Do you enjoy challenges in everyday life? Does your work give you a sense of personal meaning? Is helping to make the world a better place important to you? If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you’re likely to be intrinsically motivated—standing near the top of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of inborn needs. But who was he, and what were his chief concerns?
Maslow was born in New York City in 1908, the oldest child of Russian-Jewish immigrants. After briefly exploring philosophy as a teenager, he chose instead to major in psychology as a more practical field. Although Maslow was required at the University of Wisconsin to train as an animal experimentalist, he was already guided by humanistic concerns. His doctoral research examined social dominance and sexual behavior among monkeys, and he hoped that this work would shed light on the possible human link as well.
After relocating to New York City in 1935, Maslow gained a position at Brooklyn College. He soon became close with Alfred Adler, who had immigrated to New York after fascism triumphed in his native Austria. The two men often dined together to discuss topics like altruism, friendship, courage, and other aspects of emotional health. Late in life, Maslow affirmed that Adler had been his most important mentor.
With the encouragement of the anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, Maslow conducted fieldwork among Canada’s Blackfoot tribe. The intriguing experience convinced him that people around the world are more similar than different—and that we all share certain inborn emotional needs and motivations. This biological view of personality contrasted sharply with the cultural relativism favored by most social scientists of the day. “It would seem that every human being comes at birth into society not as a lump of clay to be molded by society, but rather as a structure which society may warp or suppress or build upon,” Maslow wrote in 1938. “I am now struggling with a notion of a `fundamental’ [or] ‘natural’ personality.”
This perspective seemed to point to a new, multi-faceted conception of motivation. But how to organize all these observations into a coherent theory of personality? In seeking to do so, Maslow pondered the writings of such psychological thinkers as Adler, Erich Fromm, Kurt Goldstein, Karen Horney, Sigmund Freud, and Max Wertheimer. The eruption of World War II strongly affected Maslow emotionally, and gave him a sense of urgency.
Basically, Maslow argued that all people share the same small number of psychological needs for physical safety, belongingness, self-esteem, respect, love, and what he called self-actualization—the desire to become all we can become in life. “It is quite true that man lives by bread alone—where there is no bread,” he wrote in 1943. “But what happens to [our] desires when there [is] plenty of bread and when [our] belly is filled? At once, other and ‘higher’ needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate [us]. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new and still ‘higher’ needs emerge, and so on. This is what we mean by saying that basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy…”
Finally, Maslow outlined the existence of another inborn human need—the need for individual fulfillment, or what he preferred to call self-actualization. “It refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment: namely, the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially…to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
Over the next decade, Maslow steadily researched the traits of emotionally healthy men and women. In 1954, he was catapulted to international status when he wrote Motivation and Personality. In words that inspired many scholars and theorists, Maslow boldly declared, “The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. It has revealed to us much about [human] shortcomings…but little about [our] potentialities, virtues, achievable aspirations or his psychological health…We must find out what psychology…might be, if it could free itself from the stultifying effects of limited, pessimistic, and stingy preoccupation with human nature.”
Motivation and Personality gained wide attention, and became recognized as a major psychological achievement of the 1950s. Its central ideas—the hierarchy of inborn needs and self-actualization—penetrated many other fields. To many people interested in psychology and its practical application in everyday life, Maslow’s name began to stand for an innovative and optimistic approach to human nature. His subsequent books including Toward A Psychology of Being, Eupsychian Management, and Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, influenced millions of college students and professionals.
After suffering a major heart attack in 1967, Maslow suspected that his remaining years would be few. He was also dismayed by the violent social upheavals occurring within the United States and other highly industrialized countries and worried about global conflict. Nevertheless, Maslow remained optimistic about human nature and its potential. He was sure that psychology could provide answers on how to help humanity become more peaceful and creative, such as by studying peak experiences among individuals and benevolent communities.
“I have a very strong sense of being in the middle of a historical wave,” he wrote in the late 1960s. “One hundred and fifty years from now, what will historians say about this age? What was really important? What was going? What was finished? My belief is that much of what makes the headlines is finished, and the ‘growing tip’ of mankind is what is now growing and will flourish…if we manage to endure. Historians will be talking about this movement as the sweep of history.”
— Edward Hoffman