How to be human? Abraham Maslow and his hierarchies of need (Hierarchy of Needs)

Sep 12, 2017 by

by Michael S. –

Who are you? What is your essential nature? What is your core human being? What will it take to make you happy? How to be human? American Psychologist Abraham Maslow had some ideas about that. Way back in 1943, Maslow suggested that humans have a hierarchy of needs, two hierarchies in fact, and that if we are going to be happy and healthy, feel satisfied and whole, you have to meet all the needs in both hierarchies (A.H. Maslow, 1943),[1]  Maslow called his two hierarchies the Hierarchy of Basic Needs and the Hierarchy of Cognitive Needs.

The first hierarchy of needs, the Hierarchy of Basic Needs, covered a range of biologically rooted needs, from the physiological need for food and shelter all the way up to the psychological need for self-actualization  (A.H. Maslow, 1943; A. H. Maslow, 1970). Maslow said that as humans, we need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to be loved, we need a sense of self-esteem, and we have to find a way to “self-actualize,” meaning we have to express our inner self, our talents, etc. Shortly after publishing his first article, and probably as the result of his empirical investigations into peak experiences, he added an additional need that he called transcendence (Koltko-Rivera, 2006; A. H. Maslow, 1962, 1969).  Maslow felt that in order to survive, thrive, and be happy, we needed to meet all our basic needs. A graphic of the hierarchy of basic needs, slightly modified to reflect my own thinking on the issue,[2] is provided below.

Basic Hierarchy of NeedsNeeds

Maslow’s Corrected Hierarchy

Maslow felt meeting all these basic needs was very important. Maslow said that you couldn’t be a healthy and happy human if these basic needs were not met. This raises the obvious question, how do you/we meet these needs. Unfortunately, meeting basic human needs is a complicated question that gets into parenting, socialization, education, politics, economics, and even (when you get up to the top and start talking about self-actualization and connection), human spirituality. I’ll explore the question of how we meet some of our needs in subsequent articles. Here I’ll just say, you can’t meet any of your human needs alone. Whether it is the need for food, safety, love, self esteem, self actualization, or connection, you need others to help you along. This is the way it has always been. There has never been a time in the evolution of our species when we have not depended on others to assist us. This is true of our very basic needs for food and shelter (the home you are in was built by a lot of different people), and even our higher need for self esteem and love (we need somebody to love us to have our need for love met). When you start to ask the question how to be human, and when you start to ask how to get your needs met, or how you help meet the needs others, look to the quality and content of your familial, social, and economic relationships first, for it is in human relationships that all our basic needs either get met, or get thwarted.

As for Maslow’s second hierarchy of needs, the Hierarchy of Cognitive Needs, Maslow felt this hierarchy had only two needs, these being the need to know and the need to understand (Maslow, 1943, p. 385). The need to know is our basic biologically rooted need to know things, like why politicians act the way they way act, what’s 2+2, or what the sparkly lights in the sky at night are. Maslow felt our need to know was powerful and constant. Maslow said that “even after we know, we are impelled to know more and more… ” (Maslow, 1943, p. 385). Maslow said our need to know drove us deep into the details of why things work, and wide into the philosophy and even religion of who we are and why we are here.

Our need to know was important and powerful, but Maslow pointed out that just knowing things was never enough; we also need to understand, and we need meaning. According to Maslow:

The facts that we acquire, if they are isolated or atomistic, inevitably get theorized about, and either analyzed or organized or both. This process has been phrased by some as the search for ‘meaning.’ We shall then postulate a desire to understand, to systematize, to organize, to analyze, to look for relations and meanings.

Maslow called these two needs, our need to know and our need to understand, our cognitive needs, but I would prefer to call these needs combined simply our need for truth, or our need for reality. Maslow would say this is a biological/evolutionary need, and that is most certainly true. Knowing and understanding your environment is a survival thing! An organisms that does not know and understand its environment is an organism not long for this world. A graphic of Maslow’s second hierarchy of needs is provided below.

Cognitive Hierarchy of Needs

Need for Truth


Maslow based his beliefe in these cognitive needs on his clinical evidence and research work, but even without that, these needs are not controversial. Einstein, for example, said that “There is a mystical drive in man [sic] to learn about his [sic] own existence. (Hermanns, 1983). You don’t have to be Einstein to figure this out. Every parent and teacher knows that these needs exist. The need to know and understand are displayed at a very early age by every child on Earth. Whenever a child asks the questions “What is that?” or “Why is that?” they are attempting to satisfy their need to know and their need for truth.

The Importance of the Hierarchy of Cognitive Needs

From the very beginning, Maslow thought (and I agree) that these needs were important enough to be included in their own separate, though closely and synergistically related, hierarchy. Indeed, Maslow spends significant time in his 1970 book (A. H. Maslow, 1970) discussing the existence, significance, and core nature of these needs. For example, Maslow felt that these needs were evolutionary, pointing out that monkeys and other primates displayed curiosity and exploratory play. He also felt cognitive needs were a defining aspect of “psychologically healthy people,” and that unhealthy people were those who had their cognitive needs thwarted. Healthy people, people who know how to be human, he said, are “attracted to the mysterious, to the unknown, to the chaotic, unorganized, and unexplained.” Maslow also said that those have their need for truth thwarted get bored and depressed, experience intellectual deterioration, and have lower self-esteem. Finally, Maslow even suggested there were profoundly negative political implications when these needs were not met. He noted that in countries where “information, and…facts were cut off, and…where official theories were profoundly contracted by obvious facts, at least some people responded with generalized cynicism, mistrust of all values, suspicion even of the obvious, a profound disruption of ordinary interpersonal relationships, hopelessness, loss of morale, etc.” (A. H. Maslow, 1970).  Maslow is probably talking about Nazi Germany above, but the relevance of his statements to the current global situation is obvious. If true, we can expect the citizens of the United States (citizens who are currently having their need to know and understand thwarted by an administration and corporate-controlled media system that display profound disregard for truth), to experience growing cynicism, rejection of values, and disruption of their intimate relationships. I would even suggest that anger, and maybe even growing hatred, might result.  Clearly, the Hierarchy of Cognitive Needs is important and it should not be ignored, by psychology, by therapists or by anybody wanting to know what it means to be human.

Thankfully, even though many adults and children do not have their need for truth met, especially in our current global climate, fixing the problem is actually very easy. Maslow simply suggested Cognitive Therapy. find interesting things to know, and interesting things to understand. Basically, find the truth of this. Find Maslow suggested things like going to school part-time, finding intellectually demanding hobbies, or finding more interesting work, and these will all work. Maslow said that when he applied cognitive therapy to people who were not having their cognitive needs met, he saw great improvement in their emotional and psychological well being.

What Does this Mean for You?

I started this article with some questions. Who are you? What is your essential nature? What will it take to make you happy? What does it mean to be human? At this point, the answer that I have for you is simply this; as a human being you are at least partially defined by your body’s (your physical unit as I like to say) basic and cognitive needs. If you want to be human, if you want to honor your essential nature, if you want to be happy, you have to meet all your needs. How do do that?

The first step to meeting your needs is to know your needs. That’s not rocket science and at this point, after reading this article, you should have a good general idea of what needs you have to meet in order to be healthy, happy, and whole. You have to meet both your basic needs and your cognitive needs.

The next step to meeting your needs is to know which of your needs are being met, and which of your needs are not being met, and why.In some cases this can be easy, as for example when you body tells you you are hungry (you feel hunger pangs) or unsafe (you feel anxiety and fear). In other cases it can be more difficult, as for example when you neither know nor understand your need for self-actualization and transcendence, or when these needs are thwarted by those who would rather keep you dis-empowered, disconnected, and in chains.

Finally, once you know your needs and you understand which ones are not being met, you have to take action on meeting these unmet needs. What those actions will be will depend entirely on the need you are trying to meet and the social/political/economic/environment situation you find yourself in. Sometimes, meeting an unmet need will be as easy as finding an interesting book, or picking up an interesting hobby. Other times, meeting your needs will be tougher, as for example meeting your basic need for shelter and a safe environment when global warming is creating chaos in your space, or meeting your basic need for safety when you live with an abusive spouse/parent/child, or when you are the victim of toxic school,  toxic work, or toxic social environments. In a lot of cases,


Looking at the world around me right now, I see a basic problem of human existence is that our basic and cognitive needs are not being met. Part of the problem is that we don’t know we have these human needs, and we don’t know how important they are to meet. Now, you should be aware of both their existence, and the need to meet them. The problem is more than just a personal problem however, it is also a moral, political, and economic one. If we are to meet this planet’s human needs, we need to take a moral stand by saying it is our right, and the right of every human, to have all their basic and cognitive needs met. Once we make that moral commitment, we have to work it through our systems. We have to change our family priorities and make meeting each other’s needs the primary goal of our family dynamic. We have to change our political priorities (and our political parties) and make meeting the human needs of all people, from birth to rebirth, the top political priority. Finally, we have to change our economic system. The goal of human endeavor should not be profit uber alles. The goal of all human endeavor should be to meet human needs, period.

Many human beings don’t have enough food to eat. Many live in unsafe environments. Many suffer under the yoke of predatorial economic systems where they are forced to work in robotic, meaningless jobs just in order to survive.

Thankfully, its not so difficult to make a change. Instead of prioritizing profit, power, and money, prioritize the satisfaction of human needs, both your own and the people you are responsible for (i.e. in order of descending importance, your children, your spouse, your family, your employees, friends).

Do what you can, get help if you need it, and remember, don’t blame yourself if you struggle. Meeting human needs is a collective social, political, and economic endeavor that we all need to be involved in. In other words, it is never a question of “how can I meet my needs,” it is always a question of “how can we can do better meeting each other’s needs.” If your needs are being met, question the “we” in your life.


[1] And not later, as you sometimes see people suggesting. For example, Saul McLeod from Simply Psychology suggests, in an article entitled “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” that cognitive needs were developed later “It is important to note that Maslow’s five stage model has been expanded to include cognitive and aesthetic needs and later transcendence needs” (McLeod, 2007). In fact, Maslow introduced the second hierarchy in his 1943 article.

“Once these desires [to know and understand] are accepted for discussion, we see that they too form themselves into a small hierarchy in which the desire to know is prepotent over the desire to understand. All the characteristics of a hierarchy of prepotency that we have described above, seem to hold for this one as well” (A.H. Maslow, 1943).

[2] I would make two slight modifications to this basic hierarchy. I would add the human need for power alongside the human need for self-esteem, and I would reconceptualize transcendence as simply connection.

Source: How to be human? Abraham Maslow and his hierarchies of need (Hierarchy of Needs) – The Socjourn

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