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Maslow's pyramid: the hierarchy of human needs

Maslow's pyramid: the hierarchy of human needs

January 12, 2023

The p irramid of Maslow It is part of a psychological theory that inquires about the motivation and needs of the human being: that which leads us to act as we do. According to Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, our actions are born of motivation directed towards the goal of meeting certain needs, which can be ordered according to the importance they have for our well-being.

That is, Maslow proposed a theory according to which there is a hierarchy of human needs , and argued that as basic needs are met, human beings develop higher needs and desires. From this hierarchy is established what is known as Maslow's pyramid.


Abraham Maslow first introduced the concept of hierarchy of needs in his article "A Theory of Human Motivation" in 1943 and in his book "Motivation and Personality". Later, the fact that this hierarchy used to be represented graphically in the form of a pyramid made the core of the theory happen to be known as Maslow's pyramid, whose popularity is remarkable even today, decades after it was first proposed.

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The Pyramid of Maslow


While some existing schools in the mid-twentieth century (psychoanalysis or behaviorism) focused on problematic behavior and learning from a passive being and without too many options to influence the environment more than it influences him, Maslow was more concerned with learning about what makes people happier and what can be done to improve personal development and self-realization.

As a humanist, his idea was that people have an innate desire to self-fulfill, to be what they want to be, and that they have the capacity to pursue their goals autonomously if they are in an appropriate environment. However, the different objectives that are pursued at each moment depend on which goal has been achieved and which are still to be met, according to the needs pyramid. In order to aspire to the goals of self-realization, the previous needs, such as food, security, etc., must first be covered. For example, we only worry about issues related to self-realization if we are sure that we have a stable job, a safe meal and some friends who accept us.


In the Maslow Pyramid, from the most basic needs to the most complex needs, this hierarchy is composed of five levels. The basic needs are located at the base of the pyramid, while the more complex needs are in the upper part.

Thus, the five categories of needs of the Maslow Pyramid are: physiological, safety, affiliation, recognition and self-realization ; physiological needs being the lowest level, and rising levels in the order indicated.

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Types of needs

In Maslow's pyramid, this researcher talks about the instinctive needs and makes a distinction between "deficit" needs (physiological, security, affiliation, recognition) and "development of being" (self-realization). The difference between one and the other is due to the fact that "deficits" refer to a lack, while those of "development of being" refer to the task of the individual. Satisfying the deficit needs is important to avoid unpleasant consequences or feelings.

The needs of the "development of being", on the other hand, are important for personal growth, and have nothing to do with the deficit of something, but with the desire to grow as a person.

So, Maslow's pyramid has 5 levels of needs :

1. Physiological needs

They include the vital needs for survival and they are biological in nature. Within this group, we find needs such as: need to breathe, drink water, sleep, eat, sex, shelter.

So, in this layer of needs are those that make possible the most fundamental biological processes that make the existence of the body viable. They provide coverage to the physiological functions that maintain the balance in our tissues, cells, organs and, especially, our nervous system.

Maslow thinks that these needs are the most basic in the hierarchy, since the other needs are secondary until those at this level have not been met.

2. Security needs

In this part of the Maslow pyramid are included the security needs are necessary to live, but they are at a different level than the physiological needs. That is to say, until the first ones are not satisfied, a second link of needs does not arise that is oriented to the personal security , to order, stability and protection.

It can be said that the needs that belong to this level of Maslow's pyramid they have to do with expectations and with the way in which the living conditions allow to develop projects in the medium and long term. They are based on a kind of "cushion" based on both assets and rights and social capital.

They include: physical security, employment, income and resources, family, health, etc.

3. Affiliation needs

Maslow describes these needs as less basic, and makes sense when previous needs are met.

For Maslow, this need is expressed when people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and feel that there are affective links between them and certain people.

These needs are presented continuously in daily life, when the human being shows a desire to marry, to have a family, to be part of a community, to be a member of a church or to attend a social club. Belonging to a group, whether more or less small, helps to make sense of what is done on a daily basis, and also the personal contact and social relationships that favor these ties stimulate us in a way that, for Maslow , the resulting experience can be qualified as necessity.

Examples of these needs are love reciprocated, affection and belonging or affiliation to a certain social group.

4. Recognition needs

After covering the needs of the first three levels of the Maslow Pyramid, recognition needs appear as those that favor the strengthening of self-esteem, recognition towards one's own person, particular achievement and respect towards others; by satisfying these needs, the person feels sure of himself and thinks that he is valuable within society ; When these needs are not met, people feel inferior and worthless.

This need of Maslow's hierarchy is best understood as a way of feeling good about one's own self-concept through those things of ourselves that we see reflected in the way others treat us.

According to Maslow there are two needs for recognition: a lower one, which includes respect for others, the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, and dignity; and another superior, which determines the need for self-respect, including feelings such as self-confidence, competence, achievement, independence and freedom.

5. Self-realization needs

Finally, at the highest level are the needs for self-realization and the development of internal needs , the spiritual, moral development, the search for a mission in life, the selfless help towards others, etc.

Criticism of Maslow's Pyramid

Although some research supports the theory of Abraham Maslow, most of the data collected in many investigations they do not seem to go in the same line than Maslow's pyramid. For example, Wahba and Bridwell (1986) conclude that there is little evidence to demonstrate the hierarchy postulated by Maslow, even though it is still very popular today.

Further, Maslow's Pyramid has also received criticism for being difficult to prove his concept of self-realization , since it is very abstract. After all, in science it is necessary to specify very well the meaning of the words and propose "operational" implications of them, and if a concept leaves a lot of room for interpretation, it is not possible to conduct research aimed at studying the same, nor draw clear conclusions. Many of the concepts and categories described in Maslow's pyramid of needs are too ambiguous to be scientifically studied.

In a study published in 2011, researchers at the University of Illinois tested Maslow's pyramid and found that satisfying the needs of the pyramid correlated with the person's happiness. But this research, unlike Maslow's theory, concluded that the needs for recognition and self-realization were also important even though the most basic needs were not met. Therefore, he questioned the sequentiality that Maslow proposed in his theory: it was not necessary to have basic needs met to aspire to achieve the objectives related to the most refined needs.

On the other hand, Maslow's research was based on a very small sample of individuals and, therefore, not very representative. The criticism of his methodology refers to the fact that he chose the people he considered self-realized, after reading about them or talking with them and reaching conclusions about what self-realization is.In fact, the people whom Maslow interviewed when making his pyramid of needs can hardly represent the majority of the human population, since they were people belonging to the western culture, rich or very influential. Some of the people you researched are Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt . The Maslow pyramid was created from the study of exceptional cases, rather than what is normal in human populations.

The relevance and the legacy of this theory

Regardless of these criticisms, Maslow's pyramid represents an important contribution in a change of vision within psychology and helped to establish a third force within the profession (the other two main forces were psychoanalysis and behaviorism). His approach to psychology and life in general inspires enthusiasm, no longer part of the assumption that people are passive beings, nor focuses on pathological behaviors. The study of motivations and patterns of behavior unrelated to mental disorders became a sign that psychology does not have to be limited to mental health.

On the other hand, Maslow's works were a first attempt to study something of great importance: the common good , those contextual elements that are priorities for all people. If the need to have access to food is one of the most important aspects for people, it is possible to propose models of space management that take this principle into account.

In addition, the Maslow pyramid has had a great impact not only in psychology, but has also been important in the business world (especially in marketing, but also in the world of Human Resources) or in sports, for example .

The current scientific psychology should continue to investigate what is what motivates us and leads us to aspire to objectives, and Maslow's pyramid may not be a construct that allows us to explain well how we act, but at least it is a first brick in this type of studies and can be used as a reference.

Bibliographic references:

  • Boeree, George. (2003). Theories of personality, by Abraham Maslow. Translation: Rafael Gautier.
  • Mahmoud A. Wahba, Lawrence G. Bridwell. (2004). Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory. Baruch College, The City University of New York USA.
  • Rosal Cortés, R. (1986). Personal growth (or self-realization): goal of humanistic psychotherapies. Psychology Yearbook / The UB Journal of psychology. No.:34

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (January 2023).


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