Behaviorist and Humanistic Perspectives

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Behaviorism is one of the most popular psychological perspectives of all time. John Watson is considered to be the founder of the behaviorist movement, as he was the first one to narrow down the field of psychology research. According to Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan (2018), Watson believed that introspection was useless and that the environment did not have any specific impact on a person’s development. The focus on behaviors was necessary because the latter were repetitive and could be met in adults just as often as they had been replicated during childhood (Rathus, 2021). Thus, Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan (2018) claimed that there was a persisting idea in the works of numerous behaviorists that reinforcement, classical conditioning, and operant conditioning were important for a better understanding of human psychology.

Even though humanistic psychology is not as well-known as its behaviorism counterpart, it still had a major impact on contemporary approaches to assessing individuals and their behaviors. One of the foundational works in humanistic psychology was completed by Abraham Maslow, who developed the hierarchy of human needs (Khaleque, 2021). Hence, the main areas of research covered in humanistic psychology are self-actualization and human potential. Henley (2018) also highlights the role of empathy in terms of sustaining human existence and performance. Numerous humanistic works were unfairly criticized, but the impact those had on the development of the field of psychology could be deemed unmatched since there are concepts that are beyond a person’s understanding.

The Characteristics of the Behaviorist Perspective

The history of behaviorist psychology began with the advent of doubts that were contrary to the fundamentalist perspective and comparative psychology. The first works in the field of behaviorism were written by John Watson, who criticized the focus on introspection and came out with a hypothesis that human behaviors were the most important concept in the field of psychology (Rathus, 2021). Therefore, one of the primary tasks that behaviorists tried to attain was to reduce the prevalence of imagery, mental states, and consciousness. It was central for them to see how stimuli and responses could lead to habit formation instead (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2018). Therefore, it was essential for behaviorists to ensure that observable phenomena would become more significant than a fixation on the unconscious. Watson became the pioneer in studying emotional response and conditioning, especially with his breakthrough study with Little Albert, where he investigated the child’s response to fear.

Accordingly, it was more important for behaviorists to highlight the role of nurture and not nature. The process of upbringing had to be a much more powerful condition that affected humans later in life when they transitioned from childhood into adulthood (Rathus, 2021). Behaviorists considered the environment nearly impractical when reviewing the impact on one’s behaviors and attitudes. Even though Watson was rather stringent in terms of his applications of the behaviorist approach (he did not hug or tell his children he loved them because he thought it would weaken them), his contribution to the field of psychology is undisputed. Lefrancois (2019) noted the importance of operant conditioning and classical conditioning in the works of Watson’s followers, such as B. F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. Thus, the primary concept that serves as a unique feature of behaviorism is the ability to achieve learned behaviors in both animals and humans.

Modern psychology often resorts to the key principles and notions of behaviorism. Often, added stimuli and unrewarded behaviors are investigated in the literature to see how humans shape their attitudes and actions (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2018). Most importantly, the behaviorist perspective gave rise to studies in other fields of psychology, such as humanism.

The Characteristics of the Humanistic Perspective

One of the main reasons why the humanistic perspective appeared in the field of psychology was the lack of trust humanist psychologists displayed toward the ideas popularized by behaviorists and psychoanalysts. Thus, the primary difference between the behaviorist and humanistic movements is the willingness of the latter to focus on the whole self instead of looking into one’s behaviors (Henley, 2018). For example, there were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who believed that human behavior could not be compared to animals and machinery. Humanists also tried to overrun Watson’s idea that the entire society’s behaviors could be altered in one take (Khaleque, 2021). Accordingly, it was also important for the representatives of the humanist perspective to step away from the fixation on unconscious forces. Consistent with Morrison-Valfre (2017), the key points of humanism were free will and responsibility, which could also be met in existentialism. The concept of uniqueness was fundamental to humanistic psychologists because one’s inherent characteristics could help overcome different lifestyle obstacles. Khaleque (2021) also claimed that emotions should be included in the discussion of one’s behaviors and individual development.

Maslow’s works in the areas of self-actualization and the hierarchy of needs allowed Rogers to develop person-centered psychotherapy and focus more on the concept of the emerging self. It was an important step for the humanistic perspective in psychology because Rogers’ hypotheses revolved around the human tendency to maintain psychological and biological functions and enhance certain behaviors (Henley, 2018). One’s genuine self could be developed only in the case where proper nurturing was in place and parents showcased unconditional love toward their children. According to Morrison-Valfre (2017), one of the core ideas that differentiate the humanistic perspective was the presence of parent-child relationships that would be based on caring attitudes, trust, and the absence of the feeling of being threatened. A certain level of self-actualization would be required to achieve positive personal outcomes and establish harmonious interpersonal relationships. When Rogers’ person-centered therapy first appeared, it became evident that the behaviorist views were reworked into a framework where the client had to take responsibility for their actions (Morrison-Valfre, 2017). The humanist perspective suggests that people become stronger when accepting individual errands.

Overall, the humanistic approach to psychology went beyond mere counseling and shaped the future years of development of psychological science. Even though behaviorist views are rather prevalent, it was the humanistic perspective that reshaped the process of helping clients and making them accept the responsibilities that have been previously assigned to counselors (Khaleque, 2021). The concept of self-actualization became one of the essential variables that created the gap between the behaviorist and humanistic outlooks on psychology.

Similarities between Behavioral and Humanistic Perspectives

Even though there are numerous differences between the two psychological perspectives, there are also several similarities that have to be highlighted in order to validate their importance for the field of psychology in general. For instance, the inherent willingness to contribute to the creation of a better world might be one of the core similarities entrenched in the behavioral and humanistic perspectives (Henley, 2018). It means that the excessive focus on individualism that is met in humanism can be replicated by behaviorists in order to suggest changes that might be necessary to achieve better results in all domains of life.

Another significant similarity that can be pointed out is the step that both perspectives took to focus on the person in question instead of continuing to study the unconscious (Rathus, 2021). Thus, human behavior had to be accepted as a function that revolved around the possible ways of validating one’s beliefs, feelings, and deeds. According to Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan (2018), supporters of behaviorist and humanistic perspectives allowed for a smoother transition from the foundation created by the forefathers of psychological theories to contemporary views on human behaviors and individual needs.


The unique nature of behaviorism and humanism has turned them into the two arguably most discussed perspectives in psychology. Behaviorism, for example, took an individual approach to human psychology and focused on how childhood upbringing and behaviors shaped human attitudes and behaviors during adulthood. On the other hand, the humanistic perspective revolved around the concept of ‘self’ and how it was a central contributor to one’s existence. From the concept of free will to self-actualization and empowerment, both perspectives encompassed a number of values that are important to the people of today just as much as they were when the behaviorist and humanistic perspectives first appeared in psychology research. The most important conclusion that can be made after reviewing the two perspectives is that behaviorism and humanistic theory will always be closely related, regardless of the topic that is covered. Through the lens of research conducted by Watson, Maslow, Skinner, and Rogers, one can gain in-depth insights into a person’s behaviors and learn to predict them.


Henley, T. (2018). Hergenhahn’s: An introduction to the history of psychology. Cengage.

Khaleque, A. (2021). Parenting and child development: Across ethnicity and culture. ABC-CLIO.

Lefrancois, G. R. (2019). Theories of human learning. Cambridge University Press.

Morrison-Valfre, M. (2017). Foundations of mental health care. Elsevier.

Rathus, S. A. (2021). Childhood and adolescence: Voyages in development. Cengage Learning.

Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2018). Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice: Skills, strategies, and techniques. John Wiley & Sons.

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PsychologyWriting. "Behaviorist and Humanistic Perspectives." March 17, 2023.