Abraham Maslow was a popular American psychologist from the 20th century. His most notable contribution was the Maslow hierarchy of needs, which perceives people as positively motivated, as opposed to a “bag of symptoms” (Goble, 2004, p. 1). This realization was made from repetitive experiments on monkeys, where Maslow noticed that some human needs were more important than others.
For instance, Maslow explained that, when people are thirsty and hungry, they would wish to quench their thirst first then eat something. He further explained that, even in the fulfillment of physical needs, there were several levels of needs (in the same category).
For example, he explained that, people can do without food for weeks but they would not do without water for a couple of days. His explanation was that, thirst is a stronger human need when compared to hunger. In the same context, Maslow explained that, breathing was a stronger need than quenching thirst. “If you are very thirsty, but someone has put a choke hold on you and you cannot breathe, which is more important? The need to breathe, of course” (Boeree, 2006, p. 4).
Maslow also explained that, though sex is a physiological need, people would not die without it. In this context, Maslow explained that, some needs (like sex) were less important than the need to breathe, eat or quench thirst. Comprehensively, Maslow advocated for the perception of human needs across various levels. These levels were: physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, esteem needs and self actualization needs. These needs are explained in the following pyramid.
From the above pyramid, Maslow contributed immensely to the field of psychology because he impacted people’s perception of psychology by introducing the concept of humanistic psychology (Boeree, 2006, p. 4). The field of humanistic psychology was mainly influenced by Maslow’s family life and the concepts he learnedwhile in school. These new insights questioned how past psychologists arrived at their conclusions.
However, Maslow did not disagree with these conclusions, but he pursued different methodologies to arrive at certain conclusions about human behavior (Boeree, 2006, p. 13). This was a new face to the study of human behavior because it impacted how employers viewed employees and how people viewed one another. It is crucial to note that, Maslow’s theory was especially useful in understanding employee behaviors in the workplace and in the society as a whole (Carducci, 2009, p. 240).
Abraham Maslow was the first-born child among a group of seven children. He was born in 1908 and hailed from an immigrant family of Jewish parents (from Russia) (Engler, 2008, p. 349). Though his parents were not educated, they valued education and pushed Maslow to pursue the same.
Some historians note that, Maslow’s loneliness as a young boy pushed him into academics, while other historians note that, Maslow parents’ love for education pushed him into academics. During Maslow’s childhood, there were growing anti-Semitism sentiments from his teachers and peers (Boeree, 2006, p. 4). His neighborhood was also associated with anti-Semitic attacks which were orchestrated by neighborhood gangs.
Maslow’s relation with his mother was not rosy. Maslow said that, he was repulsed by her physical appearance and selfishness (Engler, 2008, p. 349). Moreover, he explained that, his mother was extremely narcissistic and cared less about her family or whoever dared to disagree with her. Due to family and social isolation, Maslow only hanged out with his cousins (Engler, 2008, p. 349). This close connection with his extended family saw him marry his first cousin, Bertha, who gave birth to two daughters.
The tension in Maslow’s family drove him further into libraries, and it is from this love for books that prompted him to become the editor of several school magazines and the president of different school clubs (Engler, 2008, p. 349). After graduation, Maslow went to the City college of New York where he took two courses (one of them being Law, which he only did because of his parents’ push).
In 1927, Maslow enrolled at Cornell school but he dropped out of school after completing only one semester because the tuition fees were high. Later, he went to City College and the University of Wisconsin where he pursued a major in psychology (this is the point where he developed a strong interest in psychology).
At the University of Wisconsin, Maslow developed a keen interest on human sexuality and behavior. Here, he investigated primate dominance and did experiments on the same (Holt, 2005, p. 236). Maslow’s master’s thesis was on “learning, retention, and reproduction of verbal material”, which saw him graduate with a master’s degree in 1931 (Engler, 2008, p. 349). He however previously completed an undergraduate course in 1930.
In 1934, Maslow completed his PHD degree in psychology and moved to New York to work in Columbia with another colleague, E. L. Thorndike (Holt, 2005, p. 236). His work in Columbia saw him pursue further studies on human sexuality. At the same time, Maslow also taught at Brooklyn College, where he interacted with many European immigrants who were settling in Brooklyn at the time.
Maslow’ theory of human needs was birthed during his term as the chair of psychology (department of Brandeis) in 1951 – 1961 where he met with Kurt Goldstein (another colleague) who introduced him to the concept of self actualization (Boeree, 2006, p. 14).
This concept was originally borrowed from Goldstein’s famous book, the organism, which was published in 1934. During this time, Maslow emphasized on the concept of humanistic psychology, which he perceived to be more important than his theorization of psychology. Maslow spent his twilight years in California until 1970 when he died of heart failure (Boeree, 2006, p. 1).
Maslow’s theory was especially contested because of the methodologies he used to arrive at his conclusions. For instance, his concept of self-actualization was derived from scientific studies on a small group of people. He studied and read about these people then made conclusions about self-actualization. This methodology was perceived by many critics as unscientific (Boeree, 2006, p. 4). However, it is crucial to note that, Maslow understood this discrepancy and instead advocated for further research on his philosophies.
There were also many controversies about Maslow’s concept of self-actualization because he narrowed the concept (of self-actualization) to include a narrow destiny, which was often achieved by about 2% of the human population (Boeree, 2006, p. 4). However, Maslow borrowed the concept from Goldstein and Karl Rogers, who had a broader view of the concept.
Goldstein and Karl Rogers perceived self-actualization to include the biological fulfillment of living organisms (like growth) (Boeree, 2006, p. 4). In fact, Rogers often perceived babies to be the ultimate goal of sel- actualization, but Maslow perceived self-actualization to be a goal which is rarely achieved by young people.
Maslow also came across criticisms from people who believed that some people still exhibited signs of attaining self-actualization without first satisfying lower-level needs. Here, critics made reference to musicians and artists who achieved high levels of success, despite hailing from poor backgrounds (without satisfying lower-level needs first) (Boeree, 2006, p. 4). This observation was contrary to Maslow’s explanation that, people had to satisfy lower-level needs before satisfying higher-level needs.
During Maslow’s discovery of humanistic psychology, there was a general feeling of tiredness regarding the way psychologists perceived human behavior to be mechanical. In the 1960s, there was a general reductionist feeling among the public regarding how psychologists painted human behavior to be highly structured (thereby failing to answer man’s core question of purpose and meaning of life).
In other words, people wanted a more mystical explanation to human behavior and life in general. Maslow’s philosophies were therefore deemed more acceptable because his concepts brought people back into their elements of personality.
During Maslow’s time, there was also a growing influence about structured processing and computers. This movement was especially birthed after the industrial period, which lay a lot of emphasis on mechanics and information processing systems. The same movement was also characterized by the development of “Piaget’s cognitive development theory and Noam Chomsky’s linguistics” (Boeree, 2006, p. 7).
This movement ticked Maslow off. Maslow therefore found a basis for disapproving the “mechanical view” of life by advocating for his hierarchy of needs. Boeree (2006) affirms this concept by stating that, “Psychology is, first, about people, real people in real lives, and not about computer models, statistical analyses, rat behavior, test scores, and laboratories” (p. 13).
Abraham Maslow was seen as the father of humanistic psychology. His contribution to psychology introduced a more humanistic way of perceiving human behavior, as opposed to a mechanistic way of understanding human behavior.
Maslow’s stratification of human needs made people understand why they behaved in certain ways and comprehensively, it also made people understand their purpose and meaning in life. Maslow’s contribution to psychology was therefore a hallmark in human psychology and it (almost) always acts as a framework for understanding human behavior.
Boeree, G. (2006). Abraham Maslow. Retrieved 9 November, 2011, from: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/maslow.html
Carducci, B. (2009). The Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Engler, B. (2008). Personality Theories: An Introduction. New York: Cengage Learning.
Goble, F. (2004). The Third Force: The Psychology of Abraham Maslow. New York: Maurice Bassett.
Holt, L. (2005). Instructional Patterns: Strategies for Maximizing Student Learning. New York: SAGE.