Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

Are We Stuck in the 1950s?

Humanistic psychologists' critique of American psychology still rings true.

In the 1950s, a group of psychologists, who would later be called humanistic psychologists, tried to address the problems they had with professional and academic psychology. As the leader of this group, Maslow wrote:

I’m trying to shake the ground beneath clinical psychology. It’s too confident, too technological, too proud. But all its concepts are moot. What is ‘cure’? ‘Illness’? ‘Health’? There should be more humility, more fear and trembling.

Maslow and others argued that psychologists were unabashedly concerned with people fitting in, unwittingly punishing of people who deviated from the norm, and uncritically focused on problems and weaknesses rather than strengths. He described the field as overly concerned with objectivity and expertise—qualities which in their absolute forms would elude even the most savvy psychological researchers.

That Maslow saw psychology in this way during the 1950s probably doesn’t surprise us. We tend to think of 1950s culture as the embodiment of these themes. The cultural adjustment focus seemed fear-driven, with children literally crouching under their desks to hide from the bomb and adults racing to out-conform each other with fancier dishwashers and television sets. Scientific progress was life or death; it seemed to mean the difference between the continuation of the world as we knew it and the possible end of life on earth.

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What might surprise us, though, is that Maslow would probably have the same critique of our current cultural moment. 

We like to think of ourselves as technologically advanced, psychologically sophisticated, and culturally evolved. And we like to think of the field of psychology as, by the grace of good science, having progressed far beyond the most embarrassing aspects of its history. But we’re still operating on the same terms. We’re still too focused on pathologizing deviation (and we’re still pretty bad at it, as the recent DSM debate on the diagnosis of personality disorders suggests), and still unwilling to account for the personal and cultural values that guide diagnosis and any research study. We still think that if our scientific methods and technologies are more elegant and our variables less confounded, we will be able to crack the mystery of the human psyche, even though we’re finding more and more that disorders once thought to be entirely brain-based are tangled up in social, personal, and cultural contexts.

What Maslow said then, and what we should still think about now, is that human beings will evade accurate categorization and successful scientific scrutiny at every turn. Our best bet, he argued, is to make science bigger, rather than more targeted. It should include more data, not less. We should view problems from more angles, not fewer. We shouldn’t look for the ultimate answers in a field like neuroscience, but should add findings from neuroscience to our already rich arsenal. Just as humanistic psychologists like Maslow meant not to discard the insights of psychoanalysis and behaviorism, but to build upon them, he would warn us not to replace what we’ve learned about ourselves from fields like philosophy and religion.

References

Abraham Maslow, “June 7, 1963,” The Journals of A. H. Maslow, vol. 1, ed. Richard J. Lowry (Monterey, CA: Brooks/ Cole, 1979), 378.

Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (Chicago: Harper and Row, 1966).

Henry Murray, notes (Papers of Henry A. Murray Papers, Conference Reports and Papers, early 1960s, Notes, “Psychology: advantages, values, disadvantage” folder, HUGFP 97.41, Box 2, Harvard University Archives).

William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956).

 

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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