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Using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to Discover What Motivates You

Understanding motives can help with self-confidence and decision making.

Key points

  • Differing motives in a particular situation shapes reactions and perceptions of the experience.
  • Maslow's hierarchy of needs defines lower and higher level needs that motivate human behavior.
  • Understanding the ebb and flow of immediate physiological needs as powerful motivators helps with self-awareness and compassion towards others.
David Billings/Unsplash
Source: David Billings/Unsplash

Personality psychologists study individual differences. It’s a finer-grained analysis than group differences. You can be assigned to a group based on your gender, race, ethnicity, and so on. But, there are important individual differences within those groups that reveal more accurate and detailed information about you.

Traits, as in the Big Five Factors, describe what you’re like. But, at a deeper level, motives explain what you’re trying to do and why. Sometimes we are sure of what we are trying to do and what most concerns us. However, we are not sure about our purpose and the best avenues to pursue in life. Understanding your motives and how they appear in your seemingly random thoughts, preoccupations, and stories can help you better understand yourself and give you the confidence to make good decisions moving forward in your life.

One way to find out more about your motives is to look at what you think about the most during day-to-day activities. That is, do you daydream about and imagine what you’d like to have happened in your life?

Deeper levels of personality often reveal themselves when we have the freedom to think, feel and act in ways that aren’t highly scripted. When social situations are ambiguous, we tend to impose what we want to see on them. We often look for what’s most important to us in people and situations without being fully aware of it. So, what you fantasize about, or can’t get out of your mind, is often linked to your deepest desires. The stories you tell about yourself (and other people) may reveal your true desires–and your beliefs about receiving them.

In a sense, the sentence completion test below is like a set of ambiguous social situations. You can look at your responses to find out more about your motives. Try it: Consider each of these sentence stems.

Complete each sentence with the first thing that comes to mind.

1. I should like to

2. Most important

3. My appearance

4. When I’m not treated right, I

5. If I could only

6. My head

7. The driving force in my life is

8. Other people are

9. I want

10. The people I like best

11. When I can’t do something I

12. Tests like this

Abraham Maslow developed one of the most important and valuable theories of motivation. You may be familiar with the pyramid depiction of his hierarchy of needs found in many psychology textbooks. It’s easy to equate his theory with climbing a mountain to reach the pinnacle of self-actualization. But his theory is much more complex and exciting than that.

First, why is it shaped like a pyramid? Maslow didn’t actually create the pyramid concept himself. But the reason the image has stuck is probably that the needs at the bottom are the foundation from which the higher needs can emerge. The lower level needs, sometimes called deficiency or ungratified needs, have more power over us and must be met before the (gratified) or higher levels of need emerge. Higher needs are “being” needs or growth needs. They are unique and spontaneous. Gratified needs allow us to have more free choices of how to grow and express our humanness.

Lower level needs comprise our basic requirements for survival. Safety is the need to feel a sense of security and that your environment is relatively predictable and controllable. For example, when infants cry, they learn that someone will come to help. Through early life experiences, we learn to internalize a sense of trust and know the environment will provide for us. As adults, we take this internalized sense of security with us to new situations. If your safety needs are satisfied growing up, you’ll carry a basic sense of trust that the world is a safe place, and you’ll be able to find the people and resources you need in it.

If you grew up in an unpredictable environment that did not meet your safety needs, you’d be concerned with getting that prediction and control as an adult. As a result, you’ll be less likely to trust other people and the environment. Because you haven’t internalized a sense of safety, you’ll look for safety outside yourself. For example, you may need to know that people follow the rules, who’s in charge, or have hoarding tendencies with money or other resources. Safety-oriented adults seek security and stability, feel uneasy in new situations, remain dependent on other people, and need external rules and limits. They may show a fundamental distrust towards others and are primarily looking for ways to reduce their own discomfort.

Love and belonging needs are expressed differently. Ungratified love and belonging needs look like dependency, clinging, and using people for security. Gratified love and belonging needs look like interest and curiosity about others and desire to connect in ways that feel equal and involve mutual affection and respect.

Maslow differentiated between ungratified and gratified esteem needs. Adults with ungratified esteem needs show the desire to prove their worth. They can be very competitive and even argumentative. They focus on their desire for reputation and others’ opinions of them. Adults whose esteem needs have been gratified are less driven to prove themselves. They have a desire for competence and personal achievement. Instead of comparing themselves to others, they focus on their own personal standards of success.

Expressions of the desire for self-actualization include seeking out unique forms of creativity, flow states in which you emerge totally in the present moment, and the ability to see and reflect one’s own and other’s humanity regularly.

So, depending on your motivation, the world may look very different. For example, a safety motivation will lead you to look for ways to reduce your anxiety and feel safe. Love and belongingness needs orient you to look for ways to connect with others. Ungratified esteem needs pull you to look for recognition, and gratified esteem needs pull your focus on contributing and learning new things.

Imagine these different motives were personified as guests at a social event. Their inner dialogues would be very different:

Safety (S)

“I am in the right place?”

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“Is there food?”

Ungratified Love & Belonging (UL&B)

“Is it OK that I am here?”

“Who here do I know?”

“Who’s hosting this thing?”

Ungratified Esteem (UE)

“Who here is better looking than me?”

“What does that person do for a living?”

“When will I get to talk and tell them about all X?”

Gratified Love & Belonging (GL&B)

“Who would be cool to get to know here?”

“That person looks fun.”

“I wonder about their relationship….”

Gratified Esteem (GE)

“What can I contribute to this conversation that might be useful?”

“Who here could I learn something new from?”

“I’m curious to know what that person thinks about X.”

Personifying these types is meant to help understand how different motivations can influence our perception in ambiguous social situations. Maybe you can identify with more than one motivation? We may be tempted to see the pyramid as a scaling mountain to get to the top. When we get to the pinnacle of self-actualization, we’ve won the game of life. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.

For one thing, our motives are more fluid, and personal growth often looks more like one step forward and two steps back. That’s normal. Think of the last time you were very hungry. Chances are you weren’t thinking about self-actualization but your immediate physiological need! Understanding how these basic needs ebb and flow in your experience can increase your self-awareness and compassion for yourself and others. Remember, it’s not a contest.

Now let’s take a look at your responses to the Sentence Completion Test developed and validated by Professor Joel Aronoff, who studied directly with Abraham Maslow. Here are a few examples of possible answers.

Other people are:

  • scary and intrusive (S),
  • my saviors (UL&B),
  • always interesting to me (GL&B),
  • my future conquests (UE), or
  • fascinating (GE).

I should like to:

  • eat something sweet (S),
  • stay close to P forever (UL&B),
  • make a new friend (L&B),
  • kick T’s butt in the next game (UE), or
  • learn how to do X (GE).

I want:

  • more money to buy nice things (S),
  • to be with B all the time (UL&B),
  • to dance with you (L&B),
  • to win (UE), or
  • to make a positive difference (GE).

In looking at your responses, you’ll probably see themes of more than one motivation.

For more on Maslow, check out an updated, inspiring, and fascinating new book, Transcend by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman. Read my book review here.

Copyright 2021, Tara Well, PhD


Kaufman, SB (2020) Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. Tarcher Perigee.

Wilson, JP & Aronoff, J. (1973) A Sentence Completion Test Assessing Safety and Esteem Motives. Journal of Personality Assessment, 37, 351-354.

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