of the results, needs do not have to take the hierarchical form that Maslow described.

Regardless, Maslow's theory strongly influenced some researchers, as well as theories of business management. According to, psychologists Carol Ryff and Burton Singer drew on Maslow's theories when developing their theory of eudaimonic well-being. Eudaimonic well-being refers to feeling purpose and meaning—which is similar to Maslow's idea of self-actualization. Similarly, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary built on Maslow's idea of love and belonging needs. According to them, feeling that one belongs is a foundational and fundamental need, and they suggest that feeling isolated can have negative consequences on mental and physical health.

In addition, "There's no question it's had a profound influence on management education and management practice," says Gerard Hodgkinson, a psychologist at Warwick Business School, speaking to the BBC. "One of the insights is that as managers, we can shape the conditions that create people's aspirations."

Hold up. The pyramid isn't Maslow's

In a paper published in 2019, Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings, and John Ballard investigated the origin of the use of a pyramid shape for Maslow's theory and how the theory is represented in management studies. They state that there was no evidence of Maslow representing his theory as a pyramid. If anything, it was clear from his writings that we can target multiple needs at a time and are always going back and forth in the hierarchy, unlike the notion that needs form a period, which has been taught over the years.

"We examined all of his published books and articles that we could identify, as well as his personal diaries, which are published. We found no trace of the pyramid in any of Maslow's writings," the authors told Scientific American.

The authors said that Keith Davis had written a popular management textbook that illustrated the theory in the form of a series of steps in a right-angled triangle. However, they traced the first pyramid associated with the hierarchy of needs to Charles McDermid, a consulting psychologist.

"It appeared in his 1960 article in Business Horizons 'How money motivates men' in which he argued the pyramid can be applied by business managers to generate "maximum motivation at the lowest cost." We think McDermid's pyramid was inspired by Davis' representation, but it was McDermid's image that took off. If there is an earlier pyramid, we did not find it," they said.

The authors advocated removing the pyramid from management textbooks and replacing it with a ladder, which they argued would be a better representation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron