Biography of Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

Abraham Harold Maslow, Psychologist

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Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist perhaps best known as one of the founders of humanistic psychology and for his famous hierarchy of needs. Maslow felt that Freud's psychoanalytic theory and Skinner's behavioral theory were too focused on the negative or pathological aspects of existence and neglected all of the potential and creativity that human beings possess.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs suggested that people have a number of needs, and as these needs are met they are able to go on to pursue other needs. The needs at the base of his hierarchy are more basic in nature, gradually moving up into more social, emotional and self-actualizing needs as one moves up the hierarchy.

"The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short." — Abraham Maslow

Best Known For

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, and he spent much of his time in the library immersed in books.

Eventually, Maslow went on to study law at City College of New York (CCNY) and married his first cousin Bertha Goodman. After developing an interest in psychology, he later 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 from the University of Wisconsin: a bachelor's degree in 1930, a master's degree in 1931 and a doctorate in 1934.

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.

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.

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

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 interest in human potential, seeking peak experiences and improving mental health by seeking personal growth had a lasting influence on psychology.

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, due to 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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  1. Maslow, A. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper; 1954.

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.