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Hierarchy of Needs

Updated: 10 December 2014

The original version of the Hierarchy of Needs was published by Abraham Maslow in 1943. He believed that people seek fulfilment and change through personal growth. He studied the healthy personality. Unlike Sigmund Freud, he was not interested in the sick mind but in the fulfilment of human potential. He characterised the human condition as one of ‘wanting’ – meaning we are always seeking and desiring something. Maslow conceptualised these wantings or needs into a hierarchy.

The Hierarchy is predetermined in order of importance. It is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of 5 levels. The lower four layers of the pyramid are what Maslow called ‘deficiency needs’ or ‘D-needs’. With the exception of the lowest needs - physiological ones - if the deficiency needs are not met, the body gives no indication of it physically but the individual feels anxious and tense. These deficiency needs are: Physiological, Safety & Security, Love & Belonging, and Esteem.

Deficiency needs must be met first. Once these are met, seeking to satisfy growth needs drives personal growth and Self-Actualisation.

Graphic by J Finkelstein

Physiological needs, deriving from biology, include:

Safety needs

With their physical needs relatively satisfied, the individual's safety needs take over and dominate their

An important Maslowian principle is that once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level will no longer be prioritised. If a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will temporarily re-prioritise those needs by focusing attention on the unfulfilled needs but will not permanently regress to the lower level. For instance, a business person at the Esteem level, who is diagnosed with cancer will spend a great deal of time concentrating on his health (physiological needs), but will continue to value his work performance (esteem needs) and will likely return to work during periods of remission.

behaviour. These needs have to do with people's yearning for a predictable, orderly world in which injustice and inconsistency are under control, the familiar frequent and the unfamiliar rare. In the world of work, these safety needs manifest themselves in such things as a preference for job security, grievance procedures for protecting the individual from unilateral authority, etc. In the domestic context, this need is served by savings accounts, insurance policies, etc, etc.

Safety & Security needs include:

Social needs

After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third layer of human needs is social. This psychological aspect of Maslow's hierarchy involves emotionally-based relationships in general, such as:

Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group, such as clubs, office culture, religious groups, professional organisations, sports teams, gangs (‘safety in numbers’), or small social connections (family members, intimate partners, mentors, close colleagues, confidantes, etc). They need to love and be loved (sexually and non-sexually) by others. In the absence of these elements, many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and Depression. This need for belonging can often overcome the physiological and security needs, depending on the strength of the peer pressure. Eg: people will sometimes indulge in risky, even life-threatening behaviour just to be part of a group to which they feel they have to belong.

Esteem needs

All humans have a need to be respected, to have self-esteem, self-respect, and to respect others. People need to engage themselves to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution, to feel accepted and self-valued, be it in a profession or hobby. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. People with low self-esteem need respect from others. They may seek fame or glory, which again depends on others. It may be noted, however, that many people with low self-esteem will not be able to improve their view of themselves simply by receiving fame, respect, and glory externally, but must first accept themselves internally. Psychological imbalances such as Depression can also prevent someone from obtaining self-esteem on both levels.


The motivation to realise one's own maximum potential and possibilities is considered to be the master motive or the only real motive, all other motives being its various forms. In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the need for Self-Actualisation is the final need that manifests when lower level needs have been satisfied.

                                                                                                  The revised Hierarchy of Needs

Throughout his work in the 1950s and 1960s Maslow explored aspects of Self-Actualisation, growth needs or ‘being needs’ (‘B-needs’). By 1956 he was writing definitively of Self-Actualisation as being a way of thinking - a move beyond ‘maximum potential and possibilities’.

In 1970 he formally revised the Hierarchy, splitting off 2 lower-level ‘growth needs’ prior to the general level of Self-Actualisation. Thus, he effectively created 3 categories of need:-

The growth needs are:-

Graphic copyright © 1997, 1999 Bill Huitt

Cognitive needs

These are concerned with knowing, understanding and exploring.

Aesthetic needs

This is the desire to appreciate symmetry, beauty and order.

In his last work, published posthumously in 1971, Maslow, who had become involved in the development of Transpersonal Psychology, proposed that some self-actualisers were able to transcend their own self and experience something beyond – effectively creating two qualities of Self-Actualisation – the higher level he dubbed ‘Self-Transcendence’.


"[Transcenders] may be said to be much more often aware of the realm of Being (B-realm and B-cognition), to be living at the level of Being… to have unitive consciousness and ‘plateau experience’ … and to have or to have had peak experience (mystic, sacral, ecstatic) with illuminations or insights. Analysis of reality or cognitions which changed their view of the world and of themselves, perhaps occasionally, perhaps as a usual thing.”

’The Further Reaches of Humanity’ (Maslow, 1971)

Clare W Graves, who originally tried to map his own research to the Hierarchy, claimed (1971/2002) to have influenced Maslow’s acceptance of there being something beyond Self-Actualisation.(Self-Actualisation corresponds to Graves’ G-T level while H-U is effectively Transcendence.)

Maslow did not explicitly state that Self-Transcendence is a level

on the Hierarchy; but his differentiation between self-actualisers and transcenders clearly implies it. Thus, Maslow, in the end, had an 8-level model and a number of psychologists and researchers in the Maslowian tradition - eg: Henry Gleitman, Alan Fridlund & Daniel Reisberg (1999) - have treated the Hierarchy as an 8-Level model.

                                                                                                        Criticisms and evaluation

Maslow's theory was regarded as a major improvement over previous theories of personality and motivation and it has been highly influential throughout much of the second half of the 20th Century. Particularly it has been applied to the field of Organisational Psychology in an attempt to understand what motivates people to work (apart from money) and what gives satisfaction at work. The Hierarchy of Needs is arguably the most used psychological model outside of academia, being used in counsellling, social work, business, marketing, etc, etc

Unfortunately most people working with the Hierarchy tend to use just the original 5-level version. The 1970 7-level version is often overlooked and Maslow’s concept of Transcendence is usually ignored except by those devoted to Maslow’s work and those interested in Spiral Dynamics and/or various schools of Transpersonal Psychology.

However, the theory has had its detractors. It is said to oversimplify human needs and behaviour. The 4 D-needs may not always have to be fully satisfied before someone is able to self-actualise. If this is so, then it raises queries about what level of satisfaction is needed before someone can move up to the next level. Also, what about the possibility someone may be satisfying different levels of need at the same time? Maslow (1970) did concede that not everybody will proceed up the Hierarchy in exactly the same way.

Maslow did not adopt a rigorous, scientific approach to developing his concepts but built his ideas from studying his mentor, Max Wertheimer, as the epitome of Self-Actualisation and then finding others - such as Albert Einstein - who seemed to possess similar qualities to Wertheimer.  He also studied historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Ludwig van Beethoven. He then considered the forces (D-needs) which would prevent Self-Actualisation.

In their extensive review of research related to Maslow's theory, A Wahba & L Bridgewell (1976) found little evidence for the ranking of needs Maslow described or even for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all. This view is supported by Chilean economist and philosopher Manfred Max Neef (1992) who has argued fundamental human needs are non-hierarchical, and are ontologically universal and invariant in nature - part of the condition of being human; poverty, he argues, is the result of any one of these needs being frustrated, denied or unfulfilled.However, Graves’ model, which has similar levels to Maslow and very much supports  the idea of a hierarchy, was grounded in nearly 30 years of near-continuous research. A number of other developmentalists – most notably Jane Loevinger (1976) -  have also come up with similar hierarchies of levels. (See Comparison Map.)

The Hierarchy of Needs has also been attacked as having cultural bias, representing white, middle class North American values - particulary those of Individualism (as opposed to Collectivism). However, John L Peterson at the Arlington Institute conducted around 10,000 assessments of the Hierarchy’s close cousin Spiral Dynamics across several different cultures and found “no significant variations” which would indicate the Spiral/Hierarchy concept does travel across cultures.

Maslow has also been criticised for concentrating on healthy people and not taking into account those with psychological disorders.However, since, unlike Sigmund Freud, Maslow was interested in mental health as opposed to mental illness, this is hardly surprising. Interestingly, Maslow’s approach to mental health has been taken up by the likes of Marie Jahoda (1958) in her concept of ‘Deviation from Ideal Mental Health’ as a way of defining abnormality.

Graves himself, by the time of his aborted book in 1978 - the book was completed by Chris Cowan & Natasha Todorovic and published in 2005 - had developed a number of criticisms of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Those criticisms are first and foremost reflected in simple fact of the differences in stages between the 2 models. Graves collapsed Maslow’s second (Safety) and third (Belonging) levels into his second (B-O) but expanded Maslow’s fourth (Cognitive) into his fourth (D-Q) and his fifth (E-R). Then there is the fact that Maslow simply identifies needs and the motivation to meet those needs, not the psychological means - vMEMES - to change and act so the needs can be met. Nor did Maslow capture the cyclical nature of the Spiral, cycling between self-expression (individualistic) and sacrifice self to conform (collectivistic). Since Graves did conduct extensive scientific research, where there are differences between Graves and Maslow, it is much more likely that Graves is correct.

Don Beck (2009) has been at pains to stress the criticality of the life conditions (internal or external) to the level of complexity of thinking activated or dominating. In other words, the context will influence the vMEMES (or levels of thinking) at work. So different levels will be prominent in different contexts. This concept at least partly negates the criticisms around hierarchy put forward by the likes of Neef and Wahba & Bridgewell.

The Hierarchy of Needs was very much Graves’ starting point and Maslow established many of the principles which are recognised in the Graves Model and

Spiral Dynamics. Maslow’s needs can be looked up on as driving vMEMES, relative to what the life conditions are.

This page is discussed in the Blog post ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy - How good is it?’.

Physiological needs

For the most part, physiological needs are obvious - they are the literal requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met (with the partial exception of sex), the human body simply cannot continue to function.

Abraham Maslow