Humanistic psychology


            Psychology is the study of human behavior. In the past, psychology focused on mental illness, maladjustment and neuroses. Popular schools of thought included psychoanalysis and behaviorism. However, criticisms of the reductionist and negativistic view of human beings afforded by past psychology led to the foundation of humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology is person-centered and focuses on man’s achievement of self-actualization. The scope of humanistic psychology is so broad that it extends from concepts within psychology like developmental psychology and group therapy to other schools of thought like humanities and existentialism. Humanistic psychology has successfully contributed to the development of psychology into a science that not only assesses human behavior but also one that guides it as well. Today, humanists continue to add to the growth of psychology and continue to prove that, indeed, humanistic psychology is a necessary movement within the study of human behavior.


            In the earlier years of psychology, two schools of thoughts or paradigms particularly stood out – behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Although these two paradigms were able to provide insights into the human psyche as well as into human behavior, many individuals questioned the comprehensiveness of the conclusions gathered. As an answer to the apparent lack seen in behaviorism and psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology was born.

            Through a compilation of various research articles, this paper aims to provide a clearer understanding of humanistic psychology. The scope, background, and history of humanistic psychology will be tackled in the first half. The second half will discuss how humanistic psychology is applied in today’s practice. The developments and the status of humanistic psychology in the present times will also be discussed.  The questions this paper hopes to answer are the following: What is humanistic psychology? How did it come to be? Who were the psychologists involved in the birthing of humanistic psychology? How is it applied in psychology in general? How has it developed through the years? And what effects has it had in today’s practice of psychology?

It is hoped that by providing a comprehensive analysis of humanistic psychology, this paradigm will be better appreciated and will be seen as a necessary change in the face of psychology. In order to provide a holistic understanding of the human being, his/her personality, and his/her behavior, all aspects of the human being must be taken into consideration. After this close inspection of humanistic psychology, it is hoped that such a task is accomplished by this relatively new school of thought.

History of Humanistic Psychology

            Humanistic psychology today can not be properly assessed without looking at the process by which this paradigm developed. History will be tackled by viewing the status of psychology before humanistic psychology was developed and the birthing of humanistic psychology, itself, as not just an official school of thought but as a reform movement in psychology as well (Buhler, 2001).

Pre-Humanistic Psychology

            As early as the time of Homer and the Greek tragedies, human beings have been portrayed as having qualities much greater than their physical and biological selves. Themes of actualization and achievement have been reiterated throughout the ages. The entire Athenian way of life was, in fact, aimed at exploring the totality of human capacity and talent. Reaching the maximum potential of human life was epitomized even then. (Moss, 2002) In the next few centuries, the rise of Christianity developed the perception of humanity. Humanism was linked to concepts of love and community. These were the roots of the communitarian goals of humanistic psychology. (Moss, 2002)

            Early psychologists like Sigmund Freud, B. F. Skinner, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich, and many more added to the many concepts that humanistic psychologists take for granted today. (Moss, 2002) Concepts of psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud) and behaviorism (B. F. Skinner) are still employed in the study of human behavior today. Alfred Adler was the first to point out that an individual constructs his/her life in accordance to his/her goals – a rudimentary version of the many advocacies of humanistic psychology. Otto Rank emphasized that human life is self-created, acknowledging the capability of human beings to take control of their own development. Even early on in the history of psychology, humanistic concepts were already acknowledged albeit a lack in actively using these in the practice of psychology. (Moss, 2002)

The early schools of thought of psychology, however, failed to fully assess the individual as a multidimensional being. Also, during these early years of psychology, emphasis was placed on diagnosing mentally ill and maladjusted individuals. At the time, it was more important to define the behaviors of an individual in terms of neurotic and biological mechanisms. (Moss, 2002) Contestations by the main proponents of humanistic psychology were inevitable and these led to the development of a new approach toward human behavior.

The Main Proponents of Humanistic Psychology

            There were three major psychologists credited with creating the official framework of humanistic psychology: Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Rollo May. (Aanstoos, Serlin, & Greening, 2000) There are those who would say that Abraham Maslow was the most crucial of the three. From the very beginning, Abraham Maslow already had a very strong inclination towards humanism. He, together with Rogers, and May founded the Brandeis University psychology department and insured that it had a strong humanistic orientation. At first, these forces of humanistic psychology enforced a humanistic research program. This developed into a full blown theory for Maslow – the theory of humanistic motivation (Aanstoos, Serlin, & Greening, 2000).  This theory was developed in recognition of the fact that human beings are not only creatures responsive to something deficient in their development but are also creatures that aspire for something more. Maslow emphasized man’s need for being, for self-actualization and fulfillment. (Aanstoos, et al., 2000)

            Carl Rogers contributed to humanistic psychology by developing the interpersonal concepts that most affected actualization. The methods he employed were person-centered or client-centered. He also utilized group work. Rogers studied self-concept, change, and therapist attitudes of congruence, presence, and acceptance. (Aanstoos et al., 2000; Moss, 2002) Rollo May was responsible for the integration of creativity, arts, mythology, and humanities with psychology. Maslow, Rogers, and May together with numerous other renowned psychologists were part of the movement aimed at reforming the reductionism springing from experimental psychology. Phenomenological approaches, which were centered on subjective experiences, were advocated. (Moss, 2002) Identifying the qualities that establish a human being, creating a human model, and establishing a more holistic view of the individual were goals that the early humanistic psychologists aimed for.

Maslow organized correspondence with a number of his colleagues who, like him, were unsatisfied with the scope of psychology during their time. (Moss, 2002) Because of the rising criticisms against psychology, a new approach for studying human psychology was initiated Maslow, Rogers and another colleague, Clark Moustakas, arranged meetings with other American Psychological Association members where they spoke of new concepts of psychology – self-actualization, creativity, becoming, and the like. (Aanstoos et al., 2000) From these meetings came the Journal of Humanistic Psychology whose editor was Anthony Suitch. (Buhler, 2001; Aanstoos et al., 2000) Papers of Maslow and other earlier members of humanistic psychology were published in this journal because other conventional journals refused to accept them. The publications were sent to colleagues of the journal’s administrative staff and word of the radical new movement in psychology soon spread. (Aanstoos et al., 2000) More and more psychologists accepted the points regarding human development brought up in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Humanistic psychology was officially founded in 1962 when Abraham Maslow and a group of his colleagues started the American Association of Humanistic Psychology (Buhler, 2001) Humanistic psychology grew as a movement with the contributions of many other psychologists like William James, Fritz Perls, Erwin Strauss, Angyal, Sidney Jourard, Albert Ellis, Amedeo Georgi and many more. (Moss, 2002; Aanstoos et al., 2000) The numerous humanist psychologists were responsible for expanding the scope of humanistic psychology. They pointed out the fields, concepts, and issues that needed to be included in order to better understand human behavior.

Scope of Humanistic Psychology

            Knowing the roots of humanistic psychology provides an understanding of why there was a need for this development to take place in the history of the study of human behavior. Humanistic psychologists perceive the other paradigms of psychology as minimalistic and reductionist. The focus on mental illness and maladjustment was perceived as a gross misunderstanding of what psychology should center in on. Also, the concepts of human achievement and potential inherent in human nature are diminished in mainstream schools of thought (Moss, 2002). What, then, is the scope of humanistic psychology? What is its focus and how does this improve on the scope of earlier paradigms?

Five Basic Postulates

Maslow aimed for humanistic psychology to be focused on “the study of healthy, fully functional, creative individuals” (Moss, 2002, 15) Today, the main scope of humanistic psychology is embodied in the five basic postulates formulated by the early proponents of the movement. These five basic postulates are as follows:

1. Human beings, as human, are more than merely the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to component parts or functions.

2. Human beings exist in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.

3. Human beings are aware and aware of being aware—i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness potentially includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people and the cosmos.

4. Human beings have some choice, and with that, responsibility.

5. Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value and creativity. (Aanstoos et al., 2000, 7)

These basic postulates are clearly internally directed. This means that instead of attributing human behavior to external factors, individuals are presented as capable of regulating their own behavior. Individuals are deemed accountable for the consequences of their own behaviors. Human beings were viewed in a more positive light with greater emphasis being placed on the potential of man. Instead of focusing on disorders and problems in human psychological development, their causes and possible means of resolution, humanistic psychology concentrated on studying self-actualized individuals and utilizing their characteristics to aid others toward their own self-actualization. (Moss, 2002)

Scope of Humanistic Psychology

            The scope of humanistic psychology, therefore, is very broad. Unlike previous paradigms that included neurosis, defense mechanisms, conditionings, and the like, humanistic psychology involves everything that may improve man’s quest to “become” – become fulfilled, become better, become accomplished. Because of the concern with understanding self-actualization, concepts like values, needs, motivations, and goals were included in the scope of study of human behavior.

It should be noted, however, that humanistic psychology was not interested merely in a single individual’s healthy development and self-fulfillment. The scope of humanistic psychology was not limited simply to the self. The relationships and interactions human beings had with one another were also studied by humanists. (Buhler, 2000) The quality of these relationships, their characteristics, and the way by which these were able to influence self-fulfillment were observed closely by many humanists. Interpersonal psychology became one of the important components of humanist psychology.

Existentialism, creativity, art, humanities, healthy living, and even the study of the human being as a part of the world are all encompassed by humanistic psychology. (Buhler, 2000) Gestalt psychology as introduced by earlier humanists as well as developmental psychology are also parts of the scope. (Moss, 2002) Education, relationships and even religion and spiritual concepts founded on transpersonal psychology are part and parcel of humanistic psychology. (Buhler, 2000)

            It may seem to some that humanistic psychology involves too much within its scope. However, it must be noted that the human individual is truly influenced by all these components. Although the biological aspects tackled by behaviorism and psychoanalysis are equally valid factors of humanity, human behavior is believed to be more specifically influenced by the broad scope included under humanistic psychology. The extensive range of humanistic psychology was able to sufficiently answer the criticisms against psychology that arose because of the inadequacy of earlier paradigms.

            A wider and more encompassing scope did not mean a weaker attack for humanistic psychology. It simply indicated that more psychologists needed to concentrate on these newly opened avenues of research and study. Humanistic psychology, although broad, provides psychologists with the relevant factors that would affect an individual’s achievement of self-fulfillment. It was already apparent that the past scope of psychology was not enough to address all the issues encountered in the study of human behavior. Humanistic psychology was the bold step toward obtaining a complete view of the psychology of man. This entailed the utilization of all the available information offered by other fields of knowledge.

Application of Humanistic Psychology

            One of the greatest challenges of psychology has always been the maintenance of its status as a science and its struggle to be acknowledged as a natural science. This struggle has often led to the sacrifice of seeing the individual as a human in terms of the methods utilized in psychology. “With this has come the witting, and sometimes subtle and unwitting, reduction of the human to the nonhuman.” (Wertz, 2002, 231) Some of the most obvious examples are in the practice of behaviorism, which studied man only in terms of observable behavior, and evolutionary psychology, which viewed man simply as a phase in the evolutionary chain. (Wertz, 2002)

 Humanistic psychology has not been exempt from the pressure of utilizing scientific methods and providing evidence-based principles and theories. Despite this challenge, however, it has not forgotten to regard the humanity of the individuals it studies. This is why qualitative methods are the most preferred means of conducting humanistic psychology research. Prior to humanistic psychology, however, there were already methods of psychology that strove to maintain a humanistic status such as phenomenological methodology. The onset of the 20th century brought with it the acceptance that positivistic psychology would have its limits and that these limits were not necessarily bad. (Wertz, 2002) The scientific process, as it was defined at the time, was finally being seen as a methodology that would not be able to account for all the driving forces of man. This brought about an explosion, by the end of the 20th century, of alternative methods in psychology most of which were really applications of the principles of humanistic psychology. (Wertz, 2002)

Narrative methodology was one of these new alternatives. It evolved from the earlier phenomenological methods. Participatory research was also an alternative that emphasized communion, empathy, and the researcher’s identification with the research participants. (Wertz, 2002) Earlier psychologists, those grounded on strict scientific methodologies, would have frowned at this immersion in the participants. Humanistic psychology, however, is the clear proponent of such methodologies because humanists stress the need to have client-centered research.

There have been numerous researches conducted studying the concept of dreams, out-of-death experiences, hallucinations, and mystical experiences. (Wertz, 2002) These were all based on methodologies that involved close interaction with the participant. Evidence-based research could not be used. Quantitative analysis as well was not an option. With the acceptance of the fields of religion, existentialism, and the like into the scope of humanistic psychology, however, such studies could be conducted.

Humanistic experiential approaches are also founded on humanistic psychology. These involve therapies and research methodologies that consider the history and life of the clients or participants involved. These are also applications of the humanistic principle of client-centered psychology. (Watson & Bohart, 2002)

The Rogerian approach to counseling is also based on client-centered principles. This humanistic approach acknowledges that counseling and therapy need to include the goals of guiding the client toward self-actualization and not just resolution of their psychological problems. Rogerian counseling usually involves self-healing and emphasizes the need for the client to strengthen his/her self-concept or self-image. Any incongruence present in the client’s self-image needs to be resolved. In this approach, the psychologist is converted into an individual that provides the client with empathy, genuineness, and unconditioned positive regard. It is also stressed that any individual who is able to give the client these three qualities is considered his/her therapist. Rogerian counseling and therapy embody many of the principles espoused by humanistic psychology.

These are only a few of the many applications of humanistic psychology today. The broad spectrum of research and clinical methods made available by humanism are infinite. Because humanistic psychology focuses on the self and because the self is a complex and highly variable being, there are numerous ways for psychologists to approach the study of human behavior.

Contributions of Humanistic Psychology

            The persistence and continued growth of humanistic psychology after its foundation is evidence of its success as an alternative approach in psychology. Humanistic psychology brought with it many changes and because of this, it has contributed much to the present status of psychology. This section focuses on the contributions humanistic psychology has made to the practice and use of psychology.

Problems before Humanistic Psychology

            In order to better understand how humanistic psychology has contributed to psychology, in general, a deeper look into the condition of psychology prior to the advent of humanistic psychology should be undergone. Goldberg (2000) points out some of the major problems of psychology before humanistic psychology and these include:

1. Psychological theories were reductionist and pessimistic. Instead of viewing the human being as a complex life form, theories simply focused on biological urges, impulses, and instincts. Psychologists focused on pathologies and problems occurring in human behavior. The language of a psychologist was thus riddled with negative terms and as such, man and life were misrepresented.

2. Psychologists and psychoanalysts failed to engage the most important issues affecting society. Instead of taking on head first problems of immorality, psychologists beat around the bush and stayed on the periphery of the issue. Such important aspects of human life are attributed instead to philosophers, theologians, and other groups.

3. Psychotherapy was mostly pseudoscience with most psychologists failing to back up psychological service and advice with evidence from research. Many popular schools of thought within psychology were reliant on principles passed down through education even though these principles had yet to be verified through experimental methods. Therapy and methods of providing service to the clients were also highly questionable with respect to their scientific nature.

4. Psychology and its principles were used more and more as an excuse for socially unacceptable behavior. Instead of serving as a means of improving human society through the study of human behavior, psychology was demoted to a status of rationalizing the acts of psychologically disturbed individuals.  Most of the efforts of psychologists were spent uncovering the mechanisms of mental illnesses and psychological disorders that psychology failed to develop as a science that could offer ways of increasing acceptable and responsible behavior.

5. Psychotherapy and new age spirituality were used as means of escaping from the social and moral responsibilities held by an individual. Because numerous excuses could be given about the maladjusted actions of individuals, a person’s responsibility towards others could be easily regarded because disregard could be justified. Also, because of continued focus on the self, psychology failed to provide individuals with the proper perspective on their responsibility to others and to society.

6. Psychological principles were used to promote distorted goals and skewed concepts of personal worth. Principles of attraction, persuasion, and the like were used by commercial companies, by the media, and by many other social institutions to influence the way individuals think. Instead of providing guidelines that would determine proper self-worth, psychology was used as a tool for making others believe that worth was in attaining physical beauty, fame, and money.

7. The use of psychology became more consistent with interpretation of art and literature instead of for the betterment of society. Psychology was reduced to becoming a means of understanding an artist or a character in a popular novel. Fictional characters, whether being analyzed by audiences or created by the author, were garnering more benefits from psychology than real people themselves. Again, psychology was used inappropriately, perhaps even shallowly, for matters that would not yield concrete methods of improving human behavior, individual values, and human society.

8. Psychology was also becoming mechanistic. More and more, experimental psychology was becoming the basis of establishing principles and theories about human development and behavior. The human-ness of man was increasingly left out of the picture. It seemed human behavior was being studied without consideration of the human component. Assessment of individuals also became mechanistic with the increased use of tools and tests. Psychologists began to fail in truly interacting with their clients.

Contributions of Humanistic Psychology

The entrance of humanistic psychology into the arena of psychology provided the solution to many of these problems. The main contribution of humanistic psychology is its ability to redirect psychology back toward a path of shaping human life and behavior for self-actualization. Instead of viewing people in a negative light, a more positive approach was introduced. The values, capabilities, and motivation of man were emphasized. Holistic views of all the aspects of personality and development were taken. By perceiving an individual as a being capable of controlling his or her own fulfillment and capable of taking responsibility for his/her own decisions, psychology could no longer be used as an excuse for each and every irresponsible act committed by different individuals.

The goals of psychology were rewritten by humanistic psychology. Resetting psychology to consider the values of individuals in achieving true self-fulfillment has prevented others from using psychology simply as a means of distorting bases of personal worth. Psychologists now explore what truly allows an individual to achieve a sense of fulfillment. And more often than not, these are not external variables like money or fame but rather intrinsic factors such as love and hope.

Also, involving relationships and human interactions in the scope of psychology increases a sense of social responsibility in individuals submitting themselves to humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology is also known to have a communistic approach to studying individuals. Although an individual is able to actualize his or her own goals and dreams by himself, he or she lives in a constant state of interaction with those around him or her. Humanistic psychology has contributed to the understanding of the fact that an individual’s actions exist within a social context. (Krippner, 2002)

The broad scope of humanistic psychology has removed the problem of psychology evading the critical issues of society. Humanistic psychology has branched out to include many other schools of thought like existentialism, religion, and humanities. Humanistic psychology has also undergone the extensive study of gender, status, race, and class. This has insured the coverage of many of the essential issues that have been plaguing human beings and which have affected their psychological aspects directly.

The fact that humanistic psychology is client-centered or person-centered reduces the mechanistic image of psychology. Psychologists are now immersing themselves in the lives of their clients in order to better understand how they can truly help in improving behavior and in promoting self-fulfillment.

Humanistic psychology, according to Goldberg (2000, 681), “will provide leadership in promoting a constructive society by teaching us how to cooperate with each other and how to rejoice in each other’s well being.” The foundation of humanistic psychology is what has allowed psychology to display what is good about man. It has given psychology the chance to become the guardian of human evolution towards a higher quality of life and being. In consideration of the changes brought about by humanistic psychology, it is undeniable that it has contributed a great deal to what psychology is today.


            Humanistic psychology is one of the most radical paradigms of psychology. It came at a time when psychology was strictly adherent to hard and natural sciences. This meant it was anchored in the scientific method. Psychology focused on neuropathology, maladjustments, disorders, observable behavior, and instinct. Numerous critics of psychology clamored about its reductionist and negativist view of man.

This is why humanistic psychology was considered to be a movement and not just a school of thought. It was a movement against the way psychology was in the past. The psychologists, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, and the other major proponents of humanistic psychology were very much radical in their ability to perceive what was lacking in psychology and also in their perseverance to correct it by starting the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and founding the American Association of Humanistic Psychology. (Buhler, 2001; Aanstoos et al., 2000)

Today, humanistic psychology has been able to continue the propagation of the principles and methods formulated in its early years. “Each day, humanistically oriented psychotherapists assist troubled patients to discover their personhoods and renew paths of self-actualization.” (Moss, 2002, 16) More psychologists have accepted the principles and applications offered by humanistic psychology.

The successes garnered from using humanistic approaches in dealing with clients have been evident. The effects and contributions of humanistic psychology to society and not just psychology have been profound. Numerous clients have come to realize their own self-worth and have also begun to fulfill their social and moral responsibilities. Because of humanistic psychology, psychology has been raised from its status of being a mechanistic, negativistic, and reductionist field of social science.

However, it seems the momentum that drove psychologists in the early years of humanistic psychology has lessened. (Moss, 2002) There are fewer developments in humanistic psychology today. Perhaps this is only due to the stark comparison created by the short span of time since the birth of the movement but it has been observed that there are fewer numbers of new humanistic applications developed today.

            It is clear that humanistic psychology still has to infiltrate numerous other fields and schools of thought. The basic principles laid down by the main proponents of humanism still need to be integrated more completely into the schools of psychoanalysis, behaviorism, experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, and many more. A fusion of all these fields will yield a more exact understanding of the human psychology. The initial goal of humanism was to account for the many things lacking in older psychological paradigms. In order to truly represent the totality of a human being, all the aspects of man need to be tackled. This means including all of the concepts and information drawn from the studies of past psychological school of thoughts.

            In conclusion, humanistic psychology has truly been an important change in the study of human behavior. It gives humanity back into the study of psychology. The importance of this movement should never be taken for granted. Present humanists need to work hard to improve the state of humanism by recalling the initial goals and principles of humanism and assessing how these can be achieved and strengthened in today’s fast-changing society.


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Buhler, C. (2001). The scope of humanistic psychology. Education, 95(1), 3-8.

Goldberg, C. (2000). A humanistic psychology for the new millennium. The Journal of Psychology, 134(6), 677-682.

Krippner, S. (2002). Research methodology in humanistic psychology in the light of postmodernity. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, & J. F. Pierson (Eds.), The handbook of  humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and  practice. (pp. 289-304) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Moss, D. (2002). The roots and genealogy of humanistic psychology. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, & J. F. Pierson (Eds.), The handbook of  humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and  practice. (pp. 5-20) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Watson, J. C., & Bohart, A. (2002). Humanistic-experiential therapies in the era of managed care. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, & J. F. Pierson (Eds.), The handbook of  humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and  practice. (pp. 231-246) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Wertz, F. J. (2002). Humanistic psychology and the quantitative research tradition. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. T. Bugental, & J. F. Pierson (Eds.), The handbook of  humanistic psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and  practice. (pp. 231-246) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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