Maslow’s Hierarchy and Learning

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

How individuals at each level are motivated (or not) to learn
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Motivation refers to “the process of instigating and sustaining goal-directed activities,” while motivated learning refers more specifically to the motivation “to acquire new knowledge, skills and strategies rather than merely to complete activities” (Schunk, 2004, p. 484). As such, these concepts represent explanatory models which seek to understand why individuals behave in certain ways under certain conditions. While some forms of learning occur in the absence of motivation, in general, motivation plays a key role in most learning situations, providing the impetus for persisting in activities that facilitate the process.

The motivational theories of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow emphasized the capabilities and potential of fully functioning human beings. He posited that all human behavior is purposeful and directed toward goal attainment in a hierarchical classification which is graphically depicted as a pyramid. In this hierarchy of needs, Maslow proposed five ascending levels of motivational forces that continually direct human behavior, including, from lowest order needs to highest order needs: (1) Physiological Needs; (2) Safety Needs; (3) Love and Belongingness Needs; (4) Esteem Needs; and (5) Self Actualization (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002).

In general, according to Maslow, the first four levels in the hierarchy represent deficiency or deprivation needs in that they influence behavior based on the desire to alleviate a lack of some necessary or desired condition (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002). As such, these needs are relatively finite (i.e., once a particular level is achieved the need is fully satisfied, at least for a period of time, and ceases to motivate behavior) and generally fulfilled by external sources. Conversely, the fifth level is characterized as a growth need, representing a more persistent pursuit of growth and self-development which is intrinsically driven (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002). Unlike the deficiency needs, the striving for self-actualization is continuous by nature and does not cease after a certain level is achieved. Instead, the proverbial top of one mountain, so to speak, signifies the bottom of the next. Additionally, Maslow posited that the lower order needs in the hierarchy generally must be at least minimally satisfied before higher order needs can motivate behavior (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002).

Specifically, physiological needs constitute biologically based necessities of physical survival, such as food, air, water and rest. When unmet, these needs tend to take priority over the higher order needs and demand the attention of the individual until fulfilled (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002). In this way, a person experiencing hunger will be able to focus on little else until the need is satiated and will therefore direct his/her interest, concentration and behavior toward meeting this need. Likewise, sleep deprived individuals will not generally tend to pursue other voluntary activities until they have received adequate rest. Therefore, attempts to satisfy these lower order needs will interfere with other lower priority activities, such as learning new information or skills. This is evidenced, for example, in classrooms where children are distracted from their learning tasks when they do not receive adequate nutrition or sleep.

Moving up the hierarchy, safety needs involve the desire for well-being, protection and security. Pursuit of satisfying these needs can manifest in both short-term, immediate attempts to avoid danger and more long-term, strategic activities such as seeking employment, planning for retirement, purchasing insurance, establishing routines and other ways in which individuals pursue order, predictability and structure (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002). Referring again specifically to a classroom environment, children may be distracted from their learning task if they become preoccupied with fear of a confrontation with the class bully at recess. As one’s physiological needs become increasingly satisfied, this next level gradually emerges as a motivator. The safety needs involve the quest for an environment that is stable, predictable, and free from anxiety and chaos.
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Love and belongingness needs refer to the desire of people to affiliate, seek relationships and form groups (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002). Once the more basic needs are adequately satisfied, individuals can turn their attention toward behaviors that make them feel more fulfilled and content. People of all ages are motivated to connect with others and share experiences. In school aged children, the need to be accepted by peers often influences many choices, such as clothing, personal grooming and the pursuit of recreational activities. This can further manifest in affiliation behavior such as joining clubs, teams or organizations (e.g., Boy/Girl Scouts) or in associating with more extreme versions of groups such as gangs or cults.

The final level of deficiency needs, esteem needs, represents the desire for positive regard and respect from both oneself and others (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002). Once again, when basic needs are satisfied to at least a minimal degree, individuals can become motivated to pursue levels of personal achievement, prestige and recognition and to the seek approval of others and society at large. In school, children pursue the satisfaction of esteem needs through academic performance as well as through efforts at extracurricular activities such as sports, music, drama or service clubs whereby they seek approval from teachers, coaches, mentors and peers as well as self-approval. In line with theorists such as Adler, Rogers, Fromm, and Erikson, Maslow attributes considerable importance to our need for superiority and respect. Virtually everyone strives for self-confidence and mastery, and to obtain recognition and appreciation from others. However, these esteem needs normally act as motivators only if the three lower types have been satisfied to some degree. Maslow cautioned that true self-esteem is based on real competence and significant achievement, rather than external fame and unwarranted adulation.

Finally, the self-actualization growth need refers to a striving toward higher levels of personal fulfillment. It manifests as an intrinsic motivation toward continued development of the holistic self. Rather than representing a need that fills a lack, self-actualization encourages the individual toward consistent pursuit of improvement and expansion in physical, mental and spiritual endeavors (Driscoll, 2005; Ormrod, 2004; Pintirch & Schrunk, 2002). An individual operating from this level of motivation may pursue a learning task, not in order to receive the approval from others (as would be the case with esteem needs) but based on a personal interest or curiosity that will not necessarily be rewarded or highly regarded by others. Various early childhood development programs (e.g., Montessori, Reggio-Emilia) are constructed around the encouragement and nurturing of this innate curiosity and growth urge in young children and base their curriculum on more non-directive and independent study of the natural interest of children. This “top” level consists of discovering and fulfilling one’s own innate potentials and capacities.

As previously noted, lower-level needs must generally be at least minimally satisfied in order to progress toward higher order needs. Similarly, higher order needs can be thwarted by the strong deficiencies resulting from unmet deprivation needs. For example, the need for achievement and recognition from a teacher at school can be impeded and diminished by the fear experienced by an abused child or the desire to maintain an opposing image to a peer group. While the esteem need may still exist for the individual, it is prevented from exerting strong influence on behavior by the stronger need exerting its priority. Furthermore, Maslow argued that severe or prolonged deficiencies can lead to permanent psychological difficulties, indicating, for example, that “People who ... have been starved for love in the earliest months of their lives have simply lost forever the desire and the ability to give and receive affection” (Maslow, 1987, p. 52). Thus, he proposed, frustrated and unfulfilled needs will have a profound effect on the daily behavior of individuals by skewing the mechanisms of motivation and influence.

Maslow (1987) argued that this hierarchy was relevant across all cultures and societies. However, critics have counter-argued against this notion, maintaining its applicability for individualistic orientations, but not for collectivistic cultures (Wachter, 2003). In these societies, different perspectives about the role of the individual and group are learned through socialization thus rendering different behaviors and different conceptualizations of needs appropriate. Thus, one must take into account the context of the individual when attempting to interpret the motivation behind specific behaviors.
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Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Pintrich, P. R. & Schrunk, D. H. (2002). Motivation in education, (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schunk, D. H. (2004). Learning theories: An educational perspective, (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Wachter, K. (2003). Rethinking Maslow’s needs. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 95, 68-69.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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