It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow 1954


If you look up ‘Maslow hierarchy of needs’ you’ll be overwhelmed by the many links, information, misinformation, interpretations and misinterpretations you can find. If you do an image search, you’ll find a plethora of creative endeavours trying to represent his pyramid (and I’m not claiming the one on this page is the best!). Rather than given you information based on one of the many interpretations I’ll try and go back to the (primary) source of the theory.

Maslow’s theory is also easy to understand in an overly simplistic way, which I’ll try and avoid without writing a book about him on here.

A key concept for Maslow is self-actualisation which he describes as: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. This need we may call self-actulalization.” (Maslow, 1954, p. 46). In his book (1954) he argues that even if the other needs are fulfilled, soon the individual will feel an itch form more, as if there is something missing. In some interpretations, money to do what you want is the driving factor to self-actualisation, but you can see from Maslow’s own words that there is more to this.

In his discussion of physiological needs Maslow argues in favour of (some of the) many version of the pyramid out there in that he argues that there is no absolute definition of what the physiological needs are. He goes even further by claiming it would be pointless to try (Maslow, 1954, p. 36). He comes from an argument based in science but even experientially we can claim that individuals have different basic needs. Some are less debatable in that they are needed for the body to function normally, but others, such as sexual gratification, is less clear as the small percentage of asexual people will testify. Maslow also uses the level of physiological needs to make another important point. He argues that if all other needs go unsatisfied, the focus may be entirely on the individual’s physiological needs, and the other needs may become non-existent (Maslow, 1954, p. 37). This implies that the drive of the person is entirely focused on physiological needs and the pyramid disappears or collapses into the base layer. In very particular circumstances, all the other capacities are put in service of satisfying hunger.

However, in more or less normal circumstances, if physiological needs are reasonably fulfilled, a need for safety will arise (Maslow, 1954, p. 39). This supports the popular argument that needs follow on from each other with self-actualisation as the last need to arise. The lower tier to the one the individual is seeking satisfaction for is underestimated because fulfilled and everything else appears to make way for the need to fulfil the need for safety, having moved on from the physiological tier (Maslow, 1954, p. 39).

If there is a threat, for instance to the fulfilment of safety, the upper tiers have a tendency to not matter in the individual and they are fully concentrated on the tier that is being threatened (Maslow, 1954, p. 43). Maslow hierarchy for career guidance theory.

In spite of Maslow arguing for a ‘flow’ from bottom to top, he posits that the fixed order is not as rigid as is implied (Maslow, 1954, p. 51). He lists that there are some significant exceptions. The supposed rigidity of Maslow’s model is often quoted as a weakness and a criticism, but his recognition debunks this rigid interpretation of his hierarchy of needs. I’m sure you’ve recognised this in yourself as well, as I have within myself. The different tiers don’t need to be completely fulfilled to move on to the next tier, which is why I have half jokingly created the ‘Swiss cheese’ version of the pyramid below. This will not be the case for everyone however. Maslow describes this as ‘reversal of hierarchy’ (Maslow, 1954, p. 52) but I would argue, from experience, for a ‘hotchpotch of hierarchy’ in the sense that for me at least, the top tier doesn’t suddenly become the bottom tier, but there is a mix of focus on different tiers according to which need is more pressing. But on the whole, I have holes in every tier. No tier is fully satisfied in any sense and some tiers have larger holes than others, as it were. How does this interpretation work for you? (It could just be me!!). The strict interpretation is one of folk theory I would argue and the ‘Swiss cheese model’ is fully recognised by Maslow himself in that he argues that contrary to the strict model, any normal [sic] person’s layers or tiers will only be partially satisfied (Maslow, 1954, p. 53, 54)

Maslow also sees these ‘reversals of hierarchy’ as exceptions, and as reversals they maybe are. I feel that the model as it is interpreted in the strictest sense is the exception and the ‘Swiss cheese model’ is the rule.

Maslow’s model in reality:Maslow hierarchy for career guidance in reality.

What I’ve gathered and partially commented on is just a snapshot of Maslow’s work on this but I hope it has been enough to prove that the normal reservations and criticisms levied at Maslow’s pyramid are largely unfounded. My opinion is that, within career counselling and guidance, Maslow’s theory is a tool, rather than a theory, and therefore can be used in different ways to serve a purpose. I don’t feel that this means that anything goes. I feel that it’s really valuable to consider the model and the theory before ever even contemplating using it in practice, so you have a good understanding of this tool for yourself and you can use it effectively in line with this. I think it still pays to come back to Maslow’s original work and explore, if interested. It certainly put some things right for me! I hope that this has dispelled some of the misinterpretations and myths you’ll encounter or have encountered.


How can we use all of this in practice?

I think the interpretation of this being a motivational model can lead to the expectation that this is a model that will give you a ready-made tool to increase the motivation in someone. I honestly don’t know how this would work without contorting both the model and the way you use it. I see it more as an assessment tool of where the client is and in what they bring to the intervention. It has allowed me to assess which needs of the client are fulfilled and which are important for them to be fulfilled, with caution. One criticism, not of the model but of its use, could be that it can easily lead to assumptions the practitioner runs with regardless of the client’s real needs or situation. I would summarise this by saying it’s a model, not a mould.


There is one argument for using this from bottom to top and checking each tier with the client. I think that would be missing the key point made above that this doesn’t need to be a rigid bottom to top model.

Rather than a ‘flowchart’, I would see it as a ‘narrative puzzle’ in that you can look out for key words and phrases in the client’s narrative, exploring and reflecting back as you go along, which you can then fit into a mental map of the pyramid gradually building a full picture of the client’s ‘needs profile’. This in turn will allow you to find the holes in the Swiss cheese, which you can then discuss with the client to find out how much they matter.

What do you think? Take a while to look at the theory and the model and reflect on practice you have had already. How would you use it?



I think that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be very useful in certain circumstances. An example can be where a client can’t decide and can’t pin point what stops them making a decision. My critique would be more in its potential for oversimplification and consequential abandonment of something that is slightly dated but still relevant at the same time, because it can be made relevant for career guidance. I don’t feel this can be used as a stand alone tool but it is definitely in my toolbox.

See what you think?

  • To duplicate the question above: how would you be able to use this?
  • Are ther a group of clients you can’t use this with?
  • Would this be applicable when working with children, for instance? What would the limitations be and why?
  • What are its general strengths and weaknesses for you?
  • Could you use this as a model to get a client motivated to act? – The obvious answer here would be that this can be turned in such a tool if there’s a dire need in one of the tiers to the extent that the client has an intrinsic need to act. Pinpointing where this need is located may do the trick, but look at what I’ve written in the section above…


Useful links:

This is a short list of a very wide variety of Maslow’s theory and it’s many uses and interpretations:


  • Maslow, A., 1954. Motivation And Personality. Harper & Row.
  • Maslow, A., 1943, Psychological Review 50, pp. 370-396. A Theory of Human Motivation