Maslow's theory of human needs

Maslow's theory of human needs

Last update: 23 July, 2018

Abraham Maslow is the founder and main figure in human psychology. He created the hierarchy of human needs, which he based on the existence of a series of needs that concern every individual. Maslow organized these needs from the most urgent to the least urgent. He organized his theory in this manner because according to Maslow, our actions are born out of motivation directed towards the goal of meeting particular needs. In other words, we order our own needs according to the impact they have on our well-being.

Maslow visually represented his theory with a pyramid, which is why the theory is also known as Maslow’s Pyramid.

The lowest part of the pyramid contains the most vital and important needs for our biological survival. The upper section of the pyramid contains less urgent needs. Instead, the upper part is concerned with self-realization. When we meet the needs on the lowest part of the pyramid, we can move on to the upper part of the pyramid and become satisfied in new ways. 

Our consumer society has generated profound cultural changes. These cultural changes have modified the content, terms, and concepts of the natural desires of the human being. Nowadays, contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, it seems as if all we care about is accumulating as many material goods and services as possible regardless of how useful they are.

At the same time, the more existential parts of Maslow’s hierarchy have lost their validity. It seems as if we’ve lost what our values used to be. Therefore, we have to review and recategorize our needs.

woman meeting her needs

Structure of the human needs theory

Maslow’s theory of human needs is a hierarchical structure. The theory states that when our basic needs are met, humans begin to develop loftier desires. Maslow categorized these needs into five levels:

  • Physiological needs. These constitute the greatest part of the pyramid because they’re related to our survival and reproduction. At this level we find needs like homoeostasis, the body’s effort to maintain a normal and constant state. In addition, we find needs such as food, third, maintaining an adequate body temperature, sex, and breathing in this level.
  • Security needs. In this part of the pyramid we seek a sense of order and stability. We need stability, employment, resources, health, and protection. These desires are related to our fear of losing control over our lives.
  • Social needs. Once we meet our physiological and security needs, our motivation focuses on the social part of our lives. We desire company with other humans and its affective aspect. In this level are needs such as communicating with others, establishing friendships, expressing and receiving affection, living in community, and belonging to and being accepted by a group.
  • The need for recognition, also known as self-esteem. In this level we need to feel appreciated, to have prestige, and to stand out within our social group. Maslow also includes self-esteem and self-respect in this section.
  • Self-improvement needs. We can call these needs “self-realization needs“.  This section contains the most difficult goals to achieve. Maslow speculates that at this level humans want to transcend their own mortality and leave their mark on the world. Other desires at this level include our need to develop talents and carry out our own work. These needs are related to our moral and spiritual development as we search for a mission in life.

The human being’s psychological needs

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as ‘a state of total physical, mental, and social well-being, and not only the absence of diseases or illnesses’.

Psychological well-being encompasses our highest needs and they refer to how we judge our love on a global level. These needs are not necessarily related to experiencing pleasurable situations or gratifying our personal desires. Instead, there is a set of broader dimensions.

Amongst the most important psychological needs are the need for affection and love, the need for belonging, and the need for recognition. Self-realization is the highest psychological need for human beings. It is through this realization that we find meaning in our lives.

Many researchers and studies support Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. However, there are many others who don’t seem to agree with him. Some have criticized Maslow’s model, particularly when it comes to Maslow’s discussion of self-realization. In fact, some studies state that even when our basic needs aren’t taken care of, self-realization and recognition are still important.

Independent of the criticism that Maslow has received, his theory of needs is a fundamental contribution to psychology. It has helped to establish and develop humanistic psychology and the concept of the common good.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.