Humanistic psychology was introduced in the late 1950s in response to what proponents saw as inadequacies in the leading psychological theories of the day. Now known as the “3rd force” in psychology, humanist psychology attempts to place more of an emphasis on the role that individuals can play in their own treatment and growth, rather than the individual’s inner thoughts and desires, or alternatively, conditioning behaviors.
Before the advent of humanistic psychology, two major schools of thought dominated the psychological field: psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Proponents of humanist psychology felt that these two systems presented a limited view of human behavior, and did not recognize an individual’s potential and ability to change. Behaviorist psychologists endeavored to find a means of analysis and treatment that kept the positive aspects of psychoanalysis and behaviorism, but with a heavy emphasis on the individual’s power in his or her own treatment.
As behavioral psychologist Kirk Schneider put it, the movement searches for “a philosophical and scientific understanding of human existence that does justice to the highest reaches of human achievement and potential.” Additionally, proponents of humanistic psychology feel that both behaviorism and psychoanalysis take too much of a negative view of humanity, as they present a pessimistic view of human nature. Humanistic psychologists believe instead that humans are innately good, and that we all have the power for self-improvement, and ideally, self-actualization.
Self-actualization is considered to be the healthiest mental state for human beings and represents the peak of humanistic psychology according to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Those who are self-actualized have reached their highest individual potential; as Maslow described it, they have “the full use and exploitation of talent, capacities, potentialities, etc. Those in humanistic psychology believe that all humans are capable of self-actualization, although they sometimes need guidance to understand and navigate their own hierarchy of needs.
Maslow categorized needs into deficiency needs and growth needs, the first being needs that arise in order to fill a deficiency, for example, food, sleep and basic security in life. The second being needs that fulfill a desire for personal growth, are self-actualizing needs. The concept of self-actualization was touted not only by Maslow, but also by another leading figure in humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers. He developed what is now the most commonly used form of therapy, in which the therapist creates a welcoming and non-judgmental environment for the patient to talk about his or her problems.
Like any theory, humanistic psychology has a number of naysayers. Some criticize the system for its subjectivity and lack of scientific data, as its focus on human potential and self-actualization relies on patient reports, not objectively collected data. Additionally, others claim that it promotes narcissism and excessive self-involvement on the part of patients.