What Is the Maslow Theory of Motivation?

By Staff WriterLast Updated Mar 25, 2020 7:20:54 PM ET

Abraham Maslow's theory of motivation asserts that humans are motivated by a hierarchy of needs: They act to fulfill basic survival needs before addressing more advanced needs or wants. This hierarchy is shaped like a pyramid, with the lower levels occupied by physical, physiological needs such as food, water and shelter. Self-actualization is at the peak of the pyramid of needs.

The order of needs in Maslow's hierarchy, in order from most essential and basic to the most complex, are physiological needs, followed by security needs for safety, then social needs such as love and belonging. The hierarchy progresses on to needs related to esteem and recognition, and, finally, self-actualization. According to Maslow, each preceding need has to be met in order to reach self-actualization, which is a state in which a holistically healthy person is able to realize his or her full potential.

Maslow first outlined his motivational theory in his 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation," and a subsequent book, "Motivation and Personality."

Maslow's research and theories represent a shift in the field of psychology. Instead of focusing on abnormalities, Maslow's humanistic psychology concerns normal development of average humans.

Maslow's theory of motivation assumes that humans are perpetually wanting. As soon as a person achieves goals, he or she is motivated to reach other levels of need.