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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”: Theory revisited in the era of evidence-based design. (Part 2)

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” has been part of “Pop Psychology” for a long time, with the iconic pyramid diagram appearing in multiple versions on Google Images after only a short search. With regards to its application, the theory is prevalent in the worlds of Management, Design, Self-help, Coaching, and numerous other areas, where it has been reinterpreted in various ways, receiving both praise for its simplicity, ingenuity and relatability, and harsh criticisms for its unscientific origins. Due to this popularity, some of the initial intentions of the theory have also become skewed along the way. This article will therefore aim to review Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs through the Psychologist’s original publication from 1943, and discuss its intended purpose in relation to current uses in Architecture.

Before delving into the article I would like to clarify some semantics. When using the following terms throughout this article, I am referring to their definitions in the context of Psychology. This distinction is important to make as the words that are used often have a different meaning and connotations in the context of Architecture and Design:

Theory: “a principle or body of interrelated principles that purports to explain or predict a number of interrelated phenomena” (APA, 2022d)

Scientific theory “a set of logically related explanatory hypotheses that are consistent with a body of empirical facts and that may suggest more empirical relationships” (APA, 2022d)

Concept “an idea that represents a class of objects or events or their properties, such as cats, walking, honesty, blue, or fast” (APA, 2022a)


The Hierarchy of Needs is a theory of motivation that was first published by Psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow in his paper for the Psychological Review entitled "A Theory of Human Motivation" in 1943. The theory outlines five categories of human needs that become drivers for an individual’s motivation including:

1. Physiological Needs

2. Safety Needs

3. Love (and Belongingness) Needs

4. Esteem Needs, and

5. The Need for Self-actualisation

These five primary sources of motivation can be observed for the majority of human beings. He describes each one as follows:

'Physiological' needs

Any requirements that must be satisfied for an individual to remain alive may be considered Physiological needs. Maslow gives many examples for these in his publication, where he broadly refers to food, water, air, warmth, and sleep.

Safety’ needs

This category of needs is broadly described as the requirement to seek security, including physical, psychological and financial security. Safety needs are referred to as “higher-level” needs that become an individual’s main focus after the physiological needs “are relatively well gratified” (p. 373).

‘Love (and belongingness)’ needs

Described as the longing for companionship and “affectionate relations with people in general” (p. 380) including the desire to be part of a group or have a loving partner. According to Maslow, these needs become an individual’s focus most commonly if both the physiological and the safety needs are sufficiently satisfied.

‘Esteem’ needs

An individual’s desire for a stable and positive evaluation of themselves, by themselves and others. Maslow differentiates two aspects of this need, including the need for achievement and self efficacy which correspond to the desire for self-esteem, and the need for a positive reputation which corresponds to the desire of being highly esteemed by others. Meeting these needs leads to feelings of confidence, adequacy and usefulness, whereas failure to sufficiently respond to them creates a perception of inferiority and helplessness.

Need for ‘Self-actualization’

The striving of an individual to reach their full potential. According to Maslow, “[t]he clear emergence of these needs rests upon prior satisfaction of the physiological, safety, love and esteem needs.” (p. 383), however he goes on to explain that even if this need is sufficiently met, people may continue striving to become the best version of themselves in perpetuity.

Although this article will not specifically focus on later versions of the theory, it is important to mention that these categories were later extended by Maslow (1954, 1962, 1970, 1987) to include:

• ‘Cognitive’ needs referring to the attainment of knowledge and understanding, and

• ‘Aesthetic’ needs referring to the appreciation of beauty (Maslow, 1987)

placed between Esteem and Self-actualisation needs, and

• ‘Transcendence’ needs (Maslow, 1970) which refer to the striving for values beyond the individual, (e.g. collective or spiritual realm), placed after the need for Self-actualisation.

In addition, the 1970 version of the theory, introduces an additional division of the needs, into ‘Deficiency Needs’, and ‘Growth Needs’. This division aims to clarify how Deficiency Needs create motivation due to deprivation of basic necessities, whereas Growth Needs are considered higher level needs that aim to enhance a person’s experience, understanding and connection with the world and themselves. These concepts are also mentioned, or described to some degree, in the 1943 publication but they are not listed as separate elements of the original theory.

The classic diagram.

The Hierarchy of Needs has been popularised as a pyramid diagram based on the Psychologist’s categorisation as described in the diagram below.

Author's own diagram of Maslow's hierarchy adapted from McDermid (1960) - maslow's original hierarchy of needs and extended hierarchy as explained in business and architecture

Although this is a very clear way of communicating Maslow’s core ideas, according to Todd Bridgman’s, Stephen Cummings’ and John Ballard’s 2017 paper, Maslow never intended for his theory to be presented in this way and was not the author of the pyramid diagram. The visualisation originates from C. D. McDermid’s work “How money motivates men” (1960) which was published in Business Horizons. It is therefore to be used with caution as the representation has already been taken out of its original context and adapted for a different use.

If you are interested in a more detailed view of the theory, its development and alternative representations, please refer to the following article:

Strengths and Limitations.

One of the biggest strengths of the Hierarchy of Needs as an original, influential and useful approach is its intuitive nature and relatability that resonates with many people. A notable indicator of this success is the fact that the theory is still discussed, utilised and expanded to this day, when much of the research from the 1940s has long been replaced by newer approaches and findings. The theory is also popular in applied fields such as Management and Business, where it has been used, with a level of flexibility, to create reward plans and address various challenges around employee engagement, retention, and satisfaction (Bridgman et al., 2019) tailored to different people and organisations. In addition, the fact that it focuses on the positive aspects of human growth makes it especially appealing and practically useful as a framework, for people who are interested in self-development, career advancement and other areas of personal growth that require a structured and positive mindset.

On the other hand, one of the major criticisms of Maslow’s theory is its lack of scientific origins and subsequent lack of empirical support, despite the claims of universality that are often adopted alongside it. Maslow reportedly derived his theory from reflections on people he considered to be successful or “self-actualised” during his time, such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Beethoven, Albert Einstein, William James, Aldous Huxley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa and more (Maslow, 1956), through biography analysis. However, as a qualitative approach, this method cannot reliably provide general predictions about human behaviour beyond the specific individuals or groups that have been studied, unless there is substantial subsequent evidence to support it. This type of evidence is more commonly derived through quantitative research with appropriate sample sizes that can more reliably indicate generalisability of findings. Some researchers and theorists have argued that similar results can also be achieved through detailed collection of information over a very long period of time through qualitative research (Robinson, 2012), but, (generally speaking, and without going into a nomothetic vs idiographic argument!), adopting a qualitative approach for this kind of insight is very costly and time-consuming, making it difficult to carry out in practice. As a result, a number of issues arise around the generalisability of this theory, including:

1. The limited sample from which the conclusions were derived that is not considered reliable enough to be generalised across populations,

2. The specific research method that was selected and utilised that is not appropriate for wider generalisation,

3. The presence of bias tied to Maslow’s personal perception of success, something that is also inevitably influenced by the historical era and geographical location he lived in; namely 1940s America, which comes with its own set of values, beliefs and cultural norms, (e.g. the majority of individuals studied being white males),

4. The absence of reliable testing of the theory across cultures and settings, and

5. The lack of clearly defined parameters that would allow such testing to take place using a scientific approach, as Maslow’s definitions within his categorisation is very ambiguous.

Some criticisms of Maslow’s theory also focus on the rigidity of the structure of needs which is presented as a hierarchy, citing the Psychologist’s own contradictory statements around his observed exceptions to the rule. However, this may have become even more prominent due to subsequent interpretations and diagrammatic representations of the theory, rather than Maslow’s original intentions, as discussed in previous sections.

Empirical Support

Following the publication of Maslow’s theory, efforts have been made to test it using a scientific approach leading to largely mixed results. Researchers Wahba and Bridwell in their 1976 publication entitled “Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory.” reviewed a number of factor-analytic, ranking, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies which attempted to test aspects of the theory. Their research indicated that there is partial empirical support for the concept of the hierarchy but no empirical support for other parts of the theory due to conceptual, methodological, and measurement problems. In more recent years, a study by Tay and Diener (2011) across a sample of 123 countries, examined the association between fulfilment of needs and subjective well-being using contemporary indicators that parallel Maslow’s categorisation. The study found some evidence to support the universality of needs, and the hypothesis that needs are achieved in a certain order. However, no evidence supported the hypothesis that the order in which needs are achieved influences their effects on subjective wellbeing, or that subjective wellbeing following the satisfaction of one need is related to the fulfilment of other needs.

Implications for Architectural Design.

As mentioned in the sections above, the original intention of the theory was to outline the needs that most commonly drive human motivation, with the main use cases for it being part of the field of Psychology. As such, there is no specific point in the original publication where an application to physical space is mentioned as intended. Nonetheless, I have found Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs cited fairly often in Architecture, and especially in Architecture School. I believe this may be the case because of the following reasons:

1. It is easily accessible, relevant and visually well communicated

At a fundamental level, due to the popularity of this theory, many students, academics, and professionals who are interested in Psychology are already familiar with this theory, or come across it fairly easily. Given that it is visually presented, easy to understand and communicate, and it incorporates a perspective from another field with a deep focus on human beings and their wellbeing, it often becomes incorporated into the narrative of design projects. Many research projects also adopt it as a framework, with a very interesting one I came across recently being Singh and Holmström’s (2015) paper which used the hierarchy to understand the level of Building Information Modelling (BIM) adoption as part of digital transformation in contemporary architecture offices.

2. It can be used as an argument to support the utility of design

The way the theory is presented lends itself well to becoming a justification for the importance of Architecture and Design as it addresses three fundamental areas that overlap with its utility; namely (a) the creation of shelter which can be associated with physiological or safety needs, (b) the provision of a safe and secure environment, associated with Safety needs, and (c) the facilitation of community which is related to the need for Love and Belongingness. From that point it can be argued that Architecture provides the infrastructure for these fundamental human needs. Later iterations of the theory also include (d) Aesthetic needs and (e) Cognitive needs which are also relevant through the provision of beautiful and interesting spaces for people to discover. Although architecture cannot directly help people self-actualise, some argue that (f) the process of creating space meets the Self-actualisation needs of the designer or that they (g) fulfil the needs of spirituality through ecclesiastical architecture and design, corresponding to needs for Transcendence (Webber, 2019).

3. It follows the compatible philosophy

The fact that this is a humanistic theory also fits well as a conceptual framework with ideas that are prevalent in Architecture, which very often falls under the “Arts and Humanities” department in many universities (at least in the UK). For some time now, there has been a focus on humanistic perspectives within Architecture and Architectural Education, including the exploration of social and socially constructed space, meaning, purpose and culture. As such, this theory that focuses on the positive aspects of human development and the attainment of self-fulfilment, resonates with this approach quite readily, especially in relation to healing and therapeutic environments (Mazuch & Stephen, 2005).

4. It can be used as an approach to prioritisation and problem solving

Due to the way the theory is presented, it appears to provide a clear hierarchy of which needs are to be fulfilled first. Although there are challenges surrounding this order, the hierarchy has been used to identify which problems are to be addressed or design elements to be prioritised, within the constraints of budget, time, brief etc of a given design project. An example being Zavei & Jusan, (2012) who adopted the hierarchy as a framework for understanding housing attributes selection based on different needs.

It is important to note that the above uses rely heavily on interpretation and recontextualisation of Maslow’s theory to address specific challenges around spatial design, and the utility and purpose of Architecture. Although cross-disciplinary application is not the intended use of this theory, it is not unusual for this to happen, as discussed previously through the example of the adaptation of the hierarchy for Business and Management applications. As an applied field, Architecture also tends to borrow ideas from other disciplines to construct a compelling narrative, provide new perspectives for design, or utilise novel information to resolve complex problems. This in itself is a positive approach that leads to innovation and creative problem-solving, however, some challenges arise when the material that is borrowed is not critically analysed within its original context, in a way that clarifies what is stated and what is interpreted, before being applied in a different area. As a result, it is always important to be aware of where information, concepts, and theories come from, in order to understand the assumptions, limitations, theoretical underpinnings and philosophies they are attached to before using it to form the foundations for communication, research, or design. In addition, I think this theory provides a good opportunity to discuss the differences in approach between sciences and humanities, as it touches upon aspects of theorising, generalisability and falsification of theories, something that is very relevant for designers in the era of Evidence-based Design, Big Data, and computational methods.

So, should it be used or not?

As with many things, there is no clear yes or no answer. The Hierarchy of Needs may lack the empirical support of a scientific theory, but it has demonstrated applications for individuals and groups, making it a useful framework of understanding people’s motivations in specific contexts. So, it really depends on where and how it is used, and the level of understanding of its limitations and underpinnings.

My personal position on this matter, in the context of decision-making that may affect wider groups of people, is that even though certain ideas and concepts resonate with us on an intuitive level, there should be systems in place to provide evidence that support or refute them before they can be used more widely. If there is no empirical support, we run the danger of ignoring key limitations that may eventually lead to false conclusions and assumptions, especially when applied across vastly different contexts. So if you are looking for an evidence-based approach, it is better to seek a more empirically supported source. When it comes to personal use or narrative-building as part of design projects, there is virtue in adopting this theory as a framework if it is compatible with one’s own views and priorities.


In summary, Maslow’s original Hierarchy of Needs outlines five categories of needs including Physiological, Safety, Love and Belongingness, Esteem, and Self-actualization, though the theory was later expanded to include Cognitive, Aesthetic, and Transcendence needs. The way that the theory is visualised as a pyramid diagram is derived by its adaptation for the world of Management, and therefore carries potential differences and simplifications of Maslow’s original descriptions of his concepts. In addition, Maslow’s theory, although popular, is not considered scientific due to a lack of sufficient subsequent evidence to support it. Some empirical support has been found for the existence of common universal needs, however, their order of fulfilment is dependent on various personal, contextual, interpersonal, cultural and other influences. The theory has been applied across various disciplines including Architecture, though this is something that requires a lot of care to avoid misrepresentations and misinterpretations of concepts, ideas and findings when they are taken out of their original context.


Archontia Manolakelli is an Architect and interdisciplinary Design Researcher based in Manchester, UK. Her commitment to designing more comfortable, inclusive and sustainable places using an evidence-based approach, led her to discover Environmental Psychology back in 2016. Since then she has continued to further her knowledge on this wonderful field through the study of psychology and approach to professional practice in architecture.


Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.




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