Human Needs and Motivation

Human needs are things all humans require for normal growth and development. These needs have been studied by psychologists and categorized in a number of ways. Henry A. Murray, one of the founders of personality psychology who was active in developing a theory of motivation, identified a list of core psychological needs in 1938. He described these needs as being either primary (based on biological needs, such as the need for food) or secondary (generally psychological, such as the need for independence). Murray believed the interplay of these needs produce distinct personality types and are internal influences on behavior.


Murray’s research underpins the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow who also studied human needs, motivation, and personality. While working with monkeys during his early years of research, he noticed that some needs take precedence over others. For example, thirst is relieved before hunger because the need for water is a stronger need than the need for food. In 1954, Maslow published what has become known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which remains valid today for understanding human motivation. [Figure 1-2] According to Maslow, human needs go beyond the obvious physical needs of food and shelter to include psychological needs, safety and security, love and belongingness, self esteem, and self actualization to achieve one’s goals.

Figure 1-2. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Figure 1-2. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Human needs are satisfied in order of importance. Once a need is satisfied, humans work to satisfy the next level of need. Need satisfaction is an ongoing behavior that determines everyday actions.

Human Needs That Must Be Met To Encourage Learning


These are biological needs. They consist of the need for air, food, water, and maintenance of the human body. If a student is unwell, then little else matters. Unless the biological needs are met, a person cannot concentrate fully on learning, self-expression, or any other tasks. Instructors should monitor their students to make sure that their basic physical needs have been met. A hungry or tired student may not be able to perform as expected.


Once the physiological needs are met, the need for security becomes active. All humans have a need to feel safe. Security needs are about keeping oneself from harm. If a student does not feel safe, he or she cannot concentrate on learning. The aviation instructor who stresses flight safety during training mitigates feelings of insecurity.



When individuals are physically comfortable and do not feel threatened, they seek to satisfy their social needs of belonging. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness and alienation. This involves both giving and receiving love, affection, and the sense of belonging. For example, aviation students are usually out of their normal surroundings during training, and their need for association and belonging is more pronounced. Instructors should make every effort to help new students feel at ease and to reinforce their decision to pursue a career or hobby in aviation.


When the first three classes of needs are satisfied, the need for esteem can become dominant. Humans have a need for a stable, firmly based, high level of self-respect and respect from others. Esteem is about feeling good about one’s self. Humans get esteem in two ways: internally or externally. Internally, a person judges himself or herself worthy by personally defined standards. High self-esteem results in self-confidence, independence, achievement, competence, and knowledge.

Most people, however, seek external esteem through social approval and esteem from other people, judging themselves by what others think of them. External self-esteem relates to one’s reputation, such as status, recognition, appreciation, and respect of associates.

When esteem needs are satisfied, a person feels self-confident and valuable as a person in the world. When these needs are frustrated, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless, and worthless. Esteem needs not only have a strong influence on the instructor-student relationship, but also may be the main reason for a student’s interest in aviation training.

Cognitive and Aesthetic

In later years, Maslow added cognitive (need to know and understand) and aesthetic (the emotional need of the artist) needs to the pyramid. He realized humans have a deep need to understand what is going on around them. If a person understands what is going on, he or she can either control the situation or make informed choices about what steps might be taken next. The brain even reinforces this need by giving humans a rush of dopamine whenever something is learned, which accounts for that satisfying “eureka!” moment. For example, a flight student usually experiences a major “eureka!” moment upon completing the first solo flight.

Aesthetic needs connect directly with human emotions, which makes it a subtle factor in the domain of persuasion. When someone likes another person, a house, a painting, or a song, the reasons are not examined—he or she simply likes it. This need can factor into the student-instructor relationship. If an instructor does not “like” a student, this subtle feeling may affect the instructor’s ability to teach that student.



When all of the foregoing needs are satisfied, then and only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. Maslow describes self-actualization as a person’s need to be and do that which the person was “born to do.” To paraphrase an old Army recruiting slogan, self-actualization is to “be all you can be.”

Self-actualized people are characterized by:

  • Being problem-focused.
  • Incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life.
  • A concern about personal growth.
  • The ability to have peak experiences.

Helping a student achieve his or her individual potential in aviation training offers the greatest challenge as well as reward to the instructor.

Instructors should help students satisfy their human needs in a manner that creates a healthy learning environment. In this type of environment, students experience fewer frustrations and, therefore, can devote more attention to their studies. Fulfillment of needs can be a powerful motivation in complex learning situations.