Psychologist Spotlight: Abraham Maslow and the Theory of Human Motivation

Though you may have never heard of him, the work of Abraham Maslow has almost certainly played a huge role in your life in one way or another.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who dedicated his life to understanding why humans do the things we do. His search led him to develop a hierarchy of human motivation and needs which posited that all people have a series of basic needs which drive our actions as we strive to meet each need in succession.

But before we get into how this hierarchy works, let’s take a moment to understand who Maslow was and how he became interested in the topic of human motivation

Who was Abraham Maslow??

Abraham Maslow, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1908, was the first of seven children born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Maslow would write that his time growing up was unhappy and lonely and often preferred to spend his time reading books.

Maslow became interested in psychology while studying law at City College of New York and transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he would not only obtain his bachelor’s and master’s degrees but also earn his doctorate as well. During his studies, Maslow met psychologist Harry Harlow who would become a trusted mentor, and eventually his doctoral advisor.

After completing his doctoral studies, Abraham Maslow became a teacher at Brooklyn College in 1937, where he stayed on as a member of the faculty until 1951. It was during his tenure at Brooklyn College where he developed a strong interest in Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer and anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who he began to study, trying to understand not only their professional works but also their behavior as individuals. It was this analysis that would serve as the spark for his most influential contribution to modern psychology: Humanistic Psychology and the hierarchy of human needs.

What is Humanistic Psychology?

After leaving Brooklyn College in the 1950s, Maslow would go on to be a founder and ardent supporter of the new school of thought known as humanistic psychology. Humanistic theories such as the hierarchy of needs quickly became fundamental subjects in the field of psychology, serving as unique counterarguments to contemporary theories such as Freudian psychoanalysis or the behavioral theories of Skinner.

Where Humanists believed that these other theories tended to focus on explaining or understanding the negative thoughts or behaviors of subjects, the Humanistic theories aimed to understand the potential of human thought and behavior and how humans can maximize their well-being.

Self-Actualization and the Hierarchy of Human Needs

The idea of reaching one’s full potential, a state of being known as self-actualization, was central to Maslow’s Humanistic theories of psychology. Maslow believed that “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” is what would allow humans to maximize their wellbeing and reach true happiness. It is important to note, however, that the state of Self-actualization is not a destination, but rather an ongoing journey that each person must work towards.

Maslow also realized that there were certain other human needs that could block a person’s journey towards self-actualization. In fact, Maslow found humans had a series of physiological, social, and psychological needs which served as the main driving force behind an individual’s behavior until the need was fulfilled, at which point the individual would be motivated by the desire to fulfill the next need in the hierarchy.

The hierarchy begins with the most basic Physiological needs such as the need for food and water. Until these basic needs are met, they will serve as the strongest driver for the individual’s behavior.

The next level of needs is the need for Safety. This includes a desire for a safe environment and a place where the individual feels secure. A desire to protect one’s family, health, and property also plays a key role in this stage.

Once an individual has access to resources to meet their Physiological needs and the security to meet their need for Safety for themselves and their family, they begin to search for what Maslow labels as Love and Belonging. This need drives the individual to search for a deeper connection with those around them as well as to feel they belong to a community.

The final driver of human behavior before an individual can fully begin their journey of Self-Actualization is the need for Esteem. This refers to the desire to feel like the individual is valuable, that they are giving something to their community, and that they have the respect of their family, friends, and community.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

Throughout their life, individuals may move up and down the hierarchy as their environment changes, as they begin building a family, progress through their career, or encounter roadblocks and setbacks such as losing a job. This is why the state of Self-actualization is seen as a lifelong journey rather than a single destination.

Maslow thought that people who were further on their path towards Self-actualization possess specific important characteristics such as self-acceptance, spontaneity, independence, and the ability to have peak experiences.

What impact did Maslow have on the field of psychology?

Maslow is likely one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. His work helped to promote the study of positive aspects of human nature, a viewpoint which differed greatly from the contemporary schools of thought which tended to focus on only the abnormal aspects of behavior and mental health.

The work of Maslow specifically, and Humanist psychology in general, play a key role in how we understand mental health today. The focus on human potential, improvement of mental health, and growth will continue to have a profound impact on psychology for years to come.