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:
- Physiological needs: basic biological needs, such as food, water and sleep
- Safety needs: the need to feel secure and safe, both physically, mentally, and financially
- Belongingness and love needs: human desire to have friends and loved ones in order to feel accepted
- Esteem needs: need to be appreciated and respected which boosts our self-esteem
- 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