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What Is Holism?

What Is Holism?

How psychologists use holism to understand behavior

By Dr. Saul McLeod, updated


Holism is often referred to as Gestalt psychology. It argues that behavior cannot be understood in terms of the components that make them up. This is commonly described as ‘the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.’

In other words human behavior has its own properties that are not explicable in terms of the properties of the elements from which it is derived.

A holistic approach therefore suggests that there are different levels of explanation and that at each level there are “emergent properties” that cannot be reduced to the one below.

Holistic approaches include Humanism, Social and Gestalt psychology and makes use of the case study method. Jahoda’s 6 elements of Optimal Living are an example of a holistic approach to defining abnormality.

Reductionist explanations, which might work in some circumstances, are considered inappropriate to the study of human subjectivity because here the emergent property that we have to take account of is that of the “whole person”. 

Otherwise it makes no sense to try to understand the meaning of anything that anybody might do.

Examples of Holism in Psychology

  • Humanism investigates all aspects of the individual as well as the interactions between people.

    It emerged as a reaction against those dehumanizing psychological perspectives that attempted to reduce behavior to a set of simple elements.

    Humanistic, or third force psychologists, feel that holism is the only valid approach to the complete understanding of mind and behavior. They reject reductionism in all its forms.

    Their starting point is the self (our sense of personal identity) which they consider as a functioning whole. It is, in the words of Carl Rogers, an “organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself”.

    It includes an awareness of the person I am and could be. It directs our behavior in all the consciously chosen aspects of our lives and is fundamentally motivated towards achieving self-actualization.

    For humanists, then, the self is the most essential and unique quality of human beings. It is what makes us what we are and is the basis of a difference between psychology and all natural science.

    Humanistic psychology investigates all aspects of the individual as well as the interactions between people.

    Reductionist explanations undermine the indivisible unity of experience. They run counter to and ultimately destroy the very object of psychological enquiry.  A holistic point of view is thus in humanist terms the very basis of all knowledge of the human psyche.

  • Social Psychology looks at the behavior of individuals in a social context. Group behavior (e.g. conformity, de-individualization) may show characteristics that are greater than the sum of the individuals which comprise it.
  • Psychoanalysis – Freud adopted an interactionist approach, in that he considered that behavior was the results of dynamic interaction between id, ego and superego.
  • Abnormal psychology – mental disorders are often explained by an interaction of biological, psychological and environmental factors. An eclectic approach to therapy is often taken using drugs and psychotherapy.
  • Perception – This is were the brain understands and interprets sensory information. Visual illusions show that humans perceive more than the sum of the sensations on the retina.


• Looks at everything that may impact on behavior.

• Does not ignore the complexity of behavior.

• Integrates different components of behavior in order to understand the person as a whole.

• Can be higher in ecological validity.


• Over complicates behaviors which may have simpler explanations (Occam’s Razor).

• Does not lend itself to the scientific method and empirical testing.

• Makes it hard to determine cause and effect.

• Neglects the importance of biological explanations.

• Almost impossible to study all the factors that influence complex human behaviors

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2020). What is holism. Simply Psychology.

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