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Humanistic Psychology

A 20th-century movement in psychology referred to as humanistic psychology that believes that man, as an individual, is a unique being and should be recognized and treated as such by psychologists and psychiatrists. The movement grew in opposition to the two mainstream 20th-century trends in psychology, behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Humanistic psychologists believe that behaviourists are overconcerned with the scientific study and analysis of the actions of man as an organism, to the neglect of basic aspects of man as a feeling, thinking individual, and that too much effort is spent in laboratory research, which quantifies and reduces human behaviour to its elements. Humanists also take issue with the deterministic orientation of psychoanalysis, which postulates that man’s early experiences and drives determine his behaviour. Humanists tend to believe that the individual is responsible for his life and actions and may at any time creatively change his attitudes or behaviour through awareness and will. The humanist is concerned with the fullest growth of the individual in the areas of love, fulfillment, self-worth, and autonomy; maturation is considered a process during which one establishes and follows one’s own system of values. The Association for Humanistic Psychology lists five basic postulates: “man, as man, supersedes the sum of his parts; man has his being in a human context; man is aware; man has choice; and, man is intentional.”

The American psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, considered to be one of the leading architects of humanistic psychology, proposed a hierarchy of needs or drives in order of decreasing priority or potency but increasing sophistication: physiological needs, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization. Only when the more primitive needs are met can the individual progress to higher levels in the hierarchy. The person reaching self-actualization will have fully utilized his potential.

The concept of the self is a central focal point for most humanistic psychologists. In the “personal construct” theory of American psychologist George Kelly and the “self-centered” theory of American psychotherapist Carl Rogers, the individual perceives his world according to his own experience. This perception affects his personality and leads him to direct his behaviour to satisfy the needs of the total self. Rogers stresses that in the development of an individual’s personality he strives for “self-actualization (to become oneself), self-maintenance (to keep on being oneself), and self-enhancement (to transcend the status quo).”

Following the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and other existential philosophers, many humanistic psychologists adopted the existential view of the importance of being and the meaning of life. The Swiss psychiatrist and early leader of existential psychology, Ludwig Binswanger, stressed the concept of “world design,” which he considered the totality of a person’s being. Man, according to Binswanger, was not a product of his environment but its creator. Binswanger described the various “modes” of being-in-the-world. The single mode is the individual who chooses to live within himself, the loner. The dual mode occurs when two people unite in feeling for each other. Thus, “You” and “I” become “We.” The plural mode is when an individual interacts with others. Finally, the mode of anonymity occurs when an individual loses himself in a crowd or disassociates his feelings from others. The American psychologist Rollo May believed psychology had neglected the basic nature of man as a being who does the experiencing and to whom the experiences happen. To May, man’s awareness of his own mortality makes vitality and passion possible.

Humanistic psychology principles attained application during the “human potential” movement, which became popular in the United States during the 1960s. Gestalt therapy enjoyed popularity during that period, emphasizing the “here and now” (immediate present): feelings, body language, expressiveness, spontaneity, acceptance, and responsibility for oneself. Gestalt therapy, which bears little resemblance to the experimental school of Gestalt psychology of the early 20th century, adopts an essentially positive view of human beings and their potential to achieve real joy. This form of therapy, which was developed by Fritz Perls, borrowed from Gestalt psychology the concept of holism, or wholeness; the restoration of wholeness (i.e., self-realization) is the aim of its techniques.

Another influential therapy of the human psychology movement was the technique known as transactional analysis, developed by Eric Berne. As practiced by its founder, transactional analysis proved to be both a method of examining human interactions as well as a way of labeling and systematizing the information gained from observed transactions. The goal of this approach is to build a strong state of maturity by learning to recognize the “child” and “parent” aspects of personality in oneself and others.


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