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Humanistic Psychology - Theories and therapeutic applications, Research

Psychology EncyclopediaBranches of Psychology

A theoretical and therapeutic approach that emphasizes people's uniqueness and their power to control their own destinies.

Humanistic psychology evolved in the 1960s as a reaction to psychodynamic psychology and behaviorism. Humanists objected to the pessimistic view of human nature advocated by psychodynamic psychologists who saw the selfish pursuit of pleasure as the root of all human behavior. They also felt that the behaviorists' beliefs that all human behavior is the product of environmental influences reduced people to the status of machines and did not adequately explain the human experience. Humanists faulted both psychodynamic psychologists and behaviorists for viewing human behavior as governed by factors beyond personal control. In contrast, humanists emphasize people's innate potential, and the ability of people to determine their own destinies. The ultimate goal for the humanistic psychologist, therefore, is to help people realize their full potential and live up to their abilities.

Theories and therapeutic applications

Two particular theoretical approaches have come to characterize humanistic psychology. The "person-centered" approach to therapy advocated by Carl Rogers is based on his belief that trusting one's experiences and believing in one's self are the most important elements of self-fulfillment. In person-centered therapy, abnormal behavior is considered to be the result of a person's failure to trust experience, resulting in a distorted or inaccurate view of the self. There is an incongruity between the person's current view of himself and his "ideal" self. Person-centered therapists attempt to help people gain self-understanding and self-acceptance by conveying empathy, warmth, and the unconditional belief that no matter what the client says or does, the client is still a worthwhile person.

The second influential theory of humanistic psychology was developed by Abraham Maslow. Maslow believed that people are innately good and naturally driven to develop their potential or to achieve "self-actualization." He believed, however, that people were driven by a hierarchy of needs that must be fulfilled in a particular sequence in order for self-actualization to occur. First, physiological and safety needs must be met. Then people need to feel a sense of belonging. Once this is achieved, people work on their self-esteem needs and then finally self-actualization. Maslow believed that psychological problems result from a difficulty in fulfilling the self-esteem needs, which therefore block self-actualization. Therapy, then, is aimed at correcting people's inaccurate views of themselves, improving their self-esteem, and enabling them to continue on the path toward self-actualization.


Humanistic psychologists have tended to focus on client care rather than research, although some empirical investigation have been undertaken. Studies of the relationship between the therapist and the client have shown that Rogers's ideals were important to successful outcomes, making his theory very influential in the world of counseling. In fact, empathy, warmth, and acceptance are now commonly referred to as the "core conditions" or "common factors" of counseling and are used by therapists of all psychological perspectives to encourage people to feel and act differently. Research into Maslow's theory has yielded mixed results. The primary importance of physiological and safety needs has been supported by research, however, it has not been clearly demonstrated that fulfillment of these needs is necessary before people can begin to self-actualize. In one important study, for example, subjects were placed in stressful situations that threatened their physiological and safety needs. Shortly thereafter, the researchers measured the creativity of the participants' answers on a test. Since creativity is an aspect of self-actualization, it was predicted that creativity would be compromised as a result of the stress, however, the opposite result was found; the subjects actually became more creative in reaction to the challenge to their survival needs.

One of the main reasons for the lack of research on humanistic psychology is because of its philosophical and theoretical roots. Humanists stress acceptance of people, instead of critically examining their behavior. Rather than seeking to uncover the common mechanisms underlying human behavior, humanists emphasize human uniqueness and the "phenomenological perspective"—the view that people are best understood by examining their specific, unique experiences and aspirations. This personalized view has recently become very popular outside the field of scientific psychology. In fact, the "Personal Power" system sold on television by Anthony Robbins is largely based on the humanistic belief that you are responsible for creating the life you live.

Timothy Moore

Further Reading

Capuzzi, D. and D. Gross. Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.

"The Humanistic Psychologist." Journal of the Division of Humanistic Psychology. American Psychological Association.

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