Individual Differences


Humanistic Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
14 Oct 2003

Humanism: An Introduction

Carl Rogers

Ed Deci

Abraham Maslow

Therapeutic Approach

Humanism: An Introduction

Humanism is a philosophical movement that emphasises the personal worth of the individual and the centrality of human values.  The Humanistic approach rests on the complex philosophical foundations of existentialism, and emphasizes the creative, spontaneous and active nature of human beings. This approach is  very optimistic and focusses on noble human capacity to overcome hardship and despair.

Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

The idea that we are responsible for our own lives, embodied in existentialism, is exemplified in the work of Carl Rogers. However Rogers approach was extremely OPTIMISTIC. Rogers believed that “The organism has one basic tendency and striving- to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (1951, p. 487).

Rogers believed that all people have a tendency toward growth = ‘Actualization’. The need to maintain and enhance life. The goal of existence is to satisfy this need. This desire to preserve and enhance oneself is on one level:

Physical = staying alive by eating, keeping warm, avoiding physical danger etc. On a higher level:

Psychological = self-actualization is about testing and fulfilling our capabilities: seek out new experiences, master new skills, quit boring jobs and find more exciting ones etc.

In the course of pursuing self-actualization, people engage in what Rogers called the organismic valuing process. Experiences that are perceived as enhancing to oneself are valued as good and are therefore sought after. Experiences perceived as not enhancing are valued as bad and are avoided. In other words, we know what’s good for us!

Rogers used the term Fully Functioning Person for someone who is self-actualizing. These people are OPEN TO EXPERIENCING THEIR FEELINGS, don’t feel threatened by those feelings no matter what they are. They trust their own feelings. They are open to the experiences of the world. They live lives full of meaning, challenge and fulfillment.

According to Rogers, the main determinant of whether we will become self-actualized is childhood experience. Rogers believed that it is crucial for children to receive positive regard, that is affection and approval from the important people in their lives, particularly their parents. Rogers believed it is important for us to receive unconditional positive regard, that is affection and acceptance with no strings attached. Often however, according to Rogers this regard is conditional, it comes with strings attached. To be loved and approved the child must be well-mannered, quiet, assertive, boyish, girlish, whatever. These things are incorporated as conditions of worth. If the conditions are few and reasonable then the child will be fine but if the conditions of worth are severely limiting then self-actualization will be severely impeded. According to Rogers, external conditions of worth come to control more and more of a person's behaviour. We even start to apply these conditions to ourselves. This pattern of self-acceptance and self-rejection is called conditional self-regard. Eventually, a gap opens between a person’s actions and his or her true self. The person automatically covers over the split with perceptual distortions, denying the conflict between self and reality. Rogers felt that theses distortions can become so severe that they may lead to personality breakdown.

Rogers: Self congruence

Rogers is sometimes called a self-theorist. He assumed that the self doesn't exist at birth but that infants gradually differentiate self from non-self.  The self is constantly evolving.

One way of looking at the self is to look at the ideal self and the actual self:

The ideal self is the person you’d like to be

The actual self is what you are now or even what you THINK you are because remember from this perspective it’s all about subjective perceptions.

When you are self-actualized then there is congruence (i.e. harmony or agreement) between the real and the actual selves. That is you become more like the self you want to be.

There’s a second kind of congruence and that is between the actual self and experience. That is the experiences in life should fit with the type of person you think you are.  So there will be incongruity if you think you’re generous but find yourself being mean to someone or if you think your ruthless and you find yourself being soft and mushy.  If you think you’re clever and do badly in a test there will be incongruence.

Incongruence is bad and means there is a breakdown in your unitary sense of self. Incongruence leads to anxiety, whether the incongruence is between actual & real self or between actual self and experience. Rogers believed we defend ourselves against incongruence or even the perceptions of incongruence.

Rogers: Incongruence and Defenses

This concept of defenses is very similar to the psychodynamic concept. Rogers assumes 2 main categories of defenses:

1. DISTORTION OF EXPERIENCE: An example is rationalization: creating a plausible but untrue reason for why something is the way it is. OR another distortion of experience is when you try to change you perception of an event from what you really know it to be: you go out with someone other than your partner but tell yourself that it doesn’t matter because your partner won’t mind.


Ultimately, defenses are there to maintain the congruity or integrity of self. Defenses protect and enhance our self-esteem.

Ed Deci (1975) - Self-Determination (Autonomy)

Rogers’ ideas are echoed in a more recent theory of self-determination proposed by Ed Deci (1975) and expanded upon by Deci and Richard Ryan (1980, 1985, 1987, 1991, 1995).

Some actions we perform are done to gain payment or to satisfy someone else (their pressures or demands on us). These are known as CONTROLLED actions (or introjected regulation). These are “should”, “ought”: behaviour done to avoid guilt or anxiety, gain self-approval, etc.

Some actions we perform are done so because they have intrinsic value to the person, These are known as SELF-DETERMINED actions (identified regulation). This is behaviour which is accepted as personally meaningful and valuable We stay interested in performing a behaviour if it’s self-determined. e.g. you’re more likely to stick with this course and study hard if you are doing it because it has intrinsic value for you, rather if it’s what your parents want you to do or even if it’s because you think it will result in a good job and therefore you pressure yourself.

There’s a wealth of evidence that shows that promising someone rewards for working on an activity can undermine people’s interest in them (intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation).  However, sometimes the presence of reward can increase motivation. Deci argues that this is because reward has 2 aspects: a controlling (non self-determined) aspect and an informational aspect. The informational aspect tells you something about your skills. If the reward is telling you you’re competent then it increases your motivation but if the reward implies conditions of worth then the controlling aspect is more salient and motivation decreases.

In other words, people are motivated by self-determination and autonomy. WHY a person has various motivations to do things, rather than what the aspirations are, is the key to self-actualization.

Maslow (1970, 1987) - Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow began his psychological research studying basic motivations of animals, but then shifted his focus to the higher motivations of human beings.  Abraham Maslow, like Rogers, focussed on the positive. He was interested in the qualities of people who get the most out of life. He was interested in what motivates them (but his view of motivation was very different from what we looked at in the dispositional perspective).

Hierarchy of Needs

He viewed human needs or motives as forming a hierarchy.

1. PHYSIOLOGICAL NEEDS: At the bottom are the basic, primitive needs for air, food, water - those things we HAVE to have to survive

2. SAFETY AND PHYSICAL SECURITY NEEDS: shelter from weather, protection against tigers etc. Very important but not QUITE as important as the physiological needs.

3. LOVE AND BELONGINGNESS NEEDS: Companionship, acceptance from others (like Rogers’ positive regard), affection.

4. ESTEEM NEEDS: needs for a sense of mastery and power. Need for appreciation from others.

5. SELF ACTUALIZATION: similar use of the term to the way Rogers used it. “The tendency to become whatever you’re capable of becoming”: The highest of human motives. In trying to describe the process of self-actualization, Maslow focused on moments when self actualization was clearly occurring. Maslow used the term “peak experiences” to refer to moments of intense self-actualization.  At these moments people feel connected to their surroundings and aware of all the sounds and colours around them. There’s a loss of a sense of time as the experience flows around you. You may feel awe, wonder or even ecstasy. This is similar to what Csikszentmihalyi (chick-sent-me-high) calls “flow” but he sees it not so much as joy or ecstasy but rather as a period of intense concentration, with a slightly elevated mood when time flows by very quickly.

Motives WEAKEN as go from the more primitive to the higher needs (up the pyramid).  In general you need to deal with lower level needs before you can move onto other needs.

Maslow: Self-Actualizing People

Characteristics of self-actualized people according to Maslow (1968):

  • efficient and accurate in perceiving reality

  • are accepting of themselves, of other people and of nature

  • are spontaneous in thought and emotion, rather than artificial

  • are problem-centred - are concerned with the eternal philosophical questions of humankind

  • are independent and autonomous

  • have a continued “freshness of appreciation” of ordinary events

  • often experience “oceanic feelings” that is a sense of oneness with nature

  • identify with all of humanity and are democratic and respectful of others

  • form very deep ties but only with a few people

  • appreciate for its own sake the process of doing things

  • have a philosophical, thoughtful, non-hostile sense of humour

  • have a childlike and fresh creativity and inventiveness

  • maintain an inner detachment from the culture in which they live

  • may appear temperamental or ruthless as they are strong and independent people guided by their own inner visions

Maslow suggested that from his observations “probable” self-actualizers included:

Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Aldous Huxley, Baruch Spinoza, Abe Lincoln

Studies have shown that only approximately 1% of people self-actualize. Most others live between ‘love and belongingness’ needs and ‘self-esteem’ needs. Self-actualization is of course the weakest of needs, and is easily impeded. Some people have a fear of self-knowledge & entering into state of uncertainty. Sometimes cultural norms stifle us e.g. ‘manly’. Many people feel the need for a balance between safety and freedom.

Maslow: Transpersonal Psychology (1971)

Maslow proposed a ‘higher psychology’ which he called Transpersonal psychology = beyond human. Toward the end of his life, Maslow made a distinction between two different kinds of self-actualizers. The type I’ve just described and others he called “transcendent self-actualizers”. These people focus on mystical, ecstatic, spiritual states, cosmic awareness, unitive consciousness, etc. Self-actualization becomes the most important aspect of their lives. They are motivated by beauty, truth, unity, religiosity. All experience is sacred to them.

Maslow: Problems of measuring self-actualisation

Maslow used interviews, observations, biographical studies, self-report questionnaires and projective tests to “measure” self-actualization. It was and is a very loose approach to measurement. It’s hard for theorists to agree precisely WHAT self-actualization is and HOW to measure it. In other words it’s not been tightly defined and operationalised. The concept of self actualization provides some very interesting insights but it is hard to actually verify self-actualization scientifically.  One scale, the Personal Orientation Inventory (POI) by Shostrom (1974), is a self-report measure of self-actualization . research using this measure finds the scale has various validity and reliability weaknesses but does at least capture some aspects of a “healthy” personality (e.g. Burwick & Knapp, 1991).

Therapeutic Approach

While humanistic and existential psychology both stress freedom, they understand it slightly differently. For humanists, freedom is liberation from limiting conditions of worth: once achieved that will lead to self-actualization

Rogers ‘Client-centred Therapy’ (1951)

The best known and probably the most popular humanistic therapy is Rogers “client-centred therapy”.  Remember that Rogers believed that human beings are intrinsically good and are motivated to self-actualize. Self-actualization may be impeded by conditions of worth so they need to be removed. REMOVING these conditions of worth is the way to solve people’s problems. Client centred therapy is the means to that end. Treatment is focussed on the INDIVIDUAL. The therapist tries to see the world through the client’s eyes so that the client will come to see his or her view of reality as having value. The therapist empathizes with the client and offers unconditional positive regard i.e. UNLIMITED ACCEPTANCE. By doing this, the therapist hopes to induce the client to accept the totality of his or her experience and thus facilitate unconditional positive SELF-regard.

The therapist “hears” the client by mirroring back the message they are getting from the client. They restate the content and state the feelings they are picking up from the client. This process helps the client clarify their feelings and not to feel threatened when doing so. The touchstones of this approach are EMPATHY, INTUITION, and UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD. Ultimately the client is responsible for his or her own growth - the therapist just helps to facilitate this process. .

Therapeutic Approach: ‘Group-based Growth and Therapy’

Other types of “therapy” based on the phenomenological approach to personality (whether existential or humanistic) are group-based therapies. These growth groups offered something lacking in everyday life at work, school, church, and within the community. Some examples of various groups based on this tradition are:

  • Encounter Groups

  • Gestalt Groups

  • Sensitivity Training Groups

  • Marathon Groups

  • Sensory Awareness Groups, Body Awareness Groups, Body Movement Groups

  • Creativity Workshops

  • Team Building Groups

  • Experiential Education (e.g. Adventure programs)

Many of these groups are not really therapy as such but are just meant to be beneficial to all. Encounter groups, which were very popular in the 60s are given this name because the group helps people encounter the reality of their own experiences more directly.

Although each type of group is different there are some important similar features:

  • Encouraging people to get in touch with their feelings

  • Encouraging people to get in touch with their sensory experiences

  • Encouraging people to act out fantasies, impulses and feelings within the group atmosphere of mutual trust (safe place for change and growth) and unconditional positive regard

  • They offer social support, empathy, encouragement, feedback

  • Exploration of possible new ways of being socially, psychologically, and physically. The idea being to transfer this growth to the rest of life.

  • Generally, this type of therapy is more likely to be beneficial than not but not as good as individual therapy. Better if the leaders use caring rather than confrontation. Group leaders need to be properly trained or there can be negative effects. Not marvellous for people experiencing SEVERE psychological distress.

  • The dark side to this process is deindividuation - absorption in the group and a lessened sense of individuality. This is the possible outcome of some of these groups. Deindiviuation has a number of negative consequences such as aggressive and antisocial behaviour