How our needs motivate us

Anyone who has ever sat through lectures in Psychology 101 or motivational workshops will be familiar with Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, so what follows will be familiar territory. Common sense and sound psychology go hand in hand. The understanding of the human mind and  behaviour is not the sole domain of the professionals. Many a grandmother is truly worthy of an honorary doctorate in this discipline. In a paper, “A Theory Maslowof Human Motivation”, published in 1943, Abraham Maslow observed what most understand at an intuitive level. However, he successfully put his idea in a neat package and gave it a name, and, although his methodology was a bit suspect and has its share of detractors, in principle it has endured as an easily understood and common sense tool in understanding what motivates behaviour.

Physiological and Safety Needs

In a nutshell it proposes that we are goaded into activity (or inactivity) by our needs, starting with the most basic needs required for survival and then rising through a hierarchy of more refined and abstract psychological and ‘spiritual’ needs. At the heart of the model is the idea that we are unable to rise successfully through the hierarchy until the lower (or previous) need is met. For example, we will consider the very self-evident physiological needs. We need air and water and food to survive. Everything else we do will be put on hold until those needs are fully met. This is, of course, the ultimate argument of environmentalists who argue for the preservation of the essentials elements for life on the planet lest we all die. We can add attending to various bodily functions to this list. Sex, while essential to the propagation of the species and a powerful physical drive, does have a social and sociological dimension to it is as well. For humans it is not as compelling a need as it is, say, for the kamikaze mating ritual of certain spiders and scorpions.

Beyond the elementary physiological needs is a broader spectrum of needs associated with shelter, safety, protection as well as maintaining a secure and healthy environment. We attend to these needs in a variety of ways depending on our circumstances and where we live. Their scope ranges from basic day-by-day survival to maximising our security and enhancement of our level of comfort and lifestyle. We are not very different to most of the creatures of the natural world who spend the bulk of their time in foraging for food, nest-building, looking for a mate and raising a repeat version in the next generation till the whole show is over. If we didn’t fulfil this level of need we would be insecure, miserable and restless. In meeting our security needs we are enabled to get on with living.

need1Floriade spring celebration, Canberra, Australia

Love/Belonging Needs

Maslow developed his ideas during the dark days of WW II at a time when the world was confronted with issues of survival. Some 60 million people would eventually be killed and millions more would end up displaced and homeless. One can understand the practicality of his model. His next level of ‘Love/Belonging’ reflected the enormous disruption to family ties and relationships that war brings and the need to restore security in order to return to normality.  Whether in times of war or peace our need to love and be loved remains as arguably the most powerful universal force. So much of what we do is directed towards meeting this need.

People don’t spend hours in congested commutes, tied to a job they don’t particularly enjoy in environments that threaten their health and well-being because it’s fun. They want the money to pay for car that gets them to work so they can pay off the mortgage on the house – their family haven and retreat where peace and love reign supreme.  Why do we do it, when so often we leave for work while the kids are still asleep and return in the evenings when they are bedded down for the night? Do we risk working too hard that we run out  of quality time to connect? So many put so much effort into meeting their safety and security needs that there is limited time to devote to their belonging needs. In many instances the reality is that they have confused their needs with their wants and risk never being fulfilled at all.

Esteem and Self Actualisation

Much of what Maslow has said up to this point makes sense, though it is noticeably culturally biased towards a Western value system. The final levels of his hierarchy are more open to debate. They are certainly more abstract and harder to tie down. No one would question the importance of esteem, whether in the form of being respected and affirmed by others or self-respect. But it begs the question as to whether it is actually a need. In the same way as happiness is a state and not a goal or an objective, it could be argued that  esteem is a consequence of the healthy psychological state of an integrated or balanced individual.  There is also a ‘chicken and egg’ predicament as to its ranking in the hierarchy. Is esteem an outgrowth of our belonging/loving needs being met, or is it the other way around where the ability to establish a nurturing relationship begins with the confidence and strength of healthy self-esteem?

The pinnacle of self-actualisation is the most subjective of our needs. Maslow described it as ,”What a man can be, he must be”. It is the drive to recognise and then realise our potential. We will never be truly content till this happens. He later questioned his own idea basically because in his personal quest he found himself reaching to another level again – transcendence. But the idea of achieving one’s full potential is flawed because, firstly we are finite and will inevitably run out of time, and secondly the permutations and combinations of our potential are so fluid that reaching it is akin to predicting the shape of a wave. Finite creatures with infinite potential? Think about it. As he approached the end of his life Maslow’s began to reflect on the role of spirituality and altruism in motivation. No, he didn’t find religion, but this next-step in his journey is consistent with that of a person who spent much of his life explaining our existence in terms of a continuum of rising to the next level.


  • Maslow’s ideas are no longer taken seriously by many in the world of academic psychology, but on the other hand nothing much has replaced it as an introductory tool for the average person to understand motivation. It is not a complete framework, but much of it still has merit.
  • What is undeniable is that need is a powerful motivator – which is the primary premise of this post.
  • For all of the attempts to establish psychology as a science, it does not lend itself well to formulas and academic methodology. The essential frustrating paradox of psychology always recurs – we are all remarkable similar yet remarkably different. In real life we tend to determine our own needs and sort out our own hierarchy accordingly. The nature and intensity of many of our needs varies from one person to the next. They also change over time and are often confused with our wants.
  • The common factor of needs and wants is desire. We can get by without our wants being met, but surviving without our needs being met is much more tenuous.
  • Surprisingly, there is infrequent reference to the other major motivator – fear. It might be seen as a negative, but is actually an incredibly powerful motivator (more on this in the next blog).
  • In practical terms some of the more powerful motivators don’t get much mention in this hierarchy. We have a strong desire to be in control, to organise and add structure to our lives. We go to great lengths to achieve a level of predictability and eliminate uncertainty. Control involves much more than safety and security and is one of the most constant motivators.
  • austinWithout doubt, the most powerful motivator which has the capacity to override every other need is the hardest to define and describe. I settle for the term ‘spiritual need’ for want of a better term. It has its roots in belief and conviction but also in the experience of transcendence which cannot be effectively described or measured. It goes beyond our all other needs as we engage in the search for meaning in the journey of discovery of who we are in the big picture. More on this down the track.

In 2011 I visit the city of Hue (pronounced “whey”) in Vietnam and was shown the scorched relic of an old blue Austin. In 1963 the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, drove this car into the centre of Saigon where he self-immolated, all for the need to respond to the power of a belief so strong that all other needs were subjugated and he forsook life itself. The image became one of those unforgettable moments of history as an indelible reminder of how needy we are as creatures and how driven we are by our needs.

need2Glenorchy Lagoon, South Island, New Zealand
motivation2Lake Fagnano, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina