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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”: Theory Outline (Part 1)

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

Abraham Maslow's Theory of Human Motivation was first proposed in 1943 following a biographical analysis of people Maslow considered successful or “self-actualised”, such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Beethoven, Albert Einstein, William James, Aldous Huxley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa and more. The theory was popularised in other areas such as Business and Management since the 1960s and has been iterated and expanded multiple times, remaining relevant to this day. This article will provide a short overview of the theory and what it outlines based on its original form.

Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash

Mini overview

Theory: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs / Maslow’s Model of Human Motivation

Theorist: Abraham Harold Maslow

Original Publication Title: "A Theory of Human Motivation"

Original Publication Date: 1943

Journal: Psychological Review

Field of Origin: Psychology

School of thought: Humanistic Psychology

Topic/Area: Motivation, Human Development

Key Concepts: Human Needs, Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Love and Belongingness Needs, Esteem Needs, Self-actualisation Needs, Humanistic Psychology


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

When reviewing this work it is useful to keep in mind that Maslow is considered a Humanistic Psychologist. This means that his approach is part of a movement within Psychology that became prevalent between the 1940s-1970s and draws ideas from the philosophical standpoints of existentialism and phenomenology (APA, 2022b). Humanistic Psychology grew in parallel to the two mainstream schools of thought of Behaviourism and Psychoanalysis, which follow the scientific method, with its primary contributors rejecting the use of scientific methodologies for psychological treatment and intervention (Smith, 1990) in favour of a deeper understanding of the human experience through qualitative approaches. Maslow’s perspective therefore supports the belief that all humans are inherently good and unique, and should be treated as such in therapeutic relationships. In line with this mindset, Maslow’s approach to theory development (APA, 2022c) aims to gain an in-depth understanding of individuals, using qualitative methods such as observations and biographical analysis. Finally, Maslow is also considered a predecessor of Positive Psychology due to his focus on healthy and “self-actualised” individuals rather than clinical cases and psychopathology, like many of his colleagues (Joseph & Linley, 2006).

Some term definitions

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)

Theory Outline.

In his original publication, Maslow (1943) describes the Hierarchy of Needs by outlining five primary sources of motivation that can be observed for the majority of human beings. These include:

'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. However, he also states that “it seems impossible as well as useless to make any list of fundamental physiological needs for they can come to almost any number one might wish, depending on the degree of specificity of description” (p. 372), indicating that other needs could also be considered part of this category.

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). Maslow gives multiple examples, including the expression of these needs in children, who may look for safety in their parental figures, healthy adults, who may express these needs as a preference for stability and sameness in their daily lives, and “neurotic” adults, who may seek various coping mechanisms, such as obsessive compulsions, to ensure safety from perceived danger.

‘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, categorising Physiological, Safety, Love and Belongingness, and Esteem needs as ‘Deficiency Needs’, and Cognitive, Aesthetic, Self-actualisation and Transcendence needs as ‘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. However, 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.

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

The visualisation originates from C. D. McDermid’s work “How money motivates men” (1960) which was published in Business Horizons. The theory was popularised in the context of Management Studies by Douglas McGregor in 1956, and found its way into many business and management-related publications and consultation works. McDermid is mentioned as the first person to present the hierarchy in the form of a pyramid as a suggestion for evaluating employee compensation during his work as a business consultant in 1960. Prior to this, the theory was also visualised as a set of steps by Keith Davis in “Human Relations in Business” which was published in 1957.

Two common misconceptions

As mentioned in the introduction of this article, some of the nuances of this theory have been lost, especially in more recent years. This is partially because of its sheer popularity that often leads to surface-level understanding of the outlined concepts, and its multiple adaptations across different contexts, with the diagrammatic simplification of the theory being one of the contributing factors. The following points represent two common misconceptions that appear to come attached to this theory:

The hierarchy of needs has to have a fixed order.

In his original work, Maslow (1943) mentions that the hierarchy appears to be in “a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied” (p.386), clarifying that it was not his intention for this to be a strict hierarchy, but rather an observed set of requirements that may follow a different order in some cases. Maslow then goes on to describe various instances where some of these needs are “missing” or reordered, citing examples of people whose self-esteem is more important than love, or those with very high ideals that give up everything else to remain true to their values. He also discusses how various life events, such as a divorce or financial instability, may cause an individual to move through this hierarchy in a non-linear way over the course of their life.

Lower level needs have to be fully satisfied before moving to the higher levels.

Maslow also points out how his description may have suggested that “these five sets of needs are somehow in a stepwise, all-or-none relationship to each other” giving a “false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 per cent before the next need emerges.” (p.388). However this is also not his intention. As Maslow states, a “more realistic description of the hierarchy would be in terms of decreasing percentages of satisfaction as we go up the hierarchy of prepotency. For instance, if I may assign arbitrary figures for the sake of illustration, it is as if the average citizen is satisfied perhaps 85 per cent in his physiological needs, 70 per cent in his safety needs, 50 per cent in his love needs, 40 per cent in his self-esteem needs, and 10 per cent in his self-actualization needs” (p. 387).

The original theory re-visualised.

Bridgman et al., (2019) suggest that the theory was potentially intended to be described as a ladder where each need is a higher-level need. However, based on Maslow’s description, I believe that a representation that is closer to the initial intention, would be situated in a temporal context where all needs are simultaneously present but some become more prominent than others depending on various personal, contextual, interpersonal, cultural and other influences - a quick illustration below.

author's own - Maslow's hierarchy of needs revisited

Nonetheless, this is just speculation on my side. I am also well aware that this approach loses a lot of the intuitiveness and clarity of a pyramid or a ladder, both of which are instantly understood and well communicated, and have become a big part of the reasons why this theory is so well-known and still in use today.

If you are interested in a review and outline of how the theory can be applied to architecture and spatial design, please refer to the following article:


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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