Was Nelson Mandela the pinnacle of human psychology?

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 hierarchy, despite ample
evidence of how we are motivated by
drivers such as survival, sex and
social status.
Even psychologists who see value
in the theory have realised that
modern understanding of biology
calls for Maslow’s pyramid to be
renovated and rebuilt without self-
actualisation. Like Roosevelt or
Gandhi (or your mate Dave), Mandela
couldn’t escape fundamental limits of
neurobiology - for instance, that
much "high level" neural processing
is invisible to our own awareness,
stemming from impulses that are
beyond our conscious control . The
pyramid of needs, if it exists at all,
must be far more interactive and
complicated than Maslow envisaged.
Whatever the truth of Maslow’s
hierarchy, Mandela’s death will give
some psychologists pause to wonder
whether he really was – as many
believe – a living manifestation of
psychological perfection. From the
perspective of a cognitive
neuroscientist trained to see humans
as accidental meatbags carrying
sophisticated computers, the danger
in viewing people like Mandela as
saints (or "self actualisers") is that we
paint their accomplishments as
unachievable by lower-ranking
mortals. By worshipping
superhumans we risk settling for a
future of lesser ideals and more
modest ambitions, waiting for
another Mandela before attempting
barriers that he himself proved could
be overcome.