A brief Discussion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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A Brief Discussion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Everyone goes through struggles in life: in school, with friends, at home, etc. The key to overcoming obstacles and learning from our experiences is to understand the nature of our struggles and successfully identify ways to overcome and advance in life.

Students often bring a host of troubles with them every day to school. Some might be stressed about a grade in a class. Others might have relationship problems they don’t know how to handle. Still others are looking for jobs, learning to drive, or working on some big projects. But not every sophomore at ACHS is dealing with the same issues. An unemployed parent, a divorce, a storm-damaged house, or even an ill family member all can have an effect on our daily lives.
Intro to Maslow

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In this paper, and a subsequent book, Motivation and Personality, Maslow identifies a hierarchy, or organization, of needs people all share that motivate them. Maslow proposed that we must meet these needs in order, and that we cannot be concerned with needs higher on the pyramid until we do.

For example, Maslow’s theories would say that a person cannot be concerned about being accepted in a group of friends if he/she does not know where his/her next meal is coming from. Similarly, a student would have a hard time focusing on doing well in school if he/she comes down with a serious illness (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).
Intro to the Eight Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy

Maslow originally established a five-level pyramid to illustrate the ideas presented in his 1943 paper. Those five needs were divided into two categories: basic needs (levels 1-4) and growth needs (levels 5 and above) (McLeod). A great deal of work has been done with Maslow’s original ideas, and many psychologists now expand the pyramid to eight levels by splitting the top level, Self-Actualization, into sub-categories.

Basic Needs

Level 1: Physiological Needs

These are biological needs for survival, consisting of needs such as oxygen, food, water, or warmth. They are the strongest, most immediate needs because if a person were deprived of everything, these physiological needs would be the first a person would seek to satisfy (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).

Level 2: Safety Needs

These include safety and security. They are important for survival, but are not as immediate or demanding as physiological needs. They can include personal and family stability, steady job or income, good health and access to health care, a safe living environment, and adequate shelter. Modern day adults in the United States do not struggle with these as much as people do in other parts of the world, but it is still a major concern if one of these needs is not met. Adults are often not aware of their security needs except in times of emergency, a breakdown in social order, or economic distress (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).

Level 3: Love and Belonging Needs

Once the more basic survival needs have been met, Maslow believes it is human nature to seek out love, affection, acceptance, and a sense of belonging. Physiological and safety needs can be met individually, but as social creatures, Maslow believes the need to belong to a group and fit in is a driving force. These groups can include, but are not limited to family, friends, teams, clubs, religious groups, and gangs. It is just as important for someone to feel welcome at work or school as it is for him/her to feel welcome at home (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).

Level 4: Esteem Needs

After the first three levels of needs have been met, the need for esteem becomes important. This involves both self-esteem and the esteem a person gets from others. People have a need for a high level of stable and firmly-based self-respect and respect from others. People also have a need for their achievements, responsibilities, and statuses to be recognized by others. Meeting these needs allows a person to feel self-confident and valuable to the society around him/her (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).

Growth Needs

Maslow’s original research listed the following all under the umbrella of self-actualization. Different psychological researchers have identified multiple elements of self-actualization that they have segregated in order for the concept to be better understood. Cognitive and aesthetic needs are simultaneously pre-requisites of and a part of self-actualization (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).

Level 5: Cognitive Needs

The first of the four Self-Actualization levels, cognitive needs, fulfills the desire for the need to know and understand. People have a need for knowledge, meaning, and self-awareness in their own lives. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding is what allows a person to put him or herself through hardships in order to further him or herself. Cognitive needs are also founded upon “an environment wherein curiosity is valued, and information is freely available and willingly exchanged. Secrecy, censorship, dishonesty, and blocking of communication threaten not only this need, but all of the previous needs, as well” (Sears).

For example, a second-grade student is not fulfilling his/her cognitive needs by simply attending school. He/she is certainly learning, but is not developed enough cognitively to understand and appreciate the advantages of education. A college student who takes on significant student loan debt to pursue a career is meeting these needs. The financial burdens of college can be significant, but those burdens are outweighed by a student’s desire to enter a chosen career (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).
Level 6: Aesthetic Needs

The second self-actualization level, aesthetic needs, deals with the beauty people see in the world. People have a need to understand and appreciate beauty, balance, and form. This beauty can be in the form of art, nature, music, mathematics, or even symmetry. A philosopher or a computer programmer may see beauty in logic, while a carpenter may see beauty in a bench, cabinet, or house. At this level, beauty is defined by the individual. The pursuit of beauty, and the desire to understand and appreciate it, is what is common to all people at this level (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).

Level 7: Self-Actualization

When all other needs have been met, Maslow proposes that the need for self-actualization becomes the main motivator in a person’s life. Maslow describes self-actualization as “a person’s need to be and do that which the person was born to do. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write” (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien). Maslow goes on to describe self-actualization as a state of restlessness. When the needs described in levels one through four are not met, it is very easy to identify what a person is restless about. It is not always clear what a person wants when he/she is seeking self- actualization because self-actualization is a very personal need (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).

While Maslow focuses on a more complicated concept of self-actualization, the most important idea of self-actualization is that a person can meet these needs by doing what he/she was born to do. Doctors need to help the sick, teachers need to teach, mechanical engineers need to build large machines, scientists need to dedicate themselves to research, and Tibetan monks need to contemplate the nature of the universe. Self-actualization is only possible when all the other needs are met: a person needs to have safety and security, the acceptance of social groups and recognition from that group, and the knowledge and self-understanding to appreciate the importance of education and the intellectual curiosity to pursue personal growth and fulfillment (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).
Level 8: Transcendence

Once a person has achieved his or her own self-actualization, he/she is motivated to help others reach Level 7. Because self-actualization is sometimes seen as unattainable, most discussions of transcendence are purely theoretical (Simons, Irwin, and Drinnien).


It turns out life is too complicated to be represented by one theory or psychological idea. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not the only theory of human motivation out there, although it is one of the more significant ideas in modern times. There are valid criticisms of Maslow’s ideas that may be brought up later in the semester.

In 2011, a study done by researchers at the University of Illinois was designed to test Maslow’s ideas under real-world conditions. Researchers came to two interesting conclusions. First, meeting the needs outlined by Maslow in order does bring happiness. Second, people from various cultures all over the world reported that self-actualization and social needs were still important, even when many of the most basic needs were unfulfilled (Tay and Diener 354).
So, why study Maslow? While researchers at U of I found that a person could be concerned about meeting needs on several levels at the same time, this in no way invalidates Maslow’s original ideas. In fact, the researchers said, “Our findings suggest that Maslow’s theory is largely correct. In cultures all over the world the fulfillment of his proposed needs correlates with happiness” (Tay and Diener 365).
Literature is the study of the human condition, and the lens provided by Maslow allows us to study that literature with a focus. As readers, we only have the information presented by the author. This allows us to examine the motivations of characters in a very controlled environment. Maslow will provide a context for that exploration.

Questions to Consider

While studying literature this year, keep in mind the following questions.

  • What level are the characters on? When? Why? What causes them to move on the pyramid?

  • What does it look like when a character has met a certain set of needs?

  • Why does a certain character make a particular decision?

  • What are the main concerns of a group of characters?

  • What themes is the author offering by depriving characters of their needs?

  • How do characters grow and develop? What causes that growth?

Works Cited

McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology. 2013. Web. 07 September 2013.

Sears, Richard W. “Maslow Revisited: Forgotten Levels of the Pyramid and Applications for Modern Business.” Psych-Insights.com. Web. 07 September 2013.

Simons, Janet A, Irwin, Donald B, and Drinnien, Beverly A. Psychology – The Search for Understanding. New York: West Publishing Company, 1987.

Tay, Louis and Diener, Ed. “Needs and subjective well-being around the world.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(2), Aug 2011, 354-365.

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