Abraham Maslow


Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) helped shift psychology from behaviorism to humanism. He is the “father” of the Third Force of Psychology. The first force was Freud’s psychoanalytic approach. The second force or wave was Pavlov’s behaviorism. And the third major force in American psychology was humanism.

Maslow is best known for his hierarchy of needs. Building on the ideas of Henry Murray, Maslow theorized that needs are not all the same. Some needs must be met before others. Like Harlow’s monkeys, people their biological and safety needs met first. After the essentials are met, people can then pursue their psychological and spiritual needs.

D motives (deficit needs) push people to get food, water, shelter and safety. Once these deficits are met, progress can be made on other fronts. Motivation is the push toward satisfying deficits (d needs).

Meta-motivation, on the other hand, is the push toward being (b needs). Our psychological needs push us to seek love, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. According to Maslow, people are inherently good and moving toward growth. We are not the slaves of Freudian drives. We are headed toward the goal of reaching our full potential. This push toward growth is innate. Just as plants grow toward light, people grow to be more integrated, more mature and wiser. We are in the process of “being,” not just existing.

Deficit needs are seeking to establish a more orderly, stable environment. We need food and water to sustain life, and maintain equilibrium. Similarly, we need to satisfy safety needs for our long-term success. If these needs are not met, we will continually try to become safe. We might hoard or over-structure your life. If we don’t fill the deficit, we can’t move on.

When originally presented in 1954, Maslow’s pyramid of needs had five levels: physiological, safety, love-belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Only self-actualization represented B-needs; the first four levels of the pyramid were D-needs. In his revised pyramid (1970), three more B-need levels are included. He wanted to include the need to acquire and understand knowledge (cognitive needs), and the need to create and experience beauty, balance and structure (aesthetic needs). So cognitive needs and aesthetic needs were inserted above esteem needs but below self-actualization. Finally, a new level (transcendence) was added to the pyramid’s top. If self-actualization is reaching your own potential, transcendence is helping other reach their full potential. It transcends beyond the person and beyond ego. It’s helping others become more enlightened and empowered. It is striving for the fullest potential of the human race.

Maslow assumed that the higher needs could only be met after the basic ones had been satisfied. An extension of his philosophy into social policy might be to solve world hunger before world peace. Hunger would take precedence over safety, and safety would take precedence over love and belonging. According to this view, people cannot find love and belonging until their physical and safety needs are met.

Although Maslow didn’t invent the idea of self-actualization, he certainly popularized the term. For him, self-actualization was people at their best. It was the ultimate in human development, the best one could possibly be. It was both a process and the ultimate goal. Self-actualization wasn’t simply what one did once in their life. It was how people should best live their lives.

To help define it, Maslow selected people he thought represented this ideal. The list included: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, and William James. Eleanor Roosevelt made the list but FDR didn’t. It wasn’t an exhaustive list, more of a sampling of personal favorites.

To understand self-actualization, Maslow read the biographies and writings of those he thought modeled it. From his investigation, he developed a list of qualities that would define one as self-actualized. Self-actualized people are reality-centered (genuine, not fake), problem-centered (solution seekers, not blamers or quitters), and process-centered (means oriented, not using ends to justify the means). Self-actualized people relate to others authentically. They resist social pressure, rely on their own judgment, and set their own direction. Although the self-actualized have intimate personal relationships with family and a few close friends, they enjoy their own company and don’t mind being alone. They are open to diversity, compassionate for others, and hold democratic values. They accept you as you are, and don’t try to change you into what they think you should be. They are able to laugh at themselves, and are not pretentious or moody.

Maslow would not want you to think that self-actualizers are perfect. They’re not. Often they have considerable guilt and anxiety…but it’s realistic guilt and anxiety, not neurotic guilt and anxiety. And they can have moments of ruthlessness and bad humor…but it doesn’t last long. And they can be absentminded or overly kind.

All right, so maybe that does sounds like perfection.

But for Maslow, striving for perfection is okay. People are self-perfecting systems. The self is intrinsically good and gradually getting better. It grows toward perfection as its needs are met. These needs are organized in a hierarchy where lower needs must be met before higher needs. As people growth, they must satisfy the strong needs caused by biological and psychological deficits before they work on the weaker but more growth oriented needs of self-esteem and self-actualization.

Everyone has those mystical moments in life when you feel both infinitely small and eternally connected. You go to the ocean or mountains, and feel both more alone and more connected. Self-actualized people have more of “peak experiences” than the rest of us.

Like Freud, Maslow based his conclusions on logical arguments, not empirical data. His “armchair philosopher” approach was theoretical and deductive. He offered no proof for his assertions; no experiments, no naturalistic observations, and no clinical data. So it’s not surprising that there are inconsistencies in his model. Many examples can be given of situations that don’t fit Maslow’s model. People who are poor or hungry do show love and affection. Happiness does not seem to be confined to rich countries. Maslow’s theory doesn’t explain why police, fire fighters, military, missionaries, and Peace Corp workers regularly give up safety and physiological needs in order to help others.

Also like Freud, an inconsistent theory doesn’t make Maslow’s approach unhelpful or unpopular. Maslow highlights what behaviorist ignored. He emphasizes the importance of love, self-esteem and personal fulfillment. Instead of stimuli eliciting reflexes, Maslow suggests that people can think, have goals, and strive to reach their full potential. Instead of external rewards and punishments, people have an internal need to be creative, social and productive. None of these ideas were included in behaviorism.

Maslow is also in sharp contrast to Freud. Instead of an unconscious id making self-pleasuring wishes, people are active processors. They respect themselves and others. They seek intimate relationships and enjoy being part of a group. And instead of reacting to neurotic needs, people seek growth, health and self-actualization. Maslow is much more optimistic than Freud.

Maslow’s approach is not without problems. The theory does not specify how or when to declare someone as self-actualized, nor does it indicate which famous, powerful, successful people should be categorized as non-actualized. Also, why does it take time to acquire self-actualization? Wouldn’t Maslow’s description of a self-actualized person describe any infant? Is there anyone more authentic than a baby?

The basic problem with Maslow’s hierarchy is that there are many people who regularly give up safety needs to meet higher needs. Poets and artists starve for beauty. Police officers, fire fighters and the military regularly put their lives at risk. And don’t doctors, parents and teachers put the welfare of others before their own needs? As a predictor of behavior, Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t seem hold up.

According to Maslow, people overcome loneliness because they have a need for love, affection and belongingness. But that’s a circular argument: people can only satisfy higher needs if they meet lower needs first; you know they’ve met lower needs because they are working on higher needs. Giving love and affection are normal human activities because they satisfy the need to connect with others; we know there is a need to connect to others because people give love and affection.

Finally, the theory isn’t clear on how people move from level to level. He believes the reason we don’t all reach self-actualization is that society hinders our growth. He recommends children should be taught how to be authentic. He also maintains that we fear self-knowledge (the Jonah complex). So is moving up the hierarchy the result of training, removing societal influences, overcoming personal hindrances, or somehow stimulating natural growth? Maslow doesn’t specify the mechanisms of change.

Maslow’s theory does infer principles of social policy. If people need air before water, and water before food, there is an implied proper order to helping others. If Maslow’s theory is applied to the solving world problems, it would suggest that people must be fed before they are helped with growth needs. This might suggest that democracy could not occur in poor countries, or at least not until people’s basic needs were met. Some might argue that the maxim would be food before art. But others might hold that it would not necessarily mean food before dignity. The great advantage of an ambiguous theory is that it can be interpreted in many ways.

Here’s a lecture I did on Maslow.


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