Abraham Maslow - Psychology of Personality - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Abraham Maslow
Psychology of Personality
The Canon


BORN 1908, Brooklyn, New York


DIED 1970, Menlo Park, California


Educated at City College of New York and the University of Wisconsin



Abraham Maslow’s humanistic theories have permeated our culture and provided much food for thought about how we strive to be the best people we can be and about what we are capable of. Though he started out as a behaviorist and studied attachment behavior under Harry Harlow, the theories that Maslow is most known for are not empirical in nature, which is the most frequent criticism leveled against them. Nonetheless, his ideas about human needs, values, and achievement, and his concept of self-actualization, have formed a foundation for further study of how we fulfill our potential as human beings.

Maslow is primarily known for what he called the hierarchy of needs, with the principle of self-actualization sitting atop the hierarchy. He was first inspired by his mentors, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict and the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, not because they studied self-actualization but because he felt that they were the very human representation of it. To Maslow, they were professionally and personally accomplished, kind, and caring people who seemed to have a purpose greater than themselves. Maslow’s previous research under Harlow had shown him that needs can come in degrees, with various needs superseding each other (if you can’t breathe, you’re not worried about thirst; if you’re dying of dehydration, you’re not worried about lack of shelter). Maslow expanded the concept of needs to include not just biological needs but social, emotional, and psychological ones as well. The hierarchy can be represented as a ladder, with every need from the bottom rung up requiring satisfaction before progress up the ladder can be made.

The bottom level of the ladder, or hierarchy, represents physiological needs, everything from oxygen to sleep to vitamins, from getting rid of waste to avoiding pain and having sex. The next level up represents needs related to security and safety—things like protection, stability, and perhaps structure and order. Next up are needs related to love and belonging, which include affection and interpersonal relationships, a sense of community, and perhaps finding a partner or a meaningful career. The esteem-related needs are next: admiration, attention, recognition, and appreciation, and also self-respect, independence, freedom, confidence, and a sense of competence.

All the aforementioned needs are what Maslow called “deficiency” needs, or D-needs, because if they aren’t met, you feel compelled to fill those gaps. But once you satisfy them, you don’t feel any extra motivation to go further. For instance, when you quench your thirst with a nice tall glass of ice water, you don’t want to keep on going with even more water once you are fully satisfied.

Maslow also said that we can regress down the hierarchy in times of crisis (if a crime wave breaks out in your neighborhood, you will quickly become more concerned with safety and security all over again, friendships be darned). If you have a particularly severe or prolonged case of a need’s not being met—long periods of hunger as a child, or going through abuse, for example—you might develop a fixation on that need for the rest of your life (a rather Freudian concept).

The top level of the hierarchy represents not the D-needs but what Maslow called the “being” needs, or B-needs. Maslow said that these needs are for things like goodness, truth, beauty, playfulness, aliveness, and unity. This is also the place where the drive for self-actualization comes into being. Unlike the D-needs, the B-needs are never truly met, but for those who have risen to this level, the B-needs continue to be motivating. Maslow studied biographies of famous and obscure people, observing trends and characteristics, and concluded that only about 1 in 50 of us ever get to the point of self-actualization. He said that people who are self-actualizing are realistic problem solvers, able to be alone with themselves but also to have meaningful intimate relationships. They are autonomous and not easily swayed by peer pressure or by the need to conform. They accept themselves and others, and they have a sense of humor that is not used aggressively. They can be spontaneous and unconcerned with calculating an image or putting on a persona. People who are self-actualizing, according to Maslow, have a sense of humility and respect; Maslow referred to their values as democratic values. He saw compassion and interest in other people as factors in human kinship and in a strong sense of ethics. Maslow’s self-actualizers are creative and look at life as something to be discovered and appreciated, and though they aren’t perfect, they are fully themselves and are able to be at peace with that. They tend to care more about the challenges they are striving to overcome or the problems they are solving than about being overly self-involved.


Maslow’s theories, which helped usher in the humanistic movement in psychology, can very well be considered to have laid the foundation for later work in the field of positive psychology, and for the general shift away from focusing solely on disorders and illness and toward also studying growth, joy, and fulfillment. Martin Seligman, one of the humanistic movement’s leading contemporary researchers, was directly influenced by Maslow’s work, which can also be seen to align somewhat with Viktor Frankl’s work, although there are some notable differences (for example, Frankl felt that meaning can be found even in the most desperate situations, whereas Maslow maintained that lower-order needs must be met before someone can reach the stage of striving for self-actualization).


Have you ever had a moment in your life when you felt that everything had clicked into place, even if that moment was fleeting? Perhaps it was when you witnessed an extraordinarily beautiful sunset on the vacation of a lifetime, or when you crossed a hard-won graduation stage or saw your sister declared cancer-free. Maybe it was a moment when something more mundane occurred—you watched your father joke around with your son, you felt gratitude from someone you had helped out, or you were struck by the beauty of some wildflowers on a highway median. These peak experiences, in Maslow’s terminology, can pack quite an emotional (some would even say spiritual) punch. They often stick out as the visuals that propel us forward in life, the things we remember that give us a reason to keep going. Maslow argued that if you are having more and more of these, you are on the right track, as you are on the road to self-actualization.

Some believe that peak experiences have something in common with the concept of flow, first proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is what you feel when you get “in the zone”: You’re focused and feeling good, absorbed enough in a task that other things don’t seem to matter. You are optimally both challenged and relaxed. You may be washing dishes, signing an executive order, or doing anything in between, but time just passes—it’s the opposite of watching the clock—and you are fulfilled in the moment.

Naturally, these are among some of life’s most positive experiences. When was the last time you had one? Or are you lucky enough that you have them quite regularly? Clearly, not just luck is involved. People striving to self-actualize, Maslow argued, are much more likely to make them happen. And who, exactly, is self-actualizing? Maslow’s historical examples aside, is there someone in your life whom you’ve always admired? A loving aunt, a wise and giving mentor, a serene and supportive friend? Have you ever tried to put your finger on exactly what it is about this person that seems so inspiring? Maybe you’ve even tried to be like him or her and found it impossible. There’s a quality there that defies easy description. Understanding what makes people like that who they are is more an art than a science.

It is these rare people whom we might see as self-actualizing, and they likely inspire awe in us. But what is ironic is that, by the very definition of self-actualization, they are just being themselves. Mimicking them or shape-shifting ourselves into some facsimile will get us nowhere, as Maslow maintained that they are acting from principles that truly come from within, without calculation or artifice. What does it mean to be true to yourself? What are the things you cherish most? The pursuit of beauty, harmony, and truth through art, music, or writing? The challenge of reaching new milestones of stamina and strength and getting the endorphin rush of exercise? Maslow might very well say that we have to look inside ourselves first, and that any of these things represents s valid step in the process of self-actualization if that step is really aligned with our values. There is no road map. There is no perfection. And, most inspiring of all, there is no finished product—that’s why Maslow’s term is self-actualizing rather than self-actualized.