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Apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to learning psychology

Apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to learning psychology

Maslow conceptualized a hierarchy that identifies categories of needs that humans are motivated to satisfy.

Taking time to consider what things in our lives we, as human beings, need to fulfill to be able to focus on higher levels of personal achievement can help us better understand the challenges we face in many different roles. Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation is a well-known theory in numerous domains of psychology. In learning, Maslow’s theory provides learners (as well as their educators, trainers, managers, or counselors) an explanation for an individual’s ability to be more attentive, versus less attentive, to the information that he or she is learning. For example, Maslow suggested that if a person is hungry or feels unsafe, his or her ability to attend to knowledge acquisition is reduced. Maslow’s theory encompasses human development, including one’s ability to attain self-actualization (attentiveness to the meaning of life, enlightenment, and a sense of peace).

The next excerpt featured in this section is from Aanstoos (2016), and the content elaborates on the components of Maslow’s theory and how it can holistically address learning effectiveness and ability based on the individual and his or her needs. This theory is applied in numerous learning contexts to support the process of learning. As you read, reflect upon the following questions about learning and learning environments, all of which can be theoretically addressed through the lens of Maslow’s theory:

· What dynamics could be affecting your own ability to learn?

· Do you feel safe sharing your opinions within a learning environment?

· Do you make others feel competent when helping them?

· How can our motivation to be successful be affected when we do not feel like we fit in?

Excerpts from “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”

By C. M. Aanstoos

The concept of a hierarchy of needs became the central organizing principle in Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation. A research psychologist who began his career in the 1940s with a series of studies on motivation, culminating with his book Motivation and Personality (1954), Maslow greatly furthered the understanding of human motives. When Maslow began his research, psychology largely regarded hunger as the paradigm for all other motives and examined motivation through animal studies, behaviorist theory, or both. Maslow rejected these early theories as insufficient to account for the human dimensions of motivation. He supplemented experimental study with clinical evidence and redirected the focus from drives to goals and from isolated determinants to a sense of the person as an integrated and dynamic whole.

The most important aspect of Maslow’s theory of motivation was the notion of a hierarchy of needs. Maslow first articulated this theory in his early works, including “A Theory of Human Motivation,” which appeared in Psychological Review in 1943, and he would continue to develop his theory over time. He first identified and differentiated among various clusters of motives. The five clusters he identified were as follows:

· physiological needs: survival needs, such as the need for air, nutrients, sleep, sex, and food

· safety needs: security needs, such as of self, of employment, financial needs, resource availability

· belongingness or love needs: relationships, such as friendship, family, and intimacy

· esteem needs: feelings of competence and accomplishment, respect from others, respect of self

· self-actualization: individual fulfillment needs, such as the need for acceptance of self, an understanding of the meaning of life, ability to express self and to be creative, and a developed sense of peace

He noted that, in the order listed, the clusters formed a hierarchy from lower to higher motives. (See Figure 6.2.) He pointed out that there is no final satiation point at which the person is no longer motivated, but rather that as a particular motivation is sufficiently gratified, another, higher motive will emerge more prominently. In Maslow’s terms, the higher motives are therefore “prepotent” with regard to the lower ones. Furthermore, there is a basic directionality in the order in which each motivational cluster becomes prominent.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The original model included five types of needs: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

Figure illustrates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs using a series of steps. The basic needs are located at the bottom step; the higher-level needs are located at the top step. The needs, from top to bottom, are as follows: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Examples of each type of need are provided

Later Developments

In 1955, following the success of his early studies, Maslow was invited to present his work at the prestigious Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. There he advanced his thesis by making a key distinction between deficiency motivation and growth motivation. The first four clusters of motives tend to be motivating precisely when they are lacking, when there is a deficit or empty hole that must be filled. In contrast, people who are very healthy psychologically have sufficiently gratified their basic needs. This does not mean they have obtained more in an objective sense, but rather that their experience is not structured by a sense of lack. With this experienced sense of sufficiency, healthy people are free to develop their motive toward self-actualization, which Maslow defined as an “ongoing tendency toward actualizing potentials, capacities and talents . . . of the person’s own intrinsic nature.” Thus self-actualization can be seen as a trend toward fulfillment and integration. He described 13 specific observable characteristics of such self-actualizing people, including being more perceptive, more accepting of the self and others, more spontaneous, more autonomous, more appreciative, and more creative, and having a richer emotional life and more frequent peak experiences.


As Maslow continued working, he began more and more to examine the lives of “self-actualizers,” those people whom he identified as exemplary of being directed by self-actualizing motivation. He saw that a person’s psychological life is lived differently when that individual is oriented not to the gratification of deficiency needs but to growth. This emphasis on growth soon became the focus of an emerging paradigm, known as humanistic psychology, studied by many other psychologists, including Carl R. Rogers. This emphasis on personal growth reoriented the study of psychology, focusing it not on issues of disease and negativity but rather on themes of personal enrichment and fulfillment, and of living an intrinsically meaningful life. Maslow’s book Toward a Psychology of Being (1962) is one of the hallmarks of this movement, which swept beyond academic psychology into pop psychology.

Maslow’s theory of motivation also influenced other disciplines, such as education and business. Research continues into the role of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the fields of business, management, leadership, entrepreneurship, organizational development, and marketing. Issues such as optimally motivating workplace environments and incentives for employees continue to be particularly engaging topics for these studies. Though many of the specific applications often oversimplify Maslow’s theory, the hierarchy of needs is still widely used, especially as the basis for management theories based on a vision of employees as most productive when synergistically and cooperatively engaged through opportunities for self-directed creativity rather than when subjected to authoritarian structures. Maslow himself considered this application important and contributed to it with his book Eupsychian Management: A Journal (1965). Maslow’s position was that the more psychologically healthy people became, the more important such enlightened management would be for any competitive business. [. . .]

This section evaluated the role of motivation in learning. Self-determination theory (SDT), considered in the first series of excerpts, highlights three variables that can increase one’s self-motivation: autonomy, competence, and belonging. Organismic integration theory (OIT), a sub-theory of SDT, suggests that it is also important to consider the extrinsic and intrinsic values that may affect one’s behaviors. SDT offers important variables that both the facilitator and the learner should consider. A facilitator can create opportunities for the learner to experience autonomy (self-control), competence (feelings of success), and belonging (a part of the contextual environment). The learner can identify why he or she chooses to do something, which might help explain why he or she is or is not experiencing success. For example, if a student has identified that her reason for attending school is to support her career success (identified regulation), then she might have more motivation to complete her course work than a student who is attending school only to please others (external regulation).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the focus in the second series of excerpts, can be used to support other learning theories, such as cognitivism, by encouraging facilitators of learning to place more attention on a learner’s needs during the learning activity. Through purposeful engagement of holistic practices, learners can also better facilitate their learning. For example, consider your present learning experiences. Are there unmet needs in your life that could be holding you back from more fulfilling learning? How could you more purposefully address your own needs to increase your success in learning and in life? How could this foundation help you to support other learners (e.g., your children, employees, or teammates)? See Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Is Self-Actualization Possible? to further consider how we can use what we know about Maslow’s hierarchy in daily life.

Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Is Self-Actualization Possible?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that there is a purposeful process of learning and self-development, where needs must be met to unlock the next level. Self-actualization, which is at the top of the hierarchy and is thus the most challenging need to satisfy, is often a misunderstood concept, as without a deep understanding of the theory and Maslow’s intentions, self-actualization can too often be considered as “just being in a good place in life,” when in actuality it is about that “sweet spot” where we have embodied who we are and our place and importance in the world (Rosser & Massey, 2014). In addition, most educational and learning courses that reflect on Maslow’s theory rarely consider it from a development perspective.

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