What Is the Hierarchy of Needs?

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The hierarchy of needs is a theory developed by a famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow, and initially published in 1943. This theory is based on the belief that human behavior is motivated by 5 groups of needs that need to be met in order—physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

This article discusses the hierarchy of needs, including how a person progresses through the hierarchy, and criticisms of Maslow's theory.

An illustration of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often represented as a pyramid, with more basic needs on the bottom (physiological needs) and higher needs (self-actualization) on the top. Maslow believed that a person's basic needs must be met before higher needs can be addressed.

The first four levels of needs in the pyramid are sometimes called "deficiency needs." This means that a person is deprived of something and is motivated to get it. For example, if a person goes without food, they are motivated by hunger. Once that hunger is satisfied, the motivation for food decreases.

The highest level—self-actualization—is referred to as a "growth" need. As needs are met at this top-level, a person becomes even more motivated for personal growth.

Physiological Needs

Physiological needs are at the base of the pyramid of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. These basic needs have to be met for a person to survive. These include:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Oxygen
  • Warmth
  • Clothing
  • Sleep
  • Sex
  • Shelter

Safety Needs

Safety and security are the next level of human needs. Many aspects of life are included in this level:

  • Financial security
  • Job security
  • Physical and emotional health
  • Safety from physical danger
  • Law and order in society

Love and Belonging Needs

Maslow believed that all people have a need to love and be loved. He also believed that depression, anxiety, and loneliness were caused by unmet needs in this level of the hierarchy. The third level of needs, called love and belonging, includes:

  • Love
  • Intimacy
  • Friendships
  • Trust
  • Belonging to a "group"
  • Connecting with others

Esteem Needs

The fourth level of the hierarchy is esteem needs. These needs include how a person views themselves (self-esteem), and the way they are seen by others. Esteem needs include:

  • Confidence
  • Competence
  • Strength
  • Independence
  • Dignity
  • Mastery
  • Achievement
  • Status
  • Reputation
  • Respect
  • Recognition
  • Attention

Self-Actualization Needs

Self-actualization needs are at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. This level represents personal growth or reaching your full potential. These needs are specific to each person and can include things like being a great parent, an accomplished athlete, a professional artist, or an excellent student. This category is personal to your particular goals in life.

Expanded Hierarchy of Needs

Additional levels of needs were added to the hierarchy of needs by Maslow in the 1960s and 1970s. The expanded version included these levels, from most basic to more complex, which are:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Love and belonging needs
  4. Esteem needs
  5. Cognitive needs (knowledge and understanding)
  6. Aesthetic needs (symmetry, appreciation of beauty)
  7. Self-actualization needs
  8. Transcendence needs (religion, mystical beliefs, ethics, science)

Progressing Through the Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow initially stated that a person had to progress through the hierarchy of needs in order. However, later in his career, he stated that the hierarchy of needs could differ from person to person, based on individual circumstances. For example, a person might have a stronger need for recognition by others (level four need) than feeling loved by others (level three need).

Criticism of the Hierarchy of Needs

One of the biggest criticisms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is related to self-actualization needs. Maslow initially based his idea of a "self-actualized" person on the qualities demonstrated by 18 mostly Caucasian, highly-educated men from Western backgrounds. His findings were not based on the general population.

In later years, Maslow included research on self-actualized women, but these individuals were also from a "higher class" and lacked ethnic diversity. Maslow has also been criticized for including sex as a basic need of all people.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory based on the idea that human behavior is motivated by levels of needs. These needs must be met in order—basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter, must be met before a person can find love, self-esteem, or reach their full potential.

Maslow's theory has been criticized based on its rigidity and lack of diversity. For some people, higher-level needs might be more important than needs in the "basic" level of the hierarchy.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you agree with Maslow or not, the hierarchy of needs can provide insight into the needs that can influence human behavior. This information can also help you prioritize your personal goals to help you reach your full potential.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the purpose of Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

    Maslow's hierarchy of needs states that human behavior is motivated by the desire to have needs met, from basic to more complex.

  • How does someone progress through the hierarchy of needs?

    As a person's basic needs are met, they are able to progress to the next level of the hierarchy. For example, once a person has their physical and emotional needs met, they are able to work on personal goals and reaching their full potential.

  • What are the shortcomings of Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

    Maslow's hierarchy of needs assumes that all people put the same amount of value on different needs. However, for some people, finding love (level three need) might be more important than financial security (level two need). In addition, the hierarchy of needs does not take cultural differences into consideration.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.