Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Examples, Apply and Misconceptions

Abraham Maslow formulated ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ ( Paper A Theory of Human Motivation published in 1943). Maslow was a proponent of humanistic psychology, a movement that focused on free will, creativity, individual choice, self-worth, and seeing the “whole person” to understand human psychology.  

Maslow believed that people are motivated by the desire for personal growth, and will often overcome many obstacles in order to achieve personal fulfillment. He developed a needs hierarchy that has become famous in psychology and other disciplines for explaining why people strive to reach their full potential. He developed a needs hierarchy that has become famous in psychology and other disciplines for explaining why people strive to reach their full potential.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow identified two basic types of motives

  1. Deficiency motive 2. Growth needs

One is a deficiency motive, which results from a lack of some needed object. Basic needs such as hunger, sleep, breathing and thirst fall into this category. Deficiency motives are satisfied once the needed object has been obtained. These needs are often the only ones considered in some approaches to personality. For example, Freud described human motivation in terms of tension reduction, with the return to a tensionless state the ultimate aim of the motivating system.

But Maslow also talked about what he called growth needs. These needs include the unselfish giving of love to others and the development of one’s unique potential. Unlike deficiency needs, growth needs are not satisfied once the object of the need is found. Rather, satisfaction comes from expressing the motive. Satisfying a growth need may even lead to an increase in, rather than the satiation of, the need. Maslow identified five basic categories of needs—both deficiency and growth—and arranged them in his well-known hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs examples

According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, lower-level needs, beginning with basic survival, must be fulfilled before higher-level needs to guide a person’s behavior. At the most basic level are physiological needs, such as those for water and food. Next are safety needs, for security and protection. Having satisfied physiological and safety needs to some extent, people are motivated to pursue closeness and affiliation with other people, or what Maslow calls belongingness needs. Next in the hierarchy are esteem needs, including both self-esteem and the esteem of others. 

At the highest level are self-actualization needs, motives to express oneself and grow, or to actualize one’s potential. Self-actualization needs differ from all the previous levels (needs) in that they are not deficiency needs; that is, they are not generated by a lack of something (food, shelter, closeness, the esteem of others). Rather, they are growth needs — motives to expand and develop one’s skills and abilities.

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Many behaviors reflect multiple needs. Going to work, for example, can ‘bring home the bacon’ as well as satisfy needs for esteem, affiliation, and self-actualization. According to Maslow, however, people can spend their lives focused on motives primarily at one level and not develop beyond it. People who are starving are unlikely to think much about art, and motives for self-expression may take a back seat in people who desperately need the esteem of others.

In contrast, self-actualized individuals are no longer preoccupied with where they will get their dinner(food) or who will hold them in esteem and are thus free to pursue moral, cultural, or aesthetic concerns. Examples of self-actualized people include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mother Teresa. Maslow believed that few people reach this level of self-actualization.

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The Major Hierarchy of Needs

The needs Maslow (1970) identified are as follows:

Physiological needs, such as breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing, and sleep. If you don’t get these things, it’s tough to think about anything else. Many movies and real-life stories focus on what happens when people are suddenly put in a situation where they struggle to fulfill physiological needs they once took for granted. For example, physiological needs come to the forefront when people survive a plane crash, get lost in the wilderness, or face starvation.

Safety and security, such as health, employment, property, and social stability. If your needs for safety and security are met, that means you are reasonably healthy, have a job that pays the rent, and live in a place without (much) violence or war. These are again fairly basic needs—if you are sick or in danger, it’s difficult to focus on anything other than getting better, getting safe, and just breathing, eating, and drinking (Wicker & others, 1993).

Love and belonging, including friendship, family, intimacy, and a sense of connection. Once physical needs are (more or less) satisfied, humans need to have relationships with other people and feel that they belong. An influential review concluded that the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). 

For example, people with many social connections are physically healthier (Cohen & Wills, 1985). In contrast, people rejected and ostracized by others, even briefly, feel alienated and sad (Van Beest & Williams, 2006) and are more likely to hurt and less likely to help others (Twenge et al., 2001, 2007). Even people who are dismissive about relationships feel happy when they are accepted by others (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). This is similar to the need for affiliation in self-determination theory. The need to belong creates the motive to affiliate with others.

Self-esteem, including confidence, achievement, and respect of others. Maslow’s concept of self-esteem is somewhat broader than self-esteem. For Maslow, self-esteem means a feeling of pride in your work (not necessarily paid work—volunteer work or raising children would certainly qualify). It also includes admiration and respect from others. 

Maslow (1970) believed that self-esteem is best when it is grounded in actual achievement and behavior, or “deserved,” rather than undeserved and gained through cheating or inflated praise. In a study of 88 nations over 35 years, developing countries tended to follow Maslow’s sequence of needs, with growth in basic needs such as food (physiological needs) coming first, then safety and security, then belonging, then self-esteem through political democracy, and so on. However, growth in one area did not stop once another area began to progress—for example, progress in food and safety continues in China even as the country inches closer to democracy (Hagerty, 1999).


At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization, the need to actualize or “make actual” your unique talents and abilities. As Maslow famously wrote, “What humans can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualization” (Maslow, 1970, p. 22, original emphasis). Take the questionnaire here to get a general idea of how self-actualized you are.

Self-actualization is difficult. You might know what you want to become, but the road is challenging and often involves acting against others and society. Imagine you want to be a musician. You feel this in your soul. It is who you are. So far, so good. But then you run into societal demands. Your parents think you should study accounting so you can get a job. 

You want to have a family, and you know a musician’s life (staying out late and traveling) will make that very difficult. Plus, the words “poor” and “musician” go together very well. I (W. K. C.) live in Athens, Georgia, known for its great music scene—bands such as REM, the B-52s, and Widespread Panic launched successful careers from Athens. Most of the current crop of great musicians, however, are waiting tables, slinging coffee, or doing construction. Actualizing music ability is not without its sacrifices.

Self-actualization is at the small top of the pyramid because it is difficult to attain. Maslow believed that very few people are fully self-actualized. He named Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and George Washington Carver as examples of self-actualized individuals, although it is not necessary to be well known to be self-actualized (Maslow, 1970).

 The expanded Hierarchy of Needs

A. Maslow posited that the individual’s basic motives formed A Hierarchy Of Needs, withneeds at each level requiring satisfaction before achieving the next level
1. Biological: Bottom level needs such as hunger and thirst require satisfaction before other needs can begin operation.
2. Safety: Requirement to attend to protection from danger, need for security, comfort, and freedom from fear.
3. Attachment: Needs to belong, to affiliate with others, to love, and to be loved.
4. Esteem: Needs to like oneself, to see oneself as competent and effective, and to do what is necessary to earn the esteem of others.
5. Cognitive: Humans demand stimulation of thought, need to know our past, to comprehend puzzles of current existence, and to predict the future.
6. Esthetic: Need for creativity, and the human desire for beauty and order.
7. Self-actualization: Individual has moved beyond basic needs in the quest for the fullest development of his/her potential. An individual is self-aware, self-accepting, socially responsive, creative, spontaneous, open to novelty and challenge
8. Transcendence: a step beyond the fulfillment of individual potential, may lead some individuals to higher states of consciousness and a cosmic vision of one’s part in the universe.

Near the end of his life, Maslow proposed that some people also reach a level of self-transcendence. At the self-actualization level, people seek to realize their own potential. At the self-transcendence level, people strive for meaning, purpose, and communion in a way that is transpersonal—beyond the self (Koltko-Rivera, 2006). Maslow’s contemporary, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1962), a Nazi concentration camp survivor, concurred that the search for meaning is an important human motive: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

“Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?” 

When Gallup asked that of people in 132 countries, 91 percent answered: “Yes” (Oishi & Diener, 2014). Today’s psychological scientists report that people sense meaning when they experience their life as having a purpose (goals), significance (value), and coherence (making sense)—sentiments nourished by strong social connections, a religious faith, an orderly world, and social status (King et al., 2016; Martela & Steger, 2016). Moreover, meaning matters: People’s sense of life’s meaning predicts their psychological and physical well-being, and their capacity to cope with adversity (Heine et al., 2006).

The order of Maslow’s hierarchy is not universally fixed. People have starved themselves, for example, to make a political statement. Culture also influences our priorities: Self-esteem matters most in individualist nations, whose citizens tend to focus more on personal achievements than on family and community identity (Oishi et al., 1999). And, while agreeing with Maslow’s basic levels of need, today’s psychologists note that gaining and retaining mates, parenting offspring, and desiring social status are also universal human motives (Anderson et al., 2015; Kenrick et al., 2010).

Nevertheless, the simple idea that some motives are more compelling than others provides a framework for thinking about motivation. Worldwide life-satisfaction surveys support this basic idea (Oishi et al., 1999; Tay & Diener, 2011). In poorer nations that lack easy access to money and the food and shelter it buys, financial satisfaction more strongly predicts feelings of wellbeing. In wealthy nations, where most are able to meet their basic needs, social connections better predict well-being.

1 The study of motivation is about finding out why people do things.
2 Physiological motives such as hunger and thirst serve to maintain homeostasis in the body.
3 Habits are strongly learned behaviors which can act as motives but can be changed by deliberate action or relearning.
4 Cognitive motives come from our personal understandings and intentions, and sometimes from unconscious self-protective mechanisms.
5 Motivation is increased when people believe their actions can be effective. These are known as self-efficacy beliefs.
6 Social respect is an important motivator, which can even end up changing our personal cognitions.
7 Aggression and scapegoating are often rationalized using cognitive or social explanations but usually come from displaced stress.
8 Group identification is an extremely powerful motivator for human beings. At its extreme, it can lead to amazingly vicious behavior, but it can also produce peaceful co-operation.
9 Maslow suggested that motivation can be explained as a hierarchy of needs, with basic ones needing to be satisfied before higher ones become important.
10 Different levels of motives act simultaneously, so levels of analysis are a useful tool for explaining them.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Apply and Discuss

Maslow’s theory of self-actualization has proven difficult to test (Neher, 1991). However, one organizational psychologist, Clayton Alderfer, refined and applied aspects of Maslow’s model to motivation in the workplace (Alderfer, 1972, 1989). Alderfer was a consultant to a small manufacturing company that was having trouble motivating its workers. In interviewing the employees, he noticed that their concerns seemed to fall into three categories: material concerns such as pay, fringe benefits and physical conditions in the plant; relationships with peers and supervisors; and opportunities to learn and use their skills on the job. His observations led to the ERG theory, which essentially condenses Maslow’s hierarchy to three levels of need: existence, relatedness, and growth (hence ERG).

According to ERG theory, worker satisfaction and motivation vary with the extent to which a job matches a given worker’s needs. Workers whose primary concern is pay are unlikely to appreciate attempts to give them more training to expand their skills. In general, however, the best job provides good pay and working conditions, a chance to interact with other people, and opportunities to develop one’s skills, thus satisfying the major needs. This theory offers testable hypotheses, although the empirical evidence for it remains sketchy. Woodbine and Liu (2010) found support for ERG theory when investigating the moral choices of a sample of West Australian internal auditors. Amongst other factors, they found that internal auditors were motivated by growth needs.

Misconceptions About Maslow’s Need Hierarchy

Maslow was quick to acknowledge that the five-level hierarchy oversimplifies the relationship between needs and behavior. Although the order makes sense for most of us, there are some noteworthy exceptions. Some people have to satisfy their needs for self-esteem and respect before they can enter a romantic relationship. Some artists are so intent on expressing their creative desires that they forego basic needs and friendships. And we’ve all heard stories about martyrs who sacrifice life itself for an ideal.

Upon first glance at the hierarchy, people sometimes assume that lower needs must be satisfied 100% before we turn to higher needs. But Maslow maintained that at any given moment needs from all five levels are potentially shaping our behavior. Moreover, we rarely satisfy any of the five need levels for very long. Maslow estimated that for the average person in our culture, 85% of physiological needs, 70% of safety needs, 50% of belongingness and love needs, 40% of esteem needs, and 10% of self-actualization needs are satisfied.

Although Maslow described the need hierarchy as universal, he acknowledged that the means of satisfying a particular need varies across cultures. An individual can earn respect from others in our society by becoming a successful businessperson or a community leader. But in other societies, this esteem is awarded for good hunting or farming skills. Nonetheless, Maslow maintained that the needs and their arrangement within the hierarchy are the same across cultures. Only the manner in which they are satisfied varies.

Another oversimplification of Maslow’s theory is that any given behavior is motivated by a single need. Maslow argued that most behavior of people is the result of multiple motivations. He used the example of sexual activity. It is easy to see that physiological needs are satisfied through sexual behavior. But that behavior can also be motivated by a desire to express affection, a need to feel masterful and competent, or a desire to act masculine or feminine. People engage in sexual activity to satisfy one or any combination of these needs.

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APA (6th) Style References

Boyd, J.N.,(2002), Psychology and Life (16th Edition). Allyn & Bacon.

Burger, J. M.,(2010), Personality (8th edition).Wadsworth. 

Burton, L .J., Westen, B.,& Kowalski, R.B.,(2019), Psychology(5th ed.).John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

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Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

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McLeod, S. A. (2020, March 20). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology.

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