Biography of Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Abraham Harold Maslow, Psychologist

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Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who developed a hierarchy of needs to explain human motivation. His theory suggested that people have a number of basic needs that must be met before people move up the hierarchy to pursue more social, emotional, and self-actualizing needs.

Best Known For

  • Hierarchy of needs
  • Founder of humanistic psychology
  • Peak experiences
  • Self-actualization

Maslow's Early Life

Abraham Maslow was born on April 1, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up the first of seven children born to his Jewish parents who emigrated from Russia. Maslow later described his early childhood as unhappy and lonely. He spent much of his time in the library immersed in books.

Maslow studied law at City College of New York (CCNY). After developing an interest in psychology, he switched to the University of Wisconsin and found a mentor in psychologist Harry Harlow who served as his doctoral advisor. Maslow earned all three of his degrees in psychology (a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate) from the University of Wisconsin.

Career and Humanistic Theories

Abraham Maslow began teaching at Brooklyn College in 1937 and continued to work as a member of the school's faculty until 1951. During this time, he was heavily influenced by Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer and anthropologist Ruth Benedict.

Maslow believed that they were such exceptional people that he began to analyze and take notes on their behavior. This analysis served as the basis for his theories and research on human potential.

Humanistic Psychology

During the 1950s, Maslow became one of the founders and driving forces behind the school of thought known as humanistic psychology. His theories—including the hierarchy of needs, self-actualization, and peak experiences—became fundamental subjects in the humanist movement.

How did Maslow's ideas compare to other theories that were popular at the time? Some key differences:

  • Maslow felt that Freud's psychoanalytic theory and Skinner's behavioral theory were too focused on the negative or pathological aspects of existence.
  • He also felt that these theories neglected all of the potential and creativity that human beings possess.
  • Maslow's theories were more focused on maximizing well-being and achieving one's full potential.

Self-Actualization

The process of self-actualization played a critical role in Maslow's theory. He defined this tendency as "the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc." In other words, people are constantly in the process of striving to reach their full potential.

Self-actualization is not an endpoint or a destination. It is an ongoing process in which people continue to stretch themselves and achieve new heights of well-being, creativity, and fulfillment.

Maslow believed that self-actualizing people possess a number of key characteristics. Some of these include self-acceptance, spontaneity, independence, and the ability to have peak experiences.

Contributions to Psychology

Maslow made a number of important contributions to the field of psychology. Today, he is remembered as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Among his contributions:

  • His theories focused on the positive aspects of human nature. At a time when most psychologists focused on aspects of human nature that were considered abnormal, Abraham Maslow shifted focus to look at the positive sides of mental health.
  • His work influenced how we see mental health. His interest in human potential, peak experiences, the improvement of mental health, and personal growth had a lasting influence on psychology.
  • His work continues to exert an influence today. While Maslow’s work fell out of favor with many academic psychologists and some suggest his hierarchy might be due for an update, his theories are enjoying a resurgence due to the rising interest in positive psychology.

Maslow died in California on June 8, 1970 of a heart attack.

Selected Publications

  • Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and Personality. NY: Harper.
  • Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a Psychology of Being. NY: Van Nostrand.
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Article Sources
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  1. Maslow, A. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper; 1954.

  2. Haggbloom SJ. The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the Twentieth Century. PsycEXTRA Dataset. 2001. doi:10.1037/e413802005-787

Additional Reading
  • Cross, M. 100 People Who Changed 20th-Century America (1st volume.). Santa Barbara, CA; ABC-CLIO; 2013.

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. Abraham Maslow. Updated June 4, 2019.

  • Lawson, R, Anderson, ED, & Cepeda-Benito, A. History of Psychology: Globalization, Ideas, and Applications (2nd ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis; 2017.

  • Public Broadcasting Station. Abraham Maslow: 1908-1970.