Abraham H. Maslow – Self-Actualization Theory

Self-Actualization Theory

One day shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, at age 33, Abe Maslow witnessed a pathetic and beggarly civilian parade—one that seemed to emphasize the futility and tragic waste of war. With tears streaming down his face, he made a firm vow: to prove that the human race is capable of some- thing grander than hate and destructiveness, and to do so by studying the psychologically healthiest people that he could find (M. H. Hall, 1968a, pp. 54–55).


  • To integrate the best aspects of various theories of personality (eclecticism), including Freudian psychoanalysis and the importance of the unconscious.

  • To correct Freud’s pessimistic view of human nature by showing that our inner potentials are entirely healthy, but that they are weak and can easily be overwhelmed by pathogenic environmental forces.

  • To distinguish between two kinds of motives: deficiency motives, which involve drive reduction and filling an internal lack, and growth motives, which represent a higher level of functioning and include pleasurable tension increases and fulfilling one’s unique potentials.

  • To show that fundamental human needs form a hierarchy, wherein higher level needs do not become motivating (or even recognizable) until lower level needs have at least to some extent been satisfied.

  • To learn about the highest level need, self-actualization, by studying the psychologically healthiest people.

  • To describe the behaviors that differentiate self-actualizers from those who have not achieved this level of behavior.

  • To show that psychopathology is caused by the failure to satisfy our fundamental needs, and that the failure to self-actualize leads to markedly different symptoms.

  • To advocate an eclectic approach to psychotherapy, wherein different procedures (including Freudian psychoanalysis, briefer forms of psychotherapy, and behavior therapy) may be used depending on the nature and severity of the patient’s problems.


Abraham H. Maslow was born on April 1, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were uneducated Jewish immigrants from Russia; his father owned a barrel manufacturing company. Maslow’s childhood was economically and socially deprived, and he was later to compare his position in a non-Jewish neighborhood to that of the first Black in an all-White school (M. H. Hall, 1968a, p. 37). Isolated and unhappy, he grew up in the company of libraries and books rather than friends.

Maslow originally enrolled at Cornell University but soon transferred to the University of Wisconsin, primarily because its catalog advertised the presence of various prominent scientists. To his considerable disappointment, he found that these notables were only visiting professors who had long since departed. Yet he stayed to earn not only his bachelor’s degree, but also his Ph.D. in psychology in 1934. Maslow’s doctoral dissertation dealt with the sexual behavior of monkeys, under the supervision of Harry Harlow. His professors at Wisconsin also provided him with instruction in the social amenities that he had neglected, such as the fine art of buying a suit (M. H. Hall, 1968a, p. 37). Maslow married Bertha Goodman, his high school sweetheart, while a 20-year-old undergraduate. The marriage proved to be very happy and successful, and the Maslows were to have two daughters.

At first an ardent behaviorist, Maslow’s firsthand experience with his children convinced him to abandon this approach as inadequate. In 1937 he accepted a position at Brooklyn College, where he was to remain for some 15 years. During this time he furthered his knowledge by obtaining personal interviews with such noted theorists as Adler, Fromm, and Horney, underwent psychoanalysis, and experienced the aforementioned profound reaction to World War II. In 1951 Maslow moved to Brandeis University, and became perhaps the foremost exponent of humanistic personality theory. In addition to his academic endeavors, he also spent more than 10 years practicing brief, nonanalytic psychotherapy.

Maslow’s writings consist of some six books and numerous articles in psychological journals, and his honors include election to the presidency of the American Psychological Association in 1967. Long troubled by heart problems, Abe Maslow died of a heart attack on June 8, 1970.


For the most part, Maslow shares Rogers’s optimistic view of human nature. Our innate (instinctoid) tendencies are predominantly healthy, and they include the capacity for constructive growth, kindness, generosity, and love. Yet Maslow also agrees with Erikson that these “instinct–remnants” are very weak, and are easily overwhelmed by the far more powerful forces of learning and culture. “The human needs … are weak and feeble rather than unequivocal and unmistakable; they whisper rather than shout. And the whisper is easily drowned out” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 276; see also Maslow, 1965; 1968, pp. 164, 171, 191; 1970b, pp. ix, xvii–xix, 27–28, 77–95, 103).

A pathogenic environment can easily inhibit our positive potentials and evoke hatred, destructive- ness, and self-defeating behavior. Thus Maslow prefers an eclectic approach to personality, and he advises

psychologists to guard against excessive theoretical optimism by acquiring a thorough knowledge of Freudian psychoanalysis:

[My goal is] to integrate into a single theoretical structure the partial truths I [see] in Freud, Adler, Jung,

… Fromm, Horney, [and others].… Freud is still required reading for the humanistic psychologist … [yet] it is as if [he] supplied to us the sick half of psychology, and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.… [Thus] it is already possible to reject firmly the despairing belief that human nature is ultimately and basically depraved and evil, … [and to conclude that the striving toward health] must by now be accepted beyond question as a widespread and perhaps universal human tendency. (Maslow, 1968, p. 5; 1970b, pp. xi–xiii. See also Maslow, 1968, pp. vii, 3–8, 48; 1966/1969; 1970b, pp. ix–xxvii, 117–129; 1971, pp. 4, 32.)

Deficiency and Growth Motives

Maslow espouses a dualistic theory of motivation.

Deficiency MotivesSome of our instinctoid impulses aim toward the reduction of such drives as hunger, thirst, safety, and obtaining love and esteem from others. These deficiency motives (deficit motives, D-motives) are possessed by everyone, and involve important lacks within us that must be satisfied by appropriate objects or people.

Growth Motives. In contrast to the deficiency motives, growth motives (being motives, B-motives) are relatively independent of the environment and are unique to the individual. These needs include pleasurable drive increases (e.g., curiosity), the unselfish and nonpossessive giving of love to others, and the development of one’s healthy potentials:

Growth is, in itself, a rewarding and exciting process. [Examples include] the fulfilling of yearnings and ambitions, like that of being a good doctor; the acquisition of admired skills, like playing the violin or being a good carpenter; the steady increase of understanding about people or about the universe, or about oneself; the development of creativeness in whatever field; or, most important, simply the ambition to be a good human being.… It is simply inaccurate to speak in such instances of tension-reduction, implying thereby the getting rid of an annoying state. For these states are not annoying. (Maslow, 1968, pp. 29–31. See also Maslow, 1968, pp. 21–43.)

Although deficiency motives serve such necessary goals as self-preservation, growth motives represent a more pleasurable, higher, and healthier level of functioning. “Satisfying deficiencies avoids illness; growth satisfactions produce positive health … [like the] difference between fending off threat or attack, and positive triumph and achievement” (Maslow, 1968, p. 32). Maslow argues that Freud emphasized drive reduction because he studied only sick people, who have good reason to fear (and repress) their impulses because they cope with them so poorly. In contrast, healthy individuals welcome drive increases because they signal potential satisfaction. They may well protest that “the trouble with eating is that it kills my appetite” (Maslow, 1968, p. 28).

The Complexity of Human Motives. Maslow prefers not to list specific human needs. Our motives are so complicated and interrelated, and our behavior is so overdetermined, that it is usually impossible to explain personality in terms of separate and distinct drives.

For example, making love may be due to needs for sex, power, and reaffirmation of masculinity or femininity. A hysterically paralyzed arm may fulfill simultaneous wishes for revenge, pity, and

attention. Or eating may satisfy the hunger need and offer solace for an unrequited love. (See Maslow, 1970b, pp. 22–26, 35–58.) Maslow also argues that the various human needs differ considerably in their level of importance, with some remaining virtually unnoticed until others have at least to some extent been satisfied. He therefore favors a general, hierarchical model of human motivation. (See Figure 10.1.)

The Hierarchy of Human Needs

The Physiological Needs. The lowest level of the hierarchy involves the physiological needs, including hunger, thirst, sex, oxygen, sleep, and elimination. A starving person cares very little about writing majestic poetry, buying an impressive-looking car, finding a sweetheart, or avoiding injury—or anything other than the overriding goal of obtaining food. Many of the physiological needs are deficiencies, but not all; among the exceptions are sexual arousal, elimination, and sleep. (See Maslow, 1968, p. 27; 1970b, pp. 35–38.)

The Safety NeedsAs the physiological needs become increasingly satisfied, the next level in the hierarchy gradually emerges as a motivator. These safety needs involve the quest for an environment that is stable, predictable, and free from anxiety and chaos.

For example, a young child may seek reassurance and protection after being frightened by a sudden loud noise or injury. Or an adult in the grip of safety needs may pursue a tenured professorship, amass a substantial savings account, or constantly prefer the familiar and routine to the unknown. Although the safety needs help us to avoid severe pain and injury, they can become so powerful as to interfere with personality development—as when people willingly yield some of their rights during periods of rampant crime or war in order to gain a measure of security. “In the choice between giving up safety or giving up growth, safety will ordinarily win out” (Maslow, 1968, p. 49; see also Maslow, 1968, pp. 46–47, 54; 1970b, pp. 39–43).

The Belongingness and Love Needs. Once the physiological and safety needs have been more or less satisfied, the belongingness and love needs come to the forefront as motivators. The individual now hungers for affectionate relationships with friends, a sweetheart or spouse, and/or offspring.

To Maslow, love consists of feelings of affection and elation, yearnings for the loved one, and (often) intense sexual arousal. Our hunger to receive such love from others is a relatively selfish deficiency need (D-love), one that often involves anxious and manipulative efforts to win the loved one’s affection. Yet this need must be satisfied in order for us to develop growth-oriented or “being” love (B-love), which is nonpossessive, unselfish, and more enjoyable than D-love. B-love is also denoted by honesty, including a willingness to reveal one’s weaknesses as well as strengths, and by respect for the loved one’s needs and individuality. (See Maslow, 1968, pp. 41–43; 1970b, pp. 43–45, 182–183, 250, 275–276.)

The Esteem Needs. In accordance with Adler, Rogers, Fromm, and Erikson, Maslow attributes considerable importance to our need for superiority and respect. We strive to achieve self- confidence and mastery of the environment, and to obtain recognition and appreciation from others. However, these esteem needs usually act as motivators only if the three lower types have been satisfied to some degree. Maslow cautions that true self-esteem is based on real competence and significant achievement, rather than external fame and unwarranted adulation (a theme well illustrated by Ayn Rand’s classic novel The Fountainhead).

The Need for Self-Actualization. The highest form of need is self-actualization, which consists of discovering and fulfilling one’s own innate potentials:

Self-actualization is idiosyncratic, since every person is different.… The individual [must do] what he, individually, is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. (Maslow, 1968, p. 33; 1970b, p. 46. See also Maslow, 1968, pp. 7, 25; 1970b, pp. 47, 150.)

Self-actualization is similar to actualization in Rogerian theory, except that it does not become important (or even noticeable) until the physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs have been at least partially satisfied. Therefore, self-actualization is found only among older people. The young are more concerned with such issues as obtaining an education, developing an identity, seeking love, and finding work, which Maslow regards as only “preparing to live.”

The specific needs of those rare individuals who achieve this highest level differ considerably from the lower needs. Among their metaneeds are a love of beauty, truth, goodness, and justice. “It seems probable that we must construct a profoundly different psychology of motivation for self-actualizing people” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 159; see also Maslow, 1964/1970a, pp. 91–96; 1970b, pp. xx, 134; 1971, pp. 43–44, 192–195, 299–340). Maslow devotes considerable attention to the characteristics of self-actualizing individuals, as we will see in a subsequent section.

Characteristics of Higher and Lower NeedsMaslow views the higher needs as distinctively human. “We share the need for food with all living things, the need for love with (perhaps) the higher apes, [and] the need for self-actualization with [no other species]” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 98; see also Maslow, 1968, p. 31; 1970b, pp. 67, 97–104).

The emergence of a higher need reflects a greater degree of psychological health, somewhat like reaching a more advanced developmental stage in Eriksonian or Freudian theory, and its satisfaction is valued far more highly by the individual than fulfilling a lower need. Yet the higher needs are also less urgent and tangible, they are not necessary for survival, and they are more easily blocked by a pathogenic environment. For these reasons, even recognizing the existence of these needs represents a considerable achievement. Maslow estimates that the average American citizen has satisfied perhaps 85 percent of the physiological needs and 70 percent of the safety needs, but only 50 percent of the love needs, 40 percent of the esteem needs, and 10 percent of the need for self-actualization (1970b, p. 54). Thus to Maslow, as to most personality theorists, achieving true self-knowledge is a difficult—albeit essential—undertaking.

The hierarchy of needs is presumed to apply to most people, though the specific form of satisfaction often varies in different cultures. Members of a primitive tribe may gain esteem by becoming great hunters, whereas people in a technological society are more likely to gratify such needs by advancing to an executive position. However, Maslow does allow for various exceptions. Some people regard esteem as more important than love, whereas others accord the highest status to creativity. Or the higher needs may sometimes emerge after the lower ones have been severely frustrated, as with the displacement of unsatisfied sexual needs onto artistic endeavors. Nevertheless, the easiest way to release us from the dominance of our lower and more selfish needs (and to promote healthy psychological development) is by satisfying them. (See Maslow, 1970b, pp. 51–53, 59–60.)

The Unconscious and Teleology

Since our weak instinctoid needs are so easily obscured by environmental influences, they readily assume the status of unconscious processes. “[There is a] tremendous mass of evidence that indicates the crucial importance of unconscious motivation.… The basic needs are often largely unconscious.… [Thus a sound] theory cannot possibly afford to neglect the unconscious life” (Maslow, 1970b, pp. 22, 54; see also Maslow, 1968, pp. 5, 196; 1970b, pp. 27, 270, 273; 1971, pp. 114, 173). The unconscious also includes memories of our more shameful actions, and such important positive potentials as love, creativity, and humor. In contrast to Freud’s emphasis on causality, Maslow stresses the teleological goals toward which we strive. “No theory of psychology will ever be complete which does not centrally incorporate the concept that man has his future within him, dynamically active at the present moment” (Maslow, 1968, p. 15).


Maslow differs from Freud by rejecting specific structural constructs. But he does accept the existence of such defense mechanisms as repression, projection, reaction formation, and rationalization:

Freud’s greatest discovery is that the great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself—of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny.… If the psychoanalytic literature has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that repression is not a good way of solving problems. (Maslow, 1968, p. 60; 1971, p. 49. See also Maslow, 1968, pp. 66–67, 191; 1964/1970a, p. 41; 1970b, pp. 211, 220; 1971, pp. 29, 37.)

Maslow also concludes that we have both a humanistic and an introjected conscience. Like the Rogerian organismic valuing process, the inborn humanistic conscience troubles us whenever we behave in ways that are contrary to our inner nature:

The only way we can ever know what is right for us is that it feels better subjectively than any alternative.… The born painter who sells stockings instead, the intelligent man who lives a stupid life, the man who sees the truth and keeps his mouth shut, the coward who gives up his manliness, all these people perceive in a deep way that they have done wrong to themselves and despise themselves for it. (Maslow, 1968, pp. 7, 45. See also Maslow, 1968, pp. 121, 194–195; 1971, pp. 46–47, 184, 338–339.)

The second, learned form of conscience represents introjected parental standards, which may well clash with our true organismic needs and values. Like Horney and Rogers, Maslow concludes that every growing child faces a crucial fork in the developmental road: the healthy choice of heeding its own inner guidelines, or the pathological (yet probably inevitable) alternative of sacrificing its true potentials in order to conform to the standards of the all-important parents (Maslow, 1968, pp. 51–52).


Whereas Freud contends that the child must be forced against its will toward maturity, Maslow argues that healthy children actively seek to gain new skills and satisfy their growth motives. Once they have received enough need satisfaction appropriate to a given developmental level, they become bored with these old delights and eagerly proceed to higher and more complicated ones. “Given sufficient gratification, free choice, and lack of threat, [the child] ‘grows’ out of the oral stage and renounces it himself. He doesn’t have to be ‘kicked upstairs’ ” (Maslow, 1968, p. 56 n. 4; see also pp. 23–24, 46, 49–50, 55). For example, the

infant ready to be weaned willingly and enthusiastically prefers solid to liquid food. Personality development will proceed normally so long as children are given the opportunity to heed their own inner guide- lines, rather than having their judgment and self-trust undermined by excessive external pressures:

A priori plans for the child, ambitions for it, prepared roles, even hopes that it will become this or that … represent demands upon the child that it become what the parent has already decided it should become. Such a baby is born into an invisible straitjacket. (Maslow, 1970b, pp. xxiv–xxv. See also Maslow, 1970b, pp. 276–277.)

However, Maslow cautions that overpermissiveness also has undesirable consequences. Some rules and training are necessary to help the child avoid costly errors, provide a welcome sense of safety and structure in an otherwise confusing world, and prevent the development of a pampered style of life. Furthermore, a certain amount of frustration serves to strengthen the growing personality. “The person who hasn’t conquered, withstood, and overcome continues to feel doubtful that he could.… [Thus] grief and pain are sometimes necessary for the growth of the person” (Maslow, 1968, pp. 4, 8; see also Maslow, 1968, p. 119; 1970b, pp. 40–41, 71, 87, 121–122). For the most part, however, satisfying the child’s needs is the best way to promote healthy personality development.

The Self-Actualizing (Fully Human) Person

Maslow shares Allport’s and Rogers’s interest in defining optimal psychological adjustment. He has studied those rare individuals whom he regards as having achieved the highest level of need gratification, self-actualization (or “full humanness”). This relatively small sample includes living persons and such historical personages as Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, and Baruch Spinoza. (See Maslow, 1968, pp. 26, 71–114, 135–145, 153–160; 1970b, pp. 149–180; 1971, pp. 28–30, 41–53, 183–184, 280, 299–340.)

Although self-actualizers are unique in many ways, they tend to share the following characteristics:

More Accurate Perception of Reality. Self-actualizing people are more free of unwarranted optimism, pessimism, and other defensive distortions of reality. They are able to evaluate people and events with considerable accuracy.

Greater Acceptance of Self and Others. Self-actualizers are more tolerant of human weaknesses. They avoid judging other people or themselves, although they may experience some guilt about any personal deficiencies that they have been unable to overcome.

Greater Spontaneity and Self-Knowledge. Self-actualizing individuals behave more spontaneously because they better understand their true motives, emotions, and abilities. They are guided primarily by their own code of ethics, which often makes them feel like aliens in a foreign land— and makes them difficult for other people to understand.

Greater Problem Centering. Self-actualizers tend to have a consuming mission in life that occupies much of their time and energy. They are keenly interested in external problems and do not care much about introspection. They have a devotion to excellence, combined with a lack of worry about minor details that makes life easier for themselves and their associates.

Greater Need for Privacy. Self-actualizers prefer a greater amount of privacy and solitude. This healthy detachment is due in part to their tendency to rely on their own feelings and values. Yet it is often resented by those who mistake it for snobbishness, unfriendliness, or hostility.

Greater Autonomy and Resistance to Enculturation. Self-actualizers are motivated by the need to fulfill their own inner potentials, rather than by a desire for external rewards or possessions. Since their needs for love and esteem are largely satisfied, they are less likely to manipulate others for selfish purposes. Self-actualizers are less indoctrinated by the prevailing standards of the imperfect society in which they live, and they avoid popular styles of dress or forms of entertainment that run counter to their personal criteria:

[Self-actualizing individuals] taught me to see as profoundly sick, abnormal, or weak what I had always taken for granted as humanly normal: namely that too many people do not make up their own minds, but have their minds made up for them by salesmen, advertisers, parents, propagandists, TV, newspapers, and so on. (Maslow, 1970b, p. 161. See also Maslow, 1968, pp. 11–12, 34–37; 1970b, pp. 172, 177.)

Greater Freshness of Appreciation and Richness of Emotional Response. Any goal that we may achieve, such as job success, marriage, or a new car, is all too easily taken for granted once the novelty has worn off. Self-actualizers live richer and more fulfilling lives because they cherish those blessings that they have received:

[There is a] widespread tendency to undervalue one’s already achieved need-gratifications, or even to devalue them and throw them away. Self-actualizing persons are relatively exempted from this profound source of human unhappiness.… For such a person, any sunset may be as beautiful as the first one, any flower may be of breath-taking loveliness.… The thousandth baby he sees is just as miraculous a product as the first one he saw. He remains as convinced of his luck in marriage thirty years after [it], and is as surprised by his wife’s beauty when she is sixty as he was forty years before. (Maslow, 1970b, pp. xxi, 163. See also Maslow, 1970b, pp. xv–xvi, xxi, 60–61, 72, 164.)

Greater Frequency of Peak Experiences. Most self-actualizing individuals have had mystical moments of absolute perfection, during which the self is lost in feelings of sublime ecstasy, wonder, and awe. Like numinosum in Jungian theory, these peak experiences are difficult to describe to those who have not had them. They may ensue from love, sex, appreciating a great symphony or work of art, bursts of creativity, moments of profound insight or scientific discovery, or the full use of one’s abilities and potentials. But whatever the form, their heavenly delight is the major reason why life is worth living.

Greater Frequency of B-Cognition. Self-actualizing persons more often engage in a type of thinking called “being cognition” (B-cognition), which always accompanies a peak experience and may occur at other times as well. B-cognition is a unique form of thought that is nonjudgmental, does not aim toward the fulfillment of some motive, and emphasizes the unity of oneself and the cosmos. In contrast, the more common “deficiency cognition” (D-cognition) is judgmental, concerns our need to satisfy the deficiency motives, and stresses the separateness of oneself and the environment. (See Maslow, 1968, pp. 71–102; 1971, pp. 251–266.)

Greater Social Interest. Like Adler, Maslow regards Gemeinschaftsgefühl as typical of the mature individual. Self-actualizers strongly identify with the human species, and have a genuine sympathy for and desire to help others. If they do express hostility or anger, it is usually both well deserved and for the good of some third party.

Deeper, More Loving Interpersonal Relationships. Self-actualizing people prefer intimate relationships with a few close friends. rather than superficial contacts with many people. Their love is nonpossessive (B-love), and they are proud of rather than threatened by a loved one’s achievements. Self-actualizers regard sex as meaningless without love, and may temporarily opt for chastity rather than accept opportunities that are devoid of genuine affection. And they are more attracted by such qualities as decency and considerateness than by physical characteristics.

More Democratic Character Structure. Self-actualizers befriend people of all classes, races, and ethnic groups, and often seem virtually unaware of such differences. They strongly and effectively oppose injustice, cruelty, and the exploitation of others.

Greater Discrimination Between Good and Evil. Self-actualizing individuals have strong moral and ethical standards, and rarely vacillate as to the course of action they consider right or wrong. They accept the responsibility for their actions, rather than rationalizing or trying to blame their errors on other people.

More Unusual Sense of Humor. Most self-actualizers prefer humor that is philosophical and instructive. They dislike humor based on hostility or superiority, such as ethnic or “insult” jokes.

Greater Creativity. Every self-actualizing person demonstrates a fresh and creative approach to life, a virtue by no means limited to the artist or genius. A self-actualizing home-maker may devise novel ways of preparing and serving the family meals, thereby turning the dinner table into a visual and culinary delight. Or a creative psychotherapist may develop unorthodox but successful methods geared to the individual patient, rather than attempting to apply textbook methods indiscriminately.

Maslow cautions that self-actualization is a matter of degree, rather than an all-or-nothing affair. At times self-actualizing persons may display such weaknesses as ruthlessness, discourtesy, outbursts of temper, silliness, irritation, or boredom. “There are no perfect human beings!” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 176; see also Maslow, 1968, pp. 97, 163; 1964/1970a, p. 37; 1971, p. 50). Conversely, the less healthy individual may on rare occasions achieve moments that approach peak experiences. The self-actualizer is characterized by a much more frequent display of maturity, helpful behavior, creativity, happiness, and wisdom—so much so as to afford distinct hope for the prospects of our strife-torn species.‌



Causes of Psychopathology. According to Maslow, the primary cause of psychopathology is the failure to gratify our fundamental needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self- actualization. “[These needs] must be satisfied, or else we get sick” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 92; see also Maslow, 1968, pp. 4, 21; 1970b, pp. 62, 67, 102, 268–269, 279; 1971, p. 316).

The lower the level at which such need frustration occurs, the more severe the pathology. An individual who has satisfied only the physiological needs and is preoccupied with safety (as in Horneyan theory) is more disturbed than one who has gratified the physiological, safety, and love needs, but cannot gain much esteem and respect. A person who has satisfied all but the need for self-actualization is healthier than either of the preceding two individuals. Thus, like most theorists, Maslow regards psychopathology as a difference in degree rather than kind.

Since self-actualization cannot be achieved without first satisfying lower needs that involve other people (safety, belongingness and love, respect), interpersonal behaviors play an important role in causing (or preventing) psychopathology:

Let people realize clearly that every time they threaten someone, or humiliate or hurt [someone] unnecessarily, or dominate or reject another human being, they become forces for the creation of psychopathology, even if these be small forces. Let them recognize also that every man who is kind, helpful, decent,

psychologically democratic, affectionate, and warm is a psychotherapeutic force, even though a small one. (Maslow, 1970b, p. 254. See also Maslow, 1964/1970a, pp. xiii–xiv; 1970b, pp. 252–253.)

Characteristics of Psychopathology. Like Erikson and Kelly, Maslow objects to the use of formal diagnostic labels. “I hate all these words, and I hate the medical model that they imply because [it] suggests that the person who comes to the counselor is a sick person, beset by disease and illness, seeking a cure. Actually, of course, we hope that the counselor will … [help] foster the self- actualization of people” (Maslow, 1971, p. 51; see also pp. 30–36). He even prefers to substitute the term human diminution for neurosis, so as to emphasize that psychopathology involves the failure to fulfill one’s true potentials.

Pathological needs do not reflect the sufferer’s true desires and potentials, and are therefore insa- tiable and unfulfilling. For example, a person with a vast hunger for power is unlikely ever to satisfy this drive because it is actually an unconscious substitute for some more fundamental need, such as love, esteem, or self-actualization. “A statement by Erich Fromm that has always impressed me very much [is:] ‘Sickness consists essentially in wanting what is not good for us.’ … Healthy people are better choosers than unhealthy people” (Maslow, 1968, p. 169; 1971, p. 211; see also Maslow, 1968, pp. 48, 150–152, 198–201; 1964/1970a, pp. 99–101; 1970b, pp. 78, 276–277).

Other pathological symptoms include: (1) guilt, shame, and/or anxiety, at least one of which is present in every neurosis; (2) apathy and hopelessness, as in Horneyan theory; (3) a faulty conception of oneself and the environment, as in Kellyan theory: “The neurotic is not [only] emotionally sick—he is cognitively wrong!” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 153; see also Maslow, 1968, pp. 7–8; 1970b, pp. xxii, 143–144, 155, 268, 274); (4) an excessive dependency on other people for need satisfaction; (5) a fear of knowledge of oneself and others, resulting in the use of various defense mechanisms; (6) a steadfast adherence to the familiar and routine, especially in obsessive-compulsive neurosis: “The healthy taste for the novel and unknown is missing, or at a minimum, in the average neurotic” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 43; see also Maslow, 1968, pp. 60–67; 1970b, pp. 42, 68, 218–219, 232).

The person who has satisfied all but the need for self-actualization experiences symptoms of a higher form, albeit ones that are quite painful. Such metapathology involves the repression or denial of one’s meta needs, and is all too common in a society that elevates material rewards above idealistic standards like truth and justice. It is typically denoted by such feelings as alienation, boredom, cynicism, joyless- ness, uselessness, and an inability to arrive at a satisfactory system of personal values. (See Maslow, 1970b, p. 71; 1971, pp. 316–322.)


Theoretical Foundation. Like Rogers, Maslow’s therapeutic goal is to help patients regain the path toward self-actualization and fulfill their own unique potentials. But since he attributes psychopathology to the frustration of our fundamental needs, he concludes that the most important function of psychotherapy is to bring about their gratification.1 “For a child who hasn’t been loved enough, obviously the treatment of first choice is to love him to death, to just slop it all over him” (Maslow, 1971, p. 34; see also Maslow, 1970b, pp. 68–69, 93–95, 241–264, 270). The needs for safety, belongingness and love, and esteem can only be satisfied by other people. So the patient must learn to establish and maintain good human relationships, and ultimately replace formal psychotherapy with such sources of satisfaction as friends and marriage.

The preceding model does not apply to those patients who are lacking only in self-actualization, since they have fulfilled their interpersonal needs and are concerned solely with inner growth and self-direction. These individuals must be helped to overcome the social forces that have caused them to repress their meta needs, and to discover those values toward which they truly wish to strive.

Therapeutic Procedures. Unlike Rogers, Maslow adopts an eclectic approach to psychotherapy. He does agree that the therapist should often be accepting, genuine, kind, and concerned, since these behaviors help to satisfy the patient’s needs for safety and belongingness. However, he cautions that there are too many patients who do not thrive in a warm and friendly atmosphere for this to become a universal procedure. People with authoritarian personalities are likely to interpret kindness as weakness, whereas distrustful individuals may regard friendliness as a dangerous trap. With such patients, Maslow recommends that the therapist assume the role of authority.

Maslow also differs from Rogers by favoring the use of Freudian psychoanalysis with seriously disturbed patients, notably those who are too afraid or suspicious to accept nurturance, love, respect, and other need satisfactions. In less severe cases, however, briefer forms of psychotherapy may well suffice. This includes behavior therapy (see Chapter 14), so long as it does not uproot defenses and symptoms too quickly. “Change in behavior can produce personality change” (Maslow, 1970b, p. 311; see also pp. 44, 142, 257–264). In addition, Maslow advocates the use of Rogerian encounter groups to further the personal development of relatively healthy people.

Whatever the form, Maslow strongly recommends psychotherapy as the best way to understand and treat psychopathology. “[Therapy] is the best technique we have ever had for laying bare men’s deepest nature, as contrasted with their surface personalities.… The good professional psychotherapist has left the intuitive helper far behind” (Maslow, 1970b, pp. 241, 260).

Resistance, Transference, and Countertransference. Like Freud and Jung, Maslow argues that the psychotherapist must be sufficiently self-aware to avoid harmful countertransferences. Ideally, the therapist should be warm, sympathetic, emotionally secure, self-confident, financially successful, and supported by a happy marriage and satisfying friendships.

Maslow also accepts the existence of resistance and transference. But he agrees with Horney and Kelly that resistance may well represent a healthy and justified objection to therapeutic blunders, such as being arbitrarily assigned to a diagnostic category (e.g., “anal,” “Oedipal”) that neglects the patient’s personal uniqueness and identity. (See Maslow, 1968, pp. 126–130; 1970b, pp. 250–253, 260, 309.)


Maslow is one of the few personality theorists who takes an active interest in the area of work. “If you are unhappy with your work, you have lost one of the most important means of self-fulfillment” (Maslow, 1971, p. 185; see also Maslow, 1965; 1966/1969; 1970b, pp. 277–278; 1971, pp. 208, 237–248, 306, 313).

At work, as elsewhere, those whose lower needs are satisfied will seek higher level gratifications. Organizations should therefore be designed so that employees can satisfy their needs for belongingness, dignity, respect, and self-actualization (an approach Maslow refers to as Eupsychian management). Maslow also contends that the ability of any organization to satisfy its workers’ needs must be ascertained by studying the specific nature of employee complaints, rather than merely tabulating their frequency. If many workers object to the physical conditions as unsafe, wet, and cold (“low grumbles”), even the lowest need levels are not being gratified. If numerous employees express dissatisfaction with their opportunities for belongingness or respect (“high grumbles”), the lower needs are reasonably well satisfied but the inter- mediate levels are not. And if most complaints involve the inability to self-actualize (“metagrumbles”), the emergence of this highest level need indicates that the four lowest levels have at least to some extent been satisfied.


In accordance with his theoretical optimism, Maslow emphatically denies the existence of innate evil or original sin. He also shares Jung’s opposition to unthinking faith, and Freud’s contention that the dogma of religion must fall before the onslaught of science and truth:

[Faith] in the hands of an anti-intellectual church [tends] to degenerate into blind belief … [which] tends to produce sheep rather than men.… [When religion] was cut away from science, from knowledge, from further discovery, from the possibility of skeptical investigation, from confirming and disconfirming, and therefore from the possibility of purifying and improving, such a … religion was doomed. (Maslow, 1964/1970a, pp. 13–14. See also Maslow, 1964/1970a, pp. 9–10; 1970b, pp. 83, 94, 122, 266.)

Maslow argues that the supposedly supernatural revelations claimed by prophets and seers are nothing more nor less than peak experiences, the potential for which is inherent in every human personality. It is these private, personal, unscheduled, and profoundly meaningful occurrences that constitute true religious experience, rather than rituals arbitrarily assigned to a particular building and day of the week. Thus most self-actualizers have enjoyed deep religious experiences, even though they often are not religious in any formal sense, whereas many people who regularly practice their religion have not. And only those who have had peak experiences can become effective religious leaders, for only they will be able to communicate the nature of such experiences to those who have not had them. (See Maslow, 1964/1970a, pp. viii, xi, 4, 11, 20, 24, 26, 29, 33; 1971, pp. 195, 339–340.)


Like Rogers, Maslow advocates a nondirective and person-centered approach to education. He takes strong exception to the rigid formalities found in higher education: Courses must all span precisely the same number of weeks, even though some subjects are more difficult and comprehensive than others. Academic departments are totally independent, as though human knowledge could be neatly divided into separate and distinct categories. The emphasis is on learning many specific facts, rather than on personal growth. And motivation is provided by such external rewards as grades, which often leads students to do only the work that is specifically required by the teacher. “The present school system is an extremely effective instrument for crushing peak experiences and forbidding their possibility” (Maslow, 1971, p. 188; see also Maslow, 1964/1970a, pp. 16–17, 48–58; 1970b, pp. 94, 177–178, 223; 1971, pp. 48, 168–195).

The ideal university would have no formal credits, required courses, or degrees. It would serve as an educational retreat where people could explore various subjects, discover their true interests, and appreciate the joys of learning and the preciousness of life. The teacher would show students how to hear the beauty of a great symphony, rather than merely having them repeat back the date of the composer’s birth on an examination. He or she would be a self-actualizer, thereby serving as a model for the students’ inevitable identifications. Thus education would achieve its proper goal: to help people become fully human and actualize their highest potentials.

Maslowian Theory and Empirical Research

Like Rogers, Maslow regards empirical research as a vital source of knowledge about the human personality. But he also agrees that all too many psychologists try to imitate the precision of the physical sciences by concentrating on trivial issues that can be measured accurately:

The besetting sin of the academicians [is] that they prefer to do what they are easily able rather than what they ought, like the not-so-bright kitchen helper I knew who opened every can in the hotel one day because

he was so very good at opening cans.… The journals of science are full of instances that illustrate [this] point, that what is not worth doing, is not worth doing well. (Maslow, 1970b, pp. 18, 181. See also Maslow, 1968, pp. viii, 216; 1970b, pp. 1–17, 224; 1971, pp. 170–171.)

The creative scientist avoids a rigid commitment to specific techniques or content areas. He or she dares to search for the truth in innovative and unusual ways, and to tackle important but difficult research issues.


Criticisms and Controversies

Maslow has been criticized for an overly optimistic view of human nature, although his acceptance of Freudian principles renders him less vulnerable to this charge than Rogers. However, Maslow’s eclecticism does not seem sufficiently well thought out. He fails to reconcile his holistic approach with his acceptance of Freudian defense mechanisms and Horney’s idealized image (Maslow, 1971, p. 113), which imply the existence of intrapsychic conflicts. Eclecticism requires more than merely accepting under one theoretical roof all those constructs of other theorists that one likes. The various ideas must also be integrated into a meaningful and noncontradictory whole, and this Maslow has not done.‌

Maslow’s study of self-actualizing individuals defines such people subjectively, using his own personal criteria. It has been suggested that the behaviors he characterizes as ideal (and even the hierarchy of needs itself) represent not some fundamental truth, but his own idiosyncratic conception of what human values should be like. The sample is quite a small one on which to base such far-reaching findings, and Maslow’s report lacks any statistical analyses and excludes such important biographical data as the intelligence, educational level, socioeconomic level, and ages of his participants.

Maslow repeatedly refers to his theoretical ideas as empirically testable, yet many modern psychologists emphatically disagree. They criticize his constructs as vague and imprecise, and they raise the issue of how to measure the amount of satisfaction that must be achieved at a given level for the next higher need to become prominent. Maslow allows for so many theoretical exceptions (e.g., the possible emergence of a higher need after the frustration of a lower one) that his theory appears equivocal. In contrast to such theorists as Freud, Adler, and Erikson, Maslow’s discussion of personality development seems vague and ill defined. And his idiosyncratic writing style includes numerous extensive and rather dull lists, offhand and unexplained references to the work of other psychologists, and assertions that seem more philosophical than scientific and psychological.

Empirical Research

Maslow’s theory has not generated a great deal of empirical research. There exists a validated instrument (the Personal Orientation Inventory) which measures the degree of self-actualization that one has achieved (Shostrom, 1963; 1965). There is some evidence in favor of the need hierarchy (e.g., Graham & Balloun, 1973), as well as a survey that fails to support it (Wahba & Bridwell, 1976). And some of the research on self-esteem is related to Maslow’s ideas. (See Chapter 9.) On the whole, however, major research support for Maslow’s theoretical contentions is still lacking.


Maslow’s emphasis on the study of healthy people offers a welcome contrast to those personality theories based solely on clinical data, and his model of deficiency and growth motives is preferred by many

psychologists to Freud’s preoccupation with drive reduction. Unlike many theorists, Maslow accords due credit to such predecessors as Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney, and Fromm. His ideas about religion are interesting and provocative, as is the general idea of a hierarchical model of human needs. Maslow is widely regarded as perhaps the foremost exponent of humanistic psychology, and his writings have proved popular with the general public. Although Maslow’s theory seems too flawed to stand on its own as a viable alternative to its competitors, he has nevertheless made significant contributions toward a goal shared by Rogers and succinctly stated by Sören Kierkegaard: to help a person be that self that one truly is.

Suggested Reading

Of Maslow’s various titles, there are two that represent the cornerstones of his theory: Motivation and Personality (1970b) and Toward a Psychology of Being (1968). Also of interest are Maslow’s memoirs and personal introspections (Lowry, 1979). For a biography of Maslow, see Hoffman (1988).


  1. The basic nature of human beings. We are born with healthy but very weak instinctoid needs, which are all too easily overwhelmed by the far more powerful forces of learning and culture. Maslow therefore advises psychologists to guard against excessive theoretical optimism by acquiring a thorough knowledge of Freudian psychoanalysis. Deficiency and Growth Motives: Our instinctoid needs include both deficiency motives and growth motives. The former involve drive reduction and filling crucial lacks within us through some external source, whereas the latter include pleasurable increases in tension and the development of one’s own unique potentials. Although deficiency motives serve essential purposes (such as self-preservation), growth motives represent a higher, healthier, and more pleasurable level of functioning. The Hierarchy of Human Needs: Some needs do not become important, or even noticeable, until others have at least to some extent been satisfied. The hierarchy of human needs consists of five levels: physiological (lowest), safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization (highest). The higher needs are less tangible, not necessary for survival, and more easily blocked by a pathogenic environment, so even recognizing their existence is a considerable achievement.
  2. The structure of personality. Maslow’s approach to personality is holistic, and he pos- its no specific structural constructs. He does accept the existence of Freudian defense mechanisms and two forms of conscience, one resembling the Rogerian organismic valuing process and one introjected from important others.

  3. The development of personality. Maslow has little to say about personality development. He argues that the child should be given sufficient opportunities to heed its own inner guidelines, and have its fundamental needs satisfied. The Self-Actualizing (Fully Human) Person: Maslow devotes considerable attention to those people he regards as extremely psycho- logically healthy, and describes some 15 characteristics typical of such self-actualizers.
  4. Further applications. Psychopathology: Psychopathology is caused primarily by the failure to satisfy our fundamental needs. The lower the level at which such dissatisfaction occurs, the more pathological the individual. Psychopathology involves wanting what is not good for oneself, anxiety, hopelessness, being cognitively wrong, and other symptoms. Those who have satisfied all but the need for self-actualization experience symptoms of a higher and different form. Psychotherapy: Maslow finds merit in various types of psychotherapy, depending on the severity of the patient’s problems. Except for self-actualization (and the physiological needs), the patient’s unfulfilled needs can only be satisfied by other people, so he or she must learn to establish and maintain effective interpersonal relationships. Other Areas: Maslow has also applied his theory to work, religion, and education.

  5. EvaluationMaslow’s eclecticism renders him less vulnerable to the criticism of excessive optimism than Rogers, but seems insufficiently thought out and includes too many confusions and contradictions. His study of self-actualizers has been criticized on methodological grounds, and his theoretical constructs have been characterized as vague, equivocal, and untestable. Yet Maslow is widely regarded as perhaps the most prominent exponent of humanistic psychology, his writings have gained widespread popularity, and his study of healthy people represents a welcome contrast to theories based solely on clinical observation.