Classics – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Do you get sick of the succession of students falling over themselves to obtain a career in ‘The City’? Even the credibility-destroying events that led to the worst recession in decades don’t seem to have deterred the lemming charge of undergraduates towards this particular high cliff. And when you ask them why they are interested in this type of career, there is one word which falls from their lips with depressing predictability — money.

Are these young people hopelessly materialistic? Is their only notion of value linked to the size of their potential bonus? If you look at the Fred Goodwins of this world you might say yes. But are bankers only greedy because they are stuck at a more rudimentary stage of psychological development?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

How far have you ascended?

In 1943 Abraham Maslow put forward his theory that human needs develop in a particular order. In his Hierarchy of Needs, he suggested that people first need to satisfy their basic physiological needs — food, shelter, sleep, sex, etc. Once these requirements have been secured then safety needs (protection, physical security, resources, job security, income, etc.) rise to the surface. Next come social needs such as relationships, family, intimacy, belonging, etc. After that, needs relating to esteem (achievement, respect, status, etc.) become more prominent. Finally, a desire for self-actualisation leads us to pursue personal growth, authenticity and individual meaning.

Later formulations of the hierarchy increased the number of levels from the original five to eight:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Social belonging needs
  4. Esteem needs
  5. Cognitive needs — knowledge, curiosity, understanding, self-awareness
  6. Aesthetic needs — beauty, sensory stimulation, balance
  7. Self-actualisation needs
  8. Transcendence needs — helping others to achieve self-actualisation, spiritual and global concerns

Geert Hofstede has criticised Maslow’s hierarchy for being culturally biased. He argues that placing of self-actualisation needs above social needs reflects a western, individualistic values system which may not apply to other cultures.

Hofstede, G. (1984) The cultural relativity of the quality of life concept. Academy of Management Review 9(3), 389-398 (see p. 396). DOI: 10.5465/AMR.1984.4279653

One basic tenet of Maslow’s system is that individuals are unlikely to progress to higher level preoccupations if they are uncertain how to satisfy a more basic need — it’s hard to think about your self-esteem when you are hungry. With the levels of debt faced by today’s students it’s hardly surprising that their concerns revolve around security and acquiring the resources to free themselves from their financial commitments. Perhaps those ‘lucky’ graduates who make it into the financial sector become trapped at this basic level because they are surrounded by a culture which reinforces the message that happiness can only be secured through the accumulation of wealth. Is their natural human development stunted and are they prevented from ascending to the higher levels?

Sometimes I present Maslow’s pyramid to these clients and ask them to imagine that all their financial worries are a thing of the past. Their security needs are met. I then ask them to visualise what they might eventually get from their jobs that could eventually satisfy them on higher levels. Sometimes it produces interesting results. Sometimes I just go back to checking their CV.

  • Should we be addressing our clients immediate needs or making them aware of how their priorities might change over time?
  • Does everyone have the potential to develop their higher psychological needs or do some people naturally stop lower down the pyramid?
  • Do you think the tiers are in the right order?
  • How have your needs changed over time?

Related posts:

Twisting the kaleidoscope

Recent research on Maslow’s needs.

How many needs? – Other needs models


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  1. #1 by David Winter on 25 January 2010 - 21:02

    Please ignore this post. I’ve just discovered a newer hierarchy of needs which obviously supplants Maslow’s.

    My hierarchy of needs

  2. #2 by David Winter on 27 February 2010 - 17:17

    A video giving a clear (if annoyingly patronising) explanation of Maslow’s hierarchy. Unfortunately, it’s only the old version, although she does do a teaser for Transcendence at the end. (Don’t be misled by the soft porn still image, there’s nothing titillating in the video!)

  3. #3 by David Winter on 2 November 2010 - 17:03

    Maslow’s hierarchy of hats (from Indexed)

    Maslow's hierarchy of hats

  4. #4 by David Winter on 11 November 2011 - 10:44

    Yet another interpretation…

  5. #5 by Karen on 20 January 2012 - 13:21

    One year later: Great questions and funny comments/posts.

  1. Does it flow? « Careers – in Theory
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  3. Non-stop action « Careers – in Theory
  4. Universal needs? « Careers – in Theory

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