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Humanistic Theory of Psychology

The humanistic theory of psychology, also known as humanism or the humanist perspective, is a movement that stresses the inherent goodness in people. Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with people, the humanistic theory of psychology takes a more holistic approach, looking at the individual as a whole and stressing the desire for self-actualization.

Origins of the Humanistic Theory of Psychology

The humanistic theory of psychology emerged during the middle half of the twentieth century in direct response to psychoanalysis and behaviorism. The founders of the humanist approach believed that Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective was too negative and focused only on pathology. B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, on the other hand, was too mechanistic and reduced human nature down to simple conditioned responses.

A psychologist named Carl Rogers was instead interested in understanding all of the things that helped people grow, change, improve, and thrive. He believed that psychology was about much more than fixing problematic behaviors or mental illness. It was also about helping people live the best lives they can and achieve as much happiness as possible.

Rogers believed that all people possess what is known as an actualizing tendency, or an innate need to strive to become their best possible self. This concept of the actualizing tendency helped inspire psychologist Abraham Maslow to create a hierarchy of human needs.

More basic needs lie near the bottom of this hierarchy, Maslow suggested. As those needs are fulfilled, he proposed that more advanced needs take on greater importance, including the need for self-actualization. He described this as the need to fulfill one’s total potential and become all that one can possibly be.

5 Principles of the Humanistic Theory of Psychology

According to one early article written by two prominent psychologists, there are five key tenets of the humanistic theory of psychology:

  1. People are more than the sum of their parts.
  2. In order to understand people, you must look at them within both their human context as well as their place within the universe.
  3. Humans are conscious, which means that they are aware as well as aware of this awareness.
  4. Humans have free will and are capable of making their own choices, but with these choices come great responsibilities.
  5. Humans seek things intentionally and aim to make their mark on the world by setting goals, expressing creativity, and seeking meaning.

Development of the Humanistic Theory of Psychology

Carl Rogers not only believed that people are basically good and always seeking growth; he also felt that these basic principles also played an essential role in psychotherapy.

He developed an approach to treatment known as client-centered therapy, which stressed the importance of unconditional positive regard. Showing clients unconditional support he believed could contribute to the treatment process.

During the late 1950s, Abraham Maslow and other humanist thinkers began to formalize the growing humanistic approach. As they began developing a professional organization, they outlined some central topics of interest, including self-actualization, creativity, individuality, and personal fulfillment.

A few important events in the history of humanistic psychology:

  • In 1961, the American Association for Humanistic Psychology.
  • The publication of Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being in 1962 is often considered the official introduction of what Maslow referred to as the “third force” in psychology (psychoanalysis and behaviorism being the first and second force).
  • In 1971, humanistic psychology gained its own distinct division of the American Psychological Association.

Benefits of Humanistic Psychology

Since its inception, humanistic psychology has been praised for helping individuals take control of their mental health. The humanist approach believes that people have a great deal to contribute to their mental state.

While humanists believe in personal control and autonomy, they also acknowledge the powerful role environmental influences may play in mental health and well-being. Our environment and experiences also help shape our behavior and view of the world.

Humanistic psychology also played a role in removing some of the stigma surrounding mental illness.

While therapy was once thought to be something only for people experiencing severe mental illness, humanistic approaches helped people realize that psychotherapy could also be a useful tool for those who want to explore their own minds and behavior and improve their lives.

Criticism of the Humanistic Theory of Psychology

Humanistic psychology has also been criticized. Because many of its concepts are subjective, it can sometimes be difficult to test its claims empirically.

Concepts such as self-actualization, peak experiences, and personal fulfillment are difficult to measure and must be assessed through largely subjective evaluations.

What Impact Has Humanistic Psychology Had?

Humanistic psychology is often described as its own distinct branch of psychology, but it also represents a perspective or way of thinking about human behavior. The humanist approach helped usher new ways of thinking about human motivation and behavior. It also introduced new treatment approaches and psychotherapy techniques to cope with mental illness and promote psychological wellness.

Humanistic psychology continues to exert a powerful influence today. Its effects can be seen in other branches of psychology and in education, philosophy, and even politics. The fairly recent development of fields such as positive psychology and transpersonal psychology owes a great deal to the influence of humanistic psychology.

Today, humanistic psychology remains a vital part of the field that continues to contribute greatly to our understanding of the human mind and behavior.

Interested in learning more? Take our self-actualization test to learn more about how self-actualized you really are.


Joseph S. (2021). How humanistic is positive psychology? Lessons in positive psychology from Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach-it’s the social environment that must change. Frontiers in Psychology12, 709789.

Maslow AH. Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand; 1968.

Rogers CR. Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin; 1951.

Schneider KJ, Pierson JF, Bugental JFT. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Theory, Research, and Practice. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications; 2015.

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