According to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, self-actualization - realizing one's full and unique potential - is the pinnacle of human motives. The traditional view of self-actualization is that it's above the lower biological and social needs. But if self-actualizing is a universal drive, the researchers wanted to know whether it promotes biological fitness (also called Darwinian fitness, and refers to the ability to pass on one's genes to future generations) and/or social motivations.
In a series of studies with over 1200 individuals at all ages across the life span (age 18 - 87), they asked "If you were self-actualizing (i.e., realizing your full potential) right now - not 10 or 20 years from now - what would you be doing?" They found that the primary reason that people pursue self-actualization is to gain status and esteem. In evolutionary terms, status and esteem can increase our biological fitness by making us a more desirable mate and, hence, more likely to reproduce and pass on our genes to future generations.
They also found that:
- Status-seeking and mate acquisition motives waned with increasing age
- Males emphasize status-seeking more than females
- Females tend to emphasize affiliation alongside status-seeking
- Compared with partnered participants, single participants reported more mate acquisition reflected in their anticipated self-actualization
- Compared with those without children, those with children reported that kin care was more strongly reflected in their anticipated self-actualization
They also found that pursuing self-actualization was different from finding meaning in life. Finding meaning in life was strongly linked to forming and maintaining social relationships and caring for children.
Self-actualization may not necessarily be a distinct, functional drive. Rather, "... pursuing self-actualization may be linked to biologically and socially relevant payoffs." And behaviours that make us feel as if we are realizing our full potential are shaped by our life history features such that self-actualization takes different forms for different people, depending on their stage of life (e.g., parenting for parents, gaining status for young men, finding mates for single people, and keeping mates for partnered people.)
"So, the desire for self-actualization isn't 'above' biological and social needs; people's drive to achieve their own highest potential is all about achieving critically important social [and biological] goals."
There's more on how self-actualization may be a biological drive in More on Self Actualization as Biologically Driven.