The humanistic theory of personality posits that humans have an innate drive toward self-actualization, as long as they are surrounded by the right environment.
It was developed by Carl Rogers, whose work (along with that of Abraham Maslow) helped establish the humanistic school of psychology. Unlike psychoanalysis or behaviorism, the humanistic school tries to take into account the entirety of the human experience.
For example, in clinical therapy, humanistic psychologists give centrality to the client’s experiences and try to provide a positive atmosphere to help them grow. Let us discuss the concept in more detail and then look at some examples.
Humanistic Theory of Personality Definition
The humanistic theory of personality was developed by Carl Rogers, largely in response to Freud’s personality theory, with which he strongly disagreed. He believed that:
“Experience is for me, the highest authority. . . . Neither the Bible nor the prophets—neither Freud nor research—neither the revelations of God nor man—can take precedence over my own experience”.(Rogers, 1961)
During the 1950s and 60s, behaviorism and psychoanalysis were the two most prominent schools of psychology. But the behaviorists used the techniques of natural sciences, which reduced humans to animals or machines.
Psychoanalysts, on the other hand, only focused on abnormal people. As such, a new group of psychologists (led by Abraham Maslow) created the humanistic school of psychology, which tried to give a fuller account of humans.
“recognizes his [a human’s] status as a person, irreducible to more elementary levels, and his unique worth as a being potentially capable of autonomous judgment and action.”(Kinget, 1975)
For Carl Rogers, the most important thing was to understand how a person viewed the world—their “subjective reality”. This led him to develop his humanistic theory of personality, which argued that all humans are innately driven to pursue their innermost feelings.
However, most people are actually unable to pursue this self-actualization because of the surrounding environment. What people need are relationships that provide “unconditional positive regard”, which helps us become fully functioning humans and reach our potential.
Humanistic Theory of Personality Examples
- Client-Centered Therapy: One of the biggest contributions of the humanistic theory of personality was its influence on therapy. While Rogers was pursuing his doctorate, most psychologists were trained in the psychoanalytic tradition. But Rogers realized that psychoanalysis had severe limitations, so he created his brand of client-centric therapy, based on the central belief that “the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried” (1961). Unlike psychoanalysts, Rogers did not call his disturbed individuals “patients”. Instead, he referred to them as “clients”, made an active attempt to understand their subjective reality, and then provided a positive therapeutic atmosphere.
- Q-Technique: While working as a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Rogers and his colleagues attempted to create the first method of objectively measuring therapy’s effectiveness. This was the Q-technique (also known as the Q-sort technique), which was originally developed by William Stephenson. Rogers’ method involved having clients describe themselves in the present (real self) and then as they would like to become (ideal self). The two selves are then measured to determine the correlation between them. As the therapy progresses, the correlation between the two would become larger. So, it helps us to measure the effectiveness of therapy at any point during or after it. (Rogers, 1954).
- Education: Humanistic psychology believes in seeing every human being as a unique individual, and this idea has played a huge influence on modern education. Rogers saw traditional schools as bureaucratic institutions that were resistant to change. He instead advocated a “student-centric” approach to education, where students would take charge and develop their learning paths. Today, this idea is brought to reality in open classrooms, where the students are self-directed, choosing what and how they should study. The teachers act as facilitators, who provide the right atmosphere and support for individual learning journeys. In the United Kingdom, A.S. Neill founded the Summerhill School, built on many of these humanistic ideas.
- Understanding Parenthood & Relationships: Besides professional therapy or education, the humanistic theory of personality can also help us understand and improve our relationships. Like Maslow, Rogers believed that humans have an innate drive toward self-actualization. However, most people do not live according to their innermost feelings because of the childhood need for positive regard. If children are not loved unconditionally, they develop “conditions of worth”, that is, they learn to act in certain ways to be loved, which continues into adulthood. Rogers says that to remedy this, a person needs “unconditional positive regard”—to be loved for what they are—and this helps them become a “fully functioning person”.
- Career Guidance: The humanistic theory of personality can help us direct the overall path of our lives. Both Maslow and Rogers believe that humans are naturally driven toward self-actualization. For Rogers, this can happen when we are surrounded by loving people (who provide “unconditional positive regard”) and pursue our innermost feelings. Rogers calls it the “organismic valuing process”, which allows us to live fulfilling lives and reach our full potential. Like existentialism, humanistic psychology tells us to not worry about the conventions imposed upon us by society but to build our values and pursue them.
- Gestalt Therapy: Gestalt therapy was developed as a humanistic psychotherapy, and it is built around the idea that people are influenced by their present environment. So, instead of delving too much into past experiences, gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment, and it tries to improve the client’s awareness, freedom, and self-direction. Developed by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls, and Paul Goodman, the therapy tries to use empathy and unconditional acceptance to help an individual achieve personal growth and balance. The goal is to help people accept and trust what they feel.
So far, we have looked at the applications of the humanistic theory of personality. Let us now discuss some real-world instances related to it:
- Abraham Lincoln: Unlike other psychologists of his time, Maslow studied successful people, one of whom was the 16th President of the United States. Maslow found out that individuals like Lincoln were rarely concerned with other people’s judgments of them. Instead, they were focused on one central problem and spent their entire lives trying to solve it. So, successful people are deeply concerned with self-actualization, and the humanistic theory of personality also advocates doing that.
- A Bank Robber: Let us now talk about a completely contrasting instance: a criminal. If humanistic psychologists believe that all humans are innately good, then what about a bank robber? The answer is that, while humans have free will (they can act according to their wishes), they are also influenced by their environment. In this case, the surrounding conditions (monetary issues, proximity to other criminals, etc.) are what turn an individual into a criminal.
- Working Towards Promotion: In our professional careers, we all try to move upwards or achieve what is known as self-actualization. For example, you might work very hard to get more clients for your company, which would allow you to gain workplace incentives and perhaps eventually a promotion. So, our actions are driven by our desire to reach our full potential, which is what humanistic psychology believes.
- Tipping Behavior: The humanistic theory of personality also suggests that we wish to have “congruence” between our “ideal self” and “real self”. Incongruence can lead to mental distress (say anxiety), therefore we try hard to maintain our self-concept. For example, suppose you ate at a restaurant with a friend, and they felt that your tip was not sufficient. You may defend yourself by saying that the tip was in line with the service, which would allow you to maintain your self-concept of generosity & fairness.
Humanistic Approach to Personality’s Strengths & Weaknesses
While the humanistic theory of personality provided a way of studying the “whole person”, it is also often criticized for being unscientific.
During the 1950s and 60s, humanistic psychology began as a protest against behaviorism. This new group of psychologists argued that behaviorism concentrated on trivial behavior and ignored the emotional processes that make humans unique. (Hergenhahn, 2000).
They also critiqued psychoanalysis, arguing that it focused only on abnormal individuals and emphasized sexual/unconscious motivation; it ignored healthy individuals whose primary motives are personal growth and the improvement of society.
Furthermore, they highlight the flaws of the trait theory of personality, which tended to think personality traits – such as self-esteem – are innate rather than developed through environmental and social factors.
Humanistic psychology provided an alternative way of studying humans, which took into account the “wholeness” of a person, instead of merely looking at certain behaviors or unconscious motivations.
However, humanistic psychology has also been criticized by many scholars. It presents humans in a “positive” light, but this is almost a kind of wishful thinking that is not supported by facts.
Humanistic psychology also rejects traditional science, but then what is supposed to replace it?
If humanistic psychology relies merely on “innermost feelings”, then it stops being psychology and instead becomes philosophy or perhaps even religion. Critics accuse humanistic psychology of taking the discipline back to its prescientific past (Hergenhahn)
Finally, many of the terms that humanistic psychologists use are quite vague. What exactly do we mean when we say things like “innermost feelings” or “actualizing our inherent potential”? These terms/phrases defy clear definition and verification, making them somewhat unreliable.
The humanistic theory of personality posits that all humans are driven to pursue their innermost feelings and reach their full potential.
This, however, is dependent on our surrounding environment. Most of us develop “conditions of worth”, which make us act in certain ways to be loved. Rogers’ attempt was to help people find (whether through personal relationships or therapy), “unconditional positive regard”.
This unconditional acceptance allows people to become fully functioning humans and reach their full potential. The humanistic theory of personality has been applied to various fields, such as education, client-centric therapy, etc.
Read Next: Maslow’s Hierarchy
For students studying humanism, it’s worth taking a deep dive into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here, which is without a doubt the most influential concept within the humanist theory of psychology. Below is a quick overview:
The states on Maslow’s hierarchy are:
- Physiological Needs – we first desire things that keep us alive, like air and water
- Safety and Security Needs – then, we desire things that make us feel safe and secure, like shelter and financial stability
- Love and Belonging (Social) Needs – then, we seek out social satisfaction through a sense of belonging to an in-group, a good family life, and finding friends or an intimate partner
- Esteem Needs – then, we seek respect from both our community and ourselves (self-esteem).
- Self-actualization – lastly, we seek self-actualization, by which Maslow means becoming the best version of ourselves. An example might be the deep satisfaction from raising happy children.
Hergenhahn, B. R. (2000). An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc.
Kinget, G. M. (1975). On being human: A systematic view. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Rogers, Carl. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.
Rogers, Carl. (1954). Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory. University of Chicago Press