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What motivates humans to take action? This has long been a fascinating topic for students of human behavior. One of the most important contributors to this area of psychological research is Abraham Maslow, who published a paper laying out his groundbreaking motivational theory, a hierarchy of needs, in 1943. Laid out as a five-tiered pyramid describing levels of human needs and aspirations, Maslow’s work was central to motivational theory for much of the 20th century.

Abraham Maslow, with others who had become disenchanted with Freud’s psychoanalytic approach and B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theories, was an early proponent of humanistic psychology. The humanistic school of psychology, often associated with the work of Carl Rogers, prided itself on a new, holistic explanation for human behaviors.

Looking at human behavior through the humanistic approach meant accounting for the more highly evolved levels of human motivation, such as creativity and the striving for self-actualization. Maslow, therefore, presented his hierarchy of human needs as a five-tiered pyramid, organized with the most basic human needs as the bottom tier of the pyramid, and the highest need, for self-actualization, appearing at the top.

When unveiling his hierarchy of needs, Maslow first asserted that needs at each level must be satisfied before an individual could move up to the next. Over time, he amended this theory, allowing that humans could move to a higher level once needs at the lower level had been substantially satisfied.

The first level of the pyramid represents the basic physiological needs of survival, including food, drink, shelter, clothing, sleep, and sex. Moving up the pyramid, the next level in Maslow’s hierarchy is about the need for safety. In addition to safety from the elements, this also includes safety gained from human governance, law and order, and security. The third level involves a sense of belonging and the giving and receiving of love. The fourth level is about self-esteem. Finally, at the top of the pyramid, the fifth level of the hierarchy, is the need for self-actualization.

Although psychologists have moved away from Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, his theory was extremely influential in the field of human motivation. Even today, organizations have been known to refer to his hierarchy of human needs in community planning and professional development.