Why is Maslow’s Theory of Self actualisation relevant to this course?

“As an example of how most theories of motivation seem to have a hole in” (SteveD).

AIM: I will consider the hole that Steve Draper suggested (1) and then look at a related, but different hole that I think is a bigger problem (2). I’ll also give an example of a reconstruction of Maslow’s Theory (2.b) because I think it highlights some of the factors that are missing to start with.


  1. a) Is there a disjunction between Self Actualisation and all the other goals? and.. b) How we can have a goal that we don’t know what it is or what it will lead to?
  2. a) Self Actualisation as the fulfilment of all basic needs? But is the gratification of all needs insufficient to explain self-actualisation? b) An example of a reconstruction of Maslow's Hierarchy to overcome this critique.

Just want to read ONE thing? – READ THIS - - - - Heylighen (1992): A Cognitive-Systematic Reconstruction of Maslows Theory of Self Actualization. Why? Because it clearly gives you: A review of Maslows Theory (p.40). A definition of Self Actualisation (p.41). Criticisms of Maslows Theory (p.45). And a Reconstruction of Maslow’s Theory (p.46).



-Maslow (1954) was the first to draw together research in many different domains related to motivation (e.g. Areas of biology and achievement had only previously been looked at separately, but Maslow included them both in his theory).

-He proposed that we have a Hierarchy of Needs and we cannot reach the higher ones until the lower ones are met. These needs were grouped into Deficiency needs (physiological needs; Safety and security; love and belongingness and self-esteem) and Growth Needs (Self-Actualisation). [Look HERE for a quick opinionated overview, OR look at Maslow's 'Theory of Human Motivation' paper for his detailed description of the needs]


Self-actualisation is defined by Maslow as the instinctual need of humans to make the most of their abilities and to strive to be the best they can. It is the growth of what is already in the organism.

Note: Maslow later differentiated the growth need of self-actualisation into four different needs, two prior (Need to Understand and Aesthetics need) to the general level of self actualisation and one need beyond it (Self-transcendence). Maslow makes an exception to his rule and claims that self transcendence is accessible from many levels (and you don't need lower needs to be satisfied in order to have a transcendent experience).


Other than this one exception added later. Maslow does state that: 'Self Actualisation is the fulfillment of all our lower needs'



1.a) Is there a disjunction between Self Actualisation and all the other goals?

Yes: Maslow distinguishes that there is a difference between Self-Actualisation and the other four needs in that self-actualisation, unlike the deficiency needs that must be met, is a need for personal growth and improvement.

He also talks about the difference between growth and deficiency motivations. Deficiency motivations are present in the lower needs and involve a response to a lack of something (thus we have a clear goal to obtain the thing we lack). On the other hand growth motivation in the self actualisation need (and the other growth needs like the need to understand) stimulates development. Maslow stated that people’s perceptions and cognitions change in that once they no longer strive to obtain things (deficiency needs) they can instead strive to become better and more effective or fulfill their potential.


1.b) How we can have a goal that we don’t know what it is or what it will lead to?

Definitions: A goal has been defined as “the state of affairs that a plan is intended to achieve and that (when achieved) terminates behaviour intended to achieve it.” and has also been defined as a 'destination' or 'end'.

Maslow talks about the fact that people are continuously self actualising. In fact for all the growth needs, the more one obtains some of it (e.g. understanding) the more one desires a deeper level.

This sounds like a problem? It describes a desire for a state of affairs that are never quite reached. But Maslow does talk of people having reached Self Actualisation (or more clearly put, they have reached the stage of being self actualisers). According to Maslow’s descriptions of Self actualisers, I would say that a self-actualised individual is one who has satisfied their lower goals and now has developmental goals. Thus, they have reached the point where their goal is now the process and not the end point. This is an example of intinsic motivation (See Self-Actualization and Beyond by Maslow).

What makes them so different from typical goals is that these developmental goals are defined by their functionality rather than their content. Different ways in which they might be achieved have been proposed. One interesting example is called Bridging (see this article). It talks about bridging shells that are created that do not carry content, but are functional and serve as a goal for learning. They highlight that they are fundamentally different from having no acknowledgement of the existence of anything more.


2.a) Self Actualisation as the fulfilment of all basic needs? But is the gratification of all needs insufficient to explain self-actualisation

I think that the Hole in Maslow’s Theory is that the fulfillment of all basic needs is not sufficient to explain self actualisation. This is an indirect effect of the fact that the lower needs are so distinct from the growth need of self actualisation. Even people who are able to satisfy all their lower needs, will not necessarily reach the described state of striving to fulfill ones potential (or self actualisation). Instead they might just continue to look for gratification of their lower needs (even though they have already reached a sufficient level). So there is a gap (or a hole) here where Maslow Fails to say what is additionally needed in order to gain Self actualisation.


2.b) Heylighen’s Reconstruction – His aim is to reconstruct the theory to create a less 'confusing' definiton of self actualisation AND so that it can can explain the occurrence of self actualisation (because it is insufficient to just be explained by the gratification of all needs):

Cognitive and temporal aspects: not in Maslow’s Theory. - Heylighen points out that most of the aspects of self actualisers are cognitive (e.g. accurate perception, creative problem solving, effective decision-making, high capacity for learning), but that in stating how self actualiation is obtained Maslow does not mention cognition. It is also clear that a self actualiser can feel thirsty or lonely and still be a self actualiser. In this sense it is not the actual gratification of a lower need that is essential but instead the individual's perception that they are capable of satisfying the need before it is too late (thus adding a temporal aspect).

Redefinition - Overview: Heylighen redefined the beginning of self actualisation as the ‘perceived competence to satisfy needs in due time’. There are three components to this competence: Material competence (Need to have access to the resources needed for satisfying your need); Cognitive competence (Need to be able to recognise and effectively apply the resources); and Subjective awareness (your belief that you are capable of satisfying the need.) All three of these components interact.

Heylighen suggests that what is needed to self actualise corresponds to these different components of perceived competence. He says there would have to be sufficient resources (material competence). He also suggests a certain level of genetically inherited intelligence would be needed, but that relative deficiencies could be overcome by good education. What he views as good education is a culture or experience that inspires an individual to learn new distinctions and explore new things (not just to accept ideas based on authority). However this is not sufficient and healthy subjective awareness is also needed (so child traumas or bad experiences could affect ones belief in oneself and this would need to be resolved before self actualisation was possible).


Summary (conclusion):

Maslow's Heirarchy of needs is a widely accepted and popular theory of motivation, but on closer inspection it also has various problems and questionable conclusions. (in the further reading you can see many more criticisms of it).

Maslow acknowledges that there is a difference between deficiency needs and self actualisation needs, but his theory fails to bridge this gap and explain how an individual is able to cross from satisfying the lower needs to becoming a self actualiser. The distinction between the deficiency and growth needs themselves and the fact that the goals used for satisfying these two needs are of a very different nature, does not cause a direct problem for the theory. However it could be seen as causing an indirect problem because the difference in nature contributes to making it unconvincing that gratification of the lower needs alone would be enough for self actualisation to be obtained.

By looking at a cognitive adaptation of Maslow's humanistic theory, we can see that there are other factors that seem to better explain motivation and behaviour than Maslow's theory does. It illustrates that our subjective perceptions of our needs are often more important in explaining our motivation than our objective state. It also takes into account time frames for satisfying different needs. Whether you agree with Heylighen's reconstruction or not, it does highlight that Maslow's theory is lacking.


Further reading:

Maslow's own papers:

Self-Actualization and Beyond by Abraham Maslow (1965): This is something that Maslow wrote about self-actualising in reference to Education . Its good for getting Maslow's perspective on Self Actualisation and how he relates it to education.

A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow (1943): Look to Page 18 for Maslow's own Summary of this paper.

Info on Maslow's Theory (Support and Critique):

An Empirical Test of Maslows Need Hierarchy Theory, Graham and Baloun, (1973): The results from this study did lend some emprical support to Maslow's theory as the significant results were in the predicted directions.

General Psychology Wiki Page: Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs- Outlines the different needs and gives some counter-positions . And for another opinion and discussion of Maslow look at Maslow by George Boeree.

A taster of the criticisms that you will find in the above two links include: a) Unscientific methodology b) Too many constraints on self actualisation. c) Evidence Against the ranking of the needs. d) Self actualisation as vaguely defined – Examples that not everyone seeks it. E) Cultural differences.

Mark Zimmerman’s Online Emotional Intelligence Course. This link has LOTS of interesting information relating Maslow and Self Actualisation to Education. The chapters allow you to check if there are any headings that particularly interest you. Here are some potentially interesting chapter topics: Chp 7 – is on Maslows’s Theory. Chp 8- claims that self actualisation needs should be split into self-knowledge learning needs and self actualisation needs. Chp 6 is about Maslow and Ortho Education.


Granott et al, Bridging to the Unknown: A Transition Mechanism in Learning and Development. (2002). In Nira Granott & Jim Parziale (Eds.), Microdevelopment: Transition processes in development and learning. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. - This Article explains Bridging (How nes abilities are created out of less advanced ones) and briefly talks about different views of what creates development (p.3), including Piaget's theory of development.

Further Theories (reconstructions and adaptations)

Heylighen (1992): A Cognitive-Systematic Reconstruction of Maslows Theory of Self Actualization. This is also the recommended paper, it goes into much more depth about a cognitive reconstruction of Maslow's theory than I have detailed in 2(b).

Overview of Motivation Theories- this just gives a brief outline of lots of different theories of motivation including Aldefers ERG theory that builds and adapts Maslow’s Hierarchy.

A quick note on what the above says about the ERG theory – It could be seen as a more rational version of Maslow’s Hierarchy. It does not include sex in the bottom category (as it is not cruicial to an individual’s survival). Also Alderfer claimed as higher needs are satisfied they become more intense (e.g. more money you get, the more you want it).