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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

Humanistic Psychology


Humanistic Psychology has developed as a movement in psychology from the twenties onwards in Europe and in the USA as a response to the general moral and political crises which engulfed the world during the two World Wars period, and in particular to the disillusionment by some psychologists with the existing empiricist and mechanistic practices of psychology. The movement

grew and reached a climax during the sixties when it was part of the reform wave that swept across Europe and the USA. Since then, many of its tenets and practices have permeated more and more fields including social work, ducation and management.

In this essay I shall begin by attempting to draw some outlines of the ideas which inform the many different practices of Humanistic Psychology through examining the writings and work of some of its proponents. At the same time I will attempt to evaluate some of the main tenets that Humanistic Psychology is constructed out of critically, particularly in relation to non oppressive practices. I hope to conclude by showing that Humanistic Psychology, despite its short comings, has a significant contribution to make in its own culturally and historically specific way. Throughout the essay, I use the term Humanistic Psychology as a generic term, attributing to it attitudes which may not be held by each Humanistic Psychologist.


" Humanistic psychology is a peculiarly North American phenomenon. As an academic movement, it arose in protest to Anglo-American scientific psychology - opposed to the excesses and limitations of positivistic science - and flourished, somewhat parasitically, on various strains of European philosophy, notably the existentialist and phenomenology traditions. [1]

David Berlyne [2] claims that true to the time when his article was written, Humanistic Psychology has yet to establishing itself as a positive force and still exists rather as a reaction to the practices in psychology of that time. The current psychological trend of the time, which Humanistic Psychology was

challenging was based upon a scientific, ie empirical, perspective of human behaviour, culminating in Behaviourism as conceptualised by Skinner. The Behaviourist view saw human beings in a rather mechanistic way, suggesting that in order to affect change, all that was needed was a modification in behaviour, achieved through various manipulative and pressurising methods,

all established in the lab.

Giorgi [3] places Humanistic Psychology in the context of a cultural and philosophical reaction to the traumas that Western society underwent as a result of the two world wars. He maps the development of the concept of Humanistic Psychology back to the early Greek notion of Humanism which placed a strong emphasis on the individual and his (as it would be in those days) development and fulfilment. The development of the notion of Humanity has been gradual and is concurrent and dependent upon the receding adherence to the belief in divine responsibility.

The definition of Humanism can be very broad, varying from the biological perspective to the moralistic one. One interesting insight can be picked from the use of the term "inhumanities" in the context of what some people do to others. In this context, the concept of Humanity relate to some kind of standard of behaviour that if a person deviates from, they, and their victim, somehow slip away from the embrace of the term Human. It is a relevant example in our case, as Humanistic Psychology does place an emphasis to notions of relatedness.

Thus, Humanistic Psychology is secular by nature, although having very strong religious characteristics. The central image in it is of the individual, standing alone in the universe and trying to make sense of it through his or her own faculties. It is this injured individual, alienated from his family, society and

environment, who French authors like Sartre and Camus have described, who is the subject and the object of Humanistic Psychology, dictating with his injury the kind of healing which he or she require.

Humanistic Psychology's various disciplines [4] share a holistic view of human beings, believing that only in dealing with a person as a whole it is possible to begin a process of healing. Most Humanistic Psychologists would agree with R.D. Laing[5] for instance, that the cause of most mental ill health is the disintegration of the view of the person as a whole which is brought about by the social and cultural values and climate in which people live in Western society. The rejection of those aspects of ourselves which are seen as less agreeable to society creates shattered individuals whose notion of living gets

reduced to merely coping. Humanistic Psychologists believe that life is more then just coping or merely keeping the pieces together. The notion that the whole of a person is more then the sum of all their parts is essential to Humanistic Psychology.

This holistic approach acknowledges, generally speaking, a

rhythmic model of human nature which is constructed non hierarchically. [6]

Through the understanding and integration of all levels, it becomes possible for a person to connect to their essential healthy core and change their life in their own specifically individual way in order to fulfil more fully their human potential and grow into a liberated human being.


An often commented upon contribution to the Humanistic Psychology edifice was made by Abraham Maslow [7] in the forties. He challenged the traditional psychological view of mental illness by putting forward the notion that human beings were basically healthy in their construction and in their will to live. This

healthy urge to grow is expressed through an inner drive towards "self actualisation" which, however, gets frustrated by a variety of reasons. This frustration of self actualisation gets compounded and perpetuated by the ensuing fear of change, thus "stucking" people in miserable but familiar life situations which they are afraid to challenge lest their negative but familiar

self-image crumbles. The model that Maslow proposed for breaking through this vicious circle is based on the notion of "peak experience” [8] through which a person will transcend their constricting reality and connect to their inner core which is still dedicated to growth and self actualisation. In his approach, Maslow laid most emphasis on the notion of a person as a Being, having a rather static core which can liberate them from the constricting patterns that their life experiences, traumas and fears have subjected them to.

Maslow postulated his theory of motivation [9] around the model of the five stage pyramid of need. The lower rungs are occupied by physical need such as hunger while the top one is of self fulfilment, emanating from the need to be loved and be creative. Thus, according to Maslow, it is only possible to become a self actualising person once you have satisfied your "lower" needs.

Neher [10] uses the example of the close family ties that exist in some of Third World communities despite the severe material deprivation, to show that Maslow's theory is at best flawed. Neher applies the term "Nativisit" to Maslow's, and Rogers', thinking, claiming that their ideology is based upon a view of human beings as biologically fixed. According to Neher, Maslow

believed that a human being can only develop to the full extent which his or her genetic composition would allow. This notion was postulated by Maslow at the time as a reaction to the Behaviourist idea that a person is totally modified and moulded by the pressures and incentives which society places upon them.

While Maslow's determinist position is almost understandable in the context in which he wrote it, ie critique of Behaviourism, it is impossible now not to pick upon its dangerous oppressive implications, a point which Neher, unfortunately fails to develop or even mention. The road between saying that the extent to which an individual can grow is predetermined and measurable by his or her genetic make-up, and saying that some individuals are better disposed to achievement, and should therefore be given better chance is awfully short and should have been predicted by Maslow and his predecessors. Significantly, though, Humanistic Psychology is a set of theories postulated by and large in the northern hemisphere by white men who have repeatedly reinforced their Eurocentric position.

Further more, the idea that we have within us a "true", if not static, inner being who is waiting to be liberated, is one which falls neatly within the Christian tradition of Monotheism. As we know from modern scientific research, evidence is moving away from the unified field theory to suggest that the idea of perceived single determined truth is no longer viable and that we are rather dealing with a set if co-existing, often contradictory phenomena, each one being "true". [11]

This position would also be supported by modern sociologists who would claim that no person has a true self but rather a set of learnt roles which we display

appropriately, or no, according to the situation. Even being alone at home would still require us to don a learnt role. The notion that we are at any time inherently "truthful" is an anathema to sociologists. [12]

Thus, mental ill-health according to a sociologist would, in some cases, be an instance when the wrong role is adopted at the wrong time and place, rather then some inherent flaw at the inner core.


Humanistic Psychology developed in an atmosphere where it was becoming increasingly difficult for a critical mind to believe in the notion of a god who is both benevolent and omnipotent. The greatest evidence against such providence is of course the gas chambers in Nazi Europe. But the demise of one god and his particular system of principles does not nullify the all-too- human need for values. Soon enough a new system of values is introduced to explain the existential predicament life often is, and to offer guidelines as to how to conduct oneself through it. It is the concern with this human need which moves Lyons [13] to explore what actually takes place between therapist and client, and more generally, between two human beings who are attempting to engage in a meaningful interaction. According to him, there is a gap between any two human beings, a gap caused by the inadequacy of language to communicate the deeper aspects of ourselves. He describes this malaise as a specifically modern

one, going on to suggest that the concept of a human inner core is a modern one and the preoccupation with its expression as unique to our times. We have created the problem which we are now trying to resolve, is what he seems to be saying. Nevertheless, Lyons suggests that this gap is indeed bridgeable, even in cases where one of the participants is a psychotic whose experience of reality is so obscured to us, and perhaps to himself, that all he can say in reply to enquiries about what is going on for him or her is "Whooo". The bridge, according to Lyons, is in our spiritual stance towards the world. Once we have accepted that we are in a relationship with the world and that any of our actions, including our inactions and "whooo's", is an act of mutual communication, then our alienation from our bodies, ourselves and society cease to become problematic but attain the status of discourses. It is this acceptance of our communicative endeavour and the disengaging from the process of evaluation of ourselves through which we are reminded of our inadequacies, which is a fundamental step towards our healing.

This spiritual concern with human being's fulfilment which lies at the heart of Humanistic Psychology brings O'hara [14] to criticise Humanistic Psychology therapists for not taking full responsibility both for the values which they bring into the therapy room and for their inevitable powerfulness in their role as New Age priests and priestess. She claims that often Humanistic Psychology therapists try to avoid dealing with the moral obligations that their profession carries with it by claiming it to be scientifically and empirically proven to be

effective, but when asked to bring forth such evidence, they invariably turn to moralistic arguments. The avoidance of owning up to the power of the therapist and stabilising it within a coherent value system is dangerous regardless of the model which the therapist uses. Both Rowan and Rogers have picked on this issue of possible damage, neither however proposing a satisfactory solution.

"The question here is - Can this person uncover their problems during the course of a session, and then cover them up again sufficiently to carry on their life (work, relationship etc) until the next session? ...If not... then they need some kind of residential facility."[15]

"I have come to have a profound respect for the constructive potency of such group experience and also a real concern over the fact that sometimes and in some ways this experience may do damage to individuals".[16]

The concept of self actualisation which O'hara sees at the centre of both Maslow's and Rogers' theories, is for her an article of faith. For her, self actualisation implies the innate ability of each individual to heal themselves, given the appropriate environment in which to do that. She asks Humanistic Psychology therapists to take fuller responsibility for this and so acknowledge the and political power which this spiritual message carries. It is an interesting challenge at a time when church leaders in Britain, for instance, are following the example of third world religious leaders in taking stands against official

government policies and exceeding their spiritual brief by going publicly "political".

The emphasis on self actualisation and autonomy has other implications which Humanistic Psychology therapists sometimes fail to acknowledge. As O'hara continues to argue, the egocentric tendency of Humanistic Psychology might lead individuals to believe that autonomy is the state in which they become isolated in the world, severing family links and cutting off from traditional communities. This is obviously very ironic as Humanistic Psychology would certainly claim to be hoping to achieve the opposite. But if we consider the needs of some Asian people, for instance, it becomes clear that putting the emphasis on an individual autonomy and individuality would be very inappropriate and would amount to the therapist placing their agenda before that of the client.

"In Asian culture,, independence and individualistic behaviour may be seen as

selfish and unloving. Dependence is generally valued. Nobody ever is or should

be entirely independent of his or her family." [17]

To suit the needs of Asian families and individuals in need, Humanistic Psychology would have to rethink some of its objectives. Therefore, a white therapist might find it difficult, but not impossible, to work with an Asian client and both give unconditional positive regard and remain genuine in his or her 



The total acceptance of the client's feelings and being lies at the heart of the theories of perhaps the most important of Humanistic psychology theoreticians and therapists, Carl Rogers.

Rogers' self theory evolved out of his clinical work. He believed that for a person to emerge a more fulfilled human being from a therapeutic session, the following conditions need to be met:

1. That the two persons (ie therapist and client) are in contact.

2. That the client is in a state of incongruence, ie confused, anxious or vulnerable.

3. That the therapist is congruent to the relationship.

4. That the therapist is experiencing full unconditional positive regard for the client.

5. That the client perceives this attitude of the therapist.[18]

Scott [19] uses this Rogerian model to argue that it is an intensely individualistic model which place the onus of change upon the client. He claims, similarly to Neher, that this pathologising of the client is narrow minded in its perception of

the interconnectedness of human reality, which is one of the concepts many Humanistic Psychology therapist would claim to believe in. The individualistic perception of change, which Scott and Neher attribute to Humanistic Psychology, is illustrated by John Rowan, a leading British Humanistic Psychology therapist.

"What we (Humanistic practitioners) say us that people have problems. Where they attribute these to outside forces or other people, we can't help them much; we probably can't do a lot to change the people around them or the world in which they find themselves...But where they attribute their problems to them,selves, or to what is going on inside them, then we have an opportunity to work with them on solving those problems.” [20]

Is it then possible for Humanistic Psychology to be more involved in the world and not only concentrate on the individual? From a first glance it is clear that the client-centred approach that Rogers postulated and used is an extremely useful model, allowing the client to become empowered in their own way and in their own pace. But this assumes that the client exists in a vacuum and

that his or her liberation is never affected or hampered by outside forces. On his visit to the USSR a few months before his death, Rogers seemed to have confirmed this rather unfortunate flaw in his practice. While achieving great success in bringing to the forth the personal and relationship problems of the people he worked with there, and no doubt bringing relief to many people, he nevertheless totally failed to acknowledge the particular political circumstances which must be seen to contribute greatly to the situation and predicament of those people:

“It was strikingly clear that their concerns differ very little from the concerns felt by similar professional group in the United States". [21]


Where does the practice of Humanistic Psychology take place? Although a great deal of it does happen in the traditional one-to-one setting, copied from older doctor/patient and priest/worshipper models, it seems that at least historically, Humanistic Psychology most effectiveness is reached in a group situation. One of the underlying assumption of Humanistic Psychology is about the creation of a healing space, a place within which it will be safe for individual to face up to their fears, work through them by way of catharsis and find a way of integrating them into their personality, thus becoming more

effective people. These two different settings, the group and the-one-to one, are significantly different in their emphasis of how that ideal should be achieved. The former places greater emphasis on the individual within a social context, ie

interacting with other human beings, while the latter places greater emphasis on looking inwardly into the individual and resolving their inner conflicts. This division of values is of course crude and some interweaving of these two goals and assumptions occur at both settings.

Group work is seen to be an experimental space, where individuals are allowed to express all the forbidden feelings they had to repress throughout their lives in order to please their parents/spouses/bosses or any other significant figures. Fritz Perls [22] who introduced the term Gestalt [23] into therapy language,

believed that through relating to other members of the group and particularly to the facilitator in a way which is bound to be repetitive of our attitudes towards a primary care taker, people will be able to make new choices about how they relate to people in the here and now.

The emphasis on the here and now is all important and Gestalt group leaders have the tendency to work in confrontational methods to challenge participants to take responsibility for their actions and emotions in the group and encourage them to own all of their being. This often implies owning negative aspects of oneself which almost invariably leads to expression of hostility towards the group leader. Groups can be very intense places, where often the support and the containment that the group leader is able to offer are crucial for its survival and success. Thus the therapist becomes quite powerful in the group and has to be careful in maintaining an atmosphere which is safe, remembering that the group experience is only one part of the participants' and that they have to live their lives, which are quite often very unsafe, during the rest of the week.

This transition between the therapeutic space and "reality" is often a problematic one, both in practical terms and in the context of whose value system does the client emerge out with. No therapist operates within a value-free environment. Even an environment wherein all is acceptable is laden with values of permissiveness. As Masson [24] argues, the power to determine

whether a client is "well" is within the hands of the therapist and any behaviour which may be confrontational or challenging to the therapist, but may affirm the clients' feelings, is likely to be interpreted as indicative of the clients' persistent ill mental health, or as a sign of their defences getting in the way.

Masson go on to challenge the very notion of therapy, claiming that although there are some benevolent therapists who are genuinely trying to help people to get better, they are doing so despite, and not because, of their training as therapists. He goes on to criticise Rogers' early findings which led to his

client-centred approach as they were based on his work with institutionalised clients, ones who had no choice but to be seen by Rogers. What value, asks Masson, does the client-centred notion, has if it is practised within such settings where the client has no ability to exercise his or her power, assuming that the therapeutic process will empower them?


Reading through the literature that is available on Humanistic Psychology, one thing becomes very clear. The vast majority of it is written by men, and middle class, white men at that. Most of the writers seem to ignore the gender issue when dealing with the healing process of the individual. This ignorance is connected to the way Humanistic Psychology therapist are predominately

preoccupied with the inner processes of the individual and not with the social, cultural and historical forces that operate around us. Humanistic Psychology can then be criticised for its failure to tackle the gender inequalities and oppression in society and the way in which they lead women to be labelled as mentally ill and sent to therapy rather then encouraged to challenge the patriarchal values to which they are expected to conform. It is probably safe to assume that most of the people using the services of Humanistic Psychology, in on way or another, are women. It is probably also safe to assume that most therapists are women too, and yet most of the theory upon which this practice is based has been written by men. [25] This could easily be interpreted as a controlling mechanism operated by patriarchy to contain and keep in line women, and men, who deviate from the norm.

It is feminist thinking which offers the most refreshing and integrated model within Humanistic Psychology. [26] It is the only model which takes on that in order for future society to be more equal and liberated for all, it is not only individuals who have to change but society too. Unlike the traditional model which claims that a politically motivated person is usually enacting out some inner conflict, feminist analysis would see the political activities of self-help groups such as women groups and rape crisis centre as the most empowering form of therapy available. An example from fiction for such practice is is Arthur Koestler's novel Arrival and Departure, where a young man fleeing from Nazi occupied Europe is discouraged by his therapist from joining the Resistance in order that he can stay in therapy with her.

It is this form of Humanistic Psychology which is its most radical expression. Self help is a fundamental principle within Humanistic Psychology and is one which removes most power from the therapist. In the self-help group

I would include here co-counselling which is based on the notion that each one of us can be a therapist with minimal training. Usually such training occurs over a few weeks, after which the participants engage in reciprocal contracts with one another, swapping the roles of client and therapist within a set time limit. What actually happen in the therapeutic process is largely based on client-centred techniques of reflection, but there is lesser danger of the therapist becoming stuck on their powerfulness as the therapist of now becomes the client of half an hour later! it becomes possible to see that your traumatic experience is shared with others, that it is possible to honour the way in which people have survived and find new ways to tackle reality with in order to grow more fully.

Humanistic Psychology's response to the challenge of its lack of involvement in the world, its detachment, is not a new one. It is perhaps a sign of our times that the people who are concerned with change, as I believe a lot of Humanistic Psychology therapists are, are choosing to deepen their spiritual quest as a response to the increasing crisis that the planet is facing.

*** For example, see John Rowan's latest book "The Horned God" which is preoccupied with paganism as well as lamenting the New Man liberation movement of the eighties. It is a spiritual quest which is deeply indebted to feminist thinking and spirituality.


Humanistic Psychology began its way as a protest movement against the dehumanisation that seemed to brand its mark upon European society this century. It was certainly envisaged as a political movement and I believe that during the sixties, at least, it certainly was more inspirational and populist then it is now. The economic crisis of the seventies and the conservative back-lash of the eighties has set a lot of progressive movements back. It seems that now Humanistic Psychology thinking is finding its voice amongst New Age and the Green movement.

Humanistic Psychology is yet to develop cohesion as a body of theory, This is quite unlikely to happen as Humanistic Psychology is somewhat opposed to forming a unified theory of human development. Its strength lies in its ability to draw from very divergent range of disciplines, reflecting the eclectism and "chaos" which lies at the heart of human experience. What Humanistic Psychology perhaps need to do is to get over its attempts to become acceptable and "respectable" in the eyes of "the establishment" and no longer try to disguise itself as an empiricist science. What it needs to do is set new ground rules, rewrite the agenda and, most importantly, open its eyes to more, rather then less, influences, taking on different cultural perspectives and graduating from its seclusion on the Californian scene.


[1] Royce, J. and Mos L. (1981) 'Introduction', in J. Royce and L. Moss, Humanistic Psychology, London: Plenum Press. [2] Berlyne, D. (1981) 'Humanistic Psychology as a Protest Movement' in J. Royce and L. Mos Humanistic Psychology, London: Plenum Press. [3] Giorgi A. (1981) 'Humanistic Psychology and Metapsychology' in J. Royce and L. Mos Humanistic Psychology London: Plenum Press. [4] Just to name a few, there is the body-centred approach based on the work of William Reich which states that all of our psychological traumas are to be found and treated in muscular and structural tension patterns, the various Expressive therapy techniques such as Jacob Moreno's Psychodrama, Dreamwork and Janov's Rebirthing, all based on the notion of creatively re-channeling some of the negative energy which is at the bottom of our injury into liberating experiences, Group work and Fritz Perls' Gestalt therapy, Harvey Jenkins' egalitarian Co-Counselling and perhaps most significant of all in its influence, Carl Rogers' client-centred approach. [5] Laing, R.D. (1967), The Politics of Experience, Harmondsworth: Penguin. [6] Chaplin, J. (1988), Feminist Counselling in Action, London:Sage. [7] Graham, H. (1986) The Human Face of Psychology, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. [8] "A peak experience is one of those times, experienced by many millions of people, when all the pretence and all the fear seems to drop away, and we seem to be in touch with the whole universe...It is within the reach of all of us... We are very interested in studying this kind of phenomenon, and seeing how in many cases it can change a person's life." Rowan, J. (1985) [9] Maslow, A. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. [10] Neher, A. (1991) 'Maslow's theory of Motivation: a Critique', Journal of Humanistic Psychology Vol 3 No 3: pp 89-112. [11] Capra, F, (1987) The Tao of Physics, London: Flamingo. [12] Segal, L. (1990), Slow Motion, London: Virago. [13] Lyons J. (1981) 'Discontinuities; Or Theory as Prayer' in J. Royce and L. Mos Humanistic Psychology London: Penlum Press. [14] O'hara, M. (1989) 'When I use Humanistc Psychology', Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol 29 No 2, pp 263-273. [15] Rowan, J. (1983) The Reality game, London: Routledge. [16] Rogers, C. (1967) 'The Process of the Basic Encounter Group' in J. Bugental, Challenges of Humanistic Psychology, New York:McGraw-Hill. [17] Henley, A. (1987) 'The Asian Community in Britain', in Coombe, V. and Little A. Race and Social Work, London: Tavistock Publications. [18] Kirschenbaum, H. and Henderson, V. (1990) The Carl Rogers Reader London: Constable. [19] Scott, C. (1986) 'The Self Awareness Movement- a Critique', Self and Society Vol 14 No 4, pp 151-163. [20] Rowan, J. (1983) The Reality game, London: Routledge. [21] Rogers, C. (1987), 'Inside the World of Soviet Professionals', Journal of Humanistic Psychology Vol 27 No 3, pp 277-305. [22] Perls, F. (1973) The Gestalt Approach & Eye Witness to Therapy, New York: Science & Behavior Books. [23] "The main idea of Gestalt is that a gestalt us a whole, a complete, in itself, resting whole." (Perls 1973) [24] Masson, J. (1988) Against Therapy, London: Fontana. [25] Showalter, E. (1985), The Female Malady, London: Virago. [26] Chaplin, J. (1988) Feminist Counselling in Action, London:Sage. Written in 1992

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