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If Needs Must

Have you ever asked yourself what you really need from life? Or what it is that drives you to get out of bed. What makes you go to work or to study? In other words: what motivates you?

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published a paper asking this very same question. What motivates us? His paper was a theory of human motivation. Now, it is one of the most important theories of psychology. In this hierarchy, or pyramid as it is often referred to, Maslow ranked the universal needs of humanity.

The original theory identifies five levels of needs. Everyone starts out at the bottom. When an individual has managed to secure their needs on their current level, they are able to progress to the next.

Level 1. Physiological Needs The physiological, or the physical needs in Maslow’s pyramid are the most simple. They are important from an evolutionary point of view. They ensure survival. Examples of these are air, food, drink, shelter, clothing, warmth, sex, and sleep. If these needs are not satisfied the human body cannot function optimally. Maslow considered physiological needs the most important as all the other needs become secondary until these needs are met. As these needs ensure survival, people will go extreme lengths to obtain them. They are incredibly motivated to ensure their survival. If survival is ensured, individuals can progress to the second level, where they are motivated to obtain various forms of safety.

Level 2. Safety Needs Now that the individual has ensured their survival they can stop and stay at that level, if that is as far as they wish to go. According to Maslow, however, motivation is a continuous process. Level 2 considers itself with safety. Safety takes form in the protection from elements, security, order, law, stability and freedom from fear. When an individual has obtained the resources and level 2 has been completed, the basic needs (level 1 & 2) have been met.

Level 3. Love and Belonging Needs After physiological and safety needs have been fulfilled, the third level of human needs is social and involves feelings of belonging. The need for interpersonal relationships is now what motivates behaviour. These interpersonal relationships are formed to obtain feelings of friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance. Affiliating with or being part of a group (family, friends, work, etc.) is extremely important. In this level, people seek out others not to form a safety net, but to actively find a place of belonging. Man is a social animal after all.

Level 4. Esteem Needs The need for esteem has been divided into two categories: esteem for oneself, and esteem given by others. The former means to feel a sense of dignity and achievement. It means to think of oneself as independent, successful and skilful. The latter means to receive status and prestige from others. Initially, the individual was motivated to belong to a group and fit the norm. As their acceptance has been assured, they now want to receive respect and status for being above the norm.

Maslow indicated that the need for respect or reputation is most important for children and adolescents and precedes real self-esteem or dignity. If level 3 and 4 have been completed, an individual has managed to meet both his/her physiological and psychological needs.

Level 5. Self-Actualisation Needs When both the physiological and psychological needs are met, people will strive to become the best version of themselves (Maslow, 1987, p. 64). They will do so by seeking personal growth and experiences that will help them grow as people. Maslow proposed that for the first four levels, the meeting of needs would decrease the motivation for them. For example, if I have met my need for food, my motivation to obtain more food is low. For this level, he proposed that motivation would grow stronger as the need for self-actualisation was met.

Although motivation would continue to grow with the person growing, not all people are able to make this level. Self-actualisation required the other levels to be completed, and it tends to be quite a select few on a world-wide basis who can claim to have realised full self-actualisation. Having said this, Maslow’s theory has been expanded to include three more levels for these select few (McLeod, 2007).

Additional Levels (McLeod, 2007) In the extended version of Maslow’s pyramid, the fifth level does not encompass self-actualisation. Rather, it focusses on cognitive needs. People would be motivated by the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. They would be motivated by their curiosity, exploration and a need for meaning and predictability. The sixth level that has been proposed to motivate people beyond self-actualisation is that of aesthetic needs, meaning the appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, and other forms in which art can be expressed. The seventh level in this extended pyramid of hierarchies is that of self-actualisation.

The eighth level is that of transcendence needs. A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the self. Within this level people are motivated by mystical experiences, experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences and sexual experiences. However, in this list is also service to others, the pursuit of science and religious faith.

To know someone’s level in the pyramid is to know what motivates them. This is incredibly useful for any form of trade or negotiation. If you are able to offer a person what they need, you can motivate them to provide you with something you might need.

Moreover, it teaches us about ourselves. I’ll ask you again: what motivates you?

References Maslow, A.H. (1943). "A Theory of Human Motivation," Psychological Review 50(4): 370-396.

McLeod, S. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology, 1.


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