Writing in the last century, Abraham Maslow (pictured left), one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology, proposed that the path to self-transcendence, and ultimately a greater compassion for all of humanity, requires “self-actualisation” – that is, fulfilling your true potential and becoming your authentic self.
Now Scott Barry-Kaufman, a psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, believes it is time to revive the concept and link it with contemporary psychological theory. “We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,” Barry-Kaufman wrote recently in Scientific American in a blog post introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation may be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for. To this end, he’s used modern statistical methods to create a test of self-actualisation, or more specifically, of the 10 characteristics exhibited by self-actualised people, and it’s published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.
Barry-Kaufman first surveyed online participants using the 17 characteristics that Maslow believed were shared by self-actualised people, but he found 7 of these were redundant or irrelevant and did not correlate with others, leaving 10 key characteristics of self-actualisation.
Next, he reworded some of Maslow’s original language and labelling to compile a modern 30-item questionnaire featuring 3 items tapping each of these 10 remaining characteristics: Continued freshness of appreciation; Acceptance; Authenticity; Equanimity; Purpose; Efficient perception of reality; Humanitarianism; Peak Experiences; Good moral intuition; and Creative Spirit (see the full questionnaire below and take the test on Barry-Kaufman’s website; our report on the findings continues underneath).
In a survey of over 500 people on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, Barry-Kaufman found that scores on each of these 10 characteristics tended to correlate, but also that they each made a unique contribution to a unifying factor of self-actualisation – suggesting that this is a valid concept that is comprised of 10 sub-traits.
Participants’ total scores on the test also correlated with their scores on the main five personality traits (that is, with higher extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness) and with the meta-trait of “stability”, indicative of an ability avoid impulses in the pursuit of one’s goals. That the new test corresponded in this way with established personality measures provides further evidence of its validity.
Next, Barry-Kaufman turned to modern theories of well-being, such as self-determination theory, to see if people’s scores on his self-actualisation scale correlated with these contemporary measures. Sure enough, he found that people with more characteristics of self-actualisation also tended to score higher on curiosity, life-satisfaction, self-acceptance, personal growth and autonomy, among other factors – just as Maslow would have predicted.
“Taken together, this total pattern of data supports Maslow’s contention that self-actualised individuals are more motivated by growth and exploration than by fulfilling deficiencies in basic needs,” Barry-Kaufman writes. He adds that the new empirical support for Maslow’s ideas is “quite remarkable” given that Maslow put them together with “a paucity of actual evidence”.
A criticism often levelled at Maslow’s notion of self-actualisation is that its pursuit encourages an ego-centric, selfish focus on one’s own goals and needs. However, Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Barry-Kaufman explored this too and found that higher scorers on his characteristics of self-actualisation scale tended to also score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience (the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by David Yaden).
Barry-Kaufman said this last finding supports “…Maslow’s contention that self-actualising individuals are able to paradoxically merge with a common humanity while at the same time able to maintain a strong identity and sense of self.”
Where the new data contradict Maslow is on the demographic factors that correlate with characteristics of self-actualisation – he thought that self-actualisation was rare and almost impossible for young people. Barry-Kaufman, by contrast, found scores on his new scale to be normally distributed through his sample (that is spread evenly like height or weight) and unrelated to factors like age, gender and educational attainment (although in personal correspondence, Barry-Kaufman informs me that newer data – over 3000 people have now taken the new test – is showing a small, but statistically significant association between older age and having more characteristics of self-actualisation).
Concluding his paper, Barry-Kaufman writes that “[H]opefully the current study … brings Maslow’s motivational framework and the central personality characteristics described by the founding humanistic psychologists, into the 21st century.”
The new test is sure to reinvigorate Maslow’s ideas, but if this is to help heal our divided world, then the characteristics required for self-actualisation, rather than being a permanent feature of our personalities, must be something we can develop deliberately. I put this point to Barry-Kaufman and he is optimistic. “I think there is significant room to develop these characteristics [by changing your habits],” he told me. “A good way to start with that,” he added, “is by first identifying where you stand on those characteristics and assessing your weakest links. Capitalize on your highest characteristics but also don’t forget to intentionally be mindful about what might be blocking your self-actualization. … Identify your patterns and make a concerted effort to change. I do think it’s possible with conscientiousness and willpower.”
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