Human Potential Movement

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The human-potential movement (HPM), a loosely-confederated conspiracy mixture of secular and religious woo, had a certain amount of popularity from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It incorporated much of what was then fashionable in paranormal and motivational[1] circles, including earlier material from theosophy and other "esoteric" philosophies. It drew heavily from (and in turn influenced) many self-help philosophies of the era. It also drew heavily from the then-mainstream humanistic psychology field, and fed directly into the New Age movement. Parapsychology evangelistsresearchers at mainstream institutions, like J.B. RhineWikipedia, helped give the woo aspects of "evidence-based" credibility. The human-potential movement focused heavily on the nature and perceived capabilities of "consciousness" (still a common term in the writings of the movement's successors) and (like many other belief-systems of its type) was resolutely vitalist in its view of life.

Followers of the human-potential movement often took seriously the discredited idea that humans use only 10% of their brains, and were often big fans of Uri Geller and other self-proclaimed psychics. Quantum woo got its first big break in this era, with writers Fritjof CapraWikipedia (The Tao of Physics) and Gary ZukavWikipedia (The Dancing Wu Li Masters) taking the strangeness that was the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and using it as a semi-plausible mechanism for "mind-over-matter" thinking. In turn, writers associated with the movement wrote books such as Jonathan Livingston SeagullWikipedia and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and spawned somewhat less fluffy interest in real Eastern religions such as Buddhism, as well as in think tanks and self-help groups such as est, Esalen, Synanon and their spin-offs, many of which had authoritarian and even cultish aspects. A notable subset of the movement promoted new psychological therapies such as primal-scream therapy, encounter-group therapy,[2] and rebirthing, which mainstream psychologists initially regarded with open-minded interest, but which turned out to be useless quackery.

Mainstream science quickly discredited much of the human-potential movement's maunderings.[3][4] For instance, Rhine's "groundbreaking" work on psychic abilities could not be reproduced, and his lab became disassociated from Duke University. Many Human-Potential advocates shifted into using a more religious and spiritual tone, and the whole rotten mess got absorbed into the New Age movement of the 1980s, though still retaining a somewhat nebulous presence in the overall consciousness of society. As for consciousness, it remains a topic of considerable interest in psychology and artificial-intelligence circles, but the human-potential movement's contributions to the subject have been irrelevant at best.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Motivational speaker.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Encounter group.
  3. Compare for example: Gardner, Martin (2001). "Jean Houston: New Age Guru". Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?: Debunking Pseudoscience. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 129. ISBN 9780393245035. Retrieved 28 June 2019. "Houston is tireless in conducting workshops around the world in which she uses a bewildering variety of techniques designed to raise the “human potential” of her students." 
  4. For example: Fisher, Jeffrey D.; Cohen Silver, Roxane; Chinsky, Jack M.; Goff, Barry; Klar, Yechiel (2012). Evaluating a Large Group Awareness Training: A Longitudinal Study of Psychosocial Effects. Recent Research in Psychology. New York: Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781461234289. Retrieved 28 June 2019. "Many of the potential favorable outcomes of the Forum were assessed on constructs represented in the multivariate analyses (i.e., Positive and Negative Affect, Health, Perceived Control, Social Functioning, Life Satisfaction, Self-Esteem, and Daily Coping). On seven of these eight dimensions, there were no significant short- or long-term multivariate treatment effects. On one, Perceived Control, the short- but not the long-term multivariate comparison with nominees revealed that Forum participants became more internally oriented." 
  5. Note for example: George, James (1990). "Search Further!". In Gandhi, Kishor. The Odyssey of Science, Culture, and Consciousness. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications. p. 151. ISBN 9788170172697. Retrieved 2017-09-10. "The human potential movement in the West is only a new wave echo of a very old Eastern teaching: that there is a correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm — 'as above, so below'." 

Further reading[edit]