Metamotivation is a term coined by Abraham Maslow to describe the motivation of people who are self-actualized and striving beyond the scope of their basic needs to reach their full potential. Maslow suggested that people are initially motivated by a series of basic needs,[1] called the hierarchy of needs. Maslow states, “Self-actualizing people are gratified in all their basic needs (of belongingness, affection, respect, and self-esteem)”.[2] Once a person has successfully navigated the hierarchy of needs thus satisfying all their basic needs, Maslow proposed they then travel “a path called growth motivation”.[3]

Maslow believed that a distinction must be made between the motives of those who operate at or below the level of self-actualization (ones still striving for their basic needs, or ones who have met their basic needs but still live without purpose), and those who are self-actualized who are also with significant purpose, as their motivations differ significantly.[4]Deficiency needs (drives or D-needs) motivate people to satisfy physiological needs such as hunger, sex, love, whereas being needs (B-needs[5]) propel a person beyond self-actualization and drive them to fulfill their inherent ultimate potential.[6]

In Maslow’s view

Maslow had an optimistic and humanistic view of humanity.[7] He regarded people’s innate drive towards self-actualization beneficial to society as a whole.[8] In Maslow’s view, once people’s basic needs were met, they were free to explore their abilities and strive to further develop those innate abilities.[8] Driven by Metamotivation, people are more spontaneous, free to be themselves, and explore their ultimate potential to create a fulfilled life.

Not all people that satisfy their basic needs automatically become driven by B-needs. In his landmark book, Farther Reaches of Human Nature,[9] Maslow stated that people who are self-actualizing and driven by metamotivation “are dedicated people, devoted to some task ‘outside themselves,’ some vocation, or duty, or beloved job”. Maslow goes on to say that such a calling could be construed as a destiny or fate and that such people are particularly talented in their field and could be called naturals.[10]

Metaneeds and metapathology

Metamotivation is what motivates and impels an individual toward self-actualization and excellence.[11] Metamotivation is distinct from motivation operating in the lower level needs, and it emerges after the lower needs are satisfied. These lower motivations, which Maslow calls “deficiency motivations” or D-Motivations, are described as the type of motivation that operates on the lower four levels of his hierarchy of needs. These deficiency motivations are drives that arise when a physiological or psychological deficit is perceived, leading toward actions to alleviate tension and restore equilibrium.

Maslow describes a metaneed as any need for knowledge, beauty, or creativity. Metaneeds are involved in self-actualizationand constitute the highest level of needs, coming into play primarily after the lower level needs have been met.[12] In Maslow’s hierarchy, metaneeds are associated with impulses for self-actualization.[13]

Maslow’s list of Metaneeds:

  1. Wholeness (unity)
  2. Perfection (balance and harmony)
  3. Completion (ending)
  4. Justice (fairness)
  5. Richness (complexity)
  6. Simplicity (essence)
  7. Liveliness (spontaneity)
  8. Beauty (rightness of form)
  9. Goodness (benevolence)
  10. Uniqueness (individuality)
  11. Playfulness (ease)
  12. Truth (reality)
  13. Autonomy (self-sufficiency)
  14. Meaningfulness (values)[14]

Metapathology is the thwarting of self-development related to failure to satisfy the metaneeds. Metapathology prevents self-actualizers from expressing, using and fulfilling their potential.[15] Reasons people may not become self-actualized include: poor childhoods, lower economic conditions, inadequate education, anxieties and fears, and the Jonah Complex.

The Jonah complex is the fear of success or the fear of being one’s best which prevents self-actualization, or the realization of one’s own potential.[1][2] It is the fear of one’s own greatness, the evasion of one’s destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one’s talents.[1][3] As the fear of achieving a personal worst may serve to motivate personal growth, likewise the fear of achieving a personal best may hinder achievement.[1]

The Jonah complex is evident in neurotic people.[6]

Although Abraham Maslow is credited for the term, the name “Jonah complex” was originally suggested by Maslow’s friend, Professor Frank Manuel.[1] The name comes from the story of the Biblical prophet Jonah‘s evasion of the destiny to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh.[7] Maslow states, “So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried—in vain—to run away from his fate”.[1]

Any dilemma or challenge faced by an individual may trigger reactions related to the “Jonah complex”. These challenges may vary in degree and intensity. Such challenges may include career changes, beginning new stages in life, moving to new locations, interviews or auditions, and undertaking new interpersonal commitments such as marriage.[8] Other causes include

  • Fear of the sense of responsibility that often attends recognizing one’s own greatness, talents, potentials
  • Fear that an extraordinary life would be too much out of the ordinary, and hence not acceptable to others
  • Fear of seeming arrogant, self-centered, etc.[7]
  • Difficulty envisioning oneself as a prominent or authoritative figure[9]