A Brief History of Humanistic Psychology

A world-wide surge of interest in what human beings could be and could become started in the 1940s, grew slowly in the 1950s, grew much more quickly in the ’60s and finally reached its full flowering in the 1970s. Today it is consolidating itself, and becoming more widely accepted,  with Humanistic Psychology now part of the mainstream, rather than being something new and unfamiliar. It is no longer unfashionable to admit that you are interested in understanding yourself and what you might be or become, and in the emotional and spiritual dimensions of human experience  In fact the ‘new’ positive psychology movement has much in common with Humanistic Psychology, and the ‘new’ approaches to coaching have taken much from the humanistic tradition, particularly when working with organisations.

In the process of change and development, a number of different names and titles have been used. Sometimes it has been called ‘third force psychology’ (the other two being psychoanalysis and behaviourism – now more commonly termed the ‘cognitive-behavioural’ approach); sometimes the ‘self-awareness movement’ (because awareness seemed to be quite a key word); sometimes the ‘Human Potential movement’ (because of its insistence that the average and the normal are actually less than average and less than normal); and sometimes just ‘personal growth’, because of its belief that people could continue to grow beyond their usual limits, if they were allowed to. Today it is less of a movement and more of a tendency or approach within the whole field of self-development. The full story can be followed now in books like those of  DeCarvalho (1991), Moss (1999), Rowan (2001), Whitton (2003), Schneider et al. (2014), Cain et. al. (2015), Rowan (2016) and House et al. (2017) (see References and Resources section for a full listing of relevant humanistic texts).

In the early days, one man was the pioneer of this way of looking at the world: Abraham Maslow. He was an academic psychologist who later became president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Maslow put forward the key idea of self-actualisation: the idea that our purpose in life is to go on with a process of development which starts out in early life but often gets blocked later. He was joined by others such as Carl Rogers (another president of the APA), Charlotte Buhler, Roberto Assagioli, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, Kurt Goldstein, Sidney Jourard, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas, Ira Progoff, Jean Houston, Alvin Mahrer and others. It is important to point out that Humanistic Psychology is not to be reduced to Maslow and Rogers, as if they represent a sufficiently broad definition. Others who are important include Rollo May, Jacob Moreno, Fritz Perls, Alvin Mahrer and many others, as the books just quoted make clear. The simplistic Maslow/Rogers reduction is unfortunately all too common in today’s psychology textbooks.

One of the most characteristic features of this approach is that it lays a great deal of emphasis upon personal experience: it is not enough to read about it in books. And so this movement produced a unique kind of institution, which had never existed before – the growth centre. A growth centre is a place where you can go and be encouraged to meet other people and meet yourself. This idea of meeting yourself is unique. No one had ever talked about that before, except in a rather forbidding way connected with illness or personal problems, or perhaps as part of a religious group. But the growth centre is for everyone who feels that there is more… – there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with them. And there they find an encouraging atmosphere. If you go to one, you will find yourself in an atmosphere which enables you to open up and trust the situation enough so that you can move forward – maybe even sometimes leap forward – in self-understanding and human relationships. It is open to all – you don’t have to be sick or troubled in order to go. In the USA the Esalen Institute is still going, and so is the Open Centre in London, England.

Today there are fewer growth centres than there were, because the general approach has been adopted much more widely in the mainstream. Most courses which teach about dealing with other people now include some emphasis on understanding yourself, typically using humanistic thinking and humanistic methods – often unacknowledged. They have to, because any attempt to understand or work with others on any kind of emotional level has to involve some self-understanding, some self-awareness. And this is the heartland of Humanistic Psychology.

In the year 2000 there was a big humanistic conference, called Old Saybrook 2, and this led to a bursting forth of new books and new thinking about the humanistic approach. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology (2001) put together over 700 pages of new thinking covering vast ranges of the psychological landscape; the very important Handbook of Action Research (2001) is not entirely humanistic, but does contain important humanistic and transpersonal material; Humanistic Psychotherapies (2002) comprised another 700 pages of research and practice.

In today’s world, with its fierce challenges, rapid changes and hard lessons, we have to know ourselves much better, and how to relate to others much better, if we are to survive at all. But we can do much more than survive – we can realise our potential. We can be all that we have it in us to be.

Read a further extract on the theory of Humanistic Psychology: John Rowan – Theory of Humanistic Psychology. The above text was adapted from a booklet – ‘The Guide to Humanistic Psychology’, written by the late elder of British Humanistic Psychology, John Rowan.

References and Resources

Cain, D.J.,, Keenan, K., & Rubin, S. (eds) (2015). Humanistic Psychotherapies: Handbook of Research and Practice, 2nd edn. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association (1st edn, 2002).

DeCarvalho, J. (1991). The Founders of Humanistic Psychology. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers.

Hoffman, L. (ed.) (2019). Humanistic Approaches to Multiculturalism and Diversity: Perspectives on Existence and Difference. New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

House, R., Kalisch, D. & Maidman, J. (eds) (2017). Humanistic Psychology: Current Trends, Future Prospects. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Moss, D. (ed.) (1999). Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology: A Historical and Biographical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Rowan, J. (2001). Ordinary Ecstasy: The Dialectics of Humanistic Psychology. London: Routledge (1st edn, 1976).

Rowan, J. (2016). The Reality Game: A Guide to Humanistic Counselling and Psychotherapy, 3rd edn. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge (1st edn, 1983).

Schneider, K.J., Pierson, J.F. & Bugental, J.F.T (eds) (2014). The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Theory, Research, and Practice. Thousand Oaks, Calif. and London: Sage (1st edn, 2001).

Schneider, K.J. & Krug, O.T. (2017). Existential-Humanistic Therapy, 2nd edn. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association (1st edn, 2012).

Sutich, A.J. & Vich, M.A. (eds) (1969). Readings in Humanistic Psychology. New York: The Free Press.

Whitton, E. (2003). Humanistic Approach to Psychotherapy. London: Whurr/John Wiley.

Totton, N. (2010). The Problem with the Humanistic Therapies. London: Karnac.