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The Human Hierarchy Of Needs + Behavior Change: What To Know

Posted by Siobhan Bulfin on Apr 18, 2019 2:00:00 PM

Human beings are complex. Not only do we have a physical and emotional side, but all facets of our being are intertwined with each other. The emotional state affects the mental, and the mental influences the physical, and so on and so forth. Psychologists have grappled with these human complexities for centuries, proposing many theories along the way.

When it comes to healthcare, every patient has a unique combination of mental, physical, and emotional health that affects their behavior. Conversely, it is their lifestyle behaviors that affect these aspects of health. This interwoven nature plays a huge role in human motivation.


Whole person - or holistic - care focuses on improving the health of our whole being - body, mind, spirit, family/community, environment and even finances and work.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the best-known theories on motivation. It proposes that people are motivated first to fulfill basic needs before moving on to fulfill higher needs and that mutual growth of emotional, mental, and physical states impacts human motivation to change.


What is the hierarchy of needs?

Presented in 1943 by Abraham Maslow, the hierarchy of needs is structured like a pyramid. The basic premise is that human needs typically build on each other. Here are the five levels in his hierarchy, starting from the foundation to the apex:

  • Physical  
  • Security
  • Social
  • Ego
  • Self-actualization 


The whole point is that humans first focus on their most basic needs (i.e. food, clothing, safety). When these desires are met, other concerns become more important, such as connecting with other humans and developing a sense of meaning.

Limitations of Maslow’s theory

Before delving into all the helpful aspects of this theory, there are a few caveats. The main limitation is that the pyramid structure implicitly conveys that each level needs to be at 100% before working on the next. Practically, however, this isn’t true.

People tend to establish some stability on the lower levels. But before the lower ones are complete, they often begin building the next stage of need. Maslow himself recognized this weakness but still believed his theory would be helpful for future generations.

In addition, Maslow’s theory is limited in its research. His studies focused on biographical analysis - open to subjective interpretation. And the scope was limited to predominantly white males. But interestingly, indigenous models of health such as the Native American medicine wheel and the Te Whare Tapa Wha approach to wellness (Maori people of New Zealand) align with aspects of Maslow’s theory. They also focus on the four aspects of health: physical health (including your environment), emotional health (including stress), spiritual health and community/family health.

Maslow’s theory as well as indigenous models of human motivation has been recognized for its holistic strengths that can influence behavior change. And in the struggle for patient wellness amidst chronic conditions, Maslow’s theory gives valuable insight about motivating patient wellness habits.

Valuable insights into human motivation

Maslow’s hierarchy gives us a framework for looking at people holistically. Rather than limiting the perspective to the physical, he delves into the inner workings of what motivates us.

His theory upholds the idea that people aren’t the same. Though they may have similar physical conditions, they’re each at different stages in their sense of need or fluctuating between levels.

In healthcare, patients who are supported to fulfill their needs create a foundation that can support change. At Melon, we focus on meeting three of these primary needs - human connection, a sense of control, and a sense of purpose.

What does social connection have to do with behavior change?

Social connection plays a major role in behavior change for three primary reasons. First, it helps patients feel like they’re not alone in their health difficulties. It also provides them with an opportunity to learn from others and to help others - providing intrinsic motivation. And lastly, social connection influences positive emotions. When dealing with chronic illness, it has been proven that peers who support can help them achieve behavior change.

For instance, for people wanting to lose weight, many have struggled with weight problems for years, intermittently trying to diet or exercise but falling back into old habits. Understandably, the prospect of weight loss seems impossible. But as they see others taking small steps of change, they’ll begin to believe they can, too.

If they struggle with discouragement or feeling overwhelmed, they’ll have a support system that keeps them on track with small steps for change. If they do begin to struggle with anxiety or other mental symptoms, their health coach and community can point out concerns and direct them to medical care.

What does control have to do with behavior change?

In Maslow’s self-esteem phase, mastery and control are key concepts. Both impact patients’ health behaviors and ability to manage symptoms. When it comes to behavior change, patients need a deep sense of their value and worth before they can control their current situation.

They need a system that recognizes their achievements and celebrates their successes. Often they feel out of control when it comes to their health. They don’t know how to make changes that last, and this can discourage them from even trying.

By using motivational interviewing and goal setting, health coaches can give patients a sense of control. When they set achievable goals, patients can see progress and celebrate their wins. This in turn helps them realize they can control their health and they continue to progress to a healthier lifestyle.

What does a sense of purpose have to do with behavior change?

The highest level of Maslow’s theory is self-actualization - reaching beyond what seems possible to reach our full potential. Patients who develop a deep sense of purpose stay motivated and empowered to change their behavior..

According to the hierarchy of need, as patients grow in purpose, they’re more likely to develop in creativity. Releasing their ingenuity means that patients will be able to better solve problems and innovate solutions to current symptoms.

The result? Rather than being content to exist, they’re motivated to become all they can be. That’s what Melon exists to do - enable patients in behavior change that can translate into better quality of life.

Connecting patients with other patients helps them find this sense of purpose. While they receive help from their peers and health coach, along their journey, they will be able to help others as well, giving them deeper meaning.

How do all of these work together for better outcomes?

While the levels of the pyramid don’t have to be at 100% before patients strive for new phases, all three of these needs have the potential to multiply their effect.

For instance, there’s an overlap between social connection and control. Gaining control over symptoms is encouraged by positive contact with other patients (who are also developing lifestyle changes). So when patients grow in one area (social connection), they’re simultaneously enabled to grow in others (control).

Connection. Control. Purpose.

Meet your patients’ psychological needs as well as their physical needs with a health community to empower behavior change.

Discover how by booking a call with a patient engagement strategist today.


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Topics: patient engagement, peer support, patient community, behavior change, emotional wellness, whole person care

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