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University of Wyoming

In contrast to behaviorist theories that concentrate on observable behavior shaped by environmental forces, and cognitivist theory that deal with the mental processing of information, humanist theories consider learning from the perspective of the human potential for growth.

Background | History | Criticisms | Strengths


Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person. Humanistic psychologists look at human behavior not only through the eyes of the observer, but through the eyes of the person doing the behaving. Humanistic psychologists believe that an individual's behavior is connected to inner feelings and self-image.

Unlike the behaviorists, humanistic psychologists believe that humans are not solely the product of their environment. Rather humanistic psychologists study human meanings, understandings, and experiences involved in growing, teaching, and learning. They emphasize characteristics that are shared by all human beings such as love, grief, caring, and self-worth.

Humanistic psychologists study how people are influenced by their self-perceptions and the personal meanings attached to their experiences. Humanistic psychologists are not primarily concerned with instinctual drives, responses to external stimuli, or past experiences. Rather, they consider conscious choices, responses to internal needs, and current circumstances to be important in shaping human behavior.

Basic viewpoints with which most humanistic psychologists agree:

  1. A person is more than just a sum of his parts. A person should be viewed holistically.
  2. A person does not live alone. People are social by nature and their interpersonal interactions are a part of their development.
  3. A person is aware. People have an awareness of their existence and themselves. How a person reacts to a situation is in part influenced by previous events. Future responses will be influenced by past and present experiences.
  4. A person has free will. People are aware of themselves; therefore, they make conscious choices. Animals, unlike humans, are driven by instincts and do not reach a conscious level of choice.
  5. A person is consciously deliberate. People seek certain things for themselves such as value or meaning in life. How people seek meaning or value for themselves results in a personal identity. This personal identity is what distinguishes one person from another.

Humanistic psychology centers around the holistic development of a person. There are three key components of reaching the highest level of self-understanding and development:

  • Self-actualization;
  • Self-fulfillment; and
  • Self-realization.


The origins of humanistic psychology can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages when the philosophy of humanism was born. The basic belief of this philosophy is that every person has worth and the right to achieve self-realization through reason and rational thought.

The early humanism movement began in 15th century Europe as a protest against the closed-minded religious dogma of the church's scholars and philosophers. For nearly a millennium, monasteries had been the foremost of social institutions. Monastics were often the teachers, the intellectuals, the artists, and the scholars of the day, or were their means of support. Almost all monasteries served as schools, teaching various combinations of grammar (which included literature), rhetoric (which included history), dialectics, arithmetic, geometry (which included the study of geography), astronomy (which included physics and astrology) and music (which included poetry). Monasteries were the economic centers of the day.

During the Renaissance (roughly 1300-1600), some began to find the monastic approach to learning insufficient. The value of scholarship in theology and dialectics shifted to an emphasis on literature and art. Scholars began to support their writing by teaching. The Medicis, a highly influential family of the day, founded an academy for the "humanities" (a word which they coined), art, literature, and history; they supported, among others, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

The purpose of education (which was beginning to happen on a mass scale) was practical learning (through the study of Greek, Latin and church writings) for the "Complete Citizen," and for "human dignity." Education, then, was not geared so much toward religious instruction (as it had largely been prior to this time) as it was an emphasis on the human condition. Many humanists held an enlightened attitude toward women. " the fourteenth century, a public debate began over the place of women in society. This was the beginning of a series of controversies that are not yet entirely resolved"

Modern humanistic psychology emerged in about the mid-1950s as a reaction by clinical psychologists, social workers, and counselors against behaviorism and psychoanalysis.

Early in the 20th century, psychological thinking was dominated by two philosophies: behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Behavioristic psychologists study overt behaviors and believe that people are conditioned by rewards and punishments to act in a certain manner. Behaviorists seek to manipulate human behavior through the use of appropriate reinforcements. The school of psychoanalysis seeks to understand the unconscious motivations and internal instincts that cause behavior. This view was expounded by Freud who believed people are creatures of life and death instincts. Life instincts primarily involve survival and propagation; the drives of hunger, thirst, and sex fall under this category. Death instincts reflect humankind's pessimism.

Although behaviorism and psychoanalysis contributed to the understanding of human behavior, it did not include a holistic view of the individual. Humanistic psychology emerged in the mid-1950s and complemented behaviorism and psychoanalysis with its focus on the individual as a whole person.

In the mid-1950's two psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow rejected what they saw as the dehumanizing negativism of psychology of the day which promoted the idea that humans were not the masters of their destiny and that all their actions were governed by either unconscious processes dominated by primitive sexual urges (Sigmund Freud) or by the environment (Behaviorial psychology). They argued that both schools of thought failed to recognize the unique qualities which enabled people to make independent choices which gave them full control of their destiny.

Some key points in the development of the field are included in the following list:

  • Abraham Maslow's Motivation and Personality written in 1954.
  • The first book on humanistic psychology was written in 1958 by John Cohen and entitled, Humanistic Psychology.
  • In 1961, the Journal of Humanistic Psvchology was founded and edited by A.J. Sutich.
  • In 1962, the American Association for Humanistic Psychology was organized.
  • In 1963, the first position paper on humanistic psychology in the United States was presented by James F.T. Bugental.
  • Also in 1963, the first humanistic psychology graduate program was instituted at Sonoma State College, California.
  • In 1970, a subdivision of the American Psychology Association called Humanistic Psychology was created.
  • Also in 1970, the American Association for Humanistic Psychology expanded into an international organization called the Association for Humanistic Psychology. In 1970, the Association for Humanistic Psychology held its first international conference in Holland.


As with any viewpoint, humanistic psychology has its critics. One major criticism of humanistic psychology is that its concepts are too vague. Critics argue that subjective ideas such as authentic and real experiences are difficult to objectify; an experience that is real for one individual may not be real for another person. For this reason, critics believe that conclusions drawn from subjective experiences are almost impossible to verify, making research in humanistic psychology unreliable. In addition, critics claim that humanistic psychology is not a true science because it involves too much common sense and not enough objectivity.


One of the greatest strengths of humanistic psychology is that it emphasizes individual choice and responsibility. Humanistic psychology satisfies most people's idea of what being human means because it values personal ideals and self-fulfillment. Finally, humanistic psychology provides researchers with a flexible framework for observing human behavior because it considers a person in the context of his/her environment and in conjunction with his/her personal perceptions and feelings.