Abraham Maslow (1908–1970)

“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side.... It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his psychological health.” Abraham Maslow, writing in his 1954 textbook, Motivation and Personality, set forth the guiding principle of his work in psychology as an investigation of the positive aspects of human existence. Perhaps best known for his hierarchy of needs research, which clarified the major human motivations behind life choices, Maslow was the founder of what has come to be known as humanistic psychology, with its emphasis on developing human potential rather than on its ills. This was considered the third school of psychology, next to the Freudian psychoanalysis school and the Behaviorist.

In this, Maslow, who was a professor of psychology at Brandeis University for most of his career, exemplifies the turn American psychological studies took in the 20th century, in a shift away from European models like those of Freud and Jung toward a more empirical and very American approach, favoring experience and observation over theory. Maslow found the theories of Freud to be reductionist and negative and emphasized human potential and self-actualization instead. He considered himself a pioneer in psychology in providing the field with a new framework for studying human psychology from a positive point of view (it is interesting that at the end of his life he was studying the problem of evil as a resident scholar at the Laughlin Institute in California).

Maslow’s highly original approach to psychology was to view human behavior through the lens of motivation, basing it on the realization that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs. He consolidated motivational triggers as the hierarchy of needs, which he explained in a famous pyramid chart that showed human needs as a ladder with five steps, beginning at the bottom rung of the basic physiological or survival needs of food, water, sleep, sex. It was Maslow’s contention that no one would move up the ladder to higher needs until the lower needs were satisfied. And, even if one has ascended higher up the ladder to fulfilling higher needs, the sudden deprivation of basics like food or safety will return the person to that basic level. The next level above basic needs is about safety needs, the security of self, job, family, and finances. When these needs are fulfilled, an individual can move to the next level, the need for belonging, love, and friendship. The fourth level of the hierarchy is that of esteem, including self-esteem, achievements, and the respect of others.

Abraham Maslow proposed a Humanistic Psychology, emphasizing human potential rather than the negatives. His Hierarchy of Needs pyramid is a widely used reference to human motivation.

Abraham Maslow proposed a Humanistic Psychology, emphasizing human potential rather than the negatives. His Hierarchy of Needs pyramid is a widely used reference to human motivation. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

The highest level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the need of self-actualization, the ultimate goal of living but a level he said only 2 percent of humanity reaches. At this level, one achieves understanding and self-knowledge, fostering creativity and spontaneity. Self-actualized people are living to the fullest extent of their potential, accepting themselves and the world realistically, able to solve problems, and live autonomously and independently. Those who have reached the level of self-actualization are capable of what Maslow called “peak experiences,” enjoying intense moments of joy and wonder. He termed the highest level of needs on the pyramid as B-Needs or being-needs or growth-needs. The lower level needs were called D-Needs or deficiency-needs.

When Maslow presented his hierarchy of needs, it was criticized as being unscientific and as not in keeping with current psychological and Freudian theories. Maslow responded that his positive views of human psychology provided the missing half to current theories, which were so focused on human weakness and psychological problems. Unlike Freud and B. F. Skinner whose statements about human psychology were largely theoretical or based on animal behavior, Maslow had had the clinical experience of working directly with humans and formulating the needs hierarchy in an empirical and practical way. As he said in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, “If our stomachs were empty most of the time, or if we were continually dying of thirst, or if we were continually threatened by an always impending catastrophe,” we would “never have the desire to compose music or create mathematical systems, or to adorn our homes.” He picked out “exemplary people” like Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt to study rather than the mentally ill, including the healthiest 1 percent of a college student population. “The study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy,” he wrote in Motivation and Personality.

Critics accused him of being ethnocentric, arguing that Maslow’s hierarchy was based on Western values, which stress individualism where the focus is on self-improvement, and would not apply to countries where the collective is valued and where acceptance into the community would be more important. Nonetheless, Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs proved to be especially useful in understanding human motivation within organizations, and it has become standard usage in psychology, management training, and marketing, not only providing a kind of thumbnail sketch of human behavior and motivation, but also giving a blueprint for deeper investigations of how people act to fill their needs. Executives and leaders who understood these underlying patterns found they could motivate others and create better organizations. Inevitably, however, there also were distortions of Maslow’s hierarchy and attempts to expand and revise it in ways he never intended.

He had first proposed this need-based hierarchy as early as 1943 in an article, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” published in Psychological Review when he was a professor at Brooklyn College. Then, 11 years later as a professor at Brandeis University, he gave a full explanation of the hierarchy of human needs in Motivation and Personality. In the intervening years, Maslow had researched many aspects of the field and found two influential mentors, anthropologist Ruth Benedict and the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, whom he came to regard as models of self-actualized individuals. He took notes on their behavior and they became the inspiration for his theories and research on self-actualization.

Benedict urged him to do real fieldwork and explore another culture as she had in her work with American Indians in New Mexico. Maslow did so under a grant during the summer of 1938, living with the Blackfoot Indians in Alberta, Canada, and studying their culture. In his report to the Social Science Research Council, which had given him the grant, he said the experience taught him that “Indians are first of all people, individuals, human beings, and only secondarily Blackfoot Indians,” encouraging him to critique the then-dominant view of cultural relativism. But the immersion in fieldwork and anthropology also spurred Maslow on as he formulated a new psychological outlook. His encounter with Gestalt psychology through Max Wertheimer at The New School introduced him to other views of human motivation and perception that would influence his own formulation.

Maslow’s approach was a practical one, a blueprint of human psychology that was immediately useful even to the layman, and in that way very different from the more theoretical and complex European approaches. It was, in short, very American. This was true also of another psychologist, Erik Erikson, who, though a transplanted European, cut through Freudian theory to create an eight-part summary of stages of psychological development, from birth to death, which would prove equally valuable as a touchstone of human psychology. Erikson started with Freud’s five stages, expanding the genital stage into adolescence and adding three more. He outlined the stages as (1) infancy, 0–1, gaining a sense of trust; (2) toddler, 1–3, gaining autonomy vs. shame and doubt; (3) pre-school 3–6, initiative vs. guilt; (4) school age, 6–11, gaining competence; (5) adolescent, 12–20, identity vs. role confusion; (6) young adulthood, 20–24, intimacy vs. isolation; (7) second stage of adulthood, 25–64, generativity vs. stagnation; and (8) age 65 and up: ego integrity vs. despair. Erikson’s widow, Jean Serson, added a ninth stage, old age, in consideration of longer life expectancies.

Unlike Freud, Erikson considered the impact of social experience as well as the physical stages in human development. Like Maslow, he too had lived among the Indians and studied personality from that vantage point. And like Maslow’s, Erikson’s model broadened the understanding of human psychology beyond theory and provided an important framework for exploring it. Both Maslow and Erikson believed that the crucial stage of life was the earliest, when conceptions of trust and relationship are established, believing that most psychological problems that arise in later life stem from a child’s first years. Other American psychologists like Carl Rodgers (1902–1987) emphasized human potential as did Maslow. B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) took a different approach. He was the principal advocate of behavioral psychology, which viewed human behavior as a result of conditioning, established with reward and punishment. Maslow himself was initially taken with behaviorism, reading the works of John B. Watson, the founder of American behaviorism, and though he later rejected it, he regarded this encounter as a turning point in his choosing to study psychology.

Abraham Herbert Maslow was born on April 1, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, to Samuel and Rose Maslow. Samuel had emigrated to the United States from Kiev, Russia, when he was only 14, speaking only Russian, and found work at a cooperage making wooden casks and barrels. He married his first cousin, Rose, and they had seven children, the eldest of whom was Abraham. They lived in a Jewish neighborhood, but when Abraham walked out of his neighborhood to the library or to school, he encountered a virulent anti-Semitism from gangs of Irish and Italian youngsters who taunted him. Maslow never forgot these experiences. At home, he was frequently at odds with his mother. “With my childhood,” he later said, it’s a wonder I’m not psychotic.” A voracious reader, he took refuge in books.

Maslow graduated from Boys High in Brooklyn where he had been editor of the Latin magazine, and went on to the public City College of New York. He went on to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin where his training in psychology was “decidedly experimentalist-behaviorist,” his biographer, Edward Hoffman, said. He earned an MA in 1931 with a thesis about the learning and retention of verbal material, which was later published as two articles, and stayed on at Wisconsin for PhD studies. He received his PhD in 1934 with doctoral work in primate research. Briefly, he then attended medical school but dropped out after a semester, and instead began teaching as a psychology fellow at Wisconsin. He had been married in 1928, to Bertha, his first cousin, and needed to support her and eventually two daughters, Ann, born in 1938, and Ellen, born in 1940.

He delivered a paper about his work with primates at the American Psychological Association convention at the University of Michigan in 1935, which came to the attention of Columbia University and won him a postdoctoral position as a scientific assistant in the Division of Education. Living in New York City, which he described as “the center of the psychological universe,” Maslow met and studied with several of well-known psychologists and professors, including Karen Horney, Alfred Adler, and Erich Fromm. He joined the faculty at Brooklyn College in 1937, where he taught for the next 14 years.

In 1951, he was offered a position as chairman of the psychology department at Brandeis University in Boston, where he would remain until he retired in 1969. During his years there, Maslow was able to complete the book he had long been working on, Motivation and Personality, introducing what would become his famous hierarchy of human needs.

Abraham Maslow retired from Brandeis University in 1969 and took a four-year position as a resident fellow at the Laughlin Institute in Menlo Park, California, where he was investigating the nature of evil in man. He died of a heart attack in 1970.

—Mary Cross


“Dr. Abraham Maslow, Founder of Humanistic Psychology, Dies.” June 10, 1970. New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F40910FD3955127B93C2A8178DD85F448785F9 .

Hoffman, Edward. The Right to Be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1988.

Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1987.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. 3rd ed. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.