'I Do My Thing and You Do Your Thing'

When psychologists discovered individualism.


Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self, by Jessica Grogan, Harper Perennial, 412 pages, $14.99

Once upon a time in America (it was just after World War II), mainstream psychology came in two and only two forms. There was behaviorism and there was psychoanalysis, and no one with any other intellectual orientation need apply. The theorists on campuses were behaviorists; the therapists in offices were psychoanalysts.

Then came the revolution led by the humanistic psychologists, beginning in the 1950s and rapidly gaining strength through the 1960s and early '70s. It brought encounter groups, regional "growth centers" like Northern California's notorious "clothing optional" Esalen Institute, experimentation with LSD and other psychedelic drugs, and "client-centered therapy." Nothing was ever the same again.

This is the story the cultural historian Jessica Grogan tells in Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self. Her narrative bogs down in spots, mainly because of her penchant for uselessly precise detail. Was there a conference of humanistic psychologists held during the 1950s, '60s, or '70s at which Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May did not present a paper? Grogan proudly presents the exact title of the paper in each and every case, along with a précis of its content. The chief effect is to show the extent to which these men said the same thing over and over. Then there's a 30-page chapter that makes a heroic but rather pointless effort to connect humanistic psychology and the civil rights movement. Its content could be fairly summarized in one sentence: A few humanistic psychologists tried to adapt the encounter group and make it a tool to promote greater racial harmony, but nothing came of their efforts.

Grogan does provide serviceable sketches of the lives and careers of Rogers, Maslow, and May. She's also good on the intellectual diversity of the humanistic psychologists. From the beginning, she writes, there were "fissures built into the movement," for its members held "many disparate views of health, human nature, motivation, and behavior." Humanistic psychology, she writes, was more "a broadly encompassing orientation" than "any one specific theory." She notes that "within psychology and psychotherapy," the rebellious spirit of the '60s "didn't manifest as a [new] consensus in which all scholars and practitioners agreed they had found a universal theory or methodological approach that would reign supreme. Instead, it manifested as a dissolution of consensus," so that "a plethora of diverse psychological theories, services, and techniques were now emerging."

What might all these diverse theories, services, and techniques have been said to have in common, so that they all fit under the "broadly encompassing orientation" of humanistic psychology? They were all devoted to the proposition that human beings were individuals, not interchangeable machines whose behavior could be predicted experimentally and whose "mental woes," as Vladimir Nabokov famously put it, could "be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts." They all believed that the human individual came "hard wired," as it were, for personal growth, and that the purpose of therapy was to create and sustain an environment in which the obstacles so commonly thrown up by social institutions to personal growth, self-actualization, and realization of one's potential were deactivated, so that the client could, in effect "cure" him- or herself. They all believed that psychological health meant something more than merely being free from mental illness, that it comprised a set of specifiable (and to some extent measurable) personal qualities such as self-esteem, self-confidence, and openness to experience.

As her subtitle suggests, Grogan is eager to see the humanistic psychologists of (roughly) 1950 to 1975 as both exemplars and influencers of the Zeitgeist. Her efforts in that direction are hampered, however, by her failure to clearly identify precisely what that Zeitgeist was. She comes perilously close to doing so on several occasions, as when she writes that the people of the era in question "seemed…anxious to be free of institutional constraints," and when she describes political activists of the period like Martin Luther King, Jr. as hoping that "social change…would come about by placing a greater value on the individual." She even credits the New Left (which she sees as the primary voice of the political spirit of the time) as having "proclaim[ed] its regard for the self-determining individual." Yet never does she say in so many words that individualism was the characteristic spirit of the '60s and '70s.

Probably it would have made her a bit uncomfortable to do so. For Grogan doesn't really approve of individualism. She writes on the very first page of her book that "humanistic psychologists were keenly attuned" to the "truth…that individuals in all their messy complexity should remain at the heart of psychological study and practice." Yet, within no more than five pages, she is lamenting such "distortions of humanistic psychology" as "talk shows and self-help books" that "tout the importance of being true to our inner selves" and "encourage selfishness." Selfishness, you see, is "one of the most toxic themes of American culture." Just look at it here, in all its awful repugnance, in the "Gestalt Prayer" of humanistic psychotherapist Fritz Perls:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.

One can almost see Grogan's curled lip and hear the disdain in her voice as she quotes this perfectly reasonable and realistic sentiment, and as she deplores the "often destructive permissiveness" that she says became virtually "the rule" at "growth centers" like Esalen during the late 1960s. She complains bitterly about the way in which the counterculture of the period "distrust[ed] all authority" and "expressed a blind allegiance to absolute freedom that rested on the assumption that human nature was fundamentally good." She complains that "the leaders of humanistic psychology seemed incapable of adequately considering anything beyond the distinct individual" and seemed to envision an American society remade one individual at a time.

Worse yet, the encounter groups these psychologists led "seemed to unwittingly encourage the development of negative characteristics like self-focus [and] hedonism." It wasn't long, according to Grogan, before the humanistic psychology movement as a whole developed "a reputation for being overly individualistic and encouraging of narcissism."

One result of that, needless to say, was that individuals began to act in ways intended to benefit themselves—for example, by starting businesses and attempting to make a profit. Grogan doesn't really approve of profit. She writes of "the potential for businesses to misuse humanistic principles in the ruthless pursuit of profit" and notes that the humanistic psychology movement "did little, if anything, to eradicate the baser profit motives of corporate leaders" during the 1960s and '70s, though it did come to exercise considerable influence on management theory at that time.

Grogan seems unable to make up her mind whether humanistic psychology is still with us. In the very first sentence of her text, she identifies her subject as "a movement that originated in the 1950s, formally emerged in the 1960s, and ignited, before burning out, in the 1970s." Within a handful of pages, however, she's entertaining the hypothesis that it never did really burn out, "that the ideas and practices of humanistic psychology have dispersed so widely and thoroughly they've become virtually undetectable—they're the air we breathe." And though she continues to write from time to time throughout the rest of the book about the supposed demise of the movement, by book's end, she seems to have persuaded herself at last of her alternative hypothesis, writing that "if we measure the extent to which the leading concepts of humanistic psychology have pervaded our culture…we might deem the movement a whopping success. The language of humanistic psychology is everywhere: humanistic ideas of self, growth, health, individual potential, and relation are now woven into the very fabric of our thoughts and perceptions. The fundamentals of 'humanistic' communication, encounter, and expression populate our interactions with our spouses, our employees and bosses, our friends and children. They ring from the lips of our talk show hosts, and they populate our self-help shelves."