Beginnings: Psychology without a soul

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the dominant throries in psychology had been the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and the behaviourism of J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner.

Both had tended to portray human beings as faulty machines.

In their different ways, psychoanalysis and behaviourism had dehumanized our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human. In the middle of the century which had brought us Nazism, Communism, mechanized warfare, systematic genocide and Mutually Assured Destruction, psychology was unintentionally providing a scientific “justification” for such horrors.

These rather bleak, soul-less visions of human nature constituted the first two “waves” of psychology as a science.

Abraham Maslow and the third wave

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Brooklyn-born American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was dismayed by these attempts to reduce human psychology to mindless mechanisms. He wanted to know what constituted positive mental health and happiness, not just mental illness and misery.

Maslow was thus inspired to start a whole new movement in psychology — a third wave — which he called humanistic psychology.

This was a real departure from the two dominant theories of the time in that it acknowledged a human or existential urge to grow, to seek happiness and fulfilment, to live up to our potential.

Without actually rejecting the insights of earlier psychologists, Maslow proposed that human beings are driven by different factors at different times. These driving forces are hierarchical, in the sense that we generally start at the bottom layer and work our way up.

A pyramid primer

The Hierarchy of Needs is a model in which Maslow attempted to capture these different levels of human motivation. It represents the idea that human beings are propelled into action by different motivating factors at different times – biological drives, psychological needs, higher goals.

Now the hierarchical arrangement is not meant to imply that those who focus on higher needs are somehow “better” than those who focus on lower needs. It’s not that kind of hierarchy. It’s a hierarchy within you, within your day-to-day experience.

It simply means that higher needs don’t appear unless and until unsatisfied lower needs are satisfied. If you are suffering from cold and hunger, for example, you just don’t have the time or energy to worry about your self-esteem. Your entire being is focused on food and warmth.

For this reason, the different levels also broadly correspond to different stages of life. The basic physical needs at the bottom are predominant in infancy; safety needs come into focus in early childhood; belonging needs predominate in later childhood; esteem needs predominate in early adulthood and self-actualization only really comes into focus with mature adulthood.


ST = Self-Transcendence

The first level, at the bottom of the pyramid, consists of our short-term basic needs, also known as physiological needs: food, water, warmth, sex.

The second level consists of longer-term safety needs: security, order, stability.

The third level represents the social need for affiliation, also known as “love and belonging”. We want to be accepted by others around us. We want to have stable relationships.

The fourth level represents the need for esteem. Within our social groups we want to be recognized and admired as individuals who accomplish things. We want prestige and power.

Almost at the top of the pyramid, self-actualization is the desire to experience ever deeper fulfilment by realising (actualising) more and more of our human potential.

At the very top of the pyramid is the desire for self-transcendence — to experience, unite with and serve that which is beyond the individual self: the unity of all being.

Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence

The two lowest levels of the pyramid are important to the physical survival of the organism. Then, once we have our basic physical and safety needs sorted, we feel more ready to share ourselves with others and accomplish things in the world. Most people can readily identify with these common levels of motivation.

Maslow held that as we come to feel satisfied with our accomplishments and sense of social worth, we take another step. He referred to this urge as self-actualization. It is very similar to the process Carl Jung referrd to as individuation, which tends to kick in during mature adulthood.

Self-actualization is different from all the previous needs. We don’t feel spurred into action by a sense of deficiency (“Must find food…” “Must make friends…”). Rather, we feel inspired to grow, to explore our potential and become more of what we feel we can be. Maslow called self-actualization a growth need while all the rest are deficiency needs.

For Maslow, the level of self-actualization reflects the fact that human beings are not simply biological machines. As we mature and become more aware of ourselves, we are increasingly driven by a sense of personal meaning and purpose.

Many people are under the impression that the hierarchy of needs stops there. Not so.

For while studying people who operate at the level of self-actualization, Maslow noticed that many of them frequently have, and deliberately seek, some other kind of experience. Something extraordinary.

Maslow termed these peak experiences. They are profound, life-altering moments of love, understanding, happiness, bliss. They are moments in which one feels radically more whole, more completely alive, more aware of truth, beauty, goodness, and so on.

Self-actualizing people have many such peak experiences and eventually feel inspired to actively seek them, extend them and stabilize them. Hence, Maslow added the goal of self-transcendence as the final level, the capstone of the pyramid. The desire is to go beyond our ordinary human level of consciousness and experience oneness with the greater whole, the higher truth, whatever that may be.

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s hierarchy (based on Maslow’s earlier work) shows only the first five levels. A more accurate version of the hierarchy, taking into account Maslow’s later work and his private journal entries, shows six motivational levels, with self-transcendence at the top (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).


Maslow is regarded as one of the ten most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. The modern profession of counselling is largely inspired by Maslow’s “third wave”, humanistic psychology. The movement known as transpersonal psychology, inspired by peak experiences and the quest for self-transcendence, could constitute a “fourth wave” were it ever to become more accepted into the mainstream.

But the hierarchy of needs is probably Maslow’s most enduring contribution to psychology. Most people seem to find the model intuitively satisying. It makes a kind of sense — even though for many, self-transcendence is not something they can relate to from personal experience.

Critics have argued that Maslow’s ideas, much like Freud’s, lack scientific evidence. Nevertheless, his third wave has enjoyed a huge revival of interest and influence among leaders of the positive psychology movement.

Further Reading

Koltko-Rivera, M.E. (2006) Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302–317.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370 –396.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

Maslow, A. H. (1969). The farther reaches of human nature. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1(1), 1–9.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

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