Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a model for understanding the motivations for human behavior. These include physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow created this model. It maps different motivations onto a pyramid, with each level representing a different human need.

He believed that people could not focus on the needs higher up the pyramid until they had mostly obtained the needs in the lower levels. Maslow also felt that fulfillment in life results from being able to meet the needs in all five levels.

Keep reading to learn more about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and its applications, as well as what happens when the needs are unmet and criticisms of the theory.

A diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, consisting of a pyramid with five layers.Share on Pinterest
Infographic by Bailey Mariner

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory about what drives human behavior and what makes humans feel fulfilled. It represents five key human needs that people must meet in order to achieve well-being. They are:

  • physiological needs
  • safety
  • love and belonging
  • esteem
  • self-actualization

Maslow mapped these needs onto a pyramid diagram, with each need occupying a different level of the pyramid. The lowest and biggest levels represent the basic and highest-priority needs that are essential for survival.

The smaller and higher sections represent self-esteem and self-actualization, which are essential for fulfillment or emotional well-being.

The pyramid diagram shows how Maslow believed that human needs are hierarchical, meaning some take priority over others. According to his theory, people cannot achieve the needs higher up the pyramid until they have taken care of the ones below. Maslow argued that it is only after meeting all five needs that humans can truly thrive.

Maslow published the hierarchy of needs in 1943. Researchers today consider it one of the most impactful ideas in personality science and motivation psychology.

Starting at the bottom of the pyramid, the five needs are as follows:

Physiological needs

These include physical needs that humans must meet in order to survive, such as:

  • food
  • water
  • sex
  • warmth
  • shelter
  • sleep

Safety needs

These include things that make humans feel safe. Order, predictability, and having a sense of control may contribute to this.

Safety can come from the actions of an individual or from their family or community. Depending on the person, it might include:

  • living or working in a safe environment
  • having a stable and sufficient source of income
  • feeling protected from crime or abuse
  • being in good physical health with no serious illnesses

Many people in the United States live in physically or emotionally unsafe environments. Feeling unsafe in childhood can affect mental health into adulthood.

Love and belonging needs

Love and belonging needs include the feeling of being connected to others, belonging to a group, and having secure relationships. People meet these needs through:

  • making friends
  • giving and receiving affection
  • emotional intimacy
  • feeling accepted by loved ones

Esteem needs

“Esteem” is admiration and respect. Maslow divided this part of the pyramid into two subcategories: the esteem a person has for themselves, or self-esteem, and the respect they desire from others.

Self-esteem involves a healthy positive regard for oneself. The things a person needs to have good self-esteem include:

  • self-worth, which is when a person feels they have value
  • competency, which involves feeling skilled or knowledgeable
  • dignity, which is feeling worthy of respect
  • independence, which, in this context, means a person feels they can do things for themselves

Esteem from others may involve gaining:

  • respect from peers
  • acknowledgment for one’s achievements
  • status or prestige
  • fame or reputation

However, Maslow noted that the healthiest form of esteem that comes from others needs to be earned. Celebrity and fleeting recognition cannot fulfill a person’s esteem needs long term.


The highest need on Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization, which involves a person knowing themselves, understanding their full potential, and reaching it.

This is different from the esteem needs of the previous section. According to Maslow, people who become self-actualized find motivation in growth and possibility rather than trying to gain something they lack. They see things that they or their community could achieve, and they pursue them, whether or not it results in an external reward.

Other characteristics that Maslow felt self-actualized people possess include:

  • a realistic perception of reality
  • acceptance of imperfections
  • flexibility and spontaneity in pursuing goals
  • autonomy and responsibility
  • consistent and strong morals
  • appreciation for life
  • creativity

Being self-actualized does not mean a person has no problems and is always happy. Maslow described self-actualization as an ongoing process rather than the end point of a journey.

People have applied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to many fields of study, industries, and societal issues. Below are some examples:


Education experts sometimes use the hierarchy of needs to help children reach their learning potential.

For example, in 2020, the Institutes of Education Science applied the theory to children receiving an education at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Children in this situation experience unique challenges and may feel unsafe due to the changes happening around them. The authors explain how caregivers can meet their physical, safety, social, esteem, and personal growth needs, even in a difficult situation.


In an older 2014 study, researchers argue that applying Maslow’s theory to the care of people in an intensive care unit (ICU) may have benefits.

People in ICUs tend to be oversedated and immobilized. The authors contend that although these measures are necessary for a minority of patients, they are not essential for the majority. In fact, they may have a negative affect on mental health and cognitive function.

To prevent this, the authors propose changing ICU care so that it considers overall quality of life and not just physical recovery. They advocate using less sedation and promoting mobility wherever possible.

Unmet needs in each category can have specific effects, such as:

NeedEffect if unmet
Physiological• physical illness
• hoarding behavior
Safety• anxiety
• psychological trauma
Love and belonging• loneliness
• antisocial behavior
Esteem• feeling worthless
• feeling invisible or unappreciated
• low self-confidence
• depression
Self-actualization• boredom
• cynicism
• lack of meaning in life

Maslow’s theory suggests that people’s needs at one level have to be mostly, but not completely, met before they can move on to the next level. He believed that unmet needs occupy the mind, preventing the pursuit of needs higher in the pyramid.

Thus, according to the theory, if a person is endeavoring to address their basic physiological and safety needs, they will not be able to seek higher needs for love, esteem, and self-actualization.

Below are some criticisms of Maslow’s theory:

The order of needs within the hierarchy is arbitrary

A 2015 study notes that one criticism of Maslow’s theory involves the order of needs within the hierarchy. Some critics say that while it is logical to put physiological needs first and self-actualization last, people do not necessarily pursue or obtain the needs in this order.

For example, some argue that a healthy relationship with oneself is an important requirement for having healthy relationships with others. Maslow himself met people who valued self-esteem more than love.

However, Maslow did not consider the exact order of needs to be rigid.

Self-actualization is not linear

In his early work, Maslow argued that a person could only self-actualize once they had met their basic needs. However, an older 2015 paper notes that, sometimes, not being able to meet one’s basic needs helps people identify their self-actualization goals.

For example, a person may have a stable career for many years, fulfilling their safety needs. However, if they lose their job, they may realize that their old career was not satisfying. Needing another source of income might spur them to pursue the job they truly want.

Maslow also acknowledged that unmet needs could be motivation for self-actualization in his later work.

The self-actualization teaching is not generalizable

Another criticism of the concept of self-actualization is that Maslow largely based his ideas on the biographies of notable historical figures, most of whom were educated white men. As such, the traits he observed in these successful individuals may not apply to all people.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory about what motivates and fulfills humans. The theory includes five needs, each of which forms one section on a pyramid. At the foundation of the pyramid are physiological and safety needs. In the middle, there are social needs, such as love and belonging. At the top are esteem and self-actualization.

People have applied the hierarchy in a range of ways, including in education, child development, and healthcare. Psychologists can use it to understand things that may be contributing to mental health conditions, too.

However, there are some misconceptions and criticisms about Maslow’s theory. It is important to remember that the progression from one stage of the pyramid to the next is not necessarily linear.