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Maslow's Motivational Psychology

Abraham Maslow could be considered a motivation theorist or a personality theorist. He was a bit of both. One of his early books was Motivation and Personality (1954).

Perhaps more revealing is the title Maslow originally wanted to use for that book: Higher Ceilings for Human Nature (Maslow, 1970, p.ix). He came close to that title with his last book, published posthumously: The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (1971).

Maslow dealt with higher motives of human beings: what might be called existential or spiritual motives. They are some of the most powerful and uniquely human motivations.

What type of motives did Maslow explore?

The two dominant theoretical perspec­tives in psychology when Maslow started his work in the 1940s were behaviorism and Freudianism. Both seemed inade­quate for dealing with "ideal aspirations of the human being" (Maslow, 1963). Maslow felt that neither had much to say about what made people happy and psycho­logically healthy.

What was Maslow's objection to psychoanalysis?

Maslow had several objections to Freud's theory. It offered a dreary view of human nature, he said.

Humans were portrayed as preoccu­pied with sex, violence, and selfishness. Freud and his followers concentrated on psychopathology (abnormal, disorder­ed states).

Freud offered no theory of mental health, no compelling description of the healthy personality or well-adjusted individual. Freud dwelled at length on neurotic behavior but had little insight into behavior that was not neurotic.

portrait of Maslow
Abraham Maslow

What were Maslow's objections to behaviorism?

Maslow also ob­jected to behavior­ism. In the 1940s and 1950s, beha­viorists refused to deal with the com­plexities of mental life. To Maslow, talk of stimuli and responses was mechanistic, dehumanizing, and avoided the central issues of human existence.

Maslow also felt that, like psychoanalysis, behaviorism offered no theory of mental health. It stressed a superficial view of adjustment: happiness was behaving in such a way that you got your reinforcers.

Maslow proposed an alternative: a Third Force in psychology. This type of psych­ology would deal with important topics neglected by the other two, such as ful­fillment, the search for meaning, and what it meant to be psychologically healthy.

Maslow teamed with Rogers, Fromm, and other psychologists to form new professional associations and launch new journals devoted to Third Force psychology, also known as humanistic psychology.


To study the uplifting aspects of human existence, Maslow developed a two-pronged approach: (1) he studied un­usually positive moments experienced by many people, and (2) he studied people who he considered to have constructive, effective personalities. Maslow called them self-actualizers.

Who inspired Maslow?

Maslow got the idea of self-actualizers by observing some outstanding professors who taught him in graduate school. It seemed to him there was an eerie similarity between two of his teachers: Max Wertheimer (a psychologist) and Ruth Benedict (an anthropologist).

Wertheimer and Benedict were very distinct personalities, Maslow said, but they had something in common that made them different from other people. In some way, initially mysterious to him, they were like two of a kind.

As Maslow saw it (no doubt through the rosy glasses of a devoted student) both Ruth Benedict and Max Wertheimer were creative, productive, and good-humored. They were sophisticated, seemingly happy, intellectually sharp, and yet approachable.

In short, they were awe-inspiring peo­ple, yet they did not act conceited or self-centered. They were devoted to hard work and service to others.

To Maslow, they epitomized mental health. They seemed to belong to a new category of humans, a psychological type Maslow had not seen discussed in the psychological literature.

Maslow set out to study this type of person. He said he simply looked for the "best people" he could find.

Initially Maslow believed that self-actual­izers were quite rare: "less than 1% of the adult population" (Maslow, 1962, p.204). Maslow identified the following character­istics of self-actualizing people.

1. They are productive and creative

2. They are spontaneous, with a sharp wit and sense of humor.

3. They appreciate higher values such as truth, beauty, and justice, often combining them in various endeavors.

4. They are happy with life.

5. They are open to new ideas, curious, and fascinated by reality itself.

6. They are "invariably involved in a cause outside their own skin."

What were characteristics of self-actualizing people, according to Maslow?

Maslow believed self-actualizers were living up to their full potential, bringing their best selves into being. They were not motivated by greed and self-interest, and they were socially responsible.

In their day to day activities, they were devoted to moving humanity in a good direction. They were aware of problems in the world, yet they seemed fully en­gaged with life and happy to be alive.

Maslow's Pyramid

Maslow devised a now-famous pyramid-shaped diagram to express his ideas. At the bottom he put the base or biological needs. At the top were higher-level, spiritual or existential needs. In between was a range of other needs.

What is Maslow's famous pyramid-shaped diagram and what is the idea behind it?

As each lower need is satisfied, Maslow argued, the next higher level becomes more compelling. First, on the bottom layer, are biological needs like eating and sleeping. All humans must have those things, if nothing else.

Next are security or safety needs: having a place to stay, knowing where your next meal is coming from, and avoiding danger. Then comes love or love and belongingness: the need to affiliate with other humans.

Although love is ranked high on most scales of human values, Maslow put it below the next level, which he labeled esteem. Maslow reasoned that it was possible, indeed common, to have love in relationships that did not promote esteem.

In a good love relationship, growth of self-esteem is fostered in both parties. In a poor relationship, one member of the pair try to keep the other insecure and dependent. In that sense, love or rela­tionship needs are easier to achieve than self-esteem needs.

Maslow's pyramid
Maslow's hierarchy of needs

The fifth level is self-actualization. You can go through all the other levels and still feel empty. You can have a big house, a high-paying job, a spouse, children, lots of self-esteem, but be unfulfilled.

In Maslow's scheme, that would mean the first four levels of needs are met but the fifth and highest is not yet realized. We will discuss more about that highest level, Maslow's real interest.

Was Maslow's hierarchy useful as a guide for research? What was the consequence for its longevity?

The hierarchy of needs is Maslow's best-known contribution to psychology. Everybody has heard of Maslow's need hierarchy, and most people find it plausible.

However, there is very little research to support the need hierarchy, and there are many exceptions to it. For example, people fast for religious reasons. Many people pursue self-esteem before love. Maslow provides no way to decide which exceptions are important.

Hull's motivational theory was very precise and easy to test. Because it was testable, it, was put to the test, and it was disproved.

In contrast, Maslow's motivational theory is vague and general. It has lots of intuitive appeal, but it admits to many exceptions. Therefore it cannot be tested definitively. This vagueness has made Maslow's pyramid as immortal as the great pyramids of Egypt.

B-needs and D-needs

Reeve (1992) summarized attempts to do research on Maslow's ideas and concluded that "the weight of the evidence casts considerable doubts on the hierarchy's validity." However, he suggested that a simpler, two-level distinction might receive support.

The two-level distinction Reeve thought valid was the distinction between needs based on maintenance of the organism (such as hunger and thirst) and those based on growth. That is basically the distinction Maslow made between D-needs and B-needs.

What are D-values?

Maslow called traditional Hullian-type needs D-needs. The D stood for deficiency. The D-needs were based on D-values (deficiency values).

Deficiency values fit into the Hullian scheme: creatures experienced a deficiency in food, water, or security, and this generated a need, which was an unpleasant state. The animal would work to eliminate that deficiency (reduce the drive) and behaviors that reduced a need were reinforced.

What are examples of B-values?

Maslow identified another class of needs pursued by self-actualizing people. He called these being needs, or B-needs. Most other psychologists would call these existential or spiritual needs.

Existential means, literally, pertaining to existence. Existential needs are rooted in our need to experience our lives more fully or find meaning and purpose in life.

Existential needs involve a type of motivation quite distinct from hunger, thirst, and other motives studied by Hullian psych­ologists. If you satisfy B needs, you feel fulfilled but not satiated. You can never have too much truth, beauty, or justice.

In addition to truth, goodness, and beauty, B-needs listed by Maslow included unity, perfection, and complete­ness or finality. An artist enjoys symme­try; an architect strives for a sense of unity; a craftsman feels good to see a piece completed; a musician seeks perfection in the tone of an instrument.

Maslow also listed B values such as aliveness, process, uniqueness, and self-sufficiency. These characteristics bear a striking resemblance to Carl Rogers's description of healthy trends during psychotherapy.

Finding that they had come up with many of the same ideas, Maslow and Rogers formed a natural alliance. They became leaders and founders of the humanistic psychology movement in the early 1960s.

Criticisms of Maslow's Theory

Maslow can be criticized from many angles. He was not very scientific in his investigations, as he readily admitted. He liked lists. Read Maslow and you find lists of B-values, lists of characteristics of self-actualizers, lists of objectives for future humanistic psychologists, even lists of possible research projects...but never actual research.

What are some criticisms of Maslow?

Maslow said he "studied" and "discover­ed" characteristics of self-actualizers. He objected to complaints that he merely invented the self-actualizer syndrome. But the complaint seems valid. His insights came from his intuition.

Maslow never presented data to prove that his lists of characteristics of self-actualizers were accurate. He just said it was obvious, or that every healthy person he knew acted this way, or that "my research showed me" how self-actual­izers acted.

This does not mean Maslow was wrong. It does mean his opinions were not validated in the normal scientific way, by finding independent sources of evidence. Maslow is similar to William James: a good writer, an intuitive philosopher, and a cultural force.

Maslow coined the term "positive psych­ology" and presented a deep inter­pretation of what that meant, well before Seligman took over the label. Seligman now acknowledges his debt to Maslow, although this was slow to come, given the striking similarities in their approaches.

For example, Seligman said in his 1998 APA presidential address that his most formative experience was realizing psychology was "half-baked," because it did a good job of examining abnormal behavior. That part was baked. But psychology (he said) neglected happi­ness and mental health.

Maslow made exactly the same point 36 years earlier in Toward a Psychology of Being (1962). In fact, his primary criti­cism of the Freudian perspective was that it concentrated on abnormality and had nothing to say about positive mental health. Then Maslow wrote a series of books detailing what positive mental health looked like.

The 1960s were peak years for Maslow and for humanistic psychology. In 1961, Tony Sutich founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

How was humanistic psychology a "forerunner of the 1960s cultural changes"?

In 1962, Maslow published an influential book, Toward a Psychology of Being. Maslow was president of the American Psychological Association in 1967.

In many ways humanistic psychology, with its emphasis on personal freedom, self-exploration, and consciousness expansion, was a forerunner of the 1960s counterculture in the United States. Maslow died in 1970.


Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper.

Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand.

Maslow, A. (1963). Further notes on being-psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 3, 120-135.

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

Reeve, J. (1992). Understanding Motivation and Emotion. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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