On Maslow’s Hierarchy and SDT

(David Streight, April 2022)

In Heart of Character’s most recent webchat I used language from Abraham Maslow’s explanation of “Esteem Needs” to note that autonomy and competence were key components of what Maslow was theorizing. It was the Maslow comments that seemed to generate the most discussion in post-presentation “chat” and subsequent emails. I too learned in the process, and thought it might be interesting to share with Heart of Character readers, and to “correct” a couple of common misconceptions about Maslow’s hierarchy. No, he did not steal either ideas or designs from the Blackfoot Indians, for example. But let’s start with the self-determination theory connection.

Maslow presented his theory in a 1943 essay in Psychological Review, suggesting that physiological needs consume our energy and attention until they get basically satisfied, at which point we become aware of the need for safety and security, after which we tend to focus on our need for human relatedness. And so forth.

Maslow proceeded humbly, and carefully, but with little data because not much research had yet been done on needs. He was unequivocally inviting the host of researchers who followed after Edward Deci’s partnership with Richard Ryan to found SDT—and scientists in other fields—to add to and correct his thoughts: “The present theory then must be considered [as a] framework for future research and must stand or fall… upon researches yet to be done,” (1943, p. 371).

 In the webchat I noted Maslow’s “competence” language, and the “freedom” aspect of autonomy in his description of esteem needs. For example, “These needs may be classified into two subsidiary sets. These are, first, the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world; and for independence and freedom” (p. 381).

The link between Maslow’s “independence and freedom” to the need for autonomy in SDT is even more evident when we know that Maslow is leading us toward pursuing our own (autonomous) quests for self-actualization. The other components mentioned—strength, achievement, adequacy, and confidence—are classic competence language. Maslow continues, saying “Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy.”

Ryan and Deci seem to be lukewarm on Maslow in their most recent book (2017), but I think it’s more a case of incomplete understanding than disagreement. In saying that one doesn’t have “to look far to find problematic cases” in Maslow’s hierarchy, and offering as examples “People often put their safety at risk to experience actualization (think of any explorer or traveler), and people frequently pursue relatedness… at cost to their personal security” (p. 93), they appear to be thinking, as is commonly but incorrectly thought, that after one step in the hierarchy is satisfied, we are done with it. Maslow addressed this directly, using his Physiological Needs as example. These needs continue to exist, but can be set aside on a shelf of lesser importance, where “They now exist only in a potential fashion in the sense that they may emerge again to dominate the organism if they are thwarted” (1943, p. 375). In other words, Ryan and Deci’s explorer or traveler can disregard hunger pangs in order to pursue higher goals—but not imminent starvation, which will bring them back. And if the relationship-seeker has not been harmed in previous relationships, then disregarding certain security concerns is not a “problematic case” (at least for Maslow’s theory); Maslow, Ryan, and Deci seem to be in agreement in these regards, in addition to their agreement on the important roles that belonging, autonomy, and competence play in our development.

On to a lighter note. One of the webchat questions concerned blogosphere accusations that Maslow based his theory on Blackfoot Indian beliefs, but gave the Blackfoot Nation no credit. He knew the Blackfoot Nation well, and—assuming you search this polemic on the web—you’ll see a Blackfoot teepee illustration that looks very much like certain Maslow hierarchy triangle/ pyramids. Therefore he must have stolen their teepee, too. (see the Safir link below as one example).

The accusations seem to arise because all Blackfoot children are considered to be born “self-actualized.”  As the bloggers explain, the teepee-shaped illustration is a kind of three-stage roadmap where the self-actualized child (1st stage) helps his or her community actualize its potentials (2nd stage), so that the Blackfoot culture might live on in perpetuity (3rd stage). Maslow “got it wrong” because he put his self-actualization on the top, rather than at the beginning stage. My sometimes flawed logic stumbles here, given the blogger evidence. A community’s steps to perpetuating its culture seem quite different from a needs-based theory of why and how individuals behave. To clarify: Maslow was a deep admirer of Blackfoot culture, and attributed many of his ideas to colleagues and predecessors; he did not attribute his theory of motivation to his Indian friends.

By the way, according to Maslow the term self-actualization was “first coined by Kurt Goldstein” (whom he did know and did credit) years before he visited the Blackfoot reservation. Also by the way, investigators have not been successful in their search for pyramids or triangles in Maslow’s writings. The research reported by Scientific American in 2019 notes that the pyramid was first used, nearly two decades later, by Charles McDermid in a 1960 article for Business Horizons. It was thus probably not based on a teepee (Kauffman, 2019).

To return to the webchat, one of my Heart of Character team members suggested that later in his life Maslow posited self-transcendence as the final goal, beyond self-actualization. I pleaded ignorance, but subsequently discovered that if I had read all the essays in my now long-gone copy of Maslow’s The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, I would have known this. Self-determination theory encourages, perhaps even yearns for, human growth up to a eudaimonic point analogous to self-actualization. And in this regard too, there are similarities between Maslow’s humbly tentative thoughts and the findings of SDT’s worldwide cadre of first class researchers.


Kaufman, S.B. (2019) see https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/who-created-maslows-iconic-pyramid/


Maslow, A. (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 370-396


Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. New York: The Guilford Press.


Safir, S. https://shanesafir.com/2020/12/before-maslows-hierarchy-the-whitewashing-of-indigenous-knowledge/

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