While Maslow’s theory was regarded as an improvement over previous theories of personality and motivation, it has its detractors. For example, in their extensive review of research that is dependent on Maslow’s theory, Wahba and Bridwell (1976) found little evidence for the ranking of needs that Maslow described, or even for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all. For example, less individualistic forms of society than described by Maslow in this theory, might value their social relationships (e.g. family, clan or group) higher than their own physiological needs.
The concept of self-actualization is considered vague and psychobabble by some behaviourist psychologists. The concept is based on an Aristotelian notion of human nature that assumes we have an optimum role or purpose. Self actualization is a difficult construct for researchers to operationalize, and this in turn makes it difficult to test Maslow’s theory. Even if self-actualization is a useful concept, there is no proof that every individual has this capacity or even the goal to achieve it.
Other counterpositions suggest that not everyone ultimately seeks the self-actualization that a strict (and possibly naive) reading of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs appears to imply:
- Viktor Frankl‘s book Man’s Search for Meaning describes his psychotherapeutic method (logotherapy) of finding purpose in life.
- Albert Einstein was actually drawn toward the sense of mystery in life. See Abraham Pais‘ Subtle is the Lord.
- Others seek to perform good works.
- Others are drawn toward the dark side of the human condition.
One could counter this argument by citing these as examples of ways people self-actualize. In fact, some of these examples (the attraction to the mysterious, performing good works) are actually specified as qualities of the self actualized individual in Maslow’s writing, The Third Force. The ambiguity of the term lends itself to debate.
Transcendence has been discounted by secular psychologists because they feel it belongs to the domain of religious belief. But Maslow himself believed that science and religion were both too narrowly conceived, too dichotomized, and too separated from each other. Non-peakers, as he would call them, characteristically think in logical, rational terms and look down on extreme spirituality as “insanity” (p. 22) because it entails a loss of control and deviation from what is socially acceptable. They may even try to avoid such experiences because they are not materially productive—they “earn no money, bake no bread, and chop no wood” (p. 23). Other non-peakers have the problem of immaturity in spiritual matters, and hence tend to view holy rituals and events in their most crude, external form, not appreciating them for any underlying spiritual implications. Maslow despised such people because they form a sort of idolatry that hinders religions (p. 24). This creates a divide in every religion and social institution. (Maslow. “The ‘Core-Religious’ or ‘Transcendent,’ Experience.”) It is important to note, however, that Maslow considered himself to be an atheist–thus, by his conceptualization of transcendence, any individual can have such experiences (Hoffman, E. 1999. The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow).
Psychologist Edwin C. Nevis has also made charges that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are culturally specific and not universal and, in response, formulated his own hierarchy of needs as an improvement effort.