Abraham Maslow (Biography + Accomplishments)

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A 2002 empirical study endorsed by the American Psychological Association ranked Maslow as the 10th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

Abraham Maslow

Who Is Abraham Maslow?

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology. He is best known for his theory of motivation based on a hierarchy of needs. In addition, Maslow helped to lay the groundwork for positive psychology and transpersonal psychology. 

Abraham Maslow's Early Life

Abraham Harold Maslow was born on April 1, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents, Samuel and Rose Maslow, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. They were poor and uneducated, but were able to improve their lot in life by starting a barrel-making company. As their financial situation improved, the family moved out of the slums and into a lower-middle-class neighborhood.

Maslow was the eldest of seven children born to his parents but he had a rather lonely and unhappy childhood. He grew up feeling unloved, neglected, and unwanted. He was rejected by his mother in favor of his younger siblings and often received less food than them. She also punished him harshly for even the slightest wrongdoing. According to Maslow, she criticized and belittled him often and never had anything good to say about him. She was also deeply religious and constantly told Maslow that God would strike him down because of his misdemeanors.

Abraham Maslow's Parents

On one occasion, young Maslow brought home two stray kittens and tried to hide them away in the basement. When his mother found out, Maslow watched in horror as she smashed the head of each kitten against the brick wall of the basement until it was dead. Little wonder then, that Maslow developed a deep-seated hatred for his mother. In later years, he described his family as “a miserable family” and his mother as “a horrible creature.” He never forgave her for the way she treated him as a child. He saw very little of her after leaving home and upon her death, refused to attend her funeral.

Maslow’s relationship with his father was somewhat better, but he also harbored feelings of hostility toward him. His father was distant and known as a heavy drinker, fighter, and womanizer. He frequently abandoned the family for long periods of time. Maslow had very few friends and spent much of his time visiting libraries and reading books. Reflecting on his childhood, Maslow once told an interviewer, “It’s a wonder I’m not psychotic.”

Abraham Maslow and Anti-Semitism

Maslow also had to deal with anti-Semitic sentiments from youth gangs in his community and from teachers at school. He was also bullied because of his religion. In order to defend himself, he once tried to join a Jewish gang but could not bring himself to carry out the acts that were required of gang members.

As a teen, Maslow faced other challenges. He felt insecure about his appearance due to his prominent nose and meagre frame. To make matters worse, his own parents teased him about his appearance and openly labeled him as awkward and ugly. At first, he attempted to compensate for his feelings of inferiority by engaging in athletics. After failing to succeed as an athlete, however, he shifted his focus to academics.

Maslow attended the prestigious Boys High School in Brooklyn and did fairly well in most of his courses. He became involved in several clubs and sporting activities, encouraged in part by his cousin Will, with whom he became close friends. At 14 years of age, Maslow met his first cousin, Bertha Goodman, and was at once attracted to her. Bertha had just arrived from Russia and Maslow offered to teach her English. She was the only girl the shy Maslow felt comfortable speaking with and the two eventually began to date.

Educational Background

After completing high school, Maslow knew he wanted to pursue further studies but took a while to settle into a degree program. He enrolled for classes at the City College of New York in 1925 with the intention of studying law. He made this decision primarily to please his father, whose wish was for him to become a lawyer. However, Maslow quickly got bored and unhappy with this course of study. His lack of interest in becoming a lawyer was reflected in his poor grades, and he quit during his second semester.

In 1927, Maslow transferred to Cornell University, where he received his first exposure to psychology by way of an introductory course taught by Edward B. Titchener. Maslow was less than impressed by Titchener’s approach to psychology and after just one semester, transferred back to City College. This move was partly influenced by his desire to be nearer to Bertha Goodman, who lived in the Bronx.

Was Abraham Maslow a Behaviorist? How Behaviorism Influenced His Studies

Maslow’s time at City College was once again short-lived. He was attracted by the liberal atmosphere at the University of Wisconsin and decided to transfer there. He initially planned on studying philosophy but switched focus after reading an essay by John B. Watson in the summer of 1928.  Watson’s behaviorism appealed to Maslow and seemed more applicable to real world problems than philosophy. He then decided that he would become a psychologist.

Maslow found the atmosphere in the psychology department at Wisconsin stimulating and exciting. He flourished in that environment and completed his bachelor’s degree in two years. He earned his B.A. in 1930, his master’s degree in 1931, and his PhD in 1934, all from the University of Wisconsin.

Social Psychology Influences

Around the time he was getting ready to work on his doctoral dissertation, Maslow met Harry Harlow, who later became known for his studies of attachment in monkeys. Maslow began working as Harlow’s research assistant and developed an interest in primate behavior. He decided to study the relationship between social dominance and sexual behavior in monkeys as the subject of his dissertation.

Upon completion of his doctoral degree, Maslow taught at the University of Wisconsin for a short time before taking up a temporary position at Columbia University in 1935. There, he became a research assistant to learning theorist, Edward Thorndike.  A year and a half later, Maslow was offered a permanent position at the newly formed Brooklyn College in 1937. He began as a tutor and eventually rose to the rank of associate professor. During that time, Maslow began to extend his earlier research on dominance in monkeys to the study of dominance in humans.

Who Did Abraham Maslow Study?

Throughout his fourteen years at Brooklyn College, Maslow had the opportunity to meet several prominent psychologists and anthropologists, including Karen Horney, Max Wertheimer, Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict. Their work had a major influence on him and helped to spur his transition from a stimulus-response view of behavior to a more holistic, humanistic approach.

In 1951, Maslow moved to Brandeis University where he served as chairman of the psychology department for many years. He remained at Brandeis until 1969  when failing health prompted his early retirement. He was subsequently appointed resident fellow of the W. P. Laughlin Foundation in Menlo Park, California.

Abraham Maslow Achievements in Humanistic Psychology

Soon after Maslow earned his PhD, he expressed dissatisfaction with the two major approaches to psychology that were dominant at the time—psychoanalysis and behaviorism. According to Maslow, psychoanalysts paid too much attention to “the sick half of psychology” and too little attention to “the healthy half.” He also thought behaviorists were too eager to compare the reactions of animals in a lab to the complex behaviors displayed by human beings. Maslow thus played a major role in spearheading the rise of the next major school of thought in the field—humanistic psychology.

Humanistic psychology quickly became a force in academia for its recognition of and appreciation for the human experience. Maslow believed that human beings were more than just the sum of their parts, and that a true understanding of what it means to be human involved more than simply studying each part of a person. However, Maslow also recognized that “the fundamental desires of human beings are similar.” From these beliefs, he developed a theory of motivation that included concepts such as a hierarchy of needs, self actualization, and peak experiences.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow proposed that human motivation is driven by a hierarchy of needs. He described the five needs as “physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization.” These needs are typically arranged in a pyramidal structure with the most important needs at the bottom of the pyramid.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow believed physiological needs such as eating and sleeping are most important because they contribute directly to a person’s survival. Unless these needs are taken care of first, they will continue to dominate the individual's thoughts and behaviors. Once a person’s physiological needs are met, Maslow claimed it is easier to move up the pyramid and focus on higher level needs. All five tiers of needs are outlined below:

  • Physiological - This tier includes physical and biological needs such as food, water, sex, sleep, excretion, homeostasis, shelter, clothes, etc., that are necessary for the survival of the individual.
  • Safety - This tier of needs includes items or arrangements that promote order, security, and stability. Employment, property, personal security, and access to healthcare all fall within this category. Like physiological needs, safety needs also contribute to the survival of the individual.
  • Love - This tier includes psychological needs that become important when the survival of the individual is already guaranteed. The individual wants to share himself or herself with others, build friendships, experience intimacy and belong to a group or family.
  • Esteem - This tier describes the individual’s need to achieve social status. The individual wants to feel as if he or she accomplished something worthwhile and has a desire to be recognized and respected by others.
  • Self-Actualization - In this tier the individual reaches his or her full potential and wants to be the best person he or she can be. The individual has a need for intellectual stimulation, creative expression, and focuses on building his or her brand or image.

While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often seen as a fixed sequence of progression, Maslow recognized that human needs are flexible and several needs may be present in a person at the same time. In the latter part of his life, Maslow suggested that people do not reach self-actualization automatically even if they address all their other needs in the pyramid.

What is Self-Actualization?

Maslow defined self-actualization as “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” He believed that people are always trying to reach their full potential in terms of creativity, well-being, and fulfilment. However, Maslow did not view self-actualization as a fixed end point. Rather, he believed self-actualizing people continue to strive for new heights.

Rather than researching mental illness, Maslow focused on studying self-actualizing individuals with excellent mental health. He believed these individuals share a number of important traits such as independence, self-acceptance, spontaneity, wholeness, richness, and the ability to have peak experiences.

What are Peak Experiences?

Maslow described peak experiences as "rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter." In other words, they are euphoric states of consciousness that are typically achieved by self-actualizing people. Peak experiences may occur during simple or intense activities. While the specific activity leading to a peak experience may vary, the ecstatic, blissful sensations of the experience are always felt.

Maslow believed self-actualizing individuals are more likely to have peak experiences as they indicated the highest level of personality development. His early research on self-actualizing people suggested that common triggers for a peak experience included music, work, advanced knowledge of science, nature, sex, art, and the ability to examine one’s own emotional and cognitive processes. Maslow suggested that self-actualizing people may have several peak experiences in a single day. His later research described “plateau experiences” as more serene, calm, and voluntary events that generally lasted longer than peak experiences.

Transpersonal Psychology

Maslow was familiar with the euphoric, mystical, or spiritual state associated with peak experiences. He believed these types of experiences transcended the ordinary or the average and referred to the empirical study of these experiences as transpersonal psychology. Maslow claimed that human beings need to feel connected to something that is bigger than themselves. He founded the school of transpersonal psychology in the 1960s along with Victor Frankl, Stanislav Grof, and other colleagues.

Positive Psychology

Abraham Maslow's accomplishments go beyond developing the hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s work in humanistic psychology laid the foundation for Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement in the late 1990s. In fact, the term “positive psychology” was coined by Maslow in 1954. Like Maslow, modern day supporters of positive psychology believe that traditional psychology has chosen to focus on mental illness rather than the entire human experience. It is very likely that Maslow would have approved of the empirical approaches employed by positive psychologists today in the study of topics such as courage, hope, happiness, and optimism.

Applications of Maslow’s Theories

Maslow believed that human beings worked towards self-actualization by progressing through the hierarchy of needs. He saw psychological issues as a difficulty in satisfying one’s self-esteem needs, which ultimately block the individual from reaching self-actualization. Maslow suggested that therapy should be aimed at correcting people’s views of themselves, and boosting their self-esteem. This approach helps individuals in therapy to continue on the journey to self-actualization.

In addition to mental health counseling, principles from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have been applied to:

  • Urban planning - to develop cities that can adequately satisfy the needs of residents by reducing congestion, providing adequate services and resources, and maintaining a healthy economy.
  • Hospice care - to fulfill the needs and improve the quality of life of people with life-limiting illnesses. Hospice care providers (1) address distressing symptoms such as pain, (2) allay fears of physical safety, dying, or abandonment, (3) show genuine affection and love even if a debilitating illness is present, (4) boost the self-esteem of patients by treating them with respect and appreciation, and (5) help patients to reach self-actualization and transcendence.
  • Policing - to help motivate police officers and the people working under them. Law enforcement members have their physiology and safety needs met through local labor laws and their personal contracts, the guidance and comfort associated with being part of a group, and are encouraged to become the best they can be so they can contribute to positive changes in the organization.
  • Education - to help build the relationship between teacher and learner, boost the learner’s self-esteem, and help the learner to take responsibility for his or her own education.
  • Management - to foster a business environment in which the needs of employees are recognized and satisfied.
  • Marketing - to identify the needs of potential customers and provide specific products or services that are able to satisfy those needs.

Criticisms of Maslow’s Theories

The major criticism of Maslow’s theories is the lack of supporting empirical evidence. For example, Maslow based the majority of his research on the writings of people he thought had reached self-actualization. Maslow’s list of subjects included psychologist Max Wertheimer, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, and physicist Albert Einstein. However, this approach is highly subjective and extremely vulnerable to the personal bias of the researcher.

A second criticism is that therapy grounded in humanistic principles may not be effective when treating serious mental health issues. This means people with chronic conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar issues, or posttraumatic stress disorder may have to seek other therapeutic approaches to manage their symptoms. As humanistic psychology focuses on events that go right, some critics question how suitable it is for solving real world problems.

A third criticism of Maslow’s theories is that they are not universally applicable because they mainly reflect Western values. Interestingly though, a five year study on Maslow’s concepts that was published in 2011 found that people in 123 countries have the same basic needs despite their cultural differences. Other critics have claimed that Maslow’s hierarchy does not necessarily follow a strict order. However, Maslow himself agreed with that viewpoint and stated that people’s needs were fluid on several occasions.

Abraham Maslow's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Maslow wrote several books throughout his career and some of his writings were published posthumously. His most well-known books are listed below:

  • A Theory of Human Motivation, 1943
  • Motivation and Personality, 1954
  • Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, 1964.
  • Eupsychian Management, 1965
  • The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance, 1966
  • Toward a Psychology of Being, 1962
  • The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1971
  • Future Visions: The Unpublished Papers of Abraham Maslow, 1996
  • Personality and Growth: A Humanistic Psychologist in the Classroom, 2019

A few of Maslow’s other awards and accomplishments include:

  • Founding the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1961
  • Member of the Association of Humanistic Psychology (declined the presidency), 1963
  • Selected as the Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, 1967
  • Elected President of the American Psychological Association, 1968

Personal Life

Against his parents’ wishes and the advice of his friends and professors, Maslow married his first cousin Bertha Goodman on December 31, 1928, at the age of 20. In his later years, Maslow described his marriage to Bertha as one of the best decisions and one of the greatest joys in his life. The two loved each other dearly and eventually had two daughters, Ann, who was born in 1938, and Ellen, born in 1940.

Despite his successes as an adult, Maslow suffered from anxiety and intense stage fright. After a public presentation, he sometimes had to go on bed rest for several days. His fear of public speaking caused him to resign as president of the APA after only one year.

Maslow had a history of chronic heart disease and experienced a major heart attack in 1967. Three years later, on June 8, 1970, he suffered another massive heart attack which proved to be fatal. He was 62 years of age at the time of his death.


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Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, May). Abraham Maslow (Biography + Accomplishments). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/abraham-maslow/.

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