Abraham Maslow – Theory of Human Motivation

Abraham Maslow is a well-known psychologist for his theory on human motivation, specifically the hierarchy of needs theory. He is also called the founder of humanistic psychology. Maslow’s theory can also be

defined as “intensity at a task”. This means that greater the motivation, the more constant and intense one will perform a specific task. The basis behind this theory is the knowledge that all behavior is goal driven, meaning one will do tasks according to what they obtain after the task is complete. Maslow has been a very inspirational figure in personality theories.

Abraham Harold Maslow was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 1, 1908 and the first child out of seven born to his parents. Maslow’s mother and father were uneducated Jewish immigrants from Russia. Wanting the best for their child in the new world, they pressured Maslow hard for academic success. Due to this, he felt very alone as a boy and found haven in books and his schoolwork. He first studied law at the City College of New York to appease his parents as they insisted that he should study law. After attending three semesters, he decided to transfer to Cornell, but then transferred back to City College of New York.

On December 31, 1928, Maslow married his first cousin, Bertha Goodman, without his parent’s blessing. Mr. and Mrs. Maslow had two children and moved to Wisconsin where he attended the University of Wisconsin. There Maslow received not only his Bachelor of Arts in 1930, but also went on to obtain a Masters of Arts in 1931 and eventually received his Doctorate in 1934, all in psychology. While in Wisconsin, Maslow met and worked with his chief mentor, Harry Harlow, who was well known for his controversial experiments on Rhesus monkeys and attachment behavior. A year after his graduation, he went back to New York to study with E. L. Thorndike at Columbia, where he became interested in research on human sexuality. (Boeree, 2006) Maslow taught at Brooklyn College full-time, and during his time there, he met many leading European psychologists that were immigrating to the United States, particularly to Brooklyn. These intellectuals were people such as Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, as well as many Freudian and Gestalt psychologists. Maslow served as the chairman of the psychology department at Brandeis University from 1951 to 1969. He began this theoretical work there and met Kurt Goldstein who introduced Maslow to the idea of self-actualization. Also, during his time at Brandeis University, he began his crusade for a humanistic psychology; something ultimately much more important to him than his own theorizing. (Boeree, 2006) In his later years, Maslow spent his semi-retirement in California. After several years of ill health, he passed away on June 8, 1970 from a heart attack at the age of 62.

Maslow worked with monkeys in his early career and while doing so he observed that some of our needs take superiority over other needs. One example would be if you are thirsty and hungry, you are most likely to try and satisfy the thirst need first. This is because most humans can do without food for days or even weeks, but our bodies can only go without water for a few days. Thus, thirst is a more powerful need than hunger. Maslow came to find out that when faced with circumstances such as these, one need might take priority over another. From this idea, Maslow created the hierarchy of needs, a systematic arrangement of needs, according to priority, in which basic needs must be met before less basic needs are aroused.

Abraham Maslow projected a general overview of human motivation. His theory strikes a distinctive sense of balance between biological and social needs that integrates many motivational concepts. According to Maslow, individual needs are set in a hierarchy and everyone must satisfy their basic needs before they can satisfy their higher needs. The hierarchy is many times portrayed as a pyramid, beginning with physiological needs at the bottom, then safety and security needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, and self-actualization at the top of this pyramid. The needs at the lower level are the most basic. The higher levels in the pyramid represent progressively less basic needs. Individuals progress upward in the hierarchy when lower needs are fulfilled reasonably well, but they may regress back to lower levels if the basic needs are no longer pleased. (Weiten, 2001, p.506) Maslow used the case study method with subjects that included living persons, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, and historical figures, Abraham Lincoln, all of whom achieved their personal dreams and hopes for society. (Kuntz, 2005, p.12)

The physiological needs are our biological needs. They consist of air, water, food, health, rest and sleep, shelter from the elements, and general survival. Human beings who do not meet these needs will often resort to selling themselves for sex, working for very little money or taking things that don’t belong to them in order to acquire them. Physiological needs also have to do with the maintenance of the human body. If we are unwell, then little else matters until we recover. Pain and discomfort can range from mild to excruciating and will have a proportionate effect on our rate of abandoning higher needs. So long as physiological needs are unsatisfied, they exist as a driving or motivating force in a person’s life. A hungry person has a felt need. This felt need sets up both psychological and physical tensions that manifest themselves in overt behaviors directed at reducing those tensions such as wanting something to eat. Once the hunger is sated, the tension is reduced, and the need for food ceases to motivate. At this point, assuming that all the other needs have been meet and are no longer controlling thoughts and behaviors, the needs for safety and security can become active.
Safety and security needs can be best defined as the need for stability, freedom from fear and turmoil, dependency, protection, desire for structure and order. In everyday life we may see this as a need to be able to fall asleep at night, secure in the knowledge that we will awake alive and unharmed. In the workplace this need translates into a need for at least a minimal degree of employment security, the wisdom that we cannot be fired on a whim and that appropriate levels of effort and productivity will ensure continued employment. Most adults have little awareness of their security needs except in times of emergency or periods of disorganization in the social structure, such as widespread rioting. Many homeless people wandering the streets and running from the police have no protective shelter and, in times of freezing temperatures, are sometimes found frozen to death on the streets. (Kuntz, 2005, p.11) Using a box as shelter is not enough to protect oneself from harm. We should be able to feel as though our homes are a place of refuge. If our residence is a place of constant uproar, alcoholism, and verbal or physical abuse, we may feel as though we are living in a kind of hell. Having difficulty with the persons whom we live may result in our not wanting to go home. Be it ever so humble, all of us need our home to be a stable sanctuary of safe retreat. (Kuntz, 2005, p.11) When the needs for safety and for physiological well-being are contented, the next class of needs for love, affection and belongingness can emerge.

Love and belongingness needs are where an individual seeks affection, friendship, children, a sweetheart, wanting to feel loved, and even a sense of community. Generally, as companionable creatures, humans have a need to belong. In a school setting this need may be satisfied by the ability to interact with a classmate and perhaps to be able to work collaboratively with these colleagues. In our day-to-day life, we exhibit these needs in our desires to marry, have a family, be a member of a church, a brother in a fraternity or part of a social group, or even participate as part of a softball team. In addition, this involves what we might consider when trying to make decisions regarding our careers. As children, these needs are usually fulfilled by the support, closeness, and caring of our families. In our adolescent years we all long to be accepted into the so called “popular group.” When we become adults these needs are typically met within the families we have started.

Once the aforementioned classes of needs are satisfied, the needs for esteem can become dominant. Esteem needs include the desire for self-respect, self-esteem, the esteem of others, recognition, dignity, and appreciation. When focused externally, these needs also include the yearning for reputation, prestige, status, fame, glory, dominance, attention, and importance. People have the desire to not only receive, but to also give. They also want to feel they are loved and that others want to care for them. Most of us feel as though we need to provide something to society. For some individuals this might be achieved in great successes artistically, politically or scientifically. However, this is not the only way one can attain their esteem needs. You can feel as though you have given a contribution by doing volunteer work for a credible association. In addition, one might become involved in their community’s various civic organizations by taking on the role of a leader. One of the most influential ways we can achieve our esteem needs is working at a place of employment we thoroughly enjoy, one where we feel as though we are making a difference in the lives of others in our society. As individuals, we all put our hearts and souls into working towards a profession that we can call our careers. When these needs are frustrated, a person can begin to feel inferior, weak, helpless, or worthless.
The next stage in the pyramid is the cognitive needs which are the expression of the natural human need to learn, explore, discover, create, and perhaps even dissect in order to get a better understanding of the world around them. One way to gratify our need for knowledge is by attending school, but as individuals, we are continually learning each day. Some people acquire intelligence by watching the news or reading different newspapers from around the United States to keep up with current events going on in the world. Others may read several different types of books such as biographies or fiction to fulfill their quest for learning. Our need for knowledge may lead us to become research scientists, or we may have a “nose for the news” and become investigative reporters. (Kuntz, 2005, p.11) Individuals may also satisfy their need for exploration and discovery by traveling to different parts of the world. In order to broaden our horizons or improve our technical skill, we might enroll in classes at a local college or become more involved in leisure recreational activities. The fact is we are all inquisitive humans with a large need for knowledge. It seems that as the world becomes more technology based, we have a greater need to gain further knowledge.
Once we have fulfilled our quest for knowledge, we can move on to our aesthetic needs which are the need to express beauty through art, writing, design, and environment. Humans need to refresh themselves in the presence and beauty of nature while carefully engrossing and observing their surroundings to extract the beauty that the world has to offer them. Some particular people have a desire that is so strong, that they might dedicate their whole life in the pursuit of painting, sculpting, singing, writing music or other artistic endeavors. Other people will satisfy this need by possibly tending to a garden, creating new inventions, designing clothing, automobiles, homes or buildings, or just dressing their children and fixing their hair for a party, church or school. In the business world the company knows that when things are going well they are creating a thing of exquisiteness. When drawing up plans for new roads or highways, community planners take great care in trying to care for and protect the earth’s natural beauty.

When all of the foregoing needs are satisfied, then and only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. The self-actualizing needs are self-mastery, love, service to others, peak experiences, and suprapersonal goals. Self-actualizing is the need to express the highest potential that we are capable of reaching. (Kuntz, 2005, p.11) People that have reached this level in the pyramid embrace the facts and realities of the world, including themselves, rather than denying or avoiding them. They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions, creative, feel closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life. Many are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others, and by solving these problems it is often a key focus in their lives. Most of them have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority. They have discernment and are able to view all things in an objective manner, prejudices are absent. Mainly this need is reaching one’s fullest potential.

Boeree, C.G., (2006). Abraham Maslow. Personality Theories. Retrieved March 27, 2007 from Boeree’s homepage.http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/maslow.html

Kuntz, L., O’Connell, A., & O’Connell, V. (2005). Choice and Change The Psychology of Personal Growth and the Interpersonal Relationships. Seventh Edition (pp. 10-12). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.


Weiten, W. (2001). Psychology Themes & Variations. Fifth Edition (pp. 505-507). Belmont, California: Thomson Learning, Inc.