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Abraham Maslow

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists

1908-1970
American psychologist.

A central figure in humanistic psychology and in the human potential movement, Abraham Maslow is known especially for his theory of motivation. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin in 1934. Maslow then began medical studies, which he discontinued within a year, after which he was offered a postdoctoral research fellowship to work with Edward Thorndike at Columbia University. After moving to New York, Maslow met many prominent European psychologists

Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

and social scientists who had fled Nazi Germany. Several of these emigrés became his mentors, including psychoanalysts Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, and Karen Horney and Gestalt psychologists Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941). In 1937 Maslow began teaching at the newly opened Brooklyn College. At the urging of anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), whom Maslow had met at Columbia, he spent the summer of 1938 doing field work on a Blackfoot Indian reservation in Alberta, Canada, with financial support from the Social Science Research Council. In 1951 Maslow became the head of the psychology department at Brandeis University, where he remained until a year before his death in 1970.

During the 1940s, Maslow began to work out his theory of human motivation, which was eventually published in Motivation and Human Personality in 1954. Rejecting the determinism of both the psychoanalytic and behaviorist approaches, Maslow took an optimistic approach to human behavior that emphasized developing one's full potential. Instead of basing his psychological model on people with mental and emotional problems, he used as his point of reference a collection of exceptionally dynamic and successful historical and contemporary figures whom he considered "self-actualizers," including Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Abraham Lin-

Abraham Maslow (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced with permission.)

coln (1809-1865), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). In addition to drawing up a list of the common traits of self-actualized individuals, Maslow placed self-actualization at the peak of his hierarchy of human motivations, the concept for which he is best known today.

This hierarchy is generally portrayed as a pyramid with five levels, ranging from the most basic needs at the bottom to the most complex and sophisticated at the top. From bottom to top, the levels are biological needs (food, water, shelter); safety; belongingness and love; the need to be esteemed by others; and self-actualization, the need to realize one's full potential. According to Maslow, the needs at each level must be met before one can move on to the next level. With so many other issues to concern them, the vast majority of people never grapple with self-actualization; Maslow considered fewer than one percent of the population to be self-actualized individuals. However, he believed that all human beings still possessed an innate (if unmet) need to reach this state.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Maslow became associated with the movement known as humanistic psychology, which he also referred to as the Third Force because it offered an alternative to the prevailing schools of psychoanalysis and behaviorism in both theory and therapeutic practice. Like Maslow, colleagues such as Carl Rogers and Rollo May rejected the idea that human behavior was determined by childhood events or conditioning and stressed instead the individual's power to grow and change in the present. They believed that the goal of psychotherapy was to remove the obstacles that prevented their clients from self-actualizing.

As humanistic psychology gave birth to the human potential movement of the 1960s, Maslow became one of its central figures, lecturing at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, California, which offered workshops by psychologists, social scientists, philosophers, and other intellectual figures. During these years, he also popularized the concept of the peak experience, an unusual moment of extreme joy, serenity, beauty, or wonder that he believed was closely related to self-actualization. In 1967 and 1968, Maslow served as president of the American Psychological Association. In 1969, he moved to Menlo Park, California, where he died of a heart attack a year later. In his lifetime Maslow published over 100 articles in magazines and professional journals. His other books include Toward a Psychology of Being (1962), Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (1964), Eupsychian Management (1965), The Psychology of Science (1966), and a posthumous collection of papers entitled The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (1971).

Further Reading

Hoffman, Edward. The Right to be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1988.

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