A closer look: Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”

eveprogramme Best Practices, Personal development

Motivation is one of the keys to maintaining a good work-life balance and a high quality commitment to a company. Knowing how to identify employees’ needs can help managers make the right decisions to motivate them and uphold their individual and collective performance. Several theories have been put forward in an effort to get to grips with this source of human “strength”, including the “hierarchy of needs” developed by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow. The tool has garnered a huge following over the years because of how complex it is, and how effectively it can contribute to social sciences and management. To understand why people have found this theory so useful, let’s a take a closer look at it what it really is, how it is used, and how it has been criticized.


Who is Abraham Maslow?

First of all, who is Abraham Maslow? Born in New York in 1908, he studied at the University of Wisconsin and the New School for Social Research. Maslow was initially drawn to philosophy, then turned to psychology, which he believed could have a greater “direct” impact on society. The devastation of the Second World War, as well as some personal experiences, drew him to the study of human motivation and the quest for accomplishment. Considered by some to be the “father of humanistic psychology”, Maslow came to blows with the two intellectual powerhouses of his time: behaviorism and Freud. Going against these two trends, his approach took into account all aspects of what it means to be human, according to the context in which the person finds themself.

The hierarchy of needs: How does it work?

According to Maslow, a human being must have five vital needs met if he or she is to reach a state of well-being and personal fulfillment:

  • Physiological (not hungry or thirsty, air to breathe, homeostasis)
  • Safety (a home, the ability to move around in different spaces without feeling threatened)
  • Love and belonging (community groups, friendships, romantic attachments)
  • Esteem (feeling valued, resilience)
  • Self-actualization (achieving your potential by using talents, taking part in projects).

But above all, according to Maslow’s reasoning, these needs must come in a specific order: the first need on the pyramid must be satisfied before the next can be considered. So first we need to eat, then we need to feel safe, etc. The author does point out that we don’t move “automatically” from one need to the next only when the 100% mark has been reached. To be more “realistic”, in the words of Maslow, it’s better to think more in terms of percentage rates that allow you to move from one step to the next. For example, if you have met 25% of your needs for food, the need for safety gradually emerges, and so on.

How is this “hierarchy of needs” used?

It actually has a variety of purposes. In HR for example, it has long been applied when analyzing and looking for ways to improve employee motivation. Remuneration, for example, is designed to meet the primary need for food and shelter… But quality of life and interactions in the workplace also contribute to a feeling of belonging. Recognition  strengthens a person’s self-esteem. A feeling of independence brings about a sense of fulfillment.

In marketing, Maslow’s theories have inspired strategies aimed at encouraging customers to make purchases: for example, by elevating a standard consumer product to the status of “healthy” (which meets the human need to feel safe) or by valuing someone to enhance their self-esteem by promising to make them more beautiful. Computers or telephone brands often have a distinctive logo that creates a feeling of belonging, and so on.

The reasoning behind the hierarchy of needs can also influence public policies. It might be used to set minimum social standards for the primary needs of food and housing… Taking it further, might there then be the risk of moral judgment on those who receive state benefit but spend their money meeting other needs?

Drawbacks of the “hierarchy of needs”

Since it was published in the Psychological Revue, the article by Maslow has attracted criticism for variety of reasons. Despite its theoretical innovation, the tool would appear difficult to apply in practice. Some critics have also raised the lack of scientific rigor and data to prove Maslow’s theories, the absence of information on “demotivation” and the lack of importance he gives to cultural differences. But there is also a certain “elitist” bias to Maslow’s approach: his hierarchy has people with less purchasing power at the bottom of the scale, which limits them in their quest for personal satisfaction. He seems to suggest that these people cannot be expected to want “more” in life because they don’t yet have their “more important” needs met… Perhaps there is also another point to consider: in the age of social media, can internet access be considered a new “need”? Definitely, when you see that some basic processes, such as receiving social support or finding somewhere to live, are mainly managed online. And is it be possible to achieve a sense of belonging through digital communities? What about achieving success in a new economy which has a long way to go in terms of equal opportunities?

Life after Maslow…

Despite its limitations and criticisms, the hierarchy of needs has become a useful tool for understanding and analyzing human motivation. It has influenced many works, like those of psychologist Alderfer who studied the concepts of “desire” and “satisfaction”. This researcher found that the priority is to look at the intensity of a need (measured by the degree of satisfaction), regardless of its “position” on the pyramid. Other theories on motivation should also be considered, such as the one put forward by Clark Hull, which deals mostly with incentive or “drive”. He suggests that the human body works to maintain a certain harmony, by reducing its biological “needs” – states of hunger or thirst, for example – which can throw us off balance. And then there are Nudges, which bring about clear behavioral changes by creating feelings of pride and belonging. Like all scientific hypotheses, Maslow’s work is food for thought, it doesn’t need to establish an absolute truth about the world. We are responsible for finding the motivation we need to contribute our own ideas!

Marcos Fernandes with Marie Donzel for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson