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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a theory in psychology that Abraham Maslow proposed in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation, which he subsequently extended. His theory contends that as humans meet 'basic needs', they seek to satisfy successively 'higher needs' that occupy a set hierarchy. Maslow studied exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that "the study of crippled, stunted, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." (Motivation and Personality, 1987)

This diagram shows Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more primitive needs at the bottom.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: the four lower levels are grouped together as deficiency needs associated with physiological needs, while the top level is termed growth needs associated with psychological needs. While deficiency needs must be met, growth needs are continually shaping behavior. The basic concept is that the higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus once all the needs that are lower down in the pyramid are mainly or entirely satisfied. Growth forces create upward movement in the hierarchy, whereas regressive forces push prepotent needs further down the hierarchy.

Deficiency needs

The deficiency needs (also termed 'D-needs' by Maslow) are:

Physiological needs

The physiological needs of the organism, those enabling homeostasis, take first precedence. These consist mainly of:

  • the need to breathe
  • the need to regulate homeostasis
  • the need to eat
  • the need to dispose of bodily wastes

If some needs are unmet, a human's physiological needs take the highest priority. As a result of the prepotency of physiological needs, an individual will deprioritize all other desires and capacities. Physiological needs can control thoughts and behaviors, and can cause people to feel sickness, pain, and discomfort.

Maslow also places sexual activity in this category, as well as bodily comfort, activity, exercise, etc. While several of these activities are important, many are not essential to survive.

Safety needs

When physiological needs are met, the need for safety will emerge. Safety and security rank above all other desires. These include:

  • Physical security - safety from violence, delinquency, aggressions
  • Security of employment
  • Security of revenues and resources
  • Moral and physiological security
  • Familial security
  • Security of health
  • Security of personal property against crime

A properly-functioning society tends to provide a degree of security to its members. Sometimes the desire for safety outweighs the requirement to satisfy physiological needs completely.

Love/Belonging needs

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

Humans generally need to feel belonging and acceptance, whether it comes from a large social group (clubs, office culture, religious groups, professional organizations, sports teams, gangs) or small social connections (family members, intimate partners, mentors, close colleagues, confidants). 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. A lack of love and belonging is also beginning to be associated with physical illnesses such as heart disease (external source: heart disease).

Esteem needs

According to Maslow, all humans have a need to be respected, to have self-respect, and to respect others. People need to engage themselves in order to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution and self-value, be it in a profession or hobby. Imbalances at this level can result in low self-esteem, inferiority complexes, or an inflated sense of self-importance. There are two levels to Esteem needs. The lower of the levels relates to elements like fame, respect, and glory. The higher level is contingent to concepts like confidence, competence, and achievement. The lower level is generally considered poor. It is dependent upon other people, or someone who needs to be reassured because of lower esteem. People with low esteem need respect from others. They may seek fame or glory, which again are dependent on others. However confidence, competence and achievement only need one person and everyone else is inconsequential to one's own success.

Growth needs

Though the deficiency needs may be seen as "basic", and can be met and neutralized (i.e. they stop being motivators in one's life), self-actualization and transcendence are "being" or "growth needs" (also termed "B-needs"), i.e. they are enduring motivations or drivers of behaviour.


Self-actualization (a term originated by Kurt Goldstein) is the instinctual need of humans to make the most of their unique abilities and to strive to be the best they can be. Maslow describes self-actualization as follows:

Self Actualization is the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is. (Psychological Review, 1949)

Maslow writes the following of self-actualizing people:

  • They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
  • They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions.
  • They are creative.
  • They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives.
  • They feel a closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
  • They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority.
  • They judge others without prejudice, in a way that can be termed objective.

In short, self-actualization is reaching one's fullest potential.


At the top of the triangle, self-transcendence is also sometimes referred to as spiritual needs.

Viktor Frankl expresses the relationship between self-actualization and self-transcendence in Man's Search for Meaning. He writes:

The true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.... Human experience is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all, for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it.... In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence. (p.175)

Maslow believes that we should study and cultivate peak experiences as a way of providing a route to achieve personal growth, integration, and fulfillment. Peak experiences are unifying, and ego-transcending, bringing a sense of purpose to the individual and a sense of integration. Individuals most likely to have peak experiences are self-actualized, mature, healthy, and self-fulfilled. All individuals are capable of peak experiences. Those who do not have them somehow depress or deny them.

Maslow originally found the occurrence of peak experiences in individuals who were self-actualized, but later found that peak experiences happened to non-actualizers as well but not as often. In his The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York, 1971) he writes:

I have recently found it more and more useful to differentiate between two kinds of self-actualizing people, those who were clearly healthy, but with little or no experiences of transcendence, and those in whom transcendent experiencing was important and even central … It is unfortunate that I can no longer be theoretically neat at this level. I find not only self-actualizing persons who transcend, but also nonhealthy people, non-self-actualizers who have important transcendent experiences. It seems to me that I have found some degree of transcendence in many people other than self-actualizing ones as I have defined this term …

Ken Wilber, a theorist and integral psychologist who was highly influenced by Maslow, later argued that a peak experience could occur at any stage of development and that "the way in which those states or realms are experienced and interpreted depends to some degree on the stage of development of the person having the peak experience." Wilber is in agreement with Maslow about the positive values of peak experiences saying, "In order for higher development to occur, those temporary states must become permanent traits." Wilber was, in his early career, a leader in Transpersonal psychology, a distinct school of psychology that is interested in studying human experiences which transcend the traditional boundaries of the ego.

In 1969, Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof and Anthony Sutich were the initiators behind the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology


While Maslow's theory was regarded as an improvement over previous theories of personality and motivation, it has its detractors. For example, in their extensive review of research that is dependent on Maslow's theory, Wahba and Bridwell (1976) found little evidence for the ranking of needs that Maslow described, or even for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all. For example, less individualistic forms of society than described by Maslow in this theory, might value their social relationships (e.g. family, clan or group) higher than their own physiological needs.

The concept of self-actualization is considered vague and psychobabble by some behaviourist psychologists. The concept is based on an Aristotelian notion of human nature that assumes we have an optimum role or purpose.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Self actualization is a difficult construct for researchers to operationalize, and this in turn makes it difficult to test Maslow's theory. Even if self-actualization is a useful concept, there is no proof that every individual has this capacity or even the goal to achieve it.

Other counterpositions suggest that not everyone ultimately seeks the self-actualization that a strict (and possibly naive) reading of Maslow's hierarchy of needs appears to imply:

One could counter this argument by citing these as examples of ways people self-actualize. Hence, the ambiguity of the term.

Transcendence has been discounted by secular psychologists because they feel it belongs to the domain of religious belief. But Maslow himself believed that science and religion were both too narrowly conceived, too dichotomized, and too separated from each other. Non-peakers, as he would call them, characteristically think in logical, rational terms and look down on extreme spirituality as "insanity" (p. 22) because it entails a loss of control and deviation from what is socially acceptable. They may even try to avoid such experiences because they are not materially productive—they "earn no money, bake no bread, and chop no wood" (p. 23). Other non-peakers have the problem of immaturity in spiritual matters, and hence tend to view holy rituals and events in their most crude, external form, not appreciating them for any underlying spiritual implications. Maslow despised such people because they form a sort of idolatry that hinders religions (p. 24). This creates a divide in every religion and social institution. (Maslow. "The 'Core-Religious' or 'Transcendent,' Experience.") It is important to note, however, that Maslow considered himself to be an atheist--thus, by his conceptualization of transcendence, any individual can have such experiences (Hoffman, E. 1999. The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow).

Edwin C. Nevis, President and founder of the Gestalt International Study Center and author of five books including Organizational consulting: A Gestalt Approach and Intentional Revolutions: A Seven-Point Strategy for Transforming Organizations, worked in the MIT Sloan School of Management for seventeen years. While teaching organization psychology in a management program in Shanghai, China in 1981, he observed individuals there and found that their hierarchy of needs differed from Maslow’s Pyramid of Human Needs. Thus he formulated the Chinese hierarchy, showing the cultural relativity of the Maslow framework based on American culture and suggesting different need hierarchies for different cultures classified according to an individualism-collectivism dimension and an ego-social dimension.

Nevis’ Hierarchy of Human Needs By comparing cultural assumptions underlying Chinese management practices with those underlying American ones, Nevis constructed a Chinese hierarchy of needs:


In Mao’s era (1893-1976), national unity and loyalty were not compromised in China. All farms were communal and no individual farming was allowed; industry was state-owned and operated; revolutionary pattern was recycled to attack societal classes taking form and keep China as classless as possible; lack of color in clothing was a hint of desensualization; groups were extensively used to control political, factory and commune work. Their group-oriented life style was also marked in the social life which centered on work unit activities and coworker lives as they all lived in the same apartment buildings. Once a Chinese individual belonged to a work unit, “iron rice bowl”, like “golden handcuffs” in the U.S., was guaranteed with many basic needs cared for by the work unit and the government, such as housing, education and medical care. This juxtaposition of belongingness and the satisfaction of the physical rewards resulted in the Chinese basic assumption of collectivism that being a good member of society and putting group goals before individual needs should govern all practices. Some other assumptions were national loyalty, equal pay and equal bonus regardless of skill or output differences, avoidance of personal credit for accomplishment, importance of communal property, and emphasis on group forces for motivation. On the contrary, Maslow’s formulation was clearly made from basic American cultural assumptions stressing self-concept of individuals and individual achievement.

Moreover, ego needs and needs for self-actualization were not highly valued in Chinese culture in the way that Americans held it. Many Western observers noted the embarrassment of Chinese people at being singled out for individual achievements, and the fear being seen as special, or having more than the neighbors. Judging by his survey results from Chinese workers and graduate students, Nevis found that although social needs predominated over individual needs in China, what was worth speculating was that the difference between workers’ and graduate students’ survey ranks indicated that ego or self-esteem, which was missing in the Chinese hierarchy and defined through items like “interesting job” and “full appreciation for work done”, might emerge as a new level in the new generation of Chinese with the opening up of individual freedom in the country. Although actualization remained at the top of both hierarchies, to call the highest Chinese order of need “social confluence” might be more appropriate since self-actualization was understandable only in terms of contribution to society. However, American people perceive self-esteem needs as a driving force, and symbols of achievement as rewards for successful self-actualization.


Nevis, Edwin C. 1983. Using an American perspective in understanding another Culture: Toward a hierarchy of needs for the People's Republic of China. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 19(3): 249-264.

The Gestalt International Study Center.

See also


  • Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
  • Maslow, A. H. (1965). Eupsychian Management. Note that the Andy Kay featured in this book is the Andy Kay of Kaypro. Hardcover ISBN 0-87094-056-2, Paperback ISBN 0-256-00353-X.
  • Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and Personality, 2nd. ed., New York, Harper & Row. ISNB 0060419873.
  • Wahba, M. A., Bridwell, L. G. (1976). Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 15, 212-240.
  • Frankl, V. (1946). Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

External links

Types of Motivation
Intrinsic motivation | Extrinsic motivation | Physiological motivation  | Safety and motivation | Love and motivation | Esteem and motivation | Self-actualization and motivation |Self esteem and motivation | Incentives | [[]] | [[]] | |[[]] |[[]] | [[]] |[[]] |[[]] | [[]] | [[]] |[[]] |[[]] |
Aspects of motivation
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Motivation theory
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Neuroanatomy of motivation
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