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Free Will and Self-Actualisation

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Free Will and Self-Actualisation

Both free will and self-actualisation are important concepts in humanistic psychology. Free will is commonly debated amongst psychologists and philosophers alike, as is the theory of self-actualisation, and free will is a critical feature in many theologies. Both of these concepts are argued to be fundamental aspects of what it means to be human throughout human history.

Some critical questions you may ask yourself: do we have free will? Or does an unseen force govern all of our decisions, such as destiny? Can we ever truly achieve self-actualisation?

The humanistic approach explores these concepts when studying human behaviours.

Free Will and Self-Actualisation Strings of fate StudySmarterStrings of fate, Flaticon

Free will is the idea that we choose to behave how we wish to achieve our goals in life. Biological/external forces do not pre-determine our choices. We can control and influence our destiny; we are self-determined. The humanistic approach emphasises the importance of a free will.

Self-actualisation is our ability to reach our greatest potential in life. It is the desire to grow and fulfil our full potential, and become the greatest version of ourselves. It involves fully developing our abilities, and those who have reached self-actualisation accept themselves despite their flaws. The humanistic approach means that the person has reached the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

What is humanistic psychology?

The principle of humanistic psychology, also known as the humanistic approach, is that everyone is unique and has their perspectives of the world. It holds a core belief humans are good at heart and capable of making the right choices for themselves. It is an approach proposed to understand human behaviour, emphasising subjective experiences.

We describe the humanistic approach as an idiographic approach.

Humanistic psychology assumes we can make our choices and behave the way we choose. The idea is everyone can control and influence their destiny. The individual has free will, and we actively develop ourselves to reach our highest potential (self-actualisation).

Free will in humanistic psychology

Free will is a core concept of the humanistic approach. It establishes that behaviour is a choice instead of forces outside of our control determining it. Individuals can control their reality and destiny.

Freud previously had a deterministic approach: our unconscious desires determine behaviour. Humanistic focuses on integrating consciousness and how this controls our behaviours, rather than focusing on the unconscious desires aspect.

Humanistic psychology assumes that everyone has the free will to choose how to behave. It means that we all have the power to control and influence our destiny.

For example, you have the choice to engage in criminal acts. As long as we can control our behaviour, it is not considered random. According to humanistic psychology, everyone has free will and is responsible for their actions. This applies to those with the capacity to make decisions freely. Therefore, it does not apply to children or those with mental illnesses.

Why is the free will vs determinism debate important in humanistic psychology?

The free will vs determinism debate is concerned with whether we freely make our actions (free will) or whether our past experiences and life events determine them (determinism). Supporters of humanistic psychology believe that humans have free will.

Determinism is the view that internal (genes, for example) and/or external forces shape behaviours, rather than the individual’s will. Free will is a delusion.

Hard determinism is where free will is impossible, and internal or external factors will always influence or directly cause behaviours.

Soft determinism is where human behaviours have causes, but they can be determined by our conscious choices as well (as long as no coercion is involved).

The humanistic approach believes humans inherently have free will and that taking a deterministic approach undermines this concept. The deterministic laws of behaviour underestimate the uniqueness of human beings.

Humanistic psychology highlights that achieving self-actualisation and realising your true self leads to a fulfilling life. It also insists that the behaviourist and psychodynamic approaches are reductionist and deterministic. Its results cannot explain the holistic complexity of human behaviour.

Holism focuses on understanding all aspects of human experience and interaction.

There are significant implications for taking either side in this debate:

  • Taking a deterministic approach for explaining behaviour removes individual responsibility.

    A person arrested for a violent attack, for example, may claim they are not responsible for their behaviour because it was pre-determined. Therefore, they had no control over their actions and responsibility for the consequences.

  • The deterministic approach has important implications for psychology as scientists discover the laws that predict certain situations. We can easily see it in physics, chemistry and biology. Psychology attempts to do the same thing by applying a scientific approach and developing laws to predict behaviour. Arguing against determinism faces issues with rejecting the scientific approach to explaining behaviour.

On the other hand, taking a free-will approach for explaining behaviour does not explain mental illness. For example, people diagnosed with depression or OCD cannot control their thoughts, actions and emotions.

What is the self-actualisation theory?

Self-actualisation is also known as self-realisation or self-cultivation.

The term self-actualisation is mainly linked to Abraham Maslow, although Kurt Goldstein introduced it. He was a physician who specialised in psychiatry and neuroanatomy in the early 20th century.

Self-actualisation is the realisation of our full potential in life, manifested in ascendent experiences. It involves fully developing our abilities and, therefore, appreciation for life.

For the humanistic psychologists Maslow (1943) and Rogers (1951), freedom is a possibility and a necessity if a person wants to achieve self-actualisation. Maslow and Rogers see self-actualisation as a unique human need and form of motivation.

Kurt Goldstein

Goldstein (1940) proposed that self-actualisation is a concept that expands to all living organisms. He concluded that self-actualisation is the objective of every living organism, claiming that self-fulfilment and the tendency of becoming actualised is inherent to all individuals.

He argued that self-actualisation involves the tendency to realise an organism’s capabilities, as mentioned in his book 'The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man'.

Goldstein viewed self-actualisation not as a goal to be achieved in the future but as an innate tendency to realise one’s potential at any given moment.

Free Will and Self-actualisation StudySmarterStatue of a head and torso as a representation of self-actualisation, Flaticon

Abraham Maslow

According to Abraham Maslow (1962), reaching self-actualisation is rare; only 1% of people manage to achieve self-actualisation. Still, it provides the possibility of true self-awareness and an honest relationship with the realities of an imperfect world.

Maslow (1943, 1954) believed that a hierarchy of needs is the driving force behind behaviours. The most basic needs physiological needs such as air, food, water, shelter need to be met first. Officially, the needs that must be met are:

  1. Physiological needs

  2. Safety needs

  3. Love needs (belongingness)

  4. Esteem needs

  5. Self-fulfilment needs at this stage, self-actualisation is achievable

Free Will and Self-Actualisation Maslow hierarchy of needs StudySmarterMaslow's hierarchy of needs, KG - StudySmarter. Created in Canva.

For example, a person with a creative spirit, which is a trait of self-actualisation, may still not be fully self-actualised. Some psychologists say the theory of self-actualisation is more about how open a person is to growth and health rather than about achieving ideals such as perfection, success, or happiness.

Carl Rogers

Rogers (1951) developed a personality theory based on self-concept, which comprises self-esteem, self-image, and the ideal self.

The self is who we truly are; our identity or inner personality is also linked to the soul or Freud’s psyche. Our experiences shape the ‘self’, and our behaviours reflect our true self.

According to Rogers, self-actualisation happens when our ideal self, or who we would like to be, is in congruence with our true self (who we truly are), relying on our actual behaviours.

Carl Rogers used Maslow’s idea; self-actualisation is a constant process nurtured in a growth-promoting climate:

  • Genuine and accepting: The individual is genuine and open/revealing to themselves and accepting.

  • The parent may punish the child but loves them unconditionally and promotes learning, which helps them realise their true, authentic self.

Carl Rogers added that self-actualisation could only be achieved when someone’s self-concept, or true self, is in congruence with their ideal self. Self-concept affects this, as if you have a low concept of yourself, you will have low self-esteem, and congruence requires the ideal self to match the true self.

What are the characteristics of self-actualised people?

Those who have reached self-actualisation tend to show certain characteristics. These traits are the epitome of what it means to have achieved fulfilment. They must be self-aware, wise, and focus their energy on a mission in life and a higher purpose. They do not focus on fundamental aspects of life but think on broader causes, and they tend to manifest as:

  • Acceptance of the self and others (flaws, personality traits and quirks etc.), remaining true to the self

  • Independence

  • Efficient perception of reality (ability to perceive and embrace the unknown, accepting the challenges it offers)

  • Being problem-centred (ability to distance from the ego when confronted by problems)

  • Peak experiences (experiencing joy more so than non-self actualised people, which then inspires creativeness)

  • Focusing on personal growth

  • A high sense of purpose

  • Feeling responsible

Self-actualisation examples

Maslow (1970) identified several individuals whom he considered as having attained a level of self-actualisation. Unlike Goldstein, who applied it to all organisms, Maslow stated self-actualisation is a human concept. A few notable figures Maslow stated had reached self-actualisation include:

  1. Albert Einstein

  2. Eleanor Roosevelt

  3. Baruch Spinoza

However, even they were still attempting to meet the intensely strict and constantly improving criteria of self-actualisation.

Evaluation of free will and self-actualisation

Considering the concept of free will and self-actualisation is quite complex, evaluating is particularly important. Here is a brief overview of a few evaluation points.

Free will has a positive effect on understanding human behaviour

In our subjective human experience, we believe in having control over our actions and behaviour. Humanistic psychologists would agree with this notion, as they approve and adopt a free-will approach and support the concept of self-actualisation. It has influenced other methods, such as therapy and counselling, in more recent times.

The positive results in such treatments, including client-centred therapy, have been fundamental for expanding values adopted in free will as a successful approach when explaining human behaviour.

The concept lacks scientific evidence

The humanistic approach uses concepts that are difficult to measure scientifically, for example, the idea of self-actualisation.

Some psychologists would debate about the effectiveness of self-actualisation, as without experimental evidence, it is impossible to verify its validity.

Some studies have demonstrated that personal growth has resulted from humanistic counselling. Unfortunately, these demonstrations do not provide objective evidence of the cause for those changes. Therefore, the approach challenges a fundamental requirement of scientific Psychology.


Free Will and Self-actualisation - Key takeaways

  • Free will is the choice that everyone has to behave accordingly to achieve their goals in life, i.e. we can control and influence our destiny.
  • Self-actualisation is the realisation of our full potential in life, manifested in ascendence experiences.
  • Humanistic psychology assumes that we can make our own choices and behave the way we choose to.
  • The free will vs determinism debate argues on whether our behaviour is based on our own choices governed by our own will or if pre-determined internal and external forces govern our behaviour.
  • Kurt Goldstein, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers are the leading theorists that have contributed to understanding the theory of self-actualisation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Free Will and Self-Actualisation

Self-actualisation is the complete realisation of one’s potential manifested in peak experiences that involve the full development of someone’s abilities and appreciation for life. Self-actualisation is a rare achievement, but it provides the possibility of true self-awareness and an honest relationship with the realities of an imperfect world.

The humanistic approach or theory believes that people have free will and can achieve self-actualisation.

Self-actualisation is important because it provides the chance of true self-awareness and an honest relationship with the realities of the imperfect world we live in. It gives us independence and responsibilities towards our behaviours and emotions.

Free will is the idea that we choose to behave how we wish to achieve our goals in life. Biological/external forces do not pre-determine our choices. We can control and influence our destiny; we are self-determined. The humanistic approach emphasises the importance of a free will.

Yes. He also claimed that freedom is a possibility and a necessity if a person wants to become functional. Maslow and Rogers see self-actualisation as a unique human need and form of motivation.

Final Free Will and Self-Actualisation Quiz

Question

What is the principle of the humanistic approach in psychology?

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Answer

The principle of the humanistic approach is that everyone is unique and has their perspectives of the world; embracing themselves and their own true will lead them to a fulfilling life.

Show question

Question

Outline one example of the free will of behaviour.

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Answer

An example of free will is choosing to engage in criminal acts. As long as we can control our behaviour, it is not considered a random choice.

Show question

Question

What is emphasised in the debate of free will vs determinism?

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Answer

The free will vs determinism debate is concerned with whether we freely make our actions (free will) or whether our past experiences and life events determine them (determinism).

Show question

Question

What beliefs does the humanistic approach hold towards determinism?

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Answer

The humanistic approach believes humans inherently have free will and believe that taking the deterministic approach undermines human freedom, dignity and behaviour.

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Question

How does the humanistic approach encourage people to have a fulfilling life?

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Answer

The humanistic approach highlights that choosing to embrace your true self leads you to a fulfilling life.

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Question

Outline an example that challenges the concept of free will.

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Answer

Mental illness weakens the free will argument. For example, people diagnosed with depression or OCD cannot control their thoughts, actions and emotions.

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Question

Is pure free will better advised than deterministic approaches in psychology?

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Answer

No, a pure free will approach or deterministic approach does not seem suitable when investigating human behaviour. Psychologists use the idea of free will to indicate the idea that behaviour is not a passive reaction but that we are responding to internal and external forces.

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Question

How do humanistic psychologists view behaviour?

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Answer

Humanistic psychologists view behaviour as a choice. They assume an individual can take responsibility for their choices and behave in the way they choose to.

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Question

What other names are used to refer to self-actualisation?

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Answer

Self-actualisation is also known as self-realisation or self-cultivation.

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Question

What are the main names in 

self-actualisation theory?

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Answer

The main names in self-actualisation theory are Kurt Goldstein, Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

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Question

How did Goldstein view self-actualisation?

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Answer

According to Goldstein, self-actualisation was not a goal to be achieved in the future but an organism’s innate tendency to realise its potential at any moment under any circumstances.

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Question

According to Maslow, how long usually does it take for a person to become self-actualised?

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Answer

Maslow believed becoming self-actualised is not a straightforward process. It can take years for some people to reach self-actualisation. According to him, the most important thing is the process itself, and not reaching the goal.

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Question

Is the ability to find humour in a given situation, including a difficult moment, an example of self-actualisation?

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Answer

Yes.

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Question

What is the most basic need according to Maslow's hierarchy model?

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Answer

The most fundamental needs from a survival standpoint are physiological and consist of biological needs.

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Question

What are some examples of physiological needs?

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Answer

Air, water, food, sleep, shelter, clothing, homeostasis, etc.

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Question

What are the examples of action 

supporting our safety needs?


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Answer

Having material resources to plan and achieve ideals or being healthy, 

having safety to move around are examples 

of actions driven by security and safety needs.


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Question

How can love and belonging 

needs support us?

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Answer

Social needs play an important role when avoiding 

loneliness, depression, and anxiety. It is vital to 

feel loved and accepted by others.

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Question

What is the fourth level of 

Maslow's hierarchy?



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Answer

The fourth level of Maslow's hierarchy 

is the need for appreciation 

and respect.

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Question

What is the top level of Maslow's hierarchy?

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Answer

At the top level of Maslow's 

hierarchy is self-actualisation.

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Question

True or false: Self-actualised people are self-aware and interested in their personal growth, including developing their true potential. It gives them the strength to hold on to their truth, not worry about others’ opinions of themselves, and follow their life, purpose, and mission.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What are deficiency needs?  

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Answer

Deficiency needs refer to the deprivation of 

basic needs for too long. People can become 

demotivated if those needs are unmet. The motivation to fulfil these needs 

can become stronger the longer certain needs are neglected.

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Question

What do deficiency needs aim at?


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Answer

The deficiency needs aim at raising awareness to maintain physical and psychological balance.

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Question

Where do growth needs emerge from?

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Answer

Growth needs emerge from the desire to grow as an individual.

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Question

What happens when growth needs are achieved?

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Answer

When these growth needs have been achieved, the individual may reach the highest level of need satisfaction or self-actualisation.

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Question

Is Maslow's hierarchy of needs proven scientifically?

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Answer

No. It is not.

Show question

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