Maslow, Abraham Harold

Maslow, Abraham Harold (1908-1970), an American psychologist, is best known for launching humanistic psychology, which emphasizes the independent value of human beings and their ability to develop to their full potential.

Maslow, who felt unloved by his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and subjected to anti-Semitism at school, had an unhappy childhood. Although his father hoped he would become a lawyer, Maslow chose to study psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned his doctorate in 1934.

Maslow returned to New York in 1935, where he was a research assistant at Teachers College, Columbia University, before joining the faculty at Brooklyn College in 1937. During his years in New York, he was mentored by Alfred Adler, one of the early adherents of Freudian psychoanalysis, as well as by anthropologist Ruth Benedict and psychologist Max Wertheimer. Maslow's professional and personal admiration for Benedict and Wertheimer not only led him to study their behavior but shaped his life's research on mental health and human potential. He became a founder and leader of humanistic psychology, which he dubbed psychology's “third force”—the other two being behaviorism and psychoanalysis.

According to Maslow, human beings' needs were arranged on several levels, and the most basic must be satisfied before others can be fulfilled. The physical ones are the most basic, followed by safety needs and social-psychological ones. At the top were “self-actualizing” needs—to fulfill all that the self is capable of becoming. Using Benedict and Wertheimer as models of self-actualization, he shifted the focus of psychology from mental abnormalities to positive mental health. Maslow's idea that people possess innate potential for growth led to the development of different therapies designed to remove obstacles to self-actualization.

In 1951 Maslow moved to Massachusetts, where he established and headed the psychology department at Brandeis University for a decade. Maslow spent his final decade in California, where he died of a heart attack in 1970.