Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author, educational consultant, and speaker focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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David Susman, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist with experience providing treatment to individuals with mental illness and substance use concerns.

What motivates human behavior? Maslow"s hierarchy of needsis one of the best-knowntheories of motivation. According to humanist psychologistAbraham Maslow, our actions are motivated in order to achieve certain needs.

Maslow"s Hierarchy of Needns

Maslow first introduced his concept of a hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" and his subsequent book Motivation and Personality. This hierarchy suggests that people are motivated to fulfill basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs.

While some of the existing schoolsof thought at the time (such aspsychoanalysisandbehaviorism) tended to focus on problematic behaviors, Maslow was much more interested in learning about what makes people happy and the things that they do to achieve that aim.

As ahumanist, Maslow believed that people have an inborn desire to be self-actualized, that is,to be all they can be. In order to achieve these ultimate goals, however, a number of more basic needs must be met such as the need for food, safety, love, andself-esteem.

There are five different levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Let's take a closer look at Maslow’s needs starting at the lowest level, known as physiological needs. 


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As people progress up the pyramid, needs become increasingly psychological and social. Soon, the need forlove, friendship, and intimacy becomes important.




Security and Safety Needns

As we move up to the second level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the requirements start to become a bit more complex. At this level, the needs for security and safety become primary.

People want control and order in their lives. So, this need for safety and security contributes largely to behaviors at this level. Some of the basic security and safety needs include:

Financial securityHealth and wellnessSafety against accidents and injury

Finding a job, obtaining health insurance and health care, contributing money to a savings account, and moving into a safer neighborhood are all examples of actions motivated by the security and safety needs.




Esteem Needns

At the fourth level in Maslow’s hierarchy is the need for appreciation and respect. When the needs at the bottom three levels have been satisfied, the esteem needs begin to play a more prominent role in motivating behavior.

At this point, it becomes increasingly important to gain the respect and appreciation of others. People have a need to accomplish things and then have their efforts recognized. In addition to the need for feelings of accomplishment and prestige, esteem needs include such things as self-esteem and personal worth.


People need to sense that they are valued and by others and feel that they are making a contribution to the world.



Self-Actualization Needns

At the very peak of Maslow’s hierarchy are the self-actualization needs. "What a man can be, he must be," Maslow explained, referring to the need people have to achieve their full potential as human beings.

According to Maslow’s definition of self-actualization, "It may be loosely described as the full use and exploitation of talents, capabilities, potentialities, etc. Such people seem to be fulfilling themselves and to be doing the best that they are capable of doing. They are people who have developed or are developing to the full stature of which they capable."



Criticisms of Maslow’s Theory

Maslow's theory has become wildly popular both in and out of psychology. The fields of education and business have been particularly influenced by the theory. While popular, Maslow's concept has not been without criticism. Chief among these:

Needs don't follow a hierarchy: While some research showed some support for Maslow's theories, most research has not been able to substantiate the idea of a needs hierarchy. Wahba and Bridwell reported that there was little evidence for Maslow's ranking of these needs and even less evidence that these needs are in a hierarchical order.The theory is difficult to test: Other criticisms of Maslow's theory note that his definition of self-actualization is difficult to test scientifically. His research on self-actualization was also based on a very limited sample of individuals, including people he knew as well as biographies of famous individuals that Maslow believed to be self-actualized.

Why Was Maslow's Hierarchy Influential?

Regardless of these criticisms, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs represents part of an important shift in psychology. Rather than focusing on abnormal behavior and development, Maslow's humanistic psychology was focused on the development of healthy individuals.

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While there was relatively little research supporting the theory, the hierarchy of needs is well-known and popular both in and out of psychology. In a study published in 2011, researchers from the University of Illinois set out to put the hierarchy to the test.


What they discovered is that while the fulfillment of the needs was strongly correlated with happiness, people from cultures all over the world reported that self-actualization and social needs were important even when many of the most basic needs were unfulfilled.