Chapter 23: Maslow: Holistic-Dynamic Psychology

Part 1: Abraham Maslow

Maslow stands alongside Rogers as one of the founders of humanistic psychology.  Although he began his career working with two of the most famous experimental psychologists in America, he was profoundly influenced by the events that led into World War II.  He became devoted to studying the more virtuous aspects of personality, and he may be viewed as one of the founders of positive psychology. Well-known primarily for his work on self-actualization, Maslow also had a significant impact on the field of management.  His fame in both psychology and business makes him a candidate for being perhaps the best-known psychologist of all time (Freud is certainly more famous, but remember that he was a psychiatrist). According to Maslow, his holistic-dynamic theory of personality was a blend of theories that had come before his:

This theory is, I think, in the functionalist tradition of James and Dewey, and is fused with the holism of Wertheimer, Goldstein, and Gestalt psychology, and with the dynamicism of Freud, Fromm, Horney, Reich, Jung, and Adler.  This integration or synthesis may be called a holistic-dynamic theory. (pg. 35; Maslow, 1970)

Brief Biography of Abraham Maslow

Abraham H. Maslow was born on April 1, 1908 in Brooklyn, New York.  Abraham was the first of seven children. His father, Samuel, had left Kiev, Russia at just 14 years old.  When Samuel Maslow arrived in America he had no money and did not speak English. Samuel Maslow spent a few years in Philadelphia, doing odd jobs and learning the language, before moving to New York City where he married his first cousin Rose and began a cooperage business (a cooper builds and repairs barrels).  Samuel and Rose Maslow did not have a happy marriage, and Abraham Maslow was particularly sensitive to this fact. Maslow resented his father’s frequent absences and apparently hated his mother. His mother was a superstitious woman, who severely punished Maslow for even minor misbehavior by threatening him with God’s wrath.  Maslow developed an intense distrust of religion, and was proud to consider himself an atheist (Gabor, 2000; Hoffman, 1988; Maddi & Costa, 1972).

Maslow’s childhood was no better outside the home.  During his childhood, anti-Semitism was rampant in New York.  Many teachers were cruel, and he overheard them say nasty things about him.  He had no friends, and there were anti-Semitic gangs that would find and beat up Jewish children.  At one point he decided to join a Jewish gang for protection, but he didn’t have the “right” attitude:

I wanted to be a member of the gang, but I couldn’t: they rejected me because I couldn’t kill cats…We’d stake out a cat on a [clothesline] and stand back so many paces and throw rocks at it and kill it.  And the other thing was to throw rocks at the girls on the corner. Now I knew that the girls liked it, and yet I couldn’t throw rocks at girls and I couldn’t kill cats, so I was ruled out of the gang, and I could never be the gangster that I wanted to become. (pg. 4; Maslow, cited in Hoffman, 1988)

This is a black and white photo taken in 1908 of six boys hanging around outside on the sidewalk. There are two boys sitting on the ground drawing with chalk.
Image Source: LC-DIG-nclc-04448 Boys Playing Hine. (2003, March 6). Game of craps. Retrieved from Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

With six more children joining the family, one every couple of years, the family was constantly moving and, following the troubling death of one of his little sisters (Maslow blamed her illness, in part, on their mother’s neglect), Maslow became a very unhappy and shy child.  He also thought he was terribly ugly, something his father said openly at a large family gathering. Perhaps worst of all, he felt profoundly strange and different than other children, largely because he was so intellectual. Maslow reconciled with his father later in life. During the depression, Samuel Maslow lost his business.  By that time he had divorced Maslow’s mother, Rose, and he moved in with his son. The two became close, and after Samuel Maslow died, his son remembered him fondly. Maslow never forgave his mother, however. Some of the childhood stories he related were shockingly cruel. Once, he had searched through second-hand record shops for some special 78-RPM records.  When he failed to put them away soon after returning home, his mother stomped them into pieces on the living room floor. Another time, Maslow brought home two abandoned kittens he had found. When his mother caught him feeding them a saucer of milk, she grabbed the kittens and smashed their heads against a wall until they died. Later in life, he refused to even attend her funeral.

What I had reacted to and totally hated and rejected was not only her physical appearance, but also her values and world view…I’ve always wondered where my utopianism, ethical stress, humanism, stress on kindness, love, friendship, and all the rest came from.  I knew certainly of the direct consequences of having no mother-love. But the whole thrust of my life-philosophy and all my research and theorizing also has its roots in a hatred for and revulsion against everything she stood for. (pg. 9; Maslow cited in Hoffman, 1988)

Maslow spent much of his childhood reading, and despite the treatment he received from many of his prejudiced teachers, he loved to learn.  After high school Maslow won a scholarship to Cornell University, but encountered pervasive anti-Semitism throughout his first year. He ultimately decided to transfer to City College, where he first studied the work of behavioral scientists like John B. Watson.  He was impressed by Watson’s desire to use the newly created science of behaviorism to fight social problems such as racial and ethnic discrimination. At the same time, however, Maslow had fallen in love with his first cousin Bertha Goodman, a relationship his parents strongly opposed.  So Maslow left for the University of Wisconsin (Gabor, 2000; Hoffman, 1988; Maddi & Costa, 1972). Bertha Goodman followed, and they were soon married. Marriage boosted Maslow’s self-esteem, and provided him with a sense of purpose in life. He later said that “life didn’t really start for me until I got married and went to Wisconsin” (pg. 128; cited in Maddi & Costa, 1972).

In Wisconsin, Maslow studied the behavior of primates under the supervision of the renowned Harry Harlow (most famous for his studies on contact comfort).  One day while watching some monkeys seemingly enjoy munching on peanuts and other treats, Maslow recognized that appetite and hunger are two different things.  Thus, motivation must be comprised of separate elements as well. In another study, Maslow tried to address the different aspects of Freud and Adler’s psychodynamic perspectives by observing dominance behavior amongst the monkeys.  His colleagues and professors, however, had little interest in the psychoanalytic science that they considered to be a European endeavor. Maslow completed his Ph.D. at Wisconsin in 1934, and then returned to New York. He earned a position at Columbia University with the renowned Edward Thorndike, and he began studying the relative contributions of heredity and environment on social behavior as part of a project to study factors involved in poverty, illiteracy, and crime.  As a curious side note, Thorndike had also developed an IQ test; Maslow scored 195 on this test, one of the highest scores ever recorded. During this time at Columbia University, Maslow also began relationships with many of the psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists who had fled Nazi Germany. He was very impressed with Max Wertheimer, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, and who helped to lay the foundation for positive psychology.

Maslow was one of the first students to study with Alfred Adler in America, being particularly impressed with Adler’s work helping academically-challenged children to succeed despite their low IQ scores.  Maslow also studied with Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, and Ruth Benedict. Benedict was an anthropologist who encouraged Maslow to gain some field experience. She sponsored a grant application that Maslow received to study the Blackfoot Indians.  During the summer of 1938, Maslow examined the dominance and emotional security of the Blackfoot Indians. He was impressed by their culture, and recognized what he believed was an innate need to experience a sense of purpose in life, a sense of meaning.  A few years later, shortly after the beginning of World War II, Maslow had an epiphany regarding psychology’s failure to understand the true nature of people. He devoted the rest of his life to the study of a hopeful psychology (Gabor, 2000; Hoffman, 1988; Maddi & Costa, 1972).

Maslow taught for a few years at Brooklyn College, and he also served as the plant manager for the Maslow Cooperage Corporation (from 1947-1949).  In 1951, Maslow was appointed Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Brandeis University, where he conducted the research and wrote the books for which he is most famous.  By the late 1960s, Maslow had become disillusioned with academic life. He had suffered a heart attack in 1966, and seemed somewhat disconnected from the very department he had helped to form.  In 1969, however, he accepted a four year grant from the Laughlin Foundation, primarily to study the philosophy of democracy, economics, and ethics as influenced by humanistic psychology. He had been troubled by what he viewed as a loss of faith in American values, and he was greatly enjoying his time working in California.  He also attended management seminars at the Saga Corporation, urging the participants to commit themselves to humanistic management. One day in June, 1970, he was jogging slowly when he suffered a massive heart attack. He was already dead by the time his wife rushed over to him (Gabor, 2000; Hoffman, 1988; Maddi & Costa, 1972).  He was only 62 years old. Shortly after his death, the International Study Project of Menlo Park, CA published a memorial volume in tribute to Abraham Maslow (International Study Project, 1972).

Placing Maslow in Context:  Beyond Humanistic Psychology

Whereas Carl Rogers is often thought of as the founder of humanistic psychology, in large part because of his emphasis on psychotherapy, it was Maslow who studied, in great detail, the most significant theoretical aspect of it:  self-actualization. In addition to studying self-actualization, he applied it both in psychology and beyond. His application of self-actualization to management continued the classic relationship between psychology and business (which began with John B. Watson and his application of psychological principles to advertising).  Unfortunately, Maslow died just as he was beginning to study his proposed fourth force: transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology offered a connection between psychology and many of the Eastern philosophies associated with Yoga and Buddhism, and also provided a foundation for the study of positive psychology.

Maslow’s interest in business and management has quite possibly led to his being the most famous psychologist of all time, since he is well-known in both psychology and business.  If he had continued being a vocal advocate for transpersonal psychology (if not for his untimely death at an early age), given today’s growing interest in Eastern philosophy and psychology and the establishment of positive psychology as a goal for the field of psychology by former APA President Martin Seligman, Maslow may well have become even more famous.  It is interesting to note that someone so truly visionary seems to have become that way as a result of studying people whom he felt were themselves self-actualized. If positive psychology, the psychology of virtue and values, becomes the heir of Maslow’s goal, it should become a significant force in the field of psychology. That will be Maslow’s true legacy.

The Importance of Values in the Science of Psychology

A common criticism leveled against many personality theorists is that they have not confirmed their theories in a strict, scientific manner.  When one goes so far as to consider values, which are typically associated with religious morality, there is even greater resistance on the part of those who would have psychology become “truly” scientific to consider such matters worthy of examination.  Consequently, Maslow urged that we need to be fully aware of our values at all times, and aware of how our values influence us in our study of psychology. Although people approach the world in common ways, they also pay selective attention to what is happening, and they reshuffle the events occurring around them according to their own interests, needs, desires, fears, etc.  Consequently, Maslow believed that paying attention to human values, particularly to an individual’s values, actually helps the psychological scientist achieve the goal of clearly understanding human behavior (Maslow, 1970). In a similar vein, when Maslow co-authored an abnormal psychology text early in his career, he included a chapter on normal psychology. His description of the characteristics of a healthy, normal personality provides an interesting foreshadowing of his research on self-actualization (Maslow & Mittelmann, 1941).

Maslow felt so strongly about the loss of values in our society that he helped to organize a conference and then served as editor for a book entitled New Knowledge in Human Values (Maslow, 1959).  In the preface, Maslow laments that “…the ultimate disease of our time is valuelessness…this state is more crucially dangerous than ever before in history…” (pg. vii; Maslow, 1959).  Maslow does suggest, however, that something can be done about this loss of values, if only people will try. In the book, he brought together an interesting variety of individuals, including:  Kurt Goldstein, a well-known neurophysiologist who studied the holistic function of healthy vs. brain-damaged patients and who coined the term self-actualization; D. T. Suzuki, a renowned Zen Buddhist scholar; and Paul Tillich, a highly respected existential theologian (who had a direct and significant influence on the career of Rollo May).  There are also chapters by Gordon Allport and Erich Fromm. In his own chapter, Maslow concludes:

If we wish to help humans to become more fully human, we must realize not only that they try to realize themselves but that they are also reluctant or afraid or unable to do so.  Only by fully appreciating this dialectic between sickness and health can we help to tip the balance in favor of health. (pg. 135; Maslow, 1959)

Maslow believed that values are very important, not only in the study of psychology, but in society as well.  Do you agree? When politicians or religious leaders talk about values, do you think they represent meaningful, true values, or do they just support the values that are an advantage to their own goals or the goals of their political party or church?

Supplemental Materials

Biography of Maslow

This video [4:51] provides a brief summary of the life of Abraham Maslow.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Sue Mun.  (2017, March 12).  Biography of Maslow.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.