Coming out of the dark: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

september 26th, 2014 · by John · Weblog EN

The first decades of the twentieth century were dark years for organizational psychology. Two approaches were leading the thinking on human behavior. On was psycho-analysis. Consistent with the survival-of-the-fittest views of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Sigmund Freud (1856-1839) saw no moral difference between people and animals. Next there was the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) where human needs models were solely based on hunger, thirst, sex and the avoidance of pain. Warm human bodies thus were reduced to cold statistical averages.

Then in 1943, Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) presented the hierarchy of needs. It was a radical departure from prior thinking on human behavior. Maslow wanted to understand what really motivates people. As a humanist, he believed that people have an inborn desire to be all they can be.

Maslow’s hierarchy includes five motivational needs, often depicted as levels within a pyramid. The lowest levels are made up of the basic needs and the more complex needs are located at the top of the pyramid. The basic needs are the physical requirements people need in order to survive. Once a lower-level need has been met, people can move on to the next level of needs.

If you’re hungry and thirsty, you’ll try to take care of the thirst first.  You can do without food for weeks, but you can only do without water for a couple of days!  Thirst is a stronger need than hunger.  Likewise, if you’re thirsty, but someone has put a choke hold on you. Which is more important?  The need to breathe, of course. 


As people progress up the pyramid, their needs become more psychological and social. After the physiological and safety needs, the need for love, friendship and intimacy become important. Further up the pyramid, the need for personal esteem and feelings of accomplishment take priority. In line with his humanistic beliefs, Maslow emphasized the importance of self-actualization: the process of growing and developing as a person in order to achieve potential.

The need for self-actualization refers the realization of a person’s potential. It is the desire to accomplish everything that one can and to become the most that one can be.  The self-actualization level is fundamentally different from the other needs. Once engaged, they continue to be felt and they become stronger as people feed them.  The need for self-actualization involves the continuous desire to fulfill potentials.  They are a matter of becoming the most complete, the fullest you.

Individuals may focus specifically on the need for self-actualization. One may have the desire to become an ideal parent, in another the desire may be expressed athletically and still for others, it may be expressed in paintings or inventions


Human motivation is based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth. Self-actualized people are those who are doing all they are capable of. In self-actualization people come to find a meaning to life. It is a continual process of becoming rather than a perfect state of being happy ever after. The dark days were over. To paraphrase Alexander Pope: Behaviorism and Psycho-analysis made organizational psychology lay hid in night. But the Maslow said, “Let the Pyramid be!” and all was light.

John Greijmans

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