Maslow and Self-Transcendence
Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet
What if I told you that one of psychology’s most famous ideas is actually misrepresented? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one of the most famous theories in psychology. Most introductory psychology textbooks use it. It is widely referenced outside of academic psychology. Yet it is incomplete.
Famously, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs consists of five stages: (1) physiological needs, (2) safety, (3) love and belonging, (4) self-esteem, and at the top of the pyramid, (5) self-actualization. When the basic needs are met, we move up the pyramid to care about higher needs. We obviously still care about the other stages. You need to eat and be safe even when you are at the peak of self-actualisation. But our main motivation changes to the stage we are at. However, at the end of his life Maslow realized that his pyramid was incomplete – it missed one final stage. The stage of self-transcendence.
Maslow became intent on studying peak-experiences in the 1950s. He was already famous for having presented his Hierarchy of Needs in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” from 1943. He went further on to study peak-experiences, which he described as something of an out-of-this-world experience:
“Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences.” (Maslow, 1970, p. 164)
Not only is this feeling of wonder and awe out-of-this world. It might very well be described as an out-of-the-self experience. The realisation began to dawn on Maslow that peak-experiences seem to capture experiences that were outside of his hierarchy. Some of the people he had classified as self-actualizers reported frequent peak experiences. These included mystical experiences, aesthetic experiences, feeling in awe from nature, all the peak-experiences that makes the identity expand beyond the personal self. He called this Being-Cognition, and in his “Farther Reaches” lecture in 1967 drew a clear line between self-actualisation and self-transcendence. It is also clear from his journals that Maslow long intended to publish a critique of self-actualization, and include self-transcendence as the final, highest step on his pyramid.
But why is self-transcendence ignored as the last step of Maslow’s pyramid? One of the reasons is that Maslow fell sick in 1967 after a major heart attack. Then, after being ill for several years, he died from a final heart attack while jogging in 1970. So he simply never had the time, nor energy, to finalise the last step.
Another part of the explanation, however, is that the psychological community did not want self-transcendence included as the final step. Psychology as a discipline has since Freud always been sceptical to religion and anything that might give even a faint odour of mysticism. An article from 2009 reports that amongst American professors from all disciplines, professors of psychology are the least religious. And even though Maslow founded the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology for the American Psychological Association (APA), the APA strongly resisted and ultimately made the attempt to form a Division of Transpersonal Psychology in the 1980s unsuccessful. Keeping Maslow’s self-transcendence out of his hierarchy may point to a larger blind-spot in academic psychology, a blind spot that has been present since Freud dismissed Jung’s religious investigations: religious phenomena should only be studied in so far as they can be explained away.
Beyond theoretical interest, it is therefore of a central value to psychology as a field to acknowledge self-transcendence as the highest peak of Maslow’s pyramid. For once, it will be a clear sign for undergraduate psychology students and the population at large that psychology is open to spiritual and religious phenomena. As these include peak-experiences and feeling in awe of something beyond the self, this is not only for the sake of including a religious perspective per se. Rather, it is because experiences of going beyond the self are universally human. Indeed, Maslow himself was an atheist.
Self-transcendence also has a dark side. Terrorists and suicide bombers, and religious extremists such as ISIS, are motivated by goals beyond the self. But how can this motivate humans to actually sacrifice their safety, family, friends, and go against evolution’s drive of self-perseverance? Furthermore, understanding self-transcendence opens the door to cultural integration of psychological perspectives. In Hindu psychology, the traditional psychology of central and western Asia, and Africa, and shamanistic cultures, self-transcendence is a vital aspect. A clearer consciousness of self-transcendence can thus also bring psychology into contact with traditional wisdom cultures by using models from cognitive psychology as a lens for understanding the self-transcendence of a shaman at the peak of a vision quest.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should be updated to include self-transcendence as the highest peak. Emphasising how to go beyond the self is increasingly important to combat an ethos of influencers who embody Western culture’s ideal of pure self-expression as goal in itself. What Maslow’s change of mind show us, is rather that to build a strong and integrated self is not the end of the journey. We need an integrated self to go beyond the self, but the peak-experiences of life is to be found in a focus beyond our belief in self-actualisation.
Gross, N., & Simmons, S. (2009). The Religiosity of American College and University Professors. Sociology of Religion, DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srp026
Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and Personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302–317. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.112
See also Schnell, T. (2021). The Psychology of Meaning in Life. Routledge. Chapter 6.2.3