Four Kinds Of Thinking: 1. Humanistic Thinking

Several fields of study and spheres of professional activity aim to improve system performance or human wellbeing. Some focus on both objectives (e.g., human factors and ergonomics, organisational psychology), while others focus significantly on one or the other. Disciplines and professions operating in these areas have a focus on both understanding and intervention. For each discipline, the focus of understanding and method of intervention will differ. For instance, for human factors and ergonomics, understanding is focused on system interactions, while intervention is via design. Understanding alone, when intervention is required, may be interesting, but not terribly useful. Intervening without understanding may have unintended consequences (and indeed it often does). With appropriate understanding and intervention, both system performance and human wellbeing have a chance of being improved.

Understanding and intervention for system performance and human wellbeing is rooted – to some extent – in four kinds of thinking. In this short series, I outline these.

  1. Humanistic thinking (this post)
  2. Systems thinking
  3. Scientific thinking (forthcoming)
  4. Design thinking

Unless we engage in the right kinds of thinking, it is likely that our understanding will be too flawed, partial, or skewed. In this case, intervention will be ineffective or even counterproductive. Integrating all four kinds of thinking involves compromises and trade-offs, as the kinds of thinking can conflict, presenting dilemmas that we must resolve.

Letter blocks spelling 'LISTEN'
Steven Shorrock CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

1. Humanistic thinking

“It is not enough that you should understand about applied science in order that your work may increase man’s blessings. Concern for the man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors; concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”

Albert Einstein, from a speech to students at the California Institute of Technology (in “Einstein Sees Lack in Applying Science“, The New York Times, 16 February 1931)


There are several reasons why humanistic thinking is important to (sociotechnical) system performance and human wellbeing. One reason relates to human wellbeing as something more than an absence of disease, illness or injury, encompassing the body, mind and spirit (or whatever term one wishes to use), individually and collectively. Having worked in psychopathology, Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, found that the concepts, language, tools and methods did not serve the needs of the mass of relatively healthy and well-functioning people. According to Maslow, psychology was being viewed from the wrong end of the lens (pathology). The same might still be said of health, and of safety – akin to psychiatry when it comes to organisational functioning. Humanistic thinking encourages us to think more from the perspective of: what we want than what we don’t want; what works than what doesn’t; assets and human potential than deficits and constraints. Human wellbeing is ultimately linked to human flourishing, individually and collectively, or the idea of ‘actualisation’ in humanistic psychology.

A second reason for the need for humanistic thinking relates to holism. A reductionist focus (typical of science and engineering, including HF/E) tends to mask the person and their unique context. This is exacerbated by the industrial context, characterised by reductionism in the design, analysis, measurement and evaluation of work. The humanistic perspective provides another way of thinking about human beings and human work.

Another reason for the importance of humanistic thinking concerns the relationships through which our work flows. Any practitioner will be aware of the constraining or facilitating influence of relationships, regardless of the technical nature of the work. HF/E, for instance, is officially seen as a “scientific discipline” by the International Ergonomics Association but is more properly described as a blend of elements of science (to explain and predict), engineering (to design for improved performance), and craft (to implement and evaluate) (Wilson, 2000). Humanistic thinking helps to avoid scientism and hard engineering thinking. It also steers us away from ‘technical rationality’ (Schön, 1983) and its assumptions about ‘research application’, recognising that strong theories and inflexible methods can break down in messy situations, requiring reflection-in-action. Humanistic thinking orients our practice so that craft – including reflective practice – is properly valued.


While typically associated with counsellors and psychotherapists, humanistic practitioners (or practitioners of anything, working humanistically) may work in fields such as medicine, education, and social work. Humanistic theory has also been applied to human work and organisational functioning. But what does it mean, exactly? The Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain usefully summarise five basic postulates, which focus on a view of human beings rather than a discipline or profession.

  1. Human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components.
  2. Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.
  3. Human beings are aware and aware of being aware – i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
  4. Human beings have some choice and, with that, responsibility.
  5. Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value and creativity

There has been relatively little direct cross-pollination of humanistic psychology into many disciplines associated with human wellbeing. But humanistic thinking is ultimately concerned with people, relationships and contexts, and it has this in common with several disciplines (especially HF/E).


Integrating humanistic thinking means going beyond the ‘tools and methods’ that can be found in so many textbooks (including those of HF/E). One of the essential approaches of humanistic psychology is otherwise known as ‘listening’, hanging out with people, relating to them, trying to empathise with them and their unique situation and perspective.

Empathy is a rich and complex concept, it may be viewed as a trait or state of a person, a process and a skill. Empathy is colloquially seen as ‘walking in another’s shoes’. In this sense, empathy can be thought of as ‘perspective taking’; the ability to perceive accurately the frame of reference of another person while maintaining a sense of separateness – the ‘as if’ quality.

Humanistic thinking in the context of improving system performance and human wellbeing, may involve empathising emotionally, cognitively, physically, and socially. But effective empathy is not as intuitive as we may think. Bohart et al suggests that we can distinguish between three different modes of empathy, these are:

  • Empathic rapport: using empathy to build rapport and support the person.
  • Process empathy: a moment-by moment empathy for the person’s experience, cognitively, emotionally, and physically.
  • Person empathy: this is known as ‘experiencing near understanding of the person’s world’ or ‘background empathy’.

Time spent training in fundamental counselling skills is particularly helpful. Also helpful is time spend understanding and practising ethnographic approaches, which are likely to be of more value to humanistic thinking than reductionist scientific and engineering methods. Combined, these can give an insight into the person that analytical methods, even systems thinking methods, cannot.

This kind of thinking might prompt questions such as:

  • What is this person’s story?
  • What does this (situation, job, etc) mean to this person, within the broader context of her or his life?
  • To what degree does the work context respect the person’s autonomy?
  • What tensions exist between freedom and constraint, and how does the person and other people address these?
  • What does a good job look like to this person?
  • How do people perceive their self and their situation, and how might this differ from their ideals?
  • How can work create space for greater flexibility and creativity?
  • How might work contribute to growth, and also to suffering?

Shadow side

Methods that come more from the biological, psychological, and engineering sciences tend to focus on reliability and validity. Humanistic approaches may seem to lack the same rigour, meaning that there are different perspectives on people and situations that cannot be controlled by method. While reductionism makes measurement and diagnosis easier, but also less meaningful, holism questions the idea of measurement and diagnosis, at least as it is often applied (e.g., as can be seen in person centred counselling vs psychiatry). Still, humanistic thinking may be accused of lacking ‘validity’ when viewed from a traditional scientific frame of reference.

Empathy is core to humanistic thinking, but the term has – especially recently – been misunderstood and misused in some quarters. In UX, quick and dirty ’empathy’ has sometimes become a proxy for research (and even a proxy for people, in some persona development). Another problem in practice is the line between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy involves losing a sense of separateness and impartiality or losing the ‘as if’ quality. Sympathy can block the capacity for empathy and so can be counterproductive, blurring the boundaries between ‘me’ and ‘you’, and associated issues (e.g., choice and responsibility).

Another shadow side consideration is that humanistic thinking, when considered on an individual level, may seem to result in unsustainable solutions, from a systems thinking perspective. In many cases, however, this conflict arises not from humanistic thinking per se (the five basic postulates above), but from from sympathy and charity.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

2 thoughts

  1. Excellent article!

    Very informative. Personally and professionally I find it reassuring.

    Looking forward to the next one of the series.

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