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Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Human Needs

Abraham Harold Maslow was born on April 1, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the oldest of seven children born to his parents, who were uneducated Jewish immigrants from Russia. His parents, wanting the best for their children in the “new world”, pushed him hard in his academic studies. He was smart but shy and remembered his childhood as being lonely and rather unhappy. He sought refuge in his books and studies. His father hoped he would study as a lawyer, and Maslow enrolled in the City College of New York. After three semesters at CCNY, he transferred to Cornell and then back to CCNY again. He married his first cousin Bertha, against his parent’s wishes, and moved to Wisconsin, where he would attend the University of Wisconsin for graduate school.

Here he met his chief mentor Professor Harry Harlow and became interested in psychology, and his schoolwork began to improve dramatically. He pursued a new line of research, investigating primate dominance behavior and sexuality. He received his BA in 1930, his MA in 1931, and his Ph.D. in 1934, all in the field of psychology, all from the University of Wisconsin. A year after he graduated he returned to New York to work with E.L. Thorndike in Colombia, where he studied similar topics. From 1937 to 1951, Maslow worked full-time on staff at Brooklyn College. In NY he found two more mentors, anthropologist Ruth Benedict and Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, whom he admired both professionally and personally. These two people were so accomplished in what they did and such “wonderful human beings”, that Maslow began taking notes about them and their behavior.

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This would be the foundation for his lifelong research and thinking about mental health and human potential. He wrote extensively on the subject, taking ideas from other psychologists and adding significantly to them, especially the concepts of a hierarchy of human needs, meta needs, self-actualizing persons, and peak experiences. Maslow became the leader of the humanistic school of psychology that emerged in the 1950\’s and 1960\’s, which he referred to as the “third force”, beyond Freudian theory and behaviorism. Also during this period of his life, he came into contact with the many European intellectuals that were immigrating to the United States, Brooklyn in particular, people like Adler, Fromm, Horney, as well as several Gestalt and Freudian psychologists. In 1951, Maslow served as the chair of the psychology department at Brandeis for 10 years, where he met Kurt Goldstein, who introduced him to the idea of self-actualization and helped him begin his own theoretical work.

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It was also here that he began his crusade for humanistic psychology, something ultimately much more important to him than his own theorizing. In, 1969 he became a resident fellow of the Laughlin Institute in California. A year later after several years of ill health, he died of a heart attack on June 8th. One of the many interesting things that Maslow noticed, while early in his career working with monkeys, was that some needs take precedence over others. For example, if you are hungry and thirsty, you will tend to try and take care of the thirst first. After all, you can live without food for several weeks, but you can only live a few days without water. Maslow took this idea and created his now-famous Hierarchy of human needs. Beyond the details of air, water, food, and sex, he laid out five broader layers. These layers are physiological needs, safety, and security needs, the needs for loving and belonging, esteem needs, and self-actualization, in that order.

The physiological needs include the needs we have for oxygen, water, protein, salt, sugar, calcium, and other minerals and vitamins. They also include the need to maintain a pH balance and temperature. There are also the needs to be active, to sleep, to get rid of wastes, to avoid pain, and to have sex. Maslow believed that these are in fact individual needs and that a lack thereof, say vitamin C for example, will lead to very specific hunger for things which have, in the past, provided that vitamin C, for instance, orange juice. When physiological needs are largely taken care of, the second layer, or the safety and security needs layer, comes into play. You will become increasingly interested in finding safe circumstances, stability, and protection. You might develop a need for structure, for order, or some limits. Looking at it negatively, you may become concerned, not with needs like hunger or thirst, but with your fears and anxieties.

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In the ordinary American adult, this set of needs manifest themselves in the form of our urges to have a home in a safe neighborhood, a little job security, a good retirement plan, a bit of insurance, and so on. When physiological and safety needs are mostly taken care of a new layer starts to show, this is the love and belonging needs layer. You begin to feel the need for friends, a sweetheart, children, affectionate relationships in general, and even a sense of community. The negative side to this is that you can become extremely susceptible to loneliness and social anxieties. In our everyday life, we show these needs with our desires to get married, have a family, be part of a community, a member of a church, a brother or sister in the fraternity or sorority, a member of a gang, or maybe a social club. It is also a part of what we look for in a career. Next, we look for a little self-esteem.

Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, even dominance. The higher form involves the need for self-respect, including such feelings as confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom. The negative version of these needs is low-self esteem and inferiority complexes. Maslow felt that Adler was really onto something when he proposed that these were the roots of many, if not most, of our psychological problems. In modern countries, most of us have what we need in regard to our physiological and safety needs. We usually have quite a bit of love and belonging too. It’s the respect that often seems difficult to attain. The last level is a bit different. Maslow used a variety of terms to describe this level.

The most widely used term is self-actualization. These are needs that do not involve balance. Once engaged, they do not go away, they continue to be felt. In fact, they are likely to become stronger as we feed them or stimulate them. They involve the continuous desire to fulfill potentials, “to be all you can be”. They are a matter of becoming the most complete, the fullest, “you”, hence the term, self-actualization. If you truly want to be self-actualizing, you need to have all your lower needs at least mostly fulfilled. This makes sense, if you are hungry you are trying to get food; if you are unsafe, you have to be continuously on guard; etc. When lower needs aren’t met, you can’t fully devote your time and energy to fulfilling your potentials. It isn’t surprising, the world being as difficult as it is, that only a small percentage of the world’s population is truly self-actualizing.

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Maslow at one point said only about two percent. Maslow doesn’t think that self-actualizes aren’t perfect, of course. There were several flaws or imperfections he discovered along the way as well: First, they often suffered considerable anxiety and guilt, but realistic anxiety and guilt, rather than misplaced or neurotic versions. Some of them were absent-minded and overly kind. And finally, some of them had unexpected moments of ruthlessness, surgical coldness, and loss of humor. Maslow hoped that his work at describing the self-actualizing person would eventually lead to a “periodic table” of the kinds of qualities, problems, and even solutions characteristic of higher levels of human potential. Over time, he devoted increasing attention, not to his own theory, but to humanistic psychology and the human potentials movement.

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Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Human Needs. (2021, Mar 17). Retrieved June 24, 2022, from