What were the contributions of Abraham Maslow to psychology? Abraham Maslow was a very influential American psychologist working in the 20th century who developed a number of important theories during his career, including the humanist theory of self-actualisation and the Hierarchy of Needs.
Abraham Maslow was born in 1908, the eldest the son of Russian Jews, who had immigrated to the US to find a better life and standard of education for their family and to flee the political oppression in Russia at that time.
The young Maslow endured a lonely childhood in Brooklyn, New York City, with few close friends. He suffered the stigma of being Jewish in a deeply Anti-Semitic society and retreated into his books and places of learning. Under pressure from his fiercely pushy parents, he began to study law at the City College in New York, but hated it. He briefly transferred to Cornell University, but that proved less of a success and he was soon back studying at CCNY.
It was not until he discovered the world of psychology at graduate school at the University of Wisconsin that Maslow found his niche in psychology. Following his graduation, Maslow returned to New York and started working with E. L. Thorndike at Colombia University, where he developed an interested in human sexuality. He was also coming into contact with many European intellectuals and psychologists fleeing the political unrest of the period at that time, including Adler, Horney and Fromm, which helped to shape his thoughts and ideas.
The contributions of Abraham Maslow to psychology
Maslow described himself in later life as a “psychological pioneer”. Through his lifelong work and research in the field of human potential and mental health, he built a framework of ideas and created a starting point for others to add to his research and explore his ideas further.
Maslow was fascinated with the idea of human motivation and he spent much of his career developing the idea of “self actualisation”, a concept first originated by Kurt Goldstein in his 1934 book ‘The Organism”. Maslow described self actualised people as those he believed to be fulfilled and achieving their full potential. He studied successful people, including Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln, and identified fifteen characteristics he believed to be indicative of a self-actualised person.
The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs is considered to be one of the best known contributions of Abraham Maslow to psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was illustrated as a pyramid divided into different tiers with basic physiological needs such as food and shelter at the base, and progressing up through safety, belonging, and self esteem until the final tier of self-actualisation is reached.
Maslow theorised that although all humans are capable of becoming fully realised self-actualised people, most of us never reach our true potential. However, he did concede that “there are no perfect human beings”.
Unlike many psychologists of the time, Maslow was more concerned with healthy human behaviour as opposed to mental illness and “ill people”. Some critics of his work dismissed his ideas and saw him as conflicting with other influential figures such as Freud, but Maslow firmly believed that there are two facets to human nature and therefore there must be two distinct avenues of research in the field of psychology—the study of abnormal behaviours and mental illness, plus the study of healthy behaviours and positive mental health.