4 Differences between Maslow's Pyramid and the basic psychological needs from self-determination theory

The "Pyramid of Maslow" is one of the more famous ideas in psychology. Abraham Maslow formulated the basis for this idea in his publications "A Theory of Motivation" (1943) and Motivation and Personality (1954). 

In short, this idea implies that people have hierarchically ordered basic needs that are essential for healthy development. This idea has proved intuitively appealing as it has become very popular within and outside of psychology. That it is popular in psychology is shown by the fact that it is hardly missing in any introductory psychology handbook. That it has become popular outside of psychology is shown, among other things, by the fact that a joke in which WiFi has been added as a new basic need to the 

Maslow pyramid is immediately understood by almost everyone. It is therefore not surprising that we regularly receive questions about how Maslow's pyramid differs from the now dominant motivation theory within psychology, the self-determination theory (SDT, see Ryan & Deci, 2017). After all, this theory also posits basic needs that are essential for healthy development. Below I answer that question from 4 different perspectives.

Maslow's theory 

Maslow formulated 5 categories of human needs that he believed were hierarchically ordered. The figure below shows these needs in their supposed pyramidal arrangement.

Maslow's pyramid assumed that physiological needs such as having adequate oxygen, food, water, and the like are the most basic needs of humans. He stated that these were deficit needs. By this he meant that if they are not sufficiently fulfilled, they are given the highest priority. If they have to be fulfilled shifts the attention of a person according to Maslow, the level up. The level of security needs. And so it works upwards. According to Maslow, psychological needs only become important after the 'basic needs' have been met and self-actualization only becomes an important need when all underlying needs are met. 

The three basic psychological needs from self-determination theory 

These three universal basic psychological needs from SDT are: 

  1. the need for autonomy: the need to be able to choose for yourself what you do, to be able to stand behind what you do, to be able to do what you find interesting or important. 
  2. the need for competence: the need to feel effective, capable and to become better at the activities that we engage in in our lives and that are important to us.
  3. the need for relatedness: the need to feel connected to others, to belong, to feel that others care about you and to be able to mean something to others. 
Maslow's pyramid and the self-determination theory do have something in common. That is, both are based on basic human needs that are essential for healthy development. In terms of content, there also appears to be a certain substantive overlap between Maslow's needs and those from the self-determination theory. So it is quite obvious that people wonder what the differences and similarities are between Maslow and the self-determination theory. But the differences are significant. Below I describe 4 important differences. 

1. There are significant differences 

On the surface, there seem to be some substantive similarities between Maslow and SDT. The need for reward & love needs is reminiscent of the need for relatedness. But the substantive differences between both sets of needs are greater than might seem at first sight. Primarily, SDT focuses only on basic psychological needs while Maslow also focuses on others, such as physiological needs. 

Secondly, Maslow sees the need for self-esteem as a basic while SDT does not. SDT sees the need for self-esteem as a substitute for needs. This means that this need only becomes manifest when the fulfillment of the basic needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness) is frustrated. By extension, the needs for recognition and appreciation are not close to SDT's basic needs, but rather resemble the need for status, which is an extrinsic aspiration associated with the frustration of basic needs. 

Thirdly, the need for self-actualization is not reflected in SDT. While Maslow sees self-actualization as a need, SDT sees self-actualization as a description of what happens when the three basic needs are met.

2. Maslow assumes hierarchy, SDT does not 

Another important difference is that Maslow assumes a hierarchy of needs while SDT does not. Maslow thinks that his "higher" needs only become important when the "lower" needs are fulfilled. SDT assumes that there is no sequence. The three basic needs are important throughout life and there is no prioritization as to how important they are. SDT also assumes that there is no strict hierarchical order between basic psychological needs and other basic needs (such as the need for security and material prosperity). 

SDT states that even in (for example) unsafe situations and situations of extreme poverty and hunger, people continue to need autonomy, competence and solidarity for proper functioning and well-being. 

3. Maslow focuses on strength of needs, SDT on the extent to which needs are met 

Maslow assumes (like many other motivational theorists) that the strength of the needs is a predictor of the well-being and functioning of individuals. SDT does not do this. SDT assumes that the extent to which the individual feels that the needs are being met is a predictor of well-being and functioning regardless of how strong those needs are. That there can be differences in strength of needs is not denied within SDT. But SDT hypothesizes that these strength differences are related to the degree to which needs have been frustrated in the past. 

4. Much empirical support for SDT, little for Maslow 

Maslow was a founder and exponent of the humanistic psychology movement. One strength of this movement was to put forward many new ideas about psychology. There was a weakness in testing these ideas through good scientific research. Little good research has been done into Maslow's pyramid. There is therefore little empirical support for his idea. There are however studies that directly disprove aspects of his theory (see here, for example). On the other hand, a lot of research has been done into the assumptions of SDT and this research is continuing. There is a lot of evidence for the validity of the basic psychological needs. 


The similarity between Maslow's Pyramid and SDT is limited. There is nothing wrong with the fact that Maslow proposed his hierarchical view of human needs at the time. It is an intuitively appealing model and its ideas could have turned out to be true. But the pyramid turns out to be based on ideas that are largely incorrect. The Basic Needs of Self-Determination Theory seem to be a much better model for how human motivation works.