What separates us from animals? Our opposable thumbs? Our complex language? The fact that we farm our own food? In the world of early personality psychology, not much separates us from animals. Experiments were conducted on animals and the conclusions were applied to humans. Many psychologists found this process to be demeaning and ultimately pessimistic. Are we just trained monkeys in a zoo? Are we Pavlov’s dogs? Do we have any control over our personality and who we become?
Enter Abraham Maslow, the father of the humanistic perspective on personality. His theory separates humans from animals and offers hope that humans can exercise control over personality traits and behaviors that they want to change.
What is the Humanistic Theory of Personality?
According to Abraham Maslow, people developed their personality by fulfilling each of their needs in a hierarchical fashion. Combining aspects of the behavioralist movement and the pessimism of psychoanalysis, the humanistic theory explains how people are malleable and their personality traits are subject to their current needs.
If you have heard Maslow’s name before, you’re one step closer to understanding the humanistic perspective. Maslow created the Hierarchy of Needs. This theory shows the evolution of a human’s needs, from the most basic (food, shelter, water) to the more complex (safety, self-esteem, love and belonging.) As we satisfy our most basic needs, we are motivated to seek out the more complex needs at the top of the pyramid.
At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. Self-actualization is the process by which people fulfill their potential for internal growth. Call it enlightenment, call it personal development...but whatever you call it, it’s the final thing we are motivated to seek in life.
Self-Actualize: The process by which people fulfill their potential for goodness and maximize internal growth.
How does this tie into personality? Maslow started to develop these theories in response to the more negative and pessimistic views on personality at the time. Many behaviorists believed that humans have little control over their personalities and can be subjected to conditioning, just like any other species of animal on the planet. Maslow disagreed. He believed that humans could take control of their personalities as they attempted to achieve self-actualization.
Carl Rogers and Humanism
In order to work toward self-actualization, humans have to reflect on who they are currently and what they need to change or do to move forward. Carl Rogers was a humanist psychologist who focused on this process. He agreed with Maslow’s theories, but pushed further to study how people try to satisfy these complex needs.
When a person thinks about their personality, they may tell themselves that they are honest, generous, and agreeable. These traits are all subjective and may not be the way that other people see the person’s deeds or personality. This disconnect, or incongruence, can prevent people from reaching self-actualization and can cause anxiety.
How does this happen? Our brains can be very picky about what they choose to see, process, and remember. A person who only believes they are agreeable may unconsciously choose to remember positive, agreeable interactions or misinterpret situations in which they were not actually displaying agreeable behavior.
Where does incongruence come from? How can we develop a more objective sense of ourselves in the world and reach self-actualization?
For the answers to these questions, Maslow and Rogers studied people who they believe reached some form of self-actualization. These people were successful and spent their lives working to elevate humanity.
This approach of studying healthy, successful people was a big change in the world of personality psychology. Behaviorists and other personality psychologists at the time turned to study people who had made poor decisions in their life or had poor mental health. Humanists took a more optimistic approach with their subjects.
So what do people need to become self-actualized and positive members of society? Rogers concluded that people need to live in environment with the following qualities:
- Opportunities for self-disclosure
If someone grew up in this type of environment, they are more likely to hold congruent views of themselves that match how the rest of the world sees them. Conversely, if someone grew up in a more hostile or negative environment, they are more likely to only see the things that they want to see.
Rogers uses the example of parents showing conditional vs. unconditional love. When children grew up in a household with unconditional love, they were more likely to hold congruent views of themselves and be on a path toward self-actualization. The children who received conditional love were more likely to block out times in which they were not loved. This pattern is likely to continue as an adult; the process of only seeing parts of a situation or misconstruing a situation is likely to continue unless they are put in a more positive environment.
How Humanism Affects Us Today
Remember, the humanistic approach to personality is very positive. Humanists believe that with openness, empathy, and a genuinely positive environments, anyone can start to develop congruent views of themselves and move forward toward self-actualization.
Humanistic psychology has had a very positive impact on the world of psychology. People can visit a therapist that uses a humanist approach to their practice. This is often called Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapists use an approach that views patient and therapist as equals. The therapist, rather than being an authority figure that looks down upon their patient, emphasizes. They use humanist ideas to create a positive environment that focuses on the present rather than incidents from the past.
The process of discovering that your view of ourselves may be incongruent with the world isn’t always easy. Supportive friends, groups, or therapists are crucial to understanding where you fit in the world. Think about how you see yourself and how you behave when friends or family try to offer opposing perspectives. How does this behavior contribute to your overall personality? How can you create and put yourself in an environment that encourages an open, genuine look at yourself through the eyes of the world?