Physiological needs are the base needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They refer to the basic things that humans need for survival.
Examples of physiological needs include air, water, food, shelter, reproduction, clothing, warmth, and sleep. Without these things, humans cannot survive.
Maybe the very best example of an essential need is air. A person cannot even live without air. So, if someone doesn’t have air, there literally is nothing else that matters. Therefore, meeting these basic needs is of paramount importance to every human being.
Definition of Physiological Needs
According to Maslow, people have a hierarchy of needs. At the most basic level, human beings have physiological needs that must be met before all other matters.
Those needs include: air, food, drink, shelter, and sleep. Clothing, warmth and reproduction are also included because they are essential to survival.
All of these examples fall in the category of what Maslow called, Physiological needs.
Although their importance seems obvious, psychologist Abraham Maslow presented them on a convenient and easy-to-use hierarchy that helps us visually conceptualize the building blocks of a happy life and self-sustained life.
Examples of Physiological Needs
One of the most basic requirements for human life is oxygen. Our bodies need oxygen to function properly, and without it, we would quickly die.
This makes air perhaps the most fundamental of physiological needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.
Examples of times when this might be violated include when prisoners are not given fresh air for a few hours a day, or when air pollution causes damage to people’s lungs.
While it may seem a foregone conclusion that we will all have access to air, the World Health Organization estimates that 4.2 million people die per year due to air pollution. So, we need to be concerned not only with access to air, but the quality of the air that we breathe.
Without food, we would die. This makes food a basic physiological need. It can take up to 2 months for someone to die from starvation, but malnutrition (eating low-quality food) can also cause disease and death.
Furthermore, a poor diet can prevent a child in a classroom from having the cognitive abilities to learn to the best of their ability.
An estimated 3.2 million children die from malnutrition per year. Furthermore, malnutritioned children spend an average of 160 days per year sick due to lack of sustenance.
Humans can only last about 3 days without water, making it a basic physiological need. Furthermore, dehydration can lead to headaches and problems with your cognitive capacity.
Many NGOs focus on providing access to clean water for the poorest people in the world. For example, NGOs like Unicef take donations so they can build wells in impoverished towns so people don’t have to cart water long distances every day.
Even some areas of the developed world still lack accessible clean water. For example, there are still 71 remote indigenous communities in Canada who live under boil water advisories, meaning they have to boil out the parasites in their water before they drink it.
Perhaps the proof that something is a fundamental aspect of human existence is to gauge its prevalence in societies across time and cultures. All people eat, drink, and of course breathe. There is no argument that these are the basic needs of human beings.
In comparison, nearly every culture on the planet throughout human history has lived in some kind of shelter. Whether it be the kind of multifaceted structures found today in industrial countries, caves from centuries past, or the grass huts of Amazon tribes, shelter is among the highest priorities of all people.
Without shelter a human being cannot survive. Shelter protects us from the elements and predators.
Clothing is essential to human flourishing. This is because our bodies are not well-adapted to the climate we live in.
For example, people who live close to the equator generally have less need for clothing than those who live further away. This is because the closer you are to the equator, the higher the average temperature is. However, they may need clothing to avoid sunburn.
On the other hand, people who live in cold climates generally need more clothing to stay warm. In fact, people who live in the Arctic regions of the world must wear special clothing that protects them from the cold and wind.
Warmth is a physiological need that is often overlooked. This is because, in developed countries at least, we take for granted that we will have access to warmth.
However, many people in the world do not have this luxury. For example, in 2015 over 4 million refugees were living in camps in Greece, Italy, and Turkey.
Many of these camps were not designed for long-term habitation and did not have adequate heating or insulation. This led to a number of deaths, particularly among the elderly and young children.
Sleep is a basic physiological need. This is because our bodies need time to rest and recover from the day’s activities. Sleep also allows our brains to consolidate memories and process information.
Eight hours of sleep per night helps to rest the body and give the brain a chance to recover from the day’s activities.
A good night’s sleep can also help to improve mood and concentration. In addition, sleep helps to regulate hormones and metabolism. Not getting enough sleep can lead to weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.
Sexual intercourse is a basic physiological need for humans. This is because sex is necessary for reproduction. Additionally, sexual intimacy provides physical and emotional satisfaction.
While humans engage in intercourse for pleasure, many animals do not, and even humans need it in order for society to proliferate. As a result, Maslow considered reproduction to be a physiological need for the human race.
Excretion is the removal of waste products from the body. This is a basic physiological need because it helps to keep the body clean and healthy. Excretion also helps to prevent disease.
The main organs of excretion are the kidneys, which remove waste products from the blood. The liver also plays a role in excretion by breaking down toxins. These toxins are then eliminated in stool and urine.
Thus, we see that even in prison and solitary confinement, toilets are provided for the prisoners. Without it, a basic need cannot be met.
Homeostasis is the maintenance of a stable internal environment. This is a basic physiological need because it helps to keep the body functioning properly. Homeostasis is regulated by the nervous and endocrine systems. Not maintaining homeostasis can lead to illness and disease.
People who cannot regulate their internal temperature go into a state of shock and can die. For example, people who suffer from hypothermia or heat stroke cannot maintain homeostasis and need medical help to survive.
Movement is a basic physiological need. This is because our bodies need to move in order to stay healthy. Movement helps to keep the heart and lungs functioning properly. It also helps to maintain muscle tone and flexibility. Not getting enough exercise can lead to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
People who are confined to bed for long periods of time, such as the elderly and severely paralyzed, need to be moved regularly in order to prevent bedsores. This is because movement helps to keep the skin healthy.
Maslow’s Physiological Needs in Action
Below are some examples of how physiological needs are planned for in our society.
1. The School Lunch Plan
If a student is hungry, it is difficult for them to learn. Until the basic physiological need for food has been satisfied, a student will not be able to devote their full attention to studying. Instead, their mind will be preoccupied with obtaining food.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of hungry students in America. According to a recent report by the USDA, 12 million children in the U.S. are food insecure.
This has led nations like the USA and UK to run food plans in schools for underprivileged children.
Although school lunch programs existed before Maslow’s theory of motivation, it certainly is an example of how his hierarchy of needs applies in education.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places physiological needs as the first priority. The physiological needs are the basis of life itself. If there is one thing that is necessary for survival, it is the hospital.
A hospital ensures the survival of a person at the most crucial moment in their lives. Whether it be a car accident, a chronic disease, or a contagious virus, the hospital is there to ensure the most crucial physiological need of all, breathing.
If the human body is not capable of breathing, then there is no physiology to satisfy. In fact, having good hospitals is a hallmark of a civilized society. One of the most fundamental obligations of a government is to provide its citizens with effective hospitals.
3. A Booming Textile Industry
If the size of an industry is evidence of its importance, then the apparel and textile industry is among the most vital to human beings.
Just as all humans breathe, eat, drink, and seek shelter, they also all wear clothes. Even people that live in the most remote areas of the world wear some kind of clothing. There is even evidence that Neanderthals wore something like clothes 400,000 years ago.
It seems that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is correct to include clothing as a basic human need. It is vital for survival and as important as food and shelter.
4. Online Dating
Maslow included reproduction in his physiological needs category because without it, the human species would not survive. Of course, the activities involved in the process of reproduction also fall into this category, by default.
A quick glance at website activity reveals that dating sites (and related content) are tremendously popular. People spend a great deal of time online searching for romantic partners or browsing videos that depict reproduction-related acts.
5. Preparing for Disasters (The Preppers Movement)
A prepper is a person that prepares for a catastrophic event that will eliminate normal living conditions. The event could be a tornado or hurricane, or so extreme as a world war or nuclear holocaust.
Preppers stockpile basic supplies like a first-aid kit and enough food and water to last for weeks or months. Some may have bomb shelters, hazmat suits, a means to generate electricity, and a ready-to-plant array of seeds.
The number one priority of a prepper is to be ready to meet all the physiological needs necessary to survive. In fact, every element in the first stage of Maslow’s hierarchy is on the list of a well-prepared prepper.
6. Utilization of Social Indices for Social Planning
Social indices are objective measures of health and well-being. These concepts are measured as a way of identifying how a community, state, nation, or geographic region are functioning.
Specific data is collected on a wide range of metrics, including how much food people have, daily income, the availability of clean drinking water, and access to healthcare, just to name a few.
These indices are used by a large number of government agencies and charities around the world. The data is important when making decisions about where to allocate resources. If you compare the list of physiological needs with the list of data categories on these indices, you will find significant overlap.
7. Government and Politics
Politicians make a lot of public speeches. Most of those speeches involve statements addressing needs for food, shelter, and economic opportunity.
By making promises that they can satisfy the basic needs that their constituents have, politicians hope to obtain votes. No one is going to vote for someone if they say that their priorities will be about helping people feel good about themselves and make lots of friends.
The Next Steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy
There are 5 steps on Maslow’s hierarchy. Once physiological needs are met, we move up to safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization.
- Physiological needs – these are the basic needs for survival, such as food, water, and shelter.
- Safety needs – once the physiological needs are met, people tend to focus on safety and security. This includes things like feeling safe from physical and emotional harm, having a stable job and income, and having good health.
- Love and belonging (social needs) – once people feel safe and secure, they start to focus on forming close relationships with others. This includes things like having supportive friends and family, being part of a community or group, and feeling loved and accepted.
- Esteem needs – once people have close relationships, they start to focus on esteem needs. This includes things like feeling respected and valued, having a sense of accomplishment, and feeling good about oneself.
- Self-actualization – once all of the other needs are met, people can start to focus on self-actualization. This includes things like personal growth and development, becoming the best that one can be, and reaching one’s full potential.
The satisfaction of physiological needs is at stage one in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are the most basic and fundamental needs a person has. When any of these needs are not met, then a person has great difficulty being concerned with any other matters.
Considerations about career aspirations or long-term goals are simply put on the shelf until these fundamental needs are met. After that, then people can move on to the next stage in Maslow’s hierarchy.
We can see these needs play out in our everyday lives and on a global scale, across countries and throughout history. Some of the largest industrial sectors in the world are a result of people having these needs and trying to fulfill them.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review,50(4), 370-96.
Cieraad, I. 2006. At home: an anthropology of domestic space. Syracuse: University Press.
Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M., Gregory, C., and Singh. A. (202). Household Food Security in the United States in 2020 (No. ERR-298). U.S Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Source: https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=102075
Nahai, N. (2012). Webs of Influence: The Psychology of online persuasion. London: Pearson UK.
Smith, P. (2022). Global apparel market – statistics & facts. Retrieved from: Statista. https://www.statista.com/topics/5091/apparel-market-worldwide/#topicHeader__wrapper
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.