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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.
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
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)
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
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
" (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.
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© 1996 Eric Pettifor