Humanistic Psychology

Published July 7, 2017-Updated July 14, 2020

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 who acts, thinks, or experiences the world. They believe that an individual’s behavior cannot be separated from her feelings, her intentions, her self-image, or her history.


Unlike the behaviorists, humanistic psychologists believe that humans are not just the product of their environment or their learning history. Humanistic psychologists study a person’s understanding of the meaning of life, and the experiences of growing, teaching, and learning. They consider conscious choices, responses to needs, and current circumstances to be important in shaping human behavior. People have concerns and aspirations – they are motivated to fulfill their human potential. The focus is on growth, development, and individuation. Humanistic psychology emphasizes the common characteristics of our existence, such as love, grief, anxiety, caring, self-worth, and motivation. Humanistic psychology blends with existentialism (Existential-humanistic psychotherapy) and with positive psychology.

It builds on a tradition of humanism and emerged during the 1950s as a third force between psychoanalysis and behaviorism, the two schools that dominated psychology at the time. Psychoanalysis was focused on understanding the unconscious motivations that drive behavior, while behaviorism studied the conditioning processes that shape behavior. Humanistic psychologists felt that both psychoanalysis and behaviorism were too reductive, lost sight of the whole human being, and could not account enough for the role of personal choice in the unfolding of human life. However, these three schools of thought should not be thought of as incompatible with each other. Each of these branches of psychology has contributed to the understanding of the human mind and behavior. Humanistic psychology added a more holistic view of the individual.

Humanistic psychology also holds the fundamentally optimistic belief that people are innately good; they possess personal agency and free will, and they want to achieve their full potential as human beings. This need for fulfillment and personal growth is the key motivator that organizes all behavior. People are always searching for new ways to grow, to become better, and to learn new things.


  • 1943 – Abraham Maslow first described his hierarchy of needs in “A Theory of Human Motivation” published in Psychological Review.

  • 1951 – Carl Rogers published Client-Centered Therapy, which described his humanistic, client-directed approach to therapy.

  • 1957/58 – Abraham Maslow and other psychologists held meetings to develop a professional organization devoted to a more humanist approach to psychology. They agreed that topics such as self-actualization, creativity, health, individuality, freedom, and related topics, were the central themes of this new approach.

  • 1961 – The American Association for Humanistic Psychology was formed and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology was established.

  • 1962 – Maslow published Toward a Psychology of Being, in which he described humanistic psychology as the “third force” in psychology. The first and second forces were behaviorism and psychoanalysis respectively.

  • 1971 – Humanistic psychology becomes an APA division.

Important Contributors: Carl Rogers, Gordon Allport, James Bugental, Charlotte Buhler, Rollo May, Gardner Murphy, Henry Murray, Fritz Perls.

Key Ideas

  • Experiencing (thinking, sensing, perceiving, feeling, remembering, and so on) is central.

  • The subjective experience of the individual is the primary key for understanding human behavior.

  • Animal studies are not enough to develop a framework for understanding human behavior.

  • Free will exists, and individuals should take personal responsibility for self-growth and fulfillment. Behavior is not only determined by external factors.

  • Self-actualization (the need for a person to reach maximum potential) is natural.

  • People are inherently good and will experience personal growth if provided with suitable conditions, especially during childhood.

  • Each person and each experience is unique, so psychologists should treat each case individually, rather than rely on averages from group studies. This kind of psychology is based on idiographic methods, it is not a nomothetic discipline.

Against the “Medical Model”

One of the basic principles of humanistic psychology is the belief that focusing on the individual is more beneficial and informative than a focus on mental disorders or symptoms that clusters individuals into groups of people with similar characteristics.

The medical model assumes that specific behavioral, emotional, and psychological issues are often consequences of particular psycho-physical problems. A medical approach to treatment will see symptoms like a client’s depression through the lens of general information about this condition. The problem is that in the realm of the psyche, medical metaphors don’t apply: they are only simulations of a method derived from the discipline of medicine. Medicine bases its knowledge on general scientific insights from physics, chemistry, and biology. This approach will simply not suffice in the realm of psychic processes.

Mental health difficulties, unlike physical problems, often improve when the individual experiencing the difficulty speaks about what is wrong or talks through the issue. Physical illness occurs as a result of pathogens in the body, or disturbances in the delicate chemical balances. Mental health issues, on the other hand, are often closely linked to relationship problems and other interpersonal and social complications. Supporters of the medical model view individuals experiencing mental health concerns as patients who have an illness that can be diagnosed and cured after specific symptoms are identified. Humanistic psychologists distance themselves from this thinking and argue that each client is unique and can best be assisted through a genuine person-to-person relationship. As a consequence of this difference in perspective, humanistic psychologists use a different vocabulary: they speak about understanding, concerns, positive self-regard, personal growth, individuation, and so on.

The approach to psychology as a science is also different: Humanistic psychologists don’t see much value in scientific techniques that aim at objective results, such as non-participant observation and scientific experimentation. They believe that quantifying human behavior and separating it into conceptual clusters brings only sterile insights and little information about the actual person. The methods of humanistic psychology consist of qualitative methods of study, such as unstructured interviews or participant self-observation. Other forms of qualitative data collection include the analysis of biographies, diaries, letters, and other works produced by the client. The method is idographic rather than nomothetic. However, these differences in method don’t have to be mutually exclusive – they can complement each other.


Humanistic psychology lacks the rigor of a systematic discipline because it allows itself to become too subjective in the study of human subjectivity. The importance given to individual experience makes it difficult to objectively study and analyze human phenomena. How can we, for instance, make an assessment of a persons’ self-actualization? We can only rely upon the individual’s own account of their experience.

The focus on the person is also a strength. In the humanistic perspective, people have a stronger role in controlling and determining their own mental health. Environmental influences are taken into account, but the are not central. A person is seen as a product of her decisions, not as a product of her experiences.

Humanistic psychology continues to influence therapy, education, healthcare, and other areas. It has helped remove the stigma attached to therapy and made it more acceptable for people to explore their abilities and potential through therapy. Humanism has inspired many contemporary modes of therapy. Most therapists will accept the values of humanistic psychology, like unconditional positive regard, even if they are not identified as proponents of the humanistic approach. The relational position of the therapist in this tradition is more the role of a partner, rather than the expert who utilizes a certain knowledge or the analyst who operates within the transferential relation between him and his patient.

The goals of humanistic psychology remain as relevant today as they were in the 1940s and 1950s. Maureen O’Hara, a former president of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, stated:

As the world’s people demand freedom and self-determination, it is urgent that we learn how diverse communities of empowered individuals, with freedom to construct their own stories and identities, might live together in mutual peace. Perhaps it is not a vain hope that life in such communities might lead to the advance in human consciousness beyond anything we have yet experienced.


  • Association of Humanistic Psychology. (1991). Historic review of humanistic psychology.

  • Sammons, A. (n.d.). The humanistic approach: The basics.

  • Wong, P. T. P. (2014). Humanistic theories.

  • Maslow, A. H. Toward a Psychology of Being (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand; 1968.

  • Maslow, A. H. (1970). Religions, values, and peak experiences. New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published 1964)

  • Rogers, C. R. Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1951.

  • Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London, England: Constable.

  • Shaffer, J. B. P. Humanistic psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; 1978.

  • May, R. (1999). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: Norton.