Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman: Book Overview

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Looking for an overview of Scott Barry Kaufman’s Transcend? Why does Kaufman say Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is misunderstood?

In Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman argues that Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is largely misunderstood. He provides an updated view that’s more in line with modern science and Maslow’s full body of work.

Read on for an overview of Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization by Scott Barry Kaufman.

Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman

You may have heard of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, usually presented as a pyramid, in which he lays out the basic needs people must meet in order to reach their full potential. In Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman argues that Maslow’s ideas about this “pyramid” of needs are largely misunderstood, and he provides an updated view of Maslow’s hierarchy that’s more in line with modern science as well as Maslow’s full body of work and the teachings of other humanistic psychologists. Kaufman’s updated hierarchy of needs is split into two categories (security needs and growth needs), and he argues that we must meet both to self-actualize (realize our full potential). 

Although reaching self-actualization is important, Kaufman maintains that humans can also reach beyond our needs for security and growth. In other words, we can transcend our selfish needs—simultaneously fulfilling them while reaching toward a higher purpose beyond ourselves. Reaching this transcendent state of existence, though, takes work. To do so, you must first meet your needs in a healthy and sustainable way.

The Tenets of Humanistic Psychology

In Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman explains that 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. 

Humanistic psychology, on the other hand, is 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 Kaufman and Maslow argue that the main focus of psychology should not be about thwarting selfish desires, but tapping our unlimited potential as conscious beings.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

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.” 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. 

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.

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

Kaufman’s New Hierarchy of Needs

In Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman argues that modern neuroscience and psychological research support Maslow’s theories regarding deficiency and growth, and he thus bases his new hierarchy on these two categories of needs. Instead of deficiency needs, however, Kaufman uses the term security needs, noting that all deficiency needs are a form of insecurity, whether it be a lack of physical, emotional, social, or mental security. 

Security Needs

According to Scott Barry Kaufman’s Transcend, there are three major security needs: the need to feel safe, the need to connect to others, and the need for self-esteem

Physical Safety

The needs of physical safety include the physiological needs of food, warmth, shelter, and protection from harm. In modern society, this also includes financial security, as a stable income helps provide for all the other physical safety needs. 

According to Kaufman, the need for physical safety is tied to our need to understand and control our environment to achieve our goals. When we feel uncertain about our ability to do this, fears and anxieties arise, which get in the way of developing as a person—if you’re worried about how you’re going to put food on the table, you won’t have the time or energy to think about much else. It’s impossible, however, to understand everything around you and to be fully in control of your environment, so on top of maintaining a secure, stable life, you should also learn how to manage and respond to uncertainty.  

Emotional Safety

To achieve emotional safety, we need to feel safe with the people around us, and Kaufman argues that this begins with the development of a secure attachment style early in life. When you have a secure attachment style, you feel you have the trust, love, and support of the people closest to you, and you’ll have the confidence and energy to focus on other things, like exploring your environment or making new friends.

Kaufman points to research that shows that a secure attachment style sets you up for success and growth later in life. Studies show that those with a secure attachment style are better at regulating their thoughts and emotions and dealing with stress, are more satisfied in their relationships, and show heightened senses of empathy and tolerance. 

The Need to Connect With Others

Though connecting with others is more than just our need for safety, it did originate from our evolutionary need for social protection, writes Kaufman. Humans are social creatures, and close affiliations between small tribes or groups helped us gain resources and protected us from threats. The need to be part of a tribe or community was often a matter of life or death—if you were kicked out of the tribe, you probably weren’t going to survive much longer. Today, though most of us can survive without being part of a community, this psychological need remains strong.

People need to feel accepted within a group and, more importantly, to not be rejected. We’ve evolved to be highly sensitive to threats to our sense of belonging, and we’ve evolved painful emotions when we feel rejected. Most of us can easily pick up on subtle social cues when someone doesn’t like us, and we’re likely to feel emotions like jealousy or sadness as a result. If you feel lonely or ostracized, you’ll likely find this experience incredibly painful and it will be difficult to grow as a person.

The Need for Self-Esteem

The third major security need of Kaufman’s hierarchy is the need for self-esteem, which he defines as a sense of self-worth and confidence in your abilities. Your self-esteem largely depends on the other security needs of safety and connection—it’s difficult to feel valuable and confident if you don’t feel safe or accepted by others. 

Self-Worth: According to Kaufman, self-worth is about feeling that you’re a good person who contributes value to the world. Although self-worth is how you feel about yourself, Kaufman points to research that shows that how you feel about yourself is strongly correlated with how others see you: Because we’re a social species, our perception of self-value is largely determined by the perception of our value within a community.

Proficiency: While your perception of self-worth is how you view your intrinsic value as a person, your perception of your proficiency is how you view your abilities. In other words, do you feel like a capable person who can achieve your goals? A person’s sense of proficiency is influenced by their past experiences. If you have largely been successful in progressing toward your goals, you’ll be confident in your ability to do that in the future. If you feel you’ve often failed in the past, you’ll be insecure and doubt your abilities.

Growth Needs

In Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman explains his new hierarchy of needs. The three security needs set a foundation for self-actualization, or what he calls fulfilling your growth needs. Kaufman equates self-actualization with growth because self-actualization isn’t about meeting all your needs and then stopping; it’s about making constant progress. To live a fulfilling life, you need to always feel as though you’re developing as a person and reaching toward your fullest potential

The Need to Explore

According to Scott Barry Kaufman’s Transcend, the need to be curious, which he defines as the urge to seek out new and challenging experiences, is a fundamental human need. If you feel safe, connected, and sure of yourself (satisfying the security needs outlined above), you’ll likely then want to learn more about the world and the people around you. 

The need to be curious is about facing the inherent uncertainty of life, and though this can be stressful, it allows you to learn more about yourself and your surroundings and make new connections. Each of these will lead to growth. Learning through curiosity is essential to growth.

The Need to Love

Kaufman identifies the ability to love as an important aspect of growth. Though this may seem like it should fall under our need for connectedness, Kaufman makes an important distinction: the need to feel loved is vital to our security, but the ability to give love is vital to our growth. The need to feel loved is a somewhat selfish desire that depends on others to give you what you lack. The ability to love others entails having a selfless, loving attitude toward the world that helps you grow and live a more fulfilling life

The Need for Purpose

The final need of Kaufman’s new hierarchy of needs is the need for purpose, which he defines as the need for an all-encompassing goal or series of goals that gives meaning to your life. When all other needs of security and growth are met, a person needs to feel they’re striving toward a goal they feel is important in order to reach self-actualization. Kaufman notes that finding and maintaining a purpose is hard, however, and offers advice on how to strive for meaning in a realistic and healthy way.


In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization sits at the top, representing the pinnacle of human potential. Yet, in Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman notes that toward the end of his career, Maslow noticed that some people can reach for something greater—they can transcend self-actualization. In other words, they can fulfill their deficiency and growth needs while simultaneously being motivated by values that go beyond the self, like beauty, truth, or justice. Kaufman suggests that some people are able to consistently live by such transcendent values and that this is the level of being to which we should all strive.

Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Scott Barry Kaufman's "Transcend" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Transcend summary:

  • An updated, modern take on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs
  • An in-depth look into Abraham Maslow’s full body of work
  • How to simultaneously fulfill your needs while transcending beyond them

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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