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Maslow's hierarchy of needs

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was created by Abraham Maslow in 1943.[1] He wrote about this hierarchy in “A Theory of Human Motivation.”[1] In this paper, he says that there are five levels of needs that people have in their lives.

Hierarchy needs levels

A need is something that a person has to have to be healthy. If they do not have it then they are going to feel bad. These needs are organized into a hierarchy. This means that they are listed in order of how important they are. The first and most important level is Physiological needs. Physiological needs include things such as breathing, food, water, sex, and sleep. The second most important level of needs is Safety. Safety includes things such as feeling physically safe in your environment. It includes feeling healthy. It includes feeling that you have enough money and supplies to keep you alive and well. The third most important level of needs includes Love and Belonging. In this level, Maslow says that people need to feel love from their friends, families, and partners. Partners could include husbands, wives, girlfriends, or boyfriends. The fourth most important level of needs is Esteem. To have esteem, you need to be confident in yourself. Also you feel like others think that you are important. The fifth and last level of needs is called Self-Actualization. This level means that people need to feel like they are reaching their goals and becoming the person that they want to be.[1] If there is a level of the hierarchy that a person has not fulfilled, then finding something to fulfill that level is what they will want or desire. For instance, if someone does not have a home to live in (which would fall under the Safety level), but have things like food and water, then the most important thing that they would want is to find a home. They would think about this need before the need to find someone to marry, which would fall under the Love and Belonging level. The Safety level is more important on the hierarchy than the Love and Belonging level.[1] Maslow says that these needs cause us to want or desire certain things. However, he does say that these needs do not necessarily cause us to act in certain ways. He says that there are many other things that influence our behavior.[1] Just because we may want something, does not mean we will try to get it. There could be something else in the way that causes us to act differently.

Physiological level

The physiological level of Maslow's hierarchy includes basic human needs. These include water, breathing, food, and sleep. The physiological level contains the simplest needs. They are the most straightforward needs in the entire hierarchy. The human body tries to stay balanced inside. When a person is missing a physiological need, the body will naturally want the missing need. Humans are not fully aware of all of their physiological needs. But, we are very alert about some of our other physiological needs. Needs on the physiological level are the most important. If these needs are not met then it will be difficult to achieve higher level needs. Some people mistake other needs for physiological needs. For example, a person who is lonely may turn to food. They may believe that the food will fulfill their need for love. In simple creatures such as rodents, physiological needs may be the only needs that have to be met. However, in humans this is the only the base of the hierarchy. After physiological needs are met, there are four higher levels in the hierarchy.[1] People are often not aware when there physiological needs are being met. However, when these needs are not met it becomes very obvious. For example, most humans do not think about each inhale and exhale they take. This satisfies their need to breathe. However, if the oxygen supply were cut off, all people would immediately become aware of the need to breathe. Physiological needs are important from the time a person is born and throughout their entire life.[2]

Safety level

The safety level of Maslow's hierarchy includes varying levels of safety. These include safety of the self, family, resources, jobs, health, and life. Both children and adults are very aware of their safety needs. Needs of safety are just as important as physiological needs. However, these needs deal more with the mind. They include having a sense of safety in the world. Every person’s sense of safety is different depending where they live.[2] A child may have a physical illness that threatens their sense of safety. Therefore, they require the presence of a parent to take care of them. The parent must reassure them that they are safe. If parents have a negative relationship marked with fighting, then a child may have greater safety needs. They may be unsure of the world around them. Adults, much like children, prefer the world to be organized. This ensures a level of safety. However, some adults are too focused on organization. They may lose the ability to feel safe in uncertain situations. If an adult believes that the world is a dangerous place, then they will likely turn to another person. They think the other person can protect them and satisfy their safety needs. People may also attempt to control the world around them in all ways possible.[1] Adults may have their safety needs met in a different way than children. Adults can feel that the money they earn from their job allows them to feel safe. This is because there is no need for financial worry when earning a steady income.[2]

Love and belonging (social needs)

The love/belonging level of Maslow's hierarchy deals with various social needs. These include a need for friendship, family, and other types of group inclusion. Love/belonging also refers to personal relationships. These include romantic relationships. It is crucial that the physiological and safety needs of a person are met first. Then they can develop needs of love and belonging. Once basic needs are met, then a person can focus on their social needs. These needs change throughout the human lifespan. As a young child, love and belonging most likely come from the family. However, as the child gets older these needs are met by groups of friends. Belonging to a group of people of their own age becomes more important. Belonging needs are directly related to self-esteem. When these needs are met, people feel better about themselves. However, if belonging needs are not met then a person may feel depressed.[2] The field of psychology focuses on this level of the hierarchy. In modern society many people suffer because their needs of love and belonging not met. Sex may or may not be part of this level of need. It can be considered necessary for love. Or it can be looked at as strictly physiological.[1]


The esteem level is about how people need to feel that they are important to the world. There are two parts of this. The first part is people feeling good and confident about themselves. People want to feel that they have accomplished things that are valuable and important. They also want to feel independent, meaning that they can do things for themselves and do not need to depend on anybody else.[1] The first part is all about how you feel about yourself, not what other people think about you. The second part is people feeling like other people accept them, value them, and appreciate them. People want to feel like other people are noticing the good things that they do.[1] The second part is not about how you feel about yourself, but how you think that other people feel about you. Both of these parts together create self-esteem and self-respect. If people do not get what they need out of this level, then they could have low self esteem and feel like they are not worth anything to the world. They could also feel weak and helpless. They might feel that they need to rely on other people to do everything that they need.[1]


A quote from Maslow that sums up the self-actualization level is, “What a man can be, he must be”.[1] This level is about a person realizing what goals they want to reach in their life. He says that we cannot be truly happy without becoming everything that we want to become.[1] People have different things that they might want in their life that go along with this level. Some of these things could be becoming a great basketball player, becoming a master at the piano, or being a great inventor. If someone’s life goal is to become a great basketball player, then becoming a great basketball player will fulfill their self-actualization needs.[1] These needs do not show themselves until all of the needs in the lower levels have been taken care of. For example, if a person is worrying about feeding themselves and needs to think about their physiological needs, then they will not be thinking about self-actualization and their life goals. Making sure they have food and a home is more important. Someone only reaches the self-actualization level once all the other levels are fulfilled.

Deficiency and growth needs

Deficiency needs deal with the bottom for levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. If these basic needs are not met then a person cannot move on to self-actualization. Mainly, because there are needs that are more important to people. For example, a child may come to school lacking lower level needs. Then, the child will have a hard time learning new material. A reason for this could be that the child is hungry. Or the child may feel neglected emotionally at home.[3] Growth needs are the opposite of deficiency needs. Growth needs take place at the highest levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. When growth needs are met, individuals want to continue achieving these needs. For example, when a child understands information that is taught in school they meet a growth need. The child feels accomplished. So, the child will seek to continue learning more about the subject to continue to meet the need to grow and learn.[3]


Maslow explains seven exceptions to the hierarchy. These are things that could make people feel these needs in a different order than he says, or not feel them at all.

One exception is that for some people, Self Esteem is more important than Love and Belonging. This is the switch that happens most often. This happens because some people think that having self-esteem makes you strong, powerful, and respected. They also think that other people are more likely to love someone that has those qualities. Therefore, Self Esteem and Love are switched because people think that it is important to have self-esteem if you want to be loved.[1]

The second exception that Maslow explains is people who are naturally very creative. Some people value creativity over everything else. Expressing your creativity would usually fall into the Self-Actualization level, which is the last level on the hierarchy. This means that all of the other basic needs should be met before people think about expressing their creativity. But for some people, creativity is very important and that is what they will desire, even if their needs on the lower level are not met.[1]

The third exception is for people who have lived their whole life worrying about needs at the lower levels. An example of this could be people that do not have a job for a very long time. If you spend most of your life without a job, then the main thing that you are going to be worried about is having enough food and shelter. If you spend enough time worrying about the lower levels on the hierarchy, then the higher levels (such as Esteem and Self-Actualization) will disappear. A person will be satisfied if they have enough food, and not feel a desire for things such as becoming a great basketball player (something found in the Self-Actualization level).[1]

The fourth exception is about people known as psychopaths. Maslow describes these psychopaths as people that were not given enough love when they were babies in the first few months of life. When this happens, a person could lose the desire for love altogether and not think that it is important anymore. Psychopaths cannot give or receive love and have lost the ability to feel it. For this type of people, the Love and Belonging level would not exist.[1]

The fifth exception to Maslow’s hierarchy is when people have not had to worry about a lower level need for a very long time and they eventually forget how important it is. For example, people who have always been able to feed themselves might not realize how important food actually is, because they have never had to worry about it. These people might think that levels such as Esteem are more important. Someone in this situation might give up their job to save their self-esteem. They might do this because they think that their boss doesn’t value or respect them as much as they should. This would hurt someone’s self-esteem. In this case, the person would be risking their lower levels needs (food, money, shelter) to save their higher level needs (self-esteem). Maslow predicts that after some time without the more basic need (the job), the person would reconsider and decide to go back to his job, even if it means that he loses his self-respect.[1]

The sixth exception explains why it might look like people are switching the order of the levels, when really they are not. Maslow says that you cannot tell what level a person is concerned with just by looking at their behavior. His hierarchy describes what people want and desire, not what they are actively trying to get. He also explains that his hierarchy only tells you that when a person has not fulfilled two or more of the levels (for instance Love and Belonging and Self Actualization), that person will want to fulfill the lower level need (Love and Belonging) before worrying about the higher level need (Self-Actualization). He says that just because they will want these things does not mean that they will actively try to get them, because there are many things that influence how a person behaves.[1]

The seventh and last exception that Maslow describes is how people who have been very satisfied in all of their needs for their whole lives can survive hardships such as disagreements or opposition later in their lives. These strong people are more concerned with morals, values, and what is right in the world and can go against what everybody else thinks. They will do this even if it means not being able to satisfy their lower level needs. They will give up all of their needs to fight for a cause that they think is important. Maslow says that the only people who can do this are ones that have had a lot of love and meaningful friendships in their lives.[1]


Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that all human behavior is motivated. However, this may not be true. Some human behavior may simply be reflexive. Maslow holds a biased opinion on the definition of self-actualization. Each individual may have a different opinion of what it means to self-actualize. Maslow believed that people who self-actualized had great characteristics. He believed these made them natural leaders and incredible people. This makes the goal of self-actualization nearly impossible for the average person. Maslow’s theory states that lower level needs must be met in order to meet needs in the higher levels. However, this is not always the case. It is possible for people who suffer from poverty and hunger to still feel love and belonging. Therefore, higher level needs can be met in some cases even if lower levels needs are neglected. Some theorists argue that the levels of the hierarchy are out of order in terms of necessity.[4] Some needs that are higher in the hierarchy may actually appear and become important early in an infant or child’s life. Maslow’s hierarchy is hard to prove scientifically. It cannot be proved false easily.[5] There may not be enough hard, scientific evidence to fully support Maslow’s hierarchy.[2]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 Maslow, A. H. (1943) A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, Vol 50, 370-396.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Poston, B. (2009). An exercise in personal exploration: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The Surgical Technologist, 347-353.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Martin, D. & Joomis, K. (2007). Building teachers. A Constructivist Approach to Introducing Education, 72–75.
  4. McLeod, S. A. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology.
  5. Burton, N. (2002) Hide and seek: Understanding self-deception, self-sabotage, and more. Psychology Today, 1-3.