Philosophical Similarities Between Humanism and the Contextual Behavioral Perspectives

Philosophical Similarities Between Humanism and the Contextual Behavioral Perspectives

Steven C. Hayes University of Nevada–Reno

Humanistic psychology historically defined itself in part by its opposition to behavioral psychology, but the conditions now exist for a fundamental reconsideration of the relationship between these two traditions. Behavioral psychology includes contextualistic variants and is no longer limited to principles drawn from animal learning. Behavioral and cognitive therapies commonly address humanistic topics and have developed process accounts that cast new light on them. In that context, a reconsideration of this relationship could prove to be beneficial for both traditions.

Keywords: humanistic psychology, behavioral psychology, contextualism, acceptance and commitment therapy, contextual CBT, common factors

On the surface, the historical division between humanistic ap- proaches and the behavioral and cognitive therapies is substantial. Humanistic psychology originally defined itself to a degree by its opposition to behavioral psychology and psychoanalysis (thus the term “third force”). To this day, entities such as the Association for Humanistic Psychology explain humanism in this way (e.g., http://

Humanistic psychologists thought the behavioral wing was uni- formly mechanistic, while humanism was holistic and contextual- istic: “mechanistic science (which in psychology takes the form of behaviorism) [is] too narrow and limited to serve as a general or comprehensive philosophy” (Maslow, 1966, p. 3). Behaviorism supposedly focused entirely on a passive organism responding to external contingencies, or input-output explanations drawn entirely from animal learning, while humanism dealt with an active organ- ism that was different in many ways from nonhuman animals, particularly, in the area of cognition (Maslow, 1966). Humanistic psychology emphasized existential and interpersonal themes such as meaning, purpose, values, choice, spirituality, self-acceptance, and self-actualization—all of which were thought to be beyond the reach of behavioral psychology.

From the beginning, there were functional and contextual strands of behavioral thinking that understood the importance of these topics and sought greater integration, but opportunities were missed, and the ones that occurred were unappreciated. The founder of the journal Behaviorism, Willard Day, overtly sought reconciliation between radical behaviorism and phenomenology (Day, 1969). Most present day Gestalt therapists would find it incomprehensible that the coauthor who contributed the extensive personal and applied exercises (see Perls introduction, p. viii) to the original book on Gestalt Therapy (Perls, Hefferline, & Good- man, 1951) was Ralph Hefferline, an experimental psychology faculty member at Columbia and a rat running radical behaviorist in the Skinnerian tradition (Knapp, 1986). For reasons that are easy to understand today, Hefferline objected to the label “Gestalt,”

preferring the term “Integrative Therapy” (Shepard, 1975, p. 63), but integration was not the order of the day and the two traditions stood far apart for decades.

Today, a fundamental realignment is underway between the behavioral tradition and humanistic psychology. Cognitive behav- ior therapy (CBT) researchers now routinely test and develop methods that are explicitly based on humanistic psychology (e.g., Motivational Interviewing, Miller & Rollnick, 2002). However, the realignment goes deeper than that. A large set of acceptance, mindfulness, and values-based methods have emerged from within CBT that deal extensively with topics classically embraced by humanistic psychology (ironically this set of methods are often called “third wave” CBT, Hayes, 2004, but we will use the less confusing term “contextual CBT,” Hayes, Villatte, Levin, & Hil- debrandt, 2011). These include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT: Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (Linehan, 1993), and Mindfulness-Based Cog- nitive Therapy (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002), among many other methods (Hayes, Villatte et al., 2011). Some parts of this change are linked to developments in behavioral thinking itself that hold out hope for a more transformational dialogue between humanism and behaviorism. That seems most surprisingly true of the ACT tradition (surprising because it emerged from behavior analysis), which is why I will emphasize that corner of CBT in my comments.

Philosophical Similarities Between Humanism and the Contextual Behavioral Perspectives

Humanistic psychology views itself as holistic and contextual- istic, but there are strong holistic and contextualistic perspectives within behavioral thinking as well. This was always true (Day and Hefferline are examples) but it was invisible to those outside of the behavioral tradition, and historically it was controversial to those within it. As the contextualistic qualities of some behavioral per- spectives have become clearer and that wing has become more ascendant, a reconsideration of the relationship with humanism is a natural next step.

The core analytic unit of all forms of contextualism is the ongoing act-in-context: the situated action of the whole person

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Steven C. Hayes, Department of Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557-0062. E-mail:

Psychotherapy © 2012 American Psychological Association 2012, Vol. 49, No. 4, 455–460 0033-3204/12/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0027396


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(Pepper, 1942). It is doing as it is being done, in both a historical and situational context, such as going to the store, or trying to be understood. Actions of that kind are inherently holistic and pur- posive—actions are defined by their purpose and meaning—which provides the philosophical background for the importance of topics such as meaning, purpose, needs, goals, and values to humanistic psychology.

The landscape changes once it is realized that this holds true for scientists themselves (see Skinner, 1945 for a classic example). Scientists too have a history, they too act in a context, and they too have goals and values for their scientific work. For that reason, there are varieties of scientific contextualism, organized and de- fined by their goals and purposes (Hayes, Hayes, Reese, & Sarbin, 1993).

The most common forms of contextualism are all descriptive— they seek an appreciation of the participants in a meaningful whole (Hayes, 1993). Choice, goals, meaning, narrative, and purpose are common themes to humanistic psychologists in part because these are features that define and help form the wholeness of human action. This yearning for appreciation of key participants in the whole is reflected in the way that existentialists seek to understand how a whole human being faces a meaningless world and by choice creates meaning amid despair, anxiety, and nothingness; or in the way that Rogerians explore the client’s capacity for self- direction and integration.

However, if goals are a choice, contextualists can choose other goals, and what emerges from a scientific analysis may differ among contextualists if their goals are different. There is a func- tional contextual wing of behavioral thinking that reveals this possibility (Hayes, Hayes, & Reese, 1988). Functional contextu- alism has as its goal the prediction-and-influence of psychological events with precision, scope, and depth (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wil- son, 2011). Skinner claimed that the purposes of science were prediction and control as if this is an objective fact (1953, p. 14 and p. 35) but that way of speaking is dogmatic. His purposes were to predict and influence psychological events. Once that is put right, the natural alliance of functional and descriptive contextualism can better be explored (see Hayes et al., 1993 for a book length exercise of that kind). The possibility of different purposes is built into contextual thinking. What is key to successful communication among contextualistic psychologists is that truth be seen as matter of the accomplishment of purpose rather than a matter of ontology, and that differing goals be made clear.

Clinically, all forms of contextualism focus on local meaning and purpose. This posture helps the clinician let go of grand ontological claims more generally and thus any need to force clients into a particular world view. The client’s purposes and values are the metric for clinical work. There is no need to struggle over who is “right”—the point is to empower clients to pursue their deepest needs and values by bringing curiosity and creativity to how they deal with their own history and circumstance. The client’s natural analytic agenda (understanding for an active pur- pose) can become the clinician’s—a process that fosters alliance building and the centrality of the therapeutic relationship. This paragraph applies with equal force to functional contextualists, such as those in the ACT tradition and some other wings of contextual CBT, as it does to descriptive contextualists such as those in the humanistic tradition and for a simple reason: there is a large philosophical overlap between the two. As it applies to

clients, there is no a priori reason to think that functional contex- tualists are disadvantaged as compared to descriptive forms: after all, clients themselves generally want to influence behavior.

Human Language and Cognition

If that is correct, then why has it taken so long for a natural alliance to be explored? Part of it was that humanists mistook some of the behavioral tradition to be all of the behavioral tradition. There is a wing of behavioral psychology that is indeed mecha- nistic, but that is not universally true and only those within the tradition would be likely know the difference due to overlap in technical terminology.

The larger part, however, was a problem with behavioral psy- chology itself: even the more contextualistic wings could not meaningfully address language and cognition at the time when humanistic psychology was being formed. Without a way of ad- dressing human cognition, core concerns of humanistic psychol- ogy are simply incomprehensible. Behavioral principles derived from nonhuman animals are not alone an adequate basis to explore meaning, purpose, values, choice, spirituality, self-acceptance, and self-actualization. In the 1960s, even that statement would be controversial within behavioral psychology, but for most behav- ioral psychologists today, it would not.

Within mainstream CBT, it certainly would not, as traditional CBT has embraced a variety of cognitive perspectives. In the main, these have not been drawn from informational processing or cog- nitive science (much of which is mechanistic), but rather from clinical theories of cognition. The specific theories vary but few have any principled reluctance to deal with meaning and purpose or similar topics.

Perhaps, the more interesting case is clinical behavior analysis and ACT, because it has stayed attached to the same tradition that was originally based entirely on animal learning and that was pushed against by early humanistic psychologists. Reconsidering the relationship in this case is possible because behavioral psy- chology did not stop developing in the 1960s. ACT is based on a behavioral theory of cognition that has become among the most commonly researched basic behavior analytic theories of human action: Relational Frame Theory (RFT: Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001).

RFT can be rather arcane, and it is impossible to address in any detail here due to the length and purpose of this piece, but clini- cally accessible books on it are now available for interested readers (e.g., Torneke, 2010). According to RFT, the essential core of language and higher cognition is the learned ability to derive mutual and combinatorial relations among events, and to change the functions of events on that basis. If a reader was told that X is bigger than Y and Y is bigger than Z, that would be enough to derive an entire network of relations between X, Y, and Z. If Z was now paired with shock, X would produce much more emotional arousal than Z itself, due to the cognitive relation between X and Z rather than direct experience (Dougher, Hamilton, Fink, & Harrington, 2007 provides an experimental demonstration). Said in another way, human language and cognition changes how direct learning principles operate. Several studies have shown that we learn to derive relations of this kind, but once learned human beings live in a radically different psychological world—as hu- manists have claimed right along.

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