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Abraham Harold Maslow, often referred to as the “father of humanist psychology,” was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 1, 1908. He was the first of seven children born to Jewish immigrants from Russia. Maslow completed his BA, MA, and PhD, all in psychology, at the University of Wisconsin. After graduating, he held various academic positions, spending the bulk of his career at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Maslow served as the chair of the Brandeis Psychology Department from 1951 until 1969. An avid researcher, lecturer, and writer, he published extensively, authoring more than thirty-one articles and eight books. Maslow died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-two on June 8, 1970. His work remains among the most influential in humanist psychology and enjoys continued recognition and application in myriad disciplines, including education, marketing, management, psychology, sociology, and communications.
Maslow is best known for his hierarchy of human needs, first proposed in 1943 in “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In the original paper, Maslow concluded that humans have five sets of basic needs:
Physiological needs: These are the most basic of all human needs and include air, food, shelter, water, sex, and sleep.
Safety needs: This need category includes physical and psychological safety. Issues of personal safety and security of family, property, and employment are all included.
Love needs: Although Maslow originally labeled this as love, later interpretations expanded the notion and renamed it belongingness. Maslow stated that all individuals desire affection and a sense of belonging.
Esteem needs: Maslow argued that all individuals have a need for self-respect and the respect of others. This need category was divided into two subsidiary sets: (1) the need for strength, achievement, and adequacy; and (2) the desire for reputation and prestige, recognition, attention, and appreciation.
The need for self-actualization: Maslow described this as the need for individuals to do what they were meant to do, and argued that individuals could not be truly satisfied unless they became all that they were capable of becoming. He noted that a singer must sing and a poet must write if they are to be truly healthy and happy.
Maslow argued that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency, and that individuals are motivated to fulfill lower-level needs before they are motivated to fulfill higher-level needs. For example, an individual experiencing thirst will be motivated to satisfy that need before other (higher) needs are considered. Once all physiological needs are met, the individual will be motivated by safety needs. According to Maslow, the four lowest levels are deficiency needs, and the top level is a growth need.
Most modern-day depictions of Maslow’s hierarchy place the five levels of needs in a triangle or pyramid formation, with the lowest level of needs (physiological) at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. In many texts, this is all we see of Maslow’s work, and his name has become almost synonymous with the motivation triangle.
Despite the widespread use and adaptation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is not without its critics. Much of the criticism lies in the lack of empirical support for the hierarchy. Other criticisms stem from the methods used in Maslow’s research, citing small sample sizes and “pseudoscientific” methods. Maslow himself argued that his theories were overused and understudied. In his personal journals, he wrote about limitations of reliability, validity, and small sample sizes and urged people to replicate his research to address these issues. Despite these criticisms, the hierarchy still holds a prominent place in motivation theory and can be found in many university textbooks. Many new theories of motivation have been introduced since Maslow’s work was completed. Although these theories claim better reliability and validity, and have more empirical support, Maslow’s conceptualization of a needs-based theory of motivation lies at the core of many of the new theories.
The hierarchy of needs is but a small sample of Maslow’s contribution. Although best known for his work on the hierarchy of needs, Maslow was much more concerned with moving members of society beyond the basic needs, through self-actualization, to a more enlightened existence that he called eupsychia. Maslow’s work also offered insights into leadership theory, psychotherapy, organizational change, dominance and sexuality, and the meaning of work. Influenced by such great thinkers as Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), Karl Marx (1818–1883), Kurt Goldstein (1878–1965), Alfred Adler (1870–1937), Erich Fromm (1900–1980), and Karen Horney (1885–1952), Abraham Maslow’s contribution to humanist psychology is undeniable. Indeed, many credit him with founding the “third force” of psychology, following on the heels of the behaviorism and psychoanalytic schools of thought.
- Dye, Kelly, Albert Mills, and Terrance Weatherbee. 2005. Maslow: Man Interrupted: Reading Management Theory in Context. Management Decision 43 (10): 1375–1395.
- Lowry, Richard, 1979. The Journals of A. H. Maslow. 2 vols. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Maslow, Abraham 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50: 370–396.
- Maslow, Abraham 1970. Motivation and Personality. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row.
- Wilson, 1972. New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution. New York: Taplinger.
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