Abraham Maslow, His Theory & Contribution to Psychology

Who is Abraham Maslow and What are His Contributions to Psychology

Abraham Maslow is one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century.

His biggest contributions to psychology were his contributions to humanistic psychology as well as his development of the hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s career in psychology greatly predated the modern positive psychology movement, but it might not look the same were it not for him.

This article will discuss some of his formative experiences, his contributions to psychology, and his work’s relationship to the positive psychology movement.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students or employees.

You can download the free PDF here.

Early Life, Education, and Formative Experiences

Abraham Maslow was born in New York in 1908 and studied psychology and Gestalt psychology at the University of Wisconsin and the New School for Social Research, respectively (Encyclopædia Brittanica).

He was originally interested in philosophy as an adolescent, but soon became frustrated with “all the talking that didn’t get anyplace” and soon switched his focus to psychology, which he felt was more applicable to the real world (Frick, 2000).

Maslow was first drawn to behaviorism in psychology but soon rejected it, though he still “retained a strong loyalty to positivism throughout his life” (Hoffman, 2008). Maslow considered himself a “very timid boy” when he first started his studies, and he partially attributes his later interest in self-actualization and the optimization of the human experience to this timidity and the isolation it caused (Frick, 2000).

It was not until World War II, however, when “as a 33-year-old father with two children … the horrors of mass warfare gave him a sense of urgency” and he pivoted his focus to human motivation and self-actualization (Hoffman, 2008). It is clear that Maslow’s research interests were driven by personal experience and shared experiences, which helps explain his contributions to humanistic psychology.


Humanistic Psychology

Soon after Maslow began his career, he became frustrated with the two “forces” of psychology at the time, which were Freudian psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology (Koznjak, 2017).

Maslow believed that psychoanalysis focused too much on “the sick half of psychology” and not enough on “the healthy half”. On the other hand, he believed that behaviorism did not focus enough on how humans differ from the animals studied in behaviorism. He thus contributed to the third force of psychology that arose in response to this frustration: humanistic psychology.

Humanistic psychology gained influence for its “appreciation for the fundamental inviolability of the human experience” (Bugental, 1963). One of these factors was the Gestalt psychology-influenced idea that human beings were more than just the sum of their parts, and that understanding humanity would take more than just understanding each part of a person.

From this idea sprouted Maslow’s main contribution to humanistic psychology (and psychology in general), his theory of motivation that focused on his hierarchy of needs.

Aside from developing the hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow also co-founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1961 with Anthony Sutich (SAGE Publishing). Maslow cofounded the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1969 as well with Anthony Sutich and Stanislav Grof (Richards, 2017).

By starting two influential journals in the field, Maslow ensured his mark on humanistic psychology would outlast even the influence of his hierarchy of needs.


The Hierarchy of Needs

The hierarchy of needs comes from Maslow’s belief that:

“the fundamental desires of human beings are similar despite the multitude of conscious desires” (Zalenski & Raspa, 2006).

In his seminal paper on human motivation, Maslow describes his hierarchy of needs as being made up of five needs, which are“physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization” arranged in a pyramidal manner, with physiological needs making up the bottom of the pyramid (Maslow, 1943). Maslow describes these needs as “being arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency”.

In other words, the first level of needs (physiological) are the most important and will “monopolize consciousness” until they are taken care of. Once one level of needs is taken care of, the mind moves on to the next level of needs, and so on until self-actualization is reached.

Of course, this means that according to Maslow, “the average member of our society is most often partially satisfied and partially unsatisfied in all of his wants” (Maslow, 1943).The Hierarchy of Needs Maslow

While humanistic psychology is past its peak of influence, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is still a major, well-known aspect of modern psychology.

The hierarchy of needs has recently been adapted for use in hospice care (Zalenski & Raspa, 2006), for use in urban planning, development, and management (Scheller, 2016), and even for the study of policing (de Guzman & Kim, 2017).

Interestingly, the Scheller and de Guzman & Kim papers both adapted the hierarchy of needs to communities rather than to individuals. These recent studies show that the hierarchy of needs has influenced modern psychology in ways that Maslow may not have predicted.


Abraham Maslow and Positive Psychology

So what does Abraham Maslow have to do with positive psychology? According to humanistic psychologist Nelson Goud, “the recent Positive Psychology movement focuses on themes addressed by Maslow over 50 years ago” (Goud, 2008).

Goud also believed “that Maslow would encourage the scholarly approach [positive psychology] uses for studying topics such as happiness, flow, courage, hope and optimism, responsibility, and civility”.

More than anything, both Maslow and proponents of positive psychology are driven by the idea that traditional psychology has abandoned studying the entire human experience in favor of focusing on mental illness (Rathunde, 2001).

Some scholars claim that Maslow helped conceive of humanistic psychology based on his:

“conviction that none of the available psychological theories and approaches to the study of the human mind did justice to the ‘healthy human being’s functioning’ and ‘modes of living’ or to the healthy human being’s ‘goals of life’ (Buhler, 1971).

To proponents of positive psychology, this reasoning should sound familiar. In fact, Maslow even used the term “positive psychology” to refer to his brand of humanistic psychology, though modern positive psychologists like Martin Seligman claim that humanistic psychology “lacks adequate empirical validation” (Rennie, 2008).

It is clear then that positive psychology is concerned with similar parts of the human experience as Abraham Maslow was, and that Maslow would have approved of the positive psychology movement. At the end of the day, both proponents of positive psychology and Maslow believe(d) that humanity is more than the sum of its parts, and especially more than its illnesses or deficiencies.

To a positive psychologist, optimizing the life and well-being of a person who is healthy is just as important as normalizing the life of a person who is sick, and Abraham Maslow helped legitimize that idea within the field of psychology.


A Take-Home Message

Despite originally being interested in philosophy, Abraham Maslow first entered the world of psychology through behaviorism. Before long, Maslow’s frustration with the limitations of behaviorism and psychoanalysis led him to help develop humanistic psychology and his hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy of needs continues to be relevant today.

Beyond the hierarchy of needs, the lessons of humanistic psychology have been partially picked up by the positive psychology movement. Specifically, both movements focus on humanity beyond mental illness and beyond treating symptoms.

To illustrate this point, positive psychology does not necessarily focus on increasing well-being solely for the sake of eliminating anxiety but instead focuses on increasing well-being for the sake of improving people’s lives and improving society.

Maslow was driven by a similar desire to help people live the best lives they could, acknowledging their unique humanity along the way. The personal experiences that most shaped this desire for Maslow was his childhood isolation and his powerful reaction to the horrors of World War II. May his response to these experiences serve as an inspiration to us all.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching or workplace.

  • Bugental, J.F.T. (1963). Humanistic Psychology – A New Breakthrough. American Psychologist 18(9), 563-567.
  • Buhler, C. (1971). Basic Theoretical Concepts of Humanistic Psychology. American Psychologist 26(4), 378-386.
  • De Guzman, M.C., Kim, M. (2017). Community hierarchy of needs and policing models: toward a new theory of police organizational behavior. Police Practice and Research 18(4), 352-365.
  • Frick, W.B. (2000). Remembering Maslow: Reflections on a 1968 interview. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 40(2), 128-147.
  • Goud, N. (2008). Abraham Maslow: A personal statement. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 48(4), 448-451.
  • Hoffman, E. (2008). Abraham Maslow: A biographer’s reflections. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 48(4), 439-443.
  • Journal of Humanistic Psychology (n.d.). SAGE Publishing. Retrieved from https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/journal-of-humanistic-psychology/journal200951#description.
  • Koznjak, B. (2017). Kuhn Meets Maslow: The Psychology Behind Scientific Revolutions. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 48(2), 257-287.
  • Maslow, A. (2016). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abraham-H-Maslow.
  • Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50(1), 370-396.
  • Rathunde, K. (2001). Toward a psychology of optimal human functioning: What positive psychology can learn from the “experiential turns” of James, Dewey, and Maslow. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 41(1), 135-153.
  • Rennie, D.L. (2008). Two thoughts on Abraham Maslow. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 48(4), 445-448.
  • Richards, W.A. (2017) Abraham Maslow’s Interest in Psychedelic Research: A Tribute. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 57(4), 319-322.
  • Scheller, D.S. (2016). Neighborhood Hierarchy of Needs. Journal of Urban Affairs 38(3), 429-449.
  • Zalenski, R.J., Raspa, R. (2006). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: A framework for achieving human potential in hospice. Journal of Palliative Medicine 9(5), 1120-1127.

About the Author

Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist is a behavioral neuroscience researcher and scientific editor. Joaquín was both a teaching assistant and a research assistant and conducted research that led to the publication of three peer-reviewed papers. Since then, his work has included writing for PositivePsychology.com and working as an English editor for academic papers written by non-native English speakers.


  1. Pricilla

    if it is ok that I can site this website?

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Pricilla,

      Yes, absolutely — feel free to cite us in your writing 🙂

      – Nicole | Community Manager

  2. Em

    Just pondering something, after reading your article…
    Maslow is cited as having wanted to shift the focus of Psychology away from psychopathology, to looking at optimal health and functioning for everyone. All well and good. However, his dismissal of mentally unwell people as “cripples” who do not interest him because they would yield only “cripple psychology and cripple philosophy” ought to strike readers as deeply disturbing. As should his narrow research focus upon an elite 1% of society.
    Research is something that, to be valid and of use to society, needs to be replicable and representative. How is a focus upon only a tiny percentage of society at large to be considered a representative sample? Maslow, by his own admission, focussed upon the 1% of totally fit and healthy college students in society – meaning that the remained of the populace were… What? Beneath his consideration? Not worth studying? There is no way whatsoever that Maslow’s research (if that is what we can call it) covers a representative sample. In this respect, it is hard to see how it can truly be considered even valid.
    Yet more disturbing is the fact that Maslow’s work in the field of human self-actualization was written around 1943. Think about it! Maslow is writing at a period in time when, because of a certain world war, EUGENICIST ideologies are often at the forefront of both academic, and everyday, thought and discourse. Before anyone starts condemning me, or ranting at me, please allow me to remind you all that the German NAZI party under Adolf Hitler were NOT the only people ever to have considered eugenics, or to have theorized in this area. Indeed, the field of Eugenics goes back way before the advent of Nazism, having been discussed as far back as 400BC by scholars such as Plato, who writes about “selective breeding”. Thus, the concept predates the actual term Eugenics; but by the 19th Century AD, the term was being used, and its advocates regarded it as a way of “improving humanity”.
    Eugenics is not what one might politely term a pleasant concept. It is closely associated with scientific racism, and white supremacy. Indeed, proponents of Eugenics have also been known to cannibalize and to appropriate other, less spurious theories, using them to their own ends – hence the links made between Darwinian Evolutionary Theory, and Eugenics. The contemporary history of Eugenics began in the UK and US in the early 20th Century, spreading to places like Canada, Australia, and much of Europe, too. Eugenicists advocated “improving humanity” by classifying people into those who were “fit” to reproduce, and those who were not – the latter usually being labelled “socially undesirable”. The latter; who might be forcibly sterilized, imprisoned, sent to workhouses and asylums, or, worse, to death camps (Concentration camps); tended to comprise of people who were physically disabled, mentally disabled or ill, non-heterosexual, or of non-white or otherwise spurious racial heritage (e.g. black, Hispanic, Romany). They were also often poor, lower-class, immigrants, unemployed, lower-educated, prostitutes, alcoholics, victims of crime such as rape or domestic violence, and similar. Socially undesirable, see?
    Maslow’s language has a distinctly eugenicist tone to it. Describing mentally unwell people as “cripples” unworthy of his interest. And the fact that he suggests that, were he to study them, it would lead only to “cripple psychology” – well?! Are we to understand that Maslow believed that only supremely healthy specimens of humanity ever self-actualized and made a success of their lives? Then how might he (were he alive today) explain the intellectual ability, physical prowess, and overall success of such diverse individuals as Steven Hawking, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Robin Williams, Stephen Fry, Winston Churchill, Alison Lapper, Ludwig Van Beethoven, and many more? All of whom have the following in common – that they were/are physically disabled and/or mentally unwell. Have they not self-actualized in ways that some so-called fully “healthy” people have never been able to? I mean, if I had been capable of achieving but a fraction of what Hawking, or Beethoven, or Lapper has, in a lifetime, I would consider myself a genius!
    Whilst positive Psychology may be all well and good, in a populist sort of a way – and it is linked to many of these people who make a quick killing out of selling self-help manuals, NLP online courses, and similar questionable activities – ought we not to be asking how a theorist (Maslow) who wrote about only a tiny, elite fraction of society has come to be so (over?)hyped?
    There is nothing wrong with wanting to optimize the life and well-being of healthy people, as well as normalizing the experiences of the unwell, but this does not appear to have been Maslow’s argument. His sole focus was upon a minute elite, who did not even represent the vast majority of humanity (99%), who comprised both healthy, and otherwise. What of their experiences? Positive Psychology is not the same as what Maslow conjectures, and this does really need to be understood. If the argument is that positive Psychology focuses upon the WHOLE of humankind, and not just upon those who are unwell, then we really must understand that this is VERY DIFFERENT to what Maslow was doing.
    Though it may be true that humans do have some universal needs, which might just be similar to those hypothesized by Maslow, his theory otherwise lacks any relevance in terms of explaining so-called self-actualization. In failing to study diverse types of people, including those who were ill in some way or other, as well as those experiencing deprivation and disadvantaged, Maslow can give us little understanding of true self-actualization, for his work has no way whatsoever of accounting for the ways in which physically disabled people self-actualize, or the ways in which learning disabled people might do so, or the ways mentally ill people self-actualize. Furthermore, it is questionable as to whether it can explain the ways by which people who face multiple, intersecting adversities and disadvantages might self-actualize. If you only focus on 1% of totally healthy college-educated people, then you are likely focussing on an elite of sorts. An elite who experience privilege. What about the under-privileged? How does the young woman whose father is an alcoholic spending time in prison, and whose mother is a Latina prostitute, and who lives in a cramped house in a ghetto with seven siblings, one of whom has Downs Syndrome, self-actualize? When she comes from a family with no money? Who cannot afford healthcare? Who have little time or energy for education? Who an only get a place at an overcrowded, underfunded school? Who get shouted at and abused on the street? Called “scroungers” or “illegal immigrants”? A family where the mother is rarely home, and the father not at all? Where children have to take on adult tasks, such as housework, childcare, and maybe even employment?
    Show me the theory that explains all this. That explains why it is that some people who come from disadvantage can outperform and outclass people who come from privilege. That explains why some people can fight and fight and fight disadvantage while still trying to remain positive, whilst some people who have everything handed to them on a plate cannot cope even with the slightest upset. Explain to me why some people have to face a lifetime of setbacks, hardship, disadvantages, and still try their best – even when sometimes they are abused and insulted for trying. When they are knocked back down, and told to get back in their place. When they are reminded of their problems or difficult upbringing and family background by others who do not want to see them succeed.
    Give me a definition of Positive Psychology, and then explain to me how it can account for all of the above. There is too much in Psychology – in academia generally – of people speaking from places of privilege about situations they have never experienced themselves. Or, people writing only about a privileged few, and then generalizing in the assumption that this explains things for everyone. NOT so! People are all different, and people’s experiences are all different. In looking down upon people who were mentally ill and/or disabled, Maslow shows his ignorance and his prejudice. It is worrying that others cannot see this.
    And, if anyone is interested to know, I am not some crazy conspiracy theorist. I am someone with a genuine interest, but who has raised genuine concerns regarding potential flaws in Maslow’s work. Someone who is concerned about the over-popularization of this theories. I am also someone who was raised in a lower-class family, in a poor town, with two parents neither of whom had a University education, with a mentally ill mother… but who went on to gain postgraduate qualifications in both Psychology and Social Research. So, believe me, I have studied Maslow! And his background. So, I would argue my concerns are valid. While Maslow never officially came out as a eugenicist, many of his close circle were, and it ought to be asked whether he was sympathetic to those views. For example, Maslow associated with (and wrote about) the Roosevelts (especially Eleanor) – Theodore Roosevelt was an overt supporter of eugenic interventions (especially anti-black), Eleanor, whose marriage to him was fractious, disagreed a lot and argued against her husband. It is clear Maslow admires Eleanor, but it is also hard to discern whether he shared her, or her husband’s, views respecting eugenics.

    I would love to know more what people think about this issue, and whether there is any way of effectively finding out more about it. I ask this because I am in the process of writing about the topic, and find it hard to make up my mind as to whether Maslow’s beliefs (especially related to hierarchy of needs/self-actualization, and to disinterest in psychopathology) are
    a) merely a desire to change the focus of Psychology
    b) eugenicist
    c) non-eugenicist (in the sense that Maslow admires Eleanor Rooseveldt)?
    For those who wish to interrogate what I have written here, information about Maslow, eugenics, the Rooseveldts and similar can be found online – just do a Google search. There are numerous articles, and the more you read, the more (like me) you will likely end up confused! Anyone able to help out?

    • Kathryn Dorton

      Hi! I think you are over-reacting to Mazlow’s orientation and views. If you re-read the article, it specifically says that human wellness is as equally important as human illness/ mental illness. It doesn’t say that pathology is not important. The reason that this concept is so emphasized is that Maslow was one of the first to deviate from the traditional approaches that solely focused on mental illness. He was one of the first to deviate from an approach to persons as only incomplete parts, such as the id , ego and superego, hence the gestaltist view that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Finally, regarding Racism, Maslow was first generation Jewish, and his formative years were during the Second World War. He suffered inferiority and isolation because of this. He was the opposite of what you have suggested.

      • Kathryn Dorton

        I meant to say… The whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts…

  3. Caysee Dirks

    I need a Cite and 10 facts about Maslow.

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Cause,

      Just below the heading that says ‘A Take Home Message’, you’ll find a button to expand the reference list, which will show all the sources.

      Hope this helps.

      – Nicole | Community Manager

  4. Tina

    Did Abraham Maslow conduct actual experiments with quantifiable results, or was his research solely based on observation? My daughter is in a high school AP psychology course and is being asked to talk about his experiments, but she can’t actually find any. Thanks in advance!

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Tina,

      Interesting question! Check out this paper for a review of his work (and the work of subsequent scholars) attempting to verify Maslow’s theory.

      – Nicole | Community Manager

  5. Louise Penketh

    Thank you for a really helpful and brilliant article. I hope its ok to cite this as part of my dissertation for my psychology course.

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Louise,
      Yes, of course — we’re always happy to be cited! Best of luck with your course.
      – Nicole | Community Manager

  6. Esa

    Is humanistic theory and hierarchy of need the same??

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Esa,
      Good question. Broadly speaking, Humanistic Psychology is a larger movement away from the psychoanalytic and behaviorist approaches to the study of psychology. Humanistic theory is, therefore, sometimes thought of as the psychology discipline’s third major movement. Maslow’s hierarchy was a driver of this movement (but is just one theory forming part of it).
      – Nicole | Community Manager

  7. Frank Yan

    I want to know more detailed, such as 8 level to describle. And give more introduction.

  8. Oliver Palallos

    Amazing insight! Thank you JS!


    Joaquim, thanks a lot for your amazing article.
    I would like publish in my web pages, please, if it is possible, send me how do you prefer that I put the references.
    Regards Adriana Vieira

  10. Lj

    how you would cite this article with the DOI?

  11. zeina

    how can I cite your arcticle

    • Craig Smith

      Here you go Zeina 🙂
      Selva, J. (2017, September 19) Who is Abraham Maslow and What are His Contributions to Psychology [Web log post]. Retrieved from-https://positivepsychologyprogram.com

  12. Anna

    Hey there,
    Just wondering how I can cite/reference your article?

    • Craig Smith

      Hi Anna, here is how you would cite this article 🙂
      Selva, J. (2017, September 19) Who is Abraham Maslow and What are His Contributions to Psychology [Web log post]. Retrieved from-https://positivepsychologyprogram.com

      • anna.corrigan@hotmail.com

        Thank you

  13. Quern

    serious memes

  14. Max Lynch

    this is awesome info!

  15. Gudrun Snorradóttir

    Thank you so much Joaquin. Been trying to locate the article on “polising” by de Guzman & Kim. Could you please share the link to that article?


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