The Humanistic Approach

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  • Created on: 13-05-20 18:41


  • Human beings have free will and even though we are affected by external and internal influences, we are active agents who have the ability to determine our own behaviour.
  • The humanistic approach is an idiographic approach as it suggests that we are all unique, therefore psychology should concern itself with the study of subjective experience, rather than general laws. This is referred to as the person-centred approach in psychology.
  • Reaching self-actualisation is the main motivation of the human organism.
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Freewill is the idea that humans are free to choose their own thoughts and actions therefore having an active role in controlling their behaviour.  It views humans as self-governing therefore they are not acting in response to any external or internal pressures.  

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs

Maslow created a hierarchy of needs which explains what motivates people. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once this need is satisfied we can move on to the next level. Moving up the hierarchy, the next level is safety and security, followed by love and belongingness, self-esteem and finally self-actualisation. A person is only able to progress through the hierarchy once the current need has been met.  

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Self-actualisation is a ‘growth need’ and represents the uppermost level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It is the desire to grow psychologically and fulfil one’s full potential. This is where a person is creative, accepting of other people and has an accurate perception of the world around them.  Maslow believed that self-actualisation is the aim of most people, but not everyone will manage this due to important psychological barriers that may prevent a person from reaching their true potential

Focus on the selfThe self (or self-concept) refers to how we perceive ourselves as a person.   There are many different components of the self, including: 

1. Self-image – How we see ourselves

Self-image is important for good psychological health. At a simple level, we might perceive ourselves as a good or bad person, beautiful or ugly. Self-image affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves in the world.

2. Ideal self – The person who we would like to be 

It consists of our goals and ambitions in life, and is dynamic and forever changing 

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Rogers believed that for a person to achieve self-actualisation they must be in a state of congruence. This is when a person's ideal self (who they would like to be) is consistent (in line with) with their actual experiences and self image (how they see themselves).

Rarely, if ever, does a total state of congruence exist; all people experience a certain amount of incongruence. This is when a person’s  may not be consistent with what actually happens in life and experiences of the person. This can act as a barrier to personal growth and can explain the symptoms of depression or anxiety.

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The Role of Conditions of Worth

Conditions of worth are the requirements we think we must meet for other people to accept us as worthy of their love.  Conditions of worth are a result of receiving conditional positive regard from others.  As children, we learn that there are certain things we do that please our parents or caregivers, and we strive to do those things. As we grow up, we also learn what our teachers, friends, and society in general seem to expect from us. Eventually, we may internalise the conditions of worth imposed upon us, and live our life according to those conditions.  

This may result in unhappiness and a lack of self-worth as we strive to satisfy conditions that may be unrealistic. 

In contrast, unconditional positive regard is needed to reach self-actualisation. No requirements need to be met for other people to accept and love us. A person feels free to try things out and make mistakes, even though this may lead to getting it wrong at times as there is a total acceptance by others.

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Evaluations of Humanistic Approach 1

Research Support for Conditions of Worth - research with adolescents has shown evidence consistent with Rogers view, i.e. those individuals who experience conditional positive regard are likely to do things to meet others expectations even when they clash with their own values. For example, Harter et al (1996) found that teenagers who feel that they have to fulfil certain conditions in order to gain their parents approval create a ‘false self’.  By pretending to be the kind of person his or her parents would love, and going against their own values, they are more likely to develop depression and a tendency to lose touch with their own true self.  

Holistic Approach –  A strength of the humanistic approach is that it takes a holistic approach and rejects any attempt to simplify behaviour and experiences into smaller components (reductionism). For example, biological psychologists simplify human behaviour to neurochemical imbalances and/or genetic inheritance. In contrast, humanistic psychologist put forward a holistic view of human nature (e.g. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and is the only approach that attempts to consider all aspects of human nature in a holistic manner, whilst promoting free will and human choice.  This is a strength because this approach uses the highest level of explanation incorporating biological, social and psychological factors to explain human behaviour. 

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Evaluations of Humanistic Approach 2

Psychology as Science – A limitation of the humanistic approach to psychology is that it is difficult to test empirically with objective measures. For example, the concept of self-actualisation is an abstract idea which would be difficult to test under experimental conditions. However, Rogers did attempt to introduce more rigour by introducing the Q-sort as a more objective measure of progress in therapy of the self-concept, ideal self and their relationship. The client is asked to arrange the cards  into an order ranging from ‘very characteristic of me’ to ‘not at all characteristic of me’. This is done to measure the self-image and then again for the ideal self. The Q-sorts are then correlated to determine the discrepancy between self-image and ideal-self. This is repeated at various points throughout the therapy. However, the approach and application in therapy still lacks empirical evidence to support its claims. This means that the theory can’t be falsified through scientific measures.

Cultural Bias – Many of the ideas that are central to humanistic psychology are only relevant to individualistic cultures in the western world. Many studies have confirmed that Europeans and Americans (individualist cultures) focus more on personal identity in defining the ‘self-concept’, whereas Chinese, Japanese and Koreans (collectivist cultures) define self-concept more in terms of social relationships. Nevis (1983) carried out a study in China and found that belongingness needs are seen as more fundamental than physiological needs and that self-actualisation is defined more in terms of contributions to the community than in terms of individual development. Therefore, it is possible that the humanistic approach is culturally relative and it’s a product of the cultural context in which it was developed.

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The Influence of Counselling Psychology

Rogers claimed that an individual’s psychological problems were a direct result of their conditions of worth and the conditional positive regard they receive from other people.  

The aim of counselling psychology (person centred therapy) therefore is to:

  • increase the person’s feelings of self-worth (how much value you place on yourself)
  • reduce the level of incongruence (the gap) between the self-image and the ideal self
  • help them become a more fully functional person.  

The therapist therefore provides empathy and unconditional positive regard.  They do this by expressing their acceptance and understanding, regardless of the feelings and attitudes the client expresses.  

By offering an appropriately supportive environment this helps dissolve the client’s conditions of worth.  The client can then move towards having a more realistic and true self, i.e. they are able to behave in a way that is true to the person they are, rather than what others want them to be.  

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Evaluation of Counselling Psychology

Usefulness of counselling psychology – A strength of counselling psychology is that it has revolutionised modern therapies in psychiatry. Seeing the individual as the expert, and referring to them as a ‘client’, rather than a ‘patient’ empowers them, as the client and therapist work closely together to facilitate growth of the self. This is a strength because the client becomes the expert on their own condition and promotes a positive image of the human condition.  As a result, this positive approach has shown to be very effective in reducing symptoms of psychological conditions such as low self-worth and lack of motivation in depressed patients. This is therefore an appropriate treatment for patients with mood and anxiety related conditions.

Effectiveness of Counselling –  A strength is that counselling psychology has been found to be effective. For example, Elliot (2002) showed in a meta-analysis of 86 studies that humanistic therapies prompted significant improvements in clients when compared to patients not receiving treatment. However, Rogers was an advocate of non-experimental methods making it impossible to verify the results of counselling as without experimental evidence, evaluation of the therapy becomes very difficult.  Some studies have shown personal growth as a result of receiving counselling psychology, but these do not show that the therapy caused the changes, a fundamental requirement of scientific psychology.

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