to Psychologyto Personality and Consciousness Bookstoreto Greater Anthropologyto contents

back to Maslow

Note: The material for this paper is primarily drawn from Maslow's Motivation and Personality (3rd ed., 1987), and Towards a Psychology of Being (2nd ed., 1968), and are referenced here as (MP page #) and (TPB page #).

Beyond Dichotomies: Health and Values in Maslow's Holistic Dynamic Theory - the godlike vs. the "pervasive psychopathology of the average"

The title of this paper is deliberately provocative in order to point up the allegedly elitist nature of Abraham Maslow's theory. I suspect that the theory seems elitist only from the perspective of the 'psychopathologically average' (MP 147) in Western society. In fact, one of the weaknesses of Maslow's theory from the perspective of personality theory is that it doesn't go very far in explaining fundamental individual differences except in terms of need gratification (whether deficiency needs or growth needs), as though we all are stamped from the same master template, and how we are now is dependent solely on our history of gratification. Put that way, one could almost draw a comparison with a Skinnerian explanation of what passes as a self being simply the result of reinforcement history. I may have put this a little harshly, since Maslow places a very great emphasis on individuality and idiosyncrasy, but the theory lacks an adequate explanation for one of its highest values. The concept of values itself, however, is well elucidated.

Maslow derives values from conditions necessary for health, as well as 'discovers' them in self-actualized people. He doesn't differentiate between psychological types as Jung does (Jung, 1971), and Maslow expresses an outright contempt for reductionism on the level of the trait/factor theorists (MP 29). Consequently, since no special person-al prerequisites are required, even self-actualization (especially in Maslow's redefinition of self-actualization as episodic) is achievable by those currently 'psychopathologically' average. The frustration that one senses in his writing, even the characterization of the average as 'psychopathological', is directed at a society (and the psychology that wittingly or unwittingly supports it) which frustrates the potential of its members. Indeed, one of Maslow's criteria for psychological health is transcendence of the environment (TPB 174-179). This is facilitated by the ability to perceive reality more clearly as one approaches the level of self-actualization (MP 129). Clear perception reveals that much of what was thought to be important is illusory (TPB 115). With this quality of perception and the ability to transcend ego (MP 153, TPB 37), the tendency to dichotomize is likewise reduced (TPB 90). This includes such dichotomies as 'us/them', 'duty/pleasure', 'godlike/wormlike' (TPB 174), even (with some reservations (TPB 117)) 'good and evil' .


According to Maslow, gratification of needs (physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization) leads to psychological health (MP 30, 31, 38). Maslow does not view Freudian concepts like id and primary processes as suspect (TPB 183), but posits that they may be precisely the motive power behind the progression from one need to another. We move on because we want to ("growth-through-delight" TPB 48), not because we are driven by some form of drive reduction (TPB 29). Even a theory of homeostasis is inadequate alone, because there is no end to growth, no ultimate static balance (MP 15, 16). Each need is "prepotent" to the ones following it, and must be satisfied to some degree before the subsequent need becomes pressing. It is important to note that this is a question of degree, and not a discrete step-wise progression. "…most members of our society who are normal are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time."(MP 27,28). For illustrative purposes, Maslow gives an arbitrary example of a person who is satisfied in 85% of his physiological needs, 70% in safety needs, 50% in love needs, 40% in self-esteem needs, and 10% in self-actualization needs (MP 28).

It is this 'all at once' quality (applicable to other aspects of the theory as well) which makes Maslow's theory "holistic". It is "dynamic" in its motion forwards (or backwards in the case of regression). It is very difficult to describe in a linear fashion (be it a book or a summary paper!) without the serial presentation of elements contributing to a mistaken impression of a strict serial progression.

The danger of an impression of serialism is magnified by the fact that while all needs may have been satisfied to some extent (except in extreme cases Maslow doesn't think good to generalize from (MP 17)), there is clearly a progression, but it is quantitative across needs with the most prepotent needs exerting the greatest pull, at least until such time as they are adequately satisfied. Maslow could be clearer on this. In his arbitrary example cited above, is the focus of gratification primarily on self-esteem now that the person has hit the 50% mark in love?

Maslow also maintained that the biological maxim of 'ontogeny repeats phylogeny' holds true for the needs-hierarchy (MP 57). It is the higher needs which most clearly define us as human, and those needs would have emerged in the evolution of Homo sapiens from earlier forms. Developmentally, it is the lower needs which emerge first (physiological, safety, love and belonging). Maslow (jokingly, I think) notes that "even Mozart had to wait until he was three or four" to self-actualize (MP 57).

In considering the needs hierarchy, I am tempted to compare it to Erikson's stages of development (Erikson, 1959). Both run the risk that superficial understanding will perceive them as strictly serial progressions, yet all stages in Erikson's theory exist in earlier (except for the first) and later (except for the last) forms. In Erikson, earlier crises unsatisfactorily resolved can be addressed by longitudinal compensation - so it is with Maslow, where frustration of a certain need can be alleviated through later gratification (MP 22). There is even in Maslow an epigenetic element which comes into play in relation to self-actualization, though, of course, not in a tidy linear way, but in the proportion to which a person is self-actualized.

Deficiency Motivation and Growth Motivation

Needs lower on the hierarchy are prepotent over ones that are higher. When they have been satisfied to a certain (inadequately defined) level, the next need focuses the person's resources and behaviour towards its own gratification. At an even further level of gratification, a need becomes functionally absent. We still need to eat and drink, but where food and water can be reliably counted on, they do not possess much motive force, and even missing lunch would not count as a frustration of physiological needs in the sense Maslow uses (though being stranded on a desert island would certainly reorder one's needs priorities).

If this is so, what happens when a person comes to the end of the hierarchy? Is there a point where all needs are functionally absent? Nirvana? Maslow discovered that self-actualized people continue to grow, and that the flame of desire is never extinguished in human beings (TPB 30).

The lower needs seemed to him to be "instinctoid", that is, absence of gratification breeds illness, presence leads to health, and illness can be cured by gratification (TPB 22). Therefore, these needs are "deficiency needs', since they must be filled in order for there to be health.

What, then, motivates an already healthy individual to continue to grow, to become more healthy, to fully live up to their potentials? According to Maslow the mechanism is the same that makes a baby want to control its bowels - because it can and it wants to move on (TPB 47, 48). Maslow was critical of much of Freudian theory, accusing Freudians of viewing the world through brown coloured glasses (TPB 48). People develop naturally and do not need to be jerked upwards in order to grow, they merely require that their development not be impeded (MP 30).

The difference, then, between the motivations of self-actualized persons and 'normals' is not entirely clear, since motivation in the lower needs is to avoid deficiency, yet at the same time it is organic, a natural inclination towards growth. However, it is clear from Maslow's emphases that he regarded self-actualized people as being qualitatively different, and that the difference is that they are primarily growth motivated, with deficiency motivation playing a very small, but essential, role (e.g. killing in self-defense) (TPB 117).

Health and Values

There are two types of values in Maslow, the 'implied', and the 'discovered'. I don't think Maslow would care for this characterization, since he maintained repeatedly (and somewhat defensively due to challenging critics) that he was engaged in 'discovery'. He might consider 'implied' to be too close to 'invented', yet the implied values seem to me very strong.

If we accept that health is a primary value and that it is wrong to make people sick, then, to paraphrase the American Declaration of Independence, the highest values for oneself and others must be life, liberty (freedom, not being thwarted in basic needs), and the pursuit of fulfillment (self-actualization) (interestingly, Ayn Rand, an author Maslow had read (Rand, 1943, in MP 21), made a similar argument, but starting with human potential and excellence, rather than health). I would go so far as to say that these are as universal as life is, though I can appreciate that advocates of a neo-Darwinian perspective emphasizing survival of the fittest, might makes right, "nature red in tooth and claw", etc. might not accept this. Sacredness of life is an irreducible axiom which might not be clear to all persons (depending on their level of self-actualization?).

The 'discovered' values (or "B(eing)-values") and qualities of self-actualized people are listed again and again in relation to different topics in Maslow's writing . One that he considers important to health is transcendence of the environment. This manifests in a number of ways. For example, to make the argument for health as adaptation, one has to take the psychic centering point and place it external to the entity whose health is being determined - social psychology taken to an extreme (e.g. Sullivan, in TPB 180), thus making the self determined and denying agency, something which Maslow couldn't accept given his understanding of self-actualized people as socially autonomous. On the individual level, there are the insight therapies which deal very much with internal processes (TPB 182) very personal to the individual. On a societal level, self-actualized persons accept social-conventions superficially most of the time. They don't want to be rude or offend others, but they are capable of fighting for change of circumstances they consider especially egregious. However, they assess the culture they live in critically, and accept or reject components based on inner criteria (TPB 183). Consequently, they have a tendency towards transcending nationalism, of being citizens of the world, and thus are somewhat immune to psychosocial infection. This all assumes, of course, that the lower needs have been met, and that the conditions have been opportune for the epigenetic emergence of this qualitatively different state of self-actualization ~ all of which are socially dependent, reminiscent of G.H. Mead's autonomous agent who is the product of an entirely socially determined process (Meltzer, 1964).

This ability to assess is facilitated by a clearer perception of reality, which is in turn facilitated by a respect for truth, even when it is ugly. In fact, dichotomies such as ugly/beautiful, good/evil (amoralism is countered by healthy regression to deficiency motivation), duty/pleasure, and the fact that elements which are both 'wormlike' and "godlike" (TPB 174) coexist in us and are each necessary, seem to be reconciled by the simple (?!) act of perceiving things just as they are. This type of perception at its height is egoless, or "Taoistic" (MP xxix).

The link between Maslow and eastern philosophy is very interesting in light of the 'dichotomy' between universals and relativism. This, too, should be resolvable through adoption of a middle way which accepts both. However, in a society where I hear again and again that everything is relative, I find it very interesting to hear an American theorist saying things that have been said by Swiss analysts, Christian mystics, and Chinese sages. The universal is found in the general (Hume's limits aside for a moment), and I would suggest that one may have been expressed in this American voice.

Now what I have been describing here may be seen as a fusion of ego, id, super-ego and ego-ideal, of conscious, preconscious and unconscious, of primary and secondary processes, a synthesizing of pleasure principle with reality principle, a healthy regression without fear in the service of the greatest maturity, a true integration of the person at all levels.

(TPB 96, original italics)

Are we still in the field of psychology here? Even if we were to accept the notion of universal values and whatnot, isn't that properly the domain of ethics? Of religion? Even if there is a "godlike" element to persons, is psychology capable of addressing this, or only the 'wormlike'?

Clear perception of what's there is the only prerequisite necessary to deal with these questions. Unfortunately, a university degree doesn't grant this. However, if Maslow is correct, it is possible that one day "we may even define therapy as a search for values…" (TPB 177, original italics), in a process of discovery, not asking of what 'ought', but rather, of what is simply there.


Erikson, Erik, 1959. Growth and crises of the healthy personality. In Identity and the life cycle. Psychological Issues, 1, 50-100.

Jung, Carl Gustav, 1971. Psychological Types. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Maslow, Abraham H., 1987. Motivation and Personality, 3rd ed. New York: Harper & Row.

1968. Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Meltzer, Bernard N., 1964. Mead's Social Psychology, in The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead, pp. 10-31. Center for Sociological Research, Western Michigan University.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Many thanks to Anand Paranjpe for discussion of these and related issues in and out of his Psych 470 class, and to Lesley and Greg who, in the best friendly dialectical tradition, leapt on me (as Maslow) with claws extended.


back to Maslow

© 1996 Eric Pettifor

to Psychologyto Personality and Consciousness Bookstoreto message boardcontact Ericto Greater Anthropologyto contents