Abraham Maslow was one of the great psychological presences of the twentieth century, and his concept of self-actualisation has entered our vernacular and is addressed in most psychology textbooks. A core concept of humanistic psychology, self-actualisation theory has inspired a range of psychological therapies as well as approaches taken in social work. But a number of myths have crept into our understanding of the theory and the man himself. In a new paper in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, William Compton of Middle Tennessee State University aims to put the record straight.
Maslow’s most penetrating idea is that we have a hierarchy of needs, proceeding from physiological needs like water or warmth, through safety, love, esteem and then self-actualisation. He argued that lower needs occupy our attention when they are unmet and make it more difficult to fulfil the higher ones – including self-actualisation, which is about becoming the self you always had the potential to be.
Compton first deals with the charge that this work is ascientific. He finds there is a lack of strong evidence showing that individuals transition from one level of the hierarchy to the next, as Maslow claimed. However, research on this point is complicated by the widely mistaken belief that Maslow considered needs must be fully satisfied at each level before progressing. In fact, Maslow stated that everyone has unsatisfied needs at every level – who feels safe 100 per cent of the time?
On the other hand, in favour of the idea of progression through the hierarchy is evidence from comparisons of national populations. Cross-cultural research shows that when more people in a population have their basic needs met, a greater proportion also tend to reach self-actualisation, as compared with populations that are preoccupied with scarcities.
Maslow also claimed that people are more likely to flourish when they hold self-actualising values like spontaneity, positive self-regard, and acceptance of paradoxes. There is supportive data associating these qualities with positive outcomes – including creativity, lower anxiety or a personal locus of control, and also – and perhaps more surprisingly – higher instances of peak experiences, higher sexual satisfaction, and less fear of death.
The hierarchy is sometimes presented with another element slotted in: cognition needs, placed just below self-actualisation (as seen in these examples). In fact Maslow opposed this, as he saw cognition as a tool that can serve every need at every level, whether in knowing self-defense techniques to help you feel safe, or knowing ourselves. For him, it lay outside the hierarchy. Another point often forgotten is that self-actualisation isn’t Maslow’s pinnacle. He broke out another stage for “peakers” – self actualised individuals who also experience peak or mystical experiences.
Compton moves on to address allegations about who and what the theory is for. He disputes the idea that it encourages self-centredness: many of the self-actualisation qualities Maslow emphasised are actually centred on others, like fairness, service, and adherence to a universal framework of values. Moreover, two of Maslow’s favoured reference points when talking about self-actualisation were Alfred Adler’s gemeinschaftsgefühl (the psychological health that follows from caring about others) and the bodhisattva (the Buddhist notion of one who strives for compassion towards others).
What about the related charge that self-actualisation is elitist, a preoccupation reserved for the privileged? This criticism needs some thinking through. There is a case that Maslow didn’t pay enough attention to how sexism or racism could impede self-actualisation, although his writings did show a more vague sensitivity to life throwing you a trickier hand. It’s true many of his self-actualised examples are white men, but he also cited figures such as Jane Addams, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. And while it may seem like self-actualisation requires plenty of disposable income and leisure time, what Maslow meant by self-actualisation is bringing your full self to the moment, which includes dedicating yourself to work, how you treat others in daily interactions, and holding yourself to the highest standards. You can do all that from wherever you are standing.
Finally, Compton deals with the references in Maslow’s copious writing to the self-actualised as “more fully human” versus the “less evolved persons” who are lower down the hierarchy – at the very least, this is a case of bad optics. In his defense, Maslow repeatedly emphasised that he did not believe anyone was innately superior, just that some people made more of their potential. Compton argues that some of the criticism around this is motivated by defensiveness: that some people are apparently stung by the claim that someone can work on their personality and thus make it excellent, just as they can become an excellent gymnast or painter. I disagree – I think there is a case that Maslow’s language unhelpfully conjures a sense of individualistic exceptionalism that would probably feel right at home in a TED summit or posthumanist away-day. Not, I think, what he would have wanted.
Clearly, Maslow’s work is not without flaws. But his reframing of psychology to look at upwards possibilities rather than constantly into pathology sparked a shift that anticipated the positive psychology movement by decades. So his ideas deserve to be better understood, so we can use them more effectively to better ourselves, and so they can be developed and built upon for professionals who are seeking a ladder to help humanity reach greatness.