Maslow was born in New York City in 1908, the oldest child of poor and uneducated Russian-Jewish immigrants. He married at the age of 20 and then trained at the University of Wisconsin as an experimental psychologist. But his interests were wide-ranging – from the research with monkeys that had been initiated in the Department by Harry Harlow to the ideas of Freud and other psychoanalysts. His PhD research was on dominance and sexuality in monkeys. He followed this up as a post-doctoral fellow with a study of the sexual attitudes and behaviour of women.
In 1937, Maslow returned to New York to take up a position at Brooklyn College, close to where he had grown up. New York City at that time was a hive of intellectual life as many European psychologists and psychoanalysts had emigrated there from Nazi Germany. He got to know the Gestalt psychologists – Kurt Koffka, Michael Wertheimer, and Wolfgang Kohler. Their ideas shifted Maslow's own thinking to a holistic approach. He also made contact with the psychoanalysts Karen Horney, Erich Fromm and, in particular, Alfred Adler who was to exert considerable influence upon him, stimulating Maslow's interest in the healthy as opposed to the pathological personality. Yet another influence was the neurologist Kurt Goldstein who was first to introduce the idea of self-actualisation.
Carl Rogers' book Counselling and Psychotherapy was published in 1940. This had a major impact on Maslow. Relying mainly on his reading, intuition and conversations with analyst friends, Maslow began offering informal counselling sessions to students who had requested this. In the summer of 1938, under the guidance of the social anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Maslow did some fieldwork studying members of the Blackfoot Indian tribe. This, he believed, helped him to transcend his own cultural biases and, in the process, he gained a great deal of respect for the values of the Indians, such as their generosity.
The 1940s were a prolific time for Maslow. He formulated his ideas of a 'hierarchy of needs', and developed his thinking about self-actualisation. His research was focused on the idea that psychology can learn about what he called 'higher motivations' by studying those who exemplify these – self-actualizers. He pursued this interest by reading about eminent people and looking for commonalities in their behaviour and attitudes. He also interviewed those he could make contact with.
In 1951, after a severe illness which forced him to spend a year in California, Maslow was appointed Head of the Psychology Department at Brandeis University, near Boston. His work flourished and in 1954 he published one of his major books Motivation and personality which presented his ideas about both human nature and the approach which psychology should take in studying it. Shortly after this, he became part of the group of psychologists (who included Carl Rogers, Gordon Allport, George Kelly and Rollo May) who helped to establish the Association for Humanistic Psychology.
Maslow's ideas developed towards exploring what he called 'being-values' like concerns for love, beauty, and justice as opposed to 'deficiency-values' – those concerned with satisfying wants. This led to an increasing interest in spirituality. This culminated in his book Toward a Psychology of Being (1962) and Religions, Values, and Peak-experiences (1964) and the initiation of 'transpersonal psychology' with a focus on spiritual experience and the 'farther reaches of human nature'. Maslow also made contributions in the field of managerial or organisational psychology. He had worked for some time as plant manager and salesperson for his family's cooperage firm in California (they made barrels for the wine industry). In 1965, he published Eupsychian management (the term 'eupsychian' indicated his interest in management to promote ideal and fulfilling psychological conditions for employees). He was elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1965. The final years of his life before his death from a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 62, were engaged in the task which attracted increasing attention – that of bringing the ideas of humanistic psychology to management and working practices.
In looking back over the influences on Maslow, we can see that they are very wide-ranging from psychoanalysis to experimental psychology, from a biological view of human nature to a clear anthropological appreciation of the role of society in shaping our values. The driving idea underpinning almost all his work, however, is the need to aspire to more fulfilling, moral and joyful ways of living our lives.