Some psychologists at the time disliked psychodynamic and behaviorist explanations of personality. They felt that these theories ignored the qualities that make humans unique among animals, such as striving for self-determination and self-realization. In the 1950s, some of these psychologists began a school of psychology called humanism.
Humanistic psychologists try to see people’s lives as those people would see them. They tend to have an optimistic perspective on human nature. They focus on the ability of human beings to think consciously and rationally, to control their biological urges, and to achieve their full potential. In the humanistic view, people are responsible for their lives and actions and have the freedom and will to change their attitudes and behavior.
Two psychologists, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, became well known for their humanistic theories.
Abraham Maslow’s Theory
The highest rung on Abraham Maslow’s ladder of human motives is the need for self-actualization. Maslow said that human beings strive for self-actualization, or realization of their full potential, once they have satisfied their more basic needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory is described on page 247.
Maslow also provided his own account of the healthy human personality. Psychodynamic theories tend to be based on clinical case studies and therefore lack accounts of healthy personalities. To come up with his account, Maslow studied exceptional historical figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as some of his own contemporaries whom he thought had exceptionally good mental health.
Maslow described several characteristics that self-actualizing people share:
- Awareness and acceptance of themselves
- Openness and spontaneity
- The ability to enjoy work and see work as a mission to fulfill
- The ability to develop close friendships without being overly dependent on other people
- A good sense of humor
- The tendency to have peak experiences that are spiritually or emotionally satisfying
Carl Rogers’s Person-Centered Theory
Carl Rogers, another humanistic psychologist, proposed a theory called the person-centered theory. Like Freud, Rogers drew on clinical case studies to come up with his theory. He also drew from the ideas of Maslow and others. In Rogers’s view, the self-concept is the most important feature of personality, and it includes all the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs people have about themselves. Rogers believed that people are aware of their self-concepts.
Congruence and Incongruence
Rogers said that people’s self-concepts often do not exactly match reality. For example, a person may consider himself to be very honest but often lies to his boss about why he is late to work. Rogers used the term incongruence to refer to the discrepancy between the self-concept and reality. Congruence, on the other hand, is a fairly accurate match between the self-concept and reality.
According to Rogers, parents promote incongruence if they give their children conditional love. If a parent accepts a child only when the child behaves a particular way, the child is likely to block out experiences that are considered unacceptable. On the other hand, if the parent shows unconditional love, the child can develop congruence. Adults whose parents provided conditional love would continue in adulthood to distort their experiences in order to feel accepted.
Results of Incongruence
Rogers thought that people experience anxiety when their self-concepts are threatened. To protect themselves from anxiety, people distort their experiences so that they can hold on to their self-concept. People who have a high degree of incongruence are likely to feel very anxious because reality continually threatens their self-concepts.
Example: Erin believes she is a very generous person, although she is often stingy with her money and usually leaves small tips or no tips at restaurants. When a dining companion comments on her tipping behavior, she insists that the tips she leaves are proportional to the service she gets. By attributing her tipping behavior to bad service, she can avoid anxiety and maintain her self-concept of being generous.
Criticisms of Humanistic Theories
Humanistic theories have had a significant influence on psychology as well as pop culture. Many psychologists now accept the idea that when it comes to personality, people’s subjective experiences have more weight than objective reality. Humanistic psychologists’ focus on healthy people, rather than troubled people, has also been a particularly useful contribution.
However, critics of humanistic theories maintain several arguments:
- Humanistic theories are too naïvely optimistic and fail to provide insight into the evil side of human nature.
- Humanistic theories, like psychodynamic theories, cannot be easily tested.
- Many concepts in humanistic psychology, like that of the self-actualized person, are vague and subjective. Some critics argue that this concept may reflect Maslow’s own values and ideals.
- Humanistic psychology is biased toward individualistic values.