Humanistic Approach in Psychology (humanism): Definition & Examples

Humanistic, humanism, and humanist are terms in psychology relating to an approach that studies the whole person and the uniqueness of each individual.  Essentially, these terms refer to the same approach in psychology.

Humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasizes looking at the the whole person, and the uniqueness of each individual. Humanistic psychology begins with the existential assumptions that people have free will and are motivated to acheive their potential and self-actualize.

The humanistic approach in psychology developed as a rebellion against what some psychologists saw as the limitations of behaviorist and psychodynamic psychology.

The humanistic approach is thus often called the “third force” in psychology after psychoanalysis and behaviorism (Maslow, 1968).

Humanism rejected the assumptions of the behaviorist perspective which is characterized as deterministic, focused on reinforcement of stimulus-response behavior and heavily dependent on animal research.

Humanistic psychology rejected the psychodynamic approach because it is also deterministic, with unconscious irrational and instinctive forces determining human thought and behavior. 

Both behaviorism and psychoanalysis are regarded as dehumanizing by humanistic psychologists.

Humanistic psychology expanded its influence throughout the 1970s and the 1980s.  Its impact can be understood in terms of three major areas:

1) It offered a new set of values for approaching an understanding of human nature and the human condition.

2) It offered an expanded horizon of methods of inquiry in the study of human behavior.

3) It offered a broader range of more effective methods in the professional practice of psychotherapy.

Summary Table

Key Features
• Qualitative Research
• Ideographic Approach
• Personal Agency
• Self-Actualisation
• Subjective Experience
• Holism
• Humans have free will; this is called personal agency.
• All individuals are unique and have an innate (inborn) drive to achieve their maximum potential.
• A proper understanding of human behavior can only be achieved by studying humans – not animals.
• Subjective reality is the primary guide for human behavior
• Psychology should study the individual case (idiographic) rather than the average performance of groups (nomothetic).
• The whole person should be studied in their environmental context.
• the goal of psychology is to formulate a complete description of what it means to be a human being (e.g. the importance of language, emotions, and how humans seek to find meaning in their lives).
• Qualitative Research
• Case Studies
• Informal Interviews
• Q-Sort Method (for congruence)
• Content Analysis
• Phenomenological Framework
• Humanistic ideas have been applied to person-centered therapy
• Humanistic ideas have been applied to education (open-classroom policy, life-long learning, self-directed education, and student-centered learning)
• Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is widely used in health and social work as a framework for assessing clients’ needs.
• Unscientific – subjective concepts
• Ethnocentric (biased towards Western culture)
• Belief in free will is in opposition to the deterministic laws of science
• Subjective explanations will be distorted by Freudian defense mechanisms

Basic Assumptions

Humanistic psychology begins with the existential assumption that people have free will:

Personal agency is the humanistic term for the exercise of free will. Free will is the idea that people can make choices in how they act and are self-determining.

Behavior is not constrained by either past experience of the individual or current circumstances (determinism).

Personal agency refers to the choices we make in life, the paths we go down, and their consequences. Individuals are free to choose when they are congruent (Rogers) or self-actualized (Maslow).

Although Rogers believes much more in free will, he acknowledges that determinism is present in the case of conditional love because that may affect a person’s self-esteem. In this way free will and determinism are integral to some extent in the humanistic perspective.

People are basically good, and have an innate need to make themselves and the world better:

Humanistic psychology: a more recent development in the history of psychology, humanistic psychology grew out of the need for a more positive view of human beings than was offered by psychoanalysis or behaviorism. 

Humans are innately good, which means there is nothing inherently negative or evil about them (humans).

In this way the humanistic perspective takes an optimistic view of human nature that humans are born good but during their process of growth they might turn evil.

The humanistic approach emphasizes the individual’s personal worth, the centrality of human values, and the creative, active nature of human beings.

The approach is optimistic and focuses on the noble human capacity to overcome hardship, pain and despair.

People are motivated to self-actualize:

Major humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow believed that human beings were born with the desire to grow, create and to love, and had the power to direct their own lives.

Self-actualization concerns psychological growth, fulfillment, and satisfaction in life.

Both Rogers and Maslow regarded personal growth and fulfillment in life as basic human motives. This means that each person, in different ways, seeks to grow psychologically and continuously enhance themselves.

However, Rogers and Maslow both describe different ways which self-actualization can be achieved.

According to Maslow, people also have needs which must be met for self-actualization to be possible.  The basic needs e.g. food and water have to be satisfied before the higher psychological and emotional needs. This is shown in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

According to Rogers, people could only self-actualize if they had a positive view of themselves (positive self-regard).  This can only happen if they have unconditional positive regard from others – if they feel that they are valued and respected without reservation by those around them (especially their parents when they were children).

Self-actualization is only possible if there is congruence between the way an individual sees themselves and their ideal self (the way they want to be or think they should be). If there is a large gap between these two concepts, negative feelings of self-worth will arise that will make it impossible for self-actualization to take place.

The environment a person is exposed to and interacts with can either frustrate or assist this natural destiny. If it is oppressive, it will frustrate; if it is favorable, it will assist. 

Behavior must be understood in terms of the subjective conscious experience of the individual (phenomenology):

Humanistic psychologists also believe that the most fundamental aspect of being human is a subjective experience. This may not be an accurate reflection of the real world, but a person can only act in terms of their own private experience subjective perception of reality.

Humanistic psychologists argue that physical objective reality is less important than a person’s subjective (phenomenological) perception and understanding of the world. Thus, how people interpret things internally is (for them), the only reality. 

Sometimes the humanistic approach is called phenomenological. This means that personality is studied from the point of view of the individual’s subjective experience. Meaning is the purpose or value that a person attaches to their actions or experiences

According to Rogers, we each live in a world of our own creation, formed by our processes of perception. He referred to an individual’s unique perception of reality as his or her phenomenal field. 

As Rogers once said, “The only reality I can possibly know is the world as I perceive and experience it at this particular moment. The only reality you can possibly know is the world as you perceive and experience at this moment. And the only certainty is that those perceived realities are different. There are as many ‘real worlds’ as there are people! (Rogers, 1980, p. 102).

For Rogers, the focus of psychology is not behavior (Skinner), the unconscious (Freud), thinking (Piaget), or the human brain but how individuals perceive and interpret events. Rogers is therefore important because he redirected psychology toward the study of the self.

Humanistic theorists say these individual subjective realities must be looked at under three simultaneous conditions.

First, they must be looked at as a whole and meaningful and not broken down into small components of information that are disjointed or fragmented like with psychodynamic theorists. Rogers said that if these individual perceptions of reality are not kept intact and are divided into elements of thought, they will lose their meaning.

Second, they must be conscious experiences of the here and now. No efforts should be made to retrieve unconscious experiences from the past.

Phenomenenological means ‘that which appears’ and in this case, it means that which naturally appears in consciousness. Without attempting to reduce it to its component parts – without further analysis.

Finally, these whole experiences should be looked at through introspection. Introspection is the careful searching of one’s inner subjective experiences.

Humanism rejects scientific methodology:

Rogers and Maslow placed little value on scientific psychology, especially the use of the psychology laboratory to investigate both human and animal behavior.

Rogers said that objective scientific inquiry based on deterministic assumptions about humans has a place in the study of humans (science) but is limited in the sense that it leaves out inner human experiences (phenomenology).

Studying a person’s subjective experience is the biggest problem for scientific psychology, which stresses the need for its subject matter to be publicly observable and verifiable. Subjective experience, by definition, resists such processes.

Humanism rejects scientific methodology like experiments and typically uses qualitative research methods.  For example, diary accounts, open-ended questionnaires, unstructured interviews, and observations.

Qualitative research is useful for studies at the individual level, and to find out, in-depth, the ways in which people think or feel (e.g. case studies ).

The way to really understand other people is to sit down and talk with them, share their experiences, and be open to their feelings.

Humanism rejected comparative psychology (the study of animals) because it does not tell us anything about the unique properties of human beings:

Humanism views humans as fundamentally different from other animals, mainly because humans are conscious beings capable of thought, reason, and language. 

For humanistic psychologists’ research on animals, such as rats, pigeons, or monkeys held little value. 

Research on such animals can tell us, so they argued, very little about human thought, behavior, and experience.

Historical Timeline

  • Maslow (1943) developed a hierarchical theory of human motivation.
  • Carl Rogers (1946) publishes Significant aspects of client-centered therapy (also called person-centered therapy).
  • In 1957 and 1958, at the invitation of Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas, two meetings were held in Detroit among psychologists who were interested in founding a professional association dedicated to a more meaningful, more humanistic vision.
  • In 1962, with the sponsorship of Brandeis University, this movement was formally launched as the Association for Humanistic Psychology.
  • The first issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology appeared in the Spring of 1961.
  • Clark Hull’s (1943) Principles of behavior was published.
  • B.F. Skinner (1948) published Walden Two, in which he described a utopian society founded upon behaviorist principles.

Issues and Debates

Free will vs. Determinism

It is the only approach that explicitly states that people have free will, but its position on this topic is somewhat incoherent as on one hand, it argues that people have free will.

However, on the other hand, it argues that our behavior is determined by the way other people treat us (whether we feel that we are valued and respected without reservation by those around us).

Nature vs. Nurture

The approach recognizes both the influence of nature and nurture, nurture- the influence of experiences on a person’s ways of perceiving and understanding the world, nature- influence of biological drives and needs (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

Holism vs. Reductionism

The approach is holistic as it does not try to break down behaviors in simpler components.

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic

As this approach views the individual as unique, it does not attempt to establish universal laws about the causes of behavior; it is an idiographic approach.

Are the research methods used scientific?

As the approach views the individual as unique, it does not believe that scientific measurements of their behavior are appropriate.

Critical Evaluation


The humanistic approach has been applied to relatively few areas of psychology compared to the other approaches. Therefore, its contributions are limited to areas such as therapy, abnormality, motivation, education, and personality.

Client-centered therapy is widely used in health, social work and industry. This therapy has helped many people overcome difficulties they face in life, which is a significant contribution to improving people’s quality of life.

Humanistic therapies are based on the idea that psychological disorders are a product of self-deceit. Humanistic therapists help clients view themselves and their situations with greater insight, accuracy and acceptance.

The fundamental belief of this type of therapy is that clients can fulfill their full potential as human beings if they can achieve these goals. Examples of humanistic therapies include client-centered therapy and Gestalt therapy.

Client-centered therapy aims to increase clients’ self-worth and decrease the incongruence between the self-concept and the ideal self.

It is a non-directive therapy in which the client is encouraged to discover their own solutions to their difficulties in an atmosphere that is supportive and non-judgemental and that provides unconditional positive regard.

It focuses on the present rather than dwell on the past unlike psychoanalysis. This therapy is widely used e.g. health, education and industry.

Rogers’ view of education saw schools as generally rigid, bureaucratic institutions which are resistant to change. Applied to education, his approach becomes ‘student-centered learning’ in which children are trusted to participate in developing and to take charge of their own learning agendas. His attitude to examinations, in particular, would no doubt, find a most receptive audience in many students:

‘I believe that the testing of the student’s achievements in order to see if he meets some criterion held by the teacher, is directly contrary to the implications of therapy for significant learning’.

Humanistic ideas have been applied in education with open classrooms. In the open classrooms, students are the ones who decide how learning should take place (student-centered), they should be self-directed, they’re free to choose what to study and the teacher merely acts as a facilitator who provides an atmosphere of freedom and support for individual pursuits.

Summerhill School in UK, founded by A.S. Neill is one of the schools that have applied humanistic ideas fully with some success to enhance motivation in students.

The school has a clear structure and rules and that students from Summerhill are very creative, self-directed (free to choose subjects, learning materials, etc.), responsible and tolerant.

Humanistic psychologists rejected a rigorous scientific approach to psychology because they saw it as dehumanizing and unable to capture the richness of conscious experience.

As would be expected of an approach that is ‘anti-scientific’, humanistic psychology is short on empirical evidence. The approach includes untestable concepts, such as ‘self-actualization’ and ‘congruence’.

However, Rogers did attempt to introduce more rigor into his work by developing Q-sort – an objective measure of progress in therapy. Q-sort is a method used to collect data on outcome of therapy based on changes in clients self-concepts before, during, and after therapy in that it is used to measure actual changes based on differences between self and ideal self. 

In many ways, the rejection of scientific psychology in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was a backlash to the dominance of the behaviorist approach in North American psychology. For example, their belief in free-will is in direct opposition to the deterministic laws of science.

However, the flip side to this is that humanism can gain a better insight into an individual’s behavior through the use of qualitative methods, such as unstructured interviews.

The approach also helped to provide a more holistic view of human behavior, in contrast to the reductionist position of science.


Psychoanalytic criticisms claim that individuals cannot explain their own behaviour because the causes are largely unconscious. Consequently, conscious explanations will be distorted by rationalisation or other defences.

The behaviourists have been the severest critics of humanistic psychology because of the phenomenological approach, which they feel, is purely subjective and dualistic.

Thus, according to behaviourists, the theories lack any empirical validity and scientific method is abandoned in favour of introspection. 

A possible reason for the limited impact on academic psychology perhaps lies with the fact that humanism deliberately adopts a non-scientific approach to studying humans.

The areas investigated by humanism, such as consciousness and emotion, are very difficult to scientifically study.  The outcome of such scientific limitations means that there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the key theories of the approach.

Another limitation is the humanistic approach is that it is ethnocentric. Many ideas central to humanistic psychology, such as individual freedom, autonomy and personal growth, would be more readily associated with individualistic cultures in the Western world, such as the United States.

Collectivist cultures such as India, which emphasize the needs of the group and interdependence, may not identify so easily with the ideals and values of humanistic psychology.

Therefore, it is possible that the approach would not travel well and is a product of the cultural context within which it was developed, and an emic approach is more appropriate.

Humanism proposes a positive view of human nature, however, it could be argued that this might not be very realistic when considering everyday reality, such as domestic violence and genocides.

Furthermore, the approach’s focus on meeting our needs and fulfilling our growth potential reflects an individualistic, self-obsessed outlook that is part of the problem faced by our society rather than a solution.


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1,  415-422.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist 1,  415-422.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

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