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Abraham Maslow and his theories

Introducing the key concept of one of the fathers of Humanistic Psychology

BIOGRAPHY - Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Abraham Harold Maslow was born on 1st April 1908 in Brooklyn, NY. After him, his parents had six other children. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. They were uneducated so pushed him towards academia.

After he satisfied his parents by studying law at the City College of New York, Abe decided to pursue the career he really wanted. Against his parents' wishes, he married his first cousin Bertha and moved to Wisconsin. Abe and Bertha had two daughters, and Abe received a BA in 1930, an MA in 1931 and a PhD in 1934 all in Psychology and all from the University of Wisconsin.
At the University of Wisconsin, Abe started to work with Harry Harlow, a famous American psychologist, known for his experiments on attachments that he conducted on baby monkeys.

After graduation, Maslow went back to New York where he began teaching full time at Brooklyn College. This was a particularly stimulating time for his intellectual development as he came in contact with a lot of intellectuals, several Freudian and Gestalt psychologists, Adler and Fromm. A turning point was when he finally met Kurt Goldstein, who first originated the concept of self-actualisation, in his book The Organism (1934). From this point onwards, his theorising became distinctively Humanistic.

Abraham Maslow spent the final years of his life retired in California, where he died of a heart attack in 1970.


Maslow started to work on attachments with monkeys, early in his career. He observed how monkeys take care of certain needs before others (for example they prioritise thirst and hunger over the need for sex). Maslow first put these needs on a scale, from more basic and essential needs, to more sophisticated ones. The same scale is applied to humans. Beyond physiological needs, such as food and water, he added other 5 layers: the needs for safety and security, the need for love and belonging, the need for esteem and the need to actualise the self. This became one of his most famous pieces of theory: the Hierarchy of Needs (1943).

broken image

At the bottom of the pyramid, we have deficit needs, meaning they’re a conditio sine qua non for the next step. Every previous need needs to be fulfilled in order to move up the pyramid. The need that is at the forefront of our attention is called ‘salient’, as in ‘current’. Underneath the salient needs, in the pyramid, there are the fulfilled needs/no longer salient; and above the salient needs there are needs that are still not salient.

1. Physiological needs

Those include: need for oxygen, water, nutrition, mineral vitamins…

This also includes the need to keep an appropriate pH balance for our skin and to keep our body at an appropriate temperature. In this category there are also activities, such as rest, sleep, be active, get rid of urine and feces, avoid pain and have sex.

2. The safety and security needs

When the first stage has been taken care of, the individual can access this layer.

In this category we have: structure, order, limits, boundaries, stability, protection and safety.

The negative side of this is the anxiety around the boundaries and the need for structure, order and control.

3. Love and belonging

When physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the individual can move into this new layer. This includes all sorts of affects: family, love and friendship as well as the sense of belonging to a community, a club, a country or a culture.
The flipside is the feeling of disconnection, loneliness and social anxiety.

4. Esteem needs

Maslow divided this category of needs in two sub-categories:

- The lower one is the need to have the respect of others (the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, affection, reputation, dignity and even dominance)

- The higher subcategory is the need for self-respect: confidence, competence, independence and freedom.

The negative side of this includes: inferiority complexes and low self-esteem.

Maslow referenced the work of Adler and the idea that this type of needs are the cause of so many difficulties in our modern society. This is because most of us have our physiological, safety and belonging needs met; so the tension is entirely in this esteem category. In a way the Adler’s work fits in very well at this point (especially on inferiority complexes).

All these four levels are referred to as deficit needs (or D-needs). This means that if the need is not met, we feel the hunger for it. If the need is met, we move above onto the higher ones. They work with the principle of homeostasis, which means that if the need is met we don't feel it and we move up.

Maslow thinks about all the needs as survival needs and compares them to instincts. Under stressful situations, we can regress to more primal needs.


Developmental theory
Maslow talks about the pyramid of needs in his development theory as well. Growing up, we move from the bottom towards the top as we age. He thought about the needs as a progression: the newborn is initially concerned with physiological needs and as it grows starts to express psychological needs, safety first, then attention and affection. A bit later, we develop the need for self-esteem

Maslow also suggests that if there is a developmental deficit in early childhood, the individual will ‘fixate’ on that need for the rest of his/her life.


It’s interesting to think about those levels of needs for a society as a whole. A successful society will need to cover physiological needs for the population, before thinking about psychological needs (of safety and belonging), and then progress to arts and entertainment. On the flipside, when society fails, people ask for a strong leader who promises safety.

Understanding psychological needs

Maslow thinks that by asking people about their ‘philosophy of the future’ (i.e. what they want their ideal life to be), we can get important information about where they feel in the hierarchy of needs.
In psychological terms Maslow understands every neurosis as what happens to the individual who is stuck with a historic need. For example an individual who never had a sense of security and safety as a child; and who is still thinking about safety as an adult, even though that need is now fully met.


When Maslow talks about physiological needs and psychological needs, he calls them D-needs (Deficit needs). If they’re not met, the individual will feel the instinct to mobilise towards a resolution.
At the top of the pyramid there is another level, which he refers to as Being needs, and the instinct to mobilise towards them is called growth motivation or self-actualisation.

In contrast to the deficit needs, the being needs continue to be felt even as the individual engages with them. Infact, they become even stronger as we ‘feed’ them.
By self-actualisation, Maslow means the need to fulfil one’s potential, to be truly oneself, to become the best possible version of self. ‘Becoming all you can be’. ‘Fulfilling your potential’

For Manslow, to be truly self-actualising, the individual needs to have all other needs met to a considerable extent. He suggests that only a very small part of the population is actually attending to their self-actualisation and most people in the Western world are constantly wrestling with psychological needs and occasionally with biological needs.

To understand what it really means to be self-actualising, Maslow conducted biographical research on people such as Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Benedict Spinoza and Aldous Huxley. There is obviously something here to be said about this research methodology: picking a small number of people that he declared ‘self-actualizers’ is a bit reductive and biased. However, his research produced interesting findings. Based on it, Maslow produced a list of qualities that are characteristics of those self-actualising people (as opposed to the rest of us).

  • Keen sense of reality - These people are reality-centred and have an objective judgement, as opposite to subjective.

  • They don't surrender to problems, but focus on the solutions

  • They enjoy being alone. They don't rely on others for happiness and don't care about other people’s judgement

  • They have fewer but deeper relationships, rather than having a lot of superficial acquaintances

  • They are independent, autonomous and non-conformists. They’re not subsettable to social pressure

  • They’re inclusive: they don't discriminate against people for their culture or personal style. They are comfortable with others, despite the differences.

  • They’re humble and respectful towards others. They have the quality that Maslow called Gemeinschaftsgefühl (‘human kinship’, compassion, humanity). This means that they accept people, rather than wanting them to change

  • They have a sense of humour which is not directed to others and their experiences, but towards themselves or the human condition

  • They’re spontaneous and curious about everything. They are appreciative of their experiences, including ordinary life

  • They are creative, inventive and original

  • Ultimately, they seek and tend to have more peak experiences than the average person [see section on Peak experiences further down in this page].

A criticism

In this hierarchical view of needs, self-actualisation can only be approached when all other needs are met. However there are a lot of people who ticked all the boxes for being ‘self-actualizers’ without having the other needs met. For example let’s think about people who were being creative while in concentration camps. One of the most discussed points is that there are a lot of artists and poets who were exhibiting clear signs of being self-actualising, without being able to meet all the other needs (for example: Van Gogh, Galileo, Rembrandt, Modigliani, Toulouse Lautrec… a lot of them died in poverty!).

Are ‘self-actualizers’ mythological creatures?
This is a question I had in mind since I started my training as a psychotherapist. I think they are! However I want to think about the movement towards self-actualisation. In a way I think about it as a process, more in a Rogerian way. In particular I’m thinking about On Becoming a Person (1961)

"The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism”

(Rogers, 1951, p. 487)

I’m aware that Rogers and Maslow use the terms in slightly different ways, and I want to side with Rogers, because his use of the term is more inclusive and less elitist. Maslow says only 2% of the population is self-actualising, while Rogers applies the term more generically to describe the tendency towards reaching one’s own potential.

Peak experiences

A peak experience is when we feel very tiny, or very large and in touch with nature and life. During a peak experience, we can feel part of the infinite. These experiences leave a mark in our life and they change us for the better. In religious terms they’re referred to as mystical experiences.

‘Self-actualizers’ and anxiety

Maslow does not describe those ‘self-actualizers’ as perfect. In fact, he highlights they are often more prone to anxiety and guilt. He distinguishes their anxiety as ‘realistic’, as opposed to others’ anxiety, which would be a neurotic displacement. In my opinion, this concept is a bit obscure in Maslow, and Heidegger’s terminology can help to clarify what I think he means. Maslow refers to the difference between ontic and ontological anxiety. Maslow refers to the ‘self-actualizers’ as more in touch with the ontological nature of anxiety, while everyone else is just entangled in ontic and circumstantial anxieties.

Maslow also says that often the ‘self-actualizers’ can be absent-minded or unpredictably cold and ruthless. At the same time he also describes them as overly kind.

Meta-needs and Meta-patologies

Maslow lists the need that self actualizers feel:


Unity, wholeness and transcendence of opposites



Perfection and necessity (I think a good word would also be ‘intentionality’, as opposed to inconsistency and accidental)


Justice and order


Richness (obviously not necessarily in materialistic terms)





A good argument is that we all need those. But when a ‘self-actualizer’ finds him/her-self without those conditions, they develop meta-pathologies (depression, despair, alienation…).

Freud and the ‘depth-psychology’ is often referred to as the first force of psychology. After that, there was a new wave of thinkers that are referred to as Behaviourists; they constitute the second force. In the 1950s and 60s in America, people began to question this mechanistic view of human nature and Maslow was an inspiration for a lot of influential thinkers of that time. We now refer to that movement as the third force of psychology: Humanistic and Existential psychologies.

Towards the end of his life, Maslow was considered between the founders of yet another wave of thinkers: a fourth force. The fourth force is referred to as transpersonal psychology. The key philosophical ideas of the fourth force of psychology are: Eastern philosophies, levels of consciousness, meditation and even parapsychological phenomena.

Essential texts

For a good introduction to Maslow: 

Maslow's texts are also very accessible and easy to read. The most influentials are:

(1968) Psychology of Being

(1954/1970) Motivation and Personality

(1971) The Further Research on Human Nature


Heidegger, M. (1953/1966). Being and Time. State University of New York Press: New York. Maslow, A.H. (1943). ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, in Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96.

Rogers, C.R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory. London: Constable.
Rogers, C.R. (1961). On Becoming a person: A psychotherapists view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.