The Humanistic Theory in Mental Health

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Humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasizes looking at the whole person, and the uniqueness of each individual. Humanistic psychology begins with the existential assumptions that people have free will and are motivated to achieve their potential and self-actualize.

Humanistic psychology expanded its influence throughout the 1970s and the 1980s.  Its impact can be understood in terms of three major areas:

  • It offered a new set of values for approaching an understanding of human nature and the human condition.
  • It offered an expanded horizon of methods of inquiry in the study of human behavior.
  • It offered a broader range of more effective methods in the professional practice of psychotherapy.

Basic Assumptions

Humanistic psychology begins with the existential assumption that people have free will:

Personal agency is a humanistic term for the exercise of free will. Personal agency refers to the choices we make in life, the paths we go down and their consequences.

People are basically good, and have an innate need to make themselves and the world better:

The humanistic approach emphasizes the personal worth of the individual, the centrality of human values, and the creative, active nature of human beings.

The approach is optimistic and focuses on the noble human capacity to overcome hardship, pain and despair.

People are motivated to self-actualize:

Self-actualization concerns psychological growth, fulfillment and satisfaction in life.

Both Rogers and Maslow regarded personal growth and fulfillment in life as a basic human motive. This means that each person, in different ways, seeks to grow psychologically and continuously enhance themselves.

However, Rogers and Maslow both describe different ways of how self-actualization can be achieved.

The subjective, conscious experiences of the individual is most important:

Humanistic psychologists argue that objective reality is less important than a person's subjective perception and understanding of the world.

Sometimes the humanistic approach is called phenomenological. This means that personality is studied from the point of view of the individual’s subjective experience.

For Rogers the focus of psychology is not behavior (Skinner), the unconscious (Freud), thinking (Wundt) or the human brain but how individuals perceive and interpret events. Rogers is therefore important because he redirected psychology towards the study of the self.

Humanism rejects scientific methodology:

Rogers and Maslow placed little value on scientific psychology, especially the use of the psychology laboratory to investigate both human and animal behavior.

Humanism rejects scientific methodology like experiments and typically uses qualitative research methods. For example, diary accounts, open-ended questionnaires, unstructured interviews and unstructured observations.

Qualitative research is useful for studies at the individual level, and to find out, in depth, the ways in which people think or feel (e.g. case studies).

The way to really understand other people is to sit down and talk with them, share their experiences and be open to their feelings.

Humanism rejected comparative psychology (the study of animals) because it does not tell us anything about the unique properties of human beings:

Humanism views human beings as fundamentally different from other animals, mainly because humans are conscious beings capable of thought, reason and language.

For humanistic psychologists’ research on animals, such as rats, pigeons, or monkeys held little value. 

Research on such animals can tell us, so they argued, very little about human thought, behavior and experience.

Humanistic Psychology


  • Shifted the focus of behavior to the individual/whole person rather than the unconscious mind, genes, observable behavior etc.
  • Real life applications (e.g., therapy)
  • Humanistic psychology satisfies most people's idea of what being human means because it values personal ideals and self-fulfillment.
  • Qualitative data gives genuine insight and more holistic information into behavior.
  • Highlights the value of more individualistic and idiographic methods of study.


  • Ignores biology (e.g., testosterone)
  • Unscientific – subjective concepts, which are difficult to test.
  • Behaviorism – human and animal behavior can be compared.
  • Ethnocentric (biased towards Western culture)
  • Humanism – can’t compare animals to humans
  • Their belief in free will is in opposition to the deterministic laws of science.

An example of humanistic psychology is a Health Guardian conducting a self-examination and utilizing Maslow's hierarchy of needs to determine where they were on the hierarchy, to see what needs were and were not being met.

A family example of the humanistic perspective would be individual family members being taught to value and respect other family members regardless of differences. This leads to stronger family relationships and a more inclusive life-style and living environment.

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