Human-Potential Movement

Human-Potential Movement



The human-potential movement is a term used for humanistic psychotherapies that first became popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. The movement emphasized the development of individuals through such techniques as encounter groups, sensitivity training, and primal therapy. Although the human-potential movement and humanistic therapy are sometimes used as synonyms, in reality, humanistic therapy preceded the human-potential movement and provided the movement's theoretical base. Humanistic therapy flourished in the 1940s and 1950s. Its theorists were mostly psychologists rather than medical doctors. They included Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Everett Shostrom, Carl Rogers, and Fritz Perls.
The human-potential movement and humanistic therapy is distinguished by the following emphases:
  • A concern for what is uniquely human rather than what humans share with other animals.
  • A focus on each person's open-ended growth rather than reshaping individuals to fit society's demands.
  • An interest in the here-and-now rather than in a person's childhood history or supposed unconscious conflicts.
  • A holistic approach concerned with all levels of human being and functioning—not just the intellectual—including creative and spiritual functioning.
  • A focus on psychological health rather than disturbance.


The purpose of humanistic therapy is to allow a person to make full use of his or her personal capacities leading to self-actualization. Self-actualization requires the integration of all the components of one's unique personality. These elements or components of personality include the physical, emotional, intellectual, behavioral, and spiritual. The marks of a self-actualized person are maturity, self-awareness, and authenticity. Humanistic therapists think that most people—not only those with obvious problems—can benefit from opportunities for self-development. Humanistic therapy uses both individual and group approaches.


Psychotic patients, substance abusers, and persons with severe personality disorders or disorders of impulse control may not be appropriate for treatment with humanistic methods.


Humanistic approaches to individual treatment usually follow the same format as other forms of outpatient counseling. Therapists may be medical doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, or clergy. Humanistic group treatment formats are flexible, and a wide range of treatment methods are used, ranging from encounter groups and therapy groups to assertiveness training and consciousness-raising groups. In addition, the humanistic tradition has fostered the publication of self-help books for people interested in psychological self-improvement.


The chief risks include the reinforcement of self-centered tendencies in some patients and the dangers resulting from encounter groups led by persons without adequate training. Poorly led encounter groups can be traumatic to persons with low tolerance for confrontation or "uncovering" of private issues.

Normal results

The anticipated outcome of humanistic therapy is a greater degree of personal wholeness, self-acceptance, and exploration of one's potential. In group treatment, participants are expected to grow in interpersonal empathy and relationship skills. However, there have been few controlled studies to determine the reasonableness of these expectations.



Severin, Frank T. "Humanistic Psychology." In The Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychoanalysis, edited by Benjamin B. Wolman. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996.

Key terms

Encounter group — A form of humanistic therapy in which participants meet with a trained leader to increase self-awareness and social skills through emotional sharing and confrontation.
Humanistic therapy — An approach to psychotherapy that emphasizes human uniqueness, positive qualities, and individual potential. It is sometimes used as a synonym for the human potential movement.
Primal therapy — A form of humanistic therapy that originated in the 1970s. Participants were encouraged to relive painful events and release feelings through screaming or crying rather than analysis.
Sensitivity training — A form of humanistic group therapy that began in the 1950s. Members participated in unstructured discussions in order to improve understanding of themselves and others.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
A distinctive east does the best it can with a liltingly minimalist premise in "Take a Break!" In an atmosphere of green tea and rice cakes where a single renegade potato chip has the negative impact of a nuclear blast, this gentle send-up of the human-potential movement has its humorous moments.
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The fourth-century monks began to answer a question for me that the human-potential movement of the late 20th century never seemed to address: If I'm OK and you're OK and our friends are OK, why is the world definitely not OK?"
He also blames television, the human-potential movement, and the sapping of American morale in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate.
Its rigid and prescriptive readings, in keeping with the "system" it examines, will baffle those indifferent to the language, methods, and strictures common to such human-potential movements; its wordplay and circularity will thwart those anxious for incontrovertible evidence that these clandestine "attacks on race" were part of a grand and coherent movement; its insensibility to the complex and competing cultures of 1920s New York will irk those eager for cultural comparison (between, for example, Thurman's sozzled Harlemites and F.