The humanistic approach - Approaches

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

The humanistic approach


Humanism emphasises holism (studying the whole person). This means that individual aspects of a person should not be examined in isolation, but all aspects of someone should be considered to understand them. There is also an emphasis on the uniqueness of individuals and a movement away from generalising findings to groups of people and sub-dividing the population into those with shared characteristics, such as age and gender. Free will is the assumption that individuals have personal control over thoughts and behaviour, with an important aspect being that individuals are seen as responsible for behaviour. Humanists do not see it as desirable to use scientific methods, as humans are not scientifically objective but instead subjective in the ways that they think and act. The subjective experiences of individuals are central to understanding such individuals. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sees everyone as having an innate drive to achieve self-actualisation, fully realising their potential. This is more attainable with positive self-regard (a positive view of oneself) and an integrated sense of self, which is seen as having three parts: self-concept (the way you see yourself), ideal-self (who you want to be) and real-self (who you actually are). Congruence occurs when ideal-self matches self-concept and real-self. Conditions of worth are requirements an individual feels they need to be loved.


Fig 5.6 Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Focal study

Elliot & Freire (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of research studies covering 60 years of humanistic therapies. 191 studies were reviewed, involving data from more than 14,000 participants. It was found that humanistic therapies led to a positive improvement in the condition of clients and there was a post-therapy benefit, as such improvements were maintained over a period of at least 1 year. Indeed, improvements were generally even more noticeable after 1 year, supporting the humanistic idea that the levels of self-determination and enhancement gained by clients in therapy lead to them continuing to develop on their own after finishing therapy. Additionally, data from 60 studies where there was a control group receiving no therapy were compared with those receiving humanistic therapies, with the latter being found to be significantly superior. Finally, 109 studies comparing humanistic with other therapies were reviewed, with humanistic therapies found to be equally effective to other therapies.


• Sheffield et al. (1995) measured levels of self-actualisation and psychological health in 185 students and found that there was a positive correlation between an individual’s level of self-actualisation and level of psychological health. This supports the idea of movements towards self-actualisation having a positive effect.

• Stiles et al. (2006) compared participants receiving humanistic therapies with those receiving cognitive behavioural therapy and psychodynamic therapies. It was found that all three groups of participants showed equal levels of improvement, which suggests humanistic therapies are as effective as other therapies, giving support to the approach they are based upon.

• Tay & Diener (2011) used a questionnaire to generate data about self-actualisation from 60,865 participants from 123 countries. It was found that universal human needs appear to exist, regardless of cultural differences, providing support for the idea of a hierarchy of needs towards self-actualisation.

Positive evaluation

Image The humanistic idea that humans are all unique is supported by research that finds within-group differences to be greater than between-group differences. For example, gender research shows differences between men (or women) as a group are greater than the difference between men and women.

Image The humanistic approach promotes self-growth and personal improvement and acknowledges that individuals can change as a result of environmental experience, a viewpoint that is supported by research.

Image Humanistic psychology tends to use qualitative data, which give genuine insight and a more holistic view of behaviour, which highlights individualism and idiographic methods of study.

Negative evaluation

Image Many humanistic concepts are somewhat vague and as a consequence difficult to objectively define and measure, though humanistic psychologists do not see this as a problem, as they do not see the value of objective measurements in understanding human behaviour.

Image The approach neglects the important contribution that biology plays in determining behaviour. For example, the influence of genetics, biochemistry and evolution in shaping behaviour.

Image Humanism is accused of being culturally biased, as its concentration upon the individual and personal growth reflects the cultural norms of Western, individualistic cultures and therefore does not fit more collectivist cultures.

Practical application

A useful practical application of the humanistic approach is in counselling psychology through self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers, which meet in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance to promote self-growth among members. The approach is also used in holistic forms of education that focus upon promoting self-growth and human goodness.