Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory developed by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow. It is one of the most widely discussed and referenced theories on motivation.
Maslow’s perspective is a wide-ranging overview of human motivation. It incorporates a blend of biological and environmental motives which represent the increasing complexity of human requirements. The theory is based on five hierarchical levels. Each level represents an increasingly complex set of human needs.
The theory states that basic needs must be met, or at least partially met, before more advanced or evolved needs can be addressed. These needs are arranged in a pyramid form and indicate the varying strength and importance of each. The basic needs or requirements that are vital for daily survival form the bottom level of the pyramid and are the most important. The needs that are less important to survival or aren’t relevant to survival are higher up the pyramid.
The following describes the five levels starting with the bottom of the pyramid, or level 1:
Physiological. These needs are the literal requirements for human survival and form the largest and most important part of the hierarchy. Metabolic needs such as food, water and air as well as protective elements like clothing and shelter are all included in this level. If these most basic of needs aren’t met the hierarchy becomes obsolete as we cease to function.
Safety and Security. At this point the focus shifts from immediate survival to longer term survival. Assuming the physiological needs have been relatively satisfied, the need for safety will take precedence and govern behaviour. All organisms, humans included, seek order and desire an environment that is free of danger and chaos. This can explain why the bulk of humans try and live stable lives where they have jobs, homes and insurance. Through these things we can not only achieve personal and financial security but secure a safety net against potential accident, illness or misfortune.
Belongingness and Love. After we have attained an adequate long term sense of safety, we then look to meet needs of a more social nature, these being belongingness and love. The need to love and be loved, both sexually and non-sexually is an important part of what makes us human. We all need to belong and feel we are accepted by various social groups. For most of us we meet this need through small or close social connections such as family, close friends and intimate partners. Others may look to larger social groups such as clubs, sports teams, professional or work groups and in some cases, gangs.
Esteem. Once we feel a sufficient sense of belongingness and acceptance we then become concerned with needs related to esteem. More specifically the need for stable self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem may be attained via professional or personal avenues and may take the form of achievements, recognition from others or the jobs we do. However we attain self-esteem the bottom line must be that we feel self-valued and have a sense of contribution.
Maslow states that esteem needs can be divided into two categories, lower and higher. The lower category refers to needing the respect of others. This respect may be attained through status, recognition, fame or attention for example. The higher category refers to the need for self-respect. Examples include competence, self-confidence, strength, independence or mastery. The higher category, self-respect, is considered to be the more powerful and longer lasting form of esteem. This is because self-respect is an intrinsic form of esteem, whereas respect from others is considered to be extrinsic and can often be fleeting.
Self-actualization. Self-actualization pertains to the desire to explore, understand and fulfil one's own potential. This broad definition becomes much clearer when considering individuals and the specific goals they may have. For example you may have a desire to achieve great things as an artist, athlete or parent. The need for self-actualization is often the source of frustration for those that have considered what they really want to do in life. For example, take someone trapped in a job due to financial commitments, who yearns to become an athlete or an artist. This person may become increasingly frustrated in life because their need for self-actualization is not being met.
Maslow states that a clear understanding of this level is achievable only after previous needs have been met and mastered. As a result very few people ever attain self-actualization, which is the reason it’s the highest and most difficult level to reach.
Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy can be summarised as follows: As humans we have needs, wants and desires which influence the way we behave. If our needs are unsatisfied they play a major role in influencing our behaviour. Once our needs are satisfied, their influence on behaviour becomes much less apparent.
As our needs are many and varied, they are arranged in order of importance, starting with the most basic of human needs and finishing with the most complex. Before advancing up the needs hierarchy, the preceding need must be at least partially satisfied. What passes for partially satisfied will be determined by the individual. As a person progresses up the hierarchy they will demonstrate an increasing level of individuality, humanness and psychological health.
As with other theories and perspectives on motivation, Maslow’s needs hierarchy is subject to some criticism. One of the main issues is the ranking of needs. Some argue that Maslow’s needs don’t need to be met in their specific order, while others say human needs are more individualistic and are not, and never have been hierarchical.
Self-actualisation being the pinnacle of the hierarchy is also a point of contention. Some believe this arrangement is ethnocentric, and doesn’t cater for the differences between the social and intellectual needs of those raised in individualistic societies when compared to those raised in collectivist societies. Individualist societies tend to focus more on improvement of self, whereas the focus of collectivist societies is based more around community and acceptance and outweighs the need for individuality. This means Maslow’s hierarchy may not provide a blanket explanation to human wants and needs, and may only be relevant to those of us living in individualist societies.
How might Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs relate to exercise motivation and change?
Despite its criticisms Maslow’s needs hierarchy is still highly relevant to exercise motivation. The reason for this I would assume is that most people reading this are interested in self-improvement. This in turn means the chances of us having being raised in an individualist society are high. As a result much of the criticism regarding Maslow’s theory becomes irrelevant.
With this criticism having been addressed we can now look at how Maslow’s theory relates to us and our ability to build, strengthen and maintain motivation exercise.
A good place to start is to ask the question “where does exercise motivation fit within Maslow’s hierarchy?” At a stretch you could argue there are links to the first two levels, physiological and safety, but for the sake of keeping things relevant, let’s explore how exercise motivation fits in the top three levels only, these levels being: belongingness, esteem and self-actualisation. It is important at this stage to state that exercise motivation could fit into any one or all of these levels depending on the individual.
So after having established where exercise fits within Maslow’s hierarchy, the next logical step is to get clear on exactly what your motives for wanting to exercise are. From here you need to deduce whether or not these are the right motives or at least whether they will give you the best chance of success. Are they the kind of motives that come from within and will allow you to maintain motivation over time? Or are your motives more about wanting to fit in with others or related to how you want others to see you?
Take belongingness for example. If you want to exercise and look good in order to feel you belong and fit in with others, then you can presume that this motive is extrinsic in nature. You could then deduce that this motive will most likely not lead to you being motivated in the long term. Alternatively you may have intrinsic motives to exercise and go to the gym regularly. As a side effect you may feel a sense of belonging through being part of the gym community. This in turn will serve to strengthen your original intrinsic motives which will mean the chance of maintaining long term motivation is increased.
When considering the esteem level you can look at it in a similar way to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Self-respect, the higher level of esteem is intrinsic and the lower level of esteem, wanting respect from others is extrinsic. As you know from learning about extrinsic motivation, wanting respect from others is not the best approach if you want to maintain motivation over time. You need to ensure your motives reflect your need for self-respect and not the need for respect from others.
If your motive or need to exercise is linked to the highest level, self-actualisation, then chances are your motives are intrinsic in nature. This will likely mean you want to change for the right reasons. For anyone operating at this level becoming motivated long term becomes much more likely. As Maslow points out, however, reaching this level is not an easy thing to do.
One of the main themes that emerges from Maslow’s theory is the necessity to address the preceding, more basic needs before moving onto more complex needs. This alone may provide you with some insight into whether or not you’re ready to tackle a new exercise routine or endeavour. If your physiological and safety needs aren’t being met, starting a new exercise or health-related endeavour might not be the best idea at this point in time. For example if you’re tired from sleeping poorly, or you never have energy due to inadequate nutrition, this should be your priority focus before looking to do anything else. Likewise if you’re having issues with belongingness or esteem, you should first try and address these needs before committing to an exercise routine.
Simply put, you must ensure you have adequately met preceding needs before beginning to explore the more complex need for self-improvement through exercise. You need to give yourself the best possible chance to build, strengthen and maintain motivation and having unsatisfied needs dominating your thought processes and behaviours is not the best place to begin.
Take a moment to consider how Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy is relevant to the things you have done in the past or the things you are doing currently.
Coming next in part 8 – Motivational Theories: A summary