Maslow's forgotten pinnacle: Self-transcendence

Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs is depicted as a triangle with self-actualization at the very top. Right before his death, Maslow wanted to add another to the hierarchy: Self-transcendence.

Maslow's forgotten pinnacle: Self-transcendence
Photo credit: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
  • A great deal of focus is paid to achieving self-actualization, the long-espoused pinnacle of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
  • Maslow, however, didn't believe this was the real pinnacle of human development: he averred that self-transcendence was.
  • Maslow became ill and soon died after conceiving of this new pinnacle, which is why we hear little about it today.


"A peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need," wrote psychologist Abraham Maslow, "is that the whole philosophy of the future tends also to change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, … life itself tends to be defined in terms of eating."

This serves as a good example of his model of human development, the now well-known "hierarchy of needs." At the bottom of this hierarchy are the physiological needs — without a reliable source of food, human beings define their lives "in terms of eating." But as those baser needs become satisfied, we find ourselves needing more and more sophisticated things: shelter, love, esteem, and then, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, self-actualization. This refers to our need to realize all our potential, to become everything that we can be.

But toward the end of his life, Maslow began to have some doubts about this model. In his personal journal, published only after his death in 1970, Maslow wrote:

"All sorts of insights. One big one about [self-actualization] stuff, brought on, I think, mostly by my deep uneasiness over articles. . . . I realized I'd rather leave it behind me. Just too sloppy & too easily criticizable. Going thru my notes brought this unease to consciousness. It's been with me for years. Meant to write & publish a self-actualization critique, but somehow never did. Now I think I know why."

What was this developing crisis about? Why did Maslow want to revise the hierarchy that he would ultimately become famous for? The answer is that he had realized the hierarchy was incomplete. Self-actualization wasn't the pinnacle of his pyramid — self-transcendence was.

What's wrong with self-actualization?

Maslow's original hierarchy of needs without the addition of self-transcendence.

Shutterstock

Part of these criticisms that Maslow and others had with the idea of self-actualization was that it was directed entirely on the individual. Self-actualized people become what they are individually capable of being, but scholars have argued that this excludes a concern for others. A self-actualized person under this definition might care for others, but it is by way of satisfying their own need to be an individual that cares for others.

"In one individual," wrote Maslow "[self-actualization] may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions." The "ideal mother" may have a genuine concern for their child, but they are not self-actualized because of that concern; they're self-actualized because they were motivated to become as talented a mother as they could be.

What's new about self-transcendence?

When he initially developed the hierarchy of needs model, Maslow described several characteristics of self-actualized people, only to later realize that he had bundled the characteristics of self-transcendent people with those of self-actualized people. Specifically, Maslow thought that self-transcendence was more defined by peak experiences than self-actualization.

Maslow defined peak experiences as "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."

While self-actualizers experience this, he believed that peak experiences were a means of becoming more than just the self:

"As [self-actualized individual] gets to be more purely and singly himself he is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formerly not-self, for example, the lovers come closer to forming a unit rather than two people, the I-Thou monism becomes more possible, the creator becomes one with his work being created, the mother feels one with her child."

This accounts for a gap in Maslow's humanist psychology tradition. Transcendent experiences are the focus of such a wide variety of world cultures — notably Eastern cultures and shamanistic traditions — that it would be an omission to ignore such a pursuit from any model of human development, like the hierarchy of needs. In his later thinking, Maslow realized how to reconcile the Western, individual-centric idea of self-actualization:

"The goal of identity [self-actualization] seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. … If our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, … then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification."

Thus, human beings may feel a strong need to become all that they can be, but once this need is met, some continue to feel needs beyond the self, to pursue goals that may in fact have little to do with the self at all.

How self-transcendence became forgotten

Why is it that this revision to the hierarchy of needs, made by the creator of the concept himself, is not better known? There are a few reasons.

The first is simply bad timing. Maslow first began to conceptualize this additional level in 1967. Later that year, he had a major heart attack and was seriously weakened. He was busy with his convalescence, his other duties as the president of the American Psychological Association, and with lecturing at various colleges until a second, ultimately fatal heart attack struck him in 1970 while he was jogging.

Second, he only published his findings in a little-known journal at the time, and his personal journals were not published for some time after his death.

Third, the concept of self-transcendence dips its toes into the spiritual or mystical, something that psychologists avoid doing even to this day. Of course, one doesn't have to embrace pseudoscience or the supernatural to study the human being's predilection for the mystical. Human beings have a drive to become more than their individual selves, a desire that should be studied regardless of whether it manifests in religious, spiritual, or mystical settings.

The lack of such a study is arguably one of the reasons why Maslow felt his hierarchy to be incomplete.


Fast superhighway through the Solar System discovered

Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.

Arches of chaos in space manifolds.

Courtesy: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
Surprising Science
  • Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
  • The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
  • The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Keep reading Show less

Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Courtesy of Robert Erdmann / Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
  • Neural networks were used to fill in the missing pieces.
  • An unprecedented collaboration between man and machine is now on display at the Rijksmuseum.
Keep reading Show less
Culture & Religion

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

Quantcast