Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Examining Developmental Aspects of Self-Actualization - Age Matters

This study from The Humanistic Psychologist looks at the influence of age on the level of self-actualization. The researchers discovered that on 8 out of the 12 Personal Orientation Inventory (POI) scales, subjects over the age of 36 showed higher levels of self-actualization than subjects under the age of 36.

The results seem to suggest that there is a relationship between one’s age and levels of self-actualization. 

However, is it really as simple as age? I'd be curious to see where the subjects fell on Cook-Greuter's or Kegan's adult-development stage assessments. One can be self-actualizing at 21, or one can be stuck in the consensus trance living a meaningless life at 70. It's not, in my opinion, about age.

What is essentially the introduction to the study is below - follow the link in the title to see the whole article (this is a rather uncommon Open Access article from this publisher). Oh yeah, please excuse the British spellings of many words, but it is their language after all.

Full Citation:
Ivtzan, I, Gardner, HE, Bernard, I, Sekhon, M & Hart, R. (2013, Apr 30). Well-being through Self-Fulfillment: Examining Developmental Aspects of Self-Actualization. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41:2, 119-132, DOI: 10.1080/08873267.2012.712076

Well-being through Self-Fulfillment: Examining Developmental Aspects of Self-Actualization

Itai Ivtzan, Hannah E. Gardner, Izra Bernard, Mandeep Sekhon, and Rona Hart
Department of Psychology, University East London


Self-actualization is described as an individual’s expression of their full potential and a desire for self-fulfillment. It is the leading need in Maslow’s hierarchical motivation theory (Maslow, 1943) which does not specify an age range for each level, believing that individuals progress through the hierarchy at different rates. However, he recognises older adults are more likely than young adults to be concerned with higher motivation (Maslow, 1970). Previous work has revealed that people over the age of 36 have a tendency to be concerned with higher motives and people under this age with lower motives (Reiss & Havercamp, 2005). This study looks at the influence of age on the level of self-actualization and discovered that on 8 out of the 12 Personal Orientation Inventory (POI) scales, participants over the age of 36 showed higher levels of self-actualization than participants under the age of 36. These results indicate the relevance of developmental issues in this matter and back up the hypothesis that there is a relationship between one’s age and levels of self-actualization. However, results also showed a degree of overlap of self-actualization scores across age groups, suggesting further research may find other important factors, beyond age, which have a relationship with self-actualization.


What allows people to progress toward advanced stages of self-fulfillment? In a society where an individual’s growth is championed and cultivated, this question is increasingly attracting the interest of both employers and psychologists.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, psychologists have been developing the idea that human need can be classified into different categories (Johnmarshall, 2008; Langer, 1937; Schaffer, 1953), Maslow’s (1943, 1970) hierarchy of needs is based on the idea that there is distinction between higher and lower motives and that there are “real psychological and operational differences between those needs called ‘higher’ and those called ‘lower’” (Maslow, 1970, p. 97). Compared to lower, more physiological motives (such as hunger and sex), higher motives (such as altruism and morality) emerge at an older age, are less relevant to survival, and are closer to self-actualization.

Maslow’s work on self-actualization stems from that of Carl Jung (1928), who describes the process toward achieving self-realization. This is a state at which our unconscious and conscious combine, to form an integrated personality, a whole “self,” which comes from within, although can be stifled by lack of experience or education.

Like Jung, Maslow argues that human behaviour is driven by needs and goals, and that the pinnacle of self-actualization is qualitatively different to other needs (Maslow, 1962).  Self-actualization can be defined as an individual’s quest to be creative, to grow, to acquire knowledge, and to develop one’s abilities. Self-actualization is enjoyed in its own right and offers intrinsic rewards; it is not pursued for relief as are other needs in the hierarchy. Maslow suggests that even if all other needs are satisfied, there is a fundamental individual quest that “what humans can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature” (Maslow, 1970, p. 22). Although the form of these needs varies between individuals, it fundamentally rests on prior satisfaction of other needs, on the cognitive capacities for curiosity, and the search for knowledge and truth. Maslow (1962) further states that self-actualization often requires a person to abandon familiar comforts and explore new possibilities. This requires courage, commitment, creativity and the ability to take risks. He observed (1954, 1962) that, as a  by-product of their quest, self-actualizers have deeper and healthier interpersonal relationships than other adults; they respect the autonomy and individuality of others and are able to express genuine empathy. Maslow referred to Gemeinschaftsgefuhl, a word invented by Adler that means an older-brotherly attitude for mankind expressed by self-actualized individuals (Huber, Edwards, & Fleming-Boyton, 2000). Thus, self-actualization not only gives its own reward, but facilitates functional behaviour toward satisfying other needs, such as interpersonal relationships (Heylighen, 1990).

Self-actualization is a natural and dynamic life-long process of growth and potential in a full, clear, selfless experience, with full concentration and absorption (Maslow, 1954). Given this, it is no surprise that self-actualization has been found to relate positively to measures of psychological adjustment and negatively to measures of psychopathology (Bauer, McAdams, & Pals, 2006; Ivtzan & Conneely, 2009; Ivtzan, Chan, Gardner, & Prashkar, 2011; Knapp & Comrey, 1973; Shostrom & Knapp, 1966; Wilkins, Hjelle & Thompson, 1977).

Maslow proposes a simple and intuitively appealing theory of human motivation (Heylighen, 1992), which initially lacked rigorous scientific measurement, and thus scientific interest (Reiss & Havercamp, 2005). However, a number of measurements of self-actualization have developed (see Cillers, Koortzen, & de Beer, 2004, p. 36). By far the most popular has been the Personal Orientation Inventory (POI; Shostrom, 1974a, 1974b), which was endorsed by Maslow (Olczack & Goldman, 1975). The POI measures the values and behaviour related to positive mental health and growth process of psychological optimisation, shown in the self-actualizating person. The POI comprises of 150 two-choice comparative value and behaviour judgements, giving a clearly delineated choice (Knapp, 1976). The items are scored twice, first for two basic scales of personal orientation, inner-directed (I) support and time competence (Tc); and secondly for ten subscales. The items, when combined, are considered to be a manifestation of self-actualization. The POI importantly shows good reliability (Illardi & May, 1968; Klavetter & Mogar, 1967) and validity (Klavetter & Mogar, 1967; Knapp, 1976; Shostrom, 1974a, 1974b), leading Maslow to state that self-actualization as a concept was tantamount to intelligence, in that “self-actualization is what the test tests” (Maslow, 1971, p. 28). Therefore, this test will be used in our study to assess self-actualization.

An interesting talking point is the extent to which self-actualization is linked to age. Maslow (1970) hypothesises that, although there are large individual differences in age of progression through the hierarchy of needs, the peaks of actualization cannot be reached until full maturity is attained:
I am confirming the concept [of self-actualization] very definitely to older people. By the criteria I used, self-actualization does not occur in young people … [they] have not achieved identity, or autonomy, nor have they had enough time to experience an enduring, loyal, post-romantic love relationship, nor have they generally found their calling. (p. 39) 
Human development occurs over time and is strongly influenced by life exposure (Carstensen, 2006; Eysenck, 1975). It seems logical that the relative ambiguity of adolescence, and consequent transitions (e.g., to different residential and social environments), inspire and cultivate increased awareness, a broadening knowledge base of the world and greater creativity in the individual (e.g., Vaughan, 2010).

This idea of age being used to denote the term “development” immediately raises the idea of “change.” A common metaphor used to describe development is “movement”—from one state to another (transition) which implies growth and progression through different stages (Newman & Newman, 2008). It is also frequently linked to a voyage to the fixed point of maturity (individuation, inner-unity). People are seen as making continual progression in a certain order through a series of phases. One popular way of expressing this is expressed by Levinson (1978) whose life stage theory is as follows: Childhood and adolescence (birth–20); Early adulthood (17–45); Adulthood (45–65); and Late adulthood (60+). In his model, each phase has a unique/distinctive and unifying character of learning and is an attempt to build/modify one’s life structure (e.g., around changes in intelligence and the ability to reason). For example, people in the Childhood and Adolescence phase are typically trying to modify and terminate existing relationships with their family, and to appraise and modify the self accordingly (identity formation), whereas people in the latter phases (Late adulthood) are characteristically trying to find an inner balance between the needs of the self and society (mid-life crisis and reassessment).

The lifespan approach to personality argues that life-tasks are culturally determined and dependent on the age groups that devote time and energy to them during a particular life period. These tasks are shared within a given subculture, and represent the issues that are considered “normative” for individuals to address in a given life stage (e.g., Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987; Ivtzan, 2008). It may be safe to say therefore, that there are typical behaviours or preoccupations found at particular age milestones, some of which are unique to that age group (Fletcher, 1998). Of course, this approach will not be suitable for every individual within a certain group, and it may be that those who self-actualize have an atypical background, being particularly gifted in moral reasoning, for example (Ruf, 2009). Nonetheless, analysis of typical behaviour shown across ages may be fruitful in analysing why the vast majority of studies into self-actualization assess adults.

It may be that the preoccupations of younger people is not conducive to self-actualization. Eron, Huesmann, Bruce, Fischer, and Mermelstein (1983) posit that young people frequently observe stereotypical behaviour. For example, teenagers may be rebellious against authority, aggressive or conformist (Marple, 1933) in order to fit in and be accepted by the “in-group” (Niedzviecki, 2008). This can sometimes be at the expense of their personal beliefs and convictions. Individuals who fail to adhere to these norms may find themselves subjected to victimisation and bullying (Mathiesen, Cash & Hudson, 2004); pressures that are repressive to self-actualizing. Younger people are also characterised by their concern over physical appearance (Purvis, Robinson & Merry, 2006).

Failure to resolve identity issues may be reflected by less than intimate friendship formations—friendships based on self-identity, power and self-esteem. Such relationships lack emotional closeness, a sense of personal liberty and “communion,” characterized by mutual disclosure, social support and harmony (Budgeon, 2006; Erikson, 1950). Buhrmester and Prager (1995) argue that adolescents will only pursue friendships with a focus on intimacy once they have reached pubertal maturation.

Perhaps most pronounced in the teenage psyche is the notion of immediate gratification and extrinsic reward (Leone & Dalton, 1988; i.e., that “X” behaviour is contingent with passing exams or status). This lack of internal drive or motivation is at odds with self-actualizing pursuits.

Young people’s preoccupations may be better understood through Leontiev’s (2007) “Worldview” concept, a system of subjective generalizations about reality, which may place younger individuals at a disadvantage compared to their older counterparts. This system of beliefs contains the knowledge, cultural stereotypes and ideals of the desirable or perfect human being, society and world. By this definition a teenager has insufficient worldly knowledge to know what to strive for, and therefore he/she does not possess the necessary tools to become self-actualized. To compensate for this impoverished knowledge base, information may be obtained from the media, which may act to inform normative roles and behaviour (Hammer & Budge, 1994). The fact that the pre-adult age group are at the early stages of self-discovery makes the possibility of self-actualization very remote. Even though most young adults (university students) may have a better worldview than adolescents, it is not yet adequate. Their concerns revolve around academic success, making new friends and gaining independence from their family (Cantor et al., 1991). Also, students are usually undecided about the career path they will embark upon, and this uncertainty can translate into not knowing what latent capacities need to take surface and be realised.

By contrast, as one gets older, wishes and fears decrease and are replaced by realistic steps to achieving future goals (Lang & Carstensen, 2002). Thus, the preoccupations of the mature population may be more congruent with self-actualizing endeavours. Adulthood may, in a sense, encourage “out of the box thinking,” mediated by life changing social conditions such as marriage, divorce, retirement or the death of a spouse (Jarvis, 2006).

Middle age, a phase of adulthood, is a time of reflection and re-assessment (Huyck, 1993; Lachman, 2004; Shek, 1996). It involves a journey to find the balance between the needs of the self and the needs of society, which may be facilitated by more leisure time and less imposing dictates on daily life. The ability of an individual to integrate into society without losing a sense of who they are can be viewed as a sign of maturity and is a crucial aspect of self-actualization. This period of one’s life may involve a “mid-life crisis” (onset ranging from 35 to 50 years old) which manifests itself as a period of intense self-questioning brought on by the realisation that one might not have accomplished what was once anticipated by this stage in life (Steger, Oishi, & Kashdan, 2009). Individuals experiencing a mid-life crisis are often reported to exhibit some of the following feelings: a search for an unattained dream or goal; a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished; an openness to critical feedback (which is strongly at odds with the pre-adult age group); and a need to spend more time alone.

Self-reflection may come later on in one’s lifetime. Feil (1985) proposes that very old people enter a new life stage with a “new life task.” She writes: “They must justify having lived. They must make peace … they express bottled up feelings at last … accept without judging” (Feil, 1985, p. 92). As with middle-aged individuals, life tasks in old age may also prime a person for the quest of self-actualization.

Empirical data based on the administration of the POI supports the idea that the preoccupations of the young are less conducive to self-actualization than the old. High-school samples have been the focus of several investigations utilizing the POI. Mean scores in adult samples tend to be higher; advanced college-student scores are higher than entering college students; and scores from both of these populations are higher than from high-school students (Penelope, 2006; Shostrom, 1974a).

Although Maslow’s (1970) observations of self-actualized people have been regarded as insightful, his studies on motivation theory yielded mixed results. Somewhat contrary to his claim of a positive correlation between age and self-actualization, Mitchell (1984) reported findings that suggest many of the younger generation are “inner-directed”. By contrast, their parents and grand-parents were reportedly higher on the “outer-directed” scale. Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, and Jarvis (1996) suggest that cognitive motivation may be a necessary facet of self-actualization and not age as originally held by Maslow. Cognitive motivation is defined by the authors as, “an individual’s tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive endeavours” (p. 192).

This has led some authors (e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1980; Rutter & Rutter, 1992) to denounce theories concentrating on stages and thereby age-typical behaviours. Such theories imply: “a mechanical predictability that is out of keeping with the dynamics of change, the extent of flux over time and the degree of individual variability that seems to be the case” (Rutter & Rutter, 1992, p. 24). Some individuals experience crises similar to that of mid-life, as early as in their 20s. Some stages in development are missed out and the consequences of this may be that personal growth may occur at different points in life (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980).

Maslow (1970) described how as we develop, self-actualization naturally becomes our most prominent need. This is because after long gratification, basic needs become more independent from their source. For example, an adult who has been love-satisfied is better equipped for independence, and able to deal with loss of love and popularity (Maslow, 1970). This necessarily involves an age of progression, as it requires the basic needs to be met and maintained over a period of time, before focus can be made on self-actualizing behaviours. Reisss and Havercamp (2005) demonstrate clear support for Maslow’s (1954, 1971) findings and claims. They evaluated data from 1,712 participants which were tested with the “Reiss Profile of Fundamental Goals” (Reiss & Havercamp, 1998), a standardized assessment of Maslow’s (1970) catalogue of trait strivings, over the whole of Maslow’s hierarchy to create a list of high and low motives based on the criteria set by Maslow (1970). Motives such as eating, romance (sex), physical exercise and vengeance were combined to form a measure called “lower motivation.” Motives of honour, family and idealism were combined to form a measure called “higher motivation.” Participant data was derived from four age groups: 16–20, 21–35, 36–55 and 56+, as the authors maintained that this method ensured a variety of ages were represented within each group; e.g., that there was not too much clustering of ages toward the young or old section of the age continuum. However, the data analysis conducted on the four age groups collapsed to form two groups: those under the age of 36 and those over. Reiss and Havercamp (2005) rationalized that although Maslow (1970) failed to give a specific age for the attainment of self-actualization, 36 years old was deemed a reasonable estimate for testing his idea. They reasoned that, as required by Maslow (1963), an adult should be sufficiently mature to have gained a significant degree of self-actualization by the age of 36. This is similar to the 35 year old cut off described as the “high noon of life” by Shostrom, Knapp, and Knapp (1976, p. 196). Reiss and Havercamp (2005) maintained that the vast majority of adults under 36 should still be too young and un-established in life to have significantly addressed their optimal needs. The results provided strong support for Maslow’s (1954, 1962, 1970) general notion of human growth (motivations change as adults mature): the lower motives (such as eating and exercise) were found to be prepotent for younger (<36 years old) versus older adults (>36 years old). Conversely, the higher motives (such as honour and idealism) were found to be prepotent for older adults versus younger adults.

The aim of this study is to investigate whether Reiss and Havercamp’s (2005) results, older people’s tendency to be concerned with higher motives and younger people’s tendency to be  preoccupied with lower motives, can be extended whilst retaining their viability. It makes a “thinking leap,” given Reiss and Havercamp’s (2005) findings, hypothesising that older people will be more self-actualized than younger people because self-actualization is the beacon of higher motives.

The affect of age on self-actualization will be investigated and the belief that specific scores on the subscales will significantly correlate with age will be explored. More specifically, older participants (>36 years of age) are expected to score significantly higher on the main scales of the POI than younger participants (<36 years of age).

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