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The Third Force

Around 1962, before cognitive psych­ology rose in prominence, many psychologists complained that psychology was offering two alternatives, neither satisfactory. If you wanted to do therapy, you had to study Freud's eccentric theory (described in Chapters 11 and 13). If you wanted to do research, you had to endorse behaviorism and avoid talking about the mind altogether.

Given these two alternatives, many psychologists hungered for a third alter­native. Out of that concern was born the "third force" in psychology, humanistic psychology.

Freud is discussed in detail in Chapter 11 (Personality Theories). He believed that psychological problems could often be traced to childhood sexual conflicts over such issues as breastfeeding, toilet training, and sexual jealousy centered on the parents.

Psychologists still teach about Freudian theory because it played an important role in the history of psychology, inspiring various opposing theories.

However, a review article by Robins, Gosling, and Craik (1999) found that Freudian theory itself almost disappeared from mainstream psychology journals by the time they wrote. Freud's works are best considered literature and history at this point, not modern psychology

Faced in the 1940s and 1950s with a choice between (1) Freudian theory, with its emphasis on unconscious sexual motives, and (2) behaviorism, which refused to deal with mental processes, increasing numbers of American psychologists chose neither. They began looking for a third alternative.

In the early 1960s, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and several other psychologists proclaimed an alternative. They called it "third force" psychology, also known as humanistic psychology.

Where did "third force" psychology get its name?

This book does not have a chapter titled "Humanistic Psychology," but Part Three of Chapter 9 (Motivation) is devoted to Maslow's theory, and Part Two of Chapter 13 (Therapies) is about the ideas of Carl Rogers. Both were key figures in the Third Force movement.

Humanistic or Third Force psychology focuses on inner needs, happiness, fulfillment, the search for identity, and other distinctly human concerns. It consciously attempted to address issues neglected by behaviorists and Freudians.

Third Force psychology was never as concerned with research as it was with the meaning and purpose of human existence. Phrases like human potential and self actualization are associated with humanistic psychology.

Humanistic psychology should not be confused with secular humanism. That is a label used by evangelical Christians for anti-religious philosophies, and no humanistic psychologists described themselves as secular humanists.

Humanistic psychologists respected religious and spiritual feelings of all kinds. They were open to Eastern philosophies such as Zen at a time (in the early 1960s) when this was unusual in Western society.

In some respects humanistic psychology peaked in the 1960s. Maslow published an influential book about humanistic psychology, Toward a Psychology of Being, in 1962. In 1967, Maslow was elected president of the APA (American Psychological Association).

Humanistic psychology fit well with the countercultural movement of the 1960s. It promoted assumption of goodness in other humans, it was free and permissive in spirit, and it encouraged people to explore their own identity and be true to themselves.

Today, graduate schools of psychology specializing in humanistic psychology still exist, but they are not as common as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Transpersonal psychology is a later version of humanistic psychology, dealing with existential issues that go beyond individual human beings.

Other intellectual descendants of humanistic psychology exist outside of academic psychology. Examples are so-called New Age movements as well as the holistic medicine movement.

When did humanistic psychology peak? What are modern descendants of it?

Psychologists are divided on the merits of the human potential and holistic medicine movements. Gibbons (1979), who started the APA's Division of Humanistic Psychology, referred to his disappointment with "hucksters and charlatans" in the human potential movement, while approving of scholars who followed in Maslow's tradition.

The Third Force movement successfully promoted its core values: respect for human dignity and importance of personal growth. These values were not distinctive, however, because they were shared by almost all psychologists as well as large segments of the public.

Maslow's ideas about actualization are still respected today. His pyramid of needs (proposing that people can grow from emphasizing selfish needs to embracing more existential needs) became the basis for many popular books about living a fulfilling life.


Gibbons, D. (1979). 'Humanistic' psychologists. American Psychologist, 34, 190.

Robins, R. W., Gosling, S. D., & Craik, K. H. (1999) An empirical analysis of trends in psychology. American Psychologist, 2, 117-128.

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