Maslow on Creativity
Wisdom or wishy-wash?
Posted Sep 07, 2013
~ Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow was one of the great humanists in psychology. He helped establish a third theoretical force at a time when the mechanistic paradigms of behaviorism and psychoanalysis set the tone. Maslow’s influence on academic psychology may have receded, but his legacy in applied organizational psychology and MBA programs remains strong. Maslowians know that Taylor-style ‘scientific management’ does not do justice to the potential of working humans. It does not, for example, tap their creative potential. Maslow’s signature achievement was his hierarchical theory of motivation (1943). High school students and corporate suits are familiar with his pyramid of needs, which graphically shows that humans care about excretion before they care about self-actualization. Scholars have claimed that Maslow’s pyramid has too many problems to be useful, but recently Douglas Kenrick and colleagues have restored the noble edifice to new glory (Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, & Schaller, 2010).
Creativity (or, as Maslow says, “creativeness”) is a facet of self-actualization, as described in his 1968 essay. Here, Maslow breaks with the tradition of defining creativity in terms of its products. Most scholars (still) assume that creativity is the process that results in something novel and useful. In contrast, Maslow observes that there is no correlation (in his experience) between psychological health and productive achievement. Instead, there is a correlation between psychological health and ordinary creativity. Indeed, this must be so because Maslow defines creativity in characterological terms, with cheerfulness and openness to new experience being part of the mix. To Maslow, creative people are like happy and secure children. When the emperor is naked, they blurt out what they see, namely “the fresh, the raw, the concrete, the idiographic [. . .] they do not cling to the familiar, nor is their quest for the truth a catastrophic need for certainty, safety, definiteness, and order.” To Maslow, society is the great inhibitor, alienating the person from herself. Creative individuals overcome this inhibition or never succumb to it. “They are less enculturated, less afraid of what others might say, less afraid of their own impulses, more self-accepting. Less controlled, less inhibited, less planned, less “willed.” Nutty, silly, crazy.”
Yet, Maslow seems dissatisfied with this analysis, and loses his nerve. He teeters and Aristotle’s gravitational field sucks him back in. Creative people, he now adds, also see “the generic, the abstract, the rubricized, the categorized and the classified.” There are thus two types of creativity: the raw or primary type of creativity and the secondary or ordered type of creativity. This distinction itself is an Aristotelian one.
Sensing he is about to get stuck, Maslow presses on. He suggests that real creativity (meta-creativity?) is found in the will and ability to overcome dichotomies (and thereby Aristotle) and integrate the primary with the secondary process. Ultimately, creativity is “constructive, synthesizing, unifying, and integrative [and in that sense it is] part of the inner integration of the person.” Thus defined and elevated, creativity anticlimactically turns out to be “an epiphenomenon of the greater wholeness and integration, which is what self-acceptance implies.”
Maslow’s ideas work themselves best into our minds if we set (Aristotelian) criticism aside. If we did not, we might notice, for example, that his theory of creativity-as-self-actualization contradicts his pyramid theory of motivation. According to the pyramid theory, we can move up into the thin air or self-actualization only after the lower needs have been fulfilled. Among those are social needs of finding respect and approval. According to the creativity theory, we no longer care (or have never cared) about social approval when in the creative zone.
Maslow’s theory of creativeness is a creative achievement. It is “nutty, silly, crazy;” it flaunts convention, and it pisses at the pedestal of Aristotle. But it also teaches us to look for creativity in new places.
Military strikes against Syria are not a creative idea. The probability that they work as (presumably) intended is very very small. About the same as the probability of air strikes will make wheat grow faster. Here's an alternative, yet untested and of unknown potential. Have 100,000 (or more) people march on Damascus, peacefully. This may not work either, but then again, it might. If it does, we'd have a whole new paradigm. Abraham (the biblical one) would like it.
An FB friend posted this photo (to the left). I agree with the sentiment. Sweet irony though to have this shared on a social medium. Hmmmm . . . savory. An example of unintended creativity?
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being. New York: Wiley.
Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292-314.