Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Explained

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If you have taken any psychology course, you have probably heard about Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” theory. Today, we will dive deeper into this concept, explain what it means and why it is important.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was a pioneer in the humanistic approach in psychology. Humanistic perspective proposes that people strive to reach their full potential if they are given the opportunity.  Humanistic psychologists saw people as inherently good and motivated to learn and improve. These notions of the humanistic approach are very important and related to Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs, because he sees the end goal of satisfying needs should be self-actualization. He stresses the role of psychology in enriching people’s lives and helping them achieve self-fulfilment (Feldman, 2019). Maslow believed that other perspectives in the field of psychology ignore a key human motive: our striving for personal growth.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory aims to explain human behaviour and motivations behind it. According to the humanistic approach and Maslow, people are motivated by more than biological and instinctual needs. However, Maslow states that before we reach a place where we satisfy higher needs, we need to satisfy our basic needs first. That is why Maslow created a hierarchy when he was classifying human needs. 

Let’s look at the image below. We see that Maslow uses a need hierarchy, in the shape of a pyramid, prioritizing some needs over others. At the bottom of the pyramid are deficiency needs and at the top are growth needs. The lower levels of needs should be satisfied before moving on to higher, more sophisticated needs. If situations change and lower-level needs are no longer met, we refocus our attention on them until they are satisfied.

Deficiency needs consist of physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, and esteem needs. Growth needs consist of self-actualization needs. 



Maslow classified deficiency needs as our basic needs as well as more sophisticated ones. These needs concerned with physical and social survival and are at the bottom of the pyramid. From the bottom to the top they are physiological needs, safety needs and love and belonging, and esteem needs. 


Our physiological needs are needs for water, food, sleep, sex, and the like. Those needs are the most basic and primary motivators of a person’s behaviour and need to be satisfied first.


After our basic physiological needs are satisfied, we climb to a higher need in the pyramid, which is our need for safety and security. Maslow suggests that people need a safe, secure environment in order to function effectively.


After safety needs, the need for love and belongingness is the next step in the hierarchy. Having a different approach than others before him, Maslow (1954) viewed belongingness as a basic psychological need. He said that “the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 497). Love and belonging needs contain the need for a healthy family relationship and friendship.  Caring for others and being cared for are also fall under this category.


After love and belonging needs come esteem needs in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Esteem needs refer to the need for recognition, approval, self-esteem and self-respect Human beings desire for these, and they are a step to achieving self-actualization. 



The last need, and According to Maslow what all of us should strive to achieve, is the self-actualization. Self-actualization refers to the impulse and desire to develop one’s potential to the fullest (Maslow,1954). Maslow proposed that each of us has an inborn force toward self-actualization. When the personality develops in a supportive environment, the positive inner nature of a person emerges. In contrast, misery and pathology occur when environments frustrate the tendency toward self-actualization.(???PASSERin, numarasına dikkat et)


Abraham Maslow became interested in people who were living unusually effective lives. He wanted to know what they are doing differently to achieve such results. He began by studying the lives of great men and women from history, then he moved on to directly study living artists, writers, poets, and other creative individuals. At first, he studied only people of obvious creativity or high achievement. However, it eventually became clear that everybody, a housewife, clerk, or a student could live a rich, creative, and satisfying life. Maslow referred to the process of fully developing personal potentials as self-actualization (Maslow, 1954). The heart of self-actualization is a continuous search for personal fulfillment (Ewen, 2003; Reiss & Havercamp, 2005).Remember the humanistic approach in psychology. Humanistic psychologists believe that people are innately good and are basically well-intentioned. They also believe that human beings naturally strive toward growth, love, creativity, and self-actualization (Plante, 2010). Maslow, being a humanistic psychologist, agreed with all of these notions above. 

Maslow felt that less than 1% of the population ever reach self-actualization. Therefore, problems in feelings, thoughts, behavior, and relationships emerge because many people are deficiency-motivated in that they are trying to fulfill unmet needs. 

Like other humanistic psychologists, Maslow believed that people are basically good. If our basic needs are met, he said, we will tend to move on to actualizing our potentials.


All of these before self-actualization are basic needs which are deficiency needs. 

Back to the top now. We explained that basic needs are called deficiency needs in Maslow’s work. There is a good reason for that. All the basic needs are deficiency motives. That is, they are activated by a lack of food, water, security, love, esteem, or other basic needs. 

However, at the top of the hierarchy, we find growth needs, which are expressed as a need for self-actualization. The need for self- actualization is not based on deficiencies. Rather, it is a positive, life-enhancing force for personal growth (Reiss & Havercamp, 2005). 


  • Critics have questioned the validity of the need hierarchy and have argued that the concept of “self-actualization” is vague and hard to measure (Heylighen, 1992).
  • Maslow offered little in terms of specific techniques to use in psychological assessment or treatment.


  • Abraham Maslow: A pioneer humanistic psychologist. Known for his work “Hierarchy of Needs”
  • Humanistic Approach: A psychological perspective which claims people are inherently good and motivated to learn and improve. Humanistic psychologists claim that people strive to reach their full potential, meaning that people strive to reach self-actualization. Also, they object to the notion of determinism and claim that people have free-will. 
  • Hierarchy of Needs: Maslow’s work regarding finding the motivation behind human behavior. Maslow classified human needs in two broad groups: deficiency needs and growth needs.
  • Deficiency Needs: Our basic needs are primary needs, and they are deficient motivated.  That is, they are activated by a lack of food, water, security, love, esteem, or other basic needs. 
  • Growth Needs: Needs that satisfy individual growth. Although there are many aspects of growth needs such as cognitive and aesthetic needs, we are interested in the end goal, which is self-actualization. Growth needs arise from a positive, creative environment although the deficiency needs arise from a lack of a need.
  • Physiological Needs: The most basic needs for survival such as water, food, sleep, sex and shelter. Physiological needs are at the bottom of the Maslow’s hierarchy and they need to be met first.
  • Safety Needs: All humans need a safe, secure environment. 
  • Love and Belongingness Needs: Needs for a healthy family environment, friendships, and the need to care and be cared for. Human beings are social and therefore they want to have close relationships with people who they love and care for. 
  • Esteem Needs: Includes both self-esteem and self-respect as well as the need for recognition and approval. 
  • Self-Actualization: The ultimate human motive,  which represents the need to fulfill our potential.


  1. Feldman, R. S. (2019). Understanding psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
  2. Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.
  3. Coon, D., Mitterer, J. O., & Martini, T. S. (2018). Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior (15th ed.). Cengage Learning.
  4. Reiss, S., & Havercamp, S. M. (2005). Motivation in Developmental Context: A New Method for Studying Self-Actualization. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 45(1), 41–53.
  5. Heylighen, F. (1992). A cognitive-systemic reconstruction of maslow’s theory of self-actualization. Behavioral Science, 37(1), 39–58.
  6. Plante, T. G. (2010). Contemporary Clinical Psychology (3rd ed.). Wiley.
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