I’ve been looking forward to writing this blog for ages, as it’s on one of my favourite psychologists; the humanist Abraham Maslow. The reason I like Maslow so much is that he was different from the psychologists before him: he did not use psychology for looking at people’s symptoms, but instead for looking at the healthiest and most whole people- for example, he studied only the healthiest 1% of college students in most of his experiments.
Maslow continued Rogers’ optimistic approach to psychology, seeking to understand what drove the most successful and productive people. His theory was that people were driven by needs at 4 different levels, which correspond with the 4 ways of seeing the world that Existential Psychology talked about. Unfortunately, I have no idea if this was coincidental or not. These levels formed his moderately famous Hierarchy of Needs, where the lower needs have to be met to enable later needs to develop and be met. However, there are flaws with this theory, such as why people who temporarily reach self-actualisation are able to ignore their other needs…a good example of this is the stereotype of the “starving artist”.
The bottom two levels are focused on the basics of survival and physical safety, such as shelter, food etc. The middle level is social, such as the need for companionship, and to be part of a family or friendship group. The 4th level is emotional/psychological needs, these are things like the need to experience feeling valued, respected, and to matter to people.
The top level is what Maslow focused most of his research on, as it was the most interesting stage for him, seeing as he was very optimistic about human potential. He believed that only 1-2% of people were able to live a life of self-actualisation, and his main models of this were Einstein and his hero Max Wertheimer. Maslow spent years studying what made people able to live this life, and eventually narrowed it down to 16 characeristics; this may sound simple, but it is tough to live like any one of them, let alone all 16! (For those curious, here is the list)
From the description of Maslow’s work, it may seem like he was dismissive of the psychology that happened before him; however, that was not the case. Maslow himself believed his approach could be integrated with that of other psychological schools, such as the psychodynamic view- he was quoted as saying
“now Freud has supplied us with the sick half of psychology, we must supply the healthy half”.
After publishing his theory of needs and motivation, Maslow later began work on what he called “peak experiences”-from the reports of his clients, he developed a description of these as moments of euphoria and meaningfulness, often with a simultaneous sense of power and helplessness, and a loss of time. He believed that peak experiences were moments of self-actualisation, where the self experienced a meaningful connection to, and “oneness” with, the world. This led him to study spirituality and religion, and how peak experiences appeared in people of different religions.
While much of Maslow’s work fell out of fashion after he died in 1970, his theories have recently reappeared in a new branch of psychology known as positive psychology. Hopefully his theories won’t stay ignored, as they are definitely worth paying attention to.