What Abraham Maslow got Wrong about the Limits of Science and Psychological Knowledge

A group of evolutionary psychologists is proposing a revision to Abraham H. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs pyramid, replacing self-actualization at the top with parenting. They will continue, quite sensibly, to be put physical needs at the base of the pyramid, reflecting Maslow’s insight that when these are not met, human beings tend to think about little else.

The revisionists want to place parenting at the top because they see no evolutionary purpose to self-actualization. There is a better reason to be dubious of a psychology theory that tries to assign scientific validation or superiority to self-actualization or any other subjective values concerning how people should live.

The best sense I can give of how influential Maslow was in psychology in the 1960s and 1970s is that the eminent George Albee ran against him in 1968 for American Psychological Association president and lost by a landslide, leading George to say “My wife and mother voted for Maslow”. Maslow was influential because he was very smart, wrote well, and had many good ideas. But he was also influential because his theory told many of the cultural elites of the era that they were objectively more mental healthy and more psychologically developed than were their opponents. Flattering poppycock, and also dangerously undemocratic.

I worked with a Maslow student very early in my career, and so with trembling hands was able to read my mentor’s copy of Motivation and Personality, which was autographed by the great man himself. It still reads very well today, but when it comes to discussing self-actualization, it’s simply wrong. Maslow did what Kolhberg did in his theory of moral development and Rollo May and all the existentialist psychiatrists did in their theories: He asserted that the objectively highest state of human development was to be like him and like people he admired.

Maslow admired many people I admire, Abraham Lincoln for example. But he and I can’t admire Lincoln through some objective lens as psychologists or scientists. We can only say we admire Lincoln with the same level of objectivity that someone else might admire Jefferson Davis. Maslow wanted to give a scientific validation that, for example, the Viet Nam war protester was objectively superior to the Viet Nam war general, the environmentalist was objectively superior to the captain of industry etc. Many cultural elites ate it up, just as Soviet elites ate it up when their psychiatrists said that anyone who didn’t love the government was mentally ill and needed electroshock treatment post-haste.

Psychologists and social scientists generally still venture repeatedly today into the territory of human values and attempt to claim the ability to make objective judgments about which are the most healthy or scientifically validated. They don’t ever seem to learn that they are often just trying to rationalize cultural fashions: In the 1940s the “mentally healthy” person was one who respected tradition, but he morphed into the to-be-pitied “organization man” in the 1950s. Many psychologists valorized divorce as the “authentic, mentally healthy choice” for those who were not “growing” in the 1970s, whereas today they tend to say that it’s better to stick it out and stop complaining so much. Maybe humility should go at the top of the pyramid of psychological development for psychologists. In a democracy, social scientists and health experts should not cast themselves as able to render objective judgments on how everyone else should live.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

30 thoughts on “What Abraham Maslow got Wrong about the Limits of Science and Psychological Knowledge”

  1. I think I understand what you're saying, and I don't have basis to disagree, but here's a little nip to the ankle.

    To whatever extent social science and health expertise are scientific, it's reasonable to expect change as the science progresses. Yes?

    In contrast, the way authoritarian conservatives, religionists usually, forever render judgments on how everyone else should live is much more bothersome. Destructive, too.

  2. I need to read the article in question, but I'm a bit confused–is the problem an overextended generalization of narrowly-shared, and historically contingent, motivational structures, or is the problem an is-ought slip about what constitutes "mental health"? Because if the problem is the latter, I'd be at least as worried about the potential for this new, parenting-capped pyramid, to be misused.

    More pessimistically: so long as access to medical technology & pharmaceutical supply is controlled by doctors & psychiatrists, there's going to be a *structural* push towards casting "judgments on how everyone else should live" in supposedly value-free terms. If you want to play the game, those are simply the rules. Think of trans-folk who want sex-reassignment surgery or hormone treatments. The "real" question, obviously, is "should they be allowed to control their bodies in this fashion?", but the rules of the game require reformulating it as, "do they have objectively determinable ailments that can be medically 'treated'?"

  3. Hi X. Trapnel

    It is an is-ought gap. I have zero opinion on the parenting change proposed because I have not read the evolutionary psychologists' paper. My point is the reason to be against self-actualization as an objective judgment is not because of their evolutionary point, but because of the is ought point you raise.

    On your question, physicians are experts at determining who is ill…but they have no more expertise than anyone else in deciding how we all respond to illness, that is a question of values and not science.

  4. Steve

    Is it reasonable to expect change? Maybe, but it isn't scientific. Science told us how to build a H-Bomb. We didn't have to build it though, we chose to, and that was not a scientific decision (whether one agrees with it or not). This is why there is no such thing as "evidence-based public policy", scientific evidence can't tell us what we care about, and can't and shouldn't overturn democratic processes, e.g., voting, free speech.

  5. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Obviously you know a lot more about Maslow (and psychology generally) than I do. But does the notion of self-actualization carry within it any particular conception of the subjective values to be actualized? I suppose one could categorize the meta-principle "be true to your values" as a kind of value but to me it seems a stretch.

    Anyway some conceptions seem right to us not because they provide specific explanations or predictions of empirical facts but because they provide fruitful frameworks for looking at things that can lead to those. They are more about utility than truth (not that I want to get into THAT argument). The idea that thinking is computational has a similar standing at this point — what's the alternative?

    Maslow is as much a part of how we think about ourselves now as Freud and just as impervious to scientific nitpicking. Freud becomes Disney's "a dream is wish your heart makes, when you're fast asleep," and Maslow becomes the US Army's "be all that you can be."

  6. Hi Larry

    Here are some examples: For Maslow, a self-actualized person is deeply engaged in self-exploration (Why is that objectively better than the person who sets navel gazing aside and spends life focused on others, i.e., it's not about me?). A self-actualized person has autonomy from the culture and creates his own values (Why is that objectively better than the person who deeply respects his culture and tends to follow tradition?). A self-actualized person accepts himself as he or she is (Why is that objectively better than the person who believes in original sin? Or just that he or she has a lot of improvements to make and won't be satisfied until he or she becomes more moral, careful, effective or whatever?).

    My point isn't to say those are the wrong values or the right values, just that they are values and not something that can be objectively judged as healthier or more scientific than other values. As is evident to you no doubt from these examples, the values Maslow celebrated were those that were rising in resonance in the late 1960s when Maslow was most influential. If you go back 20 years or forward 20 years you can find other psychologists saying that the truly superior values are whatever was rising in their particular epoch. And so it goes.

  7. I'd quibble with two of your examples. Seems to me a respecting the culture and following tradition is not necessarily inconsistent with having autonomy from the culture and creating one's own values, in the sense that one might do the former by choice rather than compulsion. Being autonomous doesn't automatically mean disrespecting the culture's values or rejecting tradition; it simply means, I should think, being free to choose.

    And accepting oneself as one is doesn't preclude believing in original sin or pursuing personal improvement; isn't it more about not beating oneself up for one's deficiencies? (As a minister of my acquaintance used to put it, "I'm not OK and you're not OK–and that's OK.")

    As to the first, it sounds more like self-actualization would be the product of deep self-exploration rather than a feature of the state itself. Would Maslow really have considered a person not to be self-actualized simply because she is focused on others? Wouldn't it depend on the motivation? If it's an avoidance tactic, that wouldn't be self-actualization; but if "It's not about me" comes from a freedom from neurotic selfish concerns, seems to me it would be common among the self-actualized.

    I guess what I'm left with is that any "objective values" Maslow linked to self-actualization are open to question, but that the basic concept can be understood entirely independently of such values.

    (In any case, I can't for the life of me figure out how "parenting" can replace "self-actualization" in a hierarchy of needs. What if one isn't a parent? Or does it mean the need to be parented? If so, for how long?)

  8. KH: Okay–and now I really will read the article. I think your broader point about disentangling values from psychology/social-science, though, really needs to be firmly embedded within an institutional context. It's almost never a matter of good, disinterested scientists vs. bad, deceptive moralizers-in-disguise. Psychology is a good example here: "physicians are experts at determining who is ill…but they have no more expertise than anyone else in deciding how we all respond to illness, that is a question of values and not science" just isn't a helpful framework with which to look at, to take one pressing example, the DSM 5 revisions. We all know that the judgments that get made here–what counts as illness, what doesn't–will, *in fact*, have serious effects, both direct and indirect, for how we respond to various illnesses-or-not. Yes, plenty of institutions and agents mediate between the committee proposing a DSM revision and the person who is or isn't allowed a drug, a surgery, an insurance payment, a sick day, whatever. But that doesn't mean that someone working on such a committee can simply ignore all normative considerations, not least because the very *concept* of illness (or rather its converse, health) is inherently purposive.

  9. Hi Swift Loris

    Maslow was quite explicit that he was talking about values, and his nice little book "religion, peak experiences and values" specifically draws contrasts between what he considers good and bad values. You can of course make your own argument that self-actualization can be conceptualized apart from any set of values — but that would be the opposite of what he argues in his books.

  10. X Trapnel:

    >It’s almost never a matter of good, disinterested scientists vs. bad, deceptive moralizers-in-disguise

    I would not say almost never, I would say never.

  11. Thank you, Keith. "Self-actualization" as expressed by Maslow always struck me as a goal or developmental stage that suits some people and doesn't suit others. And actually, when people go whole hog for self actualization, it often doesn't look particularly attractive. Parenting (or the equivalent for people who don't have children, which I guess would be something along the lines of "contributing to your community") isn't always pretty either, but it's got more to recommend it than navel gazing does.

  12. Psychiatrists, at least, can’t avoid the concept of health, which inherently involves prudential value judgments. Philosophers & analytically oriented physicians have tried to circumscribe the field (see, e.g., Dominic Murphy, Psychiatry in the Scientific Image), but in practice it’s often difficult for clinicians to avoid assuming the role of wise men & prescribing some comprehensive theory of the meaning of life. The culture often demands it of them.

  13. Keith,

    In Dark Sun Rhodes makes it a persuasive case that once a solution to the problems of the fusion bomb was found, its construction was inevitable. From the political side, we had to have it before the godless communists got it, for fear of what they would do if they had it and we didn't. From the science side, the solution is technically elegant. Although the equations say it should work, the proof of the concept is in the explosion. To do that, you've got to build one. It was in part a science/engineering decision, pushed hard by Edward Teller.

  14. The EP attempt at hijacking Maslow's moralizing is a bit amusing. EP in general is pretty amusing. For moralizers and defenders of status quo, they're almost as spectacularly bad at dressing up in science drag – the famous "study" of why women like pink comes to mind – as creationists.

    The notion that spawning is the pinnacle of achievement is especially rich. One would think that such staunch defenders would pick something that didn't tend to happen by accident for a significant fraction of humanity. Yes, I know that 'parenting' in this context is defined as something that passes on 'good' habits and values, but that just makes it either funnier or sadder, depending on your sense of humor. The idea that a family that sends spawn to Andover and a family that teaches spawn smuggling skills differ in how they adapt children to their environment is laughable. If you're of a mind to disagree, picture someone like Megan McArdle or Ezra Klein optimizing lifestyle in a slum for the first three months of the sort of transplant thought experiment usually engaged in when this comes up. (If you're of a mind to say we shouldn't teach kids to optimize life in slums, there's a bit of a chicken and egg problem – if you don't magically get rid of the slums, all you've done is failed to prepare people for their environment.)

  15. If a self-actualized person is able to mentally step away from his/her culture and evaluate it dispassionately, and then develop his own values to guide his own life in the places where he finds the culture's values lacking — why then, that can be the source of extremely beneficial cultural evolution.

    In my lifetime, for example, several great waves of individuals saying, "Wait, this part of the culture isn't cutting it for me, I need/have an alternative," led to the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the disability rights movement and the gay rights movement.

    These movements have made our culture more fair, more just, and more productive.

    And what Jamie said. Anyone who is interested in a very thoughtful critique of EP ought to head over to Echidne of the Snakes. She's an economist who periodically rips EP to shreds.

  16. Steve says:

    > To whatever extent social science and health expertise are scientific, it’s reasonable to expect change as the science progresses. Yes?

    Yes but. Think about the kind of change that happens in perception as science progresses. Unless the old thinking was just wrong (generally because it was not based on evidence, or on very thin evidence) it still shows up in the new thinking as a description of some limiting case. So, for example, Newton's mechanics is perfectly good for most calculations about motion in the Solar system. People still learn it in their first semester of physics. In contrast, the phlogiston theory of combustion was based on prescientific conjectures about matter and was completely replaced by the explanation that combustion is due to the rapid chemical reaction of oxygen with fuel… it is no longer taught as any part of a chemistry student's training.

    There's probably some kind of lesson about how recently "social science and health expertise" have started to contribute to human knowledge in that sense to be gotten by recollecting that as recently as 50 years ago, lobotomies were widely thought to be of some use.

  17. On what appears to be a side note, I don't think anything in this discussion shows that 'evidence-based policy' is impossible or undesirable. Evidence-based policy is way better than ideology-based policy, without evidence. I agree however with a more narrowly focused point, that the evidence does not dictate the policy response to it (or to the problem that provoked one to collect the evidence). There is always a choice what to do with the evidence, and that choice will be made according to values, politics, economics, etc. But let's have those choices at least respect the evidence as far as possible, rather than ignore it. Examples of ignoring it are too common to need recitation here.

  18. "…so long as access to medical technology & pharmaceutical supply is controlled by doctors & psychiatrists, there’s going to be a *structural* push towards casting “judgments on how everyone else should live” Comment 2

    Good point X Trapnel. And then there's this aspect highlighted in New Scientist article (Sign in for free preview): "How the US exports its mental illnesses", 20 January 2010 by Ethan Watters, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527441.20

    And Swift Loris: "…In any case, I can’t for the life of me figure out how “parenting” can replace “self-actualization” in a hierarchy of needs. …" at Comment 9- You are highly self-actualized, aren't you? That was funny!

  19. Why would parenting go on the top? Surely it's obvious that parenting in fact is often folded in with love/belonging, (historically, since you had no pensions much of the time) security, esteem, and the top motivation, which is indeed grossly misnamed as "self-actualization" since if you look at the examples he offers, he is obviously talking about dedication, which sacrifices the self to a higher good, such as telling the truth, or doing right, or making the best possible art, or many, many, many other things which can be a higher good only in the eyes of one dedicated to them.

  20. The idea of parenting as a "need" is just terrifying. As with navel-gazing, some people are suited to it, others aren't. Maybe if it were in the extended sense of "mentoring" or "passing on accumulated knowledge" it would make sense from an ev-psych point of view.

  21. I'm not sure this is really discussion what Maslow said. As I remember it from the '50s when I was in graduate school, I thought of self-actualization as developing those areas of personal competence in which one was particularly interested or talented. Within his construct, one had already to have developed self-respect and a sense of community. Which seems to me not to be particularly at odds with the idea of "parenting" as a pinnacle if it is generalised to giving within a community. This could easily be seen as using one's particular talents for the greater good.

    It all feels to me like, "It has been a couple of generations, and we need to think of a new way of putting it, so that we can be important."

  22. From an article in the year 2030:

    "In the 2010s, psychologists thought parenting was the top of Maslow's pyramid. Now they think differently."

    Although, I have to say, I never understood what "self-actualization" was supposed to be. I understand what parenting is: something I want no part of.

  23. Interesting how "parenting" is at the top of the pyramid now. So it's now *objectively* *morally* *correct* to say "because I'm your mom that's why" (or, "because we're the FDA that's why", sort of thing.) And if you complain that it seems arbitrary and vindictive, well, you just don't understand because your morality isn't fully developed yet.

  24. Steve said: To whatever extent social science and health expertise are scientific, it’s reasonable to expect change as the science progresses. Yes?

    In contrast, the way authoritarian conservatives, religionists usually, forever render judgments on how everyone else should live is much more bothersome. Destructive, too.

    Nonsense. Research study after research study have shown that people who actively practice their faith (prayer, reading sacred writing, meeting together with other believers) are psychologically and physiologically healthier than those who have no faith. Whether we're talking suicide, depression, drug addiction, recovery from surgery, immune resistance, life expectancy, the lesson is clear: "religionists" do better.

    They are also less likely to believe in flying saucers, astrology, Bigfoot, and Keynesian economics. (Okay, so I made up the Keynesian part, you gotta have fun sometime!)

  25. Frank, are you saying that religious people derive increased satisfaction in life from bossing other people around?

    I didn't think so.

    I wasn't talking about peaceful, live-and-let-live people of faith. I was talking about religionists like the dumbasses who are going to burn Korans on the 11th, protesters at the proposed Sufi center insufficiently distant from the WTC site, sexual moralizers and the like. Authoritarian zealots and posers, their followers, politicians pandering to them.

  26. Nonsense. Research study after research study have shown that people who actively practice their faith (prayer, reading sacred writing, meeting together with other believers) are psychologically and physiologically healthier than those who have no faith. Whether we’re talking suicide, depression, drug addiction, recovery from surgery, immune resistance, life expectancy, the lesson is clear: “religionists” do better.

    In other words, it's irrelevant whether religions are true or false. You should force yourself to believe them, because it will make you healthier.

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