Maslow claimed that self-actualisation is an instinctual need in humans, to make the most of their abilities, to strive to be the best they can.  The final stage in Maslow’s theory of psychological development is where the individual is satisfied in terms of the psychological, security, affiliation, affection, self-respect and recognition needs.  With these needs satisfied, the individual is able to realise their potential by becoming a creative, mature and effective individual.  Maslow’s hierarchy is a generalisation. It does not imply that everyone will follow the same pattern. For example, for some self-esteem will be more of a motivator than love.

For example, Mussolini alienated many of his close friend and family to achieve status as a conqueror and war leader.  For others, the need to create something may be more important than food or safety. For example, a war photographer may be more concerned with taking photographs of war situations than caring for their own safety, food and drink.

Maslow described self-actualising people as:

  • Creative
  • Embracing the realities of the world rather than avoiding or denying them
  • Spontaneous
  • Interested in problem solving
  • Close to others
  • Appreciating life
  • Having internal morality that is dependent of external authority. For example, a self-actualised person would not steal because they would believe it to be morally wrong, rather than because the law says it is wrong or they were scared of getting caught. Able to be objective.

Therefore, self-actualisation means reaching your full potential.  However, not everyone is capable of self-actualisation. If they spend their life trying to find food and drink, are often scared for their own safety etc, they may have little time to self-actualise.

Critics of Maslow’s theory would argue that it does not explain all types of motivational behaviour. For instance, how can it explain the man who throws himself in front of an oncoming car in order to push an infant out of the way? How can it explain the prisoner who goes on hunger strike in order to draw attention to his innocence plea? Like most theories it fails to predict complex human behaviours and motivation in unusual circumstances. As such, most theories attempt to explain motivation in specific areas rather than attempt an all-encompassing approach.