The 20th century psychologist, Abraham Maslow, created a theory of human motivation that has been highly influential in psychology, sociology, philosophy, ethics, and business. Unlike many other psychologists who focused their studies on various mental illnesses, Maslow studied human excellence and what makes humans healthy. For that reason, Maslow’s theory is relevant to you, as someone who presumably wants to be healthy and happy, too.
Maslow’s theory provides deep analysis, but at the same time it’s quite intuitive, meaning that you’ll understand it and instinctively agree. Once you understand it, you can apply it to your own life and become ready for self-motivation and growth.
Maslow’s Hierarchy – 5 Tiers of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is illustrated as a five-tiered pyramid. Needs get more complex as we climb the pyramid. The base tier are physiological needs for eating, drinking, and sleeping. The next tier is the security need, satisfied by immediate safety and savings for the future. Above physical and security needs are social needs, such as friendship and intimacy. The highest of the basic needs is the ego, which is expressed as the need for self-esteem and recognition. (The ego acts like an individual’s personal bodyguard. You’re the VIP and it’s doing everything it needs to keep you alive in a dangerous world.)
The “Deficiency” Tiers Explained
The first four tiers are “deficiency needs”. You won’t notice if they’re satisfied but will feel anxious if they aren’t. Generally, we need to meet the lower needs before climbing to the next level. For example, if you’re starving, you’re motivated to find food before you’re motivated to look for sexual intimacy or a more prestigious title at work.
One objection raised against Maslow is that, although the first four tiers are represented as a chronology, we don’t necessarily meet them in order. It’s true that we sometimes meet a higher need before a lower one, or work on two tiers at once, depending on our circumstances. However, I think we can put aside that objection to focus instead on what seems to hold without exception: we always meet the first four “deficiency needs” before being motivated to meet the fifth tier “growth needs”.
The Fifth “Growth” Tier Explained
The fifth tier represents motivation by “growth needs”. “Growth needs” are a need for self-actualization, i.e., to live up to your fullest potential as an individual human being. I’ve categorized self-actualization needs into five categories:
- Value-based Morality: investigating and cultivating values
- Self-legislation: creating rules by which to live
- Self-development: choosing to pursue higher-order desires
- Self-knowledge: investigation, thinking and self-reflection
- Purpose: finding internal worth by engaging in creative activities
Each of these categories is worth exploring in depth. But right now, just note that Maslow found evidence that the happiest and healthiest humans were people who had figured out how to satisfy the deficiency needs and had moved on to pursue these self-actualizing activities. “Growth needs” define humans as a special species and distinguish us from animals.
Can’t we just get straight to Self-Actualization?
Self-actualization sounds like exactly where you want to be, right? Wouldn’t it be great if we could bypass the deficiency needs? Some people do – you’ve heard stories of ascetics and monks – but for most of us it’s unfeasible and undesirable. For some reason, Instagram #asceticlife fails to outperform #motivationmonday. So, before getting to the good stuff, we need to handle daily life.
Motivation is Straightforward… or is it?
The pyramid-shaped diagram implies a natural, spontaneously motivated progression to the highest tier. Indeed, Maslow thought that people could not be motivated by a satisfied need, therefore entailing a natural progression upwards. Especially if you’re into reading self-improvement blogs, it’s natural to imagine yourself climbing the tiers into excellence. However, the simple illustration is a bit of a misrepresentation – it fails to express the complexity of the internal process of motivation.
Sometimes it’s relatively easy to find out why a human being does not progress to the fifth, growth tier of self-actualization. Often, it’s because there are unsatisfied deficiency needs. Remember, a person will not be motivated to satisfy complex needs when more basic needs are not satisfied. The solution to resuming a motivated life headed towards self-actualization begins with writing out the four deficiency categories in detail. When you’ve got it all on paper, then you can assess what you’ve got and what you’re missing.
- Food, clothing, shelter, warmth
- Security, health insurance, savings (future security), and predictability in daily life, functioning policing system, freedom from fear of violence
- Friendship, family, sexual intimacy, sources of empathy, compassion, affection, and belonging
- Self-esteem, confidence, chosen identity, independence, self-respect, respect at work, status, to express individuality, an environment for competence
Using Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy
- Where are your deficiency needs unmet?
- Are they true needs (not mere wants/desires)?
- If they are true needs, what can you do to meet those unmet needs?
Critical Thinking Questions:
- Do you find Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy intuitive? Does it seem instinctively true?
- Give an example of how a recent university graduate might approach life. Choose a story that fits Maslow’s theory.
- Can you think of any examples of people who have self-actualized yet their deficiency needs are not met?
- What kind of life events can cause deficiency needs to suddenly be unfulfilled?
- Is Maslow’s theory prescriptive or descriptive? Is it telling us how to achieve an outcome, or is it describing what human beings generally do?
- Staff meetings and events serve people food in order to motivate them to show up. Usually, the food is something that any participant could afford – she could easily skip the meeting and go out with friends for pizza instead. How is it that food continues to motivate us even when the need is already met?