Self-actualization is the process by which an organism or person realizes its full potential. The concept was first introduced by the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Goldstein in his 1939 book The Organism. It was soon adopted and developed by several early proponents of the humanistic psychology movement, such as Carl Rogers (1902–1987), the founder of client-centered therapy. Nonetheless, self-actualization is most strongly associated with the work of Abraham Maslow (1908–1970), another early humanistic psychologist. It is for that reason that this article will focus on Maslow’s original formulation of self-actualization and subsequent research on that formulation.
Maslow’s first discussed self-actualization in the context of his argument for a motive hierarchy. This hierarchy was put forward in his article on “A Theory of Human Motivation” published in a 1943 issue of Psychological Review. According to this early formulation, human needs could be ordered according to their relative pre-potency. That is, a particular need will not manifest itself until a more basic, pre-potent need is first satisfied. The most pre-potent motives are physiological and pertain to self-preservation. These include the needs to breathe, to drink water, to eat food, to dispose of bodily wastes, to sleep, and to regulate body temperature. If these needs are reasonably well satisfied, another set of motives are evoked, namely, those that concern safety. This includes the desire for physical security, such as the need to live in a secure, predictable environment free of violence and threat. Once this set of needs is also gratified the individual advances to love needs, which include the desire for affection, intimacy, and belongingness.
After physiological, safety, and love needs are satisfied, the person can move to esteem needs. These involve the enhancement of one’s self-confidence and self-respect. Only upon the gratification of esteem needs can an individual progress to the need for self-actualization. According to Maslow, this “refers to the desire for self-fulfillment” or “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (1943, p. 383). Because each individual human being has a distinct intrinsic potential, self-actualization is the most divergent of the needs in the hierarchy. Everyone can appreciate the desire for a breath of fresh air, the need to feel safe from danger, and the push to feel good about one’s self. But where one person might self-actualize by becoming a scientist, another might do so by becoming an athlete or chef. There are as many ways to self-actualize as there are distinguishable individuals. However, because a large number of persons never are able to satisfy more prepotent needs, self-actualizing individuals tend to be relatively rare.
From 1943 until Maslow’s death in 1970, this formulation underwent several modifications and elaborations. One important change was the later distinction between deficiency and being needs. The former “D-needs” encompass the physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs. To experience these needs is to succumb to “D-cognition,” or the awareness of a deficiency—of a negative condition that must be removed. The latter “B-needs,” in contrast, concern “B-cognition,” or the awareness of pure being— a positive state that is actively enjoyed. In this second group Maslow placed not just self-actualization but also various higher motives, such as the needs for knowledge, for aesthetics and beauty, and for self-transcendence, a spiritual need. Unlike the deficiency needs, Maslow’s conception of the being needs changed over the course of his career. These changes involved both their number and their placement within the hierarchy.
Having placed self-actualization at or near the apex of the motive hierarchy, Maslow felt it necessary to investigate the attributes of those personalities whose lives are dominated by B- rather than D-cognition. This presented a methodological problem because, according to his theory, self-actualizing individuals should be relatively rare. In fact, he reported that in student populations—the most common source of research participants in psychological research—only 1 out of 3,000 students managed to get beyond deficiency needs. As a consequence, Maslow adopted an unconventional investigative strategy. Rather than study self-actualizing students he would examine eminent personalities whose acts of self-actualization had driven them to major achievements. His sample included, among others, first lady and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt, the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the physicist Albert Einstein, the psychologist and philosopher William James, the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Spanish violoncellist and conductor Pablo Casals, and the French painter Pierre Auguste Renoir.
For each of the sampled self-actualizers Maslow collected biographical information about their personal characteristics. From that information he abstracted a sketch of the typical self-actualizing personality. In particular, self-actualizers were found to have more accurate perceptions of reality, to be more accepting of themselves and others, to display a freshness of appreciation for the world around them, to be more spontaneous, to be more problem centered rather than self centered, to exhibit a strong need for privacy, to maintain deep personal relationships with just a few select individuals, to harbor a powerful sense of kinship to fellow human beings as well as a great deal of humility and respect for others, to have strong but somewhat unconventional ethical standards, to concentrate on ends rather than means, to be autonomous and to resist enculturation, to project a more intellectual than aggressive sense of humor, to be more creative, and to undergo special cognitive-emotional moments that Maslow called peak experiences. The latter experiences were especially important as motivators in the self-actualization process.
Because Maslow was reacting against the predominant behaviorism of his day, his research on self-actualization did not meet contemporary standards for scientific rigor. For instance, his motivational hierarchy was not based on a series of laboratory experiments regarding the relative strengths of various human needs. Although he could be said to have collected data for his global profile of the self-actualizing personality, his analyses were qualitative and subjective rather than quantitative and objective. Moreover, his criteria for identifying certain individuals as being self-actualizers appear in retrospect to be somewhat haphazard or idiosyncratic.
Nevertheless, subsequent researchers have tried to scrutinize Maslow’s theory using more conventional methods. Some of this research has focused specifically on the hierarchy of motives. On this point it soon became clear that the empirical data did not lend much if any support to the hypothesized ordering of needs. Not only is the drive priority unstable or variable within the set of D-needs, but also it is the case that B-needs can sometimes take precedence over D-needs. This possibility is suggested by the proverbial image of the “poor starving artist in the attic” who places self-actualization before the supposedly pre-potent needs for food, companionship, and a warm bed. Although Maslow himself acknowledged that the motivational priorities can sometimes be upset in particular cases, he often viewed these departures as pathological rather than healthy. Furthermore, once one allows for individual differences in the hierarchical placement of the motives the whole concept becomes seriously weakened as a scientific explanation. A hierarchy that can assume almost any form across separate personalities can hardly be viewed as a legitimate hierarchy.
A far larger body of empirical research has concentrated on Maslow’s profile of the self-actualizing person. Unlike Maslow’s own work, this research has relied on the development and application of psychometric instruments that directly assess a person’s self-actualization. The first such measure was the Personal Orientation Inventory created by researcher Everett L. Shostrom in 1963. Although this instrument was used extensively throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was also subjected to numerous criticisms with respect to validity and reliability. In the late 1980s and 1990s alternative measures appeared, including the Jones and Crandall (1986) Short Index of Self-Actualization and the Sumerlin and Bundrick (1996) Brief Index of Self-Actualization. Taken together, research using these instruments has helped validate much of what Maslow had concluded from his eminent creators and leaders. For instance, self-actualizers tend to display superior mental health, to have higher self-esteem, to have lower anxiety, to have more purpose in life, and to be more creative, hopeful, optimistic, and independent. Furthermore, investigations have indicated some of the factors that help increase the level of self-actualization, such as specific meditation practices and therapeutic interventions. Hence, there is little doubt that self-actualization is an observable and significant psychological phenomenon.
By the twenty-first century self-actualization had acquired a somewhat ambivalent position in the psychological sciences. On the one hand, the concept of self-actualization—including Maslow’s formulation of its placement in a hierarchy of motives—remains extremely well known. The word continues to be used by many applied psychologists, especially those active in clinical, counseling, educational, and industrial psychology. Moreover, numerous introductory textbooks in psychology still include an almost obligatory section on Maslow’s motive hierarchy. On the other hand, empirical research on self-actualization waned considerably after the 1990s. Indeed, an article on the subject has not been published in a top-tier psychology journal since the 1980s. All of these trends may suggest that its utility as a psychological concept has diminished to the point that its status has become more historical than scientific. Even so, it is hard to imagine that the idea will disappear from popular psychological thought. The concept of self-actualization has entered mainstream culture in a manner almost comparable to the ideas of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Therefore, it is unlikely that the concept will ever completely retreat into the history books. Furthermore, interest in the construct has undergone something of a revival in the mid-2000s with the advent of the positive psychology movement, which concerns itself with the empirical study of human virtues.
Jones, Avin, and Rick Crandall, eds. 1991. Handbook of Self-Actualization. Corte Madera, CA: Select Press.
Maslow, Abraham H. 1943. Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50: 370–396.
Maslow, Abraham H. 1970. Motivation and Personality. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row.
Rogers, Carl R. 1961. On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Runco, M. A. 1999. Self-Actualization. In Encyclopedia of Creativity, Vol. 2, eds. Mark A. Runco and Steven R. Pritzker, 533–536. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Dean Keith Simonton
A prominent term in humanistic psychology that refers to the basic human need for self-fulfillment.
The term self-actualization was used most extensively by Abraham Maslow , who placed it at the apex of his hierarchy of human motives, which is conceived as a pyramid ascending from the most basic biological needs, such as hunger and thirst, to increasingly complex ones, such as belongingness and self-esteem . The needs at each level must be at least partially satisfied before those at the next can be addressed. Thus, while Maslow considered self-actualization to be the highest motivation possible and the essence of mental health , he recognized that most people are too preoccupied with more basic needs to seek it actively.
To arrive at a detailed description of self-actualization, Maslow studied historical figures—including Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)—whom he believed had made extraordinary use of their potential and looked for common characteristics. He found that self-actualizers were creative, spontaneous, and able to tolerate uncertainty. Other common qualities included a good sense of humor , concern for the welfare of humanity, deep appreciation of the basic experiences of life, and a tendency to establish close personal relationships with a few people. Maslow also formulated a list of behaviors that he believed could lead to self-actualization. These included such directives as: experience life with the full absorption and concentration of a child; try something new; listen to your own feelings rather than the voices of others; be honest; be willing to risk unpopularity by disagreeing with others; assume responsibility; work hard at whatever you do; and identify and be willing to give up your defenses.
Carl Rogers also emphasized the importance of self-actualization in his client-centered therapeutic
approach and theoretical writings. Like Maslow, he used the term to designate a universal and innate tendency toward growth and fulfillment that governs the human personality . Rogers believed that self-actualization is closely related to each individual's perceived reality and self-concept—the way one thinks of oneself. According to Rogers, one's self-concept can become distorted by the need for approval by others, which can lead to alienation from one's true beliefs and desires and suppression of one's self-actualizing tendency. Rogers'client-centered therapy is based on the idea that people will instinctively choose the path to self-actualization on their own once it becomes clear to them.
The Personal Orientation Inventory, a test designed to measure self-actualization, is based on Maslow's writings and consists of 12 scales, including time competence, inner directedness, spontaneity, self-acceptance, and capacity for intimate contact.
Maslow, Abraham. Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton Van Nostrand, 1968.
——. Motivation and Personality. 2d ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.
Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.