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Problem solving is a complex psychological process during which a person is trying to change current situation into the desired one. This process involves multiple mental procedures and consists of different stages, such as discovering a problem, its analysis, strategic thinking, etc. In psychology, there is a number of approaches and methods of studying the problem solving, and humanism and behaviorism are among them. In spite of the fact they concentrate on the same issue, these two approaches hold to absolutely different ideas: according to one approach, human actions stem from experience, thoughts, will, etc. while the other means that they are predetermined by the external conditions.

Humanism and Behaviorism in Psychological Approaches and Methods

The followers of behavioristic approach believe that problem solving is a reproductive process, therefore to solve a particular problem, living creatures and consequently human beings use the methods which have already proved to be successful. So, having completed a so-called trial-and-error process, they would choose a successful behavior model. Edward Thorndike, aiming to prove this theory, conducted an experiment on cats which, being placed in a cage, would find the way out of it on their own. Another famous experiment of this kind was made by Pavlov when he was studying reflexes. For behaviorists, there are no observable differences between two states of mind until there appears to be a difference in behavioral pattern corresponding to a particular state. Generally, in accordance with this approach, psychology should concentrate on the human behavior and not on the mental activities. Moreover, human behavior can be explained through the analysis of human deeds and actions, thus everything that is happening in human mind should not be taken into consideration because behavior is predetermined by the environment and not internal events. These ideas arise from the fact that behavior is the only observable realization of human thoughts and mental activities; that is why psychologists as scientists should concentrate on it. This approach was extremely popular in the early 20th century.

Humanism, on the other hand, has contrary viewpoints. This approach appeared in the mid 20th century as a reaction to Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis which developed from it. The theory is based on classical renaissance ideas that humans can actually develop and grow intellectually provided that they want it. Humanists see people as creative and conscious, thus capable of analyzing the life situations and solving problems taking into account the information they have. Once again, these ideas contrast Behaviorism which says that human actions are based on the external life situations and that people are not aware of the motives of their actions. Humanists see a person as a whole and do not try to analyze only some his parts. Like behaviorists, humanists argue that people’s actions and decisions are based on the experience of previous actions, but they also suggest that individuals analyze the problems and predict possible outcomes of their deeds. Furthermore, and this is very important for problem solving, people make choices willingly, they do not act impulsively or according to their instincts. Finally, since men are conscious, they make predictions and plan their lives, which influence the process of problem solving greatly.

According to the behavioristic approach, problem solving is closely related to cause and effect principle. Therefore, every behavior entails reinforcement. Hardin mentions that “If the behavior was followed by positive reinforcement, then the behavior was more likely to be repeated; if there was negative reinforcement, the behavior was less likely to be repeated” (227). She also says that there are various problem-solving methodologies within this approach. One of them is the method of trial and error which has already been pointed. It means that a problem is addressed many times until it is solved. A good example of the method is the way children piece together jigsaw puzzles. They try different pieces in one place before they find the one that fits the best. One more method applied by behaviorists is Hull’s response hierarchy (Hardin, 229). By this method, each problem-solving process involves several solutions which are applied hierarchically. Hence if a problem appears, a person will use different responses one by one until either a solution is found, or there will be no responses left.

Humanistic psychology, on the other hand, suggests that every person has free will which is also known as personal agency. This term comprises life choices people make and their consequences. According to Hiemstra and Brocket, “Humanism generally is associated with beliefs about freedom and autonomy and notions that human beings are capable of making significant personal choices within the constraints imposed by heredity, personal history, and environment” (1994). Another important idea of the approach is that people seek the self-assertion and psychological development. All this is achieved differently by different people, though. As to the problem solving, it is based rather on the personal experience and consciousness of individuals. Thus, the external world is not prior in making a choice and subjectivity matters most. So, when solving a problem, a person analyzes it, evaluates it critically, tries to predict possible outcomes, see what good this or other choice will bring, etc. If to take the same situation with a jigsaw puzzle, a person would not simply guess what part might fit, but would analyze the picture that is being made, see what pieces are the most appropriate, maybe choose a few good ones, consequently downsizing the number of the possible options %u2012 so the solution here would be fully conscious.

In conclusion, behavioristic and humanistic approaches in psychology perceive humans from the different points of view, therefore their ideas about problem solving are also different. While humanists believe that a choice made by an individual depends on the objective reality and solving a problem is rather a process of trials, humanists argue that this theory turns people into the automated individuals. They advocate the idea that every person has a free will and aspires to the psychological growth and satisfaction; human life is driven by consciousness and analysis, as well as the problem solution is.


  1. Hardin, L. E. (2002). Problem-solving concepts and theories. JVME, 30 (3), 227-230. Retrieved from http://www.utpjournals.com/jvme/tocs/303/226.pdf
  2. Hiemstra R., & Brocket, R. G. (1994). From behaviorism to humanism: Incorporating self-direction in learning concepts  into the instructional design process. In H. B. Long & Associates, New ideas about self-directed learning. Norman, OK: OklahomaResearchCenter for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma. Retrieved from http://www-distance.syr.edu/sdlhuman.html
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