Among all the tools available to us from the discipline of psychology, Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" is arguably the most applicable across all of society. This theory describes how human actions can be understood according to the needs of each of those under scrutiny. Also, the hierarchy is fairly simple to understand if one but looks at it as the needs of a theoretical person representing the mean of humanity-i.e., not at any extremes per the human condition.
One of the really great things about the Hierarchy of Needs is that Maslow presented it as a pyramid (actually a planar triangle) that is easy to remember when applying his principles. To understand this concept let's look at the triangle, which consists of five levels.
The first level is comprised of the basics that keep one alive: water, oxygen, food and some form of protection from extreme elements. If you are alive, you are probably okay on the first level. But, remember, there are many people living in our world who have a problem finding potable water and/or protection from the elements. These people will expend all of their energies on attaining the basics of the first level and may never have cause to seek to attain a level above it.
The second level is the need for safety. We have become much more aware of this in the United States and other countries with the rise in terrorism in the world. If we have satisfactorily attained the basic needs of level one, we will want safety in our lives and will do what is necessary to attain it. And, this goes beyond the obvious guards against physical attacks. It includes the ability to purchase food stuffs that are safe to eat and medicines that are safe to take. We will do what we need to guarantee the safety of our families and communities.
Level three is a nebulous, but real, need. It is the need for love and affection from others, beginning with our family members. It expands into the need for social acceptance. When you look at how these needs are building, it is easy to see the wisdom of Abraham Maslow. This third need is a very close third, but a third-nonetheless, to the first two levels of needs in his hierarchy.
Level four is often the level at which many people stall. It is the need for esteem; both self-esteem and the esteem that comes from the acceptance of others. People want to have a feeling of self-worth. Some are poorly equipped to secure this level and become their own worst enemies by performing poorly in society. There are both external factors (things beyond their control) and internal factors (those things about themselves they do control) that can get in the way of them failing to gain the esteem of other people and failing to have that feeling of self-esteem for themselves.
Finally, the very top level of Maslow's hierarchy is the need for self-actualization. This level becomes the goal of most all of those who have attained the level of esteem. This is the level at which a person satisfies themselves with themselves. It is a feeling that comes with exceptional human achievement, as measured by the person, and hopefully, society. We can look at it as an artist completing a masterpiece on canvas or in granite. But, we can also look at it as an amputee, with a prosthetic leg, climbing the major mountains of the world. Whatever it is, it is that something that allows a person to set himself/herself apart from the rest of humanity and feel the deep satisfaction of achieving the seemingly unachievable.
So, when looking at people, we can look at them with an entirely different perspective when we realize they are somewhere in that continuum that is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The lines are not heavy and clear, but fuzzy and gray. A person can be looking to attain the fifth goal without even caring about the attainment of the fourth.
However, as a general principle, Maslow does give us some really good insight into the human condition and psyche.