Holistic Psychology to Understand Behavior

May 27, 2020
Holistic psychology, unlike reductionism, sees people as much more than the sum of their parts. This perspective adds complexity to patient evaluation and intervention, which often leads to positive changes for patients when other approaches fail.

Holism in psychology is a term that suggests that people are much more than the sum of their parts. Holistic psychology focuses on observing how all the different parts of an individual work together, without separating them into specific processes.

To understand what drives people to think or behave in a particular way, holistic psychology believes in studying individuals in their entirety, instead of just one aspect.

Many factors that constantly interact with each other ultimately influence who you are and what you do. This broad picture is what holism studies to try to understand a case or a problem.

You can find one very clear example in the human brain. Everyone knows that the brain contains millions of neurons. If you want to understand what the brain as a whole can do, however, studying individual neurons is completely useless.

An illuminated brain.

Applying holistic psychology

When a psychologist analyzes how different factors interact and affect an individual’s behavior and emotional state, they’re applying holistic psychology. In that sense, the elements that they consider with each patient vary.

Some of those include the individual’s home, the people they live with, their work, their professional and educational background, their social connections, how they behave in group settings, their health, and their perception of well-being and stress. Thus, you can see that patient evaluation is much more than just studying their symptoms.

The advantages of this approach

A holistic psychology approach is one of the most effective treatment choices. Since it incorporates many elements into the evaluation, there’s a greater chance of finding the root cause of the problem.

Holistic psychology is also effective for finding more accurate and potentially better solutions. Although this approach takes more time, that’s a small price to pay for being able to offer more substantive and relevant interventions that lead to long-term changes.

When you study an individual holistically, you better understand the aspects that influence how they feel mentally, physically, and socially. It’s like trying to see a photograph that’s only an inch from your nose. Although you might be able to focus on one small part of it, you can’t really understand what you’re seeing until you step back and look at the whole thing. Holistic psychology wants to treat the whole patient, and the only way to do that is to understand who they really are.

Disadvantages of holistic psychology

As with any particular area of focus, this one also has its disadvantages. Some problems require a very specific focus in order to find a solution.

This approach can make that kind of precision very difficult, especially when it comes to research. Studies need very clearly defined variables, which is why holistic psychology isn’t always compatible with the scientific method.

Holism in psychology is complex. Designing evaluations and interventions that fit into this approach is a challenge. Consequently, many psychologists simply can’t apply it to their clinical work.

A woman with her eyes closed surrounded by colors.

Schools of holistic thought

Throughout the history of psychology, different schools of thought adopted a holistic approach. Among those is Gestalt psychology, which argues that human behavior should be observed as a whole.

Humanist psychology is another holistic school of thought. In fact, it emerged as a partial response to the reductionism of the psychoanalytic and behaviorist schools. Social psychology also uses a holistic approach because it takes into account environmental, social, emotional, and group dynamics.

Holistic psychology is especially attractive because it often finds solutions that other more reductionist approaches miss. It evaluates the influence of a person’s past, how they live in the present, and how they’ll deal with the future.

Stephen D. Edwards (2013) Holistic Psychology: A Brief Primer, Journal of Psychology in Africa, 23:3, 531-537, DOI: 10.1080/14330237.2013.10820664

Cherry, Kendra (2019) What Is Holism? How psychologists use holism to understand behavior, Verywell Mind.

Osafo Hounkpatin, H., Wood, A. M., Boyce, C. J., & Dunn, G. (2015). An Existential-Humanistic View of Personality Change: Co-Occurring Changes with Psychological Well-Being in a 10 Year Cohort Study. Social indicators research, 121(2), 455–470. doi:10.1007/s11205-014-0648-0