What are humanistic and existential theories

What are humanistic and existential theories?

Over the years, human beings have exhibited certain characteristics known as human behavior. Therefore, human behavior is a set of physical actions and emotions as a result of observations exhibited by individuals and by the whole human race. There are several theories that further shed light on this and are namely humanistic and existential theories.

Humanistic theory

(Coon et al, 2010) describes humanistic theory as an approach that studies the whole person as well as their individual uniqueness. Human psychologists tend to look at the human's behavior both from the observers' eyes and from the eyes of the individual exhibiting a certain kind of behavior.

This theory has had a long history and can be traced back to 1943 when Maslow developed a hierarchical theory to explain human motivation.

Carl Rodgers (1946) later published person centered therapy, advancement to the previous works. In 1962, after Brandeis University securing sponsorship, the movement was formally launched publishing the first issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology at the break of Spring of 1961.

            It has key features as qualitative research, hierarchy of needs, free will, idiographic approach, holism, congruence and self concept. This is made possible by the kind of methods employed for this such as case study, Q-sort method, qualitative method, open-ended questionnaires, informal interviews and coder reliability.

Humanistic psychology assumptions

This theory assumes that:

  • All humans have a free will hence not all behavior is always predetermined
  • All individuals are unique and all have an inborn desire to achieve/ unearth their full potential
  • That a clear understanding of the human behavior is only possible if only human beings (and not animals) are subjected to a case study
  • Psychology ought to lay emphasis on the study of individual cases rather than performance of average groups.

Areas of application

This theory has several areas that it can be applied to. The areas are namely:

  • Person centered therapy
  • Motivation
  • Qualitative methods
  • Education
  • Abnormal behavior with regard to incongruence and feeling of low self-worth like depression


This theory has several strengths attributed to it and they are namely:

  • This theory satisfies the most people definition of "human" as it lays emphasis on personal ideals and personal satisfaction.
  • Qualitative data is more genuine giving holistic image of what behavior entails
  • It focuses more on the behavior of an individual rather than on individual's gene, unconscious mind and observable behavior.
  • Lays emphasis on individualistic methods of study


The major limitations that this theory has are:

  • It does not recognize the place of biology
  • It is not based on science as it has subjective concepts
  • It fails to objectively valuate self-actualization
  • Humanism does not recognize unconscious mind

Existential theory

This is a kind of theory that lays a lot of emphasis on core human conditions as a whole. It takes a positive approach that recognizes human capabilities and desires while taking note of human limitations.


This theory cannot be attributed or rather not one person can get all the credit for its inception. However, there were many streams of thoughts that merged to form it. There are four developers who are more pronounced with regard to this theory.

Victor Frankl (1905- 1997) played a major role in bringing this theory to the U.S. He was a former Adler student who was hugely influenced by Freud. Rollo May (1909- 1994) was another person whose name prominently appears on mentioning this theory. The others are namely James Bugental and Irvin Yalom.

Existential theory is based on a strong belief that every individual experience varies with regard to the difference in interactions in human existence known as "Given"/ key concepts. This theory, therefore, recognizes four types of givens namely:

Human nature

Human nature is made up of dimensions making up the human condition namely:

  • Freedom and responsibility
  • Awareness of death and non-existence
  • The endless search for values, meaning, purpose and goals
  • Anxiety as a condition met in life
  • The capability of self-awareness
  • Creating one's identity and having the ability to build good relationship with others

The capacity for self-awareness

Human beings have the ability to reflect and make meaningful choices as a result of self-awareness. The higher our awareness, the higher our chances of freedom.


  • Ping- Hwa (2009) states the strength of existential theory is its ability to enable one examine the degree to which their families, culture and social conditions affect their behavior. The author further states that if one cannot meet his/ her personal needs, demands or goals then there is possibility for encountering anxiety, frustrations and even depression.
  • Emphasizes on ideas that are essential to moral life
  • Each person bares the sole responsibility for the decisions they make
  • Values herein tend to become habitual
  • Lays emphasis on an individual
  • It is more liberating for those who don't believe in a superior being or a higher fate


  • It is based on the feeling of what feels right rather than what is really right
  • It does not lay enough emphasis on the future
  • The non-rational approach it employs is highly subjective
  • It lacks a systematic statement of the fundamental principles and practices


Personality theories define human learning and the behaviors/ personality resulting from is a result of response to the environment as well as some internal considerations whereas humanistic theory is based on the belief that there is an ultimate state propelled by the human desire and is always specie-specific. The diverse perspectives of effect of one's personality with regard to situations, the unique nature of personality characterization and human nature, and the various explanations of interpersonal relationships offer more thought and deeper understanding of humanity. 

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