The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and How they Affect Your Life | Oxford Royale Summer Schools

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a fundamental theory in psychology, but it’s of more than just abstract interest.

This theory – invented by Abraham Maslow in 1943 – could be useful for your everyday life. The idea is that our needs range from the very basic, such as the things required for our survival, through to higher goals such as altruism and spirituality. The hierarchy is often presented as a pyramid; if the needs at the base of the pyramid aren’t met, then achieving the higher-level goals is extremely difficult. To put it more bluntly, if you’re starving, or without shelter, it’s much harder (though not impossible) to keep in touch with your higher-level needs, such as preserving the respect of your peers. As the Snickers advert says, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”
Maslow’s Hierarchy also helps to answer what seems like a typical first-world-problems question: if I have everything I need, why I am still unhappy? The answer the hierarchy suggests is that your basic needs are being met, but perhaps your higher-level ones are not. It’s a thought-provoking idea, and it’s easy to see why Maslow’s Hierarchy has remained a popular tool not just for psychologists, but also in education, business and management as well.

The Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

1. Physiological needs

The most basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs covers physiological needs. These are the things that we simply cannot live without: air, food, drink, warmth, sleep and shelter. At this end of the hierarchy, all the needs are ‘deficiency needs’. We need them because when they are deficient, it’s unpleasant for us. At the top end of the hierarchy, there are ‘growth needs’ – we don’t need them because we’re lacking in something, but instead in order to grow as individuals. Hierarchical order here ranges from the most basic needs to the most advanced needs. It is, of course, possible to feel a sense of social belonging (for instance) when you lack food or shelter; it’s just a lot harder. If you’re struggling with the needs that lie further up the list, it might be worth considering whether all your basic physiological needs are being met. For instance, among teenagers, sleep deprivation has become the norm rather than the exception, with surveys reporting between 50% and 90% of teenagers failing to meet this basic physiological need.

2. Safety needs

Safety needs come just behind physiological needs, as they also relate to our basic health and well-being. This is about physical safety, such as protection from violence, but also about financial security, freedom from accidents, and the security of easily accessible healthcare. More generally, having your safety needs met means that you aren’t regularly afraid of anything: you’re not afraid of having a debilitating accident or contracting a dangerous disease, of getting into financial difficulties, or of being physically attacked. But having this need met isn’t just about living in a safe country with good social norms. Workplace or schoolyard bullying, for instance, can mean that your safety needs are not met.

So powerful, it can even help you ignore unmet lesser needs.


3. Social belonging

An updated version of this need has been described as ‘belongingness and love’, which perhaps addresses its scope more accurately. We need friendships, family connections and emotional intimacy with others. Different people in different societies meet this need in different ways: for some people, their need for social belonging might be met entirely within their extended family; for others, it might be organised activities such as a church community; for others, it might be a network of friendships and romantic relationships that meet this need. It’s also worth noting that meeting this need can enable us to overcome a lack of our basic needs – people suffering hardship in war zones (lacking safety) or famines (lacking food) often manage to keep going through the strength of their relationships with others.

4. Esteem

Maslow noted that esteem comes in two different forms. The ‘lower’ form is the need for the esteem of others. We need our colleagues, peers and friends to respect us and the work we do; to value our contribution to society; to think well of us. The need for the esteem of others is often referenced in a workplace context (unsurprising, given the popularity of Maslow’s Hierarchy with management trainers) but having the esteem of our friends is just as important. The ‘higher’ form of esteem is self-esteem or self-respect. It’s higher because people with self-esteem still have their need for esteem met even in circumstances that others around them don’t respect them. Being without either kind of esteem can leave you feeling useless, helpless or inferior. The need for belonging and the need for esteem are classed as the psychological needs.

4a. Cognitive needs

Maslow’s original hierarchy had just five levels, but over the years he adapted it and added two further levels. The first of these is sometimes treated as level 5, but we’re sticking to Maslow’s original numbering, so we’ve called this 4a.
Cognitive needs make a sensible addition to Maslow’s original 5 levels. This is the need for knowledge; our sense of curiosity; our desire for exploration, education, and meaning. While this sounds like a highbrow, intellectual need best satisfied through long hours in a library, it doesn’t have to be. Cognitive needs are not academic needs, and it’s entirely possible that someone could have this need met by striving to understand the roots of Taylor Swift’s feud with Kanye West. (Though, to be fair, there will probably be people writing PhD theses on that in a few years’ time).

4b. Aesthetic needs

Another later addition to Maslow’s original hierarchy is our aesthetic need. That’s our desire, separate from anything else, to experience beauty in whatever form. That could be anything from experiencing the wonder of unspoiled nature in the heart of a National Park, to admiring a beautiful painting. This shouldn’t be seen as a materialistic need – it’s not about owning a beautiful painting – but instead about a desire for the experience of beauty. Romantic poets and artists might call it the sublime.

5. Self-actualisation

The pinnacle of Maslow’s original hierarchy was self-actualisation. This is perhaps the hardest level to define, as it means different things to different people. Broadly, it’s about fulfilling the full extent of your own potential across all the areas that are personally important to you. It’s about not depending on the opinions of others, but about knowing what matters most to you, achieving it, and finding satisfaction in that. It involves a high level of self-awareness, and unlike other needs on the hierarchy, cannot be achieved without a person’s basic needs being met. Maslow felt achieving self-actualisation was rare, as people’s goals seldom match their lives.

“I made it!”


5b. Self-transcendence

Maslow’s later writings criticise his earlier idea of self-actualisation as the highest level of needs. Instead, he proposed self-transcendence, which involves altruistically helping others to achieve self-actualisation. Not long before his death, he wrote “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” If this sounds like spirituality, then that was very much Maslow’s intention. After all, self-transcendence, or something like it, is a key goal of many religions.

Criticisms of Maslow’s Hierarchy

Maslow’s Hierarchy has stood up remarkably well given it’s over seventy years old and was developed in a scientifically dubious way. Maslow felt – in his own words, which carry overtones of eugenics – that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy”.
Instead, he studied the biographies and writings of 18 people he believed to be self-actualised. The list reads more like a primary school project about notable people through history than a serious piece of psychological study, including Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Aldous Huxley and Ludwig van Beethoven. It’s a list that’s clearly biased towards the white, Western and male, and includes people about whom it seems unlikely that Maslow could have known enough to determine that they had definitely achieved self-actualisation.
Its dubious basis is only one criticism of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Another is that the very notion of a hierarchy can be disproven; it’s arguable that for most of history, most people’s basic needs were not met. Does that mean none of them achieved self-actualisation? Or it is the case that in fact, it is possible to be motivated by higher needs even when your basic needs such as food and shelter are not fully being met?
Furthermore, Maslow’s focus primarily on people from Western societies flavours the needs in the hierarchy. It’s been suggested that these are not general human needs, but instead the needs of people who live in an individualistic society, rather than a collectivist one. In a collectivist hierarchy, it’s been argued, belonging is paramount, self-esteem irrelevant and the pinnacle of the hierarchy associated with achieving societal rather than personal goals.

What you can learn from Maslow’s Hierarchy

Despite these criticisms, Maslow’s Hierarchy can still be useful. It’s simply worth taking it as an idea that can spark inspiration, rather than as the be-all and end-all of human fulfilment. Here are some ways that you can put Maslow’s Hierarchy to use in your life

1. In your personal life

It’s worth using Maslow’s Hierarchy when you know something’s getting you down but you’re not sure what it is. Running through the different needs can help you pin down what it is that you’re missing, whether you’re feeling the cognitive need to stretch your brain cells or the need to catch up with some friends and feel a sense of social belonging.

Meeting the needs of the group can be a complex challenge.


2. In leadership and management

Similarly, if you’re in any kind of leadership role, you can find out for yourself why Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is so valuable to managers and use it to make sure that you’re meeting the needs of the people you’re leading as much as you reasonably can. Let’s say you’re in charge of a group to do a charity run. That might offer a sense of social belonging, the esteem of others, self-respect for doing something worthwhile, and meet cognitive needs by representing an exciting new challenge. But if run meetings take place in a dangerous area, you’re not satisfying the need for safety, and that would need to be addressed.

3. In remembering the importance of feelings

It’s not usually made explicit, but Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is as much about how things feel as about how they are. For instance, in management uses, the need for security has been used to advise employers to handle sacking people carefully. If you make one person redundant, they lose their security, but the entire company might lose their feeling of security and so have that need unmet, even if their jobs ultimately turn out to be safe. Most of the needs in the pyramid are not met by cold hard facts, but instead by whatever changes our feelings about ourselves, the people and the environment around us. If you rationally know that your needs are being met, but can’t convince yourself to feel emotionally that they are, Maslow’s Hierarchy helps you understand why that isn’t sufficient for happiness.

4. In getting some perspective

In daily life we often focus on our basic and psychological needs; we think much more often about whether we’re eating healthily and sleeping enough, and what our friends think of us, than we think about whether we’ve met our need for experiencing beauty or worked towards self-actualisation. Maslow’s Hierarchy helps remind us of what’s really important and worth striving for, rather than getting bogged down in minutiae. At the same time, the fact that the top of the pyramid requires the support of the base helps remind us to take care of the little things too, and not to neglect our personal well being in pursuit of a distant but greater goal.

Images: hands in circle; woman on mountain; meeting room