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You've probably seen the pyramidal diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It's straightforward enough but, it might be a bit too subjective to really measure human needs.

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Humans are driven by all kinds of wants and needs. They can be as simple as needing food to keep your body going, or as complex as wanting to write a symphony.

Psychologists are curious about what motivates us, moment to moment and year to year. And they aim to describe these motivations in a way that’s useful for things like clinical treatment or, like, managing lots of kids at summer camp. In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in his paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation.

But while some of his ideas have stuck around, others have been left behind. Psychologists nowadays are trying to paint a more nuanced picture of what makes us tick. Back in the mid 1900s, Maslow set out to create a comprehensive theory of human motivation, supported by clinical and experimental evidence.

Referencing other research, he believed that our behavior is driven by unmet needs: if your body needs nutrients, you feel hungry, and you eat. Things like that. And he proposed that we’re motivated by very basic needs first and most strongly, before worrying about other things.

Maslow also recognized that context and culture affect human behavior, so he wasn’t claiming that these ideas were totally universal. But he wanted to identify things that most people have in common. What he came up with was a pyramid, which you’ve probably seen in any Psych 101 class.

The most basic needs are at the bottom, and higher-order needs are at the top. At the base, he put physiological needs -- the stuff you need to survive, like food, water and shelter. From there, they get a little more philosophical.

They cover basics like feeling safe, but also more complex needs like feeling loved, or having self confidence. At the very top, he put self-actualization, or wanting to fulfill your potential and pursuing things like art or music. And later, Maslow added self-transcendence, which he defined as aspiring to a higher goal outside oneself -- like through altruism, or spirituality.

Now, Maslow’s “evidence” for those top-tier needs was based off of a qualitative biographical analysis, where he tried to find common qualities of a short list of people he decided were self-actualized. This included historical figures like Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt, but also a group of unnamed people who were alive while he was doing this research. And this is obviously a very subjective approach to research.

Plus, when you have a small sample group with majority of educated white males, it’s hard to say how well these results generalize to...everyone else. Despite the flaws, Maslow’s ideas have been widely taught, and have found some use in fields like nursing and education, to help evaluate how patients and students are doing. And nowadays, other psychologists are trying to test Maslow’s ideas and develop their own lists of human needs.

For example, one psychologist proposed a hierarchy of three need categories based on Maslow’s ideas and other research: existence, which are bodily and safety needs, relatedness, which are social things, and growth, which is like self-actualization. Some studies have people fill out questionnaires about their lives and well-being. Like from 2005 to 2010, one psychologist worked with the management company Gallup to send out a poll to countries around the world.

In total, they surveyed 60,865 people from 123 countries, and got responses to questions related to the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, along with things like general well-being and everyday good and bad feelings. The researcher worked with another psychologist to analyze the data, and they published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011 with their conclusions. While they did find that Maslow’s needs are generally important to people in many places, the hierarchy is maybe not so much of a pyramid.

It’s more like overlapping circles. Not every need has to be fulfilled before you can think about the next one, which makes sense. Like, you can be hungry and still have fun hanging out with friends….

And while basic needs like food were a good predictor of overall life satisfaction, their data suggested that everyday happiness was more linked with things like respect and social needs. So Maslow was trying to identify some core human motivations, but his research had some pretty big limitations, too. We can’t exactly predict what we need and how we act based on that textbook five-tier pyramid.

But thankfully, with more comprehensive surveys, questionnaires, and other research methods, psychologists have better tools to measure subjective things like human needs, wants, or feelings. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon -- without you guys, this channel wouldn’t exist! If you want to support us there and get some cool perks, you can go to

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