Maslow is most known for his Hierarchy of Needs. This is a diagram shaped like a pyramid, which “basic needs” at the bottom and “self-actualization” needs at the top. Maslow believed that when the needs at the bottom of the pyramid have not been yet, our motivation goes toward these basic needs. Once those needs are fulfilled, we start to focus on the needs at the top of the pyramid.
Maslow was one of the first psychologists to contribute to Humanistic psychology, a “third wave” of psychology after psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Humanism takes a more positive approach to mental health than the first two. Rather than believing that we want to grow because we lack something, humanists believe that we want to grow because we are already fulfilled.
What Are the Hierarchy of Needs?
Let’s go over these needs, starting at the bottom of the pyramid. Maslow's Hierarchy of needs is psychological model that we use to understand the needs of human. At the bottom is biological needs like food and water, while purpose and fulfillment are at the top.
These are the needs that help us physically survive. It’s hard to focus on anything else when you are starving or dehydrated, like in the example I mentioned at the beginning of this video. That’s why these needs come first.
Physiological needs include things like:
- Sleep and rest
Safety and Security
Above these physical needs is another set of basic needs: safety and security. Back in more primitive days, this is why we formed tribes and small groups. Being part of these groups meant that we were protected from predators, warring tribes, and shortages of physiological needs. This is where the “us vs. them” mentality started.
These two sets of needs (physiological needs and safety) are considered our “basic needs.” Without them, we are likely anxious and concerned with nothing more than those needs. If you don’t feel safe in your home, you are probably not too bothered with your place in society or your greater purpose in the universe. You just want to feel safe in your home.
Let’s go back to the idea of a tribe. First and foremost, belonging to a tribe or a collection of people brought you things like food, shelter, and safety. But we still form groups today. We still have an “us vs. them” mentality today. Why?
Belonging to a group doesn’t always fulfill our basic needs anymore, but it does fulfill our basic psychological needs. Love and belonging is the third section of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and is the bottom level of psychological needs.
We want to feel loved and love other people. We want to feel like we belong to a group. Without these feelings of love and belonging, we become isolated. Social isolation isn’t just a problem because it prevents us from fulfilling “higher” needs. Research shows that social isolation and loneliness can have a serious effect on your physical and mental health. Who knew that joyous Thanksgiving dinners and lazy nights on the couch with your friends could actually be healthy for you?
It’s one thing to feel as though you belong to a group: your family, your country, etc. It’s another thing to feel as though the members of your group respect you and recognize you for your accomplishments. That is what the fourth level on the Hierarchy of Needs is all about: esteem.
Esteem is a collection of the way that we feel about ourselves and the way that others perceive us. It’s more than just acceptance into the group: it’s being valued in the group. Holding a leadership position could fulfill your esteem needs. A simple recognition from members of your group can fulfill your needs. Awards, words of affirmation, and responsibilities all fulfill these needs.
This set of needs is at the top of the pyramid. Self-actualization, self-fulfillment, and self-transcendence are their own category of needs. This is where we aim to be the best person that we can be. Once all of our other needs are fulfilled, we can start to focus on our self-actualization needs. We can fulfill these needs by indulging in creative projects, by setting big goals, or by going back to school.
What motivates you to take action?
You already know that the answer varies from day to day, moment to moment. Let’s say you’re on a road trip to see your family for a reunion. You’re excited to get to your destination, but along the way you become very hungry. Suddenly, all you are concerned with is finding the nearest fast-food place, even if it means going out of your way.
Once you’ve had dinner, it’s back to business as usual.
Why did your motivation change? Because you were hungry. We’ve all experienced something like this: your hunger, thirst, need to use the bathroom, or need to nap takes over everything else you had planned to do. Once these are fulfilled, you can focus on fulfilling larger needs.
A psychologist named Abraham Maslow took notice of this idea. In the 1940s, his ideas on motivation and mental health were revolutionary. He decided to look at the ways that people could fulfill their needs in order to reach higher goals.
Humanism helped many psychologists and therapists discover new ways of understanding a person’s motivations and helping them reach their overall goals. Its impact began with concepts like the Hierarchy of Needs.
Deficiency Needs vs. Growth Needs
Maslow has argued that any type of learning or growth can be done only when the lower four needs are satisfied. He separated the Hierarchy of Needs into two sections: deficiency needs and growth needs. Only self-actualization sits in the “growth needs” category.
Under the category of “deficiency needs” lies all of the other needs. Maslow believed that we fulfill these needs because we are lacking something. We aim to fulfill safety and security needs because we feel scared and lack safety. We eat because we are lacking nourishment. We join fraternities and clubs because we lack a sense of belonging.
On the other hand, we aim to fulfill growth needs because we want to grow. We aren’t missing anything from our lives. We just want to add to it. Satisfying deficiency needs is key to our growth.
Studies on Deficiency vs. Growth Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is used in personal development courses, business seminars, and basic psychology classes. But this pyramid doesn’t just apply to adults who want to grow and learn. By understanding the impact of deficiency needs, teachers can help their students learn more efficiently. If a child is lacking safety, a sense of belonging, or basic needs, they may not be able to learn as well as children who are more fulfilled.
Data backs this up. For example, a study from 2012 looked at childrens’ deficiency needs and compared it to their performance in school. They came to the conclusion that if a child had yet to fulfill their deficiency needs, they were less likely to excel.
What needs had the biggest impact? Health and dental care. If a child cannot satisfy these basic physiological needs, they may not be in the right headspace to learn and grow. Many argue that this is why children from lower-income households may fall short at school. It’s not because they’re not smart. It’s because their needs are not being met at home. Others argue that this is why school lunches should be free. By investing in children both in and out of school, we could help our children succeed and set all of us up for a better future.
These Needs Are Flexible, But Important to Remember
Remember, this is just a theory. History has shown us that it’s possible to grow while you feel hungry. It’s possible to work for someone else’s approval without feeling that you belong to anyone’s “group.” You don’t have to (and shouldn’t have to) check off every need below the needs you are trying to fulfill. After all, most goals can fulfill many levels of needs.
The right path for you will depend on who you are as a person, your situation, and your goals.