Psychologists and Their Theories for Students. Editor: Kristine Krapp. Volume 2, Gale, 2005.
Abraham Maslow is one of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology, an approach to understanding behavior that developed in the middle part of the twentieth century. The humanistic approach is sometimes referred to as the “third force” in psychology, because it developed after both the psychoanalytic and behaviorist approaches were well established.
Maslow was an academic who spent most of his professional career teaching, conducting research, and developing his theories of behavior. Although he wrote an important text on abnormal psychology and provided informal counseling to some of his students, he never thought of himself as a psychotherapist, unlike many of the other contributors to the field of personality. He was much more focused on understanding healthy behavior than he was on treating mental disorders.
Maslow’s theory centers on the role of motivation in personality. He was interested in explaining why people do the things that they do—the causes of their behavior. Drawing on research and theory from experimental psychology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and other fields, Maslow’s theory integrates a number of ideas into a comprehensive explanation of the forces that motivate people. Although he used animal behavior to understand some of the more basic motivational forces, Maslow was primarily interested in human behavior, and particularly in the behavior of healthy, high-functioning people.
One of the key elements of Maslow’s theory is the hierarchy of basic needs. Maslow recognized that there were a number of different motivating forces, or needs, that influenced human behavior, and he created the hierarchy of needs to understand how these different forces worked in relation to one another. For instance, if at some time a person were influenced by both a need for food and a need for safety and security, which of these two needs would have the greatest influence on the person’s behavior? Maslow wanted to explain how a person would respond in such a situation, and also to understand how people came to be influenced by more complex, “higher” needs.
Another important element of Maslow’s theory is the concept of self-actualization. This term, which he borrowed from neuropsychologist Kurt Goldstein, describes the tendency of humans to fulfill their potential, to become what they can become. Maslow felt that the need for self-actualization would emerge only after other needs had been reasonably satisfied, and he was particularly interested in people who were acting in response to this need. Maslow felt that it was important to understand this motivation, because he saw it as the key to making a better society.
In his later years, Maslow devoted much of his energy to finding ways to apply the principles of human potential in a variety of fields. Maslow’s theory is not a comprehensive personality theory; it says little about the process of development or about the origins of mental disorders. Despite these limitations, Maslow’s theory, with its emphasis on healthy functioning, has had an important influence on counseling and other helping professions, on education, and in the business arena.
- “Dominance-feeling, behavior and status.” Psychological Review 44 (1937): 404-29.
- Principles of Abnormal Psychology: The Dynamics of Psychic Illness (with B. Mittelmann). New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941.
- “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological Review 50 (1943): 370-96.
- “Problem-centering vs. means-centering in science.” Philosophy of Science 13 (1946): 326-31.
- “Self-actualizing people: A study of psychological health.” Personality Symposia: Symposium #1 on Values (1950): 11-34.
- The S-I Test (A measure of psychological security-insecurity. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1951.
- Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper and Row, 1954.
- New Knowledge in Human Values (Editor). New York: Harper and Row, 1959.
- “Eupsychia—The good society.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 1 (1961): 1-11.
- Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1962.
- Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1964.
- Eupsychian Management: A Journal. New York: Irwin-Dorsey, 1965.
- The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
- The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Abraham Maslow was born in 1908, the oldest of seven children. His father, Samuel Maslow, had immigrated to the United States from Russia and eventually settled in New York City, where he went to work repairing barrels. The family lived in Brooklyn during Abe’s childhood, in working-class neighborhoods that were predominantly Jewish.
In later years Maslow would describe his childhood as rather unhappy. His parents’ marriage was not a good one, and they divorced when Abe was a young adult. He was not close with his father, who spent relatively little time at home when Abe was a child. Abe’s relationship with his mother was even worse. He later described her as selfish, ignorant, and hostile. Though he and his father grew closer in later years, he never reconciled with his mother and saw very little of her after he left home.
From an early age, Abe showed an aptitude for learning. He learned to read when he was five years old, and from then on he read constantly. Abe did well in school, and his academic achievement was a source of pride for his family. Although neither of his parents was school-educated, they placed a great deal of value on education, and they encouraged Abe to pursue his studies as a means toward a better life. Nonetheless, Abe’s shyness and “bookish” interests made him feel different and separate from many of his peers.
Abe attended Boys High School in Brooklyn, a highly regarded school that served many of the working-class Jewish families in the area. Abe found the academically oriented atmosphere to be supportive and stimulating. Although he did not excel academically, he became involved in a number of clubs and activities. His social life was also helped by his relationship with his cousin, Will Maslow, who was more outgoing and athletically inclined than Abe. Abe and Will became close friends, and Will encouraged Abe to participate in sports and social activities.
When he was about 14 years old, Abe met his first cousin, Bertha Goodman, who had recently arrived from Russia. He was immediately attracted to her, and offered to help her learn English. Throughout his adolescence, Bertha was the only girl that he was comfortable talking to. They began dating and eventually talked about marriage.
Although he was sure he wanted to pursue some sort of academic career, Abe had trouble settling into a degree program once he entered college. He took courses at City College of New York and (for one semester) at Cornell University, but did not settle into a course of study. To please his father, he also briefly studied law at Brooklyn Law School, but left after only two months.
Maslow later credited a book he read for a philosophy course as one of the influences that led him to a career in psychology. The book, Folkways, by William Graham Sumner, proposed the idea that scientists and thinkers are the only ones who can lift society out of superstition and ignorance. Maslow was struck by this idea and decided to dedicate himself to scientific pursuits that would improve the lot of mankind.
Maslow eventually decided to transfer to the University of Wisconsin to finish his degree. He was attracted by the school’s reputation for innovation and its liberal atmosphere. He initially planned to study philosophy, but again, his reading led him in another direction. At the suggestion of one of his former philosophy professors, he read an essay by John B. Watson, the founder of American behaviorism. Watson’s vision of transforming the world using principles of behaviorism was appealing to Maslow, and he decided to become a psychologist.
The atmosphere in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin was exciting and stimulating for Maslow. He felt that his instructors took a real interest in him and made him a part of the intellectual community, and he flourished in this atmosphere. He got excellent grades and completed his bachelor’s degree within two years. He continued as a graduate student, earning a master’s degree in 1931 and a doctorate in 1934.
Although he was very happy with his academic life at Wisconsin, Maslow found himself missing Bertha terribly, and he decided that he wanted to marry so that they could be together. Despite his parents’ objections, Abe married Bertha in December of 1928, and the couple returned to Wisconsin together. The marriage was a great success. Later in life, Maslow would describe his marriage to Bertha as one of his best decisions and one of the great joys of his life. He and Bertha would remain devoted to one another and go on to raise two daughters.
About the time Maslow was ready to start work on his doctoral dissertation, he met Harry Harlow, who had been recently hired as an assistant professor in psychology. Dr. Harlow would later become famous for his classic studies of attachment and social behavior in monkeys. Harlow’s interest in primate behavior attracted Maslow. Maslow became his research assistant, contributing to a number of studies on learning in primates. Maslow became interested in the relationship between social dominance and sexual behavior in monkeys, and he chose this as the topic for his doctoral dissertation. This was an area that had not been explored previously, and Maslow’s work was considered groundbreaking. He published a number of well-received papers on the topic in the 1930s, and his work was respected as an important contribution to the understanding of primate behavior.
Maslow returned to New York in 1935, to complete a postdoctoral fellowship with Edward L. Thorndike at Columbia University. Thorndike was impressed by Maslow’s intelligence, and he gave him free rein to pursue his own studies. Maslow embarked on a study of human dominance and sexuality, which extended some of the ideas from his primate research. He interviewed a number of people, mostly women, about their social behavior and about their sexual experiences. He developed the idea that dominance feeling (later renamed as self-esteem) had an important influence on sexual behavior and attitudes. He also developed a test of dominance feeling that was later published and widely used in various types of research. At the time very few researchers had studied human sexuality, which was still a somewhat taboo topic. Maslow’s work was considered to be controversial and pioneering.
During this early part of his professional career, Maslow was fortunate to make the acquaintance of many of the day’s leading thinkers in social science and psychoanalysis. Between 1935 and 1940 he attended various classes at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which was a haven to many important social scientists and psychoanalysts who had fled after Nazi domination of Europe. Maslow was greatly influenced by Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, as well as psychoanalysts Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Erich Fromm.
Maslow also became interested in anthropology, and attended seminars at Columbia University, where he got to know Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, leading anthropologists of the time. Maslow’s interest in anthropology led him to explore the role of cultural influences on behavior, and he wrote respected papers on this subject. He even spent a summer doing fieldwork among the Blackfoot Indians in Alberta, Canada.
After he returned from Canada, Maslow began work as a tutor in psychology at Brooklyn College, where he would remain for the next 14 years, rising eventually to the rank of associate professor. His position required a heavy teaching load, and he soon became a favorite of many students. He also engaged in informal counseling with a number of his students, who came to him with their personal problems. For many of these students, the lengthy and expensive process of psychoanalysis was not an option, and Maslow worked with them to find simpler, more cost-effective solutions to their problems.
Maslow taught courses in abnormal psychology, and within a few years he and a colleague, Bela Mittelmann, wrote a textbook on the subject, which was published in 1941. This book was innovative in devoting an entire chapter to discussing the normal personality, a topic that was rarely included in discussions of mental illness and abnormal behavior. Maslow’s insistence that any discussion of abnormality should start from an understanding of normal behavior foreshadowed his later work and beliefs.
As World War II began, Maslow began to think about ways that psychology could contribute to worldwide efforts to achieve peace. He felt that understanding motivation would be an important step, and he set out to develop a comprehensive theory of human motivation. Maslow wanted to integrate many of the ideas he had developed through his studies in animal behavior, psychoanalysis, and anthropology, and he authored a series of papers that were eventually drawn together into his theory. His 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, presents his theory in detail.
One important aspect of Maslow’s motivational work in the early 1940s was his focus on healthy, high-functioning people. Maslow felt that it was very important to understand people who were operating at the higher levels of motivation, who had been largely ignored by other researchers on human behavior. To accomplish this, he began to examine the lives of people who were functioning well, self-fulfilled, and essentially “good human beings,” as he put it. He drew on descriptions of historical and public figures who seemed to meet his criteria, such as Thomas Jefferson and Eleanor Roosevelt, and he also studied people among his own acquaintances who seemed to function at this higher level of motivation. Despite difficulty in finding such people and finding a way to measure their behavior, he began to pull together a set of characteristics that described self-actualizing people.
Maslow’s insistence on understanding high-functioning humans was something of a radical departure in the 1940s, and he did not publish his ideas at first. His first paper on self-actualized people did not appear until 1950, and then it was published in a new journal that was outside the mainstream of psychology. In a 1951 paper (co-authored with D. MacKinnon) he further developed his theory of personality and outlined a new approach to psychology that was based on a positive view of humanity and focused on growth and creativity. Although he would not use the term for another 10 years, the ideas in this paper represented the beginnings of humanistic psychology.
In 1951, Maslow was offered the new post of chairman of the psychology department at Brandeis University. He was given the opportunity to build the program any way he wished, and he went on to hire a number of gifted and innovative psychologists, many of whom had views that were quite divergent from his own. He proved to be a successful administrator, and he continued in this position at Brandeis for a number of years.
With the publication of Motivation and Personality in 1954, Maslow acquired a national reputation. His work was well-received and hailed as a very significant contribution to the field. His ideas were attractive to a number of social scientists who were interested in promoting values and using science to improve society, and these individuals eventually formed the humanistic psychology movement of the 1960s.
From the mid-1950s onward, Maslow’s interests shifted further and further from empirical research and more in the direction of developing his theories of motivation and self-actualization. He became increasingly interested in higher needs, such as creativity and personal growth. He was also drawn to existential philosophy, and he began to see connections between his ideas on higher motivations and the ideas of existential thinkers. He wrote a number of papers and essays on the higher levels of motivation. In 1962, he published Toward a Psychology of Being, which was a collection of his papers on the subject. This book was extremely well-received, even becoming popular outside the field of psychology. Many of the ideas included in this book were adopted by the idealistic cultural movement of the 1960s, and Maslow became a reluctant “guru” of the movement.
Although he was an atheist, Maslow was increasingly drawn toward studying religious and mystical experiences. He saw a connection between his own observations about peak experiences and reports of religious or transcendental experiences. His thoughts in this area grew into Religions, Values, and Peak-experiences, which was published in 1964. This book became an important influence and was widely read in seminaries and programs that trained religious counselors.
Maslow’s ideas attracted proponents from a number of other fields, and he began to apply the principles of humanistic psychology in fields such as education and business management. He was also stimulated by the ideas of business managers who had made progressive innovations in the workplace, and he became excited about the prospect of bettering the world by improving conditions for workers. He kept a journal of ideas, which was eventually published as the book Eupsychian Management. Despite its difficult title, this book on management philosophy has continued to influence the business world.
By the 1960s, Maslow was recognized as one of the leading thinkers in psychology. Along with Carl Rogers and Gordon Allport, he was considered to be a founder of the humanistic psychology movement, which exerted a growing influence on psychology into the next decade. He was also one of the founders of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, which published its first issue in 1961.
Maslow was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1966, a mark of the respect and esteem he received from his profession. During his tenure, he worked to remove barriers for black psychologists, seeing racial inequality as one of the great problems of his day. He continued to write about the many possible applications of humanistic psychology, and he was involved in a number of such projects when he suffered a severe heart attack in December of 1967. Although he recovered, he learned that he had a serious heart condition and would need prolonged rest in order to recover.
Maslow took a leave from his position at Brandeis University at the end of 1968 and accepted a fellowship with the Saga Administrative Corporation in Menlo Park, California. He was given the welcome opportunity to work on his writing and ideas without the pressures of teaching. He spent the next year and a half on several projects, including revisions of Motivation and Personality and Religions, Values, and Peak-experiences. He also pulled together a number of essays that would later be published as The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. On June 8, 1970, he suffered a massive heart attack and died at his home in Menlo Park.
Maslow was respected and loved by many people inside and outside the field of psychology. Although humanistic psychology does not enjoy the popularity that it had in the 1960s, Maslow’s ideas continue to influence a number of fields, and he is remembered as one of the most important and innovative thinkers of the twentieth century.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Main points Maslow thought that most behavior occurred in response to some kind of motivation, which was made up of the interplay among different needs, or drives. Previous (mostly psychoanalytic) theories of motivation had suggested that behavior was controlled by inborn physiological drives, particularly the sex drive, which governed all behavior at an unconscious level. Maslow disagreed with this viewpoint, suggesting that human behavior was influenced by a number of different needs, not all of which were physiologically based and not all of which were unconscious. He thought that most behavior was influenced by multiple needs interacting with one another.
To explain how different needs might interact, Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs. According to his theory, the different needs could be arranged in order according to their ability to motivate the person. He referred to this ability to motivate as pre-potency. One need would be described as pre-potent over another if it was necessary for the first need to be satisfied before the second need could influence behavior. In his scheme of things, if a person were lacking both oxygen and food, the need for oxygen would be the most pre-potent need, because a person who is lacking oxygen would need to satisfy the need to breathe before he or she could be concerned with hunger. Maslow proposed a relatively large set of needs that could motivate human behavior, arranged in the order of their pre-potency.
Physiological needs According to Maslow’s theory, the most pre-potent needs are the physiological needs, such as the need for food or water. He suggested that there may be a very large number of such needs, many of which are governed by homeostatic mechanisms in the body. A homeostatic mechanism acts to keep the body in a fairly constant state, not allowing extremes in either direction, much the way a thermostat regulates the temperature in a house. Maslow pointed out the work of physiologists of his time who had discovered homeostatic mechanisms, and suggested that the body’s need to maintain a steady level of certain substances would be the basis for many of the physiological needs and the motivated behavior necessary to satisfy these needs.
Maslow noted that if a particular physiological need were not satisfied, motivation to satisfy it would govern the person’s behavior until the need was met. Thus a starving man would think about food, dream about food, and engage in behavior designed to get food. While the man might have other needs or wishes, his awareness would be dominated by his need for food.
According to Maslow’s theory, a person must have his or her physiological needs reasonably well satisfied before he or she can respond to any other needs on the hierarchy. He noted, however, that most of the time people do have these needs satisfied, and thus the physiological needs recede into the background and other, “higher” needs emerge. Departing from other theories that had ascribed a greater importance to physiological needs, Maslow pointed out that the “emergency” conditions of extreme physiological need were not typical for most people, and thus these needs cannot explain most behavior.
Maslow also recognized that physiological needs can fluctuate over short time periods, as, for example, when a person’s need for food varies over the course of a day depending on what they have eaten. He suggested that if the physiological needs were basically satisfied over time, then higher needs could come into play. In other words, it was not necessary for a need to be perfectly and completely satisfied in order for higher needs to be activated; it was only necessary that the need be satisfied relatively well. He also noted that a person might be able to tolerate chronic deprivation of some physiological needs at times, if they had previously experienced gratification of the need most of the time. So a person who had been well-fed for most of his or her life would be able to focus on some other need in a particular situation even though he or she was hungry.
Safety needs Once the physiological needs are basically satisfied, the next set of needs to emerge involves safety and security. A person who is responding to these needs seeks protection from injury or attack and strives for order and predictability in the world. Maslow thought that the safety needs operated very much like physiological needs, although to a lesser degree. Thus if the person felt deprived of safety and security, he or she would focus on satisfying this need to the exclusion of other needs, living “almost for safety alone.”
Maslow thought that safety needs could be understood well by studying infants and young children, who often express these needs very directly and clearly. Thus a young child becomes frantic when separated from his or her parents and reacts with fear when confronted with new and strange situations. Young children also have a great need for routine and predictability in their lives, and they become upset and anxious when their routine is disrupted. Maslow thought that most adults would try to hide their insecurities, so that the influence of safety needs would not be as obvious in adults.
Another illustration of the influence of safety needs comes from the behavior of neurotic individuals, who may devote a great deal of their energy to avoiding certain dangers, regardless of their actual risk. Maslow saw neurotic people as constantly afraid that a disaster was about to occur. In response to this fear, they would engage in rituals and other “magical” attempts to reduce their anxiety, or they would seek the protection of someone stronger.
According to Maslow’s theory, safety needs are relatively less important for most healthy adults under normal circumstances. He thought society provided enough of a general sense of security that most people did not live in constant fear of disaster or attack. He noted that exceptional circumstances, such as wartime, could activate safety needs in people whose safety needs had previously been satisfied. Additionally, Maslow felt that ordinary behavior such as preferring a permanent job, buying insurance, and adhering to an organized religion could be understood, at least in part, as manifestations of the need for safety and security.
Love, affection, and belonging needs Once the physiological and safety needs are reasonably satisfied, the next set of needs to emerge focuses on relationships with others. Maslow felt that people have a basic need for individual friendships and love, as well as for a sense of belonging to a group. Once a person feels basically secure and has basic physiological needs met, he or she will seek affection and belongingness. While he thought that sexuality was greatly influenced by the need for love and affection, Maslow pointed out that the need for love is not the same as the need for sex, which could be understood on a physiological basis.
Maslow noted that the need for love involved both giving and receiving love. In his later writings, he would distinguish two different types of love. One type, which he referred to as D-love (deprivation-love), is an essentially selfish need to give and receive affection from others. People experience this need strongly when they are lonely. In contrast, he also described B-love (being-love), which is a more unselfish desire for what is best for the loved one. People manifest B-love when they love and accept a person’s failings and foibles rather than trying to change them. When he formulated the need hierarchy, Maslow seems to have been focused primarily on the need for D-love.
Maslow speculated that chronic failure to meet one’s need for love would have serious implications for a person’s mental health. Like many of the psychoanalytic theorists, he felt that severe psychopathology might be explained, at least in part, by a failure to meet a person’s basic need for love and affection. Many of the person’s symptoms could then be understood as attempts to deal with the confusion and anxiety that the lack of affection created. He also suggested that extremely aggressive or psychopathic behavior might occur in a person who has been chronically deprived of love.
Esteem needs The next level of Maslow’s need hierarchy involves the need for esteem, that is, positive regard and respect. Maslow distinguished two types of esteem needs, the need for self-esteem and the need for esteem from others. He noted that people who have reasonably satisfied their self-esteem needs feel confident and worthwhile, and also experience a sense of independence and freedom. In addition to this need, people also need to feel that other people respect and recognize them as worthwhile. Maslow pointed out that the respect and adulation of others must be earned; fame by itself, without merit, would not satisfy the person’s need for esteem from others.
Maslow thought that self-esteem was related to feelings of dominance or powerfulness. In his early work with monkeys, he had observed that some monkeys assume dominance over others and that this seemed to come from the monkey’s feeling that he “deserved” higher status. Maslow carried this idea into his understanding of self-esteem, which he equated with a sense of self-confidence and effectiveness.
Self-actualization Once the physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs have been basically satisfied, the person tends to move into a new, higher level of motivation marked by the need for self-actualization. Maslow defined this need as the need to fulfill one’s potential, to be what one can be. For example, a writer might experience the need for self-actualization as a motivation to create poetry, while a musician might experience it as a motivation to make music. Although he used artistic endeavors as examples, Maslow was quick to point out that self-actualization did not necessarily involve artistic creativity. He noted that an artist might create art based solely on inborn talent, without necessarily having satisfied all of his or her basic needs.
Maslow distinguished the need for self-actualization from the other needs by noting that the other needs, which he called basic needs, all involve deficiencies of some sort, such as hunger, anxiety, or loneliness. Satisfaction of these needs could be seen as attempts to make up for what is missing, or to move away from an uncomfortable state of deficiency. In contrast, the need for self-actualization does not involve moving away from a state of deficiency; instead, it involves moving toward a goal of fulfilling oneself.
Maslow made a particular study of people whom he thought were operating under the influence of the need for self-actualization. He saw the need for self-actualization as a characteristic of psychologically healthy, “good human beings,” and he felt it was important to understand this motivation because of its implications for human growth and potential. Although he felt that very few people actually reach the level of self-actualization, he believed that most people would have the capacity for this state if they were able to adequately satisfy their more basic needs.
Through his studies of people he considered self-actualizers, Maslow came up with a list of characteristics for the self-actualizing personality. These included such traits as an accurate perception of reality, acceptance of self and others, spontaneity, independence, creativity, a non-hostile sense of humor, and a need for privacy. He noted that self-actualizers are often less restricted by cultural norms and expectations and therefore less inhibited. Although they are capable of forming close relationships, they tend to have relatively few friends, preferring a limited number of deeply rewarding relationships.
One of the most important characteristics Maslow noted was the tendency to have peak experiences. Peak experiences are instances of mystical insight and connectedness, when the person feels a heightened sense of awareness and awe. Such experiences are often growth promoting, as they seem to enable a person to look at his or her life in new ways and find new meaning in life. Maslow at first thought these experiences were relatively rare, but as he studied them further, he found evidence that ordinary people can also have such experiences, although they are experienced less often and less intensely than in self-actualizing persons.
Beyond self-actualization Although self-actualization is often depicted as the endpoint in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he did not think that new needs ceased to emerge once the person reached the level of self-actualization. Instead, he suggested that a whole new set of motivations would become important. These motivations, which he later referred to as B-values or metamotivations, have to do with growth and enhancement. The B-values have a universal and ultimate quality and include values such as truth, beauty, simplicity, and wholeness.
People who have reached this level of motivation find themselves striving for these ultimate values, which they experience as natural and inevitable. Maslow noted that these people often seem to dedicate themselves to a higher goal or vocation, something outside themselves which they find to be important and meaningful. Thus a self-actualizing person might be dedicated to bringing about world peace or fostering beauty in everyday life. This special vocation seems to embody many of the B-values that are important to a self-actualizing person, and such people often find it impossible to think of themselves as doing anything else. Maslow suggested that people who have satisfied all of the basic needs but do not find vocations outside of themselves would suffer from a kind of illness—a sense of pointlessness and emptiness. Thus it would be possible to have all of the basic needs satisfied and still fail to become a self-actualized person.
Other important features of the theory Although Maslow presented his theory of motivation as a hierarchy of needs, he noted that the order of the needs was not rigidly fixed, and he described a number of exceptions. For example, certain individuals might find self-esteem to be more pre-potent than love, and certain creative people might respond to the need to create without ever experiencing satisfaction of their basic needs.
Maslow was particularly struck by exceptions to the hierarchy in which people would sacrifice the satisfaction of their basic needs in order to meet certain ideals or values. For example, an artist might be willing to go hungry or sacrifice security in order to create art, or a humanitarian might choose a life of poverty in order to help others. He thought that these people must have experienced gratification of their basic needs in early life to the extent that they developed the strength to withstand great deprivation later on. He speculated that the most important time for satisfaction of the basic needs would be in the first two years of life.
Maslow also suggested another set of needs, which he referred to as the cognitive needs. These needs include motivations such as curiosity, the desire to know and understand, and the desire for meaning. He was somewhat unclear as to where these needs might fit into the need hierarchy; however, his later formulations of the theory seem to suggest that these needs may be aspects of the need for self-actualization.
Another important point regarding Maslow’s theory is that complete satisfaction of a lower level of needs is not necessary in order for a higher need to emerge, and a person may be influenced by multiple needs at once. Maslow speculated that most people would experience partial satisfaction of each of their basic needs at any given time. He thought that as a person got closer to satisfaction of any given need, they would experience the next higher need on the hierarchy to a greater degree. He also noted that the influence of the needs could be unconscious as well as conscious, and he suggested that unconscious influences might be more important.
Finally, Maslow noted that motivation was only one of several influences on behavior. In particular, he recognized that biological and cultural influences could have a strong impact on the person’s behavior. He also recognized that circumstances in the immediate environment could have an impact on the way that motivations were experienced or acted upon.
Maslow’s theory sets out to explain how a person’s behavior can be influenced by a variety of very different factors, ranging from physiological urges, such as hunger, to more abstract values, such as dedication to a social cause or love of beauty. He tried to arrange the various needs into an order that made sense based on observations of human behavior. One of the more important points about the theory is its explanation of how these vastly different influences could act together to influence a person in a given situation.
Maslow chose pre-potency, the ability to motivate, as the basis for organizing the needs into a hierarchy. In any given situation, a person could be influenced by a variety of needs, but the most pre-potent need is likely to have the greatest influence on his or her behavior. The hierarchy of needs is most evident when extreme cases are examined. For example, if a person is stranded in the desert all alone, he or she might experience both loneliness and extreme thirst. In that situation, the person is very likely to pay more attention to the problem of thirst than to the problem of loneliness. The physiological need for water, which is lower on the hierarchy than the need for love, would have the most influence on the person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
In circumstances that are less extreme, the relative influence of the different needs may be less obvious, and multiple needs may come into play at the same time. On an ordinary day when a person is not starving, terrified, or extremely lonely, he or she might be torn between two or more different motivations. For example, suppose that a high school student needs to decide whether to call a friend or work on a college application. The choice could be influenced by the need for love and acceptance, therefore influencing the person to call a friend. On the other hand, the need for safety and security might prompt the person to worry about his or her future, and thus work on the application. The need for esteem could also come into play, if getting accepted at a particular college were important to the person’s pride and self-acceptance.
According to Maslow’s theory, the person’s past history of satisfaction would help to govern which of the needs was most influential at the time. If the person had a good history of positive relationships with others, the need for love might be less influential at that particular moment. Similarly, if the person had generally had his or her needs for safety and security met, the need for safety might not have as much influence. If both of these needs had been reasonably well-satisfied throughout the person’s life, the need for esteem might have the most influence, leading the person to work on the application in order to achieve pride and self-satisfaction by getting into a good school.
The relationships among the needs are more subtle, and perhaps more variable, at higher levels of the hierarchy. In particular, the need for love and the need for esteem might be interchangeable at times. Some people seem to be willing to tolerate loneliness, as well as other discomforts, in order to do work that they can take pride in. Others are willing to sacrifice fame and the admiration of others in order to be with someone they love. The choices made by people who are operating at this level of need satisfaction might also be influenced by the beginnings of a need for self-actualization, as they start to feel a need to develop their talents and realize their potential.
In his early work on self-actualization, Maslow focused on people who seemed to be set apart from others by their self-actualizing tendencies. These “good human beings” seemed special and different from the average person, and self-actualization seemed like a goal that only a few people could aspire to. In his later writing, however, Maslow indicated that all people are born with a natural tendency toward self-actualization, although very few people are able to fully realize this goal. In certain circumstances, people who are usually influenced mainly by their basic needs can experience the need for self-actualization and respond to it.
The most likely time for an ordinary person to experience glimmers of the self-actualizing tendency is during a peak experience. Maslow found that many people can describe at least one time in their lives when they have had such an experience. These moments, marked by feelings of wonder and connectedness with the universe, can occur in many different circumstances. People have described peak experiences that occurred during vivid dreams, while contemplating natural beauty, during moments of personal crisis, or during surprisingly ordinary moments when the person has a sudden insight about himself or about the world. These experiences are powerful; people can remember them for years and often feel that the experience was life-changing.
Motivation, particularly human motivation, is a very complex phenomenon, and one important contribution of Maslow’s theory is his attempt to make sense of that complexity. He realized that people can be motivated by a need to relieve discomfort, such as hunger, but also by a need to strive for something, such as fulfilling one’s potential. Maslow’s theory suggests a way that these very different types of motivation could work together to influence human behavior.
Maslow in the workplace One good way to illustrate the hierarchy of needs is to examine the various types of motivation that could influence a person in the workplace. This example is particularly appropriate, because Maslow’s theory has had considerable influence on business management and worker productivity.
At first glance, it may seem that people work because they have to in order to pay for things they need, such as shelter, food, transportation, and the like. However, when you examine the reasons why people choose one job over another, or why they choose to work longer hours or accept additional work responsibilities when they aren’t required to do so, it becomes apparent that other motivations influence working behavior. Each of the five levels of Maslow’s need hierarchy can offer a relevant motivation for working in a particular position or accepting particular job responsibilities.
At the most basic level of motivation, people work because they have to in order to survive. They must earn money in order to pay the rent, to buy food, to pay for clothing, and to purchase all the things they need to get along in the world. For people operating at this level of motivation, the pay they receive is the most important reason for working. This is probably the motivation behind working for many poor people, who have little or no choice whether they work or not. People who operate at this level often have little choice in the type of work that they do; they must take any job they can get in order to survive. This level corresponds to Maslow’s most basic need level. Working helps to satisfy physiological survival needs.
At the next level, that of safety and security, people may choose a particular job because of the security it provides. A worker might prefer a job that promises to offer employment over the long term, rather than a higher paying job, because long-term employment helps to satisfy the person’s need for security. People who respond in this way are likely to have their more basic physiological needs fairly well satisfied. They may still need to work for a living, but they aren’t faced with starvation, and they can choose to look for a job that provides security. Security might also come in the form of job benefits, such as health insurance or a training program.
Some workers will stay in a job that they don’t particularly like for many years, and this could be a reflection of their need for safety and security. This need can also explain why many workers are so upset by the phenomenon of “outsourcing,” that is, having work done in countries where labor is cheaper. Outsourcing is seen as a threat to job security, and thus it concerns many workers, particularly those in manufacturing jobs.
Workers who have had their survival and safety needs met may respond next to the need for affection and belongingness. Many people form important relationships at work, and maintaining these relationships can be a reason for continuing in a particular position rather than moving on to another one. This may be true even though the other position offers higher pay or greater security. People who are near retirement age will sometimes continue to work when they no longer have to in order to maintain the relationships they make at work. In some employment settings, belonging to a particular working team can also satisfy the need for affection and belongingness, and it is not uncommon for employers to send workers to seminars and institutes that promise to improve teambuilding skills. And, as it turns out, high levels of teamwork can often enhance worker productivity and effectiveness.
If their needs for survival, security, and affection are met, workers may be influenced by the next level of motivation, the need for self-esteem and the esteem of others. At this level, doing a good job becomes an important motivating factor. Evidence of this level of motivation can be found in people who work longer hours than required in order to do a good job, or in people who take on harder job responsibilities when they aren’t required to do so. People often take great pride in their work, and they may also seek the praise and approval of their supervisors and coworkers. Many people identify themselves in terms of their work, and they see it as an important aspect of their self-esteem. Workers who have been laid off through no fault of their own will often feel a blow to their self-esteem, seeing the layoff as a commentary on their ability or job performance.
Finally, if a person has been generally satisfied in all of the basic needs described above, he or she may be working in order to satisfy the need for self-actualization. At this level of motivation, we may be talking about a career or vocation rather than a job. The person may choose to work at something because they feel it is their destiny or calling, as when a person is inspired to enter the ministry, become an artist, or work for world peace. The compensation offered for a person working at this level may not be particularly good and the working conditions may not be particularly desirable; however, the person has had his or her more basic needs satisfied in the past and thus these concerns are unimportant. It is the work itself that motivates the person.
Maslow’s hierarchy can explain the behavior of workers who operate at each of the different levels of motivation. Managers could use this understanding to enhance worker productivity, by arranging the work environment so that it offers satisfaction of the particular need that the worker is responding to. If most of the workers are working to meet survival or security needs, the manager should pay attention to salary and job security. On the other hand, if most of the workers are responding to belongingness needs, fostering teamwork in the work environment might be the most effective strategy. Managers also need to understand that many workers need to feel good about the work that they do and have input on how the work is done.
In reality most workers are responding to some combination of these needs at any given time. Survival and security needs may influence the worker’s preferences regarding compensation and job security, while belongingness and esteem needs may determine the conditions that the worker prefers. And sometimes workers may respond out of a sense of mission or destiny. If the manager can understand these various needs and create a workplace that successfully addresses these needs, he or she may be able to improve the satisfaction as well as the effectiveness of the workers.
A self-actualizing person Another example illustrates Maslow’s concept of the self-actualizing person. Some of Maslow’s first ideas about self-actualizing persons grew out of his relationship with Max Wertheimer, a Gestalt psychologist who was one of Maslow’s early teachers and mentors. Maslow was struck by Wertheimer’s unique personality, and he went on to find similar traits in other people that he admired. These observations were the roots of his ideas regarding self-actualization.
Maslow noted Wertheimer’s tremendous energy and enthusiasm for topics that were important to him, such as the nature of the human mind and questions of good and evil. Wertheimer was not afraid to show his enthusiasm, and seemed unconcerned about looking foolish or childlike. He particularly enjoyed children, and would play with his own children at his home during social gatherings for his colleagues. Wertheimer was generous with his time, and patient and respectful with his students. He particularly enjoyed music and art, and at a time when American science was supposedly too “hard nosed” for these topics, Wertheimer recognized the value in the arts and the merit of studying esthetic experiences. Maslow was also struck by Wertheimer’s sense of humor. He enjoyed laughing and poking gentle fun at himself, but he never made other people the butt of his jokes, and seemed to find his humor in the human condition rather than in individual failings or foibles.
Maslow’s list of characteristics of the self-actualizing person includes many traits that he found in Max Wertheimer, and later noted in other unique characters as well. Traits such as passion for a cause or idea, lack of concern for social conventions, appreciation of art, and a gentle sense of humor later became important aspects of Maslow’s concept of self-actualization.
In the 1930s and 1940s, when Maslow began pulling together his ideas about motivation, the science of human behavior was dominated by two schools of thought: the behaviorist approach articulated by John Watson and the psychoanalytic approach originated by Sigmund Freud. Most of academic psychology was strongly experimental and behaviorist, adopting the position that only behavior that was objectively observable and measurable was appropriate for study. Much of the foundation for behaviorism had been studies of animal behavior, and very little attention was being paid to inner processes such as cognitions, emotions, or values. Behaviorists paid little attention to the question of motivation itself. They assumed that an animal was motivated to satisfy drives such as hunger or thirst and then focused on the environmental forces that shaped the way the animal responded to those drives. The behaviorist approach assumed that the same forces that governed animal behavior also governed human behavior.
The other main source of ideas about human behavior was the field of psychotherapy, which had its basis in clinical observations of people who were suffering from various mental and emotional disorders. Here the thinking of Sigmund Freud and his followers dominated the field. Although the psychoanalytic approach recognized that human emotions and thoughts are important, most psychoanalysts believed that the major influences on human behavior were instinctual and unconscious. As such, they could not be studied directly, and the main source of information about these influences was the record produced during sessions of psychoanalysis. Here the patient’s behavior, language, dreams, and fantasies were thought to contain symbols of their unconscious motivations. Another key assumption of psychoanalysis was that normal human behavior could be inferred from studies of abnormal behavior.
Maslow was uniquely influenced by both of schools of thought. He was formally trained in experimental psychology at the University of Wisconsin, which had adopted a strongly experimental and behaviorist stance; his earliest professional work involved experimental studies of animal behavior. He was also exposed to the thinking of some of the leading psychoanalysts of his time, including Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Erich Fromm. He thus developed familiarity with the psychoanalytic approach and later tried to apply some aspects of the approach when counseling his students. He also underwent psychoanalysis himself and returned to it periodically throughout his life.
Finally, Maslow encountered yet another influence, which was not well-known in the United States at the time. This was the Gestalt psychology of Max Wertheimer and Kurt Koffka, who became familiar to Maslow early in his professional life. The Gestalt viewpoint recognized the importance of conscious human thoughts, feelings, and values, yet it also proposed that these things could be studied in a scientific manner.
One of Maslow’s particular gifts was his ability to pull together ideas from these different schools of thought. He was also able to express his ideas clearly, and he had the courage to risk rejection by the mainstream of his profession. His work was an important departure from the thinking of his times, and it served as one of the sparks for the humanistic approach, which would become very influential during the middle years of the twentieth century.
Maslow was also influenced by the cultural and historical events of his time. He entered the field of psychology during a time of great optimism for the field and for the promise of science in general. The behaviorist John Watson had declared that it was possible to use the principles of behaviorism to shape human behavior in virtually any direction, and many people thought it would soon be possible to use this technology to solve problems such as crime, poverty, and ignorance. The early part of the twentieth century had also seen the rise of technological advances such as the telephone, radio, and the automobile, and it was not uncommon for people to expect that similar advances would soon eliminate many of the problems that had plagued mankind throughout history. Thus it was not unusual for the young Maslow to believe that he could use science for the betterment of humankind, and to choose to do so as a psychologist.
The darker developments of the early twentieth century also had an important influence on Maslow’s thinking. He was personally acquainted with a number of people who had fled the horrors of Nazi Germany, and he was deeply troubled by the reality of human cruelty and oppression. He had been touched by anti-Semitism in his own life as well, and he understood the pain and confusion that such injustice could cause. Like most Americans, he was also deeply affected by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was too old to serve in the armed forces by the time the war broke out, so instead he decided to devote his efforts to understanding the forces that could lead people to be violent and aggressive. He felt that one had to understand evil in order to find ways to eliminate it. His choice to study human motivation makes sense in this context—knowing why people do the things they do, both good and evil, was one of his key interests.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Maslow witnessed the rise of existential thought and the growth of interest in Eastern philosophies. His ideas about self-actualization seemed to fit well with these viewpoints, and he adopted a number of ideas from these schools of thought. The optimistic nature of his ideas and the attention he paid to mystical experiences were very attractive to young people, and he became something of a cult figure to the counterculture movement of the 1960s. He never abandoned his belief in science and his value for respectful discourse, however, and he openly rejected the behavioral excesses and the lack of discipline that he saw in many of his followers. He is remembered as a truly original thinker who was able to integrate many of the important ideas of his time.
Reactions to Maslow’s Theory
Maslow’s theory of motivation was a radical departure from the views of behavior that dominated psychology in the early twentieth century. He rejected the behaviorist notion that human behavior could be understood by studying animal behavior, and he also turned away from the psychoanalytic idea that normal behavior could be inferred from studies of abnormal behavior. He hesitated to publish some of his ideas at first because he knew they were very different from the mainstream views of his time.
Despite these concerns, Maslow actually found a receptive audience for his ideas. His 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” met with relatively little interest at first, but over the next decade or so his work became increasingly influential, and “A Theory of Human Motivation” is now considered to be one of the classic works in psychology. Although experimental psychologists questioned whether Maslow’s ideas could be proven by research, his theory had a lot of appeal for contemporaries who worked in clinical settings. His developing ideas on self-actualization were particularly useful in this regard, and his work in this area was hailed as an important contribution to the growing field of counseling psychology. Carl Rogers, a founder of counseling psychology, praised Maslow’s positive view of motivation and human growth. He thought this view was more appropriate for counseling healthy people than the prevailing psychoanalytic view, with its emphasis on neurosis and maladjustment.
After Maslow published Motivation and Personality in 1954, he was hailed as a leading thinker in the field of motivation. He was asked to present papers at important conferences, and he was able to publish a number of articles on his theory in leading professional journals. His ideas on motivation had implications for applied fields such as business management and education, and his work had an important influence in these areas. Maslow’s theory of motivation was one of the key influences on Douglas McGregor, whose 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise, became a classic work on enlightened management practices. McGregor thought that managers needed to understand the motivations of workers in order to create a healthy and productive workplace, and he used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as the starting point for understanding workers’ behavior and needs.
Despite continuing enthusiasm for Maslow’s theory, a number of researchers were raising questions about the validity of his motivation hierarchy. It was difficult to validate many aspects of the theory with research. In particular, the middle levels of Maslow’s hierarchy seemed to overlap, and the order he specified for emergence of different needs did not seem to hold true for all people. In 1969, Clayton Alderfer published an article in which he suggested a number of modifications to Maslow’s theory. He proposed that Maslow’s five levels of motivation could be reduced to three levels: Existence (referring to basic material needs such as food); Relatedness (referring to needs for relationships with others); and Growth (referring to needs for self-actualization and esteem). His theory is usually referred to as ERG theory, to signify the initials of the three needs he proposed. Alderfer’s ERG theory suggested that more than one need could influence the person at the same time and also pointed out that different people could experience the needs in different order. Alderfer’s modifications of Maslow’s theory had some influence, particularly in the business management field; however, ERG theory never achieved the widespread popularity of Maslow’s theory.
By the 1960s, Maslow’s ideas had found their way into popular culture, where the concept of self-actualization and the notion of peak experiences were widely accepted. As his work became more philosophical and existential, it began to appeal to religious and spiritual leaders, as well as to members of the 1960s counterculture. His ideas on the higher reaches of self-actualization also fit well with the ideals of the encounter group movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A number of such groups experimented with ways to bring about self-actualization and higher consciousness, drawing upon Maslow’s concepts of metamotivation and transpersonal psychology. Some proponents of Maslow’s theory experimented with various forms of meditation as well as drug use in attempts to bring about self-actualization; however, Maslow cautioned against such practices. He thought that true self-actualization had to come from within the person, and artificial attempts to alter one’s consciousness would not have much benefit in bringing about the higher need states.
As the enthusiasm for the human potential movement and the 1960s counterculture waned in the late 1970s and 1980s, interest in Maslow’s theory waned as well. Critical reviews pointed out that few of Maslow’s principles were actually supported by research. Maslow had outlined a large number of possible studies to validate his theory, but most of these studies were never done. Maslow became less and less interested in doing research himself as his career continued, and few others undertook the task. This may have been partly due to difficulties with defining and measuring key concepts in Maslow’s theory. Also, many of those who were drawn to the theory came from outside the field of experimental psychology and had little interest in validating his propositions with research.
Although Maslow’s theory of motivation is now generally considered to be outdated, it continues to have an influence in a number of fields. Introductory texts on counseling, management, education, and a variety of human service professions continue to include sections on the theory, perhaps because of its intuitive appeal. His ideas on management were even revived somewhat when Maslow on Management was published in 1999. This book, which is an updated edition of Maslow’s 1965 book on management principles, generated new interest in his theory. Maslow’s positive outlook and his enthusiasm for improving the human condition continue to inspire people who hope to work as effective leaders.
Maslow is still recognized as an important influence on counseling and psychotherapy. While the field of counseling psychology has moved beyond many of Maslow’s ideas, a large number of clinical and counseling psychologists continue to identify themselves as humanistic in their orientation. Maslow’s works are still read by students in these fields, and his books, particularly Toward a Psychology of Being, can be found in the libraries of many practicing counselors and psychotherapists. Maslow’s insistence on studying healthy functioning is now seen as an obvious step toward understanding human behavior, and his thoughts on human potential and aspirations continue to inspire people in the helping professions.
Critical Evaluation of the Theory
Although Maslow’s theory is intuitively appealing, it has several weaknesses that have never been resolved. In order for a theory of behavior to be useful, it has to meet certain logical criteria, and it also has to be supported by a body of well-designed research. Critics have pointed out that Maslow’s theory falls short on these requirements.
Many of Maslow’s important concepts are vague and poorly defined, and this makes it very difficult to do research on important aspects of the theory. In particular, Maslow’s ideas about self-actualizing people are problematic. He seemed to use very subjective criteria to decide whether a person is self-actualizing, and some critics have suggested that Maslow’s self-actualizing people were simply people that he admired. His list of historical figures who were self-actualizers includes artists, political leaders, philosophers, and scientists, but it is hard to see what else these people have in common besides success in their fields. Maslow also seemed to contradict himself in his writings about self-actualization. At times he seemed to describe it as a goal or endpoint that healthy people aspire to, but at other times he seemed to be talking about self-actualization as a new kind of need itself, something that drives people. His reasoning about self-actualization also seems to be circular: healthy people are self-actualizing, and self-actualization is the ultimate sign of emotional health.
Another concept that seems to be poorly defined is the notion of need satisfaction. Maslow stated that people whose needs at one level are “basically satisfied” will begin to experience needs at the next level on the hierarchy, but he never indicated how “basic satisfaction” could be determined. His theory could not account very well for people who suffered from lifelong poverty and deprivation, yet managed to become great artists, thinkers, or humanitarians. The lives of these people might include very little evidence that their more basic needs were ever satisfied. Maslow hinted that the order in which the needs emerged could vary for different people, but he never explained how this could happen. He also stated that a person might respond to multiple needs at once and might be subject to influences other than the need hierarchy, but he never outlined how different needs would function simultaneously or interact with influences such as genetic inheritance or environmental conditions.
The concept of need itself is also problematic. Needs seem to be things that organisms require in order to function; however, people and animals often strive for things that they don’t require at all. Curiosity and playfulness are examples, as are tendencies toward self-destructive behavior. One solution to this difficulty is to propose the existence of a very large number of needs, one for each observed behavior, but then the only way to prove that these needs exist is to show that organisms engage in behavior to satisfy each need—another example of circular reasoning. More recent theories of motivation have tended to move away from the concept of needs because of this problem.
Another problem with Maslow’s theory is the lack of testability of many of its important concepts. In order for a theory to have scientific validity, it must be possible to test each of its key principles and disprove them. Principles that cannot be disproved are not really scientific; they fall into the realm of philosophy or faith instead. Many of Maslow’s ideas about self-actualization are essentially non-testable. For example, Maslow seemed to imply that each person has a destiny that he or she will be driven to fulfill once the level of self-actualization is reached. This concept is very difficult to test because it is so elusive. How can we know what a person’s destiny might be, except by examining what they become? The existence of something like destiny cannot be proved or disproved. It is essentially a matter of faith. A number of Maslow’s later thoughts on self-actualization have a similar philosophical quality, which, while appealing, is not very amenable to scientific evaluation.
Other evaluators have criticized Maslow’s theory on the grounds that it is culturally biased or elitist. They note that Maslow used very subjective criteria to define self-actualizing people. He chose examples from among famous people who were known to him through personal acquaintance or readings. Thus the members of his first group of self-actualizers were all Europeans or Americans, and nearly all were males. His choices reveal a decided bias toward Western values such as independence and self-determination. Maslow failed to allow for the fact that non-Westerners might have decidedly different values. He later recognized this limitation to some extent and proposed a broader cross-cultural examination of self-actualizing people, but he apparently never made such a study himself.
The charge of elitism is also difficult to answer. Maslow wanted to turn away from studying neurosis and abnormality and instead focus on understanding healthy people. But in his attempt to do so, he chose to look at the “best and the brightest” rather than at ordinary people who were functioning reasonably well. Thus very few people could meet his criteria for self-actualization. He studied hundreds of college students and only found one person that fit the description. Maslow’s thinking may partly reflect the widespread psychoanalytic belief that most ordinary people suffered from some kind of neurosis, but it left little room for understanding healthy functioning in ordinary people.
Perhaps the most important criticism of Maslow’s theory is the lack of research to support it. The ultimate test of a scientific theory is whether it is supported by carefully designed research, and Maslow’s theory has not been very successful in meeting this test. As mentioned earlier, problems of definition and testability make it difficult to evaluate many of his propositions. Even when researchers have been able to come up with concrete hypotheses to test, they have encountered methodological problems. Concepts such as self-actualization and need satisfaction are very difficult to measure objectively, and most studies have had to rely on self-reports by the participants. When asked about their own values and motivations, participants may not respond accurately for a number of reasons. They may try to present themselves in a favorable light rather than revealing their true feelings. They may also try to give responses that they think the researcher is looking for, or sometimes they may even try to deliberately mislead the researcher. Also, as Maslow speculated, important motivations may operate unconsciously, and the respondents may thus be unable to report their true motivations accurately. The lack of objective measures for many of Maslow’s concepts has been an ongoing research problem.
The research that does exist has not provided a lot of support for Maslow’s theory. In the early 1970s, Mahmoud Wahba and Lawrence Bridwell published a critical review of the research evaluating Maslow’s theory and concluded that Maslow’s propositions had received very little research support. They examined three different groups of studies. The first group was intended to determine whether motivations would actually group into five distinct levels, as predicted by Maslow’s need hierarchy. These studies also investigated whether needs occurred in the order Maslow specified. The second group of studies investigated Maslow’s proposal that unsatisfied basic needs would exert the strongest influence on behavior—in their words, the “deprivation/domination” proposition. Finally, they examined the “gratification/activation” proposition, that need satisfaction should decrease going up the need hierarchy, and that needs that were essentially satisfied would become less important, while needs at the next higher level of the hierarchy would become more important.
Wahba and Bridwell reported that research had failed to verify the existence of five distinct levels of motivation, as Maslow had proposed. A few studies suggested two independent levels and one suggested four, but no study validated all five levels. These studies also failed to show that self-actualization was a distinct type of motivation, and they did not support the order of the hierarchy that Maslow proposed.
With regard to the studies on the deprivation/domination hypothesis, Wahba and Bridwell concluded that there was partial support for Maslow’s theory. In the case of self-actualization and autonomy needs, research participants had indicated that their least satisfied needs were the most important; however, they had not done so for security, social, or esteem needs. Wahba and Bridwell also noted that the positive findings for self-actualization and autonomy could be due to measurement problems rather than actual validity of the deprivation/domination hypothesis.
Finally, Wahba and Bridwell concluded that there was little or no support for the gratification/activation hypothesis. They noted that a few studies had generated limited support for this proposition, but they had significant methodological problems, which might have accounted for the positive results.
Wahba and Bridwell went on to conclude that Maslow’s theory was largely unsupported by research; however, they did not suggest that the theory should be abandoned. Instead, they recommended improvements to measurement techniques and other aspects of research design, which might allow for better evaluation of Maslow’s propositions. In particular, they noted that longitudinal research was necessary. Longitudinal research tracks the behavior of subjects over relatively long time periods, and looks for changes that occur with time. Since Maslow’s theory proposed that motivations would change over time as different needs were satisfied, the appropriate way to test it would involve longitudinal research. This type of research is costly and difficult, however, and very few longitudinal studies have examined Maslow’s propositions. The few existing studies have not shown strong support for the theory.
Since the mid-1970s, few investigators have shown interest in testing Maslow’s theory. Influenced by reviews such as that of Wahba and Bridwell, many researchers have come to feel that the theory has been refuted by research. Despite this perception, studies on certain aspects of the theory continue to appear periodically, as researchers have continued to show interest in phenomena such as peak experiences and self-actualization.
Maslow’s theory of motivation can be seen as an influential but flawed attempt to explain an important aspect of human behavior. Maslow’s work helped to change the direction of psychology in the twentieth century, laying the groundwork for a new approach to understanding human behavior, which has come to be known as humanistic psychology. Although Maslow’s theory is not widely accepted today, it has an important place in the history of psychology, and it continues to influence thinking about motivation in business management, education, and the helping professions.
Theories in Action
Maslow enthusiastically described a number of research ideas linked to his theory; however, the theory of motivation has not generated a large body of research. Unlike other personality theorists who were also psychotherapists, Maslow did not specify a treatment approach to go with his theory. Therefore, the theory did not generate a body of treatment studies, as would be common for theories that included a treatment component. Conceptual and methodological problems with the theory have also made it difficult to evaluate, and the philosophical nature of Maslow’s theory has generated more speculation than actual data. Research on Maslow’s propositions has been especially rare since the mid-1970s, when the body of research supporting the theory was critically reviewed and found lacking.
Although there is a general lack of interest in research on Maslow’s principles, some areas continue to produce a few studies every year. In particular, the concepts of self-actualization and peak experience continue to intrigue researchers, and they are still finding new ways to investigate these phenomena.
One stream of research has focused on ways that different groups experience self-actualization. A number of scales to measure the tendency toward self-actualization have been developed over the years, including a scale specifically designed to measure self-actualization in children. Various groups have been compared on these scales, in attempts to understand how self-actualizing tendencies interact with gender, age, and other aspects of personality.
One interesting example involves the study of gifted students. Gifted students (i.e., those with high intelligence) have been compared to non-gifted students, on the assumption that gifted individuals should show stronger tendencies toward self-actualization. This is an interesting question that has implications for understanding the relationship between giftedness and creativity, which is an important aspect of self-actualization. Although creative people are often highly intelligent, not all intelligent people are unusually creative. It is also uncertain whether having unusual intellectual ability helps a person to reach the higher levels of Maslow’s motivational hierarchy. At least one study has found that gifted students do show higher levels of self-actualization, but the relationship between intelligence and self-actualization is still not fully explained.
Men and women have also been compared on indices of self-actualization, with varying results. One issue is the way self-actualization is measured. If the indicator of self-actualization includes external signs of success such as career advancement, then men tend to show stronger tendencies toward self-actualization than women. However, as Maslow noted, self-actualization does not necessarily involve the external trappings of success, and a person who lives a relatively quiet life may still show self-actualizing tendencies. When self-actualization is defined in terms of inner values and aspirations, then women tend to show a tendency toward self-actualization that is as strong as, or stronger than, that shown by men. These studies highlight one of the recurring problems with research on Maslow’s propositions—the difficulty of clearly defining important concepts.
Another set of studies has examined the tendency toward self-actualization in homeless people. According to Maslow’s theory, these people should not show much tendency toward self-actualization, but the findings suggest that even people who are coping with extreme deprivation still experience some aspects of the self-actualizing tendency. These studies directly contradict Maslow’s notion that satisfaction of the basic needs is necessary before one can experience self-actualization. The findings seem to fit better with Maslow’s later thinking about self-actualization, in which he recognized that even ordinary people can show some self-actualizing tendencies.
Age differences in self-actualization have also been examined, on the assumption that self-actualizing tendencies should increase with age. The results of these studies have been variable, particularly in studies of children. Since children in general might be expected to show relatively limited tendencies toward self-actualization, it is not surprising that age increases are not easy to detect.
The phenomenon of the peak experience also continues to intrigue a few researchers. Studies of peak experiences have examined the way people with different backgrounds report such experiences. One study compared artists to non-artists, on the assumption that artists might be more prone to have peak experiences, but this was not found to be the case. Other studies have tried to determine how different cultural groups react to peak experiences. Evidence of peak experiences in childhood has also been explored. Studies in this area are often qualitative rather than quantitative, focusing on individual accounts of unique and mystical experiences. The significance of these experiences for individuals and the life-changing quality of such experiences are fairly well established.
One other study illustrates a novel application of Maslow’s theory on an international level rather than an individual one. This unusual study applied the hierarchy to understanding changes in the quality of life in different countries as they became more developed. Looking at data for 88 countries gathered over a period of 35 years, the study used progress on Maslow’s hierarchy as an indicator of improving quality of life. The results of the study confirmed the order that Maslow predicted for the emergence of different need states, but it did not confirm his prediction that satisfaction of one need would lead to less interest in meeting that need as other, higher needs emerged. Maslow would no doubt be pleased to see his theory applied in this unusual manner.
The limited body of current research on Maslow’s principles reflects the general decline of interest in his theory. Nonetheless, the compelling concepts continue to attract new investigators, and Maslow’s theory continues to generate a small body of ongoing research. The continuing interest in his theory is testimony to the intuitive appeal of his theory.
Unlike other humanistic psychologists who were primarily psychotherapists, Maslow never specified a particular strategy for applying his ideas in therapy or counseling. Thus there is no “Maslovian psychotherapy” and no particular approach to handling the process of counseling. Maslow did provide informal counseling to some of his students, but he never really wrote in detail about the process of counseling or psychotherapy, and only limited accounts of his counseling experiences are available.
The most direct application of Maslow’s ideas comes from the field of business management. Maslow was mainly focused on questions of motivation, which is a key issue for managers. In trying to maximize worker productivity, managers often struggle to understand the forces that motivate people, and Maslow’s hierarchy offers one way to look at the interacting forces that drive human behavior.
Maslow’s 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, had considerable influence on some business managers who were interested in using scientific principles to improve the workplace. One such manager was Andy Kay, an engineer who had started his own company to produce electronic instruments after World War II. Kay had read Maslow’s book, as well as McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise, and he used the ideas in these works as guidelines for creating a new approach to managing his company. At Kay’s invitation, Maslow visited the company in 1962. He was very impressed by Kay’s innovations, which sparked additional thinking of his own. Maslow’s ideas grew into the book Eupsychian Management, and Kay’s company, Non-Linear Systems, became a famous example of what Maslow liked to call “enlightened management.”
One of the key elements of enlightened management was the notion that workers should be given more autonomy and control in the work environment. McGregor, who was strongly influenced by Maslow’s theory of motivation, had proposed that most traditional business managers were operating under a set of flawed assumptions, which he called “Theory X.” Under Theory X management, it was assumed that most workers were operating at the most basic levels of Maslow’s need hierarchy, and thus they would be motivated primarily by wages and job security. Theory X managers would therefore pay little attention to relationships in the workplace or other aspects related to higher levels of motivation. In contrast, McGregor proposed “Theory Y,” which assumed that most workers had their basic survival needs satisfied and were trying to satisfy higher needs in the workplace. Under Theory Y, the worker’s need to belong to a team and to feel a sense of accomplishment in their work would be more important influences on their performance than more basic motivations.
Kay set out to apply Maslow’s principles and McGregor’s interpretation of them in a real-life experiment. In a rare display of managerial risk-taking, Kay reorganized his successful business to conform to Maslow’s principles. Among Kay’s most striking innovations was his reorganization of the production process. Drawing on Maslow and McGregor’s ideas, Kay believed that workers had a need to see the results of their work, and not just to focus on one small aspect of the total process. He therefore dismantled the assembly lines in his plant and formed small teams of workers instead. After training team members in the entire production process, each team was made responsible for taking its share of several products through the complete assembly process. The team would build each instrument, inspect it, remedy any defects, and pack the product for shipping.
The workers at Non-Linear Systems were also given an unusually high level of control over other aspects of their work environment. Kay tried to foster the workers’ sense of autonomy and teamwork, allowing them to take breaks according to team needs, and eliminating mechanisms for managerial control such as time clocks and hourly wages. Instead, workers were paid a flat salary (which was an increase over their hourly pay), and they were no longer subject to deductions from their pay for absences. Managers were no longer supposed to make all of the day-to-day decisions. Instead, they would serve in an advisory capacity, and the production teams would make their own decisions. Acting on McGregor’s notion that record-keeping interfered with the workers’ sense of self-control, much of the company’s accounting system was also dismantled. Records were kept by the personnel, shipping, and purchasing departments, and their balances were reported to the company treasurer.
In the early years of the experiment, Kay was extremely enthusiastic about the changes. He reported that the workers were happier, productivity had improved, and customer complaints were reduced. The company’s reputation for producing excellent products was bolstered, and many observers believed that the experiment was a great success. In 1962, when Maslow visited Non-Linear Systems, he hailed it as an example of the positive application of his ideas. He also began to speculate about the ways that self-actualization could occur among business entrepreneurs, apparently using Kay as an example.
Non-Linear Systems continued the experiment in participative management until early 1965, when it abruptly returned to many of the pre-experiment conditions. Although the working teams continued to have responsibility for the entire production process, managers resumed the job of supervising line employees, specific standards for work quality were reinstated, pay was tied to the amount of work done, and standard accounting practices were reinstated. The company had experienced falling profits, and it had laid off a number of workers in 1963 and 1964. Although production line workers were satisfied, managers had been unhappy with the experiment because they had no clearly defined responsibilities. Sales were falling as well. A later analysis determined that market forces were responsible for some of the falling profits, but the experiment was ultimately termed a failure.
This case study illustrates some of the ways that Maslow’s theory could be applied in the workplace, and it also shows some of the problems with applying the theory. Although Maslow introduced some provocative and important ideas about motivation, his theory was not complete enough to explain the complexities of human behavior in the workplace. Competing forces that he had not accounted for in his theory turned out to be important, such as the managers’ need to have a sense of purpose and the executives’ need for accurate data to make business decisions. Maslow’s theory also had nothing to say about the market forces that influenced Non-Linear Systems. His theory could not be applied in a vacuum, and perhaps the larger business world was not ready for some of his idealistic proposals.
Interestingly enough, Maslow himself had expressed concern that his ideas were being applied too quickly, without adequate testing to determine their validity. Although he was enthusiastic about the potential for applying his ideas, Maslow recognized that they were still very preliminary. He had hoped to generate a body of research to support his theory before applying it on a large scale.
Maslow’s theory and Kay’s application of it may seem rather naive to modern readers, but at the time they represented the cutting edge of a new approach to understanding human behavior. In the years since the experiment at Non-Linear Systems, other writers have proposed some of the same innovations, and participatory management has become a recognized management approach.
Relevance to Modern Readers
Abraham Maslow helped to introduce a new and positive dimension to our understanding of human behavior. He was one of the first psychologists to recognize that people can be motivated not just by a need to alleviate discomfort or make up for a deficiency, but also by higher purposes or goals as well. He created a legitimate scientific theory that took these higher goals into account, and his thinking helped to define the field of humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychologists can be found today in counseling centers, psychiatric clinics, hospitals, universities, and a number of other settings devoted to solving human problems or understanding human behavior.
Maslow’s influence also continues in business management, education, and in many of the helping professions such as nursing, social work, and rehabilitation. A beginning student in any of these fields is very likely to read about Maslow’s theory of motivation and use it as a framework for understanding the needs that can influence people in a variety of different situations. The simplicity of his needs hierarchy and its recognition of both deficiency needs and higher levels of motivation make Maslow’s theory particularly attractive as a starting point. His work is a useful introduction to motivation for those who want to learn how to lead people or help them to grow and change.
The hopeful view of human behavior that Maslow offered still has a strong appeal, particularly for people who are drawn toward a more spiritual outlook on life. He recognized the value in exploring human virtues, such as altruism, creativity, and the love of beauty. He saw the great importance of those rare times in life when a person can see beyond their daily concerns and understand a higher truth about themselves and the world. Anyone who has had such a peak experience can appreciate his insights and observations about these moments.
Maslow’s speculations about the best that humans are capable of can seem naive to modern readers, but many of his observations have an essential truth that has not been diminished by the passing years. He cautioned against cynicism and a lack of values, and he encouraged people to commit themselves to higher goals and to openly acknowledge the things that are important to them. He thought that this was the only way to achieve real growth. In an age marked by cynicism, alienation, and the specter of terrorism, Maslow’s positive view of human capabilities is both encouraging and inspiring.