Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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A. H. Maslow (1941)
Brooklyn College

First published in Psychological Review, 48, 364-366

It is easy in the discussion of frustration to fall into the error of segmenting the human being. That is to say, there is still a tendency to speak of the mouth or stomach being frustrated, or of a need being frustrated. We must keep in mind constantly the truism that only a whole human being is frustrated, never a part of a human being.

With this in mind, an important distinction becomes apparent, namely the difference between deprivation and threat to the personality. The usual definitions of frustration are in terms simply of not getting what one desires, of interference with a wish, or with a gratification. Such a definition fails to make the distinction between a deprivation which is unimportant to the organism (easily substituted for, with few serious after-effects), and, on the other hand, a deprivation which is at the same time, a threat to the personality, that is, to the life goals of the individual, to his defensive system, to his self-esteem or to his feeling of security. It is our con-tention that only a threatening deprivation has the multitude of effects (usually undesirable) which are commonly attributed to frustration in general.

A goal object may have two meanings for the individual. First it has its intrinsic meaning, and secondly, it may have also a secondary, symbolic value. Thus a certain child deprives of an ice-cream cone which he wanted may have lost simply an ice-cream cone. A second child, however, deprived of an ice-cream cone, may have lost not only a sensory gratification, but may also feel deprived of the love of his mother because she refused to buy it for him. For the second boy the ice-cream cone not only has an intrinsic value, but may [p. 365] also be the carrier of psychological values. Being deprived merely of ice-cream qua ice-cream probably means very little for a healthy individual, and it is questionable whether it should even be called by the same name, i.e., frustration, which characterizes other more threatening deprivations. It is only when a goal object represents love, prestige, respect, or achievement that being deprived of it will have the bad effects ordinarily attributed to frustration in general.

It is possible to demonstrate very clearly this two fold meaning of an object in certain groups of animals and in certain situations. For instance, it has been shown that when two monkeys are in a dominance-subordination relationship a piece of food is (I) an appeaser of hunger and also (2) a symbol of dominance status. Thus if the subordinate animal attempts to pick up food, he will at once be attacked by the dominant animal. If, however, he can deprive the food of its symbolic dominance value, then his dominator allows him to eat it. This he can do very easily by a gesture of obeisance, i.e., presentation as he approaches the food; this is as if to say, "I want this food only to still hunger, I do not want to challenge your dominance. I readily concede your dominance." In the same way we may take a criticism from a friend in two different ways. Ordinarily the average person will respond by feeling attacked and threatened (which is fair enough because so frequently criticism is an attack). He therefore bristles and becomes angry in response. But if he is assured that this criticism is not an attack or a rejection of himself, he will then not only listen to the criticism, but possibly even be grateful for it. Thus, if he has already had thousands of proofs that his friend loves him and respects him, the criticism represents only criticism; it does not also represent an attack or threat.

Neglect of this distinction has created a great deal of unnecessary turmoil in psychoanalytic circles. An ever-recurring question is: Does sexual deprivation inevitably give rise to all or any of the many effects of frustration, e.g., aggression, sublimation, etc. It is now well known that many cases are found in which celibacy has no psychopathological [p. 366] effects. In many other cases, however, it has many bad effects. What factor determines which shall be the result? Clinical work with non-neurotic people gives the clear answer that sexual deprivation becomes pathogenic in a severe sense only when it is felt by the individual to represent rejection by the opposite sex, inferiority, lack of worth, lack of respect, or isolation. Sexual deprivation can be borne with relative ease by individuals for whom it has no such implications. (Of course, there will probably be what Rosenzweig calls need-persistive reactions, but these are not necessarily pathological.)

The unavoidable deprivations in childhood are also ordinarily thought of as frustrating. Weaning, elimination control, learning to walk, in fact every new level of adjustment is conceived to be achieved by forceable pushing of the child. Here, too,' the differentiation between mere deprivation and threat to the personality enjoins caution upon us. Observations of children who are completely assured of the love and respect of their parents have shown that deprivations can sometimes be borne with astonishing ease. There are few frustration effects if these deprivations are not conceived by the child to be threatening to his fundamental personality to his main life goals, or needs.

From this point of view, it follows that the phenomenon of threatening frustration is closely allied to other threat situations much more than it is to mere deprivation. The classic effects of frustration are also found frequently to be a consequence of other types of threat-traumatization, conflict, rejection, severe illness, actual physical threat, imminence of death, humiliation, isolation, or loss of prestige.

This leads us to our final hypothesis, that perhaps frustration/ as a single concept is less useful than the two concepts which cross-cut it, (I) deprivation, and (2) threat to the personality. Deprivation implies much less than is ordinarily implied by the concept of frustration; threat implies much more.

[1] Prepared for the 1940 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in the Symposium of Effects of Frustration.