Humanistic Theories of Psychology

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The purpose of this essay is to analyse two humanistic theories of personality. To illustrate where early ideas resembling humanistic personality theory originated some of Alfred Adler's work shall be examined. Maslow's work on self-actualisation will be presented in more detail. An evaluation of Maslow's ideas will conclude the essay.


Humanistic personality theories gained prominence in the early 1960s, when Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) published their first books outlining important humanistic ideas (Matlin 1999, p.428). These were regarded as a viable alternative to the two theories of personality dominant at the time, the behaviourist and Freudian psychoanalysis approaches. Many psychologists felt that behaviourism was too reductionistic and unable to explain human experiences such as creativity, mysticism or love. Freudian theory was seen as too concerned with psychologically ill people and pessimistic in its outlook to provide a balanced view of the human psyche.

Humanistic theory however, was never meant to replace behaviourism or psychoanalysis. As Maslow explained (1968, p3-4) it was to embody the best of those two viewpoints and go beyond them to achieve a holistic viewpoint of human nature rather than a reductionist one provided by the other theories. The humanistic approach to psychology has since often been called the "Third Force" of Psychology to acknowledge that it stands in its own right.

The humanistic approach with its focus on the human capacity for goodness, creativity and freedom and its view of humans as spiritual, rational, purposeful and autonomous beings did not arise in the sixties, there were early forerunners of this school of thought. Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was one of the earlier psychologists to disagree with the Freudian view.

Alfred Adler was a psychiatrist with a medical background who was invited by Freud to become part of his discussion group in 1907. Adler left the group with nine others in 1911 after a dispute to form what became "The Society for Individual Psychology". Adler postulated a single driving force behind all human behaviour, which he called the 'striving for perfection'. He regarded this as the universal human to desire to fulfil one's potential. It is very similar to the concept of self-actualisation postulated by Maslow. To self-actualise literally means to 'become what we are' (Boeree, 1997)

One important difference between Adler and Maslow is that Adler placed great emphasis on 'Gemeinschaftsgefühl' or social interest. Adler postulated that it was very important for human development to achieve a sense of solidarity or fellowship with humanity and the local community. Cooperating, while important for the maintenance of society was also important for achieving psychological health in the individual. This was consistent with the holistic view Adler held, in which he was influenced by the South African statesman and philosopher Jan Smut (Boeree, 1997)

In applying holistic principals to psychology Adler argued that if we want to understand humans we need to view them as wholes (or individuals) rather than bits and pieces (i.e. Freud's 'Id', 'Ego' and 'Superego'). Holism also emphasises the need to take human's physical and social environments into account when trying to understand them, therefore the concept of 'Gemeinschaftsgefuhl' (Boeree, 1997).

When Adler named his approach "Individual Psychology" he was referring to his person-centeredness, which is also an important element of humanistic thought. The concept was developed further by Carl Rogers and revolves around the idea that it is the client and not the psychologist who is responsible for a positive outcome of the therapy. The therapist merely helps steer the client in the right direction where he or she can gain healing insights (Boeree, 1997)

A further important distinction Adler made was that that he did not refer to people's personalities with internal structures, conflicts and so on, instead he would talk about their style of life. This referred to the way people handle their problems and interpersonal relationships and how they live their lives. In Adler's view this was different for everyone and not expressed in terms of mechanical reactions to their environments (Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 115).

Also distinct from Freud's view was Adler's teleological approach, another important pillar of humanistic thought. The Freudian view is that past experiences, for instance childhood traumas, determine what people are like in the present. Teleology views humans as "pulled toward the future" by their goals and ideals, rather than being driven by their past experiences (Boeree, 1997).

Adler and other so-called 'Neo-Freudians' like Wertheimer, Fromm and Horney influenced Abraham Maslow profoundly while he was in New York from the mid-1930s to early 50s (Engler, 1985, p. 307). Maslow was initially interested in behaviourism but eventually renounced it as "unable to explain the mystery of human life" (Monte, 1999, p. 739). He is best known for his work on self-actualisation.

There was no "clean break" from behaviourism to humanism for Maslow, rather a smooth transition. As Monte (1999, p. 735-739) explains, Maslow's training was in experimental behaviouristic psychology and his doctoral study was concerned with how dominance hierarchies in a colony of monkeys were established. Maslow consistently noted that dominance among the animals he studied was not established through physical aggression, but rather by something Maslow called "dominance-feeling" which was a kind of "confidence" the superior animals exhibited.

He then extended his research to human subjects explaining that "dominance-feeling" could best be described as self-confidence. Using a method he called "conversational probing", which is a type of intensive interview based on a trusting, friendly relationship with the client, Maslow sought to answer the question: What personality variables correlate with dominance-feeling? This was the question he would pursue, in one form or another, for the rest of his career.

Over time, Maslow began to consider people with high dominance to be 'most fully human' and proceeded to study the 'best of human nature, the wisest, and most actualised personalities' (Monte, 1999, p. 737). Maslow began to equate high dominance-feeling with a self-actualising tendency.

This was important to Maslow because in his view the shortcomings of Freudian psychoanalysis were that: The picture of man it presents is a lopsided, distorted puffing up of his weaknesses and shortcomings that purports then to describe him fully…. Practically all the activities that man prides himself on, and that give meaning, richness, and value to his life, are either omitted or pathologized by Freud. (Maslow in Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 442)

Maslow set out to discover the limits of human potential, beginning with analysing his mentors Ruth Benedict and Max Wertheimer, whom he deeply admired. Monte (1999, p. 738) writes that Maslow studied personal acquaintances, historical figures and famous contemporaries to find out who might be self-actualised and what traits they might have in common. He thought it was highly probable that self-actualisation was underway in Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Aldous Huxley and Spinoza, for instance.

According to Maslow, self-actualisation is the highest need in a hierarchy of needs that humans strive to fulfil. He postulated that, in general, people need to fulfil the needs that are lower in the hierarchy first before they can move on to fulfilling higher needs. This can be expressed with the following diagram:

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.gif

The diagram appeals to common sense in that it ranks the most urgent physiological needs like air, water and food before higher needs like love and belonging. Clearly someone who is starving can do without love, they will rather focus all their energy on satisfying their hunger. To Maslow, in order to be able to strive for a need, we need to first fulfil a lower need. With his concept of the hierarchy of needs Maslow achieved the great intellectual feat of not only explaining why humans are always desiring something and never seem to reach a state of complete satisfaction. He also tried to predict in which order these desires or needs would arise (Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 446). Whether this is generally true has yet to be confirmed by research. The necessary longitudinal studies have not been carried out yet.

Maslow has been criticised for the fact that his theory does not account for people who have displayed great talent or even genius without having many of their 'lower' needs taken care of. Van Gogh or Rembrandt would be examples, but also people who displayed creativity of some form while in Nazi concentration camps (Boeree, 1997).

Maslow distinguished between deficiency needs (D-needs) and being needs (B-needs). D-needs arise from a lack in one area, or tension that can arise from hunger, for instance. This lack or tension gives rise to motivation to lessen or overcome it. Motivation will drive us to engage in activities to reduce the drive for food. Motivation and D-needs take precedence over metamotivation and B-needs. Metamotivation refers to growth tendencies and our drive to self-actualise. Once our D-needs have been fulfilled (or get fulfilled on a regular basis), B-needs arise, such as the search for truth and beauty. Because B-needs do not stem from a deficiency they push forward to self-fulfilment. This is consistent with the teleological view postulated by Adler. Metamotivation is, in contrast to motivation, concerned with increasing tension to bring more stimuli to life to bring a life lived to the fullest (Engler, 1985, p. 307-8).

According to Turner and Helms (1987, p. 404-6) Maslow identified fifteen personality traits he felt were characteristic of self-actualising personalities. Turner and Helms (1987, p. 431) list them like this:

  • (1) a more efficient perception of reality;
  • (2) acceptance of self and others;
  • (3) spontaneity;
  • (4) problem centering;
  • (5) detachment;
  • (6) autonomy;
  • (7) continued freshness of appreciation;
  • (8) mystic experiences, or an oceanic feeling;
  • (9) Gemeinschaftsgefühl, or social interest;
  • (10) unique interpersonal relations;
  • (11) democratic character structure;
  • (12) discrimination between means and ends;
  • (13) philosophical sense of humor;
  • (14) creativeness; and
  • (15) resistance to enculturation.

While this may sound like a listing of truly ‚superhuman' psychological attributes, Maslow emphasized that although self-actualisation was very rare and happens in less than 1% of the adult population (Maslow in Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 458) one does not need to be a genius to achieve it. He thought self-actualising people were not ordinary people with something added; rather they were ordinary people with nothing taken away. In Frager & Fadiman (1998, p. 446) Maslow states that average people are full (or self-actualised) human beings with dampened capacities. Maslow also listed some negative attributes self-actualising people had in common, such as vanity, absent-mindedness, occasional ruthlessness but also being boring or prone to being taken advantage of by others (Engler, 1985, p. 318).

In his later years Maslow postulated a 'fourth force' in psychology he called transpersonal psychology that was to go beyond the concept of self-actualisation humanistic psychology was concerned with. The goal of this approach is to explore the spiritual realm self-actualised people could enter through 'peak experiences' in which they achieved a dissolving of the self into an awareness of a greater unity. Maslow felt it was important to apply the tools of scientific enquiry to this realm, which to him represented the farthest reaches of human potential and had so far only been described in biased religious literature (Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 463-4).


Although Maslow was no practitioner of psychology, he did suggest an approach to therapy that aims to remove the blocks to personal growth so that humans can achieve their full potential. He regarded the role of the therapist as someone who can provide the esteem and love needs that have been frustrated in people who seek psychological help by caring about the clients' essential nature. This would help the clients to move toward self-actualisation (Maslow in Frager and Fadiman, 1998, p. 461).

Maslow also described eight behaviours that can lead to self-actualisation (Maslow in Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 450)
  • 1. Concentration or becoming fully aware of what is going on within and around us.
  • 2. Growth Choices, making choices that challenge us and lead to personal growth rather than choosing security.
  • 3. Self-awareness, acting in accordance with our inner nature instead of being influenced by others' opinions
  • 4. Honesty and taking responsibility for our actions rather than doing what makes us look good.
  • 5. Judgement, if we follow the first four steps we gain the capacity for better 'life choices', we develop a more accurate intuition.
  • 6. Self-development in the sense of learning to utilise our talents to the fullest. This is an ongoing process.
  • 7. Peak Experiences are moments of self-actualisation and could also be described as moments of rapture, awe, wonder or ecstasy. Doing what leads to these experiences can help us self-actualise.
  • 8. Lack of Ego Defences, or being aware of the way we distort our images of reality when we try to defend our ego and being able to drop that behaviour when appropriate.

Maslow was criticised on the grounds that he defined what constituted self-actualisation arbitrarily. Most of his examples of self-actualised people were public figures with a certain amount of success in western societies. It has been argued that, had Maslow been more artistically inclined, he would have picked more withdrawn, artistic people as examples. Another criticism is that a sample that consisted mainly of highly educated white American males can hardly be representative for the whole human race. Maslow's response to these kinds of criticism was admitting that his studies were not scientifically rigorous and merely represented a starting point for the inquiry into self-actualisation. Maslow also pointed out that a rigorous scientific approach would not have permitted the kind of research he was doing, it simply did not have the tools to deal with the area of human self-fulfilment (Engler, 1985, p. 312).

A research tool called 'Personal Orientation Inventory' (POI) has been developed (Shostrom 1963) as a reliable measure of self-actualisation that has lead to further empirical research into the area.

A further issue Maslow has been criticised for is being too optimistic about human nature and not devoting enough attention to the pain and struggle that self-actualisation entails as well as peak experiences brought about by negative events. A further issue is the lack of emphasis on altruism in a world filled with human suffering. Maybe if more emphasis was given to Adler's idea of 'Gemeinschaftsgefuhl' in humanistic theory and more humanistic theorists would look at the negative side of self-actualisation it could be a powerful tool for improving the human condition in the 21st century.

As it stands, humanistic psychology has given us a new way to look at human nature that is positive and holistic and has impacted on the fields of art, science, philosophy, education and even business (Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 462).



Cloninger, S. C. 1996, Personality: Description, Dynamics, and Development, W. H. Freeman and Company, New York

Engler, B. 1985, Personality Theories: An Introduction, Second Edition, Houghton Miffin Company, Boston

Frager, R. & Fadiman, J. 1998, Personality and Personal Growth, Fourth Edition, Addison Wesley Longman, New York

Maslow, A. H. 1968, Toward a Psychology of Being, Second Edition, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York

Matlin, M. W. 1999, Psychology, Third Edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishers, Orlando

Monte, C. F. 1999, Beneath the Mask: An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Sixth Edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishers, Orlando

Turner, J. S. & Helms, D. B. 1987, Lifespan Development, Third Edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York

Electronic media

Association for Humanistic Psychology, 2000, From Maslow to the 21st Century, [Online, accessed 21 Oct. 2000]. URL:

Boeree, C. G. 1997, Alfred Adler [Online, accessed 15 Oct. 2000]. URL:

Boeree, C. G. 1997, Abraham Maslow [Online, accessed 17 Oct. 2000]. URL: