Key concepts of humanistic theory

Written by james holloway | 13/05/2017
Key concepts of humanistic theory
Humanistic psychology concerns itself with the experience of being human. (Chad Baker/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Humanistic psychology is not a branch of the psychological discipline so much as it is a way of looking at human thought and behaviour. Humanistic theory originated as a reaction against other schools of psychological thought, but also draws on the heritage of ancient and Renaissance philosophy to place the individual and the individual's choices at the centre of its thinking.


Humanistic theory is sometimes called the "third force" or "third way" in psychology. The name refers to two earlier schools of thought: the first is the psychodynamic approach characterised by psychological pioneers such as Freud and Jung, while the second refers to the theories of behaviourists such as B.F. Skinner. Early humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow felt that these approaches were overly deterministic and overlooked both the role of the individual in making choices and the individual's subjective experiences.

Core concepts

The basic principles of humanistic theory have been expressed in what are known as the five basic postulates of humanistic psychology. These postulates have changed slightly over time but remain fundamentally similar to those first expressed by psychologist James Bugental in 1964. The first postulate of humanistic psychology states that "human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components." Other postulates go on to emphasise the role of society, self-awareness and creativity in human thought.


Whereas behavioural psychology depends heavily on laboratory methods, humanistic psychology tends to take a more holistic approach. Humanistic theory concerns itself with people's perceptions of the world and themselves, meaning that interview methods are a common feature of both research and therapy. Humanistic psychologists believe that quantitative methods fail to capture the complexity of the individual's worldview. Humanistic therapeutic methods are often applied not only to people suffering from mental problems but to healthy people who want to expand their problem-solving abilities or maintain mental balance.


One unusual feature of humanistic theory is that, unlike behavioural or even psychodynamic approaches, it has a strong moral component. Humanistic psychology believes that the individual, rather than being at the mercy of unconscious drives, has the ability to make choices and think creatively. Given that individuals can make decisions, they have a responsibility to make good ones. Humanistic theory argues that it is natural for humans to want to grow, express their creativity and fulfill their potential, which they regard as tending toward inherent goodness.

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