Humanistic psychology is a movement within American psychology that flourished in academic psychology roughly from the 1940s to the early 1970s. It is most visible today as a family of widely used approaches to psychotherapy and counseling.
As a psychology and as a psychotherapy, humanistic psychology rests on four core assumptions about psychological life:
- From infancy to old age, human beings strive to actualize their highest potentials as unique selves at the same time that they establish and maintain close mutual connections with others.
- When this drive is frustrated by adverse environmental circumstances, people will attempt to realize self and relational potentials through processes of adaptation that result in psychological distress and eventually to suboptimal personality patterns.
- People, including those with serious psychological problems, possess enormous inner resources for self-regulation and self-healing that can be accessed in the service of recovery, growth, and self-transcendence.
- Healing, self-actualization, and individual and collective emancipation is facilitated by participation in relationships characterized by a few key interpersonal conditions, namely mutual respect, warmth, acceptance, genuineness, and empathy.
Humanistic psychology was identified as a “third force” to psychoanalysis and behaviorism and provided many of the ideas about human nature and psychological growth that has fueled the Human Potential Movement and popular psychology from the 1960s to the present. Humanistic psychologists not only suggested integrating psychology around a common theme of the experiencing person or self, but also held the promise of initiating a new and unprecedented dialogue between science and the humanities within the structure of the Western university system. In 1941, Carl Rogers, a counseling psychologist, introduced the technique of client-centered or nondirective therapy, the first successful and uniquely American challenge to Viennese psychoanalysis, which dominated clinical psychology and psychiatry at the time. A disciplined scientist, he reported the results of the first large-scale research into the psychotherapy process in the groundbreaking volume Client-Centered Therapy (1951). In 1956 he was recognized by the American Psychological Association with an award for his contribution to psychological science. In 1954, Abraham Maslow, a comparative animal psychologist interested in human motivation, introduced the idea of the self-actualizing personality—that our definition of normality should be based on the best examples of humanity, not on a comparison with psychopathology or as defined by a mere statistical average. In 1961, Rollo May edited a collection of essays entitled Existential Psychology, and along with Henri Ellenberger and others became a central figure uniting the separate European traditions of existentialism and phenomenology under the umbrella of humanistic psychology in the form of existential-phenomenological psychotherapy.
Thereafter, others such as Charlotte Buhler, Clark Moustakas, James Bugental, Adrian van Kaam, and Sydney Jourard wrote tirelessly on humanistic themes in psychology. It was Rogers. Maslow, and May, however, who, in the face of formidable opposition from behaviorists and psychoanalysts alike, collectively established a new norm for psychology as a whole, declaring that humanistic psychology, at the center of their vision of a transformed discipline, was person-centered, growth-oriented, and existential in orientation, and that its agenda was to put reductionistic experimentalism on notice that the era of its almost complete hegemony was about to end.
Against this backdrop were figures out in the wider culture, such as Alan Watts, a student of Zen teachings and a minister by training; his teacher. the aging D. T. Suzuki: the former theosophist Jiddhu Krishnamurti; Indian yogis such as Swami Rama; psycho-physiologists such as Elmer and Alyce Green; religious philosophers like Huston Smith: and Vedantic practitioners such as Aldous Huxley, who introduced Westerners to concepts of consciousness and techniques of meditation drawn from classical Asian psychology and world religions. This was also the era when psychedelic drugs were first introduced into the general population. These influences combined to produce a widespread effect that was largely responsible for the development of a values-laden spiritual psychology of the person, which has dominated the popular psychology of the twentieth century.
Humanistic psychology, which began originally as a legitimate form of academic discourse, did not appear on the scene de novo, however, but had grown out of the older personality and social psychologies developed by previous figures such as Gordon Allport, Henry A. Murray, and Gardner Murphy during the 1920s and 1930s. These older psychologists had been the first generation after William James to successfully resist the takeover of academic psychology, which in James’s time meant the structuralism of Titchener and Hugo Munsterberg and the atomism of Cattell and Witmer, and later the conditioning theories of Pavlov and Watson. After 1930, it meant the laboratory experimentalism of Boring, Stevens, Karl Lashley, Hull, and Toleman.
After the era of the personality-social psychologists, humanistic psychologists carried on this debate, which raged at the national level into the early 1960s. The most notable of these exchanges was carried on in public between Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner on at least four separate occasions between 1956 and 1964 (Kirschenbaum & Henderson. 1989).
Humanistic psychology was always more than an academic discipline, and from its earliest days engaged the maverick countercultural side of the American psyche. Beginning in 1949, Abraham Maslow had been in constant contact with the California psychotherapist Anthony Sutich, and the two maintained mailing lists of a nascent but invisible movement of hundreds of professionals across several disciplines dissatisfied with the behaviorist turn that American psychology had taken, and who were interested in seeing the evolution of a new kind of psychology. Such interest reached a critical mass in 1961, when the Journal of Humanistic Psychology was officially launched, with Sutich as editor and Maslow as contributor. Their informal mailing list became the first official list of subscribers, a group that formally banded together that same year to found the American Association for Humanistic Psychology (AAHP) in order to financially support the journal.
Over the next 2 years, the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, was officially founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price and launched its first programs in human potential with workshops by Willis Harman, Alan Watts, and others, spawning a national but informal network of similar growth centers fostering the new psychology. Meanwhile, the first official meeting of the AAHP convened in Philadelphia in 1963, attended by 75 people. At that meeting, James F. T. Bugental, an existential psychotherapist and author of a then recently published and widely read article, “Humanistic Psychology: A New Breakthrough,” was elected president. Also at that same meeting, a committee on Theory for Humanistic Psychology was founded, chaired by Robert Knapp of Wesleyan University.
The following year, in November 1964, Knapp convened the first Old Saybrook Conference in Saybrook, Connecticut, where Allport, Murray, Murphy, and others of the older generation of established personality theorists, such as George Kelley and Robert White, met together with Maslow, Rogers, May, Bugental, Moustakas, Buhler, and others such as Floyd Matson and Anthony Sutich to discuss the origins and future of their ideas and to pass the torch from the older to the new generation of theorists. Most of the papers were published the following year in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.
Meanwhile, new developments in humanistic psychology were accelerating within both mainstream psychology and the burgeoning psychotherapeutic counterculture. In 1965, Gestalt therapy’s creator Fritz Perls, body worker Charlotte Selver, and encounter group popularizer Will Schutz established themselves at Esalen and were instrumental in generating boom times for the human potential movement after 1969. In 1966, an innovative program in humanistic psychology at Sonoma State University was launched as part of the school’s extension program, and within this context. Eleanor Crisswell, a professor of psychology there, first proposed the formation of the Humanistic Psychology Institute, envisioned as the Ph.D.-granting wing of the new movement. In 1971, in co-sponsorship with the AAHP, this program was officially launched, and in 1981 became fully accredited as an M.A. and Ph.D. program in psychology and human science under the present name of the Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center.
Also, by the late 1960s, the new humanistic orientation was reaching into sociology, anthropology, nursing, dentistry, and elsewhere. In 1968, Harvard Business School professor Anthony Athos published Behavior in Organizations. a text inspired by the theories of Maslow and Rogers, which launched the new field of organizational behavior in business schools throughout the United States. In 1969, West Georgia College in Carrollton, Georgia, founded an official graduate program in humanistic psychology. These events heralded the establishment of other academic programs elsewhere, such as the history of consciousness Ph.D. program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, as well as undergraduate programs at Johnson College at the University of the Red-lands, Oberlin College and Antioch College in Ohio, and Goddard College in Vermont.
Humanistic psychology also found one of its largest followings within the field of pastoral counseling, especially with the development of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. California. In 1971, as a measure of how widespread the humanistic impulse had become even in American academic and clinical psychology. a group of influential psychologists within the American Psychological Association gathered enough signatures to found Division 32, the Division of Humanistic Psychology. It is now in its twenty-seventh year of existence and maintains both a newsletter and an APA-approved journal, the Humanistic Psychologist.
At the same time that Division 32 was being launched, similar developments were occurring within the American psychotherapeutic counterculture. In 1968, the AAHP held its annual conference at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, and. rather than the usual staid presentation of intellectual papers, scandalized the hotel’s management by staging a snake dance through the lobby. That same year Carl Rogers had left academia and joined a group in La Jolla, California, which formed the Center for Studies of the Person. After that, Rogers’s research career slowed to a standstill as he, like so many of his colleagues, became caught up in the exuberance of a social revolution that had its epicenter in California.
These events were early indications that in America at least, the serious intellectual and academic agenda of humanistic psychology had been effectively highjacked by the more flamboyant and immensely popular Human Potential Movement.
At the meeting of the AAHP in Silver Springs, Maryland, in 1969, the A in the organization’s title, referring to ‘American.” was officially dropped because by then it had become an international movement. (By 1972, conferences were being held in London, Stockholm, Moscow, Hong Kong, Canton, Peking, Tokyo, and Hawaii.) That year the new AHP cosponsored, with the Menninger Foundation, the first of several conferences on the Voluntary Control of Internal States, held at Council Grove, Kansas. These proved to be the important transitional meetings leading to the formation of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology in 1973, and established technologies such as biofeedback and meditation as important methods in the new psychology. To cap these events, Charles Tart. a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, also in 1969 released his pioneering text Altered States of Consciousness, which quickly became the bible of the new psychological movement.
Maslow was also elected president of the American Psychological Association for the 1968-1969 academic year, but suffered a heart attack and continued only in a somewhat diminished capacity. He died in 1970. Afterward, humanistic psychology as an academic endeavor became almost completely absorbed by the American psychotherapeutic counterculture, which was destined to become the folk psychology of the late twentieth century,
At this time the once vigorous theoretically coherent movement appears to have fragmented into four general streams:
- Psychotherapy and counseling, particularly in the nonmedical arena.
- Transpersonal interest in meditation and altered states of consciousness.
- Experiential encounter groups, human relations training, personal growth programs, self-help groups, and somatic body work therapy.
- Human science, meaning deconstructionism, constructivism, radical feminism, political psychology, philosophical psychology, peace psychology, and critical psychology.
Despite valiant efforts to stem the rising tide of cognitive behaviorism, such as Amedeo Giorgi’s trenchant phenomenological critique Psychology as a Human Science (1970) and the publication of Irvin Child’s Humanistic Psychology and the Research Tradition: Their Several Virtues (1973), humanistic psychology as a force for shaping academic psychology has remained in eclipse since its heyday in the 1970s. It does, however, reflect a significant portion of the nonmedical psychotherapy practitioner movement, and counseling, psychotherapy, and human-relations training based on humanistic psychology theories and practice probably accounts for a majority of psychological practice now going on in the United States.
Eclipsed but not extinguished. a smaller but committed worldwide community of scholars continue the humanistic tradition in critical research and person-centered practice. Within departments of psychology in American universities, psychotherapy courses and counseling courses continue to teach the Rogerian therapist skills (even if unacknowledged as such) as the foundation of all clinical training, but in-depth clinical training in explicitly humanistic psychologies such as person-centered therapy, Gestalt therapy, and existential psychotherapy is for the most part conducted in free-standing training institutes that thrive worldwide.
Recent research has given new support for the effectiveness of humanistic psychotherapies and has reaffirmed Rogers’s 50-year-old observations that it is the client’s own resources for change within the context of an accepting, honest, and empathic relationship that is the key to all successful psychotherapy outcome. Under increasing pressure from movements within the American Psychological Association to standardize and regulate the professional practice of psychology throughout the United States, the Consortium for Diversified Graduate Programs in Psychology was launched in 1988 as a way for humanistically oriented institutes and accredited psychology departments to network together and to propose coherent humanistic psychology curricula, person-centered research methods, and alternative accreditation standards for programs of psychology.
In 1997, a group from within Division 32 of the APA coauthored a manifesto, published in the Humanistic Psychologist in the spring of 1997, proposing a set of humanistic orienting guidelines with which to evaluate humanistic psychological practice. This was in response to a similar set of guidelines published the year before by the APA, and influenced by the managed-care-driven industrialization of mental health care, which proposes to move American clinical psychology into the behavioral medical technology camp once and for all.
The Rollo May Center for Humanistic Studies was founded at Saybrook Graduate School in the late 1980s to foster the ideals of humanistic psychology. In 1997, with a grant from a major donor, the University of Southern California established a new endowed chair in humanistic psychology, and that year researchers, academics. and psychotherapists from over 22 countries across five continents founded the World Association for the person-centered approach to support the survival and development of humanistic psychologies into the twenty-first century.
Humanistic Psychology Bibliography:
- Maslow. A. H. (1968). Towards a psychology of being (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand. Maslow’s influential seminal essay in which he introduces a growth-centered psychology, self-actualization theory, and his “hierarchy of needs” concept of human motivation.
- Rogers. C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Provides the best overview of Rogers’s philosophy, theories, and research findings about the actualizing tendency and the interpersonal conditions that facilitate psychological growth and healing.
Academic and Professional Psychology
- Kirschenbaum, H., & Henderson, V. L. (Eds.). (1989). Carl Rogers: Dialogues. New York: Houghton Mifflin. Verbatim transcripts of dialogues with Paul Tillich. Gregory Bateson. Michael Polanyi. Rollo May, and other significant figures in the evolution of humanistic thinking in psychology. It contains one of the historic debates between Rogers and Skinner.
- Maslow. A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality (Rev. ed.). New York: Harper & Row. Provides a general theory of human motivation emphasizing self-actualizing theory and Maslow’s research data. Applications of the theory are made to the philosophy of science, the process of psychotherapy, and higher states of mind.
- May, R. (1977). The meaning of anxiety (Rev. ed.). New York: Norton. Challenges the view of anxiety as a symptom of illness and explores the existentialist position that anxiety is best understood as a natural result of confrontation with the existential givens of life and death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.
- Perls, E S., Hefferline, R. E. & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy. New York: Julian Press. This definitive volume on Gestalt therapy includes a theory of psychological development, personality change, psychotherapy techniques, and self-help exercises aimed at the personal-growth seeker.
- Rogers. C. R (1951). Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. The definitive statement of Rogers’s main ideas. It includes the results of a large-scale multiple-author research project into the process and outcome of client-centered counseling and psychotherapy. It describes the first use of audio recording of psychotherapy as a research tool.
- van Kaam, A. (1966). Existential foundations of psychology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. An influential early discussion of the radical implications of the existentialist view for American psychology. Includes an explanation of phenomenology as a basic research methodology for the new perspectivist view.
Reviews and Overviews
- Rice, L. N., & Greenberg, L. S. (1992). Humanistic approaches to psychotherapy. In D. K. Freedman (Ed.). History of psychotherapy: A century of change. Washington. DC: American Psychological Association. This review of history includes an extensive bibliography of primary sources on client-centered therapy. Gestalt therapy, and phenomenology.
- Tageson. W. C. (1982). Humanistic psychology: A synthesis. Homewood. IL: Dorsey Press. The most widely used college textbook.
- Wertz. F. J. (Ed.). (1993). The humanistic movement: Recovering the person in psychology. Lake Worth. FL: Gardner Press. Published first as a double issue of the Humanistic Psychologist, it includes essays by many of the field’s contemporary voices.