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Everyone has needs, regardless of who they are, what they do, and their past.

Understanding these needs means we can meet them, make the most of all the opportunities we have, and maximize our potential. One of the leading models for understanding human needs is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Learn more about what Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is, some of the main features of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and some of the primary uses of the hierarchy when working in a range of industries.

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What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a model developed by Abraham Maslow, an American psychiatrist that became one of the most cited psychologists in history. This is primarily due to his hierarchy of needs. Maslow developed the hierarchy theory in 1943 and has taken an increasingly important role in modern psychology since.

The hierarchy of needs is a pyramid of basic human wants and needs that define what motivates human beings. Rather than simply listing these motivations, Maslow’s use of a pyramid indicates that some of these needs are more important than others. Including fundamental requirements such as food and more abstract ideas like self-fulfillment, completing the hierarchy indicates that someone has reached their full potential. Several industries now use the hierarchy of needs as it guides working practice.

What are the types of needs?

There are several types of needs in the hierarchy, each of which comes at a different level. The first in the list of needs is the most important, with the top of the pyramid last in the following list. Significant features in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs include:

Physiological needs

Physiological needs refer to some of the basic requirements of human life. This goes beyond what humans need and encompasses what organisms require to survive on Earth. The main list of physiological needs includes:

  • Air
  • Heat
  • Clothing
  • Hygiene
  • Light
  • Water
  • Urination
  • Food
  • Excretion
  • Shelter
  • Sleep

Without any of these needs, a human being struggles to survive. The body either doesn’t generate enough heat, isn’t durable enough to handle the worst that the world can throw at it, or doesn’t have the energy to complete day-to-day tasks. To reach the next level of the hierarchy, a person needs every one of these requirements to be fulfilled. While some of these specific needs are more important than others, such as requiring a constant air supply, they’re all still necessities for human life.

Safety

Once someone has all of the essential requirements for human life, they reach the safety stage of the hierarchy of needs. The need for safety is apparent from the very earliest stages of life, as children cry in unfamiliar environments and actively seek out people they know as they feel safe around them. This ranges from basic safety, such as avoiding dangerous spaces like rough cliff edges, to more complex safety needs, such as political uncertainty or warfare. The types of safety needed include:

  • Health
  • Personal security
  • Emotional security
  • Financial security

People actively seek safety before engaging with any of the higher levels of the hierarchy. For example, people will ensure they have enough money to survive for the month before spending on social events or will avoid unknown foodstuffs if they have any concerns about their health. In a way, the safety section of the hierarchy is simply a way of securing physiological needs from the first step.

Love and belonging

After achieving physiological requirements and securing them in safety, people start to look for love and belonging. People seek belonging, actively looking to be a part of a family unit or social group. This is regardless of the size of the social group or the composition of the group. Importantly, this involves feeling both like other people love you and like you love others. Some of the needs in this section include:

  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Intimacy
  • Trust
  • Acceptance
  • Giving affection

In some instances, people avoid the love and belonging tier due to issues such as safety concerns. For example, if someone feels the social group affects their emotional security, they can look to break away from this social group for their good. This is an example of a lower tier being missing. Therefore the upper tiers not being able to build upon them. The same applies to abusive relationships, such as when a partner withholds essentials such as food or heat.

Esteem

Esteem refers to the respect and admiration that someone has for others. This also involves the ability to feel good about ourselves. Feeling good about ourselves is referred to as self-esteem and is a fundamental part of living a happier life. Maslow himself stated that there are two components of esteem. These include:

  • Self-confidence: The ability to feel good about your work and contribution to the world around you, relating to you and what you produce for others.
  • External recognition: Recognition from other people, including others enjoying what you do and complimenting your work and who you are as a person.

Psychologist Alfred Adler stated that if a person does not meet these esteem needs, they can feel ‘feelings of inferiority.’ Someone sees themselves as below the people around them. Esteem needs come from how we interact with people around us and are typically generated in a natural environment. If someone artificially generates this esteem, this can instead be a way of attempting to secure emotional security from the safety tier of the hierarchy.

Self-actualization

Self-actualization is the final step of the pyramid and refers to feeling fulfilled and living up to our fullest potential. Every person uniquely experiences self-actualization, as everyone is distinct and interacts with the world around them in their ways. The bar for self-actualization varies depending on your goals and personal potential. Maslow believed that achieving this is rare, with some examples including:

  • Abraham Lincoln: Led the Union through the American Civil War to defend the nation as a constitutional state, also succeeding in the abolition of slavery.
  • Albert Einstein: They a significant part in the advancement of quantum physics while advancing the fields of nuclear physics and increasing the public perception of science.
  • Mother Teresa: Founded the Missionaries of Charity and supported people in need worldwide through soup kitchens and other charitable ventures.

Some say self-actualization is more about attaining personal goals and reaching contentment. For example, self-actualization needs can include acquiring a partner, becoming a parent, developing your talents to an ability you didn’t think you could reach, and reaching a career or life goal that you’ve had for an extended period. People who are content with their current lives and the direction of their lives have reached self-actualization.

Examples of the hierarchy

There are several examples of the Hierarchy of Needs in action throughout society. This occurs in various industries and settings, demonstrating that Maslow’s theory has a clear basis in truth. Some significant examples of the hierarchy in different settings include:

Education

The theory is highly prevalent in the education sector. Many teacher training courses feature the hierarchy as a foundational element, teaching future educators about the structure of a young person’s needs. Schools go through each stage of the hierarchy, providing their students with what they need to thrive. This includes offering free school meals to students that can’t afford them, providing security and protection from other students in potential fights, and offering social clubs and sports teams for students to play in.

Self-actualization refers to someone’s ability to reach their full potential, and the initial goal of a school is to support students in reaching their highest possible level. By fostering each level of the hierarchy, schools provide a route to reaching these ambitions and achieving higher results throughout the cohort.

Politics

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a fundamental part of how people work individually and affects how they behave on a larger scale. This includes on a geopolitical level, such as when creating peace deals following warfare. One of the prominent examples of this occurring in recent years is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan between 2020 and 2021. The relatively rapid withdrawal left little time to create a structure and meant little due diligence was done regarding agreeing with the Afghan government.

Consider this against the structure of the hierarchy of needs. As the US left, the national security forces in Afghanistan had no guarantee of safety, with some basic needs completely lacking. The government collapsed in relatively little time. This is one of the main reasons that international aid packages primarily focus on providing food (such as the World Food Programme) and international charities target shelter, as without these basics, creating a further plan, such as building schools, happens without people attending as they are still struggling with physiological needs.

Economics

While economics is a subject area that focuses on establishing the movement of money around a system, most courses will instead state that economics is about a straightforward principle. The way that people make choices. This includes how they spend money on products, meaning that economic models are primarily built on rationality. Creating economic models relying on rationality is due to the understanding that people spend on their needs, such as food, shelter, and water, before buying any luxury goods.

Companies use this in the hierarchy of needs as a means of earning as much as they can. For example, the multinational company Nestle has a history of using the need for water to profit. This includes persuading the World Water Council in 2000 to call water a ‘need’ rather than a ‘right,’ enabling the business to buy vast water supplies to sell for a profit. There is no way this company fails to make a profit, as the hierarchy proves that people can’t move on with their development without access to water.

Progressing through the hierarchy

While the very structure of the hierarchy seems simple, some aspects are not explicitly mentioned that significantly impact someone’s ability to move through the tiers and fully achieve self-actualization. These are not a complete necessity, but they are significant tools that people use when improving themselves and the situations of those around them, including:

Free speech

Free speech refers to someone’s ability to express themselves in any way they wish. This includes having complete control over the medium of communication, what people say, and the potential to reach the right audience for the message. This is necessary for the esteem section of the hierarchy, as presenting yourself well in front of a large group leads to receiving compliments and support from that group.

One potential issue with maximizing free speech is the risk of the Harm Principle. The Harm Principle is an idea that emerged in response to John Stuart Mill’s work that primarily focused on maximizing liberty. The idea is that one person can use their free speech to harm another, stopping that person from being truly free. This is why most communication platforms have focused on limiting speech specifically designed to harm people, such as racism, ableism, and abusive language.

Freedom of association

Freedom of association refers to someone’s ability to talk to and associate with whomever they want. This principle primarily works alongside the love and belonging section of the hierarchy, as people tend towards those that are similar to them and have similar views. By associating with people freely, members of society are far happier with their social interactions and how they spend their time talking to others.

This freedom also comes up against the Harm Principle. Some groups, such as religious extremists or racial hatred groups, exist to harm others, despite the people in those groups presumably being happy with their peers. In these instances, freedom of association has clear limits, with some countries banning specific groups. Governments must find a balance between having open freedom of association and preventing the development of hate groups. This means that as many people as possible thrive within the state without suffering too many risks.

Freedom of information

Freedom of information refers to somebody’s ability to find any information they want. The Internet is one of the essential tools for this, as people worldwide can find, curate, and publish any information they choose. This plays a fundamental role in self-actualization, as people with hobbies previously limited to other countries now have access to those experts and the information they create.

Some states actively go out of their way to limit the freedom of information in their country. In these instances, dictators and political figures do so as a means of attempting to secure their safety. For example, in North Korea, citizens cannot access Western websites as these websites have firm stances against how the regime presents the wider world. This means that people living under dictatorships often struggle to reach self-actualization as the state actively prevents them from interacting with some of the best in their field.