Hierarchy of Needs definition

A theory proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow that categorises human desires by the force and necessity of the desire. It is most frequently arranged as a pyramid, with the most important needs at the bottom.

From lowest to highest, the levels of needs are: physiological (breathing, food, water, sleep, homeostasis, excretion, sex), safety (personal security, health and well-being, physical safety, ability to access shelter), love and belonging (friendship, family attachments, sexual and physical intimacy), esteem (confidence, achievement, respect by and for others) and self-actualisation (creative endeavours, acceptance of facts, morality, lack of prejudice).

The four lowest levels of the pyramid were identified by Maslow as deficiency needs, or ‘d-needs.’ If these needs are not met, the individual is likely to feel anxious and nervous, although there may not be a physical manifestation.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is cumulative – individuals don’t progress to seeking out the needs of a higher level until they have achieves those in the lower level.

The hierarchy has attracted criticism since it was first formulated, including whether there is a hierarchy to human needs at all. Other criticisms have focused on the fact that culture is an extremely strong predictor of the value humans place on particular needs – in individualistic societies, for example, people may be more concerned with acquisition of resources than forming physical and emotional attachments. 

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