Reviews of Encountering America

New York Times Book Review:

Toe-touching orgies, bodywork, encounter group therapy, sometimes conducted in the nude: This is not the agenda of your typical academic conference. In the early 1970s, however, such activities were marquee events at gatherings devoted to humanistic psychology, a school that Rollo May, a practitioner, lamented was “formed by scholars” and “taken over by hippies.” In this disciplined and persuasive defense of the movement, Grogan shows how its frivolous offshoots obscured its singular insights. Abraham Maslow, humanistic psychology’s founding father, rejected the atomistic approaches of psychoanalysis and behaviorism that dominated the first half of the 20th century. He strove to develop a psychology that provided “a fuller, though still scientific, treatment of the individual” and understood the potential for growth as innate. His ideas got their most welcome reception from industrial management, to which Maslow retreated when academia failed to roll out the red carpet. But Grogan eloquently insists that humanistic psychology subtly revolutionized Americans’ conception of the self and the role of therapy, and asserts that current trends in the field, like positive psychology, owe the theory a debt they have been reluctant to pay. With such reductive approaches as psychopharmacology again ascendant, we would do well to join Grogan in looking kindly on the belief that “individuals in all their messy complexity should remain at the heart of psychological study and practice.”

Publisher’s Weekly:

Rising out of the tumultuous political and cultural climate of the 1960s, humanistic psychology, an approach centered on self-actualization, burst onto the scene in the latter part of the decade; the charge was led by psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, and though the movement sharply declined at the end of the 1970s, Grogan, an American studies scholar, shows that it had a dynamic effect on its cultural moment. As the concept gained momentum, it broadened to include not just the individual but the community as well, culminating in Esalen, a free-thinking enclave on the Pacific coast whose ethos embraced encounter groups, an approach intended to help individuals work through issues, connect with others, and engage in productive introspection, but which soon morphed into a means to feed one’s ego at the expense of others with the expectation of self-actualization in a weekend’s time. Grogan insists that the era of humanistic psychology has had a profound impact on the American psyche, even as Rogers acknowledged in 1986 that “a lot of the kooky aspects… have fallen by the wayside.” Spot-on reporting, an unbiased presentation, and an admirable attention to detail make this a valuable resource for psychologists and scholars of American counterculture movements.


Grogan reveals the seminal, but frequently overlooked, influence of the postwar humanistic psychology movement in creating what is sometimes described as today’s “therapy culture,” which includes employee retreats, seminars on sensitivity training, the proliferation of support groups and more. The author traces the movement back to the enhanced role of psychologists during and after World War II, when they worked with the military to profile recruits and deal with problems faced by veterans. They were unwilling to take a back seat to Freudian psychoanalysts, who dominated the practice of psychotherapy, and the empirical behaviorists, who were hegemonic in academic psychology. Pioneers in the field of humanist psychology, such as Abraham Maslow, advocated an alternative approach that was “oriented around ideas of personal growth and the infusion of values” into therapy. Grogan shows how the perception of alienation in the social climate of the 1950s, as exemplified by David Riesman’s widely read The Lonely Crowd, supported their critique. At the same time, Carl Rogers revolutionized the practice of nondirective therapy by engaging in a dialogue with patients that emphasized their ability to achieve personal growth. The influence of the movement was enhanced in the ’60s when humanist psychologists initially joined Timothy Leary in endorsing the use of LSD, the encounter-group therapy practiced in California’s Esalen Institute, meditation and spiritual practices as valid avenues for self-actualization. The women’s liberation movement also owes a debt to humanist psychologists, who pioneered techniques such as consciousness-raising–although Maslow expressed doubts about their goals. An illuminating cultural history.

Santa Fe New Mexican/ Pasatiempo:

America after World War II was awash in subdivisions, new appliances, Cold War anxiety, and applied psychology. Conformity was everything, and psychology, more popular than at any time in its history, was there to guarantee it. At the same time, as suggested by David Riesman’s 1950 book The Lonely Crowd and by William Whyte’s 1956 bestseller The Organization Man, Americans felt alienated. In her clear and insightful book Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture & the Shaping of the Modern Self, American history and psychology professor Jessica Grogan examines in detail a revolutionary movement 
in psychology — championed by Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Gordon Allport, and others — that developed in response to postwar culture. Along the way, she demonstrates how psychological principles influence culture as much as culture influences psychological belief. In explaining the roots of humanistic psychology, Grogan cites a ’50s-era Life magazine series, “The Age of Psychology in the U.S.,” subtitled “Less Than a Century Old, the Science of Human Behavior Permeates Our Whole Way of Life — At Work, in Love, in Sickness and in Health.” The article explained how psychology had affected advertising, industry, politics, warfare, education, and entertainment in a way that was “strictly American.” But where was the individual in all this? To be well adjusted at that time meant living as a functioning member of society. Any deviation from cultural norms was considered unhealthy and was treated with a return to normalcy in mind. The pressure to conform was also a central reason for a plague of American anxiety. Beginning in the 1950s, Maslow, Rogers, May, and others observed that psychology, rather than concentrating on an individual’s strengths and potential, focused on illness and adjustment. This negative focus, they believed, completely overlooked the positive view of humans as motivated by 
a desire for wholeness or “self-actualization.” As Grogan states, the idea was simple, but its implications were not. While most psychologists in the movement agreed with Freud’s concept of the id, they refused to limit it to dark or evil desires. Instead, they expanded the notion to include characteristics that Rousseau had cited years earlier: inspiration, creative impulses, humor, and love. May’s belief slightly differed. He agreed with the idea of positive human motivation but attributed it to more philosophical, even spiritual desires. What developed from this positive view of human motivation altered the course of psychology for a generation. The humanistic psychology movement and all its surrounding therapies, effective and not, placed individuals above cultural norms. So wide and varied were the principles of the movement that divisions soon appeared within its ranks. Rogers’ emphasis on therapy and how the individual operates inside his or her environment put off neo-Freudians, who saw a lack of science in his approach. The humanists were also at odds with the behaviorists, whose goal to understand and change behavioral response appealed to rationalists as well as social scientists. The schism between behaviorism and humanism was highlighted at a 1962 debate, entitled “Education and the Control of Human Behavior,” between the best known of the behaviorists, B.F. Skinner, and Rogers, who saw behaviorism as a challenge to individual freedoms. The counterculture that sprang up in the ’60s embraced humanistic psychology, including encounter groups, sensitivity training, and self-actualization. Humanism’s emphasis on individual choice and experience in pursuit of actualization was popularized in the counterculture cliché “Do your own thing.” Most humanists, at least early on, saw value in drug-induced psychedelic experiences. Some, such as Maslow, took utopian social visions to extremes. He envisioned an island paradise called Eupsychia, inhabited by a thousand families organized around a kind of loving anarchism. But it wasn’t all good. Constructive therapy, with techniques that included sensitivity training, became a way to humiliate and destroy defenses. In chapters that examine countercultural excesses and the corruption of the movement’s methods (one is titled “The Sledgehammer Approach to Human Growth”), Grogan demonstrates how even the best intentions can be undermined. Grogan’s well-written and well-researched book is as much a cultural study as it is a psychological one. While 
mapping the movement’s rise and decline, she makes a case for its legacy. Common wisdom holds that the humanistic psychology movement disappeared in the ’70s. But who today hasn’t heard of encounter groups or self-actualization? What remains of humanistic psychology, namely individual counseling, social-work interventions, and the “person-centered” approach to therapy, are almost all applied products of Carl Rogers’ theories. Formed at the height of the humanistic movement, they are now, Grogan claims, seamlessly integrated into American psychological practice. Writing late last year in Psychology Today, Grogan made the case that today’s psychologists, with their over-
reliance on pharmacology, suffer from the same sort of narrow cultural focus they did in the 1950s. At the same time, Americans suffer anxiety — 21st-century style — at astounding rates. Maybe it’s time for another reconsideration of psychology’s role in contemporary culture.

Shelf Awareness:

Cultural historian Jessica Grogan offers an intellectually stimulating examination of 1960s humanistic psychology in Encountering America…Grogan skillfully paints a picture of its founders… She also incisively examines how the streak of self-indulgence in the 1960s commandeered and corrupted humanistic psychology, which had bravely tackled the challenges of race and feminism, in the name of drugs and the guru model of leadership. Grogan’s portrait of Abraham Maslow, a charismatic charmer with a true revolutionary’s zeal for human and societal transformation, is worth the read alone…Encountering America weaves together a tapestry and history of a humane ideal for living that continues to define our societal world view. It is a work of deep cultural understanding that breaks down complex issues in a coherent manner, bursting with oversized personalities and thought-provoking ideas…Discover: An entertaining study of 1960s humanistic psychology and how its beliefs continue to inspire our world view.

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