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The True Meaning Of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Self-Development

The True Meaning Of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The Hierarchy of Needs is arguably one of the most well-known and widespread concepts from psychology. Pioneered by Abraham Maslow and first published in 1943, the model presents a theory of human motivation across five tiers, usually visualized as a pyramid, with each corresponding level placed on top of the other. 

You will have likely heard of Maslow’s pyramid in the context of personal development or business success, or even online meme culture. Taken literally, Maslow appears to present a model that suggests humans are motivated to meet core survival needs before being able to focus on growth or self-actualization. 


However, Maslow’s original conception didn’t present these levels in the popular pyramid structure. And the psychologist himself, shortly before he died, attempted to add and refine the model to better fit later insights and breakthroughs he had.

In this article, we’ll provide a context to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that includes misconceptions Maslow addressed, but remain largely overlooked in common applications of the model. We’ll explain the forgotten level, self-transcendence, before presenting a few steps on how to apply the pyramid to your self-development journey.

Who was Abraham Maslow?

Abraham Maslow was a pioneer in the field of humanistic psychology, a branch of positive psychology focusing on what makes human beings thrive and live a meaningful life. He was born on April 1, 1908 in Brooklyn, New York, and spoke of an unhappy and lonely childhood. His Jewish parents emigrated to America from Russia, and Maslow was the first of seven children.

“[Maslow] represented the American dream," the psychologist’s friend Warren Bennis told the BBC. "All of his psychology really had to do with possibility, not restraints. His metaphysics were all about the possibilities of change.” Maslow’s most prevailing quality was his optimistic outlook and ability to see the full potential of human nature, a deviation from earlier models of psychology that looked to dissect and treat pathology.

Maslow taught at Brooklyn College from 1937 to 1951. In the 1950s, Maslow’s stream of theories helped to shape the field of humanistic psychology. His books include the likes of Towards the Psychology of Being and The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, and his contributions to the field still have a significant influence today, including the hierarchy of needs, theory of self-actualization, and peak experiences. In Maslow’s own words:

“We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under conditions of great courage. We enjoy and even thrill to godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.”

Maslow died in June 1970, from a heart attack. A few years prior to that, Maslow had another huge heart attack, and was told there was a chance he could die. His near-death experience led to a deeper appreciation for the spiritual, transcendent aspects of being. In those few short years, Maslow developed and updated his theories, but died before being able to present them clearly.

Human motivation: The 5 levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Returning to the pyramid, below are the five tiers of Maslow’s theory of human needs and motivation, as usually portrayed. Due to its typical hierarchical layout, the common approach is to assume one level must be met, in full, before moving onto the next. 

Each level can be viewed as stages of development, where one ascends the pyramid through the process of maturation.

Physiological needs

At the base of the pyramid, the foundation of all other levels, are basic physiological and safety needs. These include the essentials for survival, from food, water, the air you breathe, to shelter and reproduction. Without these needs met, a person will struggle to function properly, making the achievement of other needs incredibly difficult.

Safety needs

This level relates to feelings of security and safety within human behavior, which is the next essential stage once basic physiological needs are met. These include a person’s physical environment, such as their home, education, or community, along with experiencing good health and emotional and financial security.

Love and belonging

abraham maslow
(Maskot / Getty)

The next level is based on human relationships. In psychology, belongingness relates to the need to feel accepted and integrated into a group or community. This speaks to the innate human social capacity, and is found in friendships, work, religious groups, or family settings. 

Esteem

This level expands on relationships to include feelings of self-worth and respect. Maslow separated this level into two different categories: The first relates to self-esteem, such as feeling independent or successful. The second relates to others, such as the desire to build a reputation or be respected.

Self-actualization

This level within Maslow’s theories is famous in its own right. Self-actualization, resting at the top of most common models, is the desire to experience the ultimate in personal growth and human performance, and to inhabit one's fullest potential. As Maslow put it: “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities.” This level is subjective to each individual, as self-actualization looks unique to everyone.

Deficiency needs vs. Growth needs in human beings

Within this model of the hierarchy theory, physiological needs and safety needs can be categorized as basic needs. They’re essential to survival and a basic level of safety. Love and belonging and Esteem are psychological needs, they’re what make a life worth living, beyond simple survival. The top of the pyramid, self-actualization, is the yearning for self-fulfillment and growth beyond the other levels.

Maslow defined two categories: deficiency needs and growth needs. Deficiency needs are motivated by a lack of something, and cover the first four levels of the hierarchy. The motivation is to move away from pain or discomfort by getting those needs fulfilled. Growth needs, on the other hand, move towards a desired goal, rather than away from discomfort.

A basic interpretation is that, once basic human deficiencies are fulfilled, a person moves onto the next set of needs. So once someone is fed, they look to cultivate a safe environment, then look to cultivate a community, and so on. However, Maslow later expanded his theory to cover the degree of relative satisfaction. These levels aren’t rigid, but instead, are better understood in percentages. He wrote:

“For the sake of illustration, it is as if the average citizen is satisfied perhaps 85 percent in his physiological needs, 70 percent in his safety needs, 50 percent in his love needs, 40 percent in his self-esteem needs, and 10 percent in his self-actualization needs.”

After applying his theory, Maslow saw that most people loosely fit the hierarchy of needs, leading to a term he called the degree of fixity. In other words, the hierarchy isn’t a hard and fast rule, and any attempt to fit the complexity of human motivation into neat little boxes was likely to miss the mark. Maslow also noticed numerous exceptions, including:

  • Some people seek self-esteem over love. For example, they may crave status or social approval ahead of loving relationships.
  • Highly creative people whose “drive to creativeness seems to be more important than any other counter-determinant.” These people could self-actualize through the creative act, even when basic needs aren’t met.
  • Aspirations in some people decline so that they feel self-fulfilled when basic needs are met. For example, someone who has been unemployed for a long period of time might feel completely satisfied when being able to afford nourishing food.
  • Psychopathic tendencies in people lead to a complete disconnect from the need for love and belonging.
  • Some give up everything, including sometimes basic needs, for the sake of an idea or value. These people “can swim against the stream of public opinion and who can stand up for the truth at great personal cost.” Think of the great revolutionaries who risked their safety to ignite change.

Maslow was careful to state that people have multiple motivations for behavior. Motivation that appears purely physiological likely has psychological or self-fulfillment factors mixed in, too. People need to eat to survive, but may seek to find social situations in which they share food and community, for a sense of belonging. “Let us say again,” he reiterated, “that there are many determinants of behavior other than the needs and desires.”

Self-transcendence: The forgotten level

That moves us nicely onto the biggest oversight in the popular portrayal of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s first heart attack had a profound impact on his outlook on life. As a result, Maslow spent the years of ill-health readdressing his original theories, a spell which he called his “post-mortem life.” Rather than constrict him, his closeness to death opened him up to the miraculous:

“One very important aspect of the post-mortem life is that everything gets doubly precious, and gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things-just the very act of living, of walking and breathing and eating and having friends and chatting. Everything seems to look more beautiful rather than less, and one gets the much-intensified sense of miracles.”

Maslow was puzzled by his enhanced awareness and life satisfaction, despite his ill health. He speculated that for some, the need for transcendent states of consciousness superseded even basic needs, such as possessions or safety. Furthermore, these states seemed to diminish ego-based needs, such as esteem and belonging.

During this time, Maslow stepped back from working publicly, but was furiously noting his ideas in his journal. He added a new level to the top of the pyramid: self-transcendence. Perhaps this level never got the recognition it deserved due to Maslow’s untimely death — most of his thoughts on the subject were posted from his journals after he died. But the importance of this level can’t be overlooked. He wrote:

“The goal of identity [self-actualization] seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. … If our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, … then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification.”

Testing Maslow’s theory and the big misconceptions

The lack of including self-transcendence isn’t the only oversight in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Incredibly, despite the popularity of the pyramid structure, there’s little evidence Maslow himself saw his model fitting this structure. 

Maslow pointed out that the levels don’t work in a simple way of moving from one to the other, and that multiple levels may be focused on at a time, someone may move between levels, or even prioritize different levels at different times, regardless of the hierarchy. 

His 1943 paper anticipated these criticisms, claiming they would give an inaccurate view of his ideas. As someone who has learned a lot from Maslow’s work, I find it disheartening that his body of work is often criticized based on a false assumption. More recently, there seems to be a trend in dissecting the hierarchy of needs in an attempt to dismiss Maslow’s view, with the model even being removed from certain textbooks.

“It’s described as ‘Maslow’s pyramid’ when he did not create it and it’s just not a good representation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It perpetuates unfair criticisms of the theory,” the authors of a study into the origin of the pyramid, told Scientific American. Having dived deep into Maslow’s work, the authors recommend a ladder acts as a more accurate visualization of Maslow’s original intention.

“The pyramid is shown with horizontal lines demarcating the different levels,” they add. “This makes it difficult to imagine a person simultaneously being affected by different needs. When one is on a ladder, multiple rungs are occupied by the feet and hands. Other rungs may be leaned on as well. Also, a ladder does a better job of conveying Maslow’s idea that people can move up and down the hierarchy.”

In conclusion

Considering the popularity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s surprising how misunderstood the pioneering psychologist’s original theories are. Hopefully, having read through common misconceptions and overlooked explanations, the model is clearer. The next question is: how do you apply this to your self-development?

The biggest takeaway is self-awareness. It can be incredibly difficult to understand our own intrinsic motivations, and by understanding Maslow’s pyramid, you can gain insight into your personal motivations. Not as a rigid checklist, but as a pointer. What areas of life are your basic needs not met? Are there deficiencies in your sense of belonging or are you craving growth and fulfillment?

Through the path of self-awareness, understanding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also gives an insight into our own tendencies. Personally, I notice that sometimes my creative expression becomes more important than love and belonging — in other words, I become less social when I am engrossed in a big creative project.

Equally, there are times where, if I neglect my need for love, I start to feel dissatisfied or disconnected from my surroundings. Or if my basic needs are threatened, my heart closes, and I tend to become frustrated or more reactive. This then becomes a nice bridge to self-compassion: I may notice, ah, my sense of security is threatened, and that’s why I’m feeling this way.

More than anything, this model offers a movement of energy and desire that shows the importance of growth and self-actualization. If you’re on the committed path of self-development, you can use this as inspiration. If you feel there are areas where you’re not able to fully express your potential, then it makes sense to address lower-level needs, and see if this is a sticking point.

And as a final takeaway, it’s worth reaffirming Maslow’s mindset and approach to his life’s work. He deeply believed in humanity’s innate capacity for love and creativity and was optimistic that each of us has infinite potential. Perhaps if there’s any message Maslow would’ve liked his work to convey, it would be this: believe in yourself, truly and deeply, for you are more powerful than you could ever imagine.

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