He was regarded by many as the rarest of psychological gemstones: a self-actualised human being
Nelson Mandela is often cast as a psychological superhuman. Photograph: Adrian Steirn/AP
Within a matter of hours, the death of Nelson Mandela attracted tributes ranging from the trite and prepackaged to the heartfelt and memorable. His achievements in the face of adversity notwithstanding, psychology will remember him for a less mainstream reason. Like a select few before him, Mandela will go down in history as someone who may have scaled the summit of mental prowess – a term psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to in the 1940s as "self-actualised".
According to Maslow’s theory, humans face a number of challenges in life, from the most basic needs (such as food and sleep), to safety, love, esteem, and ultimately self-actualisation. Only once a person’s circumstances and attitude have allowed them to pass one of the lower stages can they ascend to the next. For Maslow and the generations of humanistic psychologists who followed in his tradition, the self-actualised individual is someone who transcends all lower needs to achieve a state of complete personal and intellectual fulfillment.
Most of us never reach the top of Maslow’s pyramid – instead we spend our lives thrashing it out in the lower tiers, searching for love, money, or social status; or if we’re less fortunate, simply struggling to survive. The pinnacle is a privileged and lonely place, not that the self-actualised person who reaches it will mind. These fortunate few are cast as psychological demigods: fully secure at all lower levels while also being compassionate, creative, in complete control of their impulses, comfortable in solitude, socially harmonious, naturally powerful, beyond needing the approval of others, and highly aware of their own thoughts and the world beyond. And, just as Mandela did in prison, the self-actualised person is thought to find meaning and purpose from life under even the most grievous suffering.
Mandela wasn’t the only famous figure to be regarded as self-actualised. Other examples have included Gandhi, Beethoven, Mother Teresa, and Eleanor Roosevelt. But until yesterday, Mandela may well have been one of the few who was publicly prominent and still alive.
Maslow’s theory is intriguing, but is it scientifically valid? Over the years the "hierarchy of needs" has encountered a steady stream of criticism, being labelled as a flawed combination of science and morality, socially and culturally prejudiced, partisan, and elitist. A prominent critique in the 1970s concluded that there was little empirical support for such a…