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A Cognitive-Systemic Reconstruction of Maslow's Theory of Self-Actualization

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by Francis Heylighen1

PESP, Free University of Brussels, Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium

Maslow's need hierarchy and model of the self-actualizing personality

are reviewed and criticized. The definition of self-actualization

is found to be confusing, and the gratification of all needs is concluded

to be insufficient to explain self-actualization. Therefore the

theory is reconstructed on the basis of a second-order, cognitive-systemic

framework. A hierarchy of basic needs is derived from the urgency

of perturbations which an autonomous system must compensate

in order to maintain its identity. It comprises the needs for homeostasis,

safety, protection, feedback and exploration. Self-actualization is

redefined as the perceived competence to satisfy these basic needs in

due time. This competence has three components: material, cognitive

and subjective. Material and/or cognitive incompetence during childhood

create subjective incompetence, which in turn inhibits the further

development of cognitive competence, and thus of self-actualization.

KEY WORDS: humanistic psychology, self-actualization, competence, cognition, autonomous systems, human

motivation, problem-solving.

TYPE OF ARTICLE: nonquantitative theory



INTRODUCTION enced by behaviorism, which tends to reduce

human behavior to statistical correlations

between different kinds of stimuli,

responses and personality traits. Instead of

merely modelling normal behavior or of

curing clear dysfunctions, a humanistic

psychologist tries to help people to develop

in a better way, thus making them more

competent, more aware, more happy, in the

hope of reaching some state of "optimal"

mental health [12].

ONE OF THE MAIN VALUES driving systems

research is to provide concepts

and methods for stimulating

learning, growth and development,

as well in individual persons as in society,

thus enhancing well-being and the overall

quality of life. The same positive aim characterizes

so-called humanistic psychology

[9], which defines itself as a "third force",

in contrast with clinical psychology, influenced

by Freudian psycho-analysis, which

studies mental illness, i.e. the negative side

of human behavior, and traditional academic,

experimental psychology, influ-

Probably the best known proponent of

this approach is Abraham Maslow. What

distinguishes his work from that of other

"humanists", such as Carl Rogers or Erich

Fromm [12], is that he proposes a model of

how a happy, healthy, well-functioning


Behavioral Science, Volume 37, 1992


person behaves, which is based on concrete

observations of real people, rather than on

formulating ideal requirements. Moreover

Maslow proposes a simple, and intuitively

appealing theory of motivation [8], which

explains where such a "self-actualizing"

personality comes from. In parallel with

systems theory, Maslow reacts against too

much reductionism in psychological modelling,

and proposes an alternative holistic

approach of personality research [8].

are here replaced by concepts such as selforganization,

autonomy, cognition, selfawareness,

conversation, etc., which are

clearly related to humanistic concepts

surrounding the central idea of self-actualization.

However, most "second-order"

theories remain very abstract, lacking the

simplicity, concreteness and intuitive appeal

of Maslow's descriptions.

What I wish to do in this paper is to review

Maslow's theory and the criticisms

raised against it, and try to reconstruct its

main concepts on the basis of a general

"second-order" cognitive-systemic framework,

in order to make them more general,

more precise and more coherent.

However, in academic psychology




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