What is the "Human Potential Movement"? Where Did it Come From? How Did Nietzschean Psychology Get into "Business Seminars"?

What are the Dangers of "Human Potential" Teachings?

The 'human-potential movement' is a term used for humanistic psychotherapies which first became popular during the 1960s and 1970s. The movement emphasized the development of individuals through various techniques such 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 and foundation. Humanistic therapy flourished in the 1940s and 1950s and Its theorists were psychologists who had been heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and (especially) Friedrich Nietzsche . They included such individuals as Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Everett Shostrom, and Fritz Perls.

The Esalen Institute also claims an important place in the history of the human potential movement. It was founded by Michael Murphy and Dick Price as a centre for the study and development of the understanding of the human mind. Aldous Huxley gave lectures on the "Human Potential" at Esalen in the early 1960s and his ideas are also considered fundamental to the movement.

An important early influence on Esalen was George Leonard, a writer and editor who was conducting research for an article on human potential. Leonard claims that he came up with the phrase "Human Potential Movement" during a brainstorming session with Murphy. He and Murphy then popularized the idea in best-selling books. Leonard has worked closely with Esalen ever since and became its president in 2005.

The human-potential movement is distinguished by various emphases, including the following:

  1. A focus on each person's independent and autonomous growth (very Nietzschean), rather than reshaping individuals to fit society's requirements, needs or demands

  2. A holistic approach concerned with all levels of human functioning - not just the intellectual -including creative and "spiritual" functioning (again, very Nietzschean).

  3. A focus on "good psychological health" (whatever that might mean).

  4. A focus on liberation from repression and from feelings of guilt and self-doubt (a clear combination of Freudian and Nietzschean anti-religious influences).

  5. A committment to the belief that the human mind has a much larger capacity than most people ever realize or utilize.

  6. Not originally part of the 'mix' - but the modern version of the human potential movement usually firmly ties 'self-actualization' in with business and financial success.

The purpose of humanistic therapy was originally seen as being able to help a person make full use of his or her personal capacities leading to "self-actualization". So-called "Self-actualization" required the integration of all the components of one's unique personality. These elements or components of personality include the physical, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, and spiritual. The marks of a self-actualized person were usually seen as maturity, self-awareness, independence and authenticity. Humanistic therapists thought (and usually still think) that most people - not only those with obvious problems - can benefit from opportunities for self-development. Such therapy used both individual and group approaches, the whole approach being based on tapping-into one's inner resources, or inner potential. But - ALWAYS - the focus is on the self and away from the group. In fact, the 'community ideal' is hardly an ideal in this line of reasoning at all since 'community spirit' tends to demote the importance of SELF.

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley, who lectured on 'human potential' in the early 1960s.

But the whole concept of "human potential" very quickly spread from the 'humanistic therapies' of the psychologist and from psychiatrist couches to somewhat sensationalist populist writers, and from there, to many areas of success-motivated society. Business-motivated people quickly found things within this psychology which - if correctly utilized - could encourage budding entrepreneurs, salespeople, advertisers and indeed most all business people to become more successful. Today there are many human potential courses and seminars (especially in the United States), which are offered to young people embarking upon business careers which are little short of being cultic in approach. I have it on good authority that many such course and seminars are steeped in New Age mysticism and in Nietzscheist 'THE SELF IS ALL' excesses. Where speakers and organizations use this approach and imply that to disagree with their doctrines is stupidity, there is no doubt that they are using the mind control techniques of the cults. In some cases the teachings of Scientology have also infiltrated such courses. The god of the 'human potential' cult is THE SELF and the worship demanded is financial success. Impressionable young business executives are taught that total self-actualization (different terms are sometimes used) is the key to success in business and to success in life. Full self-awareness and authenticity (according to this reasoning) are best realized in a financially successful and abundant life. Most large employers of young people obviously want their employees to earn their company lots of money and so they see such courses and seminars as positively advantageous.

So a flawed Freudian/Nietzschean/existentialist-rooted therapeutic psychology which was popular in the 1950s, led to the first wave of the human potential movement of the 60s and 70s and then went into the 'high achiever' business psychology of the late1970s to the present. Along the way, a New Age pseudo-religious flavouring has been generously added; this was probably inevitable since the Esalen School itself often appeared very open to mysticism.

Large and multi-national businesses and business enterprises cunningly manipulate the human potential movement because it combines glorification of SELF (which is such a natural human desire) with glorification of SUCCESS (which every employer of large numbers of people is obviously rather keen on!). Just turn the concept of SUCCESS into BUSINESS SUCCESS and -hey presto! - big business is very interested indeed! Several large companies which engage in pyramid-selling, for example, offer introductory courses as well as ongoing training courses and 'business meetings' which are absolutely steeped in "human potential" doctrines and assumptions.

So the root of 'human potential' is in the atheistic glorification of SELF as developed and encouraged by Friedrich Nietzsche, combined with the determination to form an assertive view of the human mind, free from shame, doubt and guilt, as largely developed by Freud. It is not surprising that New Ageism got into the act with its common doctrine that individual human beings are as gods who may freely set their own rules, agendas and doctrines.

Such seminars, or courses, are frequently highly expensive, of course, and millions are being made out of them by the top guros.

The Michael Murphy Association with "Human Potential"

Michael Murphy is the co-founder of the Esalen Institute, and is a key figure in the Human Potential Movement and author of both fiction and non-fiction books on topics related to extraordinary human potential.

In 1992 he published The Future of the Body which is a massive historical and cross-cultural collection of documentation of various occurrences of extraordinary human functioning such as healing, hypnosis, martial arts, yogic techniques, telepathy, clairvoyance, and feats of superhuman strength. Rather than presenting such documentation as scientific proof, he presents it as a body of evidence to motivate future investigation.

(Source: Wikipedia Encyclopedia to whom we are grateful).

One young man (who prefers to remain anonymous because his new employer insisted on his completion of a human potential course before his current employment commenced), is one of several who have given me valuable insight into the way some of these seminars etc., actually pan out in practice. I will call him 'Alan.' Alan told me this,

"...Those of us who were unmarried (that is, on the seminar which Alan attended), were told that financial success was the only basis of marriage. Forget about decent character, forget about unselfishness (we were told) - money is the only key to a happy marriage. Success and mainly financial success were the keys to a joyful human existence, but the keys to obtaining these things were already inside each of us and needed to be brought out and developed. We were also taught a kind of 'success prayer' which we should give every day but it was (we were told) not because some God out there might be listening - the prayer was directed to ourselves and to motivate ourselves because we - and we alone - were "god."

We were encouraged to show great affection to each other with a lot of warm greetings, hugging and kissing. But this was not to make us more caring and affectionate people but only to develop the 'health of the inner man' or 'inner woman.' Success also meant inner emotional success and "inner releasing" so the old emotional and moral restraints must go! We were told that we should never deprive ourselves of what would make us happy because of some 'inner ethics.' Throughout the 12 days that I was exposed to this stuff all the focus was always on ourselves as individuals and we were taught how to manipulate other people and how to take advantage of weaker people. Any affection was only to manipulate our inner selves or to manipulate other people. One young woman told us how she had seduced a man to get a major deal - she was held up to us as 'a fully actualized person'. She said her own marriage became stronger when she came to see that her success included understanding that seduction was not always wrong........perhaps its because I was raised a strict presbyterian that I was disturbed by so much of what I heard and so were two others - but all of us acted out the human potential stuff when we got into role-playing and quickly forgot about our upbringing. I can honestly say that after a few days of this stuff I felt quite brainwashed and left the seminar using bad language for the very first time in my life. These teachings are real bad - please use your position to warn others about them."

The dangers which are present in this kind of teaching are plain to see. People find that their moral standards are lowered and reduced, yes, even those from a strong Christian background which I happen to know that Alan is.

The teaching is bad because it effectively takes God off His throne and places us there instead! It is the making of a new "god" in our own image and being prepared to manipulate the concept of the divine - but only in order to get the advantage over others. We all become private 'gods' and set our own rules for success without responsibility.

In contrast to those teachings which teach us to elevate the SELF and to place our own wants and desires in the first place of importance in our lives, we have this recommendation from Jesus Christ:

'Jesus replied: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment, And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22: 37-40).

There is no room in this teaching for those who would become committed to the aggressive 'human potential' high achiever business system which is committed to placing financial success as the number one motivating factor in life!

Are you about to go on a motivational course? Ask bold questions about it first! Success in life is not wrong but it should never be coupled with a philosophy which is committed to undermining others and to manipulating people, situations and circumstances in order to ensure the prestige and success of oneself.

Robin A. Brace, 2006.

Other possibly helpful links:

Werner Erhard's Human Potential Mysticism

New Age in the Workplace

Human Potential Groups

Large Group Awareness Training Program