What is Humanistic Psychology?

Throughout history many individuals and groups have affirmed the inherent value and dignity of human beings. They have spoken out against ideologies, beliefs and practices which held people to be merely the means for accomplishing economic and political ends. They have reminded their contemporaries that the purpose of institutions is to serve and advance the freedom and power of their members. In Western civilization we honor the times and places, such as Classical Greece and Europe of the Renaissance, when such affirmations were expressed.

Humanistic Psychology is a contemporary manifestation of that ongoing commitment. Its message is a response to the denigration of the human spirit that has so often been implied in the image of the person drawn by behavioral and social sciences.

During the first half of the twentieth century, American psychology was dominated by two schools of thought: behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Neither fully acknowledged the possibility of studying values, intentions and meaning as elements in conscious existence. Although various European perspectives such as phenomenology had some limited influence, on the whole mainstream American psychology had been captured by the mechanistic beliefs of behaviorism and by the biological reductionism and determinism of classical psychoanalysis.

Ivan Pavlov's work with the conditioned reflex (induced under rigid laboratory controls, empirically observable and quantifiable) had given birth to an academic psychology in the United States led by John Watson which came to be called "the science of behavior" (in Abraham Maslow's later terminology, "The First Force"). Its emphasis on objectivity was reinforced by the success of the powerful methodologies employed in the natural sciences and by the philosophical investigations of the British empiricists, logical positivists and the operationalists, all of whom sought to apply the methods and values of the physical sciences to questions of human behavior. Valuable knowledge (particularly in learning theory and the study of sensation and perception) was achieved in this quest. But if something was gained, something was also lost: The "First Force" systematically excluded the subjective data of consciousness and much information bearing on the complexity of the human personality and its development.

The "Second Force" emerged out of Freudian psychoanalysis and the depth psychologies of Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Otto Rank, Harry Stack Sullivan and others. These theorists focused on the dynamic unconscious - the depths of the human psyche whose contents, they asserted, must be integrated with those of the conscious mind in order to produce a healthy human personality . The founders of the depth psychologies believed (with several variations) that human behavior is principally determined by what occurs in the unconscious mind. So, where the behaviorists ignored consciousness because they felt that its essential privacy and subjectivity rendered it inaccessible to scientific study, the depth psychologists tended to regard it as the relatively superficial expression of unconscious drives.

" An assumption unusual in psychology today is that the subjective human being has an important value which is basic; that no matter how he may be labeled and evaluated he is a human person first of all, and most deeply. " Carl Rogers, 1962

By the late 1950's a "Third Force" was beginning to form. In 1957 and 1958, at the invitation of Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas, two meetings were held in Detroit among psychologists who were interested in founding a professional association dedicated to a more meaningful, more humanistic vision. They discussed several themes - such as self, self-actualization, health, creativity, intrinsic nature, being, becoming, individuality, and meaning - which they believed likely to become central concerns of such an approach to psychology. In 1961, with the sponsorship of Brandeis University, this movement was formally launched as the American Association for Humanistic Psychology. The first issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology appeared as "The Phoenix" in December, 1963.

In 1964, at Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the first invitational conference was held, an historic gathering that did much to establish the character of the new movement. Attendees included psychologists, among whom were Gordon Allport, J.F.T. Bugental, Charlotte Buhler, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Gardner Murphy, Henry Murray and Carl Rogers, as well as humanists from other disciplines, such as Jacques Barzun, Rene Dubos and Floyd Matson.

The conferees questioned why the two dominant versions of psychology did not deal with human beings as uniquely human nor with many of the real problems of human life. They agreed that if psychology were to become more than a narrow academic discipline limited by the biases of behaviorism, and if it were to study human attributes such as values and self-consciousness that the depth psychologists had chosen to de-emphasize, their "Third Force" would have to offer a fuller concept and experience of what it means to be human.

By this time the term "human psychology" was in general use. It reflected many of the values expressed by the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Renaissance Europeans, and others who have attempted to study those qualities that are unique to human life and that make possible such essentially human phenomena as love, self-consciousness, self-determination, personal freedom, greed, lust for power, cruelty, morality, art, philosophy, religion, literature, and science.

Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Rollo May, who had participated in the conference at Old Saybrook, remained the movement's most respected intellectual leaders for the decades that followed. Maslow( see Extracts from the writings of Abraham H. Maslow, Abraham H. Maslow Bibliography Compiled by Maurice Bassett and A Brief Biography of A.H. Maslow) developed a hierarchical theory of human motivation which asserted that when certain basic needs are provided for, higher motives toward self-actualization can emerge.

Rogers introduced person-centered therapy, which holds that intrinsic tendencies toward self-actualization can be expressed in a therapeutic relationship in which the therapist offers personal congruence, unconditional positive regard and accurate empathic understanding.

Thus Maslow and Rogers embraced self-actualization both as an empirical principle and an ethical idea. Their vision of human nature as intrinsically good became a major theme of the "human potential" movement, but was criticized by some other humanistic psychologists as an inadequate model of the human experience.

Rollo May represented the European currents of existentialism and phenomenology that became influential in humanistic psychology and emphasized the inherently tragic aspects of the human condition. His books provided an enduring philosophical perspective and much-needed insight into questions involving the enduring presence of evil and suffering in the world, the nature of creativity, art and mythology, and the value of the humanities as psychological resources.

Humanistic psychology expanded its influence throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. It's impact can be understood in terms of three major areas: 1) It offered a new set of values for approaching an understanding of human nature and the human condition. 2) It offered an expanded horizon of methods of inquiry in the study of human behavior. 3) It offered a broader range of more effective methods in the professional practice of psychotherapy.

The Humanistic View of Human Behavior

Humanistic psychology is a value orientation that holds a hopeful, constructive view of human beings and of their substantial capacity to be self-determining. It is guided by a conviction that intentionality and ethical values are strong psychological forces, among the basic determinants of human behavior. This conviction leads to an effort to enhance such distinctly human qualities as choice, creativity, the interaction of the body, mind and spirit, and the capacity to become more aware, free, responsible, life-affirming and trustworthy.

Humanistic psychology acknowledges that the mind is strongly influenced by determining forces in society and in the unconscious, and that some of these are negative and destructive. Humanistic psychology nevertheless emphasizes the independent dignity and worth of human beings and their conscious capacity to develop personal competence and self respect. This value orientation has led to the development of therapies to facilitate personal and interpersonal skills and to enhance the quality of life.

Since there is much difficulty involved in inner growth, humanistic psychologists often stress the importance of courageously learning to take responsibility for oneself as one confronts personal transitions. The difficulty of encouraging personal growth is matched by the difficulty of developing appropriate institutional and organizational environments in which human beings can flourish. Clearly, societies both help and hinder human growth. Because nourishing environments can make an important contribution to the development of healthy personalities, human needs should be given priority when fashioning social policies. ,This becomes increasingly critical in a rapidly changing world threatened by such dangers as nuclear war, overpopulation and the breakdown of traditional social structures.

Many humanistic psychologists stress the importance of social change, the challenge of modifying old institutions and inventing new ones able to sustain both human development and organizational efficacy. Thus the humanistic emphasis on individual freedom should be matched by a recognition of our interdependence and our responsibilities to one another, to society and culture, and to the future.

Methods of Inquiry

All of these special concerns point toward the need for a more complete knowledge of the quality of human experience. Humanistic psychology is best known as a body of theory and systems of psychotherapy, but it is also an approach to scholarship and research, to inquiry informed by a strong sense of purpose. The purpose is to provide a level of understanding that can promote the power of personal choice and the care and effectiveness of social groups.

Humanistic psychology recognizes that human existence consists of multiple layers of reality: the physical, the organic and the symbolic. In considering these components it advocates the use of a variety of research approaches to study their characteristics and intentions. It contests the idea--traditionally held by the behavioral sciences--that the only legitimate research method is an experimental test using quantified data. It argues for the use of additional methods specifically designed to study the organic and symbolic realms.

Humanistic psychology is strongly supportive of phenomenological and clinical approaches to the study of the human position in the order of life. It also encourages the discovery of new research approaches which seek to further understand the richness in the depth of human being.

The symbolic dimension of consciousness is of special interest . It is in this realm of our lives--a uniquely human realm-- that meaning value, culture, personal decision and responsibility are expressed and manifested. The humanities are thus important resources in humanistic psychology research. Another thing the humanistic approach brings into account is the fact that society's ideas about what count s as legitimate knowledge constitutes a certain kind of power over our lives. The assumption that knowledge is confined to what can be directly perceived and publicly measured leads easily to the conclusion that personal values, meaning and decision lack a larger significance or interpretation. The value-based position taken by humanistic psychology implies a commitment to the use of research approaches that provide access to all characteristics of human existence.

Humanistic Psychotherapies

During the 1950s and 60s, Carl Rogers introduced Person Centered Psychotherapy, Roll May imported Existential Psychoanalysis from Europe and Fritz Perls developed Geslalt Therapy in his workshops and training programs at the Esalan Institute and elsewhere. In the decades to follow, humanistic psychologists have transformed the field of psychotherapy by breaking down the societal stigmas attached to "therapy", thereby popularizing the usage of humanistic approaches in healing.

First Force (behaviorism) has achieved some important successes in addressing specific behavioral problems using behavior modification and cognitive behavioral therapy, which are practical applications of B.F. Skinner's important research on operant conditioning. The Second Force (psychoanalysis) has also achieved important advances by incorporating theoretical perspectives such as ego psychology and object relations theory.

But the whole person, multi-dimensional perspective of the Third Force (humanistic psychology) has generated a broad spectrum of approaches that enormously expand the range of options for dealing with psychological, psychosomatic, psychosocial and psycho-spiritual conditions. In addition, it has emphasized that psychotherapy is not only of value in dealing with emotionally crippled, neurotic and psychotic populations. It is equally relevant to the interests of relatively healthy people who are interested in exploring the farther reaches of human potential and examining the intrinsic role we have as humans in maintaining homeostasis on the planet, otherwise known as Ecopsychology. Approaches embraced by humanistic therapists include: Bioenergetics (Wilhem Reich, Alexander Lowen), Sensory Awareness Through Movement ( Moshe Feldenkreis), Focusing (Eugene Gendin), Authentic Movement (Mary Whitehouse), Encounter (Carl Rogers, Will Schultz, National Training Lab, and many others at Esalen and elsewhere), Rational-Emotive Therapy (Albert Ellis), Reality Therapy (William Glasser), Analytical & Archetypal Psychology (C.G.Jung, James Hillman), Psychosynthesis (Roberto Assagioli), Gestalt Art Therapy (Janie Rhyne), Existential Analysis (Rollo May, James F.T.Bugental), Logotherapy (Viktor Frankl), Self-Disclosure (Sidney Jourard), Conjoint Family Therapy (Virginia Satir), and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (Richard Bandler & John Grinder).

Humanistic Psychology Today

During the 1970s and 80s, the ideas and values of humanistic psychology spread into many areas of society in the United States. As a result humanistic psychology is no longer "Humanistic Psychology". It is, of course, still represented by the Association for Humanistic Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology , as well as APA Division 32, the Division of Humanistic Psychology. However, it is also represented in a variety of APA divisions concerned with psychotherapy and issues of social concern. And it is in Transpersonal Psychology (Association for Transpersonal, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, New Age, East-West, the Consciousness Movement, Noetic Sciences); the Growth Center and Human Potential Movements; the Self-Esteem and Addiction Recovery Movements; Family Therapy, Holistic Health and Hospice, and Organizational Development and Organization Transformation. It is philosophically aligned with the post-modern philosophy of science, constructivist epistemology, structuralism, and deconstructionism. We also could include green politics, deep ecology, the feminist and gay rights movements, and the psycho-spiritual wing of the peace movement. Perhaps this is what Rollo May was pointing to when he suggested that AHP has accomplished the mission for which it was founded. This breadth, depth and diversity is representative of the world we live in and takes into account an integrated and balanced view of human nature and maintaining balance and harmony in the grand scheme of existence.

"As the world's people demand freedom and self-determination, it is urgent that we learn how diverse communities of empowered individuals, with freedom to construct their own stories and identities, might live together in mutual peace. Perhaps it is not a vain hope that is life in such communities might lead to the advance in human consciousness beyond anything we have yet experienced. "

- - Maureen O' Hara, AHP President, 1991-92

The Association of Humanistic Psychology is a worldwide community of diverse people promoting personal integrity, creative learning, and active responsibility in embracing the challenges of being human in these times. Founded in 1962, AHP is grounded in the application of the tradition in psychology.

In the past 30 years, few approaches in psychological thought have had as much influence on our culture as humanistic psychology. AHP members are proud that humanistic psychology has directly inspired many people's quest for personal growth and health, and is continuing to do so all over the world.

Our members are drawn from every continent and equally as many professions. AHP naturally attracts therapists; we also attract teachers, healers, consultants, body workers, lawyers, social workers, public servants, corporate managers, activists, futurists, and politicians. This means that personal encounter and social responsibility are at the heart of what we do. At a time when boundaries between human sciences are starting to breakdown, humanistic psychology is actively developing a shared vision among diverse communities.

Core Values AHP members are linked to each other by a shared set of values:

  • a belief in the worth of persons and dedication to the development of human potential.

  • an understanding of life as a process, change is inevitable.

  • an appreciation of the spiritual and intuitive.

  • a commitment to ecological integrity.

  • a recognition of the profound problems affecting our world and a responsibility to hope and constructive change.

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