Humanistic psychology

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Humanistic psychology is an approach in psychology that emerged in the 1950s as an alternative to both Behaviorism and Depth psychology. It seeks to understand human beings as unique among other living beings, with consciousness, free will, and responsibility for our choices. The goal of Humanistic psychology is to understand the whole person, and to aid each person to develop their potential to the fullest, and thus be able to contribute most effectively to the larger society. This approach understands human nature as being on a level qualitatively different from that of other species. However, it lacks an understanding of the fundamental importance of social relationships in healthy psychological development.


The following five postulates form the foundation of Humanistic psychology (Bugental 1964):

  1. Human beings cannot be reduced to components
  2. Human beings have in them a uniquely human context
  3. Human consciousness includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people
  4. Human beings have choices and responsibilities
  5. Human beings are intentional, they seek meaning, value, and creativity

Humanistic psychology emphasizes the study of the whole person, regarding an individual's behavior as directly related to his or her inner feelings and self-image. Its practitioners explore how people are influenced by their self-perceptions and the personal meanings attached to their life experiences. They consider conscious choices, responses to internal needs, and current circumstances to be important in shaping human behavior.

Qualitative, or descriptive, research methods are generally preferred over quantitative methods, since the latter run the risk of reducing human behavior to only measurable elements, losing uniquely human aspects that are not easily quantified. This reflects the field's "human science" approach to psychology: an emphasis on the actual lived experience of persons (Aanstoos, Serlin & Greening 2000).

Humanistic psychology has roots in the existentialist thought of philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. It reflects many of the values expressed by the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Renaissance Europeans. They attempted to study those qualities that are unique to human life and that make possible such essentially human phenomena as love, personal freedom, lust for power, morality, art, philosophy, religion, literature, and science. Many believe the message of Humanistic psychology is a response to the denigration of the human spirit that has so often been implied in the image of the person drawn by behavioral and social sciences.

The development of the field

In the 1950s there were two opposing forces in psychology: Behaviorism and what has become known as Depth psychology. Behaviorism grew out of Ivan Pavlov's work on learning, particularly the conditioned reflex, and laid the foundations for the approach to psychology in the United States associated with Clark Hull, James Watson, B.F. Skinner, and others. Abraham Maslow later gave behaviorism the name "the first force." The "second force" came out of Sigmund Freud's work on psychoanalysis, and the psychologies of Alfred Adler, Erik H. Erikson, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Otto Rank, Melanie Klein, and others. These theorists focused on the "depth" or unconscious realm of the human psyche, which, they stressed, must be combined with the conscious mind in order to produce a healthy human personality.

In the late 1950s, two meetings were held in Detroit among psychologists who were interested in founding a professional association dedicated to a more humanistic vision: something that had everything to do with self, self-actualization, health, creativity, nature, being, becoming, individuality, and meaning. They also aimed to create a complete description of what it is to be a human being, and investigated the uniquely human aspects of experience, such as love and hope. These psychologists, including Maslow, believed this likely to become the central concern of a new psychological movement, known as the "third force."

These preliminary meetings eventually led to other developments, among those the launch of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1961. This was soon to be followed by the formation of the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) in 1963 and subsequent graduate programs in Humanistic psychology at institutions of higher learning. 1971 saw the establishment of an exclusive division devoted to Humanistic Psychology within the American Psychological Association (APA), which publishes its own academic journal called The Humanistic Psychologist.

Humanistic Psychology Today

From the 1970s on, the ideas and values of humanistic psychology spread into many areas of society in the United States. These ideas have led to a number of approaches to counseling and therapy, as well as the emergence of the school of Transpersonal psychology, and influenced the development of Integral psychology.

Counseling and therapy

Humanistic psychology includes several approaches to counseling and therapy. These include the existential psychology of Rollo May, person-centered or client-centered therapy developed by Carl Rogers, Gestalt therapy developed by Fritz Perls, transactional analysis developed by Eric Berne, marital counseling, and family therapy.

The general aim of humanistic therapy is to give a holistic description of the person. By using phenomenological, intersubjective and first person categories, the humanistic psychologist attempts to glimpse the whole person and not just fragmented parts of the personality (Rowan 2001).

Such therapy also seeks an integration of the whole person, referred to as self-actualization by Maslow. According to humanistic thinking, each person already has inbuilt potentials and resources that might help them to build a stronger personality and self-concept. The mission of the humanistic psychologist is to point the individual in the direction of these resources. The therapist is, in some circumstances, closer to a guide than to a clinician. However, in order to actualize hidden potentials the person might have to give up the safety of a particular stage of the personality in order to embrace a new and more integrated stage. This is not a simple or easy process, as it might include confronting new life-choices or redefining one's view of life. Humanistic psychology views psychological instability and anxiety as normal features of human life and development that can be worked through in therapy (Rowan 2001).

Transpersonal psychology

Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that studies the transcendent, or spiritual dimensions of humanity. Among the thinkers who are considered to have set the stage for transpersonal studies are William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and Roberto Assagioli (Cowley & Derezotes 1994; Miller 1998; Davis 2003). A major motivating factor behind the initiative to establish this school of psychology was Maslow's work on "peak experiences." Maslow's work grew out of the humanistic movement of the 1960's, and gradually the term "transpersonal" was associated with this distinct school of psychology within the humanistic movement.

A short definition from the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology suggests that transpersonal psychology "is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness" (Lajoie and Shapiro 1992, 91). Among these topics we find such issues as self-development, peak experiences, mystical experiences and the possibility of development beyond traditional ego-boundaries. Thus transpersonal psychology is concerned with human experiences that apparently are 'trans-personal,’ or 'trans-egoic.'

Transpersonal psychology had its formal beginnings in 1969, when Maslow, Stanislav Grof and Anthony Sutich initiated the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. This was soon to be followed by the founding of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) in 1972. In the 1980s and 1990s, the field developed through the works of such authors as Grof, Ken Wilber, Michael Washburn, Frances Vaughan, Roger Walsh, Stanley Krippner, Michael Murphy, Charles Tart, David Lukoff and Stuart Sovatsky. While Wilber has been considered an influential writer and theoretician in the field, he has since personally dissociated himself from the movement in favor of what he calls an integral approach.

Today transpersonal psychology also includes approaches to health, social sciences and practical arts. Transpersonal perspectives are also being applied to such diverse fields as psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, pharmacology, cross-cultural studies (Scotton, Chinen and Battista 1996; Davis 2003) and social work (Cowley & Derezotes 1994).

Transpersonal Psychology has brought clinical attention to a number of "psychoreligious" and "psychospiritual" problems. Psychoreligious problems have to do with possible psychological conflict resulting from a person's involvement with the beliefs and practices of an organized religious institution. Among these we find problematic experiences related to conversion, intensification of religious belief or practice, and loss of faith.

Psychospiritual problems are experiences of a different category than religious problems. Cowley & Derezotes (1994) note that transpersonal theory has an understanding of spirituality as a dimension that is integral to human nature, that is, an essential aspect of being. Thus, psychospiritual problems have to do with a person's relationship to existential issues, and issues that are considered to transcend ordinary day-to-day reality. Among these problems we find psychiatric complications related to loss of faith, near-death experience, and mystical experience. Complications that are considered to present problems of a combined religious and spiritual nature are issues related to serious and terminal illness (Lukoff, 1998).

The term "Spiritual Emergence" was coined by Stanislav and Christina Grof (1989) in order to describe a gradual unfolding and appearance of psychospiritual categories in a person’s life. In cases where this spiritual unfolding is intensified beyond the control of the individual it might lead to a state of "spiritual emergency," which might cause significant disruptions in psychological, social and occupational functioning. (Lukoff et al 1998).

At the beginning of the 1990s, the transpersonal community proposed a new diagnostic category entitled "religious or spiritual problem." This category was later included in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) under the heading "Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention," Code V62.89 (American Psychiatric Association 1994; Lu et al 1997).

Integral psychology

In the 1940s Indra Sen, a devotee of Sri Aurobindo, established the field of Integral Psychology, based on Sri Aurobindo's teachings. Aurobindo's integral yoga involves transformation of the entire being rather than, as in most other teachings, a single faculty such as the head or the heart.

A further interpretation of Integral psychology was developed by Haridas Chaudhuri, who postulated a triadic principle of uniqueness, relatedness, and transcendence, corresponding to the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal domains of human existence (Chaudhuri 1977).

Bahman Shirazi of the California Institute of Integral Studies has defined Integral Psychology as

a psychological system concerned with exploring and understanding the totality of the human phenomenon....(which) at its breadth, covers the entire body-mind-psyche-spirit spectrum, while at its depth...encompasses the previously explored unconscious and the conscious dimensions of the psyche, as well as the supra-conscious dimension traditionally excluded from psychological inquiry (Shirazi 2001).

Thus, integral psychology can be understood as a psychology that is inclusive or holistic rather than exclusivist or reductive. Multiple explanations of phenomena, rather than competing with each other for supremacy, are to be valued and integrated into a coherent overall view. An integral view is one that incorporates and honors ancient and modern knowledge, spirituality, and scientific research.

Ken Wilber researched and synthesized around 200 theories of human development (ancient, modern, eastern, and western) that worked toward an integral view. Based on this research, his book, Integral Psychology, identifies an "integral stage of consciousness" which exhibits "...cognition of unity, holism, dynamic dialecticism, or universal integralism..." (Wilber 2000).

Wilber is a holist: he believes that reality does not consist merely of matter, energy, ideas, or processes. Instead, it consists of "holons." Although we are made of parts (nervous system, skeletal system, etc.), we are also a part of our society, our nation-state, our planet. Each "holon" has an interior perspective (an inside) and an exterior perspective (an outside). It also has an individual perspective and a collective (or plural) perspective. If you map these into quadrants, you have four quadrants, or dimensions.


Quadrant (UL)



Quadrant (UR)



Quadrant (LL)



Quadrant (LR)


Wilber provides a comprehensive understanding of human development through the application of this Four Quadrant approach, which encompasses the individual, cultural, social, spiritual, and political realms. All four quadrants interact and thus all of them are required in order to understand the full scope of human development, motivation, and growth. A theory is said to be "AQAL" (where "AQAL" stands for "All quadrants, all levels," and equally connotes "all lines, all states, all types"), and thus integral, if it relates to all four quadrants.

  • Upper Left Quadrant (individual, subjective, intentional): emotional, mental and spiritual development.
  • Upper Right Quadrant (individual, objective, behavioral): physical body, neurological brain and states of consciousness.
  • Lower Right Quadrant (social, interobjective): systems, political and civic institutions.
  • Lower Left Quadrant (cultural, intersubjective): relationships with family, friends and community; moral development, and contribution to society.

Integral psychology promotes health and wellness through attention to and development of all four quadrants of one's life. In addition, the development in one quadrant reinforces the effectiveness of the others. The more categories that are engaged, the more effective they all become because all are intimately related. This holistic approach and broad view of human development has been brought to bear on an astonishing variety of disciplines: including medicine, social services, ecology, finance, politics, business and others.

Criticism and evaluation

One of the earliest and most serious criticisms of the Transpersonal psychology was issued by the Humanistic psychologist Rollo May, who disputed the conceptual foundations of transpersonal psychology (Aanstos, Serling & Greening 2000). May was particularly concerned about the low level of reflection on the dark side of human nature, and on human suffering, among the early transpersonal theorists. A similar critique was also put forward by Alexander (1980) who thought that Transpersonal Psychology, in light of the thinking of William James, represented a philosophy that failed to take evil adequately into account. Later Transpersonal theorists have been more willing to reflect on these important dimensions of human existence (Scotton, Chinen and Battista 1996).

Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000) noted that the early incarnations of Humanistic psychology lacked a cumulative empirical base, and that some directions encouraged self-centeredness. Such suspicions are understandable since a large amount of time is spent on discussing such issues as the self and self-actualization. However, Humanistic psychology does not promote such ideas as the narcissistic self, egotism, or selfishness (Bohart & Greening 2001; Rowan 2001). The idea of the humanistic perspective is actually to go beyond such narrow categories and to develop a movement towards a fuller sense of self (Rowan 2001).

In fact, humanistic psychologists have not only focused on promoting self-actualization and individual fulfillment, they have also addressed such topics as the promotion of international peace and understanding, the reduction of violence, and the promotion of social welfare and justice for all Bohart & Greening (2001). Thus, despite the apparently self-centered focus, humanistic psychology is actually concerned with how each individual can fulfill his or her own potential so that they can make their most valuable contribution to the larger society.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aanstoos, C., I. Serlin & T. Greening. 2000. "History of Division 32 (Humanistic Psychology) of the American Psychological Association." In D. Dewsbury (Ed.), Unification through Division: Histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association, Vol. V. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Bugental, J.F.T. 1964. "The Third Force in Psychology." Journal of Humanistic Psychology 4: 1, 19-25.
  • Alexander, Gary T. 1980. "William James, the Sick Soul, and the Negative Dimensions of Consciousness: A Partial Critique of Transpersonal Psychology." Journal of the American Academy of Religion XLVIII (2): 191-206.
  • American Psychiatric Association. 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing. ISBN 0890420254
  • Bohart, Arthur C. & Thomas Greening. 2001. "Comment: Humanistic Psychology and Positive Psychology." American Psychologist. 56 (1): 81-82.
  • Chaudhuri, H. 1989. The Evolution of Integral Consciousness. Theosophical Pub House. ISBN 0835604942.
  • Cowley, Au-Deane S. & David Derezotes. 1994. "Transpersonal Psychology and Social Work Education." Journal of Social Work Education, 10437797. 30(1), Winter 1994.
  • Davis, John V. 2003. "Transpersonal psychology" in Taylor, B. and J. Kaplan, (Eds). The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Continuum.
  • Grof, Stanislav & Christina Grof. 1989. "Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis" in New Consciousness Reader. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
  • Lajoie, D. H. & S. I. Shapiro. 1992. "Definitions of transpersonal psychology: The first twenty-three years." Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 24.
  • Lu, F.G., D. Lukoff & R. Turner. 1997. "Religious or Spiritual Problems." In DSM-IV Sourcebook, Vol. 3. Widiger T.A., A. J. Frances, H. A. Pincus, et al., (eds). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1001-1016.
  • Lukoff, David, Francis G. Tu & Robert P. Turner. 1998. "From Spiritual Emergency to Spiritual Problem - The Transpersonal Roots of the New DSM-IV Category." Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38(2): 21-50.
  • Miller, John J. 1998. "Book Review: Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology." Psychiatric Services 49:541-542, April 1998. American Psychiatric Association
  • Rowan, John. 2001. Ordinary ecstasy: the dialectics of humanistic psychology. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Scotton, Bruce W, Allan B. Chinen & John R. Battista (eds.). 1996. Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465095305.
  • Seligman, Martin E. P. & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 2000. "Positive psychology: An introduction." American Psychologist. Jan. 55(1): 5-14.
  • Sen, Indra. 1986. Integral Psychology: The Psychological System of Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. ASIN B0007BY850.
  • Shirazi, Bhaman. 2001. "Integral psychology, metaphors and processes of personal integration," in Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) Consciousness and Its Transformation, Pondicherry: SAICE
  • Wilber, Ken. 2000. Integral Psychology. Shambhala. ISBN 1570625549.

External links

All links retrieved January 19, 2018.


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