Humanistic & Social Psychology

Searching for synthesis: Is it possible to be both a humanistic psychologist and a social psychologist

By Christopher D. Henry, PhD

After introducing its various theoretical perspectives and subfields, students in my introductory psychology course frequently ask me what “kind” of psychologist I am. Perhaps surprisingly, I find this to be a difficult question to answer. In terms of theoretical orientation, I consider myself to be primarily a humanistic psychologist. My master’s degree is from the University of West Georgia’s humanistically-oriented graduate program and, as often as I can, I teach a special topics course exploring the history of humanistic thought, the rise of the “Third Force,” and the place of the humanistic approach in psychology today. In terms of subject areas within psychology, however, I consider myself to be primarily a social psychologist. My doctorate is in that subfield and I frequently teach an upper-level course in that area, which incorporates a mixture of classic research on social influence and newer perspectives on social cognition.

But despite a high level of comfort in each area (and, one would hope, competence as well), I often have wrestled with the large and possibly insurmountable differences that exist between the two. As a humanistic psychologist, I tend to emphasize the centrality of the individual, to assume an internal locus of control for behavior, and to highlight the most inspiring aspects of human nature. But as a social psychologist, I tend to emphasize the social context, to assume an external locus of control for behavior, and to highlight some of the darkest aspects of human nature. Whether one chooses to view such seemingly contradictory positions in terms of “incongruence” or “cognitive dissonance,” both humanistic and social psychological perspectives point to the likelihood of a certain degree of unpleasantness for the holder of such positions!

For years, my “solution” to this unpleasant state of affairs has been a kind of compartmentalization based upon the course I am teaching or the conference that I am attending at the time. But more recently, I have attempted to face this dilemma directly and to move in the direction of a reconciliation and perhaps even integration of the two approaches. This has required taking a closer look at the major areas of seeming incommensurability between the two, to which I now turn. 

The first area of seeming disagreement relates to the question of whether, as a psychologist, I should focus primarily on the individual or the broader social context and setting. While at first glance the humanistic approach would appear to be thoroughly individualistic in nature, I have found it helpful to remind myself of the phenomenological dictum that consciousness is always consciousness of something, that it is always directed towards something outside of itself. Viktor Frankl, for instance, held that one of the primary paths to meaning in life is in experiencing something or encountering someone outside of one’s self. And though rarely discussed in textbooks representations of his “hierarchy of needs” model, it is important to note that, at the time of his death, Maslow was in the process of reworking the model to place self-transcendence above self-actualization as the peak of human development. While the individual self is clearly an important concept for humanistic psychology, it does not exist in a vacuum and indeed only attains fulfillment through connection to something beyond itself.

And while social psychology would appear to downplay the role of the individual in favor of an analysis of social and situational factors, more complete explanations for social behavior invariably include reference to individual motivational and cognitive processes. Thus, even when addressing more external, behavioral phenomena such as conformity and persuasion, social psychology relies upon explanations such as the desire to be accepted by others (as in the case of normative conformity) and the role of perceived relevance of information to one’s self (as in the case of the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion). Despite the “top billing” that it accords the social context, upon closer inspection, the internal processes of the individual are revealed to be indispensable and irreducible components of social psychological analysis.

The second area of seeming incommensurability relates to the question of locus of control. Are our behaviors the result of internal choices or external determining factors? As a humanistic psychologist, I tend to subscribe to the belief that human beings possess at least a measure of free will. But I also have found it helpful to remind myself that one’s freedom is never complete. Beyond the ultimate limits on one’s freedoms reflected in existential concepts such as Sartre’s facticity and Heidegger’s thrownness, the classic “Third Force” psychologists also acknowledge the more subtle ways in which others influence (if not strictly determine) our choices and actions. For example, Maslow discusses the role others in the development of one’s self through the extent to which they encourage or discourage safety vs. growth choices and Rogers discusses the powerful role of unconditional vs. conditional positive regard on the extent to which we embrace our true selves vs. develop a false sense of self. While these examples do not demonstrate causation per se, they do highlight the enormous weight that we give to others in considering our choices and behaviors.

On the other hand, as a social psychologist, I tend to focus on factors that exert external pressures on the individual to behave in specific ways. But while social psychology purports to merely describe human social behaviors and their underlying causes, its rhetorical tendency to prescribe optimal social behaviors suggests a reluctance to view behavior in a strictly deterministic fashion. In fact, much of social psychology appears to exhort us to be more mindful of social and situational factors and to utilize its knowledge base to make better choices about how we respond to these. In 1973, Ken Gergen coined the term enlightenment effects to suggest that knowledge of social psychological processes may help to “liberate” the individual from their control and more recently, Philip Zimbardo (2007) has delineated a ten-step program for resisting unwanted social influence. Such positions suggest a strong belief in the possibility that the empowerment of the individual in the face of external influences is not only possible, but indeed a worthwhile and attainable goal. 

The third and perhaps most philosophically challenging area of seeming incommensurability relates to the question of human nature. Humanistic psychology clearly offers an uplifting, Romantic view of inherent human goodness, suggesting that human nature has been devalued and inappropriately maligned historically. Yet humanists do not deny the existence of negative and destructive behaviors, arguing that such behaviors are rooted in the frustration of basically “good” and healthy desires. If such an account sounds somewhat naïve, however, the more complex existential view of human nature might seem better able to encompass the darker aspects of human behavior frequently showcased by social psychological research. Yet in acknowledging the human potential for evil, existentialists do not argue that this is humanity’s essential nature. As Chris Aanstoos wrote in characterizing the existential view, “there are no limits either to human cruelty or to human love” (1993, p. 999, italics added for emphasis).

As a social psychologist, I challenge students to consider the extreme social behaviors that we may all be capable of under the right (or perhaps wrong) circumstances. But despite highlighting behavior that frequently is stupid, cruel, and possibly even evil, I also remind my students that social psychology does not attribute these behaviors either to individual personality or to a supposed essential human nature, but rather to the situational factors that promote such behaviors. To utilize an analogy of Zimbardo’s, social psychology shows us rotten barrels, rather than bad apples. In fact, critics of classic social psychological studies (e.g., Miale & Selzer, 1975) have argued that social psychologists attribute bad behaviors to situational factors due to a misguided and unsupported belief that human nature is inherently good and that only corrupt external influences produce behaviors that are at odds with this assumed goodness. Thus, social psychology occasionally finds itself cast in the unlikely role of defender of human kindness!

Despite making some progress in my goal of a humanistic-social psychology synthesis, I have at times found it difficult to dismiss entirely the nagging possibility that I have merely engaged in an elaborate series of rationalizations to assuage the discomfort arising from the defense of two inherently contradictory orientations! Therefore, I have found it helpful to utilize the taijitu (or “yin-yang” symbol, as it is commonly referred to) as a model for how to understand the relationship between seemingly opposed positions.

At its most basic level, the taijitu suggests that if we look closely enough, we may find within each of two seemingly contradictory forces an element of its opposite. And I do believe that one need only look beyond surface differences to locate the broader social landscape within humanistic psychology, as well as the humanistic heartbeat within social psychology.

But at its deepest level, the taijitu also suggests a fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence between supposed opposites not readily apparent when viewing the two as inherently incommensurable forces. And while I do not feel that I have yet established such a fundamental relationship between the humanistic and social approaches, I do hope to persevere in my quest and eventually reach such a place of understanding. Perhaps then I will be able to answer the query of my students with a confident, “Why, I am a humanistic social psychologist, of course.”


Aanstoos, C. (1993). Existential analysis and therapy. In J. Wilson (Ed.), Magill’s survey of social science: Psychology (pp. 999-1005). Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.

Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.

Miale, F. R., & Selzer, M. (1975). The Nuremberg mind. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.