Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, along with the famous pyramid diagram that so often accompanies it, is often misunderstood thanks to a superficial understanding of what it really means.
The traditional diagram usually takes the form of the sketch above (although it has been embellished in many ways) – a stack of five classes of needs from the most primitive physiological needs right up to self-actualisation at the top. The description that accompanies this diagram usually states that once you satisfy the need at the bottom, the next one crops up.
This is, of course, a huge simplification. It is much easier to understand Maslow’s theory if you draw things a little differently:
This diagram shows a bar for each need as before, but each bar (shown in green) is the same size. The bar represents “This need is 100% met“. As you can see from the values inside the bars, the physiological needs do not have to be entirely satisfied before the safety needs begin to motivate the person; and the safety needs do not have to be entirely met before the love need begins to motivate.
In fact, each individual may have a slope of a differing angle. A steep slope would indicate that the individual is faster to find the new categories of need than an individual with a less steep slope.
One of the other mistakes is the belief that behaviour can be easily linked to a type of need. The fact is that someone drinking coffee may be satisfying a physiological need (they are thirsty, or perhaps tired) or they may be satisfying an esteem need (they will earn the respect of their coffee-quaffing peers). In most cases it is likely that a behaviour is satisfying multiple classes of need, or is in fact not motivated by need at all.
Additionally, the traditional pyramid or triangle representation disguises the fact that a previously well met need could become less well met without diminishing the motivation of a higher level need. For example, once you have gone some way to meeting your physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualisation needs, you may not be as motivated when you start to become hungry. You may not be motivated to eat if you are busy writing an excellent article – thus allowing esteem or self-actualisation to be a larger motivator even though the physiological need is no longer being met.
You are much more likely to be driven by physiological motivation if you have not ever met the need well enough to find higher motivations. In fact, it may well require that the need is dangerously unmet to motivate you to take action. In an extreme situation such as chronic hunger you may find that you are willing to compromise on all of your higher needs in order to satisfy the more basic need.
Importantly, emergency situations are very rare in modern society, so it is unlikely to find that people are singularly focussed on satisfying a single need. Additionally, these needs are not the only trigger for action, so attempting to measure an individual’s needs based on their actions is unlikely to tell you what is really motivating them, because they may be acting on a different stimulus or satisfying a different need to the one that seems apparent from their behaviour (as in the coffee example).
Maslow’s A Theory Of Human Motivation explains all of this quite clearly – but too many people are happy to base their understanding of the theory on a diagram that causes confusion.