An Overview of the Humanistic Approach in Psychology

In 1957 and 1958, Clark Moustakas and Abraham Maslow, along with a group of their peers, met to discuss a more humanistic approach to psychology. Carl Rogers, who would emerge as one of the association’s leaders, said: “An assumption unusual in psychology today is that the subjective human being has an important value which is basic; that no matter how he may be labeled and evaluated he is a human person first of all, and most deeply.”

Psychology before this had focused on the two schools of study, behaviorism – or what Maslow would call “The First Force” – and Freudian psychoanalysis – or, “The Second Force”. Behaviorism operated on the theory that all human behaviors were conditioned responses, requiring no probing into the psyche; it was interaction with the environment that was revealing. Psychoanalysis veered in the other direction. Theorists such as Jung and Freud purported that there was an unconscious mind, driven by several forces outside a person’s awareness.

In 1961, the American Association for Humanistic Psychology was launched. Pointing to psychology theories before them, these founders believed that neither of them accounted for humanity being, at its core, both human and good. Where psychoanalysis centers on those uncontrollable urges that lead to mostly negative outcomes, the humanistic approach says that we struggle only with obstacles in our way and, by removing them, we might find a deeper understanding of self.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs focused much of these humanistic principles into a pyramid. Each step of the pyramid described a set of needs that a person would have to fulfill in order to advance to the higher one. The first are the base needs required for basic survival: air, water, food, and sleep. Without access to each of these, there is no moving forward. Once physiological demands are met, there are the needs of safety and security. This includes both a desire for housing, and a safety in others; the entire environment is considered. Shift up and the next needs are for friendship, and a sense of belonging. These were social needs. After social needs are esteem needs, such as self-esteem, respect, and a sense of accomplishment.

The highest peak of the pyramid embodies another Maslow contribution to psychology, the notion of self-actualization. This process is taken on when a person is entirely aware of himself, his potential, his place in society, and is acting in accordance with this. A self-actualized person would feel complete peace. It was a condition that Maslow believed many reached but likely none ever truly fulfilled.

Carl Rogers, whose work primarily sat in therapy, developed the Theory of Personality. He believed that every person was basely trustworthy and good. He continued along a line similar to Maslow to suggest that every individual had an “actualizing tendency” that sought to deliver that individual to autonomy. His theory was that the human condition was a desire to fulfill its potential.

This responsibility of self that humanistic psychologists put on an individual is what made it difficult to actually study. If a person were to be treated positively, and as if he were aware of his own needs and desires, then there was little basis to move on. A psychologist couldn’t make any assumptions, or he would be defeating the point of each individual being most aware of his own self. Behaviorism’s dependence on the environment made it highly observable, and psychoanalysis allowed psychologists to probe into past events to determine behavior. Humanistic psychology was condemned for being far less accessible to concrete evidence.

Questions that humanistic psychology is often unable to answer are about the same choices that its stance on free will gives each person. If a person is given a positive option, why does he sometimes choose the negative one? What in the belief of a person’s knowledge of his own desires can help with serious mental disorders? Can we really believe that every single human being follows the same base set of needs, without once reordering them for himself?

However, humanistic psychology is not entirely dismissed by the other schools of thought. With its focus on positivity, it blends well with other opposing treatments to create a more well-rounded study. Through humanistic theory, we are able to understand human beings as positive forces for their own change, heading towards full self-actualization. Therapists especially are able to use this manual to create an optimistic line of thought for clients.