Abraham Harold Maslow was born April 1, 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the first of seven children born to his
parents, who themselves were uneducated Jewish immigrants from Russia. His parents, hoping for the best for their children
in the new world, pushed him hard for academic success. Not surprisingly, he became very lonely as a boy, and found
his refuge in books.
To satisfy his parents, he first studied law at the City College of New York (CCNY). After three semesters, he transferred
to Cornell, and then back to CCNY. He married Bertha Goodman, his first cousin, against his parents wishes. Abe
and Bertha went on to have two daughters.
He and Bertha moved to Wisconsin so that he could attend the University of Wisconsin. Here, he became interested
in psychology, and his school work began to improve dramatically. He spent time there working with Harry Harlow, who is famous for his experiments with baby rhesus monkeys and attachment behavior.
He received his BA in 1930, his MA in 1931, and his PhD in 1934, all in psychology, all from the University of Wisconsin.
A year after graduation, he returned to New York to work with E. L. Thorndike at Columbia, where Maslow became interested
in research on human sexuality.
He began teaching full time at Brooklyn College. During this period of his life, he came into contact with the many
European intellectuals that were immigrating to the US, and Brooklyn in particular, at that time -- people like Adler, Fromm,
Horney, as well as several Gestalt and Freudian psychologists.
In 1951, Maslow served as the chair of the psychology department at Brandeis for 10 years, where he met Kurt Goldstein
(who introduced him to the idea of self-actualization) and began his own theoretical work. It was also here that he
began his crusade for a humanistic psychology -- something ultimately much more important to him than his own theorizing.
He spend his final years in semi-retirement in California, until, on June 8 1970, he died of a heart attack after years
of ill health.
One of the many interesting things Maslow noticed while he worked with monkeys early in his career, was that some needs
take precedence over others. For example, if you are hungry and thirsty, you will tend to try to take care of the thirst
first. After all, you can do without food for weeks, but you can only do without water for a couple of days! Thirst
is a “stronger” need than hunger. Likewise, if you are very very thirsty, but someone has put a choke hold
on you and you can’t breath, which is more important? The need to breathe, of course. On the other hand,
sex is less powerful than any of these. Let’s face it, you won’t die if you don’t get it!
Maslow took this idea and created his now famous hierarchy of needs. Beyond the details of air, water, food, and
sex, he laid out five broader layers: the physiological needs, the needs for safety and security, the needs for love
and belonging, the needs for esteem, and the need to actualize the self, in that order.
1. The physiological needs. These include the needs we have for oxygen, water, protein, salt, sugar,
calcium, and other minerals and vitamins. They also include the need to maintain a pH balance (getting too acidic or
base will kill you) and temperature (98.6 or near to it). Also, there’s the needs to be active, to rest, to sleep,
to get rid of wastes (CO2, sweat, urine, and feces), to avoid pain, and to have sex. Quite a collection!
Maslow believed, and research supports him, that these are in fact individual needs, and that a lack of, say, vitamin C,
will lead to a very specific hunger for things which have in the past provided that vitamin C -- e.g. orange juice.
I guess the cravings that some pregnant women have, and the way in which babies eat the most foul tasting baby food, support
the idea anecdotally.
2. The safety and security needs. When the physiological needs are largely taken care of, this second
layer of needs comes into play. You will become increasingly interested in finding safe circumstances, stability, protection.
You might develop a need for structure, for order, some limits.
Looking at it negatively, you become concerned, not with needs like hunger and thirst, but with your fears and anxieties.
In the ordinary American adult, this set of needs manifest themselves in the form of our urges to have a home in a safe neighborhood,
a little job security and a nest egg, a good retirement plan and a bit of insurance, and so on.
3. The love and belonging needs. When physiological needs and safety needs are, by and large, taken
care of, a third layer starts to show up. You begin to feel the need for friends, a sweetheart, children, affectionate
relationships in general, even a sense of community. Looked at negatively, you become increasing susceptible to loneliness
and social anxieties.
In our day-to-day life, we exhibit these needs in our desires to marry, have a family, be a part of a community, a member
of a church, a brother in the fraternity, a part of a gang or a bowling club. It is also a part of what we look for
in a career.
4. The esteem needs. Next, we begin to look for a little self-esteem. Maslow noted two versions
of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status,
fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, even dominance. The higher form involves the
need for self-respect, including such feelings as confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom.
Note that this is the “higher” form because, unlike the respect of others, once you have self-respect, it’s
a lot harder to lose!
The negative version of these needs is low self-esteem and inferiority complexes. Maslow felt that Adler was really
onto something when he proposed that these were at the roots of many, if not most, of our psychological problems. In
modern countries, most of us have what we need in regard to our physiological and safety needs. We, more often than
not, have quite a bit of love and belonging, too. It’s a little respect that often seems so very hard to get!
All of the preceding four levels he calls deficit needs, or D-needs. If you don’t have enough
of something -- i.e. you have a deficit -- you feel the need. But if you get all you need, you feel nothing at all!
In other words, they cease to be motivating. As the old blues song goes, “you don’t miss your water till
your well runs dry!”
He also talks about these levels in terms of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the principle by which your furnace
thermostat operates: When it gets too cold, it switches the heat on; When it gets too hot, it switches the heat
off. In the same way, your body, when it lacks a certain substance, develops a hunger for it; When it gets enough
of it, then the hunger stops. Maslow simply extends the homeostatic principle to needs, such as safety, belonging, and
esteem, that we don’t ordinarily think of in these terms.
Maslow sees all these needs as essentially survival needs. Even love and esteem are needed for the maintenance of
health. He says we all have these needs built in to us genetically, like instincts. In fact, he calls them instinctoid
-- instinct-like -- needs.
In terms of overall development, we move through these levels a bit like stages. As newborns, our focus (if not our
entire set of needs) is on the physiological. Soon, we begin to recognize that we need to be safe. Soon after
that, we crave attention and affection. A bit later, we look for self-esteem. Mind you, this is in the first couple
Under stressful conditions, or when survival is threatened, we can “regress” to a lower need level. When
you great career falls flat, you might seek out a little attention. When your family ups and leaves you, it seems that
love is again all you ever wanted. When you face chapter eleven after a long and happy life, you suddenly can’t
think of anything except money.
These things can occur on a society-wide basis as well: When society suddenly flounders, people start clamoring for
a strong leader to take over and make things right. When the bombs start falling, they look for safety. When the
food stops coming into the stores, their needs become even more basic.
Maslow suggested that we can ask people for their “philosophy of the future” -- what would their ideal
life or world be like -- and get significant information as to what needs they do or do not have covered.
If you have significant problems along your development -- a period of extreme insecurity or hunger as a child, or the
loss of a family member through death or divorce, or significant neglect or abuse -- you may “fixate” on that
set of needs for the rest of your life.
This is Maslow’s understanding of neurosis. Perhaps you went through a war as a kid. Now you have everything
your heart needs -- yet you still find yourself obsessing over having enough money and keeping the pantry well-stocked.
Or perhaps your parents divorced when you were young. Now you have a wonderful spouse -- yet you get insanely jealous
or worry constantly that they are going to leave you because you are not “good enough” for them. You get
The last level is a bit different. Maslow has used a variety of terms to refer to this level: He has called
it growth motivation (in contrast to deficit motivation), being needs (or B-needs, in contrast to D-needs),
These are needs that do not involve balance or homeostasis. Once engaged, they continue to be felt. In fact,
they are likely to become stronger as we “feed” them! They involve the continuous desire to fulfill potentials,
to “be all that you can be.” They are a matter of becoming the most complete, the fullest, “you”
-- hence the term, self-actualization.
Now, in keeping with his theory up to this point, if you want to be truly self-actualizing, you need to have your lower
needs taken care of, at least to a considerable extent. This makes sense: If you are hungry, you are scrambling
to get food; If you are unsafe, you have to be continuously on guard; If you are isolated and unloved, you have
to satisfy that need; If you have a low sense of self-esteem, you have to be defensive or compensate. When lower
needs are unmet, you can’t fully devote yourself to fulfilling your potentials.
It isn’t surprising, then, the world being as difficult as it is, that only a small percentage of the world’s
population is truly, predominantly, self-actualizing. Maslow at one point suggested only about two percent!
The question becomes, of course, what exactly does Maslow mean by self-actualization. To answer that, we need to
look at the kind of people he called self-actualizers. Fortunately, he did this for us, using a qualitative method called
He began by picking out a group of people, some historical figures, some people he knew, whom he felt clearly met the standard
of self-actualization. Included in this august group were Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Eleanor
Roosevelt, Jane Adams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Benedict Spinoza, and Alduous Huxley, plus 12 unnamed people who
were alive at the time Maslow did his research. He then looked at their biographies, writings, the acts and words of
those he knew personally, and so on. From these sources, he developed a list of qualities that seemed characteristic
of these people, as opposed to the great mass of us.
These people were reality-centered, which means they could differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is
real and genuine. They were problem-centered, meaning they treated life’s difficulties as problems demanding
solutions, not as personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to. And they had a different perception of means
and ends. They felt that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves,
and that the means -- the journey -- was often more important than the ends.
The self-actualizers also had a different way of relating to others. First, they enjoyed solitude, and were
comfortable being alone. And they enjoyed deeper personal relations with a few close friends and family
members, rather than more shallow relationships with many people.
They enjoyed autonomy, a relative independence from physical and social needs. And they resisted enculturation,
that is, they were not susceptible to social pressure to be "well adjusted" or to "fit in" -- they were, in fact, nonconformists
in the best sense.
They had an unhostile sense of humor -- preferring to joke at their own expense, or at the human condition, and
never directing their humor at others. They had a quality he called acceptance of self and others, by which he
meant that these people would be more likely to take you as you are than try to change you into what they thought you should
be. This same acceptance applied to their attitudes towards themselves: If some quality of theirs wasn’t
harmful, they let it be, even enjoying it as a personal quirk. On the other hand, they were often strongly motivated
to change negative qualities in themselves that could be changed. Along with this comes spontaneity and simplicity:
They preferred being themselves rather than being pretentious or artificial. In fact, for all their nonconformity, he
found that they tended to be conventional on the surface, just where less self-actualizing nonconformists tend to be the most
Further, they had a sense of humility and respect towards others -- something Maslow also called democratic values
-- meaning that they were open to ethnic and individual variety, even treasuring it. They had a quality Maslow called
human kinship or Gemeinschaftsgefühl -- social interest, compassion, humanity. And this was accompanied
by a strong ethics, which was spiritual but seldom conventionally religious in nature.
And these people had a certain freshness of appreciation, an ability to see things, even ordinary things, with wonder.
Along with this comes their ability to be creative, inventive, and original. And, finally, these people tended
to have more peak experiences than the average person. A peak experience is one that takes you out of yourself,
that makes you feel very tiny, or very large, to some extent one with life or nature or God. It gives you a feeling
of being a part of the infinite and the eternal. These experiences tend to leave their mark on a person, change them
for the better, and many people actively seek them out. They are also called mystical experiences, and are an important
part of many religious and philosophical traditions.
Maslow doesn’t think that self-actualizers are perfect, of course. There were several flaws or imperfections
he discovered along the way as well: First, they often suffered considerable anxiety and guilt -- but realistic anxiety
and guilt, rather than misplaced or neurotic versions. Some of them were absentminded and overly kind. And finally,
some of them had unexpected moments of ruthlessness, surgical coldness, and loss of humor.
Two other points he makes about these self-actualizers: Their values were "natural" and seemed to flow effortlessly
from their personalities. And they appeared to transcend many of the dichotomies others accept as being undeniable,
such as the differences between the spiritual and the physical, the selfish and the unselfish, and the masculine and the feminine.
Metaneeds and metapathologies
Another way in which Maslow approach the problem of what is self-actualization is to talk about the special, driving needs
(B-needs, of course) of the self-actualizers. They need the following in their lives in order to be happy:
Truth, rather than dishonesty.
Goodness, rather than evil.
Beauty, not ugliness or vulgarity.
Unity, wholeness, and transcendence of opposites, not arbitrariness or forced choices.
deadness or the mechanization of life.
Uniqueness, not bland uniformity.
Perfection and necessity, not
sloppiness, inconsistency, or accident.
Completion, rather than incompleteness.
Justice and order, not
injustice and lawlessness.
Simplicity, not unnecessary complexity.
Richness, not environmental impoverishment.
Effortlessness, not strain.
Playfulness, not grim, humorless, drudgery.
Meaningfulness, rather than senselessness.
At first glance, you might think that everyone obviously needs these. But think: If you are living through
an economic depression or a war, or are living in a ghetto or in rural poverty, do you worry about these issues, or do you
worry about getting enough to eat and a roof over your head? In fact, Maslow believes that much of the what is wrong
with the world comes down to the fact that very few people really are interested in these values -- not because they are bad
people, but because they haven’t even had their basic needs taken care of!
When a self-actualizer doesn’t get these needs fulfilled, they respond with metapathologies -- a list of problems
as long as the list of metaneeds! Let me summarize it by saying that, when forced to live without these values, the
self-actualizer develops depression, despair, disgust,alienation, and a degree of cynicism.
Maslow hoped that his efforts at describing the self-actualizing person would eventually lead to a “periodic table”
of the kinds of qualities, problems, pathologies, and even solutions characteristic of higher levels of human potential.
Over time, he devoted increasing attention, not to his own theory, but to humanistic psychology and the human potentials movement.
Toward the end of his life, he inaugurated what he called the fourth force in psychology: Freudian and other
“depth” psychologies constituted the first force; Behaviorism was the second force; His own humanism,
including the European existentialists, were the third force. The fourth force was the transpersonal psychologies
which, taking their cue from Eastern philosophies, investigated such things as meditation, higher levels of consciousness,
and even parapsychological phenomena. Perhaps the best known transpersonalist today is Ken Wilber, author of such books
as The Atman Project and The History of Everything.
Maslow has been a very inspirational figure in personality theories. In the 1960’s in particular, people were
tired of the reductionistic, mechanistic messages of the behaviorists and physiological psychologists. They were looking
for meaning and purpose in their lives, even a higher, more mystical meaning. Maslow was one of the pioneers in that
movement to bring the human being back into psychology, and the person back into personality!
At approximately the same time, another movement was getting underway, one inspired by some of the very things that turned
Maslow off: computers and information processing, as well as very rationalistic theories such as Piaget’s cognitive
development theory and Noam Chomsky’s linguistics. This, of course, became the cognitive movement in psychology.
As the heyday of humanism appeared to lead to little more than drug abuse, astrology, and self indulgence, cognitivism
provided the scientific ground students of psychology were yearning for.
But the message should not be lost: Psychology is, first and foremost, about people, real people in real lives, and
not about computer models, statistical analyses, rat behavior, test scores, and laboratories.
The “big picture” aside, there are a few criticisms we might direct at Maslow’s theory itself.
The most common criticism concerns his methodology: Picking a small number of people that he himself declared self-actualizing,
then reading about them or talking with them, and coming to conclusions about what self-actualization is in the first place
does not sound like good science to many people.
In his defense, I should point out that he understood this, and thought of his work as simply pointing the way. He
hoped that others would take up the cause and complete what he had begun in a more rigorous fashion. It is a curiosity
that Maslow, the “father” of American humanism, began his career as a behaviorist with a strong physiological
bent. He did indeed believe in science, and often grounded his ideas in biology. He only meant to broaden psychology
to include the best in us, as well as the pathological!
Another criticism, a little harder to respond to, is that Maslow placed such constraints on self-actualization. First,
Kurt Goldstein and Carl Rogers used the phrase to refer to what every living creature does: To try to grow, to become
more, to fulfill its biological destiny. Maslow limits it to something only two percent of the human species achieves.
And while Rogers felt that babies were the best examples of human self-actualization, Maslow saw it as something achieved
only rarely by the young.
Another point is that he asks that we pretty much take care of our lower needs before self-actualization comes to the forefront.
And yet we can find many examples of people who exhibited at very least aspects of self-actualization who were far from having
their lower needs taken care of. Many of our best artists and authors, for example, suffered from poverty, bad upbringing,
neuroses, and depression. Some could even be called psychotic! If you think about Galileo, who prayed for ideas
that would sell, or Rembrandt, who could barely keep food on the table, or Toulouse Lautrec, whose body tormented him, or
van Gogh, who, besides poor, wasn’t quite right in the head, if you know what I mean... Weren’t these people
engaged in some form of self-actualization? The idea of artists and poets and philosophers (and psychologists!) being
strange is so common because it has so much truth to it!
We also have the example of a number of people who were creative in some fashion even while in concentration camps.
Trachtenberg, for example, developed a new way of doing arithmetic in a camp. Viktor Frankl developed his approach to
therapy while in a camp. There are many more examples.
And there are examples of people who were creative when unknown, became successful only to stop being creative. Ernest
Hemingway, if I’m not mistaken, is an example. Perhaps all these examples are exceptions, and the hierarchy of
needs stands up well to the general trend. But the exceptions certainly do put some doubt into our minds.
I would like to suggest a variation on Maslow's theory that might help. If we take the idea of actualization as Goldstein
and Rogers use it, i.e. as the "life force" that drives all creatures, we can also acknowledge that there are various things
that interfere with the full effectiveness of that life force. If we are deprived of our basic physical needs,
if we are living under threatening circumstances, if we are isolated from others, or if we have no confidence in our abilities,
we may continue to survive, but it will not be as fulfilling a live as it could be. We will not be fully actualizing
our potentials! We could even understand that there might be people that actualize despite deprivation!
If we take the deficit needs as subtracting from actualization, and if we talk about full self-actualization rather
than self-actualization as a separate category of need, Maslow's theory comes into line with other theories, and the exceptional
people who succeed in the face of adversity can be seen as heroic rather than freakish abberations.
I received the following email from Gareth Costello of Dublin, Ireland, which balances my somewhat negative review of Maslow:
One mild criticism I would have is of your concluding assessment, where you appeal for a broader view of self-actualisation
that could include subjects such as van Gogh and other hard-at-heel intellectual/creative giants. This appears to be based
on a view that people like van Gogh, etc. were, by virtue of their enormous creativity, 'at least partly' self-actualised.
I favour Maslow's more narrow definition of self-actualisation and would not agree that self-actualisation equates with
supreme self-expression. I suspect that self-actualisation is, often, a demotivating factor where artistic creativity is concerned,
and that artists such as van Gogh thrived (artistically, if not in other respects) specifically in the absence of circumstances
conducive to self-actualisation. Even financially successful artists (e.g. Stravinsky, who was famously good at looking after
his financial affairs, as well as affairs of other kinds) do exhibit some of the non-self-actualised 'motivators' that you
describe so well.
Self-actualisation implies an outwardness and openness that contrasts with the introspection that can be a pre-requisite
for great artistic self-expression. Where scientists can look out at the world around them to find something of profound or
universal significance, great artists usually look inside themselves to find something of personal significance - the universality
of their work is important but secondary. It's interesting that Maslow seems to have concentrated on people concerned with
the big-picture when defining self-actualisation. In Einstein, he selected a scientist who was striving for a theory of the
entire physical universe. The philosophers and politicians he analysed were concerned with issues of great relevance to humanity.
This is not to belittle the value or importance of the 'small-picture' - society needs splitters as well as lumpers. But
while self-actualisation may be synonymous with psychological balance and health, it does not necessarily lead to professional
or creative brilliance in all fields. In some instances, it may remove the driving force that leads people to excel -- art
being the classic example. So I don't agree that the scope of self-actualisation should be extended to include people who
may well have been brilliant, but who were also quite possibly damaged, unrounded or unhappy human beings.
If I had the opportunity to chose between brilliance (alone) or self-actualisation (alone) for my children, I would go
for the latter!
Gareth makes some very good points!
Maslow’s books are easy to read and full of interesting ideas. The best known are Toward a Psychology
of Being (1968), Motivation and Personality (first edition, 1954, and second edition, 1970), and The
Further Reaches of Human Nature (1971). Finally, there are many articles by Maslow, especially in the Journal
of Humanistic Psychology, which he cofounded