Universal Human Needs (Updating Maslow)

Author(s): Brandy Perkl, Ph.D.

Originally posted: March 7, 2016

Before you read this post I strongly recommend reading my Introduction to Updating Theories. Note: Since I focus on work motivation more than overall life motivation in my own studies, I'll keep this post mostly focused on the bottom 4 levels of the pyramid.

The New Pyramid

Maslow didn't get everything right back in 1943, but he DID get our basic needs down perfectly (the bottom four levels), which is an excellent start. The idea that Maslow's pyramid felt right but wasn't quite right got a ton of attention thanks to a team of evolutionary psychologists led by Douglas Kenrick of Arizona State University (2010).

The New Pyramid of Needs (2010; according to Evolutionary Psychology)

What human needs are universal?

As explained in more detail below, the bottom four levels of the pyramid have been supported for years by research in many different fields (though they often use slightly different terms for the same ideas). Thus, we can absolutely all agree that these represent universal human needs: Immediate Physiological Needs → Self-Protection → Affiliation → Status/Esteem.

The Universal Needs + Work

Psychologists, sociologists, and all the other -ologists have a tendency to use slightly different words to talk about what are, for our purposes, the same thing. I've included lots of words to describe the same things for each of these concepts to help you research the topics if you want to.

Immediate Physiological Needs (Boundless)

We need, at a minimum: air, water, food, shelter, sanitation, touch, sleep and personal space.

Out of that list, you might be surprised by a few items such as touch and personal space, but studies of humanity over many years have proven those to be true. For the majority of humans, sex also becomes a biological need after puberty, but is more closely tied to our need for affiliation due to the inability we have to divorce the act from the rituals around it which are defined by culture - thus you'll find that biological need best explained via the top 3 tiers of Kenrick's pyramid. That's part of why his pyramid does not have any need separated completely from one another, they can't be!

Applying this to the workplace: If someone's basic needs are not taken care of, you cannot 'motivate' them - unless what you're trying to get them to do could possibly address those needs. For example, if a person cannot feed their family and you are trying to motivate them to file more TPS reports faster, good luck. If the incentive is not increased pay or something else that will provide their family with food security you're just wasting everyone's time. In addition, if the person is severely stressed by their basic needs not being met they probably cannot achieve the same level of results as someone relieved of those stressors. Being hungry or unsure where you will sleep at night is very distracting.

Self-Protection (Safety)

We need to feel safe. When we feel unsafe, the animal levels of our brain take over, often to our detriment.

Applying this to the workplace: When people feel unsafe at work, their brain becomes preoccupied with their need for safety, limiting their ability to do complex work and to perform in general. It's a basic brain rule that if someone does not feel safe with a teacher or boss, he or she may not perform as well (Medina, 2008). If a space is to be safe, people need to be safe from:

Affiliation (Belonging/Relatedness)

As early as 1930, Adler asserted that we had a fundamental need to belong. Since then, research has continued to confirm this idea. It's clear now that the need to belong affects people’s cognitions, emotions, and behaviors, and a chronically unmet need has many negative consequences that can profoundly affect an individual’s life (Gere & MacDonald, 2010).

Applying this to the workplace: Ensuring people can meet these needs, either by protecting and facilitating work/life concerns or facilitating a culture of belonging in the workplace can ensure performance doesn't suffer.

"Research has also demonstrated that when the need to belong is threatened, cognitive processing of non-social, complex stimuli appears to suffer, consistent with Baumesiter and Leary’s (1995) suggestion that belongingness threats may tax cognitive resources. For example, participants who received false feedback that they would have a lonely future subsequently performed worse on an intelligence test, on recalling complex passages, and on answering complex analytical questions compared to participants who received future acceptance or future non-social misfortune feedback (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002)... However, participants’ performance on easy tasks or on simple recall in these studies was not affected by rejection experiences (Baumesiter et al., 2002; Chen et al., 2008). These findings suggest that threats to belonging lead to impairments on complex, higher-order cognitive processing, but more basic cognitive processing is not affected. " - (Gere & MacDonald, 2010)

Need for Status/Esteem = Autonomy + Purpose + Mastery

As happens all too often, there is a gap between what science knows and what business does. A prominent example is how many business leaders still seem to be unaware that they should be focusing on inspiring intrinsic motivation in their employees (despite the fact that science has shown how effective intrinsic motivation can be.)

The talk below summarizes the idea at the heart of Dan Pink's book Drive.

Applying both of these ideas to the workplace: The reason these ideas go with the idea of status/esteem at work is because people do equate their purpose with those needs. We also get status and esteem from our work via how our organization chooses to reward us. Obviously, I do not feel valued or of high status if my work is being ignored or is underappreciated. To meet this need at work, we should focus on creating situations and environments which enable and encourage everyone to be high performers and to support the high performance of those around them.

The Top of the New Pyramid or Why I think it's ok to let go of Maslow's idea of self-actualization

Kenrick's detractors tend to be the most upset by the 'loss' of self-actualization (it's not lost if you actually understand what he's saying) and the idea of mates and babies taking over the top spots (2010). I am currently an unwed childless woman - yet I can see their points clearly reflected in the overall trends of human activity. I may currently be an exception to the pyramid, and so might many others, but we're talking about 'what most people are more likely than not to do'...(Perkl, 2016). With that lens, Kenrick's revisions to Maslow's work make more than just sense, they hold up to a critical look for scientific bases for each level.

"Westerners still live in a culture where professional success and family obligations are often at odds. If we’re forced to prioritize by either choosing parenting or work — which represents both (economic) safety and esteem – it means some of our most fundamental motivations are in perpetual opposition to one another. That’s a clear recipe for chronic stress." - (Jacobs, n.d.)

"Maslow’s favorite examples of self-actualization involved poets and artists and musicians striving for perfection. Such strivings can be neatly folded into the desire for esteem and status." - (Kenrick, 2010)

How our Needs Affect Our Work

The very best workplaces make sure we can meet our needs either because we are there or while we are there. That's the ticket to highly motivated employees actually - as soon as someone DOESN'T feel these things their focus shifts and then they can't produce at a high level. And if they feel their needs are threatened at work (or at home) all the time they will deteriorate - chronic stress is very very bad for people.

The Bottom Line

An unmet need at any of these levels interferes with our ability to focus on anything besides meeting these needs, but this is especially true at the lower levels of the pyramid. If you want to motivate someone, you need to focus on enabling them to meet their needs.

One final idea... is culture king??

Companies that put human needs at the forefront of their strategy (usually via their company culture), have been seeing their performance rise. This is described through the lens of destructive and toxic leadership in a 2015 chapter by Lunsford and Padilla.

Optional▸ Further Exploration

Images by the author and from Thoughts on Maslow’s Hierarchy by Lunchbreath .


I've tried to keep these in order of reference in the post above vs. in the accepted alphabetical format to make finding one you need potentially easier.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the Pyramid of Needs: Contemporary Extensions Built Upon Ancient Foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(3), 292–314. http://doi.org/10.1177/1745691610369469

Boundless. Survival Needs. Boundless Anatomy and Physiology. Retrieved from https://www.boundless.com/physiology/textbooks/boundless-anatomy-and-physiology-textbook/introduction-to-human-anatomy-and-physiology-1/life-31/survival-needs-283-5203/

Adler, A. (1930). The education of children. London: Allen and Unwin.

Gere, J., & MacDonald, G. (2010). An update of the empirical case for the need to belong. Journal of Individual Psychology, 66(1), 93–115. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Popova, M. (2013, May 9). "Autonomy, mastery, purpose: The science of what motivates us, animated" [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/09/daniel-pink-drive-rsa-motivation/

Perkl, B.A.B. (2016). Updating theories pt. 1 - Freud, Tuckman, & zombies, oh my! Retrieved from http://brandyabrown.com/2015/02/updating-theories/

Jacobs, T. (n.d.). Maslow’s Pyramid Gets a Makeover. Retrieved March 7, 2016, from http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/maslows-pyramid-gets-a-makeover-20682

Kenrick, D. T. (2010). Self-actualization dethroned: Did we murder Maslow’s sacred cow? Retrieved March 7, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-murder-and-the-meaning-life/201007/self-actualization-dethroned-did-we-murder-maslow-s

Lunsford, L. G., & Art, P. (2015). Destructive and toxic leadership. In Leadership in Sports (pp. 63–78). Routledge. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280077191_Destructive_and_toxic_leadership