Maslow’s Final Theory Z

Self-Transcendence – Beyond Self-Actualization and Theory X & Y

  • In introducing Theory X & Y in “The Human Side of Enterprise” (1960), Douglas McGregor made reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model by overlapping Theory Y managers as self-actualized individuals.
  • The success of McGregor’s book also propelled Maslow’s psychology to popularity in the management community, leading to the emergence of the ubiquitous pyramid visual we commonly see today. The pyramid visual is not a creation of Maslow’s.
  • Little is known that Maslow in his final years of his life, advocated self-transcendence as the top needs, beyond self-actualization. In response to McGregor’s Theory X & Y, Maslow proposed Theory Z, for “individuals who have transcended self-actualization.”
  • Maslow’s generation of Humanistic Psychology paved the way to today’s Positive Psychology. Transcendence is now well recognized as an integral strength and virtue for our individual and societal well-being.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Revised Pyramid and Ladder Visual Interpretation

Maslow’s Original Hierarchy of Needs Model

In 1943, Abraham H. Maslow published his ground breaking paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” outlining what we commonly know today as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In this original version, Maslow described self-actualization as “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (1943, p. 382), and placed it as the highest human needs, on top of (from lower to higher) each needs of physiological, survival, love and esteem.

Maslow further popularized the model with his 1954 book “Motivation and Personality.” Several decades later, this self-actualization at top version of hierarchy of needs model remains most cited today – in the form of a pyramid visual. A simple query (as of February 17, 2020) on search term “maslow hierarchy of needs” show top image results are all pyramid visuals alike.

Meanwhile, out of the first 20 valid search results (those that showed Maslow’s model in one form or another – out of the first 21 results, only one result was not related directly to Maslow), 18 (90%) showed self-actualization at the top of pyramid visuals representing Maslow’s model. The remaining 2 out 20 (10%) image search results showed “self-transcendence” at the top of the pyramids, which is an accurate representation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model that reflects his later revision to it in the late 1960s. image search results on "maslow hierarchy of needs" image search result

It is important to note that the pyramid visual itself is likely not a creation of Maslow’s. The prevailing theory is that it was a management consultant’s adaptation in the process of the hierarchy of needs model’s growing popularity in the business community (Bridgman et al., 2019).

Theory X & Y

In 1960, Douglas McGregor of MIT Sloan School of Management published his widely successful seminal book “The Human Side of Enterprise,” popularizing his Theory X & Y management and motivational theory. In a nutshell:

Theory X is an authoritarian style where the emphasis is on “productivity, on the concept of a fair day’s work, on the evils of feather-bedding and restriction of output, on rewards for performance … [it] reflects an underlying belief that management must counteract an inherent human tendency to avoid work”. Theory X is the style that predominated in business after the mechanistic system of [Frederick Taylor’s] scientific management had swept everything before it in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Theory Y is a participative style of management which “assumes that people will exercise self-direction and self-control in the achievement of organisational objectives to the degree that they are committed to those objectives” (Hindle, 2008).

Theory X explains the importance of heightened supervision, external rewards, and penalties, while Theory Y highlights the motivating role of job satisfaction and encourages workers to approach tasks without direct supervision (Wikipedia, Theory X and Theory Y).

In his book, McGregor projects the extrinsic ““carrot and stick” theory of motivation which goes along with Theory X” (Chapter 3, para. 42) to his interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and introduces Theory Y as following:


  1. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest. The average human being does not inherently dislike work. Depending upon controllable conditions, work may be a source of satisfaction (and will be voluntarily performed) or a source of punishment (and will be avoided if possible).
  2. External control and the threat of punishment are not the only means for bringing about effort toward organizational objectives. Man will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which he is committed.
  3. Commitment to objectives is a function of the rewards associated with their achievement. The most significant of such rewards, e.g., the satisfaction of ego and self-actualization needs, can be direct products of effort directed toward organizational objectives.
  4. The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility. Avoidance of responsibility, lack of ambition, and emphasis on security are generally consequences of experience, not inherent human characteristics.
  5. The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  6. Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized (McGregor, 1960, Chapter 4).

More than half a century later, the impact of McGregor’s Theory Y management is undeniably evident in today’s world of business. A 2011 study by Sorensen and Minahan show that a wide range of Organization Development (OD) disciplines and practices seen in today’s management scenes have roots and influences stemming from Theory Y; to name a few, delegation and decentralized organizations, appreciative inquiry, performance appraisal and management by objectives (MBO), job enlargement/enrichment/redesign, and even direct influences to cross-border organizational studies such as Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Theory.

The Pyramid

Maslow was made aware by McGregor of his deep appreciation of Maslow’s work, and it is observed that Maslow didn’t mind, and in fact somewhat enjoyed the growing popularity of his psychology in the management community (Bridgman et al., 2018, p. 89).

Yet this popularity also generated misconceptions to Maslow’s model. Bridgman et al. attribute McGregor’s own misinterpretation of Maslow’s model in his aforementioned book, and also the emergence of the ubiquitous pyramid visual, as factors that contributed to the misconceptions (Bridgman et al., 2018, p. 90).

On McGregor’s misinterpretation, Bridgman et al. gives the following example: “For example, among the most popular criticisms of the hierarchy of needs today is the view that people are motivated to satisfy only one need at the time, that a need must be fully satisfied before they move to a higher level need on the pyramid, and that a satisfied need is no longer a motivator or behavior. This view is promulgated by McGregor, not Maslow… [Maslow points out that] most people “are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time.” Maslow is adamant that “any behavior tends to be determined by several or all of the basic needs simultaneously rather than by only one of them (Maslow, 1943)” (Bridgman et al., 2018, pp. 90-91).

On the emergence of the pyramid visual, Bridgman et al. say: “The first problem with Maslow’s pyramid is that it is plainly wrong, not so much because he did not create it, but because a pyramid – while a good fit for a universal and aspirational theory containing a rigid hierarchy of mutually exclusive categories – is a poor representation of Maslow’s original thesis on motivation.” And that “Another common critique of Maslow today relates to the pyramid’s universlizaing assumption that all individuals in all societies have the same needs arranged according to its hierarchy and are pursued in the same order. Once again though, while this assumption is promoted by McGregor’s use of Maslow’s ideas, it is rejected by Maslow himself.” (Bridgman et al., 2018, pp. 102-103 and p. 91).

Bridgman et al. further suggest a ladder shape would be a more appropriate representation of the model, as it “addresses the “narrowing” elitism of the pyramid and its implication of a definite end point of the progress of human development,” and that “The ladder also attenuates the most common misrepresentation of the hierarchy of needs – that people occupy only one level at any particular time. The depiction of the hierarchy of needs as a pyramid, with horizontal lines demarcating the different levels, makes it difficult to imagine that people can be simultaneously striving to satisfy a number of different needs. When one is on a ladder, multiple rungs are occupied by the feet and hands, and other rungs may be leaned on as well. The latter as thus described is far closer to Maslow’s original thinking” (Bridgman et al., 2018, p. 103). See next for a comparison of pyramid and ladder visual interpretation examples.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Revised Pyramid and Ladder Visual Interpretation

It also didn’t help that Maslow “did little to correct” the misconceptions of the pyramid, “despite expressing in his writing a dislike for reductionism, or what he called “rubricizing” (Bridgman et al., 2018, pp. 91-92, quoting Maslow, 1962).

Self-Transcendence and Theory Z

In 1969, almost a decade after McGregor’s “The Human Side of Enterprise” publication, Maslow responds to Theory X & Y with “Theory Z” (Maslow, 1969a).

Koltko-Rivera (2006) describes that “Maslow developed compelling doubts about self-actualization’s suitability as a motivational capstone: these doubts were first related to the phenomena of peak experiences and their attendant cognitive activity… he considered peak experiences in several papers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some of which appeared in his hugely popular collection “Toward a Psychology of Being” (p. 304).

“He called the special cognitive activity that attends such phenomena “Being-cognition,” or “B-cognition” for short. Originally, Maslow thought that Being-cognition was the province of self-actualization.” Koltko-Rivera suggests that after 1961 “Maslow began to think that Being-cognition characterized a different motivational level than self-actualization,” and “At least by October 1966.., Maslow thought that “self-actualization is not enough”” (p. 304).

On September 14, 1967, in San Francisco, Maslow delivered a public lecture, titled “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature” (p. 305):

The major emphasis in Humanistic psychology rests on the assumptions regarding “higher needs.” . . . These higher human needs are . . . biological, and I speak here of love, the need of love, for friendship, for dignity, for self-respect, for individuality, for self-fulfillment, and so on.

If however, these needs are fulfilled, a different picture emerges. There are people who do feel loved and who are able to love, who do feel safe and secure and who do feel respected and who do have self-respect. If you study these people and ask what motivates them, you find yourself in another realm. This realm is what I have to call transhumanistic, meaning that which motivates, gratifies, and activates the fortunate, developed, [i.e., already] self-actualizing person. These people are motivated by something beyond the basic needs. The . . . point of departure, into this transhumanistic realm comes when they answer the following kind of questions: “What are the moments which give you . . . the greatest satisfaction? . . . What are the moments of reward which make your work and your life worthwhile?”

The answers to those questions were in terms of ultimate verities. . . . [For example,] truth, goodness, beauty . . . and so on. What this 19amounts to is that this third [i.e., humanistic psychology is giving rise to a fourth, “transhumanistic psychology” dealing with transcendent experiences and transcendent values.

The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend his self. They are not selfish anymore in the old sense of that term. Beauty is not within one’s skin nor is justice or order. One can hardly class these desires as selfish in the sense that my desire for food might be. My satisfaction with achieving or allowing justice is not within my own skin . . . . It is equally outside and inside: therefore, it has transcended the geographical limitations of the self. Thus one begins to talk about transhumanistic psychology. (Maslow, 1969b, pp. 3–4)

“This represented a major course change for Maslow” (Koltko-Rivera, 2006, p. 306). Yet, soon after this speech in December 1967, “Maslow was hospitalized in intensive care following a serious coronary event. Much of 1968 was spent in convalescence…” (p. 307).

And then we see in 1969, Maslow’s publication of Theory Z; a 16 page piece written in reference to McGregor’s Theory X & Y (Maslow, 1969a), effectively as a summation of his aforementioned transhumanistic psychology and confirmation of self-transcendence at the top of the hierarchy of needs, beyond self-actualization:

It may fairly be said of the “merely-healthy” self-actualizers that, in an overall way, they fulfill the expectations of McGregor’s Theory Y. But of the individuals who have transcended self-actualization we must say that they have not only fulfilled but also transcended or surpassed Theory Y. They live at a level which I shall here call Theory Z…

Theory Z is republished as a chapter in Maslow’s book “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature” which remains in circulation today (Amazon). An abridged version of it is found on this blog post:

Theory Z is a culmination of Maslow’s life-long fascination with spirituality, religion (Maslow himself was an atheist (Koltko-Rivera, 2006, p. 312)), mysticism, mystery, awe, ecstacy, beauty, awakening, peak experience, plateau experience (“serene and contemplative B-cognitions rather than climactic ones” (1969a, Theory Z, p.34)), and so on. Throughout the collection of his work in the book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow makes numerous references to spiritualists and philosophers of past and then contemporary times, such as Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) and Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), as well as to religion and spirituality, particularly the eastern variety such as Taoism, Buddhism and Zen.

In my opinion, the significance of Theory Z is twofold.

First is that it provides clear evidence of Maslow’s own revision to the hiearchy of needs model: putting self-transcendence on top of self-actualization, as the highest needs in the hierarchy. Again, as Maslow never bothered to correct the misconception of the widely popular pyramid visuals (Bridgman et al., 2018), the fact that Maslow passed away soon very after the publication of Theory Z on June 8, 1970, and for various other reasons (Koltko-Rivera, 2006, pp. 307-309: “Why Has the Misconception Persisted?”), the uncorrected interpretation of self-actualization as highest human needs remains prevalent today. To reiterate, it is correct to interpret self-transcendence as the highest needs in Maslow hierarchy of needs model.

Second is the influence to the next wave of psychology: to positive psychology.

Maslow’s Lasting Legacy on Positive Psychology

Serving as President of the American American Psychological Association in 1968, Maslow was influential in making “humanistic psychology” a major “”third force” in psychology, distinct from earlier, less humanistic approaches of psychoanalysis and behaviorism” (Wikipedia, Humanistic psychology).

Al Taher (2019) summarizes the historical four waves of psychology as (1) 1st wave: the disease model (“concerned with curing mental disorders”), (2) 2nd wave: behaviorism (e.g. operant conditioning: formulation of behavior through rewards and punishment), (3) 3rd wave: humanistic psychology, and (4) 4th wave: positive psychology.

Al Taher calls Maslow as one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, pointing out that Maslow was the first to coin the term “positive psychology” in his 1954 book, “Motivation and Personality.”

Very interestingly, the copy of “Motivation and Personality” that I picked up for researching this article seems to be a 1970 revised version, judging from the contents of the preface chapter (the book title page nor copyright page does not explicitly state it is a revised version, and I have not been able to obtain an original 1954 copy), and in the chapter, Maslow states the following: “I have decided to omit the last chapter of the first edition of this book, “Toward a Positive Psychology”; what was 98 percent true in 1954 is only two-thirds true today. A [sic] positive psychology is at least available today though not very widely.” (p. xxiii).

Maslow includes “APPENDIX A. PROBLEMS GENERATED BY A POSITIVE APPROACH TO PSYCHOLOGY [1]” with a comment in footnote [1] “I am leaving this appendix with only minor corrections because (1) most of the suggestions are still pertinent and (2) it will be interesting to the student to see just how much progress has been made in these directions in 15 years.” (p. 281). I assume the appendix is the original contexts of the omitted “Toward a Positive Psychology” chapter, which is a long list of then prevailing major areas of psychology that Maslow suggests rethinking with a positive approach.

One of the recurring criticisms to Maslow’s work is the perceived lack of the scientific rigor of empiricism. In fact, that was intentional by Maslow: “Maslow was watching the world go to war for the second time in 30 years and he believed his field of psychology could contribute an understanding of its causes, were it not for its scientific conservatism and preoccupation with method. Paradigm shifts in thinking would only result, he believed, from a more creative, risk-taking approach” (Bridgman et al., 2019, p. 104). Therefore, “Maslow was not interested in testing his theory empirically himself” (p. 94), and “Others could do the empirical tests as if they wished, but he saw that as a distraction from his role as the innovator and pioneer of new ideas” (Hoffman, 1988).

His inclusion and deletion of the “Toward a Positive Psychology” chapter from “Motivation and Personality,” and then the relocation of the chapter to the appendix under a different title, is in my impression very characteristic of Maslow. He plants the idea and leaves it to the next generation of peers to explore and expand.

And that is what exactly happened in the evolution from humanistic psychology to positive psychology. Quoting from Wikipedia, “Positive psychology began as a new area of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. In the first sentence of his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman claimed: “for the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only – mental illness”, expanding on Maslow’s comments.”

“Humanistic and positive psychology both focus on similar concerns,” Friedman explains (2008), “but have differences regarding methodology and epistemology. In terms of methodology, humanistic psychologists tend to prefer qualitative over quantitative approaches, whereas positive psychologists tend to hold the opposite preference. Likewise, in terms of epistemology, humanistic psychologists tend to prefer postpositivism, whereas positive psychologists tend to prefer logical positivism.” (Links to definitions of epistemology, postpositivism, logical positivism, added by author.)

While there is somewhat a clear distinction in academic approach, positive psychology at core shares many of the same values and objectives as humanistic psychology.

The VIA Institute on Character, an organization originated by Martin Seligman and peer positive psychologist Christopher Peterson, describes transcendence as following:

Transcendence describes strengths that help you connect to the larger universe and provide meaning. The [six] strengths in Transcendence are appreciation of beauty & excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality. (VIA Institute on Character)

VIA Character Strengths - Transcendence

Meanwhile, Maslow’s “condensed statement” (1971) of transcendence is as following:

Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos (Maslow, 1971, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 269).

This comparison alone shows the lasting legacy of Maslow in today’s positive psychology.


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