Can you compare and contrast Maslow and Freud's theories?

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Freud and Maslow were two vastly different psychologists with virtually opposite views of human nature and its capacities. Freud developed his psychodynamic theory based on his experiences with just a handful of patients in a counseling environment, in which he viewed human psychological development as a progression through a series...

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Freud and Maslow were two vastly different psychologists with virtually opposite views of human nature and its capacities. Freud developed his psychodynamic theory based on his experiences with just a handful of patients in a counseling environment, in which he viewed human psychological development as a progression through a series of psychosexual stages. According to Freud, human beings are driven through an interaction with psychosexual forces that begin with nursing and oral stimulation, and then progress to anal, phallic, latent, and genital development. Freud believed that any trauma incurred during these early stages of development resulted in conflicts that manifested as psychological disorders as adults. Freud also believed that human personality was determined by a balance between three arbitrary constructs: the id, ego, and superego.

Conversely, Maslow viewed human development and motivation not as an issue of psychosexual development and avoidance of conflict, but rather as a drive toward self-actualization and the achievement of meaning. Maslow's hierarchy of needs posits that human motivation progresses in a hierarchical fashion, with basic needs for food and shelter existing at the bottom of the hierarchy and higher-order needs (like love, belonging, and the desire to learn) existing at the top. The highest motivational drive, according to Maslow, is self-actualization. However, Maslow also believed that higher-order needs or motivations could not be fully achieved without ensuring that lower-order needs were first met. There are few comparisons that can be drawn between these theories of human motivation, but many differences exist. The primary distinction between Freud and Maslow was that Freud viewed human nature pessimistically and thought it was motivated primarily by basic animalistic desires, whereas Maslow viewed human nature optimistically and thought it was motivated by growth and achievement of one's true potential.

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It is interesting to contrast the assumptions that underlie Maslow’s and Freud’s theories about human nature. Maslow offers prescriptions for a well-intentioned person but doesn’t account for behavior that deviates from the norm. Freud suggests that in every individual there is a tension between good and evil, and that happiness is achieved when pleasure is obtained in accordance with social reality.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs takes an optimistic view of human nature that presupposes that people are good or at least strive to be good. In its most simplified form, happiness (self-actualization) sits at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy and can be achieved once the lower levels have been satisfied. Maslow only enumerates positive behaviors when describing what should be done to satisfy a particular level before moving up to the next. Humans strive for happiness, creativity, and autonomy and will do so without warnings, admonitions, or penalties.

Freud’s theories suggest that a human being is, at its most basic level, an amoral creature concerned with maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud discusses happiness:

“It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. In its narrower sense the word 'happiness' only relates to the last.”

This pleasure principle is held in check by the reality principle, which mediates between the primitive desires and the constraints of the external world. For example, an infant wants food immediately, but an adult can postpone eating until a socially acceptable mealtime. Here, happiness flows from one’s ability to negotiate the reality of social norms in order to obtain or experience something pleasurable.


Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. 1930. Translated by James Strachney, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

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I think that one of the similarities between both theorists is that they present a blueprint or configuration of what humans need to be happy.  Both of them understand that happiness and contentment are both contingent on the fulfillment of several conditions.  For Freud, this lies in understanding human psychology and the factors that impact why we do what we do.  For Maslow, this is fulfillment of the hierarchy of needs.  It is at this point where some interesting contrasts emerge, as well.  For Maslow, the hierarchy is shown to be a rather linear progression.  One starts at the bottom and progresses up.  This helps to bring out a very controlled and almost "recipe- like" formula for actualization.  It is fairly direct in accomplishing, in that the next level of the hierarchy is contingent on the previous ones being accomplished.  Freud depicts consciousness in a different and more challenging light.  For Freud, there is no directed end towards his theories.  Consciousness and understanding the role of the subconsciousness is something that can happen at any time during existence.  Unlike Maslow, there is not a directed outline towards fulfillment.  The subconsciousness is without an end destination.  Rather, Freud's development of psychotherapy helped to drive home the point that individuals can only hope to understand the subconsciousness and not control it because it lies beyond a certain degree of rational control.  This lack of power is something that is not seen in Maslow's thinking.

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