Humanistic Psychology: Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Needs

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What is Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology theory? How did Maslow’s hierarchy of needs contribute to humanistic psychology?

In Transcend, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explains the ideas of humanistic psychology and Abraham Maslow’s contributions to them. According to Kaufman, Maslow developed his hierarchy of human needs based on the tenets of humanistic psychology.

Read on to learn about humanistic psychology and how Abraham Maslow’s theories contributed to its founding.

Abraham Maslow on Humanistic Psychology

In the book Transcend, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explains how the ideas of humanistic psychology arose around the 1930s, largely in response to the two most common fields of psychology of that time: behaviorism and Freudian psychoanalysis. According to both those theories, people are inherently selfish beings driven by basic motives like power and lust, and in order to be good we must thwart these selfish desires. Considered one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow argued that humans are inherently good, and it’s only when our needs aren’t met that we behave in ways that are considered “bad.”

Humanistic psychology focused on the positive aspects of humanity and human consciousness. It’s based on the idea that humans are capable of free will, self-awareness, and compassion. Though we are sometimes driven by things like power and lust, we’re capable of much more than just following our selfish desires. Through conscious decisions, not mindless behavior, we’re able to be creative, to love, to think rationally, and to want more out of life than just surviving and reproducing. Because of this, humanistic psychologists, like Scott Barry Kaufman and Abraham Maslow, argue that the main focus of psychology should not be about thwarting selfish desires, but tapping our unlimited potential as conscious beings.

(Shortform note: Though humanistic psychology arose out of the perceived limitations of other psychological fields, it has its limitations as well. For one, critics argue that humanistic psychology relies too heavily on the study of the subjective experience of individuals—it uses too much qualitative research, which is difficult to accurately measure. Also, it ignores some of the arguably valid concepts of behaviorism and psychoanalysis. For example, its focus on the importance of human consciousness tends to leave out the fact that human behavior, at least to some extent, is driven by unconscious motives and desires—we’re not always fully aware of our motives or why we behave a certain way.)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

According to Abraham Maslow’s explanation of humanistic psychology, if our most basic needs are met, then we’ll treat ourselves and others with dignity, respect, and kindness, and we can focus on striving to be the best person we can be. 

It’s from this idea that Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the hierarchy are our basic needs, which include our physiological needs of food, warmth, and shelter, our social needs of community and affection, and our personal need of self-esteem. At the top of the hierarchy sits our need for self-actualization—our need to live a fulfilling life and make full use of our capabilities. He argues that we can’t reach self-actualization unless our basic needs are first met. 

(Shortform note: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is based on the idea that humans are fundamentally “good,” and the philosophical debate on whether we’re inherently good or evil stretches back centuries. Some, like Aristotle, argue that we’re born neither good nor evil and that we learn morality through others. Thomas Hobbes argues that people are naturally selfish and cruel, which is why we need societal rules and norms to keep people in line. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues the opposite, saying that we’re naturally kind and that society teaches us to be cruel and immoral. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is more in line with this interpretation.)

He also argues that we instinctively want to reach the self-actualizing stage: We naturally want to do more than just satisfy our basic needs. We want to become the type of person who’s constantly moving forward and growing in our skills and abilities.

(Shortform note: Beyond the traits Kaufman mentions, psychologists have identified several other common traits of self-actualizing people. Importantly, when pursuing a goal, self-actualizers are more focused on the journey rather than the destination, which Kaufman and Maslow allude to when describing them as always growing and moving forward. Self-actualizers are also likely to be grateful: They appreciate what they have and don’t take the good things for granted. They’re likely to be good at problem-solving and enjoy applying their knowledge to difficult situations. Some other traits of self-actualizers include spontaneity, independence, and valuing of privacy.)

All human behavior that’s mean or cruel is really just a misguided attempt to satisfy our basic needs. Therefore, Abraham Maslow suggests that we should focus not on ridding ourselves of our negative tendencies but on satisfying our needs, which is what humanistic psychology focuses on: enhancing our lives through positive action rather than identifying and removing our negative tendencies and behaviors. 

How Maslow’s Work Informed Positive Psychology

To better understand how Maslow’s theory of human needs can be a useful tool, we can look to the recently developed field of positive psychology. As its name suggests, Positive psychology focuses on the good parts of human nature and how we can live healthier, happier lives. Positive psychology is based heavily on Maslow’s teachings; even the term positive psychology is attributed to Maslow

Just as Maslow suggested, positive psychologists believe that simply reframing mental health as the presence of positive qualities rather than the absence of negative qualities can make psychology not only more realistic but also more useful. For example, the ideas of positive psychology are used by teachers, therapists, and employers to help motivate others and improve their well-being.

Maslow’s Two Categories of Needs: Deficiency and Growth

Now that we understand the relationship between humanistic psychology and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s important to discuss the two key categories of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: deficiency and growth.

Kaufman argues that while people generally focus on the traditional, pyramid-shaped depiction of the hierarchy of needs, in his writings and speeches, Maslow highlighted this more important distinction.

Deficiency needs are driven by a person’s sense that they’re lacking some basic needs of food, safety, shelter, affection, and self-esteem. Satisfying these needs is important, but they alone won’t lead to self-actualization, and Maslow argues that most people fail to self-actualize because they spend most of their lives motivated by the need to compensate for deficiencies. 

Growth needs are motivated by a desire to progress and to be a better person, rather than by the fear, insecurity, or short-term satisfaction that drive deficiency needs. These kinds of needs will lead to self-actualization, as they prompt you to learn, develop, and expand. 

(Shortform note: While Kaufman argues that most people fail to self-actualize because they can never satisfy their basic needs, other psychologists suggest that people become complacent when their basic needs are met and never even try to grow. According to some, in the developed world, most people have their basic needs met—they don’t feel unsafe, they have friends and community, and they feel capable. But once these basic needs are met, most people mistake their longing for self-actualization as a longing for more of the same basic needs—more possessions, more self-esteem, more fun. Instead of always trying to fill a void with things we don’t need or things we already have, we should focus on improving ourselves.)

Humanistic Psychology: Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Needs

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  • An updated, modern take on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs
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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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