In a Nutshell: Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow)

In a Nutshell: Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow)

This article offers an expanded description of the summary listed in our post 40 Must-Know HR, OD, L&D Models.

Background: Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was an American professor of psychology who played a major role in laying the theoretical foundations of the "humanistic psychology" movement that emerged in mid-20th century. Distinct from Freudian psychoanalysis and Skinner's behaviourism, humanistic psychology was known as the "third force" in psychology, and a precursor to the modern-day "positive psychology" movement. Positive psychology is a relatively recent branch of psychology that places its emphasis on understanding how humans can function at their best, not just how to fix them when they show signs of mental illness (e.g., neurosis, depression, personality disorder).

Maslow understood that there was much more to being healthy than simply showing absence of any sickness. He believed that if treatment and therapeutic techniques would focus more on the positive aspects of human experience, rather than trying to mitigate or eliminate what was bad, it could not only have the potential to restore people to health, but would lead to the propagation of growth, happiness, fulfillment and full psychological maturity. Although much of his ideas are taken for granted now as common sense, Maslow's thinking was a radical departure from that of psychological theory at the time and for this reason he is considered to be one of the great pioneers in the field of psychology.

Maslow is best known and remembered for his hierarchy of needs, published in his 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation," which is one of the most commonly taught models in business and education. Despite the theory having origins in the 1940s, Malsow’s hierarchy has not diminished in relevance. With each year that passes, there seems to be more appreciation in business around the mutual benefits, to both employers and employees, of providing a work environment that stimulates, nurtures and supports people's "higher-level" needs.

Maslow certainly recognised that there was more to being happy than a pay cheque and job security; that our desire for personal growth and creative excitement were core to being human. In his view, as soon as an individual’s most basic needs were taken care of, they would naturally endeavour to “become all that they are capable of becoming” — a process that Maslow referred to as “Self-actualisation.” (A term he is often mistaken for inventing but acknowledged it was borrowed from the German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein.)

Overview: Maslow's theory suggests that we have five fundamental needs, which are arranged in a “hierarchy of relative prepotency.” In general, we must mostly satisfy a lower-level need before we can focus our attention on a higher-level need. The order of priority that Maslow believed to occur in most people in the general population was as follows:

"Physiological Needs" (food, water, sex, sleep) "Safety Needs" (security, freedom from fear) "Love Needs" (relationships, social connection, intimacy) "Esteem Needs" (achievement, admiration, self-respect) "Need for Self-Actualisation" (creative fulfillment)

The hierarchy is typically represented in the shape of a pyramid, however, Maslow never conveyed his theory this way. It is actually much more dynamic than a fixed pyramid structure would be taken to imply. Maslow said:

“We may have given the impression that these five sets of needs are somehow in a step-wise, all-or-none relationships to each other. We have spoken in such terms as the following: ‘If one need is satisfied, then another emerges.’ This statement might give the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100% before the next need emerges. In actual fact, most members of our society who are normal, are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time.”

Maslow also suggested that the relative arrangement of needs would be reversed (or rearranged) in certain people:

“We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions.”

It is important to note that Maslow did not intend to promote this theory as a perfect or complete analysis of human motivation, and readily acknowledged that it may have flaws. But he also stated: “It is far easier to perceive and to criticise the aspects in motivation theory than to remedy them.” One of the main reasons for putting forward his theory was “in the hope of stimulating discussion and research,” which he certainly accomplished.

For the full picture, we would always recommend reading the work in its original form, through the unfiltered lens of the author. “A Theory of Human Motivation” is in the public domain and free to access.


Sources: A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow, 1943 Motivation and Personality (1954), Abraham Maslow Toward a Psychology of Being (1962), Abraham Maslow Maslow on Management (1998), Abraham Maslow with Deborah C. Stephens and Gary Heil The Right to be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow (1988), Edward Hoffman 50 Self-Help Classics (2003), Motivation and Personality, p204, Tom Butler-Bowdon The Third Force: The Psychology of Abraham Maslow (2004), Frank G. Goble Abraham H. Maslow: Books, Articles, Audio/Visual, & His Personal Papers ( Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs ( Our Hierarchy of Needs, Neel Burton, M.D., 2012 (

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“What an excellent article. I teach this to my Certificate IV Training and Assessment students so they understand the underpinning needs of adult learners before they are in the 'space' to learn.”

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