The nuance in Maslow's Hierarchy

December 23, 2020

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Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of these ideas that's regularly misapplied both inside and out of academic circles. Which seems ridiculous, because there isn't much to it. And yet, properly understood, it's a powerful tool for encouraging personal growth and success.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of these ideas that's regularly misapplied both inside and out of academic circles. Which seems ridiculous, because there isn't much to it. And yet, properly understood, it's a powerful tool for encouraging personal growth and success.

Maslow's hierarchy is, on the surface, a fairly simple model to appreciate:

image A stylisation of Maslow's hierarchy. We prioritise those needs at the bottom, but we need all of them. Source: Wikipedia.

You'll find variations of the 'pyramid' scattered across instagram and various pop-psychology websites. And perhaps this is the problem. The stylisation of the model as a pyramid isn't Maslow's doing. It is the doing of business consultants. It's not surprising, then, that this pyramid doesn't quite capture Maslow's theory—rather it very roughly captures the ideas of his very first attempt at the theory in 1943. The lack of focus on Maslow's improvements on the model over the next half-century is one of the reasons that the model is so regularly misapplied. Nevertheless it's a useful place to begin, not least because we can dismantle some of the more pervasive misapplications.

Maslow considered that humans are motivated to act in ways that secure their needs. Our needs very often distinguish themselves by priority, and as such our actions are determined by both the importance of the needs we're trying to meet and how well met they are.

The first tier: deficiency needs

The first few sets of needs are what we might call deficiency needs—we are motivated to address them when they don't meet a certain standard of satisfaction. In order of priority, these are our: physiological needs, our safety needs, our social needs, and finally our self-esteem needs.

These deficiency needs have a lot of utility when thinking about personal suffering. But, we'll move through describing these a little quickly here, because they're fairly intuitive and you can find more detail in almost every article on the subject ever written. The real value of Maslow's hierachy comes after the deficiency needs.


The most important set of needs are physiological. In our search for satisfaction, the most crucial items for Maslow are those things we must have to survive. This includes things like our need to breathe, or have food and water. Our need to shelter ourselves from the environment—to stay warm when it's cold and stay cool when it's too warm.


The next set of needs surround safety. This one is rather under-represented in discussions of the hierarchy because it's somewhat complicated. But humans are fundamentally oriented towards security. This is the same force that glues our eyes to increasingly negative media streams or fixates us on phenomena like Donald Trump. Indeed, it's a drive so deeply rooted that our very sleep pattern will change based on whether we're in a familiar or unfamiliar environment.

Love and Belonging

A third set concern themselves with affection. Humans are extraordinarily social creatures. If we feel like we aren't loved and don't belong, our physical health suffers significantly. Our blood pressure goes up, our immune system weakens. Single people have a mortality rate far higher than married people, particularly men. 'Loneliness', alongside 'hopelessness' is one of the most consistent factors reported as a reason for attempted suicide. One of the leading theories attempting to explain the rising levels of anxiety and depression in various populations is an increasing lack of connectedness.

Self-esteem needs

Then we have our self-esteem needs. Maslow split this level in two; our need for self respect and our need for the respect of others. Maslow placed the premium on self respect, saying that we seek this before seeking the respect of others. We need to have experiences, both personal and vicarious that enable us to believe in ourselves.

Less vital, but still important, is our need for others to recognise our worth and to admire our successes.

Before we address the last set of needs in the hierarchy, we should pause briefly on an important feature of these needs that's regularly misunderstood.

The interplay of deficiency needs

The first common misunderstanding of the model is that each set of deficiency needs must be met first, before the next most important needs can be addressed. Indeed, this was implied by the wording of Maslow's original work on the subject. However, in his later work Maslow informs us that this order is "not nearly as rigid" as it has been made out to be. Rather:

any behavior tends to be determined by several or all of the basic needs simultaneously rather than by only one of them

Maslow, Motivation and Personality (3rd Edition)

Thus, the common stylisation as a 'pyramid' of needs is perhaps a misleading one. We may regularly seek out physical affection even if our safety needs aren't met, or we're suffering the effects of poor nutrition. We might be inclined to boast of an achievement even if the house we go home to has inadequate heating.

The crucial thing is that these needs typically have some level of priority associated with them. The individual who is successful at work, with a large family and friends, plenty of disposable income and an enviable house is still going to be severely unhappy and suffer ongoing psychological distress if they regularly come home to domestic violence. The homeless person, despite interventions of the state and non-profits to feed and clothe and provide welfare funding, is still going to suffer incredible negative psychological effects from their lack of general safety and reliable shelter. And the successful film star, despite their bottomless wells of cash, cars, and luxury goods, is still going to be more likely to suffer mental wellbeing issues if they can't be sure who their friends are.

All of these people will suffer from their deficiencies, but their patterns of suffering and behaviour will differ depending on the kinds of needs left unmet.

The underappreciated tier: growth needs

The final commonly known set of Maslow's needs are those of 'self-actualisation'. Self actualisation is the:

tendency... to become actualized in what [one] is potentially... the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming

Or, in less baroque language, the need for personal growth.

What's different about self actualisation is that, unlike the deficiency needs, self actualisation for Maslow couldn't happen unless one had sufficiently met those needs lower in the hierarchy—the deficiency needs must be addressed to some level of satisfaction before one has the bandwidth to address their growth needs.

More interestingly still is that in his later works, Maslow broke self-actualisation up into a number of different kinds of growth needs.

Cognitive and Aesthetic needs

In the 1970 edition of Motivation and Personality Maslow introduced the idea that we seek out knowledge and understanding of the world around us. We seek to satisfy our curiosities and the call to find meaning. These, Maslow called the cognitive needs.

Maslow also noted that we'll seek out the beautiful things in the world—art, music, literature. These were the aesthetic needs.

For Maslow, these needs were those we were most likely to turn to when our deficiency needs were suitably met.

Importantly for Maslow, these needs were distinct from our need to seek our own personal growth—to improve ourselves. We may not seek to improve our personality or our manner of approaching the world, and yet still seek to satisfy our curiosity or collect beautiful things. Thus, these cognitive and aesthetic needs were distinct from, and possibly less of a priority than our need for self actualisation.

The need for transcendence

But, even before identifying these cognitive and aesthetic needs, Maslow identified another—this one, the very pinnacle of the human experience. The need for transcendence. In his 1971 work The Farther Reaches of Human Nature Maslow noted:

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

Maslow's interest in transcendence came directly from his work on 'peak' states or experiences, published as a series of lectures in the late 1960's. For Maslow, peak states were these were "moments of highest happiness and fulfillment" which had a "special flavour of wonder, of awe, of reverence, of humility and surrender before the experience as before something great". They're associated with euphoria, complete absorption in the moment, and were more frequently experienced by those who had self-actualized than those who had not.

This is perhaps because before one can seek to transcend the self, one must first feel as though they fully know the self. This particular idea is one that is reflected in the mystical aspect of almost every religion or spiritual practice you care to name.

For Maslow, the link was a direct one:

The goal of identity (self-actualization, autonomy, individuation, Horney's real self, authenticity, etc.) seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. This is like saying its function is to erase itself. Put the other way about, if our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, of fusion with the world and identification with it (Bucke), of homonomy (Angyal), then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification rather than via asceticism.

For Maslow, self-actualisation was the complete realisation of the self—of who one was. Through realising this, one could then transcend the self, and in doing so reach the "highest and most inclusive... levels of human consciousness".


And thus, the hierarchy of needs becomes something far more comprehensive in the full light of Maslow's career. We must first attend to our deficiency needs, some of which are more likely to concern us than others. Then, once sufficiently satisfied, we are more free to pursue our growth needs. For Maslow, without gratification, deficiency needs will stop us from truly understanding who we are (self-actualisation), appreciating the world outside of ourselves (our cognitive and aesthetic needs), and the most valuable of all, the capacity to transcend our self-orientation and embrace the world in a more holistic way.

Of course Maslow's impulse to conclude that we cannot pursue growth needs unless our deficiency needs are sufficiently met is still somewhat controversial. Many people who live in impoverished conditions find comfort, for example, at the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy—a freedom in giving oneself over to something greater—the boon of spiritual and religious practice. Others find it through means of changing our states of mind, from meditation to drug-use, to academic insight. So perhaps the call toward growth is stronger than Maslow imagined. Or perhaps we simply continue to misunderstand Maslow's intent.

Whatever the case, Maslow's hierarchy provides a thoughtful backdrop to any journey towards growth or effort to succeed. Just so long as you don't read about it on bloody instagram.

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