Many of you have probably heard of the famous pyramid depicting Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory of human motivation, but where did the pyramid (see figure below)—wifi is a joke here alluding to the priorities of modern day human beings—come from? We can credit the pyramid to an extent for catapulting Maslow’s theory to fame, but it’s important to understand what the theory is actually about!
Contrary to popular belief, Maslow never made a pyramid (Bridgman et al., 2019) but someone created a pyramid at some point to represent his groundbreaking theory. More than 50 years later, this pyramid is in all introductions to psychology textbooks and courses: even academics are not aware of this fallacy!
This is a crucial point to note because the pyramid doesn’t accurately represent Maslow’s theory which, in brief, posits that humans are motivated by different kinds of needs. Importantly, basic needs should be met to work towards higher level needs, but this process is not linear like walking up a set of stairs: we are all on an endless lifelong journey towards self-actualisation.
Unlike a video game where you “level up”, sometimes we fall back and need to try and meet basic needs once again. Other times, we might partially meet fundamental needs—such as food, water, and shelter— and instead start working towards higher level ones such as the need for belonging.
Turning now to the order these needs are met in, though Maslow generally observed that people follow the same pattern, his original paper lists 7 exceptions: it is not necessarily the case that everyone works their way from the bottom to the top of the pyramid…
Firstly, self-esteem might matter more to some than “love”, but a desire for love might itself drive assertive behaviour and a quest for high self-esteem. Next, in extremely creative individuals, creativity may take precedence over all other needs: e.g. you might see an artist so engrossed in their work that all else ceases to matter. Furthermore, some people find contentment despite meeting only their basic needs. For example, a person experiencing homelessness might find satisfaction in simply having enough food to eat to get by day by day.
Moreover, people with antisocial behaviour traits might not need their “love needs” to be met, which might be often due to childhood neglect. Essentially, a person learns to live without this need being met. Additionally, though somewhat paradoxical, if one has met a need for a long time without facing any barrier, they might start taking it for granted. This is exemplified by people who’ve never had to worry about getting enough food to eat in a day. However, if a person is then deprived of that need, they may once again realise how important it is to meet it.
Importantly, though a person might require a need, they might not put any effort into meeting it for various reasons, which raises the question of which factors determine human behaviour apart from basic needs. Finally, we must recognise the role of resilience. Human beings are a lot stronger than they think and many are able to tolerate frustration because of satisfactory fulfillment of their needs early on in life. Thus, if a person faces challenges with meeting their needs later in their life, they are often motivated by their ideals to keep persevering come what may.
Altogether, clearly there is a lot more to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory than you might have originally thought. But what is the purpose of this hierarchy, and what did Maslow actually say? How does this relate to the notion of self-actualisation? Stay tuned for more articles to come.
Anusha is an advocate of all things mental health. She enjoys studying the human mind with her own mind which is fascinating and confusing all at once. Currently doing an MSc in Mental Health Studies, Anusha aspires to one day become a clinical psychologist. In her free time, you can find her doing something creative, learning something new, or just generally being curious.