The Hierarchy of Human Needs: Maslow’s Model of Motivation

Beginnings: Psychology without a soul

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the dominant throries in psychology had been the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and the behaviourism of J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner.

Both had tended to portray human beings as faulty machines.

  • In Freud’s view, human beings were almost entirely driven by primitive urges like sex and aggression. These ever-present impulses must be managed if we are to live together in civilized society. This leaves many people hopelessly conflicted at an unconscious level. A miserable, unfulfilled existence is unavoidable.
  • In the behaviourists’ view, human beings are like oversized lab rats —  programmed or conditioned to behave the way they do by factors outside of their control. They have no mind, no will of their own. Their feelings are not real and therefore do not matter. People are simply programmable machines who can be manipulated into doing anything.

In their different ways, psychoanalysis and behaviourism had dehumanized our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human. In the middle of the century which had brought us Nazism, Communism, mechanized warfare, systematic genocide and Mutually Assured Destruction, psychology was unintentionally providing a scientific “justification” for such horrors.

These rather bleak, soul-less visions of human nature constituted the first two “waves” of psychology as a science.

Abraham Maslow and the third wave

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Brooklyn-born American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was dismayed by these attempts to reduce human psychology to mindless mechanisms. He wanted to know what constituted positive mental health and happiness, not just mental illness and misery.

Maslow was thus inspired to start a whole new movement in psychology — a third wave — which he called humanistic psychology.

This was a real departure from the two dominant theories of the time in that it acknowledged a human or existential urge to grow, to seek happiness and fulfilment, to live up to our potential.

Without actually rejecting the insights of earlier psychologists, Maslow proposed that human beings are driven by different factors at different times. These driving forces are hierarchical, in the sense that we generally start at the bottom layer and work our way up.

A pyramid primer

The Hierarchy of Needs is a model in which Maslow attempted to capture these different levels of human motivation. It represents the idea that human beings are propelled into action by different motivating factors at different times – biological drives, psychological needs, higher goals.

Now the hierarchical arrangement is not meant to imply that those who focus on higher needs are somehow “better” than those who focus on lower needs. It’s not that kind of hierarchy. It’s a hierarchy within you, within your day-to-day experience.

It simply means that higher needs don’t appear unless and until unsatisfied lower needs are satisfied. If you are suffering from cold and hunger, for example, you just don’t have the time or energy to worry about your self-esteem. Your entire being is focused on food and warmth.

For this reason, the different levels also broadly correspond to different stages of life. The basic physical needs at the bottom are predominant in infancy; safety needs come into focus in early childhood; belonging needs predominate in later childhood; esteem needs predominate in early adulthood and self-actualization only really comes into focus with mature adulthood.


ST = Self-Transcendence

Maslow's pyramid - the Hierarchy of Needs


The first level, at the bottom of the pyramid, consists of our short-term basic needs, also known as physiological needs: food, water, warmth, sex.

The second level consists of longer-term safety needs: security, order, stability.

The third level represents the social need for affiliation, also known as “love and belonging”. We want to be accepted by others around us. We want to have stable relationships.

The fourth level represents the need for esteem. Within our social groups we want to be recognized and admired as individuals who accomplish things. We want prestige and power.

Almost at the top of the pyramid, self-actualization is the desire to experience ever deeper fulfilment by realising (actualising) more and more of our human potential.

At the very top of the pyramid is the desire for self-transcendence — to experience, unite with and serve that which is beyond the individual self: the unity of all being.

Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence

The two lowest levels of the pyramid are important to the physical survival of the organism. Then, once we have our basic physical and safety needs sorted, we feel more ready to share ourselves with others and accomplish things in the world. Most people can readily identify with these common levels of motivation.

Maslow held that as we come to feel satisfied with our accomplishments and sense of social worth, we take another step. He referred to this urge as self-actualization. It is very similar to the process Carl Jung referrd to as individuation, which tends to kick in during mature adulthood.

Self-actualization is different from all the previous needs. We don’t feel spurred into action by a sense of deficiency (“Must find food…” “Must make friends…”). Rather, we feel inspired to grow, to explore our potential and become more of what we feel we can be. Maslow called self-actualization a growth need while all the rest are deficiency needs.

For Maslow, the level of self-actualization reflects the fact that human beings are not simply biological machines. As we mature and become more aware of ourselves, we are increasingly driven by a sense of personal meaning and purpose.

Many people are under the impression that the hierarchy of needs stops there. Not so.

For while studying people who operate at the level of self-actualization, Maslow noticed that many of them frequently have, and deliberately seek, some other kind of experience. Something extraordinary.

Maslow termed these peak experiences. They are profound, life-altering moments of love, understanding, happiness, bliss. They are moments in which one feels radically more whole, more completely alive, more aware of truth, beauty, goodness, and so on.

Self-actualizing people have many such peak experiences and eventually feel inspired to actively seek them, extend them and stabilize them. Hence, Maslow added the goal of self-transcendence as the final level, the capstone of the pyramid. The desire is to go beyond our ordinary human level of consciousness and experience oneness with the greater whole, the higher truth, whatever that may be.

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s hierarchy (based on Maslow’s earlier work) shows only the first five levels. A more accurate version of the hierarchy, taking into account Maslow’s later work and his private journal entries, shows six motivational levels, with self-transcendence at the top (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).


Maslow is regarded as one of the ten most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. The modern profession of counselling is largely inspired by Maslow’s “third wave”, humanistic psychology. The movement known as transpersonal psychology, inspired by peak experiences and the quest for self-transcendence, could constitute a “fourth wave” were it ever to become more accepted into the mainstream.

But the hierarchy of needs is probably Maslow’s most enduring contribution to psychology. Most people seem to find the model intuitively satisying. It makes a kind of sense — even though for many, self-transcendence is not something they can relate to from personal experience.

Critics have argued that Maslow’s ideas, much like Freud’s, lack scientific evidence. Nevertheless, his third wave has enjoyed a huge revival of interest and influence among leaders of the positive psychology movement.

Further Reading

Koltko-Rivera, M.E. (2006) Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302–317.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370 –396.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Maslow, A. H. (1969). The farther reaches of human nature. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1(1), 1–9.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

44 thoughts on “The Hierarchy of Human Needs: Maslow’s Model of Motivation

  1. Maslow is on a right track, for sure …
    but nobody (me too) knows the WHOLE truth.
    What, if Maslow had known about Dr Michael Newton and the Michael Teachings and choices between lives?
    There maybe be “old kings” sleeping under a bridge in Paris, France, living happily their lives on level 5 – as it comes – having transcendent peaks without thinking about step 1 to 4 of the pyramid. Why this? Because they are aware and they are on their path.

    When you are an experienced soul and I’m not talking about Jesus, the bodily needs may submerge and the higher goals and centers evolve. You don’t have to climb up the pyramid, but fly right in the level, you have choosen, which is yours in this life.

    But the majority of today people are spiritually “under age” and here is Maslow right. He shows a glimpse to everyone, what is at the end of the journey and the way is step by step.

    • There is an intriguing correlation between Maslow’s levels and the soul ages in the Michael teachings. It’s not perfect (which leads me to question Maslow rather than the teachings) but it’s there:

      Infant soul focus = physical needs
      Baby soul focus = affiliation, belonging
      Young soul focus = achievement, esteem
      Mature soul focus = right relations, self-understanding
      Old soul focus = self-actualization, self-transcendence

      So in a sense we do climb up the hierarchy, only not in a single life but over many lifetimes!

    • @Rolf I wholeheartedly agree. The levels on the pyramid may be skipped altogether to reach the top most which is ‘Self Transcendental’ or what I refer to as ‘experiential [and perhaps sustained] objective consciousness’

      ‘God’ is fair. So lives are given equal chance to progress their beings without the prerequisite for the amassment of material possessions. To develop one’s consciousness in order to progress one’s being.

      Self actualization too I don’t think it refers to the attainment of worldly success but refers to the best striving of one’s being in everything that one does in light of the revelation that ‘self transcendence’ has revealed.

      There is no true self-actualization without self transcendence.

    • By God is fair I mean the development of our beings DO NOT depend on the approval of anyone else or on worldly success (status, worldly authority, popularity etc) and neither does it depend on petty things such as the amassment of material possessions.

      It wholly depends on our individual CHOICE and choice alone.

  2. I myself never missed food and shelter, so security was my main priority until I found it in a 9-5 job. I also longed for another soul to merge with but it wasn’t all that urgent. In fact I now realize I’ve been missing the connectedness overall, which I only knew to interpret as the longing for a lover, which I knew was never going to fully satisfy my inner needs so it was okay if I didn’t have one. In fact I’ve gone without sex for years and rarely missed it.

    When I had a week off work and nobody to spend it with (‘co-incidental’ scheduling issues with friends) I suddenly realized that my current path, the career path, was never going to be enough. I moved on to the self-actualization phase. Started doing what I needed to do rather than what was expected of me. I focused on art, psychology and spirituality. This was at age 23. It’s been a rough ride, during which I’ve constantly lacked money and therefore always saw food and shelter threatened, but I don’t regret a thing. I’d rather end up on the street than waste away in a mundane materialistic job.

    I’ve always, even as a kid, felt the need to “experience, unite with and serve that which is beyond the individual self: the unity of all being.” But it’s only at age 32 that I’m beginning to understand it. And this website has given me the vocabulary to express and understand that need and therefore pursue it consciously.

    Long winded way of saying thank you, side-tracked by my need to relate to someone, since I am surrounded by people who urge me to focus on security and don’t understand my choices. Apparently I’m working on all levels of the pyramid at the same time and may well be spreading myself too thin, but I feel like I am exactly where I need to be, so it’s okay.

    Thank you.

    • you are on average path, you wont fall but but slip is surely in your climb. you have nothing to lose as you climb. may be a relationship will psychologically enhance your strength in climb.

    • Hey Aeryn,

      I am reading your story, and right now I am at the beginning at the exact situation as you. I recognize and experience every word you are saying. I am working on all levels of the pyramid at the same time. I am 24 years old and I know that it is going to be a wonderful but tough journey.
      With the power of internet I want to ask you a question. A question that I need to have answered so that all my questions are answered. Since this is a way to time travel, you are the person that can give me the answer to this question.

      What is your situation right now and was it all worth it? Are you now at the top of the pyramid, and is it the most beautiful state of mind to be? Was this the best/fastest way to climb the pyramid?

      I hope you read this and can answer my comment.

      Thank you


  3. I can very much relate to Aeryn’s Reply. The way she describes her growth is simple and direct. I admire her courage to express her feelings without regard to ego. Especially on the issue of relationships and sex. She is obviously into the “Self-Transcendence” stage of the pyramid!

  4. please what are the differences between maslow theory of hierarchy needs and behaviorism as a theory of motivation

    • Motivation is an umbrella term for factors that can explain voluntary behaviour; i.e. why a person (or animal) acted a certain way, even though they didn’t have to. (The implication is that without some motivation or other, the action would not have occurred.) Motivation doesn’t apply to automatic involuntary behaviours, such as the reflex to vomit. In such cases, the causal factors are assumed to be physiological (e.g., the stomach automatically ejects toxins), not psychological. Motivation is whatever explains voluntary behaviour.

      For example:”Why did the chicken cross the road?—To get to the other side” is a reasonable explanation: the chicken wasn’t dragged across the road against its will, rather it was motivated by something inside it: a goal (to be on the other side of the road).

      Different psychologists have proposed a variety of theories to explain motivation. Each theory, however, comes with certain baggage because different theorists can have radically different philosophical views and assumptions about human nature. So each new theory tends to reject the validity of other all theories because the theorist himself doesn’t share the same assumptions.

      The goal of behaviourism, for example, was to reduce all human behaviour to mechanistic explanations. They tried to leave no room for “unscientific” (non-physical) concepts like consciousness, free will, and even thoughts and feelings, all of which they insisted were mere mirages with no basis in reality. (I think they suffered “physics envy”, wishing that they could find psychological “laws” as precise and mathematical as those in the physical sciences.)

      The behaviourists had to do some fancy juggling to explain “voluntary” behaviour, since that is usually interpreted in terms of desire and free will, which as far as behaviourists were concerned are non-words that should be deleted from the dictionary.

      So a strictly behaviouristic account of voluntary behaviour would be in terms of an organism’s previous history of being reinforced by “rewards” and “punishments” in the environment. In other words, the chicken crossed the road because it had (unconsciously) learned to associate crossing the road with getting some sort of reward. Motivation is blind habit.

      Now let’s swing the other way. It’s the second half of the 20th century and a new breed of psychologists can no longer allow the behaviourists to keep denying the existence of things we all experience, like choosing to do what we want to do. The humanistic theories of motivation proposed by Maslow and others took it for granted that people really do have inner worlds — thoughts, feelings, awareness, choices. The humanist’s explanation for voluntary behaviours is quite simple: we do something because we see a good reason for doing so.

      Maslow didn’t deny the role of less conscious and less deliberate factors, however. Instead, he incorporated them into a multi-level view of human motivation: the hierarchy of needs.

      Broadly, he saw three different levels of motivation: (1) The instinctive drive to fulfil our basic biological needs for food and shelter, security and safety. (2) The psychological drive to fit in and enjoy the social and emotional benefits of relationships, belonging to a group, being known, finding love, raising a family, and receiving the esteem of others. (3) The existential drive to explore our fundamental meaning, purpose and value as beings. Questions like “who I am?” and “what am I here for?” prompt us to seek what Maslow called self-actualisation, the ability to discover, explore and fulfil our unknown potential as individuals.

      In my opinion, Maslow’s version is the better way to look at motivation. There are different kinds of motivation arising at different stages of life, and driving different types of behaviour.

      One thing that Maslow probably got wrong, however, was his idea that any lower need has to be met before a higher goal can be aspired to. In other words, survival needs always take precedence over social goals, which in turn always take precedence over existential impulses. Modern research, however, shows that people are very adept at crossing levels — delaying a physical gratification for example, or even sacrificing a basic need if doing so brings them closer to a higher goal such as group acceptance or self-actualisation. After all, some people voluntarily blow themselves up or set fire to themselves to serve a religious or political ideal.

      So: motivation is not automatically acted upon. We can experience (feel, think) various motivations to act at all times, but we still have executive control over what we choose to act upon and when.

  5. barry, can u explain how some souls are divine in nature and dont need sex, procreation as tools or factor to live. eg saints like mother thersa, or saints from india mira bai, rmana mahrishi, ramkrishna parmhams etc. also some have control over their senses (indiras) can live without food, water for months by doing penance.

    • All human beings are a combination of body, mind and spirit. The lower motivations come from the body, the social needs from the mind, and the higher goals from the spirit. Physical needs take precedence until the mind gains some control. Social needs then take precedence until the self realises its divine nature and thus has little interest in its social status.

    • We say to girls,
      “You can have ambition
      But not too much
      You should aim to be successful
      But not too successful
      Otherwise you will threaten the man.”
      Because I am female
      I am expected to aspire to marriage
      I am expected to make my life choices
      Always keeping in mind that
      Marriage is the most important
      Now marriage can be a source of
      Joy and love and mutual support
      But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
      And we don’t teach boys the same?
      We raise girls to see each other as competitors
      Not for jobs or for accomplishments
      Which I think can be a good thing
      But for the attention of men
      We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
      In the way that boys are
      Feminist: the person who believes in the social
      Political, and economic equality of the sexes

    • Many people try to either explain or hide what Self Transcendence really is. I’ll give you the most straightforward definition. Self transcendence is the realization brought about by the transcendence of consciousness of the person that makes clear that one is more than one small self. Self transcendence involves the transcendence of space, time, and individuality in one’s consciousness. That is to say to experience others, men or beasts, seen or unseen, as self or part of self.

    • It is important because with it comes the full experience of being. The paradox is that the full experience of being involves being unbeing or the experiencing the entire collective of beings.

      Would you hurt yourself? Ego is the enemy of enlightenment.

    • Hi Teresa

      Self-transcendence can be described as a greatly elevated awareness of self and of reality that takes us beyond the usual identification of “self” with one’s body, mind, ego or personality.

      Most of us ordinarily feel that our self is just our body, or a conscious mind locked inside our body, or a personality that is known to others. Within this ordinary sense of self, it seems obvious that we are fundamentally separate and independent from both other people and the entire world around us.

      But many have experienced higher states of consciousness whereby the body, ego and personality are recognised as merely vehicles for one’s existence, the true nature of which is actually far deeper and far more extensive. This elevation of awareness far beyond the ordinary limits of one’s body and mind is known as self-transcendence. Other names are “awakening” and “enlightenment”.

      When experienced, it results in intense and undeniable feelings of one’s absolute unity or interconnectedness with the rest of humanity, or with nature, or reality, or the source of all being (the Creator, if you like).

      It is important, or rather valuable and significant, in that it reveals the fundamental truths of our own existence, and the existence of all other beings. It exposes the illusions and misconceptions that cause us to act mindlessly and destructively. It releases hitherto untapped energy – the life force – which brings feelings of profound love, peace, joy.

  6. How do you understand the following terms?
    • “Deficiency needs”- •
    • “Growth needs”
    What is the difference between them? Can you give full answer to this question

    • Ok then 🙂

      Deficiency needs:
      Every organism needs certain things to survive and reproduce and raise offspring – food, light, warmth, protection, social interaction, mating. If these aren’t around at the right time, the organism responds to the deficiencies (in order of priority ~ e.g., survival needs before social needs).

      Growth needs:
      Human beings can go a step further. As self-aware conscious individuals, we can reach a point in life where we want to grow, i.e. explore and expand our capabilities for no reason other than the fulfilment of what we feel as our untapped potential. Artistic expression is one example. Wisdom is another. Personal growth is the resolution of one’s issues and inner conflicts in order to become whole as a personality. Spiritual growth is the urge to grow beyond mere human perception and explore higher consciousness and the unity of all being.
      How’s that?

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