Difference Between Humanism and Behaviorism

Humanism vs Behaviorism

Humanism and behaviorism are important schools in the field of psychology, as such, knowing the difference between humanism and behaviorism is essential for anyone interested in psychology. Psychology, the scientific study of the human mental processes and behavior, has a number of approaches that are also considered as schools of psychology. These have been essential for the development of the field of psychology. Two such schools are humanism and behaviorism. Each approach presents a unique way of understanding the human mind and behavior. Simply defined, behaviorism pays attention to the external behavior of humans and ignores the mental processes which are unobservable. Humanism, on the other hand, looks at the individual as a whole. The main difference between humanism and behaviorism, the two schools of thought, is hence the change of direction from external behavior to the entire being. This article will attempt to describe these two approaches and highlight the differences.

What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is a school of thought that emerged in the 1920s. Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson and B.F Skinner are some prominent figures who were responsible for the growth of behaviorism . It was concerned about the external behaviour of individuals and ignored the significance of the mind as it could not be observed. They believed behavior to be objective, observable and as a response of an organism to stimuli that paved way for the understanding of human psychology. Behaviourists gave prominence to laboratory research and were focused on empiricism. Behaviorism is based on the main assumptions of determinism, experimentalism, optimism, anti-mentalism and the idea of nurture against nature.

Difference Between Humanism and Behaviorism

When speaking of behaviorism the theories of classical conditioning by Pavlov and Operant conditioning of Skinner are significant. Classical conditioning explains that some learning can be due to involuntary emotional and psychological responses. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, involves the conditioning of voluntary, controllable behaviours. The behaviourists highlight that human behaviour is learnt and can be changed through reinforcement and punishment.

What is Humanism?

Unlike behaviorism humanism uses a different approach to psychology where they look at the individual as a whole. They believed that all humans are unique and are free agents who have the ability to achieve their innate potential to the fullest. When looking at the individual, they prefer to adopt the point of view of the person within the situation rather than the point of view of the observer. In counselling, this is also referred to as empathy that is where the observer would get into the perspective of the person who is facing the situation.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are some of the prominent figures in this school of thought and have made a massive contribution to its development. Specifically Maslow’s hierarchy of needs presents an image of the individual as having the ability to reach a level of self-actualization that is the highest form that an individual can achieve. However, in order to get to this, humans have to acquire certain needs, namely, biological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, self-esteem needs and finally self-actualization . Another significant theory is the person-centred theory by Carl Rogers, that is used in counselling. It presents an image of the individual as an innately positive person. The theory explains of a concept of self that is made up of the individual’s real self and ideal self. Rogers believes that when these two selves are close to one another and are in congruence, it creates a positive condition for self-development . As you can see, the focus of humanism is different from that of behaviorism

What is the difference Humanism and Behaviorism?

• Behaviorism is the school of thought that focuses on the external behavior of individuals whereas humanism focuses on the individual as a whole.

• Behaviorism has a very scientific basis and uses experimentation as a means of understanding behavior

• Humanism, on the other hand, is rather subjective and does not have a very scientific basis as behaviorism.

• Humanism goes beyond behavior and also focuses on the emotions of human beings.

• Humanism rejects the behaviorists’ assumption of determinism and believes that humans are agents of free will.


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  1. Teaching machine by Silly rabbit (CC BY 3.0)