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Born in New York City in 1908, Abraham Maslow was the son of Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants. Like nearly two million others from Eastern Europe, his parents had come to the New World for physical safety from pogroms and economic opportunity. But Maslow’s connection to contemporary events is far more important than merely his Kyiv ancestry.
Because in 1943, Maslow wrote The Authoritarian Character Structure, a brilliant academic paper that helps us understand Vladimir Putin perhaps better than any recent psychological work. Though largely forgotten now, it influenced a host of social thinkers, including Theodor Adorno’s team that produced The Authoritarian Personality, a treatise with massive cultural impact in the 1950s and after.
Certainly, Maslow is best known for self-actualization, peak experiences, synergy, and growth mindset. These all present an optimistic view of humanity that continues to resonate throughout healthcare, education, business, and social sciences today. Yet Maslow was also a realist who recognized that people differ vastly from one another in their motivations and goals - including what he termed the “authoritarian person.”
Writing amid World War II with an unspoken nod to Stalin, Maslow began his paper with the wry observation that, “In this war, it is difficult to differentiate our friends from our enemies.” He decried that political analysts had failed to incorporate psychology into a full understanding of the global war–and then he focused on the central feature of authoritarians: namely, their worldview.
Essentially, Maslow argued that it’s nonsense “to consider an authoritarian as simply an eccentric or ‘crazy person’” who is ultimately incomprehensible. In this light, few can forget the popular notion in the 1930s that Hitler was a ludicrous “madman,” hardly to be taken seriously by his rants. Rather, Maslow stressed, “Such people have a logic of their own which integrates all life for them in such a way as to make their actions not only understandable but from their point of view, quite justifiable and correct.” And this logic, Maslow explained, emanates from their specific worldview.
What is it? Maslow’s key formulation was that “The authoritarian person lives in a world… pictured by him as a sort of jungle, in which the whole world is conceived of as dangerous, threatening, or at least challenging, and in which human beings are conceived of as primarily selfish or evil or stupid. To carry the analogy further, this jungle is peopled with animals who either eat or are eaten… to be feared or despised. One’s safety lies in one’s strength, and this strength lies in the power to dominate… In the last analysis, the alternatives are to fear or be feared.”
Maslow’s depiction of the authoritarian’s worldview seems chillingly accurate. But his genius in this 1943 paper was to seize Adler’s notion that our unconscious metaphors for life always reflect the reality of our own experience. “Once granted this worldview," Maslow crucially argued, “everything that the authoritarian person does is logical and sensible… We can easily see for ourselves if we can only imagine ourselves in an actual jungle.” To speak of love, kindness, and cooperation in such a situation, Maslow noted, would be absurd.
If the world is jungle-like for an individual, then the authoritarian is perfectly justified in all his suspicions (and) hostilities. Once we understand this point, matters look very different. And among the chief characteristics of authoritarians that Maslow identified was the embrace of power, and “especially when challenged, to use it in a hard, cruel or even sadistic fashion.” Putin’s decisions in the past month certainly fit this pattern.
Maslow was temperamentally an optimist and ended his influential paper by answering, “We can say ‘yes’ with the utmost assurance… (but) where there is no will or desire to become well, cure is very difficult.” It seems unlikely that Putin at age 69 will relinquish his worldview—and so the West must act accordingly.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Though Abraham Maslow is best known for his growth mindset and self-actualization concepts, he also wrote about the authoritarian personality. Maslow argued that the key to understanding authoritarians is their worldview: a metaphoric jungle.
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