The Humanistic Perspective in psychology, as the name suggests, is rooted in the belief that human beings are unique individuals that have an innate tendency towards self-actualisation. Thus, humanistic psychology holds the human potential at its core and strongly opposes biological determinism and psychoanalysis, both of which were popular trends in psychology in the mid-twentieth century.
Behaviourism and psychodynamics were both rejected by humanistic psychologists because of their dehumanising nature and excessive reliance on determinism. Instead, behaviourists suggested that human behaviour is a product of reinforcement and relied primarily upon results obtained from animal research. The psychodynamic approach also based its findings on unconscious and immeasurable instinctive forces that supposedly determine human behaviour. On the other hand, humanistic psychology works with the assumption that human beings possess free will and can therefore be motivated to achieve their full potential.
Assumptions of Humanistic Psychology
The core of humanistic psychology is the existential belief that all human beings possess personal agency and exercise free will. Humanistic psychologists assert that human beings are inherently good and desire to better themselves and the world around them. The primary goal of such is to attain self-actualisation and to realise one’s full potential. The humanistic perspective is optimistic and suggests that people strive to overcome despair and hardships in order to enhance themselves. Humanism emphasises the difference between human beings and animals by stating that humans are fundamentally different from other animals due to their consciousness. This allows them to have subjective perceptions and experiences, and this subjectivity shapes personality. It also causes humanistic psychologists to reject animal research because of its inability to be applied to complex human scenarios and perceptions.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
American psychologist Abraham Maslow is regarded as one of the chief architects of the humanistic psychology movement. His theory of human needs and motivation, proposed in 1943, is key to understanding the human drive. In this theory, Maslow offers a hierarchy of needs that range from primitive needs to higher-level needs. These include –
- Physiological Needs – the basics of survival (food, water, shelter, sex)
- Safety Needs – the need for physical, emotional and financial security
- The Need for Love and Belonging – this refers to the need to form secure relationships that generate a sense of belonging
- Esteem Needs – these are needs that typically satisfy the human ego and refer to the desire to be accepted and recognised
- Self-Actualisation – this refers to the need to work towards and achieve our full human potential. Self-actualisation means different things to different people. For some people it may mean being creatively fulfilled while for others it could mean being an ideal parent.
Maslow’s theory seeks to explain human behaviour by keeping the individual at the centre. His theory asserts that individuals require to satisfy their primitive needs in order to experience higher-level needs. The theory suggests that individuals, having fulfilled their physiological and safety needs and need for love and esteem, finally strive for self-actualisation. Moreover, each stage of Maslow’s hierarchy is based on some innate human desire that translates into goal-directed behaviour and ultimately results in the completion of the hierarchy. Maslow’s work is centred around the individual and is therefore considered pioneering work in the domain of humanistic psychology.
Carl Rogers, another influential figure in the field of humanistic psychology, developed a theory of personality that reflected his belief that the human tendency to self-actualise is one of the primary factors that shapes personality. Rejecting the notion of determinism, Rogers opined that individuals perceive their social and physical environments based on their previous experiences. These individual perceptions influence goal-directed behaviour and shape their personality. Rogers stressed that self-actualisation, self-maintenance and self-enhancement are the three primary factors that influence the development of our personalities. Self-maintenance refers to our drive to sustain ourselves, while self-enhancement is our desire to grow.
Rogers says that human beings are continuously interacting with stimuli in a dynamic external environment. The dynamism of this environment and the feedback received from it shape an individual’s sense of self. He divides the Self into two distinct categories – the real self and the ideal self. The real self is an idea of who we actually are as human beings, whereas the ideal self represents who we desire to be. When the real and ideal self are in sync with one another, it results in congruence, which is an indicator of harmony. Conversely, when an individual’s real self is consistent with their ideal self, there is internal conflict. In relation to his notions about the Self, Carl Rogers proposed the idea of unconditional positive regard. Rogers says that congruence and incongruence are determined by positive regard, which is imperative in the development of the Self. Unconditional positive regard may be understood as unconditional love or the acceptance of an individual regardless of their shortcomings. It is an extremely significant aspect of how a child develops. Unconditional positive regard from parent to child allows individuals to grow to cultivate a more sensitive and caring attitude towards themselves. Thus, by understanding the Self as a focal point in the study of human behaviour, Rogers expands the horizons of psychological inquiry.
Application of the Humanistic Perspective
The humanistic perspective has had a considerable impact on how we view the treatment of mental illnesses. As opposed to research- or medicine-centric approaches to treatment, humanistic psychology is person-centred. It is used to treat a vast array of mental health disorders including (but not limited to) anxiety, depression, personality disorders, psychosis and addiction.
Humanistic psychologists utilise qualitative methods (unstructured interviews, participant observation) of study to better understand their clients. Such therapy is a combination of various therapeutic techniques that allow psychologists to view their clients holistically; from the psychologist’s perspective as well as the individual’s. Humanistic therapy focuses on the positive attributes of an individual in an attempt to create the space for growth, fulfillment and healing. For example, Gestalt Therapy is a kind of humanistic psychotherapy that focuses on the present experiences of a person rather than delving into past experiences that could be correlated as determinants. Rogerian therapy is another type of humanistic therapy that emphasises a strong client-therapist relationship that allows an individual to share their thoughts and experiences without the fear of judgment or disapproval.
Humanistic therapy allows individuals to overcome criticism and also work towards growth and fulfillment. With self-actualisation as the goal, people are able to cultivate feelings of high self-worth and esteem. Approaching mental health using the moral and ethical principles of philosophy allows clients to approach problems from a viewpoint that fosters growth. Finally, by asserting the dominance of free will, individuals learn to take responsibility for their actions and are therefore able to progress as human beings.
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