The Legacy of Abraham Maslow

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Abraham Maslow was a pioneer in the theory of Self-Actualization, which included his theories on what he termed the peak experience and the realization of human potential with a hierarchy of needs. His theories were mainly based on how people learn and the motivators to learning; and why some people could more easily learn than others.

After studying and rejecting other learning theorists, he came up with his theories on Human Potential. He felt that people could not learn until certain needs were met such as the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter; and stated that people who were without these basic needs would only strive for these needs such as continually looking for food in an environment of starvation and not be able to function in a world of learning or even to focus on learning or even higher needs until food is always readily available. Once food, clothing, and shelter are readily available, the person can then progress to higher needs.

In order to determine the qualities of a self-actualized person Maslow studied people who had self-actualized such a famous people like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein. He felt that it would be easier using this type of sample since their biographies, and autobiographies were already in the mainstream and were readily available for study. Whereas, it would have been hard to find a representative sample of people who had already self-actualized.
Due to his unorthodox research methods his theories were not well accepted in some psychological circles, but however continue to be used in education and business as motivational forms of learning.


Abraham Maslow grew up an unhappy child and attributed his unhappiness to an overbearing mother. He began his education at City College of New York studying law but became disinterested and bored with his studies. He dropped out of school for a time and enrolled at Cornell, and then enrolled at another college, the University of Wisconsin where he became interested in the theories of behaviorism. Branching off from these ideas he also became interested in philosophy, Gestalt psychology, and Freudian psychoanalysis and eventually came to his own conclusions and ideas regarding human potential. He was influenced greatly by Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, Kurt Koffka, and Max Wertheimer - psychologists who had fled Nazi Germany.


Maslow determined that all people are good or at the very least neutral and felt that because of this inner goodness or neutrality, all people should be encouraged in their personal development in order to reach their highest potential. However, this could only be done in a good society. Since the inner core of being is weak it can be influenced by the environment, but however this inner goodness will continually strive for actualization.


According to Maslow, one's basic needs must be met first. Once the basic needs were met, than man would begin to strive for higher and higher needs. This became his "Hierarcy of Needs." At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Physiological Needs of hunger, thirst, and sex; then climbing up the ladder, the Safety Needs of security and protection. In the middle of the hierarcy is the need for belongingness and love. Out of this one realizes esteem and with esteem a person can begin the self-actualization process.


The self-actualized person is free of worry over the basic needs and is loved and able to love. He has developed self-esteem. He therefore displays the following attributes:

*More efficient concept of reality than others
*Better ability to see the truth in situations
*More capable of detecting dishonesty in other
*Not guided by judgments based on stereotypes and prejudices
*Shows a greater acceptance of themselves, others, and nature
*Hearty appetites and enjoy themselves without regret or shame
*The ability to sleep well
*Enjoyment of sex without inhibitions
*Not ashamed of biological functions such as urination, defecation,
menstruation, pregnancy, and growing older
*More problem-centered than others
*Concerned with undertaking tasks to benefit others
*Ruled more by the laws of their own character than by the laws of a culture
*More democratic - less attention focused on things like race, class, sex,
religion, education, and social class
*The ability to be humble and accept their own mistakes and shortcomings


Self-actualizers also have what was coined by Maslow as "peak experiences." Peak experiences are experiences of awe, wonder, reverence with such things as experiencing perfect sex, perfect love, the beautiful person, insight, and creativeness.


Abraham Maslow's theory of Self-Actualization and Human Potential is concerned more with the positive rather than the negative of Psychology. It is associated with creativeness. Although he does use the Freudian model of pathology he also focuses on the Human Potential of the Human Being rather than focusing on the Pathology of the Human Being.

Maslow's theories have had a great effect on Education and Counseling with regard to people and students realizing their potential for learning and living.
Enlightened Business Management programs also incorporate Maslow's theories on Human Potential by helping their employees strive for self-actualization; and "view their worker's growth as important as their economic security."

Rickman, Richard M., Theories of Personality, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Belmont, CA, 1989, pgs. 343-362.

Hoffman, Edward, edited by., Future Visions. The Unpublished Papers of Abraham Maslow. Sage Publications, CA, 1996.

Schultz, Duane P., Schultz, Ellen Sydney, A History of Modern Psychology, Harcourt Brace Janovich, Inc., NY, 1992, pgs. 509-512.

More about this author: Colette Georgii

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