Maslow enthusiastically described a number of research ideas linked to his theory; however, the theory of motivation has not generated a large body of research. Unlike other personality theorists who were also psychotherapists, Maslow did not specify a treatment approach to go with his theory. Therefore, the theory did not generate a body of treatment studies, as would be common for theories that included a treatment component. Conceptual and methodological problems with the theory have also made it difficult to evaluate, and the philosophical nature of Maslow's theory has generated more speculation than actual data. Research on Maslow's propositions has been especially rare since the mid-1970s, when the body of research supporting the theory was critically reviewed and found lacking.
Although there is a general lack of interest in research on Maslow's principles, some areas continue to produce a few studies every year. In particular, the concepts of self-actualization and peak experience continue to intrigue researchers, and they are still finding new ways to investigate these phenomena.
One stream of research has focused on ways that different groups experience self-actualization. A number of scales to measure the tendency toward self-actualization have been developed over the years, including a scale specifically designed to measure self-actualization in children. Various groups have been compared on these scales, in attempts to understand how self-actualizing tendencies interact with gender, age, and other aspects of personality.
One interesting example involves the study of gifted students. Gifted students (i.e., those with high intelligence) have been compared to non-gifted students, on the assumption that gifted individuals should show stronger tendencies toward self-actualization. This is an interesting question that has implications for understanding the relationship between giftedness and creativity, which is an important aspect of self-actualization. Although creative people are often highly intelligent, not all intelligent people are unusually creative. It is also uncertain whether having unusual intellectual ability helps a person to reach the higher levels of Maslow's motivational hierarchy. At least one study has found that gifted students do show higher levels of self-actualization, but the relationship between intelligence and self-actualization is still not fully explained.
Men and women have also been compared on indices of self-actualization, with varying results. One issue is the way self-actualization is measured. If the indicator of self-actualization includes external signs of success such as career advancement, then men tend to show stronger tendencies toward self-actualization than women. However, as Maslow noted, self-actualization does not necessarily involve the external trappings of success, and a person who lives a relatively quiet life may still show self-actualizing tendencies. When self-actualization is defined in terms of inner values and aspirations, then women tend to show a tendency toward self-actualization that is as strong as, or stronger than, that shown by men. These studies highlight one of the recurring problems with research on Maslow's propositions—the difficulty of clearly defining important concepts.
Another set of studies has examined the tendency toward self-actualization in homeless people. According to Maslow's theory, these people should not show much tendency toward self-actualization, but the findings suggest that even people who are coping with extreme deprivation still experience some aspects of the self-actualizing tendency. These studies directly contradict Maslow's notion that satisfaction of the basic needs is necessary before one can experience self-actualization. The findings seem to fit better with Maslow's later thinking about self-actualization, in which he recognized that even ordinary people can show some self-actualizing tendencies.
Age differences in self-actualization have also been examined, on the assumption that self-actualizing tendencies should increase with age. The results of these studies have been variable, particularly in studies of children. Since children in general might be expected to show relatively limited tendencies toward self-actualization, it is not surprising that age increases are not easy to detect.
The phenomenon of the peak experience also continues to intrigue a few researchers. Studies of peak experiences have examined the way people with different backgrounds report such experiences. One study compared artists to non-artists, on the assumption that artists might be more prone to have peak experiences, but this was not found to be the case. Other studies have tried to determine how different cultural groups react to peak experiences. Evidence of peak experiences in childhood has also been explored. Studies in this area are often qualitative rather than quantitative, focusing on individual accounts of unique and mystical experiences. The significance of these experiences for individuals and the life-changing quality of such experiences are fairly well established.
One other study illustrates a novel application of Maslow's theory on an international level rather than an individual one. This unusual study applied the hierarchy to understanding changes in the quality of life in different countries as they became more developed. Looking at data for 88 countries gathered over a period of 35 years, the study used progress on Maslow's hierarchy as an indicator of improving quality of life. The results of the study confirmed the order that Maslow predicted for the emergence of different need states, but it did not confirm his prediction that satisfaction of one need would lead to less interest in meeting that need as other, higher needs emerged. Maslow would no doubt be pleased to see his theory applied in this unusual manner.
The limited body of current research on Maslow's principles reflects the general decline of interest in his theory. Nonetheless, the compelling concepts continue to attract new investigators, and Maslow's theory continues to generate a small body of ongoing research. The continuing interest in his theory is testimony to the intuitive appeal of his theory.
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