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Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Self-Actualization

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Author's Note: This is the "extended essay" I had to write for the IB program I'm in at school and I thought I'd share it with Whyville because it has some interesting (I think) information. Anyway, if you read it, it'll pretty much explain itself, but it is long. (The essay had to be 3000-4000 words; mine's about 3400). Most of the stuff was just my thoughts on some of the information I found and pulled my own conclusions from. Enjoy.

A musician must make music, and an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to ultimately be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization. . . . It refers to man's desire for self-fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become actually in what he is potentially; to become everything that one is capable of becoming.
-Abraham H. Maslow

Psychology is said to be the science of the mind or of mental states and processes. (dictionary.com) Abraham Maslow, considered the Father of Humanism, was an American psychologist best known for his creation - the Hierarchy of Human Needs. (McMahon, 1990: 124). This Hierarchy of Needs can be used to explain human behaviors and emotions associated with potential. Maslow's Hierarchy may show that fulfillment of potential is linked to a pre-fulfillment of all needs that may distract an individual from achieving self-actualization, ". . . establishing meaningful goals and a purpose in life."(McMahon: 124).

The idea of Humanism, an ethical theory and practice emphasizing reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment (dictionary.com), is somewhat similar to existentialism - "A philosophical attitude that stresses the individual's unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for the authenticity of his or her choices." (dictionary.com). Both of these theories aim towards perception of the world through the individual, along with the achievement of meaning in life. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is split into five steps with self-actualization (a Humanist concept) at the top, followed by self-esteem, belonging, safety needs, and physiological needs. (McMahon: 124).

The quote above sums up Maslow's theory on and definition of self-actualization. When he says that it is the desire for someone to become actually what he is potentially, it is implied that whatever someone has the ability to become, he will have a desire to become. When potential shows itself in a person, he or she will be compelled to use it to the fullest. Looking at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, it can be seen that there is a link between potential and fulfilling the hierarchy of needs. Namely, anyone who has any potential should, theoretically, want to achieve self-actualization.

This theory leads to my research question: To what extent does the advancement through Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs affect a person's ability to fulfill their true potential? Focusing on social class, connections can be made between existing factors that stint need satisfaction - whether deficits are of the physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, or self-actualization nature - and the consequences of such deficiencies on human psyche and behavior.

Oftentimes, it is difficult to reach the state of self-actualization due to the many limitations of everyday life. The obstacles before each person vary depending on many factors. It seems, though, that one of the greatest influences in determining the difficulty an individual has to face to achieve self actualization is the concept of social class. First, however, it should be decided what potential is, where it comes from, and if it can be changed.

To understand how this hierarchy can be fulfilled, first we must look at its components. As was stated earlier, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is made up of five steps, which, from top to bottom, are: self-actualization, self-esteem, belonging, safety, and physiological needs. Within physiological needs are included food, shelter, sleep, and sexual needs, though not necessarily love. In the safety block, security from crime and stability of the current lifestyle are important. Family, friends, and intimate partners make up the belonging needs. Self-esteem includes receiving and giving respect, along with receiving praise and having self worth. Finally, the self-actualization block contains the need to create something out of or use the abilities one has to become all he or she can. This self-actualization, however, becomes much more pronounced when all other needs are met; and so, meeting all other needs often helps achieve self-actualization and then the fulfilling of potential. (McMahon: 124).

Based on Maslow's previous quote, potential is something that is inherent within people. It is the level of success that can be achieved in any given task, and it varies from person to person. Through experience, it can be seen that not everybody can have great potential at everything. But if potential was to be measured, the question would be whether to measure it in qualitative or quantitative means. For example: Does a man who makes the world's greatest painting fulfill more of his potential than one who makes three "lesser" paintings? The quantitative versus qualitative problem is important because it leads to investigation of specialization. Depending on how the world actually works, it may be better for everyone to find a task they're best at, and only perform that task. However, this could be wrong and we should think that everyone should do as much in a broad range of fields as they possibly can manage. Two visions with differing thoughts as to the man, the nature of the world, and the nature of man?s creations in morality deal with this. (Shein:26)

"We have met the enemy and it is us."

The 'Tragic Vision' is a secular theory based upon the assumption that humans are inherently born with severe limitations that cannot be overcome. This theory then branches out into social possibilities, moral issues, knowledge, specialization, motivation, and how decisions are made. It is argued that due to the limitations of human nature, social possibilities are doomed to leave needs unmet through a series of trade-offs in which we attempt to get the most for the least. in other words, we do our best to economize, but can never fix all the problems or fill all the gaps of society. In this view, knowledge is made up of "unarticulated experiences of the many" (Shein: 26). Specialization in the Tragic Vision seems best because it minimizes the trade-offs we must make. It is given by the assumptions of human nature made by this theory that our motivation for creation, for fulfilling potential, is created by the incentives we're given. Without incentives, we would fail to meet needs well, if at all. Decision making is, like knowledge, based on the experiences and preferences of the majority of the population. (Shein: 26)

This vision could be argued against by a simple "practice makes perfect" logic. Using this, it could be said that though some might have greater potential in some areas, everyone has some potential in all areas. Then, anyone could master any area of achievement through hard work and practice of the necessary skills. However, if Maslow was right in saying that what one can become, one desires to become, it would be likely that specialization would occur naturally. Everyone would want to do what they were naturally good at, and most people wouldn't bother to work at other tasks, unless they felt they could quickly achieve in those areas.

The opposing vision is known as the Vision of the Anointed. This theory is more religious and assumes that some people are anointed, or chosen. Because of this, it rationalizes that human capability is vast for those who are anointed. Social possibilities are seen as having solutions due to knowledge being made up of the intelligence of those who are more highly educated. The Vision of the Anointed does away with specialization almost altogether, as it assumes those who are chosen to be the elite would solve any problems of unmet needs. in this theory, the motivation for decisions is made by the dispositions of those in charge. Because they're "chosen", these more intelligent people would, by their own human nature, have tendencies towards creation and problem solving, without needing any tangible incentives. The theory explains that decision making is made by the talented few who have more advanced views so that their specialties will be utilized. This sounds like specialization, but it appears that due to the religious thread sewn into the theory, specialization isn't a choice, rather, some are born with innate special talents and traits which they are then to make the most of. (Shein: 26)

Looking at this theory from a more secular view, those who are anointed would simply be people who seem to have a greater inherent potential. This wouldn't be due to their being chosen, however, but rather through genetic make up. Any sort of "superiorities" that might be passed along through genetics could allow for greater potential in pertaining areas, leading to a class of people that is naturally more able to achieve greater things in certain aspects of life. When these aspects of life are connected to positions of power, those who have high potential would come into that power and be expected to lead everyone else. Through a secular or religious view of this, there is still the point being made that there are people with higher potential, whether they are chosen by a higher power or made as such through genetics.

Up until this point it could be assumed that potential is completely inherent within each individual. However, it is important to look at the possibility that potential is created by life events. If this is the case, then social class would be a good determinant of potential, as it affects needs being met or not met depending on what social class a person is in.

Social class has no set definition, but for the context of this essay, I will call social classes ". . . large [groups] of people who rank closely to one another in wealth, power, and prestige." (Henslin, 1997: 253) There are three ways of measuring social class: These are the subjective, Reputational, and Objective methods. (Henslin: 253). The subjective method is simply asking someone what social class they belong to, which often leads to misinterpretation through the answer being untruthful, a hopeful aspiration, or simply what follows suit with the most common response. The reputational method asks a person or group which social class they think others belong to. Answers given in this case may be biased, as they will most likely be based on the social class of the person or group asked, and altered as a result of their different perception of social classes. These first two methods are most often discarded, as only the final method, the objective, allows for testing of the measurement. The objective method ". . . ranks people according to objective criteria such as wealth, power, and prestige." (Henslin: 253).

With social class being such an influential determinant of many events in a person's life, it is then likely to create varying potentials between people. In general, as social class drops, so does the satisfying of needs for a person in that social class. This would mean that someone in the lowest social class would barely satisfy their physical needs, never having time to worry about security, belonging, self-esteem, and much less, self-actualization. Inversely, climbing up the social class ladder would lead to most needs being met, at least those connected to security and the physical self. Belonging and self-esteem would still vary from individual to individual within the social class, but there would be less to worry about for someone of a higher class at square one. This would make it much more likely for someone in a higher social class to achieve self-actualization as they would start off with less obstacles to prevent their self-actualization.

Due to these social class problems, stereotypes are then created about certain races. As many minorities are generally in lower social classes, they are also generally less able to meet their needs and advance through Maslow's hierarchy. This would then prevent them from reaching self-actualization, creating the stereotype that they do nothing worthwhile and don't help the general advancement of society. However, it can be seen that there are always exceptions, and there are sometimes people who start off in lower classes but fight their way through the hierarchy of needs to self-actualization. This suggests that potential is somewhat inherent and not completely affected by outside factors.

Even if potential is inherent, though, there is another way social class could affect its fulfillment. Due to the accepted behavior of lower social classes, some people may be naturally more inclined to work harder than others. Someone in a higher social class could feel that they are expected to do well and achieve great things, and learn this as their behavior from their youth. This would then lead to an early on self-actualization or attempt at it. On the other hand, if a person comes from a lower social class, they may be expected not to do all they can with the talents they might possess. There might even be individuals who seem have prodigious ability towards certain things but are lazy or choose not to take advantage of that, due to their learned behavior.

Because of these differences, the individual that works hard can accomplish more, even when certain needs aren't met, while the unmotivated one doesn't nearly fulfill his or her potential. Unfortunately, it seems that character is created by too many factors to pinpoint what makes a person have the right attitude for fulfilling their potential. However, some links can be made between groups of people, more specifically those in differing social classes.

In the end, there is no inarguable evidence that potential is inherent, learned, or a mix of the two, but I would argue that there is some inherent potential with some learned behavior that adds to the desire for self-actualization.

At this point, it is still unclear as to what fulfilling potential actually does, or how it should be done. When looking at potential through Maslow's way of thinking, it can be difficult to decide where a person should go in life. If Maslow's theory about people having a desire to become what they can become is true, then those who have potential to become multiple things will also have a desire to do so; and when all other needs are filled, that desire will itself become a need that must be satisfied. So, if one person only has the potential to become an artist, while another has the potential to become an artist, a musician, and an author, is there more potential in one person? Or, is there simply different potential between people?

Typically, when someone devotes time to a single task, the task becomes significantly easier and the person becomes more productive in it. On the other hand, when a person spends the same amount of time between several tasks, less time is given to each and progress in each slows down. When a person has the potential to achieve greatness in more than one area, what might lead him or her to only achieve in a single task? I believe that it may be a stronger preference for a certain task due to a directly proportional greater potential. That is, the more potential a person has for something, the more they will be inclined to do it.

Assuming this true, if a person has the same potential for more than one interest, the desire for said interests will be equal. This would then lead to a subconscious prioritizing of tasks, sorted by potential for achievement. Undertakings that are likely to be too difficult to become good at or that would take too much work to do so would be thrown to the bottom of the priority list, so that more time could be spent on already easy works and those that could become easy with practice.

With this in mind, it seems that choosing between one job and multiple jobs in life is less of a conscious decision than one would think. Our inherent potential, if some potential is inherent, would push us towards enjoying certain things and disliking others. We would then make our decisions based on what we enjoyed most, theoretically. Contradictions to this would include workers who only work at what they do to support their families or themselves. The importance of this is that potential would be left unfulfilled, possibly creating a slowing down of achievement in society as the possibilities are restricted to whatever is marketable. However, other people consciously fight to do what they enjoy, at the expense of their own comfort and basic needs.

To answer the question of how much the advancement through Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs affects a person's ability to fulfill their true potential, I would say it can be argued either as a lot or a little. Through one point of view, it is possible to achieve great things without advancing through the Hierarchy of Needs completely. Some people choose to leave some of their needs unmet while putting all their efforts into self-actualization. This can be a conscious or subconscious decision that leads the person to do all they can to become all they can. On the other hand, as may be suggested, it isn't possible to conclude definitively that such achievements are fulfillments of their true potential. It can be said that if the person or group in question had advanced through and satisfied each stage of Maslow's Hierarchy, much greater things could have been achieved, suggesting that there are potential differences, as some who don't fulfill their true potential may achieve more than those who do. Aside from this, it must be considered that a person chooses what they want to do, and so may do what they think is to their full capability, even if somebody else thinks it's not. Still, it is likely that the individual will be drawn to using their abilities, whether gained or inherent, to achieve all they can in what they feel a desire to attempt.

To conclude, my personal belief is that potential is mostly inherent through genetics, but harnessed through having the appropriate behavior and attitude towards fulfilling it. Though it is possible to achieve self-actualization while other needs haven't been met, it would be safer to meet all other needs and then attempt self-actualization, to ensure that there is no distracting factor that would wrongly suggest less potential than is actually there.

Maslow's Hierarchy is an important way of looking at life, as following it can lead us to then ask ourselves what we're truly capable of and try to redefine that to expand our horizons. With this kind of thinking, it is possible to focus on what must be done to satisfy our needs, and then what must be done to give us the skills needed to create and achieve greater things. I would advise that we all look at life in this way, then. As we all have a limited time and there is uncertainty of what lies beyond the day we die, we should always make the best of our time and look at our entire life as a time for improvement, avoiding or overcoming that which would limit us, and simply remembering that, in most cases, we are limited only by ourselves.

"Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.
-William Shakespeare

Author's Note: Sources:
Encyclopedia of Psychology Volume 2 Fabre, Jean Henri to Perception - 1984 - publisher: John Wiley and Sons
"existentialism." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 19 Dec. 2007. .
"humanism." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 19 Dec. 2007. .
Inequality: Opposing Viewpoint in Social Problems - Lori Shein 1998
The Millionaire Mind - Thomas J. Stanley 2000
"psychology." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 19 Dec. 2007. .
Psychology and You - authors - Frank B. McMahon, Judith W. McMahon, Tony Romano.
Sociology in a Changing World - William Kornblum, Carolyn D. Smith 1997


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