Humanistic psychologists plan to redefine their role for the 21st century and carve out a professional niche for themselves when they meet May 1114 at the State University of West Georgia for a conference they are calling Old Saybrook II.
The conference is named for the birthplace of humanistic psychology--a discipline that is rooted in the study of all aspects of human experience. This includes those aspects that are explored by the arts and humanities as well as by scientific research. Humanistic psychologists believe that love, self-esteem, belonging, self-expression and creativity are just as important to human life as the biological need for food and water. They emphasize the importance of developing fully one's potential to lead a rich and meaningful life and becoming the best person one can become.
"We're interested in the human psychological life in terms of its best and highest manifestation," says Maureen O'Hara, PhD, president of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco.
Although the humanistic movement began developing in the late 1950s, scholars consider its birth to be in 1964 at the Saybrook Inn in Old Saybrook, Conn. There, its founders--among them Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Clark Moustakas and Rollo May--participated in the event that defined a humanities-based psychology and out of which eventually grew the humanistic psychology movement in America.
After that historic meeting, the movement gained widespread popularity outside of academia. Many of humanistic psychology's ideas and values became part of the counterculture movement in America that was fighting for women's liberation, civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War.
As a result, many university-based researchers and academics didn't take the message of humanistic psychology seriously, and eventually the movement lost some of its appeal.
"Scholars of our movement would say we have an image problem," says David Elkins, PhD, past president of Div. 32 (Humanistic) and a psychology professor at Pepperdine University.
But, says Elkins, it's time to bring humanistic psychology into the 21st century, particularly because many humanistic psychologists have become increasingly concerned about managed care's constraints on mental health services.
A recent survey of Div. 32 members found that 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Managed care is the worst thing to happen to professional psychology in many years." As a result, many humanistic psychologists want to carve a niche for themselves outside the third-party reimbursement system.
The best role for humanistic psychologists, says O'Hara, is helping individuals and communities "make the necessary psychological and developmental steps to live in the increasingly complex, pluralistic, fast-changing world of the 21st century."
Globalization and technology are changing the world we live in, she says. People are moving from community to community, changing jobs more frequently, dealing with people who are ethnically diverse and facing complex ethical issues such as whether human genes should be cloned.
"All of this puts psychological pressure on people," says O'Hara.
While some psychologists would look at that pressure in pathological terms, humanistic psychologists see it as an opportunity for further psychological development.
"We don't believe the medical system is the right place for people to address questions of meaning, career choice, ethics, values, self-development and improvement," says O'Hara. "These kinds of questions are best framed in a language that has nothing to do with pathology and cure."
Finding a niche
In response, humanistic psychologists are beginning to align themselves with several emerging professions outside the medical model of care that aren't reimbursed through insurance, O'Hara says. These professions, which have their roots in humanistic psychology, include executive coaching, psychological and psychospiritual workshops, organization consulting, philosophical counseling and emotional intelligence training.
One possibility that will be discussed when approximately 300 humanistic psychologists meet in May is a shift toward a psychoeducational model where the therapist and client would take on roles similar to a teacher and student, says Mike Arons, PhD, a psychology professor at the State University of West Georgia. Then, he says, therapists aren't treating "sick" patients, but instead helping clients reach their full potential.
"Psychology is another thing people can do for self-understanding and to improve their lives, like going to the classical spa or taking a class," Arons says. Humanistic psychology programs and courses like these consistently attract bright students intrinsically seeking self-understanding, he says.
Another objective of the conference is to foster better communication between humanistic psychology and other areas of the profession that are pursuing similar agendas, says Arthur Warmoth, PhD, a psychology professor at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.
For instance, he says, humanistic psychology addresses many of the same questions and ideas as positive psychology--the concept promoted by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, that encourages people to focus on happiness, courage and joy rather than fear and anger.
The difference, humanistic psychologists say, is in the methodology used to develop positive psychology.
"We don't base our research methodology only in mainstream objectivist science," says O'Hara. "We try to understand human experience as it is lived by the subject living it."
Also, humanistic psychologists tend to use narrative, qualitative and historical methods of research in addition to quantitative methods.
But, says O'Hara, when it comes to evaluating clinical outcomes, she believes APA doesn't regard these methods as empirically valid. As a result, most graduate programs in humanistic psychology haven't sought APA accreditation. Consequently, students are often denied an opportunity to take state licensing exams because some state laws require candidates to graduate from APA-accredited programs.
"We have systematically challenged that," says O'Hara.
"We maintain that because our schools are regionally accredited and if students can meet the internship requirements and pass the licensing exam, they should be deemed competent to practice clinical psychology," she says. Those students who don't practice clinical psychology often go into academics, practice as marriage and family counselors or become personal coaches.
Despite the lack of APA-accredited programs, interest in humanistic psychology is growing. Saybrook Graduate School, for instance, has seen its enrollment double in the last three years, O'Hara says. The Association for Humanistic Psychology has more than 2,000 members and Div. 32 has about 600 members.
After their May meeting, O'Hara says, humanistic psychologists will have consensus about where to put their energies and be more focused as a community.