Humanistic Approach in Psychology: Definition & History

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  • 0:00 History of Humanistic…
  • 1:20 Basic Tenets of…
  • 2:55 Carl Rogers
  • 4:15 Abraham Maslow
  • 6:20 Humanistic Psychology Today
  • 7:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Tiffany Frye
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Humanistic psychology views humans as holistic individuals capable of determining their own behaviors and goals. Read on to find out about the development of this perspective and about the work of key humanist psychologists.

History of Humanistic Psychology

In the early 20th century, behaviorism was on the rise. The behaviorist perspective held that behavior was the only observable phenomenon related to mental processes and therefore was the sole area with which psychology should concern itself. Behaviorists did not believe it was of any value to study thoughts, memory, emotion or any other non-objective process. Psychoanalysis developed at about the same time as behaviorism and held that observable phenomena were only the superficial manifestation of unconscious impulses. Psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund Freud, assumed that patients did not understand their own motivations, and so their therapeutic approach was to help their patients uncover the hidden urges that drove behavior.

In the 1950s, a group of psychologists began to develop a theoretical perspective very different from both behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Humanism arose as a reaction to these dominant forces in psychology but found its roots in classical and Renaissance philosophy that emphasized self-realization, that is, the ability of a human being to intentionally grow and develop psychologically, intellectually and ethically. The development of humanism was also bolstered by similar philosophical movements in Europe, such as developments in phenomenology and existentialism.

Basic Tenets of Humanistic Psychology

The foundation of humanistic psychology developed throughout the 1950s and early 1960s through a series of meetings and conferences with the leading figures of the movement. Psychologists, such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas and Charlotte Buhler, were key players in laying out the fundamental principles of humanism. These psychologists developed a theoretical perspective that sought to honor the whole human being as conscious, intentional and capable of creating meaning in life. Again, this contrasted with behaviorism, which focused exclusively on behavior, and psychoanalysis, which did not believe that humans were completely aware of their own motivations.

The fundamental principles of humanism appeared in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and can be summarized as follows:

  • A human being is more than just a sum of his or her parts. He or she should be viewed holistically, not reductively.
  • A person's behavior is influenced by his or her environment. Social interactions are key in the development of a human being.
  • People are aware of their existence, that is, they are conscious of themselves and their surroundings. They are aware of past experiences and use them to inform present and future behavior.
  • Human beings have free will and make conscious choices. They are not driven by instinct or impulse alone.
  • Human beings have intentional goals and seek to create meaning in life.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers was very influential in the founding and promotion of humanism and is considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His influence is most felt in the development of his person-centered therapeutic techniques. This view of therapy insists that the client herself is in the best position to understand her previous experiences.

Rogers set out three conditions for creating a therapeutic environment that would best support a client's growth. The first condition is unconditional positive regard, which means that the therapist should affirm the client's worth as a human being and should never be judgmental or critical of the client. The second is empathic understanding - the ability of the therapist to understand the client's experience, emotions and thoughts from the client's perspective instead of from a predetermined theoretical perspective. The third condition is congruence and refers to the authenticity of the therapist. Rogers believed that the therapist should not be aloof or attempt to hide his true personality but instead should be open to the client in a genuine manner. In Rogers' view, these three core conditions were sufficient for creating an atmosphere of trust and understanding, and that in such an atmosphere, the client would experience therapeutic change.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow, another influential humanist psychologist, is best known today for his definition of self-actualization and his development of a hierarchy of needs. Maslow did not believe that psychology should be solely focused on mental illness; instead, he insisted on studying healthy individuals. To form his theories, Maslow studied the biographies and writings of people that he believed exemplified self-actualization, including Albert Einstein and Henry David Thoreau, in addition to some of Maslow's own personal acquaintances. From these studies, he defined self-actualization as the desire and motivation to reach one's personal potential. Qualities that he believed were common among all self-actualizers include spontaneity, an ability to form deep interpersonal bonds, autonomy, acceptance of oneself and others, and a determination to pursue goals outside of oneself. According to Maslow, self-actualizers also have frequent peak experiences, during which they have a temporary feeling of ecstasy, harmony and connection with themselves and their environments.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts About Humanistic Approach in Psychology

Study Prompt 1:

Create a set of flashcards that list and define the key terms related to humanistic psychology and its history. These include: behavioralism, psychoanalysis, humanism, self-realization, person-centered, self-actualization, peak experiences, hierarchy of needs, transpersonal psychology, empathic understanding, unconditional positive regard, congruence, and positive psychology. Tip: It helps to have the term on one side of the flashcard and the definition on the other side. That way, you can easily quiz yourself.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay that explains the differences between humanism and behavioralism. Be sure to also include an explanation of how the humanistic approach in psychology differs from psychoanalysis. Tip: A good essay will explain the history of the development of these psychological theories.

Essay Prompt 2:

If a therapist was utilizing the technique of humanistic psychology championed by Carl Rogers, what kinds of therapeutic techniques might he or she use? Write an essay describing this, and be sure to provide a definition and/or examples of each technique.

Example/Tips: A good essay will consider that Rogers' thought that clients understand themselves in deeper and more insightful ways than therapists. A successful essay will also tease out Rogers' points about using empathy and sincerity with clients.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay that explains Abraham Maslow's views of humanistic psychology. Tip: A good essay will thoroughly explain the relationship between self-actualization, peak experiences, and the hierarchy of needs.

Poster Prompt 1:

Create a poster or other type of graphic organizer that lists and describes the fundamental principles of humanism.

Example/Tips: A good visual aid will show that humanistic principles include the importance in how people make independent choices and seek individual goals and also how their environment and their awareness of it can shape their experiences.

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