Humanistic, humanism and humanist are terms in psychology relating to an approach which studies the whole person and the uniqueness of each individual.  Essentially, these terms refer to the same approach in psychology.

Humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasizes looking at the the whole person, and the uniqueness of each individual. Humanistic psychology begins with the existential assumptions that people have free will and are motivated to acheive their potential and self-actualize.

The humanistic approach in psychology developed as a rebellion against what some psychologists saw as the limitations of the behaviorist and psychodynamic psychology.

The humanistic approach is thus often called the “third force” in psychology after psychoanalysis and behaviorism (Maslow, 1968).

Humanism rejected the assumptions of the behaviorist perspective which is characterized as deterministic, focused on reinforcement of stimulus-response behavior and heavily dependent on animal research.

Humanistic psychology also rejected the psychodynamic approach because it is also deterministic, with unconscious irrational and instinctive forces determining human thought and behavior.  Both behaviorism and psychoanalysis are regarded as dehumanizing by humanistic psychologists.

Humanistic psychology expanded its influence throughout the 1970s and the 1980s.  Its impact can be understood in terms of three major areas:

1) It offered a new set of values for approaching an understanding of human nature and the human condition.

2) It offered an expanded horizon of methods of inquiry in the study of human behavior.

3) It offered a broader range of more effective methods in the professional practice of psychotherapy.


Maslow’s humanistic theory of personality states that people achieve their full potential by moving from basic needs to self-actualization.

Often called the “third force” in psychology, humanism was a reaction to both the pessimistic determinism of psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on psychological disturbance, and to the behaviorists’ view of humans passively reacting to the environment. Two of the leading humanistic theorists who made advancements in the field of personality psychology were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

Abraham Maslow’s Humanism

As a leader of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow approached the study of personality psychology by focusing on subjective experiences and free will. He was mainly concerned with an individual’s innate drive toward self-actualization—a state of fulfillment in which a person is achieving at his or her highest level of capability. Maslow positioned his work as a vital complement to that of Freud, saying: “It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.”

In his research, Maslow studied the personalities of people who he considered to be healthy, creative, and productive, including Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and others. He found that such people share similar characteristics, such as being open, creative, loving, spontaneous, compassionate, concerned for others, and accepting of themselves.

Personality and the Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow is perhaps most well-known for his hierarchy of needs theory, in which he proposes that human beings have certain needs in common and that these needs must be met in a certain order. These needs range from the most basic physiological needs for survival to higher-level self-actualization and transcendence needs. Maslow’s hierarchy is most often presented visually as a pyramid, with the largest, most fundamental physiological needs at the bottom and the smallest, most advanced self-actualization needs at the top. Each layer of the pyramid must be fulfilled before moving up the pyramid to higher needs, and this process is continued throughout the lifespan.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Abraham Maslow developed a human hierarchy of needs that is conceptualized as a pyramid to represent how people move from one level of needs to another. First physiological needs must be met before safety needs, then the need for love and belonging, then esteem, and finally self-actualization.

Maslow believed that successful fulfillment of each layer of needs was vital in the development of personality. The highest need for self-actualization represents the achievement of our fullest potential, and those individuals who finally achieved self-actualization were said to represent optimal psychological health and functioning. Maslow stretched the field of psychological study to include fully-functional individuals instead of only those with psychoses, and he shed a more positive light on personality psychology.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological Needs

They consist of needs for oxygen, food, water, and a relatively constant body temperature. They are the strongest needs because if a person were deprived of all needs, the physiological ones would come first in the person’s search for satisfaction. We need these for basic survival. Maslow’s theory said that you need to satisfy first the basic needs like Physiological needs and Safety needs, to get motivation to truly attain the higher-level needs like social needs and esteem.

Safety Needs

When all physiological needs are satisfied and no longer dominating our thoughts and behaviors, we progress to safety needs. A person’s attention turns to safety and security for himself/ herself to be free from the threat of physical and emotional harm.

Such needs might be fulfilled by:

Living in a safe area

Medical insurance

Job security

Financial reserves

These include the need for security. We often have little awareness of these, except in times of emergency & disorganization in social structure (war time, terrorist acts, domestic violence, natural disasters). Maslow’s hierarchy said that, if a person feels that he or she is in harm’s way, higher needs would not be attained that quickly.

Belongingness & Love needs

When a person has attained the lower level like Physiological and Safety needs, higher level needs become important, the first of which are social needs. Social needs are those related to interaction with other people like:

Need for friends

Need for belonging

Need to give and receive love

When safety and physiological needs are met, we desire, to be loved by others and to belong. Maslow states that people seek to overcome feelings of loneliness & alienation. This involves both giving & receiving love, affection & the sense of belonging (family, friends, social groups).

Esteem Needs

After the first 3 classes of needs are met, the needs for esteem can become dominant. These involve needs for both self-esteem & for the esteem a person gets from others. Esteem needs may be classified as internal or external. Self respect and achievement are some examples of Internal esteem needs. Social status and recognition are some examples of External esteem needs. Some esteem needs are:






Humans have a need for a stable, firmly based, high level of self-respect, & respect from others.

When these needs are satisfied, the person feels self-confident & valuable as a person in the world. When these needs are frustrated, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless & worthless.

Misconceptions about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow himself agreed that his 5-level need hierarchy oversimplifies the relationship between needs & behavior. The order of needs makes sense for most of us, though there may be some notable exceptions (e.g., some people need to satisfy their needs for self-esteem & respect before they can enter a love relationship).

Deficiency Needs

It has been stated in the earlier discussion that the first four levels of needs are called deficit needs, or D-needs. If you don’t have enough of something, then it is said that you have a deficit that is you feel the need. But if you get all you need, you feel nothing at all! In other words, they cease to be motivating. He also talks about these levels in terms of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the principle by which the bodily system (thermostat) operates. In other words, when it gets too cold, the thermostat switches the heat on and when it gets too hot, it switches the heat off. In the same way, human body, when it lacks a certain substance, develops a hunger for it; when it gets enough of it, then the hunger stops.

Maslow simply extends this homeostatic principle to needs, such as safety, belongingness, and esteem about which we do not ordinarily think of in these terms. In terms of overall development, we move through these levels a bit like stages.

As newborns, our focus (if not our entire set of needs) is on the satisfaction of the physiological needs. Soon, we begin to recognise that we need to be safe. Soon after that, we crave attention and affection. A bit later, we look for selfesteem. Mind you, this is in the first couple of years! Under stressful conditions, or when survival is threatened, we can “regress” to a lower need level. When you find that your great career falls flat, you might seek out a little attention. When your family decides to leave you, it seems that love is again all you ever wanted. If you have significant problems along your development, that is a period of extreme insecurity such as hunger as a child, or the loss of a family member through death or divorce, or significant neglect or abuse, it is possible that one may “fixate” on that set of needs for the rest of one’s life.

Growth Needs

Maslow has used a variety of terms to refer to the last level of needs. He has called it growth motivation (in contrast to deficit motivation). They are called the being needs (or B-needs, in contrast to D-needs), and self-actualisation. These are needs that do not involve balance or homeostasis. They involve the continuous desire to fulfill potentials, to “be all that you can be”. If you want to be truly self-actualising, you need to have your lower needs taken care of, at least to a considerable extent. This makes sense, which is if you are hungry, you are scrambling to get food; if you are unsafe, you have to be continuously on guard; if you are isolated and unloved, you have to satisfy that need; if you have a low sense of self-esteem, you have to be defensive or compensate. When lower needs are unmet, you can not fully devote yourself to fulfilling your potentials.

The question becomes, of course, what exactly Maslow means by selfactualisation. To answer that, we need to look at the kind of people he called self-actualised persons. Fortunately, he did this for us, using a qualitative method called biographical analysis. He began by picking out a group of people, some historical figures, some people he knew, whom he felt clearly met the standard of self-actualisation. Included in this august group were Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Adams, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Benedict Spinoza, and Alduous Huxley, plus 12 unnamed people who were alive at the time Maslow did his research. He then looked at their biographies, writings, the acts and words of those he knew personally, and so on. From these sources, he developed a list of qualities that seemed characteristic of these people, as opposed to the great mass of us.

The expanded hierarchy of needs

It is important to note that Maslow's (1943, 1954) five-stage model has been expanded to include cognitive and aesthetic needs (Maslow, 1970a) and later transcendence needs (Maslow, 1970b).

Changes to the original five-stage model are highlighted and include a seven-stage model and an eight-stage model; both developed during the 1960s and 1970s.

1. Biological and physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.

3. Love and belongingness needs - friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work).

4. Esteem needs - which Maslow classified into two categories: (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g., status, prestige).

5. Cognitive needs - knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability.

6. Aesthetic needs - appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

7. Self-actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. A desire “to become everything one is capable of becoming”(Maslow, 1987, p. 64).

8. Transcendence needs - A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self (e.g., mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith, etc.).

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid


Need for Self-Actualization

When all of the foregoing needs are satisfied, then & only then are the needs for self-actualization activated. The last necessity is the Self Actualization or Fulfillment Needs. This includes purposed, personal growth, and the full realization of one’s potentials. This is the point where people start becoming fully functional, acting purely on their own volition, and having a healthy personality.

Maslow describes self-actualization as a person’s need to be & do that which the person was “born to do.” “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write.”

These needs make themselves felt in signs of restlessness (person feels edgy, tense, lacking something, restless.)

The person must be true to his or her own nature, be what you are meant to be.

Maslow believed that very few people reach the state of self-actualization. Although we all have the need to move toward the goal of reaching our full potential, other needs may get in the way.

Characteristics of Self-Actualizers

Maslow viewed self-actualizers as the supreme achievers in the human race. He studied stand-out individuals in order to better understand what characteristics they possessed that allowed them to achieve self-actualization. In his research, he found that many of these people shared certain personality traits.

Most self-actualizers had a great sense of awareness, maintaining a near-constant enjoyment and awe of life. They often described peak experiences during which they felt such an intense degree of satisfaction that they seemed to transcend themselves. They actively engaged in activities that would bring about this feeling of unity and meaningfulness. Despite this fact, most of these individuals seemed deeply rooted in reality and were active problem-seekers and solvers. They developed a level of acceptance for what could not be changed and a level of spontaneity and resilience to tackle what could be changed. Most of these people had healthy relationships with a small group with which they interacted frequently. According to Maslow, self-actualized people indicate a coherent personality syndrome and represent optimal psychological health and functioning.

According to Maslow, people who are self actualised, were

1) Reality-centered, which means they could differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is real and genuine.

2) Problem-centered, meaning they treated life’s difficulties as problems demanding solutions, not as personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to.

3) Had a different perception of means and ends. They felt that the ends do not necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves, and that the means, that is the journey was often more important than the ends.

4) Had different ways of relating to others. First, they enjoyed solitude, and were comfortable being alone. And they enjoyed deeper personal relations with a few close friends and family members, rather than more shallow relationships with many people.

5) Enjoyed autonomy, a relative independence from physical and social needs.

6) Resisted enculturation, that is, they were not susceptible to social pressure to be “well adjusted” or to “fit in” . They were, in fact, nonconformists in the best sense.

7) Had an unhostile sense of humor. They preferred to joke at their own expense, or at the human condition, and never directing their humor at others.

8) Had a quality of acceptance of self and others, by which he meant that these people would be more likely to take you as you are than try to change you into what they thought you should be. This same acceptance applied to their attitudes towards themselves: If some quality of theirs wasn’t harmful, they let it be, even enjoying it as a personal quirk.

9) They were often strongly motivated to change negative qualities in themselves that could be changed.

10) They possessed qualities such as spontaneity and simplicity.

11) They preferred being themselves rather than being pretentious or artificial.

12) They had a sense of humility and respect towards others — something Maslow also called democratic value.

13) They had a quality Maslow called human kinship, that is social interest, compassion, and humanity.

14) Were strong in their ethical behaviours.

15) They were spiritual but never conventionally religious in nature.

16) They had a certain freshness of appreciation, an ability to see things, even ordinary things, with wonder.

17) They had the ability to be creative, inventive, and original.

18) They tended to have more peak experiences than the average person.

Educational applications

Maslow's (1962) hierarchy of needs theory has made a major contribution to teaching and classroom management in schools. Rather than reducing behavior to a response in the environment, Maslow (1970a) adopts a holistic approach to education and learning.

Maslow looks at the complete physical, emotional, social, and intellectual qualities of an individual and how they impact on learning.

Applications of Maslow's hierarchy theory to the work of the classroom teacher are obvious. Before a student's cognitive needs can be met, they must first fulfill their basic physiological needs.

For example, a tired and hungry student will find it difficult to focus on learning. Students need to feel emotionally and physically safe and accepted within the classroom to progress and reach their full potential.

Maslow suggests students must be shown that they are valued and respected in the classroom, and the teacher should create a supportive environment. Students with a low self-esteem will not progress academically at an optimum rate until their self-esteem is strengthened.

Criticism of Maslow’s Theories

Maslow’s ideas have been criticized for their lack of scientific rigor. As with all early psychological studies, questions have been raised about the lack of empirical evidence used in his research. Because of the subjective nature of the study, the holistic approach allows for a great deal of variation but does not identify enough constant variables in order to be researched with true accuracy. Psychologists also worry that such an extreme focus on the subjective experience of the individual does little to explain or appreciate the impact of society on personality development. Furthermore, the hierarchy of needs has been accused of cultural bias—mainly reflecting Western values and ideologies. Critics argue that this concept is considered relative to each culture and society and cannot be universally applied.