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humanistic theory

Humanistic theory is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the inherent dignity, worth, and potential of human beings. It emerged in the mid-20th century as a reaction to the deterministic and reductionist approaches of behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Humanistic theory proposes that people have a natural tendency to grow, to seek meaning, and to exercise their free will. In this article, we will explore the main concepts, principles, and applications of humanistic theory in various fields of psychology.

History of humanism

Humanistic theory is a psychological perspective that emerged in the mid-20th century as a reaction to the dominant approaches of behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Humanistic theory emphasizes the inherent worth, potential, and freedom of human beings, as well as their subjective experience and holistic nature. The theory also focuses on the concepts of Self-actualization, creativity, individuality, and personal fulfilment. Some of the main proponents of humanistic theory were Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Alfred Adler, and James Bugental, who were influenced by the philosophy of humanism that dates back to the Middle Ages. Humanistic theory has contributed to the fields of education, counselling, psychotherapy, and positive psychology, among others.

Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic psychology is a branch of psychology that emphasizes holistic human development, inherent human value, maximizing human flourishing, and the innate goodness of humans. It arose in the mid-20th century as a reaction to the limitations of behaviourism and psychoanalysis, which focused on observable behaviour and unconscious drives, respectively. Humanistic psychology proposed a “third force” in psychology that recognized the importance of subjective experience, personal growth, Self-actualization, and human potential.

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Some of the major branches of humanistic psychology are:

  • Existential psychology, which explores the meaning of human existence, freedom, responsibility, and authenticity.
  • Gestalt psychology, which emphasizes the integration of the whole person, including body, mind, emotions, and environment.
  • Person-centred therapy, which is based on the belief that every person has an innate tendency to grow and develop in a positive direction, given a supportive and empathic environment.
  • Positive psychology, which studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive and flourish.
  • Transpersonal psychology, which investigates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of human experience, such as peak experiences, mystical states, and altered states of consciousness.

Humanistic psychology emphasizes holistic human development, inherent human value, maximizing human flourishing, and the innate goodness of humans (Helpful Professor, 2023). It developed as a reaction to the limitations of behaviourism and psychoanalysis, which were seen as too deterministic and dehumanizing by some psychologists (Simply Psychology, n.d.). Humanistic psychology is not a unified theory or school, but rather a perspective that informs psychological research and practice (Wikipedia, n.d.). Some of the major differences of thought between the various branches of humanistic psychology include:

  • The degree to which they draw on other disciplines such as philosophy, spirituality, art, and literature.
  • The extent to which they focus on individual or collective aspects of human experience.
  • The methods and techniques they use to facilitate personal growth and well-being.
  • The criteria and indicators they use to measure and evaluate human potential and fulfilment.

For example, transpersonal psychology and positive psychology are two branches of humanistic psychology that share some common influences and goals, but also differ in some respects. Transpersonal psychology explores the transcendent and spiritual dimensions of human nature, while positive psychology focuses on the scientific study of human strengths and virtues (Frontiers in Psychology, 2021). Transpersonal psychology uses methods such as meditation, hypnosis, and altered states of consciousness to facilitate self-transcendence, while positive psychology uses interventions such as gratitude, optimism, and resilience training to enhance well-being (Verywell Mind, 2021).

In another example, one of the major differences of thought between existential and person-centred psychology is the role of the self in human experience. The person-centred approach, developed by Carl Rogers, emphasizes the importance of the self-concept and the actualizing tendency as the main sources of psychological health and growth (Mulhauser, 2010). The existential approach, influenced by philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre, focuses on the fundamental questions of human existence, such as freedom, responsibility, meaning, and death (Stumm, 2008). While the person-centred approach regards the individual as the authority on their own experience and strives to create a therapeutic relationship based on empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard, the existential approach views the individual as a being-in-the-world who has to face the challenges and opportunities of living authentically and creatively (counselling Resource, 2011). In contrast to the person-centred approach, which assumes that people have an innate tendency towards growth and fulfilment, the existential approach recognizes that people may also experience anxiety, despair, alienation, and conflict as a result of their existential choices and dilemmas (Bartleby, 2016).

Are the many branches of humanism multiple facets of the same coin?

Humanism is a broad term that encompasses various philosophical, ethical, and psychological perspectives that emphasize human dignity, agency, and potential. However, within humanism, there are different branches that have different emphases and assumptions. In this article, we will explore the question: Are all the branches of humanism simply many facets of the same coin? In this article, we compare and contrast the main branches of humanist psychology: person-centred, existentialism and positive psychology.

The main concepts of humanism

Humanistic theory emphasizes the inherent goodness and potential of human beings. It assumes that people have free will and are motivated to achieve their goals, values, and ideals. Humanistic theory also focuses on the subjective experience of individuals and their unique ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Some of the main concepts of humanistic theory are:

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Self-actualization: This is the process of fulfilling one’s innate potential and becoming the best version of oneself. Self-actualization involves developing one’s talents, abilities, creativity, and personal growth.

Hierarchy of needs: This is a model proposed by Abraham Maslow that describes the different levels of human needs, from the most basic to the most complex. The lower levels include physiological, safety, social, and esteem needs, while the highest level is Self-actualization. Maslow argued that people must satisfy their lower needs before they can pursue their higher needs.

Unconditional positive regard: This is an attitude of acceptance and respect that one person has for another, regardless of their flaws, mistakes, or behaviours. Unconditional positive regard is considered essential for healthy self-esteem and psychological wellbeing. It is also a key component of the therapeutic relationship between a client and a counsellor in humanistic therapy.

Congruence: This is the degree of alignment between one’s self-concept (how one sees oneself) and one’s actual experience (how one really is). This implies authenticity, honesty, and consistency in one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Congruence is associated with higher self-esteem, self-acceptance, and psychological adjustment.

self-efficacy: This is the belief that one can perform a specific task or achieve a certain goal. This influences one’s motivation, effort, persistence, and resilience in the face of challenges. self-efficacy can be enhanced by positive feedback, modelling, mastery experiences, and social support.

Principles of humanism

Humanistic theory is based on the following main principles:

  • Humans have free will and are motivated to achieve their full potential, or Self-actualization. This is the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which also includes physiological, safety, belongingness, and esteem needs.
  • Humans are inherently good and have a positive view of themselves and others. They seek to grow, create, and contribute to society.
  • Humans have subjective experiences that shape their behaviour and personality. They construct their own meaning of reality based on their personal perceptions, feelings, and values.
  • Humans are holistic beings who cannot be reduced to their parts or behaviours. They need to be understood in their environmental and social context.
  • Humans have an empathic, respectful, and authentic relationship with themselves and others. They value human dignity and diversity.

Humanistic theory has influenced various fields of psychology, such as counselling, education, and organizational development. It has also inspired movements such as human potential, existentialism, and positive psychology.

Psychotherapeutic applications of humanism

One of the main psychotherapeutic applications of humanistic theory is humanistic therapy, which is an umbrella term for several types of therapy that focus on the individual as a unique person with inherent potential and abilities. Humanistic therapy aims to help people overcome their difficulties through personal growth, self-acceptance, and responsibility. Some of the common types of humanistic therapy are:

Client-centred therapy: This approach involves the therapist taking a non-directive role and offering empathy and unconditional positive regard to the client. The client is seen as an equal partner who has the capacity to solve their own problems by exploring their feelings and values.

Existential therapy: This approach helps people understand their place in the universe and find meaning and purpose in their life. It helps people accept responsibility for their choices and recognize that they have the power to make changes that align with their values and goals.

Gestalt therapy: This approach focuses on the present moment and how the client perceives and makes sense of their experiences. It helps the client become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions and accept them as part of their whole self.

logotherapy: This approach helps people find ways to endure life’s challenges and find a sense of direction and fulfilment. It proposes that finding meaning in life can improve mental well-being and relieve symptoms of depression, grief, and trauma.

Narrative therapy: This approach helps people identify their strengths and skills by focusing on their personal stories and experiences. It helps people see that they are separate from their problems and that they can rewrite their stories in more empowering ways.

Humanistic therapy is based on the principles of humanistic psychology, which is a perspective that stresses that people are innately good and motivated to fulfil their potential. Humanistic psychology integrates multiple therapeutic techniques and emphasizes a collaborative, accepting, and authentic relationship between the therapist and the client.

Further reading

Here are some weblinks for further reading about humanistic theory:

Humanistic Approach in Psychology (humanism): Definition & Examples
This website provides an overview of the basic assumptions, key features, historical timeline, issues and debates, and critical evaluation of humanistic psychology.

Humanistic Psychology: Definition, Uses, Impact, History
This website explains what humanistic psychology is, how it is used, what its impact is, and how it emerged as a reaction to psychoanalysis and behaviourism.

Humanistic Theory Psychologenie
This website summarizes the main concepts and contributions of two prominent humanistic theorists: Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

What Is Humanistic Learning Theory in Education?
This website describes how humanistic learning theory applies to education and how it can help students develop social skills, feelings, intellect, artistic skills, practical skills, and more.

Humanistic Theory Maslow’s and Roger’s Theories
This website compares and contrasts the theories of Maslow and Rogers and how they relate to human motivation, personality, and self-concept.


Frontiers in Psychology. (2021). How Humanistic Is Positive Psychology? Lessons in Positive Psychology from Humanistic


Helpful Professor. (2023). 25 Humanistic Psychology Examples.

Simply Psychology. (n.d.). Humanistic Approach in Psychology (humanism): Definition & Examples.

Verywell Mind. (2021). Humanistic Psychology: Definition, Uses, Impact, History.

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Humanistic psychology.

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