Human Potential, Movement

A movement focused on helping adults achieve their full potential through an eclectic combination of therapeutic methods and disciplines. The movement's values include tolerance, a basic optimism about human nature, the necessity of honest interpersonal communication, the importance of living life to the fullest in the “here and now,” and a spirit of experimentation and openness to new experiences.

The psychologist William James (1842–1910), a nineteenth-century proponent of human potential and altered states of consciousness best known for his Varieties of Religious Experience is considered a forerunner of the human potential movement. However, modern interest in human potential can be traced most directly to the humanistic psychological approach of such figures as Carl Rogers (1902–1987) and Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) in the 1950s. Humanistic psychology was sometimes referred to as the Third Force because it presented an alternative to the prevailing psychoanalytic and behaviorist models of psychology. Rejecting the view of behavior as determined by childhood events or conditioned responses to external stimuli, humanistic practitioners emphasized the individual's power to grow and change in the present and embraced the goal of self-fulfillment through the removal of obstacles.

Maslow, together with Rogers, Rollo May (1909– 1994), and Charlotte Bu¨ hler (1893–1974), founded the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP). Subscribing to a positive, optimistic view of human nature, he popularized the concept of self-actualization, based on his study of exceptionally successful, rather than exceptionally troubled, people. Selecting a group of self-actualized figures from history, including Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), Albert Einstein (1879– 1955), and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), Maslow constructed a list of their characteristics, some of which later became trademark values of the human potential movement (acceptance of themselves and others, spontaneity, identification with humanity, democratic values, creativity). In Maslow's widely popularized hierarchy of motivation, the basic human needs were arranged at the bottom of a pyramid, with selfactualization at the highest level. Another of Maslow's ideas was the concept of the peak experience, a transcendent moment of self-actualization characterized by feelings of joy, wholeness, and fulfillment.

The philosophy of Carl Rogers’ (1902–1987) client-centered therapy (which had been developed by 1940 but peaked in popularity in the 1950s) resembled Maslow's ideas in its view of human impulses as basically positive and in its respect for the inner resources and innate potential of each client. Another strong influence on the development of the human potential movement was the sensitivity training inaugurated by Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) in his Tgroups at the National Training Laboratories in the late 1940s and 1950s. Under the influence of such figures as Maslow and Rogers, sensitivity training—which had initially been used to train professionals in business, industry, and other fields—evolved into the encounter groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Encounter groups used the basic T-group techniques but shifted their emphasis toward personal growth, stressing such factors as selfexpression and intense emotional experience.

At the center of the human potential movement was the growth center, for which the model was the Esalen Institute at Big Sur in California. Independent of any university or other institution, Esalen offered workshops by psychologists and authors on many topics of interest to humanists. Its founder, Michael Murphy (1930–), envisioned it as a place where humanistic psychology could be integrated with Eastern philosophies. In the mid-1960s its roster of presenters included philosopher Alan Watts (1915–1973), historian Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975), theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965), and chemist Linus Pauling (1901– 1994). Virginia Satir (1916–1968) became Esalen's first Director of Training in 1964, while Maslow became affiliated with Esalen in 1966. By the early 1970s there were an estimated 150–200 growth centers modeled after Esalen throughout the United States.

California's status as the hub of the human potential movement was further enhanced when Rogers moved to La Jolla in 1964, writing and lecturing at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI) and later at the Center for Studies of the Person. Central tenets of his therapeutic approach were expanded into areas such as philosophy and educational reform that transcended the boundaries of psychology, and the phrases “person-centered approach” and “a way of being” began to replace “client-centered approach.” Rogers also became a leader in the encounter group movement, adapting the principles of client-centered therapy to a group model. These included the belief that individuals can solve their own problems and reach their full potential in a supportive, permissive environment. Rogers's model called for the group leader to act as a non-authoritarian facilitator, creating a non-threatening atmosphere conducive to open and honest sharing among group members.

Besides encounter groups and a variety of nontraditional therapies (including Gestalt therapy, psychodrama, transactional analysis, primal scream therapy, and Morita therapy), the human potential movement also embraced a number of disciplines and practices (both Eastern and Western) involving healing, self-improvement, and self-awareness, including Zen Buddhism, astrology, art, dance, and various systems of body movement and manipulation. While the flashier and most eccentric aspects of the human potential movement have largely been relegated to fads of the 1960s and 1970s, such as primal scream therapy and EST (Erhard Seminars Training), it endures in other forms. The Association for Humanistic Psychology is still an active, well-organized group. Journals in the field include the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Journal of Creative Behavior, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and others.

While the legacy of the human potential movement can be seen in the continuing popularity of self-improvement workshops and books and the ongoing appearances of motivational speakers at leadership training meetings and the like, the optimism that fueled the movement faded in the 1980s and succeeding decades. One reason was the series of economic recessions that began in the 1980s— the first to affect people with college degrees and professional training. It can be difficult to believe in fulfilling one's highest potential when one is laid off after years of well-paid employment. The recession of 1991 forced WBSI to the brink of closing as its financial support dried up.

Another reason for the declining interest in the human potential movement was the new emphasis on social justice rather than individual self-actualization that emerged in the early 2000s. Members of racial minority groups as well as many women began to focus on changing the social and institutional forces that held them back rather than on peak experiences, and the “human” in human potential movement sounded to them suspiciously like “white privileged human.” (In 2015, the cost of a seven-day workshop at Esalen ranges from $900 per person for sleeping bag accommodations to $4,975 for one person at the Point House).


Gestalt psychology—
A school of psychology that developed in Germany in the 1920s and emphasizes the mind as a coherent whole with a capacity for self-organization.
Gestalt therapy—
An existentialist form of psychotherapy developed by Fritz Perls that emphasized the relationship between therapist and client, living in the here-and-now, and taking personal responsibility for one's life. It should not be confused with Gestalt psychology.
Humanistic psychology—
A holistic movement within psychology that emerged in the 1950s in reaction to both behaviorism and psychoanalysis. It is sometimes called a “third force” within psychology.
Morita therapy—
A purpose-centered therapy devised by Shoma Morita (1874–1938), a Japanese physician who based his four-stage method on medical as well as existential principles. Morita therapy has been compared to the rational emotive behavioral therapy of Albert Ellis.
Peak experience—
A phrase coined by Abraham Maslow to describe an ecstatic menstal state experienced by self-actualizing persons. In Maslow's words, peak experiences are “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality.”
An informal term for types of therapy that encourage the free expression of emotion, accompanied by interpersonal touching (typically between therapist and client).

See also Maslow, Abraham; May, Rollo; Rogers, Carl; Satir, Virginia M.



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Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP), , .

Esalen Institute, Administrative office: 3771 Rio Rd., Suite 101, Carmel, CA, 93923, (831) 250-1022, .