Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Self-actualisation

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

“Man is a perpetually wanting animal” (Maslow, 1943, p.22)

Self-actualization is commonly understood in light of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.[factual?] When an individual has satisfied their physiological, safety, love and belongingness and esteem needs then they have reached self actualization. This means the individual is now motivated by a new set of needs which are centred on values such as truth, goodness, beauty, honesty and they all seek to provide greater meaning to the life of the self actualised person. Self actualised individuals readily experience peak performances and they are no longer motivated by deficiencies, instead they are motivated towards growth and reaching their full potential.[factual?]

Context[edit | edit source]

What is motivation?[edit | edit source]

Wiktionary-logo-v2.svg Look up Motivation in
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The word motivation comes from the Latin verb movere, which means “to move.” Motivation is thereby concerned with our movements, or actions, and what the determining factors are behind them. More specifically it refers to the processes involved in initiating, maintaining and ceasing goal-oriented behaviours (Maslow, 1970, p. 16). These factors may be internal (which can include drives such as thirst or being hungry or in pain) or external (such as the presence of an attractive person, tasty food or beverages or signs indicating imminent danger). By this definition motivation is the psychological drive that arouses an organism to action toward a desired goal. This concept is also used to explain differences in intensity of behaviour. More intense behaviours are thought to result from higher levels of motivation. Furthermore, motivation can also be used to indicate the persistence of behaviours. For example a highly motivated behaviour will most often be persistent even though the intensity of the behaviour could be low (Franken, 2007 p. 4).

For more information, see What is motivation?

Holism and The Humanistic Perspective in Psychology[edit | edit source]

Humanism is a school of thought in psychology which developed at the turn of the twentieth century. It emerged as a result of dissatisfaction with psychoanalytic and behaviourist models that were viewed as insufficient or outdated (Schneider, Bugental & Pierson, 2001). Humanistic psychology is characterised by the search for human potential and encouraging development. This same view stressed the role of personal choice and the importance of personal growth and self actualization (Humanistic Psychology, 2009). One of the main proponents of Humanism was Carl Rogers, an influential American psychologist who was one of the most prominent theorists developing the notion of holism. Holism is a key theoretical component of the humanistic school of thought which rejects the reductionist point of view about the human condition. Instead it believes that the properties of an individual cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone; rather the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave (Pribram, 1979). Within the context of motivation, no need or drive can be treated as if it were discrete or isolated. Every drive is viewed as related to the state of satisfaction or the dissatisfaction of other drives (Harriman, 1970). This is a dominant notion throughout the humanistic perspectives, especially self actualization (Pribram).

Abraham Maslow on Self Actualiztion[edit | edit source]

"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we can call self actualization (Maslow, 1943 p. 34)".

, 1908-1970]]

Abraham Maslow (1943) famously elaborated on the term self actualization soon after the term was coined by Kurt Goldstein. Maslow took a more specific and limited lens on self actualization; referring it to a person's desire for fulfilled and the desire to achieve everything within their potential. Maslow followed on to describe self actualization as our tendency to become increasingly closer to who we are and to become actualized in everything we are capable of. Maslow described this term in light of his hierarchical theory on human motivation. He believed that upon achieving all of the preceding lower order needs, a person's desire to become self actualized will take form in varying ways amongst different people (Maslow, 1943). Maslow's definition of self actualization developed through early interviews with people he both knew and admired. He then interviewed another sample of people he thought were self-actualized. He would wrote down a list of common traits he identified among each of the subjects, searching for some correlation. Maslow then took that trait list and analysed a second sample of self-actualized individuals who matched up with many of the the key traits. Famous People which Maslow felt were self-actualized included Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Aldous Huxley and Elanor Roosevelt. Through a process of refining his trait list again and again, Maslow eventually came up with what he believed to be a stable list of attributes which would define the self-actualised individual (Maslow, 1943). Some of these most notable attributes include being honest and being involved in a cause outside of one's self and experiencing fully, vividly, and selflessly with full concentration and absorption. Self actualized people were also described as spontaneous and as having profound interpersonal relationships, meaning that their serious relationships are few yet deep. Another of the main traits Maslow associated with self actualised individuals was a philosophical sense of humour and high capacity for Creativity (Maslow, 1943).

See also #Behaviours characterised by self actualised people

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[edit | edit source]

Description of theory[edit | edit source]

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) is a motivational theory that emphasises the humanistic view of striving to reach one's full potential as a basic human motivation. This theory is often represented visually as a pyramid split into five sections. At the bottom are the most fundamental human needs and higher order needs are situated progressively up the pyramid. Maslow believed that human needs arrange themselves in this prepotency. This meant that the appearance of one need is generally reliant on the prior satisfaction of another more basic or pre-potent needs. Upon satisfying all of the lower order needs, a person is said to reach the ultimate pinnacle of this model, self actualization.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological needs[edit | edit source]

As the name suggests, physiological needs are the literal requirements for human survival. These are the requirements for the human body to simply continue functioning. This primitive level of motivation includes breathing, nutrition and homeostasis. Physiological needs also include metabolic requirements such as water and food as well as clothing and shelter which are necessary to provide protection from the elements. These are thought to be the strongest needs because if a person were deprived of all needs, the physiological ones would come first in the person's search for satisfaction (Maslow, 1943 p.26).

Safety needs[edit | edit source]

Once an individual’s physiological needs have been fulfilled, humans are then motivated towards satisfying their safety needs. Safety and Security requirements in modern people take the form in the need for personal security, financial security the need for law and social order, health and well being and having a safety net against accidents, illness and their adverse impacts. Adults are thought to have little awareness of their safety/ security needs except in times of emergency or periods of disorganization in the social structure (such as widespread rioting). Conversely children regularly display the signs of insecurity and the need to be safe. Interestingly again, safety needs can never be over satisfied; and according to this hierarchy, if a individual feels threatened, higher order needs will not receive attention until that threat has been resolved (Maslow, 1943 p.28).

Love and belonging[edit | edit source]

Once physiological and safety needs are satisfied, the third layer of human needs are social and involve feelings of belongingness. This is the first of what Maslow describes as our higher order needs. Love and belonging needs involve all emotionally based relationships such as friendships, family and intimate relationships. These needs can be expressed through an individual’s desire to seek out friendships, belong to a group and to give and receive love. These needs might be expressed through the search for a mate and the desire to be part of a family. In the absence of these elements people can become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety and depression. Maslow believes that this level is what the majority of the population remains at (Maslow, 1943 p.32).

Esteem[edit | edit source]

Once the individual has achieved love and belonging the next higher order need is that of esteem. Maslow distinguished between two levels of esteem needs: reputation and Self-Esteem. Esteem needs related to reputation include a person’s desire for attention, recognition and social status. Self esteem needs on the other hand consist of the desire for accomplishment and self respect. When these needs are satisfied, the person develops confidence and feels like a valuable person in the world. When these needs are frustrated, it can lead to an inferiority complex, and the individual can feel weak, helpless and worthless (Maslow, 1943 p.33).

Self actualization[edit | edit source]

Once all four of these needs have been met, the individual has reached the summit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; self actualization. The individual’s needs then become about the quest of reaching their full potential as a person. Self actualised people tend to have motivators such as justice, wisdom, truth and meaning. Maslow describes self actualization as a person’s need to be and do that which the person was born to do. Unlike lower level needs, this need is never fully satisfied. As the person grows psychologically, new opportunities are thought to arise; presenting new ways for the individual to continue to grow (Maslow, 1943 p.34).

Research on Self Actualization[edit | edit source]

What do we know[edit | edit source]

behaviours characterised by self actualised people[edit | edit source]

Self actualised people share a range of characteristics, most of which contribute to the development of their greater potential. By definition Self Actualized People must be free from psychopathology and have progressed through the hierarchy of basic needs. Another essential criterion for becoming self-actualized is to realize your need to grow and develop, and to increasingly strive to become who you are fully capable of becoming. Self actualised individuals are not static beings who embrace the status quo, rather, than embrace change, because change is necessary for growth. Other traits correlated among self actualised individuals innclue listening to their own voice, taking responsibility, being honest and being involved in a cause outside of themselves. They experience fully, vividly, and selflessly with full concentration and absorption (Maslow, 1965). Self actualised individuals are thought to have a more efficient perception of reality and are better able to distinguish between fact and fiction. They live with spontaneity and without artifice and have greater acceptance of themselves, others and nature. Among the traits associated with self actualised people they tended to be more problem-centred, instead of ego-centred, be more independent and autonomous and have a higher need for privacy. One notable characteristic found across nearly al self actualise individuals was the presence of profound interpersonal relationships, meaning that their serious relationships are few yet deep. Self-actualisers also tend to be friendly to people without regard to race, gender, age, ethnicity, or social status and are resistant to enculturisation. Another of the main traits associated with self actualised individuals was a philosophical sense of humour and high capacity for creativity. Furthermore, self actualised people are more likely to experience B-Love (love for the essence or being of the other). Maslow makes the distinction between this type of love and D-Love (deficiency love) (in which someone loves another person solely because they are driven to satisfy their needs for love and belongingness) (Maslow, 1943; Showstrom, 1964).

Further research on self actualised individuals revealed that they are more successful in initiating, developing, and maintaining effective, fulfilling relationships with other people (Johnson, 1972 p.14). Self actualised individuals are also thought to be correlated with higher levels of emotional intelligence, better outcomes at work, better general health and well being (Ciarrochi, Forgas & Mayer, 2001 p. 83-90), and better mental health (Knapp, 1965).

What don’t we know[edit | edit source]

"Since, in our society, basically satisfied people are the exception, we do not know much about self actualization, either experimentally or clinically. It remains a challenging problem for research (Maslow, 1943 p. 35)."

Measuring Self Actualization[edit | edit source]

One area of self actualization that requires further understanding is how to accurately measure this construct. Early attempts at quantifying a person's degree of self actualization included Showstrom’s Personality Orientation Inventory developed in 1963. This consisted of 150 two choice comparative values aimed at quantifying an individual’s levels of self actualization (Showstrom, 1964). An example of this is choosing: (a) two people will get along best if each concentrates on pleasing the other person; or (b) two people will get along best if each person feels free to express themselves. Within Showstrom’s inventory there are 2 major scales, and 10 subscales. The first of the major scales measures "present orientation", which represents how much an individual embraces as existential approach to life. The second major scale measures "self vs other" orientation, or Ego-centrism. The ten subscales then examine the individual character traits of self-actualized individuals as described by Maslow (Showstrom).

The second notable attempt at measuring self-actualizing tendency was the Short Index of Self-Actualization (Jones & Crandell, 1986). This is a 15-item index of self-actualization developed primarily on modified items from Showstrom's Personal Orientation Inventory. In fact the Short Index uses 15 items from the POI to which the participant must state their agreement on a 6 point likert scale (Strongly Disagree - Strongly Agree). Jones and Crandell claim this made the test much easier to administer and grade than the POI, and also reduces irritability due to the forced choice format of the Personality Orientation Inventory. Despite these improvements the tests creators still recognised a range of weaknesses associated with their scale and say these must one day be overcome in a bid to gain a truly accurate reflection of an individual's self actualising tendencies (Jones & Crandell).

Critiques of Maslow’s hierarchy and self actualization[edit | edit source]

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is the most widely accepted theory of human motivation.[factual?] Despite this there a still a range of criticisms directed at the theory. Firstly, critics claim that Maslow was not practising a credible, rigorous scientific methodology with his study. Some researchers feel that Maslow's work relied too heavily on case studies and that not enough experimental work was done on self actualization.[factual?] One example of Maslow conducting some real research was an early experiment where he screened 3000 university students in 1935. When he came up with only one suitable subject who met the criteria for self actualization, he abandoned the study (Ciarrochi, Forgas & Mayer, 2001 p. 89).

Further criticism is directed at the fact that Maslow’s recognition of self-actualized individuals was almost exclusively limited to Highly Educated White Males.[factual?] Critics believe that analysis of personality based solely upon the upper stratum of the dominant culture has failed to deliver a truly universal description of personality.[factual?] Some of these same critics also claim that implicit sexism, racism, and classism stem from Maslow’s work and therefore does not represent a valid way of understanding basic human personality (Nevis, 1983).

Critics then turn to specific examples of Maslow's hierarchy and how it can fail to account for some motives. One such example is people suffering from eating disorders, whereby a need for belonging can often overcome the physiological and security needs, depending on the strength of the peer pressure. An anorexic, for example, may completely ignore the need to eat and the security of health for a feeling of control and belonging (Beck, 2004 p.121). Another contemporary example is that of suicide bombers. These individuals are seemingly willing to ignore all of the most basic principles in Maslow’s hierarchy in order to sacrifice themselves for a principle or cause. In this instance the individual’s hierarchy of motives does not match that represented by Maslow (Baum, 2009).

Within literature on self actualization it is also important to note that even Maslow admits the self actualised individuals are not perfect. He pointed out that although they may not have many of the lesser failings common to all of us.[factual?] Self actualised people can still be silly, thoughtless and wasteful. They can also be boring, irritating and stubborn and may exhibit a superficial vanity concerning their own products and can show ruthlessness. Self actualised individuals may also feel guilt, sadness, anxiety and conflict arising from their realisation that they have not reached their full potential (Petri & Govern, 2004 p. 351).

A contemporary context[edit | edit source]

Maslow Hierarchy of needs and ERG theory of motivational forces in organisations[edit | edit source]

Maslow’s hierarchy seems to also hold true in industrial situations. An example of this is lower level workers who seem to be more motivated by money (which is required for food and shelter) and often lack any motivation to be creative in their jobs. Workers at higher levels generally have income sufficient to satisfy many of their lower order needs, and in this instance self actualization is often more important (Beck, 2004 p. 401).

In a bid to address some of the limitations of Maslow's hierarchy, Clayton Alderfer proposed the ERG theory of motivation, which describes our needs in a different hierarchy. The letters ERG stand for three levels of needs: Existence, Relatedness, and Growth. These can be compared to Maslow's hierarchy in that existence represents physiological and safety needs, relatedness accounts for social and external esteem needs and growth encompasses self-actualization and internal esteem needs (Alderfer, 1969).

ERG theory differs from Maslow's hierarchy in that it allows the order of the needs be different for different people and it allows for different levels of needs to be pursued simultaneously. In further contrast ERG theory states that if a higher level need remains unfulfilled, the person may regress to a lower level need that appears easier to satisfy. This phenomenon called the frustration-regression principle (Alderfer, 1969; Alderfer & Guzzo, 1979).

ERG theory also lends itself well to organisational application and it helps managers to recognise that an employee has multiple needs that may need to be satisfied simultaneously. Application of ERG theory in the workplace facilitates managers in understanding how pay, relatedness with group and supervisors, and growth in one's job impact on the motivations of different employees (Alderfer & Guzzo, 1979). This allows for more effective management which can mean tailoring organisational conditions to maximise worker satisfaction and productivity and also allows managers to predict employee reactions to different organisational conditions (Alderfer & Guzzo; Chang & Yuan, 2008).

Learning Quiz

1 The term "self actualization" was first coined by,

Kurt Goldstein
Abraham Maslow
Adrian Maslow


Within Maslow's Hierarchy of needs food is classified as a

need whilst recognition is an


3 This term is used to describe the processes involved in initiating, maintaining and ceasing goal-oriented behaviour:

4 The 3 letters in Clayton Alderfers ERG theory stands for existence, relatedness and:



Self actualization has been correlated with higher levels of emotional


See also

  • Links to relevant other textbook chapters:

Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Introduction/What is motivation?

Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Goal setting

Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Self-sabotaging

Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Student motivation theories


References[edit | edit source]

Alderfer, C. P. 1969. An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Vol. 4, p. 142-175.

Alderfer, C. P & Guzzo, R. A. 1979. Life Experiences and Adults' Enduring Strength of Desires in Organisations. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 24, p. 347-357.

Baum, S. 2009. Review Essay: A Sociocultural Perspective on Genocide: A Review of The Psychology of Genocide: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Rescuers. Culture Psychology, Vol. 15, p. 349-362.

Beck, R. C. 2004. Motivation Theories and Principles, 5th Ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. New Jersey.

Chang, W & Yuan, S. 2008. A Synthesised Model of Markov Chain and ERG Theory for Behaviour Forecast in Collaborative Prototyping. Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application, Vol. 6, p. 19-24.

Ciarrochi, J., Forgas, J. P & Mayer, J. D. 2001. Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life: A Scientific Enquiry. Psychological Press, New York.

Franken, R. E. 2007. Human Motivation, 6th Ed. Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

Harriman. P L. 1970. Twentieth Century Psychology: Recent Developments in Psychology. Freeport, N.Y., Books for Libraries Press.

Humanistic Psychology. 2009. A Dictionary of Psychology. Edited by Andrew M. Colman. Oxford University Press 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.

Johnson, D. W. 1972. Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Jones, A & Crandall, R. 1986. Validation of a Short Index of Self Actualization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol. 12, p. 63-73.

Knapp, R. R. 1965. Relationship of a Measure of Self-Actualization to Neuroticism and Extraversion. Journal of Consulting Psychology, Vol. 29, p. 168-217.

Maslow, A. H. 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, Vol. 50, p.370-396.

Maslow, A. H. 1965. Self Actualization and Beyond. Massachusetts (Brookline); Massachusetts (Winchester).

Maslow, A. H. 1970. Motivation and Personality, 3rd Ed. Harper & Row, New York.

Nevis, E. C. 1983. Using an American Perspective in Understanding Another Culture: Toward a Hierarchy of Needs for the People's Republic of China. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 19, p. 249-264.

Petri, H. L & Govern, J. M. 2004. Motivation Theories, Research and Application. 5th Ed, Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

Pribram, K. 1979. Behaviourism, Phenomenology and Holism in Psychology: A Scientific Analysis. Journal of Social and Biological Systems. Vol. 2, p. 65-72.

Schneider. K, Bugental, J & Pierson, J. 2001. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, research and Practice. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.

Showstrom, E L. 1964. An Inventory for the measurement of Self-Actualization. Educational and Psychological Measurement. Vol. 24, p. 207.