Maslow’s Pyramid

What is Maslow's Pyramid?

Maslow's Pyramid, also referred to as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, is a motivational theory outlining five levels of human needs. From the most essential needs to the highest achievable, the needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Basic needs must be fulfilled before higher needs can be addressed.

The Basic Idea

Maslow’s Pyramid, often referred to as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is a popular theory of motivation, happiness, and survival. As complex beings, humans have a number of needs that vary in complexity. According to Maslow’s pyramid, humans are motivated by a hierarchy of needs; needs lower on the ranking system must be met before we can proceed to addressing more advanced needs.

For example, imagine you are starving. It would be very difficult to think of anything else when a physiological need like hunger is not being met. It is therefore unlikely that you would be motivated, or able, to engage in a need higher up on the pyramid, such as self-growth. According to Maslow, it is in the higher stages of the pyramid that true happiness can be found.

The pyramid is based on the idea that certain basic needs must be met before individuals can progress up the hierarchy to more complex needs.2 The hierarchy places physiological needs at the bottom, followed by safety, then belongingness and love, onto esteem, and lastly, self-actualization.3

If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days in your life.1

– Abraham Maslow

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The now-famous pyramid was first introduced by Abraham Maslow, an influential psychologist, in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”.3 At this time, Maslow was frustrated with the two popular branches of psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology.4 Maslow felt as though both fields were too pessimistic as they focused on problematic behaviors instead of positive aspects of humanity like happiness.2 Maslow was not alone in his frustrations, and, along with other critics, he developed a third kind of psychology, humanistic psychology. Humanistic approaches tend to psychology by examining a person in their entirety, not just their mental illnesses. Proponents of humanistic psychology believe that psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology can be dehumanizing.

Maslow’s theory of motivation sought to examine what makes people happy and what motivates them to act in the ways they do.2 Maslow believed that fundamental human desires were universal even though some particular desires may be unique.4 Because of his belief, he was able to characterize human needs into five categories based on how prominent each was in human consciousness, resulting in a pyramid of hierarchy of needs:

  1. Physiological needs: basic biological needs, such as food, water and sleep
  2. Safety needs: the need to feel secure and safe, both physically, mentally, and financially
  3. Belongingness and love needs: human desire to have friends and loved ones in order to feel accepted
  4. Esteem needs: need to be appreciated and respected which boosts our self-esteem
  5. Self-actualization needs: the need to achieve our full potential and finding meaning or purpose in life, which will then lead to happiness.2

The pyramid suggests that the first four stages are all deficiency needs, meaning they arise due to deprivation. Deficiency needs become more intense the longer they are not met. The last stage, self-actualization, is considered a growth-need, which instead of arising due to deprivation, arises due to a desire to become a better person.2

In his original characterization of the pyramid of human needs, Maslow suggested that each level needs to be fulfilled in order for people to be motivated to fulfill more complex needs. He stated in his 1943 paper:

“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone when there is no bread. But what happens to a man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled? At once other (and ‘higher’) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organisms. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new and still ‘higher’ needs emerge and so on.”  (p. 375)3

Essentially, Maslow believed that in order to move past deficiency needs to a stage of  growth-based needs, each need on each level would have to be fulfilled. The pyramid seemed to answer many of the questions that perplexed psychologists, about what individuals were really after, and how they arranged their priorities based on all the daily competing claims that people encounter.5 Additionally, the pyramid had a prescriptive element: it  helped people to understand that before self-actualization was possible, they first needed to ensure their more rudimentary needs were met. The hierarchy of needs was able to act as a guide toward achieving happiness, a goal for humanist psychologists.

Maslow continued to work on his hierarchy of needs, expressing his theory more robustly when he published Motivation and Personality in 1954, and continuously adapting it in the face of criticism.3


Maslow’s pyramid had significant implications for the field of psychology because it focused on aspects that had been ignored by Freudian psychoanalysis, particularly happiness. Maslow’s theory was also more focused on the uniqueness of human behavior compared to behavioral psychology, which often bases its theories on animal studies.4 Although today, modern psychology concerns itself with topics like happiness, hope, optimism, or love, such topics in Maslow’s time were reserved for religion.4 The hierarchy of needs therefore has had great implications for the methodology of psychology and paved the way for what is known today as positive psychology. Maslow’s desire to help people achieve their full potential has served as an inspiration to the field and can partially be held responsible for changing the trajectory of psychology, which was previously concerned with mental illness.4

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also helped band together both spiritual and pragmatic beliefs of human purpose. While people who focus solely on spiritual motivation may forget about more basic needs, like thirst and sleep, pragmatists ignore intangible needs like love and acceptance.5 The pyramid is therefore able to more holistically capture the complexity of human need and show how multifaceted people are. Maslow’s pyramid provided evidence for humanistic psychology that people were not just products of their environment, but that their behavior was connected to inner emotions and self-image.

Maslow’s pyramid also had significant implications for business and is now considered one of the foundational frameworks for business models. Just like humans, businesses have a range of needs to be met in order to be successful. At the most basic level is positive cash flow, equated to human physiological needs.6 Once that need is met, the company can focus on higher needs, such as innovation, creativity and organizational culture. The pyramid reminds businesses that basic needs must be met before they are able to grow. According to Mike Michalowicz, one of the most prominent authors on entrepreneurship, one of the biggest problems businesses face is not knowing their main problem.  Maslow’s pyramid can be used as a guide to address this commonality.7

The pyramid can also inform companies about how to improve productivity through their employee-employer relationships. The pyramid demonstrates that people will not be able to work towards becoming the best version of themselves (or the best employees) if their lower needs are not met. That means that companies should ensure that their employees are getting enough sleep, feel secure in their jobs, have social interactions at work, and are getting enough praise and recognition, in order to create employees who are ready to do meaningful work.8

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a guide for growth and personal development, issues that are incredibly important for both individuals and businesses.


The biggest criticism of Maslow’s pyramid is in reference to  its claim that lower needs need to be completely satisfied in order for higher levels of needs to be met. While other research has confirmed the different kinds of needs that motivate human behavior, little to no research has substantiated the hierarchical formation of these needs.2 The pyramid raises some ethical concerns, as it suggests that only people in privileged positions (who have their basic needs met) are able to self-actualize.

Following such criticism, Maslow continued to adapt and refine his theories, claiming that the structure of the hierarchy was not as rigid as he had made it seem in his original paper.3 Later, in 1987, he stated that behavior is multi-motivated, rather than driven only by one level of need and suggested that the categories could in fact overlap.3 Maslow also later added new components to the hierarchy, including cognitive, aesthetic and transcendence needs.3

Maslow’s pyramid has also been criticized for suggesting  a one-size-fits-all conception of human motivation, which fails to recognize how different cultures, genders, or ages could cause motivation to differ. Recognizing this failure of the hierarchy of needs, Maslow revised his theory, stating that the structure is flexible and that the order of levels might be different for different individuals. For example, esteem might take precedence over belongingness for some people or cultures.3

Moreover, a lot of criticism of Maslow’s pyramid focuses on his lack of scientific methodology. Maslow came up with his conception of self-actualization by examining the characteristics of individuals who he believed were self-actualized. This type of biographical analysis is clearly highly subjective, meaning Maslow’s definition of self-actualization may not hold up universally.3

Case Studies

Strategic Palliative Care through Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s pyramid has gained popularity in business and education, however, a recent study suggests that it also can have impacts on hospice care. A hospice is all about ensuring that the needs of the sick or terminally ill are met; the system could benefit from a prescriptive guide on how to best meet its goals.

Medical professionals Robert Zalenski and Richard Rapsa suggest that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help structure patient care by pointing to the urgency of fulfilling basic needs before moving on to more complex needs.9 The pyramid therefore provides a logic that, although at times needs to be flexible, can be used to standardize hospice care. At the bottom of the pyramid would be ensuring that physical pain is diminished; the second level would be to relieve fears so that patients can feel secure; the third level would be to ensure the patient has support systems; the fourth would be to ensure the patient feels like their life achievements are recognized.9 By addressing all these needs, patients would have the best chance of achieving self-actualization and may feel more at peace with their life coming to an end.

Social Protection and Community Needs

Maslow’s pyramid is based on the concept that humans have different levels of needs, some of which need to be fulfilled before others can be addressed. By extrapolating  this notion to communities, policing practice can be adapted to suit the particular needs of each community. In their 2016 study, criminal justice professors Melchor de Guzman and MoonSun Kim suggested applying the model of a hierarchy of needs to address when Community Oriented Policing (COP) will be successful.10 These days, much of the controversy surrounding police demonstrates the public’s lack of trust in the police, making it an important area to research.

The study draws from previous research of a hierarchy of social needs which also assumed that base levels of need had to be fulfilled in order to address higher needs. This previous hierarchy of social needs placed social order recovery as the base community need, followed by social order maintenance, and finally, social order enhancement. De Guzman and Kim suggested that more traditional police strategies are necessary for the first two levels, but that COP better addresses the third need, enhancement, which follows from Maslow’s self-actualization.10 When a community has their basic needs addressed by the police force, they will then be able to focus on addressing higher needs of growth.

Related TDL Resources

Supporting Our Frontline Workers with Behavioral Science

The ideology behind Maslow’s pyramid is now being used in the medical field in order to properly address the needs of both patients and physicians. In this article, our writer Neir Mazur explores the way the public can support frontline workers by trying to ensure that their more basic needs are met, allowing them to focus on self-actualization. By focusing on their purpose as frontline workers, they would in turn be better physicians and better able to help patients.

Nudging Against Polarization: Jesse Itzkowitz

While critics of behavioral economics suggest that nudging is a manipulative tool, behavioral scientist Jesse Itzkowitz suggests that nudging can be used to enhance people’s lives. He suggests that a model like Maslow’s can help people understand the different levels of human need, and therefore address them adequately.

How Scarcity Affects the Working Poor

Sendhil Mullainathan’s theory of scarcity posits that poor people make worse decisions as a result of their basic needs not being met. This theory is backed by research and has major implications for how society treats and helps their impoverished.


  1. BrainyQuote. (n.d.). 34 Abraham Maslow quotes. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from
  2. Cherry, K. (2020, June 3). The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Verywell Mind.
  3. McLeod, S. (2007, February 5). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology.
  4. Selva, J. (2020, July 26). Abraham Maslow, His Theory & Contribution to Psychology.
  5. The School of Life. (2020, September 28). The Importance of Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. Retrieved November 8, 2020, from
  6. Sudarikov, N. (2020, February 5). Maslow’s Pyramid Applied to the Company. The Future Shapers.
  7. Ladagga, R. (2020, October 5). What ‘hurts’ your business? Find out with the Maslow Pyramid of SMEs. Entrepreneur.
  8. Horne, K. (2019, February 27). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Why it still matters in 2020.
  9. Zalenski, R. J., & Raspa, R. (2006). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: A framework for achieving human potential in hospice. Journal of Palliative Medicine9(5), 1120-1127.
  10. de Guzman, M. C., & Kim, M. (2016). Community hierarchy of needs and policing models: Toward a new theory of police organizational behavior. Police Practice and Research18(4), 352-365.

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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