Maslow's hierarchy of needs is typically represented as a pyramid.
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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the kind of “see it everywhere, can’t remember where you learned it” concept that pops up every so often in conversations about psychology, social issues and self-improvement.

Once you understand the hierarchy and its applications you will notice its influence everywhere, including business management theories and educational models.

What is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

The hierarchy was originally conceived by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. Maslow had a humanistic approach to psychology, and his work put focus on the whole person instead of individual psychological symptoms. His hierarchy of needs describes several levels of the the human experience, with examples of how each need can be fulfilled. The corresponding theory poses each level must be sufficiently met before someone is prepared to tackle the next level.

“Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency,” Maslow wrote in the 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Needs,” which first described the model. “That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives.”

Level 1: Physiological needs

According to Maslow, the most essential human needs are the ones that keep us alive, like food, water, shelter and air. Without this basic level of survival, a person can’t be expected to do much in the way of higher thinking or achievement.

“A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more strongly than for anything else,” Maslow explained in his paper. Everything else, he posited, has to come after.

Level 2: Safety needs

With basic needs fulfilled, the next level of needs moves to safety. These are things like financial security, freedom from fear, stable health and anything that can lend our day-to-day lives a level of predictability and security.

Maslow argued that it’s this level of safety-seeking that leads humans to prize systems that bring order to their existence, perhaps in the form of law or religion. Some challenges to this level, he suggested, could be “wild animals, extremes of temperature, criminals, assault and murder, (and) tyranny.”

Level 3: Needs of belonging

Once basic survival and a modicum of security are established, human needs change a little bit. The third level of the hierarchy includes concepts like friendship, community, love, shared experiences and anything that gives humans a sense of belonging among themselves.

In this model, Maslow assumed, with the fulfillment of one level, humans will generally develop a longing to fulfill the next.

“Now the person will feel keenly, as never before, the absence of friends, or a sweetheart, or a wife, or children,” Maslow wrote. “He will hunger for affectionate relations with people in general, namely, for a place in his group, and he will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal. He will want to attain such a place more than anything else in the world and may even forget that once, when he was hungry, he sneered at love.”

Level 4: Esteem needs

The top of Maslow’s Hierarchy — the ultimate condition of human opportunity — has to do with self-actualization. But first, humans must fulfill needs of esteem. Esteem, in this sense, refers to a person’s sense of self and their sense of self in relation to others. This level includes things like dignity, personal achievement and maybe even a sense of prestige in a certain area.

“Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world,” Maslow wrote.

Level 5: Self-actualization needs

Finally, once a person has all they need to survive, function, and understand their position in the world and their community, they can enter the final portion of the hierarchy. Self-actualization can mean many things, but many of the examples center around a desire to explore, create or expand ones skills. Concepts like beauty, aesthetics and discovery translate into real-world examples like art, learning a new language, refining one’s talents and becoming the best one can be.

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy,” Maslow wrote. “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.” (Despite the pronouns, one assumes the process of self-actualization is also applicable to humans who are not men.)

Appearance and variations

The hierarchy of needs is traditionally represented as a pyramid. Over time, other thinkers have tweaked and re-visualized Maslow’s hierarchy in different ways; expounding on or splitting the levels, or proposing models where needs are differently ordered. The general idea remains the same, however: Humans have different sets of needs that rely upon each other, and one must have basic needs fulfilled before they can reach their potential.

Examples of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Aside from its psychological application, countless disciplines have found Maslow’s model to be a useful teaching tool. Some education professionals refer to the hierarchy when assessing educational or behavioral challenges among students by trying to identify where their needs aren’t being met.

Similarly, the hierarchy is used in some business leadership theories as a guide to support employees and build a healthy organization.

Race and social justice advocates have used this hierarchy as a model to explain how basic inequalities significantly hinder underserved people’s upward mobility.

“Experiencing food insecurity, having inadequate housing, or being overworked does not inherently make us unable to experience moments of genuine happiness, contentment, and ease,” the YWCA, a women’s rights organization, states in an article about race, poverty and well-being.

“However experiences such as food insecurity, inadequate housing, or being overworked disadvantage us in our quest to live well. They present barriers that must be overcome, challenges that must be faced, and equate us with worry for the possibility of our most basic needs not being met, jeopardizing our first desire, to live.”

Some people in this sphere reframe Maslow’s hierarchy to be one of rights or inequities to better illustrate where and how things like discrimination lead to the denial of these needs.

Why the hierarchy of needs is important

While many people find Maslow’s hierarchy of needs useful, It’s important to remember the model is just one way of thinking about human psychology, and wasn’t posed as, and isn’t considered, a scientific absolute. Common challenges to Maslow’s model argue that it is too arbitrary, or that humans needs exist more as a cascading spectrum.

Still, many experts consider the concept to be a useful way of approaching personal wellbeing and larger questions about potential.

“It really takes into account both our deepest deficiencies and challenges, as well as our highest strengths,” psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman told mindbodygreen.

“Maslow saw his hierarchy as falling within a theory of motivation,” Charlie Huntingon wrote for the Berkeley Well-Being Institute. “By looking at the ways your own behaviors follow – and deviate from – the hierarchy, you may gain insight into what motivates you.”