The Legacy of Abraham Maslow

The twentieth century psychologist, Abraham Maslow, will be remembered best for being the most influential advocate of humanistic psychology. The essential point of this position is that there are goals of life that are right for humans to pursue and that these go beyond the goals of mere animals. It was a reaction against previous views of human psychology that were based firmly on the animal model and is a strand of theory that remains influential today.

Maslow believed that just as an individual could be in great physical health it was also possible to have great mental health. This led him to study what he saw as individuals of unusually good mental health. What was it that these people were getting right? What Maslow came up with was known as the ladder of needs. These were five different types of needs organized hierarchically. When one was satisfied the next one up would emerge. But if a need failed to be met then pathological outcomes such as neurosis could occur.

The most basic type of need, at the bottom of the ladder, were the physiological needs, for food, drink, warmth, and suchlike. With these in place the need for safety would then emerge. With physiological needs and safety needs satisfied a need for love and belongingness would be the next rung up the ladder, thought Maslow. With this third type of need met, the next need to emerge would be that of esteem, which could be self-esteem or the esteem of others, and would be derived from good work. The fifth and rarest need, according to Maslow, is that of self-actualization. It is where the individual seeks to fulfill their true potential in all areas, nurturing, integrating, and honing their skills and talents to the highest levels they can reach.

Critics may argue that the different needs on the so-called ladder don’t, in fact, logically require the lower levels to be in place. For example, people may be starving (thus not achieving the supposedly most basic need) but still feel that they are loved and that they belong (thus satisfying the supposedly third rung on the ladder). However, the central point of Maslow’s humanistic psychology remains intact there are needs that humans must meet and if they meet them all then they will be seen to be in particularly good mental health. Conversely, if a need fails to be met then pathological outcomes may occur.