The Humanistic Perspective

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the major concepts of humanistic theory (unconditional positive regard, the good life), as developed by Carl Rogers
  • Explain Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The Humanistic Perspective: A Focus on Uniquely Human Qualities

The humanistic perspective rose to prominence in the mid-20th century in response to psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism; this perspective focuses on how healthy people develop and emphasizes an individual’s inherent drive towards self-actualization and creativity. Humanism emphasizes human potential and an individual’s ability to change, and rejects the idea of biological determinism. Humanistic work and research are sometimes criticized for being qualitative (not measurement-based), but there exist a number of quantitative research strains within humanistic psychology, including research on happiness, self-concept, meditation, and the outcomes of humanistic psychotherapy (Friedman, 2008).

Carl Rogers and Humanism

One pioneering humanistic theorist was Carl Rogers. He was an influential humanistic psychologist who developed a personality theory that emphasized the importance of the self-actualizing tendency in shaping human personalities. He also believed that humans are constantly reacting to stimuli with their subjective reality (phenomenal field), which changes continuously. Over time, a person develops a self-concept based on the feedback from this field of reality.

The Phenomenal Field. The self is at the center of the phenomenal field with the following items surrounding the self: objects, people, thoughts, images and behaviors. Individual and Environment are on the outside of the phenomenal field. The influence from an individual is motivation and the influence from the environment is learning.

Figure 1. The phenomenal field refers to a person’s subjective reality, which includes external objects and people as well as internal thoughts and emotions. The person’s motivations and environments both act on their phenomenal field.

One of Rogers’s main ideas about personality regards self-concept, our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. How would you respond to the question, “Who am I?” Your answer can show how you see yourself. If your response is primarily positive, then you tend to feel good about who you are, and you probably see the world as a safe and positive place. If your response is mainly negative, then you may feel unhappy with who you are. Rogers further divided the self into two categories: the ideal self and the real self. The ideal self is the person that you would like to be; the real self is the person you actually are. Rogers focused on the idea that we need to achieve consistency between these two selves.

Unconditional Positive Regard

Human beings develop an ideal self and a real self, based on the conditional status of positive regard. How closely one’s real self matches up with their ideal self is called congruence. We experience congruence when our thoughts about our real self and ideal self are very similar—in other words when our self-concept is accurateHigh congruence leads to a greater sense of self-worth and a healthy, productive life. Conversely, when there is a great discrepancy between our ideal and actual selves, we experience a state Rogers called incongruence, which can lead to maladjustment.

According to Rogers, parents can help their children achieve their ideal self by giving them unconditional positive regard, or unconditional love. In the development of self-concept, positive regard is key. Unconditional positive regard is an environment that is free of preconceived notions of value. Conditional positive regard is full of conditions of worth that must be achieved to be considered successful. Rogers (1980) explained it this way: “As persons are accepted and prized, they tend to develop a more caring attitude towards themselves” (p. 116).

The Good Life

Rogers described life in terms of principles rather than stages of development. These principles exist in fluid processes rather than static states. He claimed that a fully functioning person would continually aim to fulfill their potential in each of these processes, achieving what he called “the good life. These people would allow personality and self-concept to emanate from experience. He found that fully functioning individuals had several traits or tendencies in common:

  1. A growing openness to experience–they move away from defensiveness.
  2. An increasingly existential lifestyle–living each moment fully, rather than distorting the moment to fit personality or self-concept.
  3. Increasing organismic trust–they trust their own judgment and their ability to choose behavior that is appropriate for each moment.
  4. Freedom of choice–they are not restricted by incongruence and are able to make a wide range of choices more fluently. They believe that they play a role in determining their own behavior and so feel responsible for their own behavior.
  5. Higher levels of creativity–they will be more creative in the way they adapt to their own circumstances without feeling a need to conform.
  6. Reliability and constructiveness–they can be trusted to act constructively. Even aggressive needs will be matched and balanced by intrinsic goodness in congruent individuals.
  7. A rich full life–they will experience joy and pain, love and heartbreak, fear and courage more intensely.

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Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) was an American psychologist who is best known for proposing a hierarchy of human needs in motivating behavior. Maslow described a pattern through which human motivations generally move, meaning that in order for motivation to occur at the next level, each level must be satisfied within the individual themselves. These stages include:

  • physiological needs: the main physical requirements for human survival, including homeostasis, food, water, sleep, shelter, and sex.
  • safety needs: the need for personal, emotional, financial, and physical security. Once a person’s physiological needs are relatively satisfied, their safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior. In the absence of physical safety – due to war, natural disaster, family violence, childhood abuse, institutional racism, etc. – people may (re-)experience post-traumatic stress disorder or transgenerational trauma. In the absence of economic safety – due to an economic crisis and lack of work opportunities – these safety needs manifest themselves in ways such as a preference for job security, grievance procedures for protecting the individual from unilateral authority, savings accounts, insurance policies, disability accommodations, etc. This level is more likely to predominate in children as they generally have a greater need to feel safe.
  • love and belonging: the need for friendships, intimacy, and belonging. This need is especially strong in childhood and it can override the need for safety as witnessed in children who cling to abusive parents. Deficiencies within this level of Maslow’s hierarchy – due to hospitalism, neglect, shunning, ostracism, etc. – can adversely affect the individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships in general.
  • esteem: the typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People often engage in a profession or hobby to gain recognition. Esteem needs are ego needs or status needs. People develop a concern with getting recognition, status, importance, and respect from others. Most humans have a need to feel respected; this includes the need to have self-esteem and self-respect.
  • self-actualization: Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. For example, one individual may have a strong desire to become an ideal parent. In another, the desire may be expressed athletically. For others, it may be expressed in paintings, pictures, or inventions. Some examples of this include utilizing abilities and talents, pursuing goals, and seeking happiness.

Furthermore, this theory is a key foundation in understanding how drive and motivation are correlated when discussing human behavior. Each of these individual levels contains a certain amount of internal sensation that must be met in order for an individual to complete their hierarchy. The goal in Maslow’s theory is to attain the fifth level or stage of self-actualization.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs (breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion), then security needs (security of body, of employment, of resources, or morality, of the family, of health, or property), then love/belonging (friendship, family, sexual intimacy), then esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others), and lastly, self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts).

Figure 2. Diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization and transcendence at the top. In other words, the crux of the theory is that individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher-level needs.

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Watch as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to life in this quick video.

You can view the transcript for “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” here (opens in new window).

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an instance or point of agreement or correspondence between the ideal self and the real self in Rogers’ humanistic personality theory
a psychological theory that emphasizes an individual’s inherent drive towards self-actualization and contends that people have a natural capacity to make decisions about their lives and control their own behavior
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals are motivated to attend to needs higher up
phenomenal field:
our subjective reality, all that we are aware of, including objects and people as well as our behaviors, thoughts, images, and ideas
according to humanistic theory, the realizing of one’s full potential can include creative expression, a quest for spiritual enlightenment, the pursuit of knowledge, or the desire to contribute to society. For Maslow, it is a state of self-fulfillment in which people achieve their highest potential in their own unique way