'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."

NEXT: Little Urgency in Dealing with Fiscal Cliff

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  1. I’m trying to find a birthday present for a psychologist friend of mine. Would this be a good book for that? I can’t tell from the review whether Riggenbach thinks the book is (overall) good or not.

    1. I think it’s obvious that the author’s denigration of individual liberty is denigrated by the reviewer. Probably a no go.

      1. Well, unless NeonCat’s psychologist friend is also anti-individualist.

      2. Questioning the value of corporate profit is not anti-individual. I think we’d be hard pressed to find a psychotherapist who didn’t value personal growth over corporate profit, and this seems entirely in consonance with libertarian values.

        1. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a psychotherapist who didn’t value their own profit over their patients’ personal growth.

          Therapists are like pharmaceutical companies, they are only really interested in on-going treatment, not actually curing their patients. Someone who’s cured will stop paying, after all.

          1. You’re missing my point. A corporation is by definition not an individual. It’s a collective body. To say that questioning the value of corporate profit is somehow anti-individual is wrong headed.

            And speaking of wrong headed, if I go to the barber and he cuts my hair, I’ll be happy, even if all the while he cuts it, he’s secretly willing it to grow back quickly. Similarly, as long as the therapist does his job, his secret intentions are of little note. Are you Jimbo BTR, an American? I think by now I can smell them out. This good intentions business is a tell tale sign. Good intentions are over-rated. You should satisfy yourself with a barber who can cut a decent head of hair. The purity of his motives is not something you are competent to judge.

            1. The barber wants your head of hair to look good, and for you to be happy with it so that you’ll return as a customer. The therapist doesn’t care whether or not you have a healthy head so long as you feel the need to keep returning to his couch. “Needing” the barber is essentially different than “needing” the therapist, just like needing fresh air is qualitatively different than needing drugs.

              1. The secret desires and cares of barbers and therapists are immaterial. Clients judge them on the service they deliver.

                This concern over good intentions and an inner purity by libertarians is noteworthy. I suppose it stems from a deep mistrust of others.

  2. …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.”

    Uh, yeah… except for when he was supporting reparations as transfer-payments from whites to blacks 100 years after slavery ended, Dr. King was all about 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.

    It’s probably for the best that she didn’t say that in so many words since it’s a steaming pile of horse shit. The 60’s and 70’s were characterized by a lurching move toward collectivism and the utter destruction of the individual outside of a more cohesive “community”. The only difference among the leftists of the time was how broad that community was – local, regional, global, etc.

    1. I’m not sure how supporting public schools, “free” healthcare and state control of industry, Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh is “individualist.”

      1. Also Riggenbach is one of those anarchists who buys whole hog into the left/right paradigm and a left-libertarian that thinks that libertarians can’t ally with the right and should ally with the left because of Grover Cleveland.

    2. Yeah, but we can fuck who we want, and make those people over there pay for it. That’s gotta count for something. Choice. Doin’ my thing

  3. What a load of cosmatarian crap. This idiot speaks glowingly of “self-esteem.” Self esteem is a left wing egalitarian pile of horseshit that says that all are equal, and that if you are a failure at life you should be proud and if you are a success you shouldn’t be proud, lest you damage someone else’s “self esteem.” As for the “do your own thing” sentiment, what they really meant was “I’m doin’ my own thing, but when you do your own thing, it affects me, ’cause I gotta eat man, so, chop chop, out to the fields man.” The whole sentiment of “do your own thing and never be criticized for it” is incompatible with libertarianism anyway. Libertarianism demands individual responsibility, and that doesn’t stop at the bedroom door. Individual responsibility as a virtue demands that the individual behave responsibly. That doesn’t mean that the state should force these behaviors on people. But as these behaviors lead to negative results both for the individual and society(i.e. single mothers going on welfare, a libertarian should condemn them)

    1. Fuck man, you’re such a projection spewing collectivist. You want people to take responsibility for themselves (which I agree) then you demand that “the individual behave responsibly” according to your standards.

      The former, individual responsibility–being responsible for what befalls your (e.g. getting into debt, alcoholism, etc) is an objective issue, the later, your demands of how individuals behave, is subjective and once again, an excuse for your anti-libertarian bullshit.

      NO ONE is saying “do your own thing and never be criticized for it“. Total strawman. Here’s what you don’t understand. You expect your fucking opinion to go unchallenged. Again, pot-meets-kettle projection. You’re judging other people? Fine. But every time you’re challenged, you retort by calling them cosmo and calling them anti-liberty.

      You keep on projecting your own goddamn Mommy problems on everyone else–yeah I remember your own single mom issue. And your idiocy comes by putting the onus of all the ills you perceive on individuals doing their own thing and not objectively bothering anyone else.

      You don’t like the idea “do your own thing AND being responsible for your own consequences (NOT society’s)” because you’re fucking powerless to do anything about it.

      1. You keep claiming as “not compatible” as your rationale, but do you even know what libertarianism is? Self-ownership. Property rights. The NAP. The biggest problem is that your claims on responsibility violates that. What vectors of actual force can you trace back to individuals doing things you disapprove of?

        1. “The biggest problem is that your claims on responsibility violates that.”
          How so? I said “That doesn’t mean that the state should force these behaviors on people.” How does that violate those sacred principles?
          You say that we should not condemn other people, only say that they are responsible for their own actions? So let’s see what happens. A woman fucks five guys at a party. She gets pregnent. She is “responsible for her own actions, right?” So if she can’t afford an abortion, she is forced to have the baby. The baby has got to eat, right? We can’t just let it starve. So either the state pays for it or private charity pays for it, either way others are left to deal with HER decision.(A new mother cannot work and take care of her kid at the same time, it is impossible) So let’s say we have libertarianism. As the women don’t want that to happen to them, they rediscover traditional families. So we don’t need to advocate traditional families, right? Our enemies will use that against us, so-called “wedge issues” to convince women to support socialism. If we say, as these idiot cosmatarians do, that yes, the traditional family is bad, then the left would ask us why we support a system that will drag women back to them.

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