Charlotte Buhler was a 20th century psychologist who pioneered the field of developmental psychology and who helped develop the field of humanistic psychology.

Personal Life

Charlotte Buhler was born in Berlin in 1893, the first of two children. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Berlin. For her graduate studies, she studied at the University of Munich, where she met Karl Buhler. The two married in 1916, and she graduated summa cum laude with a PhD in 1918. Buhler and her husband then moved to Dresden, where they began teaching at the Technical University of Dresden.

Professional Life

While in Dresden, Buhler worked with young people, exploring the developmental process and designing tests to gauge developmental milestones. Her tests are still in use today. In 1923, the couple moved to Vienna to work at the newly established Vienna Psychological Institute. Buhler studied adolescent and infant psychology, and worked closely with Hildegard Hetzer to create intelligence tests for children.

After 15 years in Vienna, during the rise of fascism, Karl Buhler was imprisoned for his political views and Charlotte Buhler was targeted for having one Jewish parent. After Karl's release from prison was negotiated, the two fled to Oslo, Norway, where Buhler briefly held a teaching position at the University of Oslo until she followed her husband to Minneapolis, Minnesota the following year. Buhler became the chief psychologist of the Central Hospital in Minneapolis and became an American citizen in 1945. The couple eventually settled in Los Angeles, California. Buhler worked as the chief psychologist at LA County General Hospital, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, and in private practice until 1972. Buhler passed away in Stuttgart, West Germany, in 1974.

Contribution to Psychology

Along with Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, Buhler helped to develop humanistic psychology. In contrast to both traditional psychoanalysis and behaviorism, humanist psychology emphasizes a strong human drive toward self-actualization. This occurs through a developmental process that requires a person's basic needs be met before they can self-actualize. The core principles of humanistic psychology are:

  1. Human existence occurs in a unique human context as well as in a larger cosmic ecology.
  2. Human beings have free will, which brings with it responsibility. 
  3. Humans are both self-aware and aware of this awareness. This is a key feature of consciousness. 
  4. Humans have intentions and goals and are aware that they can alter future events. Creativity and the search for meaning and value play key roles in human life. 
  5. Humans are greater than the sum of their parts; humanistic psychology is an explicitly anti-reductionist philosophy.     

Rather than providing a specific treatment plan, humanistic psychology provides a philosophy of human behavior, and can be combined with other treatment methodologies. The theory encompasses many different approaches to therapy, including existential psychology, emphasizing a human’s ability to choose and the tragedy that belies human existence. Humanistic psychology also incorporates Maslow’s theories on motivations and needs, and the client-centered therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers.

When practicing humanistic psychology, a therapist works directly with a client, and dialogue is used as a means for opening up a window to the inner self. This allows clients to recognize and give validity to their positive traits. A secure and nonjudgmental relationship between the client and the therapist is the catalyst for this type of growth and awareness. Humanistic therapists emphasize empathy, self-help, and helping a person achieve his or her ideal self. They avoid pathologizing behavior or emotions wherever possible and focus on the positive aspects of a person’s life experience and behaviors. Self-actualization is one of the primary goals of humanistic psychology, and this end is achieved through an awareness of one’s own life experiences.

Buhler's humanistic psychology argues that traditional scientific research is not always best for understanding human behavior because the scientific method is designed for the physical sciences. Humanists don't, however, eschew scientific research, and humanism has a strong history of empirical research.

Buhler's work has heavily influenced the field of social work, which draws directly on many humanistic principles. For example, the focus on the effects that social issues and culture have on humans is the result of humanistic principles.