(Last updated on: 24/02/2022)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a core component on many curriculums around the world. A psychological theory focussing on motivation, it helps us to understand concepts in many different disciplines- from international development to education to travel and tourism!
If you are reading this article it is probably because you are studying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as part of an educational course. And I am guessing that you want a SIMPLE explanation about what is it and how it works? Well, luckily you have come to the right place! By the time you reach the end of this article you will feel much more confident about Maslow’s theory.
What are you waiting for? Keep scrolling…
- Who was Abraham Maslow?
- What is the Hierarchy of Needs theory?
- The importance of Maslow’s theory
- What are the five levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
- The expanded Hierarchy of Needs
- Advantages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- Criticisms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs example: Travel and tourism
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Further reading
Who was Abraham Maslow?
Before we get into the nitty gritty details about what this theory is, let me first introduce you to the infamous Abraham Maslow.
Maslow has become a household name amongst students around the world. We all know that he created a pyramid, right? (if you don’t, you will do by the end of this article!). But how many people actually know who Maslow was?
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist and philosopher. He was born in New York in 1908 and died in California in 1970.
Maslow was an academic. He first studied at the University of Wisconsin and by 1951 he was the head of the psychology department at Brandeis University.
Abraham Maslow was an important contributor in the USA to humanistic psychology, also known as the ‘third force’.
Maslow had two major publications, which continue to be widely cited today. These were Motivation and Personality (1954) and Toward a Psychology of Being (1962).
Learn more: Meet Maslow: How Understanding the Priorities of Those Around Us Can Lead to Harmony and Improvement is a brilliant book that is available FREE on Kindle.
What is the Hierarchy of Needs theory?
Much of Maslow’s work centred around the underlying principles of his Hierarchy of Needs theory.
Having studied human behaviour for several decades, Maslow felt that the theories at the time did not adequately address the complexities of human behaviour. In attempt to address this, Maslow presented a paper in 1943 entitled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. In his presentation he proposed that all human activity is directed towards goal attainment.
In other words, Maslow argued that everything we do has a goal or a reason. We go to a bar to quench our thirst or to satisfy a need for human interaction (or both). We go to work to be able to pay our bills and put food on the table. We travel for enjoyment and relaxation. There is a reason or a goal for everything that we do. We are motivated to do something for a reason.
Maslow wanted to portray his ideas in a way that was easy to understand and apply to different contexts and scenarios. He did this by creating a hierarchy. He suggested that our goals in life begin with our basic needs (eating, shelter, rest etc). Once these needs are met we set new attainment goals. And once those are met we set more. He proposed that there are five levels of needs.
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The importance of Maslow’s theory
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an important theory, not only in psychology, but in many different industries.
Maslow’s theory helps us to understand people’s behaviours. It can be applied to any number of situations and circumstances. Examples include:
- Enhancing employee satisfaction and output
- Managing poor behaviour (at school, for example)
- Understanding what types of holidays might sell best
- Understanding customer loyalty
- Designing training programmes
Contextualisation can often be the most difficult part about understanding and utilising Maslow’s theory. But actually, it’s not as hard as you might think.
In the most basic sense, Maslow’s pyramid demonstrates that in order to be truly motivated, a person must meet all of the needs levels in the hierarchy.
So, lets say you are working for a tour operator, for example. The tour operator is the person who designs holiday packages. When they are doing this, they need to make sure that tourists will be able to meet all of the needs levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. The holiday needs to include a place to rest, eat and drink (physiological needs). It needs to be in a safe location (safety needs). It needs to offer a welcoming environment with good customer service (belonging and love needs). And it needs to provide opportunities for respect and self-esteem (esteem needs). Only a holiday that offers all of this (and demonstrates this to the tourist when they are shopping for holidays!) will sell well.
Lets take another example. A student is misbehaving at school and is not doing his work as requested by the teacher. The teacher wants to find out what is causing the problem so that she can attempt to fix it. The answer is not put the child in detention. But instead the teacher should speak with the child. The teacher can use Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy as a guide. Maybe the child is not eating properly. This would identify that the first level of needs is not met. Or perhaps the child is suffering from domestic abuse at home. This would mean that the second level in the hierarchy is not met. If a need is not met then the child will not be motivated.
Are you looking for a funny gift? This ‘Maslow mug‘ would make a brilliant secret Santa gift!
Can you see now that Maslow’s theory does have real-world value? It’s certainly not perfect- I will discuss criticisms of the theory later on in this article. BUT Maslow’s theory has been proven to help many business, organisations and individuals over the years.
Maslow’s theory is important because it helps us to understand human behaviour. And when we understand a situation, we can better manage that. This could mean making more money by selling more holidays or it could mean achieving better student outcomes by managing poor behaviour. The possibilities are endless…
What are the five levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
OK, so lets keep this simple.
Imagine you are climbing a mountain. You need food to give you the energy to climb. You need rest. You need warm clothes to protect yourself from the cold. Those things are non-negotiable. If you don’t have those things you will die. They are the physiological needs.
Once you have these things you will worry about whether you are physically safe on the mountain. Is your mental health ok? Are you in control of the situation? Do you have enough money to reach the top? These are safety needs.
Once you feel safe and secure you may long for a sense of love and belonging. This is when you may bond with your fellow climbers. You develop a trust with them and form relationships.
As you near the top of the mountain you gain confidence. You develop a sense of mastery and respect from your peers. You also respect yourself and develop self-esteem.
And at the very top of the mountain you reach the summit. This is the ultimate goal. This is when you achieve self-actualisation. You have autonomy, you are spontaneous and you have developed and grown on a personal level.
OK, so does that make a bit more sense now? I hope so!
Now, lets dig a bit deeper and look a bit more into each of the five stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs….
Deficiency and growth needs
OK, so we have established that there are five needs in Maslow’s pyramid. These five needs are split into two categories: deficiency needs and growth needs.
The first four levels (physiological, safety, love and belonging and esteem) are deficiency needs, also referred to as D needs.
Deficiency needs occur when we are deprived of something. When we are deprived of, say food and water, we are natural very motivated to fulfil that need, i.e. have something to eat and drink. These motivations become stronger over time- the longer we don’t eat for, the more we want food. Simple, right?
Growth needs are identified at the top of the pyramid. You may also see this level referred to as being needs or B needs. Once we have eliminated any deficiencies and satisfied the first four needs, we develop a desire to satisfy our growth needs in order to reach self-actualisation.
OK, lets make this a little bit clearer. Below I will explain to you exactly what is meant by each ‘need’.
At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are basic physiological needs. These are the things that we need to survive. If we don’t have enough money to eat, then having the latest Playstation game becomes a non-issue.
Physiological needs are needs that must be met to sustain life and to protect the human race (i.e. having babies). Some examples of aspects that are classified as physiological in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs include:
The second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is safety. This is also a basic need.
Once we have satisfied the needs of the first level (i.e. we are not hungry, we are warm etc), then we become more concerned with safety aspects.
In today’s world, safety largely revolves around health and economics. Important things might include health insurance, having savings, living in a safe area etc. We can summarise this into three main areas:
- Financial security
- Heath and wellbeing
- Safety against accidents and injury
Love and belonging
Love and belonging is the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This tier describes the social needs that a person has.
Social needs covers anything that involves the concepts of love, acceptance and belonging. Human beings need social interaction and there are a range of ways that this can be achieved, including:
- Romantic relationships
- Social groups
- Educational groups
- Work groups and colleagues
- Community groups
- Churches and religious organisations
The forth level of Maslow’s pyramid is all about appreciation and respect.
Once the previous three levels have been met, we begin to focus our attentions on our esteem levels. At this level we want to have some recognition for our accomplishments. The two areas that are covered at this level include:
- Personal worth
As humans, we desire a sense of value from others, whether this is from our friends, our colleagues, our family or anyone else with whom we have social interaction.
This can take many forms. It could be being awarded an ’employee of the month’ award, being a key player in a sports match or getting 1000 likes on your latest Instagram post!
People who lack self-esteem can have experience feelings of anxiety and inferiority. As a result, they will not achieve self-actualisation- the highest point in Maslow’s pyramid.
Learn more: An Analysis of Abraham H. Maslow’s A Theory of Human Motivation provides an in-depth critical analysis of Maslow’s theory. It’s perfect for students!
Maslow claimed that ‘what a man can be, he must be’. In other words, when you reach the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs you have become the best version of you. You do the best job that you can and live your best life. BUT this is only achievable IF all of the needs lower down on the pyramid have been met.
Maslow described that self-actualisation is not a ‘stick term’. You don’t reach the top of the mountain and then just sit there looking at the view. A person is always growing and developing. In self-actualisation, a person comes to find a meaning to life that is important to them.
Because everyone is different, self-actualisation looks different in different people. For one person it could be being the perfect mother. For another person it could be being a successful athlete. For another person it could be joining the Peace Corps.
Self-actualisation is difficult to determine from the outside, because nobody truly knows what is going on in other person head and whether they are wholly satisfied or not.
The expanded Hierarchy of Needs
Just as you thought you were finally starting to understand Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he goes and adds another two levels! Go figure, huh?
In the 1960s and 1970s Maslow recognised that his model didn’t account for some aspects of human behaviour and motivation. He subsequently added a further three levels: Cognitive needs, aesthetic needs and transcendence.
Cognitive needs represents the lower levels of the growth needs.
Maslow recognised that as humans we are curious and we have a desire to learn. Whether this takes place in a classroom or through versions of experiential learning, in order to reach self-actualisation we need to satisfy our cognitive needs.
Cognitive needs include:
- Knowledge and understanding
- Need for meaning and predictability
Aesthetic needs represents our desire for beauty and balance. We want some order to the chaos in our lives. We could achieve this, for example, through going to a yoga class or by having a garden filled with flowers to sit in.
We can achieve our aesthetic needs through:
In Maslow’s original hierarchy, it ends with actualisation of the self. In his expanded version, however, the upper level of the pyramid is about transcending beyond ourselves. This could occur through mystical or religious experiences, doing good for others (i.e. volunteering) or through certain experiences with nature.
Transcendence experiences can be summarised as:
- Mystical experiences
- Experiences with nature
- Aesthetic experiences
- Sexual experiences
- Service to others
- The pursuit of science
- Religious faith
Advantages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is great.
Maslow has provided us with a useful tool that can help us to understand human behaviour. Whether your goal is to achieve better grades from your students at school, to motivate your staff to be more productive or to sell more products, Maslow’s theory can help.
Criticisms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
As with any academic theory, there are criticisms. Academics love to tear each other’s work apart. And actually this is a good thing. It is because we have such high levels of analysis and critique in our academic community that the work has such strong rigour and is so well valued.
For Maslow, the main criticisms of his work are:
- Needs are not always hierarchical
- The theory is too rigid/not flexible
- It has elitist, classist implications
- The scientific evidence is questionable
Maslow suggests that in order to reach self-actualisation, a person must satisfy each need in his pyramid in the correct order. However, needs are not always hierarchical!
For example, we can love our family members or our significant other (level 3) but still be hungry (level 1). Parents, for example, may choose to feed their children before themselves, thus putting love above their own physiological well-being.
Another example could be which job to accept. A person may choose to accept a lower-paying job because it offers more enjoyment than the higher-paying job. This is human nature, but defies the hierarchical structure of Maslow’s theory.
The reality is, that if we take emotion out of the equation, we would most likely be agreeable to the hierarchical nature of Maslow’s theory. But in reality, life does not always follow a strict order in this way.
Fun fact: Abraham Maslow did not present his theory of motivation as a pyramid! It was portrayed this way by others AFTER he constructed the theory.
One of the biggest criticisms of Maslow’s theory is that his study was based on the imperialist elite- white, Western, successful men.
Anyone who understands basic research methodologies will know that this is not a representative sample and that it therefore cannot be fairly applied to all people in all situations around the world.
Maslow’s theory implies that people who are poor and who don’t have adequate access to food and housing don’t care as much about belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualisation as people who have steady homes and access to food. This is, obviously, not true at all.
For many people, particularly academics, the main criticism of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is that the scientific evidence is questionable.
There are questions surrounding ethnocentricism and subjectivity, suggesting that the results could be subject to researcher bias. The research is made up of a lot of personal opinion, for example- is x person or y person ‘self-actualised’? Maslow made this call himself. And personal opinion is always subject to bias.
As I mentioned earlier, there are also concerns regarding his sample. His sample is not representative of ‘society’, yet the aim of the theory is to apply to concept in societal situations. Maslow’s sample was small, consisting of prestigious figures, such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, William James, Aldous Huxley and Beethoven. Whilst he did also include the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa in his study, there was very little female representation.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs example: Travel and tourism
OK so we now understand how Maslow’s theory works. Now what?
One of the things that many people find difficult is the application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to specific situations.
Maslow provides a very generic description of each level that can easily be applied to a wide range of contexts. This is why his theory has become so famous and is taught in a wide variety of subjects and disciplines all over the world!
I will give you one example to demonstrate how this can be done. Lets look at the motivation to go on holiday.
The basic needs identified in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can largely be met through the facilities on offer in the holiday destination.
If the destination does not offer appropriate accommodation and food and drink outlets then we will not go on holiday there. End of the story.
Economics and politics
When choosing a holiday destination we must fulfil our safety needs. Two major questions that we are likely to ask are:
Can I afford to travel here?
Is the destination safe to travel to?
We can only travel to places when we have the money to do so. And we do not want to travel to places that may be unsafe. Recent terrorist attacks, natural disasters, disease or political unrest are all factors that put tourists off travelling to an area because they deem it to be unsafe.
We don’t always need or want to travel with another person/people. However, we will require some form of love and belonging. This could be knowing that we will make friends along the way or be safe in the knowledge that we have a caring community at home.
This also includes people at the local destination. We want to be welcomed. If the host population are hostile towards tourists (this is an example of a negative social impact of tourism), them we will not be motivated to visit.
Different tourists want different things from their holidays. They may be seeking ultimate relaxation or they may be an adrenaline-seeker, from example. Whatever it is that the tourists is in search for, they want to feel that they are fulfilled and content.
The ultimate aim is to feel wholly satisfied. To achieve self-actualisation. This will only occur if all other needs are met. The holiday is perfect for that specific individual.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Further reading
If you are studying Maslow’s theory as part of an academic course or you are planning on using it for your workplace operations, I suggest that you do a little but more reading.
Whilst I have provided you with a simple overview here, there is much more to learn!
Here are my recommended texts: