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Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

According to the optimistic perspective of Abraham Maslow, whose IQ was once measured as 195, the prime direction of human psychological development could and should be towards fulfilling potential. Self-actualisation is seen as the pinnacle of human development. Maslow is especially interested in the upper reaches of psychological health and maturity and focuses on the most creative and well-adjusted people. He has a basically positive outlook on human nature, emphasising innate goodness, free will, the ability to overcome adverse childhood experiences, and an inbuilt direction towards personal growth.

No theory of psychology will ever be complete which does not centrally incorporate the concept that man has his future within him, dynamically active at the present moment. (Maslow, 1968: 15)

This is not to say that he underestimates the negative, regressive aspects of the human condition. Indeed, in decidedly non-humanistic mood, he has written that for some people “nothing will work ultimately but shooting” (Maslow, in Lowry [ed], 1979: 631). Before self-actualisation can take a foothold, though, four more basic types of needs must be attended to, partly in stepwise developmental fashion, through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

These are, respectively, physiological needs first, then the more psychological needs of safety, belongingness and love, and esteem. The lower the need on the hierarchy, the greater its strength and priority. For example, a person who is starving will be relatively unconcerned about the possibility of injury, finding a life partner, others’ attitude towards him or fulfilling his potential. All five categories of needs are described by Maslow as instinctoid in recognition of their “appreciable hereditary determinant” (1968: 190). A tendency towards a declining percentage of achieved satisfaction progressing up the hierarchy is also postulated.

Physiological needs are the most basic and include those for oxygen, food, water, sleep, sex and the elimination of bodily wastes. These can obviously arise from the earliest moments of an individual’s existence. Safety needs include those for security (not least the freedom from fear and anxiety), stability, predictability and order. Although most important in infancy, Maslow also construes oppressive safety needs as typical of psychological disturbance in adulthood. Belongingness and love needs come to the fore during adolescence and can be satisfied through intimacy with another person, association with a group or benevolence towards people in general. Esteem needs, which also accelerate during adolescence, are in the areas of both self-esteem and respect from others. The focus is upon recognition and status, any failures in such areas easily generating significant feelings of inadequacy and discouragement.

At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualisation needs facilitate the realisation and optimisation of one’s capabilities, resources and potential. No matter how well satisfied are his “lower” needs, a person deficient in self-actualisation is likely to feel discontent and restless. As with Jung’s take on individuation (see Section 1.6), Maslow suggests that self-actualisation tends not to become a priority until mid-life and its exact form is highly individualistic.

Self-actualisation is idiosyncratic, since every person is different. . . . The individual [must do] what he, individually, is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. (Maslow, 1968: 33)

Maslow believes that “self-actualisers” comprise less than 1% of the population. This might be endorsed through the following list of general characteristics which he proposes are exhibited by such, nonetheless imperfect, people:

  • clear and realistic perception of reality (not least one’s strengths and weaknesses), with an absence of bias or preconception
  • tolerance and acceptance of self, others and nature
  • spontaneity, simplicity and naturalness
  • task-focus – including dedication to a cause and hard work – rather than self-focus
  • social interest, akin to Adlerian definitions (see Section 1.1), often based upon humility and the absence of prejudice
  • profound and interpersonal relationships, along with a need for privacy and autonomy
  • freshness of appreciation, sometimes bridging into wonder and joy through mystical experiences
  • creativity, flexibility and a willingness to learn from mistakes
  • sophisticated sense of humour
  • strong moral and ethical standards which produce purposeful attitudes and behaviours.

Lower needs, notwithstanding some ambiguity in Maslow’s writings, are often termed D-needs: failure to satisfy in the physiological, safety, love and esteem domains results in a deficit or deficiency. As with the Freudian psychosexual stages (see Section 1.3), too little of too much gratification may fixate the individual at a particular level of functioning. Lower needs must be at least partially consummated before the concerted pursuit of fulfilling higher needs can begin. Higher needs, often centring around self-actualisation, are termed B-needs, involving being and growth. Such needs are less necessary for survival, but essential to full emotional and psychological, if not biological, well-being. B-needs can also operate lower down Maslow’s hierarchy, notably in so-called B-love – which is natural, caring and non-possessive – and self-esteem built upon realistic competence and achievement rather than false adulation. In contrast to D-needs which elicit attitudes and behaviours which strive to effect a decrease in tension, B-needs serve to increase tension by presenting a variety of challenging but rewarding experiences. Thus, Maslow’s notions of D- and B- needs provide an axis of understanding human nature and development additional to his hierarchy.

The motivation of self-actualisers, in purely “B-mode”, is termed metamotivation and is often characterised by an absence of striving. Associated metaneeds (or B-values) are opportunities for personal growth towards which self-actualisers, in particular, naturally align themselves. Maslow (1971) lists a whole host of such metaneeds, including truth, uniqueness, perfection, justice, playfulness, self-sufficiency and meaningfulness. Frustration of these metaneeds generates metapathology or metagrumbles, based more upon the opposite end of the spectrum of the above respective qualities: cynicism, anonymity, hopelessness, lawlessness, grimness, blame and meaninglessness. Such metapathology may be distressingly amorphous and lacking in specific source and cause. More positively framed, it may represent the highest form of psychopathology and indicate that more basic needs are reasonably well satisfied.

Also in his later work, Maslow came to emphasise additional needs which govern human psychological development and are, again, axial to his originally posited “instinctoid” hierarchy. Cognitive needs, for example, orientate the person, from late infancy or early childhood onwards, towards knowledge and understanding. Such needs are expressed in a natural curiosity about the unknown and may override safety needs. Maslow believes it is important to healthy personality development to cultivate cognitive needs, which may otherwise be stifled by social and cultural influences. There is evidently significant interdependence between Maslow’s hierarchy and his later propositions concerning cognitive needs. For example, the needs to know and to understand are desirable in securing love and esteem and prerequisite to achieving self-actualisation. Furthermore, Maslow distinguishes between D- and B- forms of cognition. D-cognition is judgmental, aligned towards the satisfaction of D-needs and sees self as separate from its environment. B-cognition, on the other hand, is non-judgmental, does not strive to fulfil a motive and sees self and cosmos as primarily unified.

Maslow also delineates possibilities even beyond self-actualisation. In particular, he espouses the value of peak experiences, where the individual’s sense of self dissolves into an awareness of a greater unity. Such experiences – which may reflect the ineffable and integrative B-cognition – tend to be spontaneous, but may be triggered by a person’s deep absorption in her aesthetic needs. Focusing upon the beauty of nature or the exquisiteness of great art or music can give rise to joyous, larger than life moments of transcendence. Plateau experiences are suggested to be more stable and enduring. Here, a person’s whole outlook and perception can be radically altered through an intensified awareness and new appreciation of the wonders of the universe. With similar aspirations beyond self, finally, Maslow envisions Eupsychia – an ideal society comprising self-actualising individuals and communities.


Lowry, R (ed) (1973). Dominance, Self-esteem, Self-actualisation: Germinal Papers of A H Maslow. Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole.

Lowry, R (ed) (1979). The Journals of A H Maslow. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks-Cole.

Maslow, A (1948). Higher and Lower Needs. Journal of Psychology, 25: 433-436.

Maslow, A (1957). A Philosophy of Psychology: The Need for a Mature Science of Human Nature. Main Currents in Modern Thought, 13: 27-32.

Maslow, A (1964). Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Maslow, A (1965). Eupsychian Management: A Journal. Homewood, IL: Irwin-Dorsey.

Maslow, A (1966). The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being (2nd edition). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Maslow, A (1971). The Further Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Maslow, A (1987). Motivation and Personality (3rd edition). New York: Harper & Row.


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