Toward the Application of General Systems 
Theory in Humanistic Psychology

Saybrook Institute, 1772 Vallejo Street, 
San Francisco, CA 94123, U.S.A.
Center for Environmental Health, 
Centers for Disease Control, 
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. 

Department of Family and Community Medicine,
 University of California, 
San Francisco, California, U.S.A.


Saybrook Institute, 
1772 Vallejo Street, 
San Francisco, CA 94123, U.S.A. 
(Received 28 June 1983; revised 7 December 1984) 

Published in: Systems Research, 2(2) pp 165-115, 1985


Humanistic psychology arose in reaction to the 
restrictive paradigms of behaviorism and orthodox psycho- 
analysis. However, humanistic psychology has yet to pro- 
vide a consistent philosophical and methodological framework 
for the development and evaluation of models, methods, re- 
search, theories and therapies. Additionally, there exists no com- 
monly shared structure for the translation and communication 
of intuitive recognitions and clinical findings. General systems 
theory offers a comprehensive methodology, rooted in the natural 
sciences, which may be applied to clarify and communicate many 
aspects of humanistic psychology. This paper demonstrates the 
common philosophical perspectives of general systems theory and 
humanistic psychology, describes general systems theory in terms 
of the challenges to humanistic psychology, and presents the 
concerns expressed by humanistic psychologists regarding the use 
of general systems theory. Selected areas are discussed in detail: 
the unity of mental and physical processes; the 
phenomenologically-based views of experience that encompass 
conscious, unconscious and transpersonal dimensions; and the 
growth paradigms of personal change described by such concepts 
as equifinality, anamorphosis and differentiation. Also, the 
humanistic psychologist is urged to be wary of inappropriate 
methodologies that complicate, rather than clarify, the issues at 
hand, and directions for future research are outlined. 
HUMANISTIC psychology (HP) is a psychological 
perspective founded upon a belief in the totality of 
the human being. In faith to this perspective, no 
aspect of human existence is a priori judged to be 
irrelevant to the nature and development of the 
person. The humanistic psychologist views the 
human being within the context of individual 
uniqueness, supported by structures of values, goals 
and intentions. Yet, HP also recognizes that the 
individual lives and grows within the broader 
context of the social group which sustains, and is 
sustained by, the individual, thus sensitizing the 
humanistic psychologist to social issues, human 
welfare and matters of the individual's patterns of 
relationship to the social and physical environment. 
The origins of HP have been described as an 
attempt to create an alternative to the heuristically- 
limited approaches of behaviorism and orthodox 
psychoanalysis which employ equilibrium and uni- 
causal models of the individual. For instance, Smith 
[66] portrays HP as 'a movement to bring 
psychology back to concern with human experience, 
values and choices; to counteract the alienating 
stream of mechanism in psychology; to balance the 
concern with pathology that characterizes the 
emerging field of clinical psychology with a focus on 
the positive potentialities for love, creativity, and 
fulfillment' (p. 80). Before the advent of HP, 
psychology was defined as the study of behavior; the 
humanistic movement in psychology expanded the 
study of behavior to encompass experience and 
The perspective of the human being emerging 
from HP is sharply divergent from the previous 
reductionistic perspectives of behaviorism and 
orthodox psychoanalysis, and this divergence 
presents new challenges to the humanistic psychol- 
ogist in the exploration and elucidation of human 
phenomena, from both a theoretical and practical 
standpoint. In facing the new challenges that emerge 
with the evolution of HP, we are confronted with the 
quest for a theoretical framework with which to 
evaluate methodologies, both scientific and thera- 
peutic, and to accurately communicate our findings 
to others. This quest is constantly engaging 
humanistic theoreticians and therapists alike in an 
effort to reconcile the relationship between HP and 
the more highly formulated areas of social and 
behavioral science. 

It is not by mere coincidence that both general 
systems theory (GST) and humanistic psychology 
arose in protest to the linear, mechanistic and 
reductionistic models characterizing much of 
Western science. The founders of GST and HP saw 
their new disciplines as important aspects of this 
protest and developed strong arguments for the 
validity of these new perspectives. The common 
philosophical perspectives of GST and HP are 
becoming increasingly evident. Although GST has 
firm roots in the natural sciences, its literature reveals 
a strong undercurrent and humanistic thought [24]. 
Gray [33], for example, stresses the humanistic focus 
of GST, which centers its 'attention on living 
systems, on the characteristics of the human being as 
a complex, living system, and on the system 
characteristics of man's symbolic creation, his social 
systems, culture, psychology, science, technology, 
religion and art' (p. 169). In fact, it may surprise some 
people that general systems theoreticians and 
methodologists are addressing many of the same 
problems being explored by humanistic psychol- 
ogists [15].
This paper will examine the relationship between 
general systems theory and humanistic psychology 
in order to show that both have similar philosophical 
perspectives and that systems theory can provide 
scientifically-based paradigms for humanistic 
psychology. Examples will be drawn from the litera- 
tures of GST and HP to point out the substantial 
commonality between the two fields, a commonality 
that offers a potential for synergism in the 
development of both. Perhaps it is fitting that GST 
and HP are examined in concert at this time as a 
tribute to Gregory Bateson whose lifework was in 
the middle ground between these two disciplines [5, 
6, 7, 49]. Because of the synthetic nature of his 
theoretical endeavors, Bateson was never recognized 
as a full-fledged member of either discipline, even 
though he contributed substantially to both. 

First, we shall briefly discuss GST, not in its 
entirety, but chiefly those aspects which are 
particularly relevant to HP, and discuss some of the 
areas of concern expressed by humanistic psychol- 
ogists. Then, we shall discuss several pertinent areas 
in HP and humanistic psychotherapy where the 
GST perspective is an especially effective paradigm 
for the exploration and elucidation of the human 
being. These areas are obviously not the only areas 
where GST can provide the theoretical framework 
and methodologies to better equip HP to meet its 
challenges, but these selected areas are those which 
the authors feel to be two of the timely and difficult 
problems facing HP today. In our discussion, we will 
introduce the reader to a broad sampling of the 
literature which may prove useful to anyone wishing 
to pursue the subject further.


It is obviously impossible to define GST clearly in 
a few paragraphs and also unnecessary in light of the 
fine works on the subject [11, 12, 32, 33,43, 52, 71]. 
Basically, GST is an attempt to develop useful 
generalizations about systems [16], and is based on 
the assumption that all systems, ranging from groups 
of subatomic particles to the solar system and 
beyond, have fundamental characteristics in 
common. It provides, as well, a theoretical and 
methodological framework for the comprehension 
of living systems, ranging from cells to human 
culture. Each system encompasses systems at lower 
levels of complexity and, in turn, is encompassed by 
systems at higher levels of complexity

Like all scientific disciplines, GST attempts to 
make sense out of paradox, diversity and complexity. 
However, its emphasis is on an organismic rather 
than a reductionistic paradigm [69]. The organismic 
approach attempts to include all important 
interactions, even though simpler explanations or 
models may suffice in many cases. The concept of the 
system is fundamental to GST and is relevant to the 
perspective of HP, particularly in regard to 'open' 
and 'closed' systems. Further, GST recognizes 
system boundaries, levels of complexity, and 
hierarchies of organization [12, 72]. These concepts 
are of particular interest to HP and we shall discuss, 
in turn: systems, open and closed; hierarchial 
structures; feedback; and the tendency of systems to 
self-organize into more complex structures, i.e. 
growth and 'emergent properties'. 


Simply put, a system may be any complex of 
elements in mutual interaction [3], and the 
boundaries which define a system are largely 
dependent on the activity being described. 
Boundaries define regions of organized function and 
represent a barrier to certain exchanges with the 
environment while facilitating certain other transac- 
tions. A biological system has a natural boundary- 
in the human this boundary is the skin. Other 
systems, such as a community, have 'contrived' 
boundaries which are open to a wider range of 
definitions, such as geographic, economic or ethnic 
descriptions of its limits. We can, for example, 
describe a human being as a system, just as a family, a 
culture, or a particular aspect of the human, such as 
the brain, may be described as a system. At each of 
these levels, a process of interaction occurs which we 
describe as a system. Living systems are composed of 
atoms, forming molecules, forming cells, forming 
tissues, forming organs, forming individuals. 
Individuals can form groups, which can form 
organizations, and so on through nations and 
supranational complexes, such as NATO, the 
Warsaw Pact or the United Nations

Central to the concept of the system is the 
recognition that a system, such as a person, is 
composed of subsystems (organs) and, in turn, is also 
a part, or subsystem, of larger systems, such as the 
family, etc. Koestler [41] uses the term 'holon' to 
refer to each entity in a system. That is, a holon refers 
to the dual role of a system as both a whole and a part. 
A holon-like the Greek god Janus-can look both 
ways, at wholes and parts, simultaneously. The 
concept of the system can provide the humanistic 
psychologist with a framework within which to 
describe and communicate their understandings of 
interactive human relationships and internal 

Open/closed systems. The GST concept of 
open/closed systems describes the relative perme- 
ability of the system's boundaries. That is, an open 
system has boundaries which allow for the active 
interchange of matter, energy and information 
across these boundaries. The closed system, on the 
other hand, is surrounded by impermeable 
boundaries and does not participate in interactions 
with its environment. Of particular interest to HP is 
whether the human being is viewed as an open or a 
closed system. The perspective of HP is that an 
individual is in constant interaction with some 
aspect of his or her environment and other 
individuals. The complex interactive nature of the 
individual demands a multi-causal evaluation of his 
or her experience and behavior. Reductionist 
perspectives, on the other hand, generally attempt to 
determine uni-causal explanations, exclusive of these 
human interactions and the goals, values and 
intentions that develop from these interactions

The open system concept is important to the 
organismic paradigm, providing insight into the 
nature of living systems, their thermodynamics, 
behavior and evolution. The open system model 
expands considerably on the equilibrium-seeking or 
homeostatic paradigms of behaviorists and accounts 
for important 'primary activities' of systems not 
explained through stimulus-response and closed 
systems models [13]. In opposition to behaviorism, 
Bowler [16] notes that GST, like HP, insists that 
living systems 'cannot be abstracted from their 
environments without disrupting much of what is 
essential to understand them as living systems' (p, 
31). To survive, living systems must be in constant 
interaction with their environment, and many of the 
subsystems and processes of an organism exist to 
provide this vital interaction. For this reason, von 
Bertalanffy [12] suggested that such systems be 
understood as 'open systems' with directed and 
purposeful relations to the environment. The GST 
concept of the open system cogently describes the 
HP view of the person, a person in interaction with 
his or her environment, a person with values, 
intentions and purpose. 

In describing a closed system, Allport [3] notes 
that the closed system admits nothing from outside 
itself, has no transactions with its environment, and 
is unable to restore itself. Further, reductionistic 
paradigms of the person which employ closed system 
models concentrate on functions of energy 
dissipation and often describe life as a process of 
moving towards entropy or disorganization. This 
interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics 
is only a partial explanation of the behavior of living 

Hierarchial structures 

A system cannot be described except as a non- 
summative whole. To describe a part of a system is to 
describe a subsystem of a system, not the system 
itself. Nor can a system be described without taking 
into account the interactions the system has with 
lateral systems and also the higher level systems of 
which the described system is a part. GST arranges 
systems into levels of interactive hierarchies which 
cannot be reduced to separate parts without altering 
their patterns. Similarly, HP views the human being 
as an interactive system, a system composed of many 
interactive subsystems, a system in interaction with 
other individuals, and a system in interaction with 
social groups and the environment. At each level, be 
it an individual, an organ, a social group, or a nation, 
new problems and new considerations arise for HP. 
The structure of these various levels form a 
hierarchy, building upon lower levels of organization 
to form them into new patterns of increased 
complexity and exhibiting new properties which 
demand fresh and novel approaches to their 

Increasing complexity 

The tendency of systems to self-organize into more 
complex levels of organization is central to GST 
thought and an important aspect of HP. Humans, as 
well as other organisms, can develop higher and 
more complex degrees of organization over the 
course of their lives, though obviously at the expense 
of entropy generated outside organismic boun- 
daries. Allen [2], for example, portrays the human 
organism as an open system, moving in and out of 
various behavioral settings while maintaining itself 
through continuous exchange with its environment. 
This property of 'outward-striving' reflects a higher 
degree of organization than can be explained by the 
simple drive-reduction theories of behaviorism and 
psychoanalysis. Most behavioristic models do not 
allow for the extensive transactions with the 
environment observed in human behavior or the 
increase in the complexity of these transactions and 
their differentiation over time.
In contrast to the reductionistic view of 
behaviorism and psychoanalysis, GST clearly 
recognizes and describes the evolution of higher 
levels of complexity and the properties which emerge 
from the formation of new levels of organization. 
Miller [52], for example, distinguishes 19 critical 
subsystems that a living system must possess for the 
processing of matter, energy and information. The 
most essential of these subsystems are the 'deciders' 
that receive information and exert control over other 
subsystems. In the human, these 'deciders' have 
reached a decided degree of complexity, and HP 
maintains that descriptions of human behavior must 
reflect a recognition of the higher levels of 
complexity, from the formation of social groups to 
the development of values, beliefs or purpose. 

The GST concept of feedback centers around 
matters of communication. That is, feedback is the 
process whereby a system remains informed as to its 
progress towards a goal or objective, allowing 
corrections in activity in order to achieve its 
objective. Negative feedback, where an inverted 
sample of the output is used to alter input, tends 
towards a stabilization of output, a steady or 
homeostatic state. Positive feedback, where a 
noninverted sample alters input, tends to drive the 
system into an unstable, or 'runaway' mode, 
increasing deviation from the norm. (Here we speak 
of positive feedback as feedback that produces 
increased deviation from an initial goal, not 
necessarily in the sense of compliments or 
encouragement.) From a mechanical or electronic 
point of view, for instance, one normally attempts to 
stabilize a function and, hence, negative feedback is 
the method of choice-positive feedback, except in 
certain specific applications, is not as common. 
From the HP viewpoint, positive feedback, in the 
sense that it increases further output or deviation, 
takes on a renewed meaning. Positive feedback in the 
human realm is autocatalytic, increasing deviations 
from an initial goal through regions of instability 
until a new level of stability and complexity is 
reached-a 'symmetry break' according to Jantsch 
[38]. An initial disturbance, rather. than being 
dampened, tends to drive the system into new 
domains of experience. 

From the perspective of HP, feedback and the 
forms of communication which serve as feedback are 
important considerations when describing the 
relationship of the individual to others and in 
exploring motivations, growth, values, etc. Within 
the person, communication and, hence, feedback can 
occur in many levels-hormonal, proprioceptive, 
visual, verbal, etc.-and each level has a direct 
bearing on the state and development of the 
individual and must not be a priori judged to be 


With the foregoing discussion in mind, we would 
like to briefly discuss some of the factors which have 
been raised in regard to the use of GST as a model in 
HP, both for and against. 

Common philosophical origins 

As has been discussed above, both GST and HP 
have arisen, at least partially, as a reaction to the 
prevailing views of reductionism and also as an 
attempt to reorganize thought to more closely reflect 
the complexity of the issues faced. Moreover, the 
expansion of traditional paradigms in HP comes not 
only from a reaction to behaviorism, but also from 
the realization that our senses and intuition provide 
far more insight than is recognized through 
exclusively mechanistic scientific paradigms. Von 
Bertalanffy [13J believes a more comprehensive 
approach is necessary to understand the 'heightened 
complexity of the modern world' (p. 34). Similarly, 
Maslow [50] addresses the issue of reductionism in 
this way: 

These particular [reductionistic] hypotheses about the world 
have the right to fly in the face of common sense-but only for the 
sake of demonstrated convenience. When they are no longer 
convenient, or when they become hindrances, they must be 
dropped. It is dangerous to see in the world what we have put 
into it rather than what is actually there. Let us say that this 
flatly atomistic mathematics or logic is, in a certain sense, a 
theory about the world; and any description of it in terms of this 
theory may be rejected by the psychologist as unsuited to his 
purposes. It is clearly necessary for methodological thinkers to 
proceed to the creation of logical and mathematical systems 
that are more closely in accord with the nature of modern 
science (p. 221). 
Gray and Rizzo [33], among others, have 
acknowledged the limitations outlined by Maslow, 
and predict that GST will provide a valuable 
alternative to the mechanistic paradigms in 
psychiatry, forming the basis for a theoretical 
development in psychiatry that will eliminate such 
anachronisms as the search for uni-causal explana- 
tions of disorder, or the search for therapy through 
isolated or narrow approaches. GST, according to 

General systems theory in humanistic psychology 
Gray [33], lays the foundation for an approach that 
recognizes both illness and therapy as problems 
involving system differentiation, system organiza- 
tion, system integration, and system development. 
Sensitivity to humanistic principles 

GST is not without its critics in HP, as GST is often 
erroneously considered an elaborate form of a 
mechanistic paradigm and, thus, insensitive to 
humanistic concepts. Perhaps it would be fair to say 
that the sensitivity to humanistic principles found in 
any scientific paradigm arises less from the formal 
aspects of the system itself than it does from the 
manner in which it is applied. GST has the inherent 
flexibility to be useful in describing the processes and 
functions of mechanical and electronic devices while 
concurrently providing a framework and language 
for the description and understanding of the most 
fragile and intimate human issues. If the person who 
applies GST to singularly human issues is sensitive to 
humanistic concerns, the result should be similarly 

As an example, analogies between two systems, 
such as a human and a machine, must be approached 
with caution. If human systems are reduced through 
analogy to simpler expressions or processes, the 
essential ingredients which make these systems 
human may be lost. Similarities and differences can 
always be found between systems, and some 
comparisons do little more than draw meaningless 
parallels. However, very different phenomena 
exhibit similar characteristics and these can be 
employed as an aid to understanding without 
'reducing' one phenomenon to another. In order to 
employ the theoretical framework and methodo- 
logical tools of GST in furthering knowledge of 
human systems and developing appropriate tech- 
niques for therapy, HP may need to develop terms 
and concepts more appropriate for dealing with 
human issues rather than directly adopting those 
GST conceptualizations which are more ap- 
propriate to mechanistic functions. 

Models and symbolization

Perhaps to many humanistic psychologists the 
most familiar aspects of GST are the methodologies 
involving symbolization, model making, mathe- 
matical formulations and computer simulations. 
Critics, however, often view these techniques as 
examples of inappropriate reductionism. For 
example, mathematical formulations have proved 
exceedingly useful in engineering, physiology and 
ecology [62J, although their applications to HP still 
remain to be thoroughly explored. However, it has 
been established that techniques of symbolization 
are unquestionably useful to HP [44]. It must be 
kept in mind, though, that the more closely a theory 
approximates a mathematical model, the more 
difficult it is to apply to a concrete human situation. 
In GST, modeling and symbology have reached a 
high degree of sophistication, offering the humanistic 
psychologist a convenient method to describe the 
physiological, psychological and social elements of 
psychological research and psychotherapy. The use 
of modeling and symbology is not new to the study of 
the human; for example, Lilly [45] uses program- 
ming analogies and models to describe the dynamics 
of belief systems. Also Tart [68] provides examples of 
the symbolization of the psychodynamics of altered 
states of consciousness, and the energy modeling 
technique has been employed by Ruttenber [63] to 
describe the biological processes that could be 
involved in psychoenergetic phenomena. 
Additionally, Jantsch [38] uses the GST concept of 
'inputting negentropy' to describe how systems 
contribute to their own organization, Hampden- 
Turner [35] uses models to convey the essential 
concepts of some major theories in modern 
psychology, and Bronfenbrenner [18J demonstrates 
the utility and feasibility of a systems approach for 
generating research hypotheses in psychology. 
Moreover, Bateson [7] uses graphic and verbal 
models to depict the feedback relationships of 
communications both within the mind and among 
In addition to providing a number of modeling 
techniques, GST offers general guidelines for the 
development and criticism of model composition. 
Recognizing levels of system organization permits 
the understanding of the various aspects of an 
individual's psychodynamics, as well as the way in 
which an individual is one of several elements in a 
societal structure. Nord [53] illustrates this point 
quite clearly in his observations of contemporary 
psychologists and their neglect of social 

Many psychologists have tended to overlook the fact that man 
is a social being [30]. Consequently, many contemporary 
models emphasize individual growth almost exclusively. Marx, 
however, stressed the need for a social system in which all 
members develop together. To him an appropriate social 
system was a necessary condition for human development. 
From this perspective a humanistic psychology which omits 
attention to the features of the more macrosocial system 
appears severely limited (p. 78). 

Finally, the holistic perspective of GST can be 
useful in evaluating research strategies. For example, 
Churchman [25] argues against the laboratory 
method as the only way to investigate the human 
sciences, since the purpose of the laboratory is to 
isolate the researcher from the outside world and 
particularly from the unpredictable nature of human 
beings. But the laboratory can limit relationships 
between the researcher and his or her environment. 

Rychlak [64], for example, describes how psycho- 
logical research can be both rigorous and human- 
istic when holistic principles are used in laboratory 

The issues raised against the use of GST in HP are 
valid points and are largely based upon concerns 
over reintroducing the very inadequacies that were 
present in the perspectives of the human that HP 
reacted against. Von Bertalanffy [14] has also 
addressed the arguments raised against GST, some 
of which are supportable, but he points out that 'the 
limitations of the theory and its applications in their 
present status are obvious; but the principles appear 
to be essentially sound as shown by their application 
in different fields' (p. 78). In the application of GST 
methodologies in HP, as in the use of any modeling 
technique, it is incumbent upon the user to assure 
that the model is used with a sensitivity to human 
concerns and that such models do not become 
confused with reality. Yet even with the drawbacks 
we have discussed, the theoretical framework of 
GST, along with its sophisticated methodologies, 
stands to offer HP potentially powerful tools in the 
development of specific, concrete therapeutic 


In the foregoing discussion, we have attempted to 
demonstrate the common philosophical perspec- 
tives of GST and HP with the purpose of advocat- 
ing the usefulness of GST in furthering the under- 
standing of the human being from the perspective 
of HP. The challenges which face HP at this 
juncture are numerous, yet the areas of rnind(body 
interaction and the dynamics of growth are of par- 
ticular note. Both areas are timely considerations 
and reflect the type of problem that we feel may par- 
ticularly benefit from the application of GST to 
problems in HP and humanistic psychotherapy. 
Paradigms of mind/body interaction 

Though not stressed in the early days of HP, an 
emphasis upon the unity of mental and physical 
processes of the human organism has become 
fundamental to many contemporary therapeutic 
approaches. The need to supplant the mind/body 
dichotomy with a more holistic view which 
recognizes inter-level interactions is also important 
to the organismic paradigm of GST. Lotka [46], a 
forerunner of modern systems theory, was perhaps 
the first to make this point. Concerning the scientific 
inadequacies of mind and matter dualism, von 
Bertalanffy [11] observes: Psychopathology attests 
to the interwoveness of both halves of experience, 
body and mind, physiological function and consciousness. 
Rather brutal physical and chemical attacks- drugs, 
electroshock, neurosurgery-profoundly influence the 
'mind'. Mental treatment like the verbal treatment ad- 
ministered by the psychotherapist may profoundly influence 
the body's physiological functioning including malfunctions 
and psychoneurosis .... This physiological function in behavior 
and neurophysiology on the one hand, and psychological 
function in its conscious and unconscious parts on the other, 
begin to resemble each other even more in their structural 
aspects. There is no sharp borderline between bodily function, 
unconsciousness, and the conscious mind. In the last resort, 
they may be the very same thing (p. 99)  

Von Bertalanffy [10] thus adopts the 
phenomenologically-based view that direct ex- 
perience suggests a continuum between the 
subjective and objective, emphasizing that mind 
must encompass conscious, unconscious and 
culturally-influenced symbolic phenomena. The 
general systems theoretical approach to the 
interactions of mind and body has already proven 
useful in psychosomatic medicine, physiology and 
psychopathology [12, 13]. Perhaps the most fruitful 
application of GST to the integration of mind and 
body concepts will come from utilizing models that 
combine biological processes with those of the 
psyche in an inter-level approach to the human and 
human problems. 

GST can also clarify the extent to which the 
humanistically oriented therapies combine func- 
tions of mind and body, and perhaps suggest new 
areas for exploration. For example, Miller [52] uses 
general systems theory to describe the dynamics of 
stress. He defines stress as any force that pushes the 
functioning of an organism's important subsystems 
beyond their ability to restore equilibrium through 
ordinary, non-emergency adjustment. Stress may 
involve either an under- or overload of system inputs 
such as food, air, water, energy, or information. 

Methods of coping with stress through mind- 
body therapies are quite popular among humanistic 
therapists, although the techniques often differ 
considerably,especially in which levels are treated 
and by which technique. Some feel stress is a function 
of personality and, therefore, can be controlled by 
modifying detrimental behavior [58]. Hyper- 
tensives, for example, can learn to be less com- 
pulsive [29], essentially an approach directed at the 
mind level. Others treat stress with physiologi- 
cally based strategies [42, 65], through teaching a 
relaxation response [8], or by prescribing drugs. In 
these strategies, the primary treatment focus is aimed 
at the body level, but the relaxation response method 
also has been noted to produce effects at the mind 
level [9]. In addition, there are techniques which are 
multi-level in that they aim at levels of both body and 
mind. For example, body therapies such as the 
Feldenkrais method [28], the Alexander technique 
[1,67], bioenergetics [48] or rolfing [61], emphasize 
the release of body tension and the realignment of 

General systems theory in humanistic psychology 
body structure to heighten self-awareness and 
increase the ability to cope with accumulated stress. 
Although primarily physiological in approach, these 
techniques have been found to have definite 
influences on the client's attitudes. Lowen [47], for 
example, points out that frequent, strenuous exercise 
helps a person regain contact with mind and body, 
thereby establishing both increased self-awareness 
and a greater closeness with other people. Though 
often successful, the above techniques can often be 
improved by taking a multi-level approach and 
considering other important elements of the human 
system, such as attitudes, beliefs, diet, exercise and 
interpersonal feelings. 

More comprehensive approaches to humanistic 
mind-body strategies utilizing multi-level ap- 
proaches to stress reduction are found in the writings 
of Davidson and Schwartz [26J, Nuernberger [54], 
and Hastings, Fadiman and Gordon [36]. 
Nuernberger, for example, uses a holistic framework 
combining body disciplines, diet, elements of 
meditation and lifestyle change. Biofeedback [19, 
40] is also employed by humanistic psychologists to 
monitor the interaction between their client's 
feelings and concomitant physiological responses. 
The biofeedback user is able to gradually increase 
mental and physiological awareness and thus begin 
to control personal patterns that have resulted in 
increased tension. Compared to therapeutic pro- 
grams that are primarily physiological in approach, 
these techniques produce heightened mind-body 
awareness through the integration of clinical 
technology with client-therapist interactions. 
Client-therapist interactions can address a host of 
factors in the client's profile which contribute to 
stress and, thus, make these approaches multi- 

The transcendental potentials of the psyche are 
often not considered in mind-body therapies- 
perhaps because we first connect our more conscious 
and rational thoughts to bodily feelings. The use of 
meditation and yoga to produce self-willed somatic 
effects illustrates this point. However, the trans- 
cendental qualities of meditation, yoga and other 
routes to altered states of consciousness also have 
somatic influences which can be useful. Psychedelic 
substances, too, may have this potential [37]. The 
domains of transcendence are in need of a great deal 
of research in order to define and elucidate the 
specific processes involved and to develop effective 
techniques to exploit this knowledge in therapy. 

From a general systems view, both mind and body 
are collective terms for interactive processes 
incorporating many subsystems which need to be 
considered during the therapy process. Therapies 
which primarily focus on limited aspects of a 
problem, such as stress, may be somewhat successful, 
but would benefit from a multi-leveled approach 
which recognized and treated the multi-causal 
nature of the problem. Substantially more research is 
needed in order to equip HP with an array of multi- 
level techniques suited to a variety of problem areas 
and client types. GST can provide the theoretical 
framework as well as useful methodologies for the 
development of specific applications which involve 
the client in a therapy-oriented system which focuses 
on the myriad of influential variables in the client's 
life and utilizes the interactive nature of the client- 
therapist relationship. 

One major and difficult area where research is 
called for is that of producing comprehensive models 
of the stress process and elucidating the relative 
contributions of such variables as attitudes, beliefs, 
body awareness, compulsiveness, diet, exercise, 
interpersonal feelings, social status, etc. From these 
models of the stress process, specific therapeutic 
techniques could be developed and further research 
conducted to determine their effectiveness and to 
demonstrate the most effective methods to employ 
client-therapist interactions to reduce stress. 

Dynamics of growth in an open system 

The growth paradigm appears to be one of the 
most utilized concepts in HP. Its popularity is often 
attributed to a reaction against the behaviorists' 
stimulus-response models that emphasize equi- 
librium as the fundamental goal of the human 
organism. The theoretical and practical facets of 
humanistic therapies suggest both a variety of 
conceptualizations of growth and a wide spectrum of 
situations for which growth is considered ap- 
propriate [27]. Models of the growth process offered 
by humanistic psychologists take several forms: 
cycles in transition [59]; the linear passage through 
stages of self-actualization or psychosocial develop- 
ment [34, 51]; a progression of self-awareness 
toward an ultimate state [23]; and a process of 
adaptation that tends toward higher degrees of order 

Buhler [21] observes that creativity, more than 
any other human behavior, shows that the person is 
an open system with certain freedoms of operation 
and potentials for growth. Creativity expresses what 
Buhler considers the central theoretical issue in HP: 
that humans are active mediators of their own 
existence. On the other hand, emphasizing the 
growth of an individual to the extent of excluding 
social relationships may obviate chances for 
successful therapy [53]. The importance of the 
growth paradigms is unquestioned in HP, however, a 
clear approach toward the definition and evaluation 
of this process has not been formulated. That is, 
humanistically oriented therapists have yet to 
translate the intuitive recognition of the growth 
process into well-formulated theories for evaluating 
therapeutic success, communicating with others, and 
developing new therapeutic techniques. 
GST can clarify some ofthese issues by illustrating 
the diversity of growth processes exhibited by 
biological and cultural systems. The general systems 
properties of the growth process may thus serve as 
analogues in HP. The paradigm of the open system 
provides the backbone for all general systems 
insights into the dynamics of growth. Growth can 
assume a variety of patterns with rates of change that 
result in steady or sporadic increases, or increases 
that reach a stable plateau. Logistic growth, 
exponential growth, asymptotic growth and steady 
state (which may include oscillatory behavior) are 
systems terms used to describe these phenomena [56, 
57]. These processes considerably expand the 
paradigms of homeostasis and equilibrium that have 
been incorporated into many psychological theories 

The application of evolution theory to the 
dynamics of open systems also broadens the scope of 
growth paradigms. The evolution of complexity 
(which is often described as the progression through 
levels of complexity) can thus be differentiated from 
adaptation-a point that is often confused in many 
fields [22J. Von Bertalanffy [11] clarifies this issue: 
I must confess that I do not see a scintilla of evidence that 
evolution in the sense of progression from less to more complex 
organisms has anything to do with improved adaptation, 
selective advantage, largest production of offspring, or in 
whatever way the Darwinian concept is couched. Adaptation to 
environment appears to be possible at any level of organization 

Von Bertalanffy [l1] describes this seemingly 
paradoxical relationship between the continuous 
flow of ordered processes and the dynamics of 
differentiation as anamorphosis. As Gray [31] points 
out, the theory of anamorphosis has clarified the 
processes of growth, change, development and 
creativity. He also considers the origin of 
anamorphosis to be one of the major problems for 
future research. Von Bertalanffy [13] summarizes 
these points and integrates them with theories in psychology:
psychophysiological development is not exhausted by 
conditioning, accumulation of traces of past experience and 
their neurophysiological counterparts. Rather, development- 
ontogenetic, cultural, microgenetic--proceeds from un- 
differentiated or syncretic states to ever more differentiated 
ones. This is found in perception, concepts, language and 
elsewhere (p. 12). 

And for von Bertalanffy [13], 'Normal differentia- 
tion implies progressive organization within an 
integrated whole or system. In regressing this 
integration is lost, resulting in splitting. of 
personality, complexes, distributed ego function, 
and the like' (p. 42). 

A general systems perspective toward personal 
growth also facilitates the comparison of this process 
with similar phenomena at various levels of 
complexity, including not only the organismic 
growth described by von Bertalanffy, but also the 
succession in ecosystems [55J, the evolution of 
culture [70J, the evolution of species [38, 39J, and 
even the origin of life itself [17]. Properties that are 
common to these processes may be helpful to the 
humanistic therapist in understanding and evaluat- 
ing the growth of the client. 

Equifinality is a case in point. Equifinality 
recognizes that the same final state may emerge from 
different initial conditions, or may be reached in 
different ways [11]. Gray [33] summarizes the use of 
the systems property of equifinality in psychiatry: 

Four derivations of the concept of equifinality are of particular 
importance to psychiatry. The first is that of recognizing 
psychopathological states as equifinal and therefore resistant to 
change. The second is in the recognition that the initial state is 
not as important as was previously thought, as, for example, in 
the early days of psychoanalysis. The third issues from the 
understanding that what does determine equifinal levels are the 
system parameters and that the search for psychotherapy must 
stress ways in which such parameters can be changed. The 
fourth is the recognition that shifts in equifinal levels are the 
necessary concomitants of growth and development and are 
experienced psychically as painful and as involving introspec- 
tion (p. 178). 

Another growth associated phenomenon that is 
clarified by the general systems perspective is the 
relationship between growth and disease. Von 
Bertalanffy [12] characterizes mental illness as a 
disturbance of system functions. The regression that 
often accompanies the psychotic state is not a re- 
turn to older and more infantile forms of behavior, 
but a dedifferentiation and decentralization of 

The processes and dynamics of growth, change, 
creativity, anamorphosis, differentiation, dedifferen- 
tiation and the relationships of these processes wIth 
physical disease and mental disorders are all in need 
of careful investigation through structured research. 
In particular, models need to be developed for the 
growth and change processes, outlining similarities 
and differences, if any, between these processes. 
Models are also needed to describe how people adapt 
to changes and how this process differs from 
progression through levels of complexity. The 
relationship between the flow of ordered processes 
and differentiation-anamorphosis-also needs to 

General systems theory in humanistic psychology 
be more fully explored in research. All of these 
processes and their dynamics are closely interrelated 
and may be very different processes or similar 
processes differing only by name and the perspective 
of the viewer. All of these processes and their 
interrelationships are timely subjects for research, 
and GST appears to offer the best theoretical 
framework for understanding these complex, multi- 
leveled processes. GST modeling methods seem 
particularly suited to describing this knowledge and 
giving insight into practical therapeutic approaches. 


In this article we have outlined the interests that 
are held in common by GST and HP. We have also 
suggested specific areas in HP that can benefit from 
incorporating the theory and methodology of GST. 
This obviously hinges upon the willingness of 
humanistic psychologists to consider ideas and 
techniques whose origins are in the natural sciences. 
Many early humanistic psychologists under- 
standably resisted the idea that GST could 
contribute to HP. This is not surprising, however, 
considering the resistance to the introduction of 
GST into psychiatry [32], even though Bateson [5J 
convincingly argued the importance of communi- 
cations theory, Gestalt, and the theory and 
methodology of science to psychiatry. 

It is certainly possible, though, that HP could have 
its fundamental precepts undermined in ways 
reminiscent of the hegemony established by 
behaviorism. As Bugental [20] observes: 

Although humanistic psychology must find its own methods 
and must validate those methods as dependable knowledge 
about the human condition, humanistic psychology would be 
untrue to itself were it to become preoccupied with 
methodology to the loss of concern with meaningful issues in 
the human condition (p. 24). 
Humanistic psychologists should be rightfully 
critical of any paradigms or methodologies that seek 
to become incorporated into their fields, and several 
supportable criticisms have been raised against GST 
[14]. But the failure to explore possible contri- 
butions also has its shortcomings. Rogers [60] 
makes this point quite clear: 

It is very well to be opposed to the shaping of human behavior as 
being the ultimate goal of psychological science. But it is simply 
not enough, in my estimation, to settle comfortably back into 
the principle that since we appreciate the mysterious and the 
unique in man we are, therefore, somehow superior. William 
James wrestled with this issue long ago and said of these two 
extremes-both an atomistic empiricism and a subjective 
mysticism- 'they are but spiritual chloroform'. I heartily agree 
with his view (p. 2). 

In suggesting the utility of general systems 
principles in HP, we have pointed out some of the 
problems that may arise. Some very complex 
approaches overgeneralize analogies or create new 
scientifically fortified 'cults' with paradigms and/or 
language precluding interdisciplinary communi- 
cation, and interdisciplinary communication is 
becoming ever more necessary. The fact that 
examples of these problems abound in the literature 
of GST is certainly cause for caution. However, the 
clarity that GST can contribute will more than offset 
the accompanying disadvantages. 

Though our focus has been on potential 
contributions to HP from GST, we suggest that the 
reverse is also true. The unique emphasis that HP 
places on the intuitive development and evaluation 
of therapy, the critical regard for reductionist 
tendencies in science, and the faith in the potential of 
humanity offers challenges to GST. Substantial 
contributions to the evolution of new conceptual 
techniques, philosophical approaches, and research 
methodologies can result. That is, the synergy of HP 
and GST may lead to major advances in both. 

Von Bertalanffy [11] recognized the generative 
potential of this type of relationship, which is too 
often overlooked in the sciences and the humanities: 

Analysis has to proceed at two levels: that of phenomenology, 
that is of direct experience, encompassing perception of outside 
things, feelings, thinking, willing, etc.; and of conceptual 
constructs, the reconstruction of direct experience in systems of 
symbols, culminating in science; it being well understood that 
there is no absolute gap between percept and concept, but that 
the two levels intergrade and interact (p. 94).
Let us suggest that HP and, possibly, GST can 
benefit from an interactive relationship. At the 
present, HP lacks a commonly-understood scientific 
paradigm to provide a theoretical framework with 
which to develop and evaluate models, methods, 
research, theories and therapies. Also, HP has no 
common ground or language for efficiently and 
effectively communicating its findings. We believe 
that GST can perform just such a service to HP, with 
the understanding that models, generalizations, 
symbolizations, etc. are useful devices provided that 
they are not confused with reality itself and do not 
become an end in themselves rather than a means to 
an end. 

Finally, future research is especially important to 
HP. The meta-theoretical framework of GST can 
provide the basis for uncovering previously 
overlooked problems and viewing old problems 
from a new perspective. At the same time, the 
methodologies employed in GST can provide HP 
with tools to investigate these problems. Research 
based on GST principles is especially needed in such 
timely problem areas as stress, psychosomatic 
illnesses, growth, etc., and can help to clarify the 
multi-causal nature of these problem areas and lead 
to fresh therapeutic techniques which emphasize 
multi-level therapeutic interventions.


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