Popular Psychology

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Popular Psychology

Popular psychology springs from the desire of people searching for inspiration and self-improvement in a secular form. This desire accounted for some of the success of the eighteenth-century bestseller Poor Richard's Almanack, through which Benjamin Franklin conveyed proverbs and aphorisms about human nature along with weather reports and other practical information. By the time psychology emerged as a discipline in the 1880s and 1890s, the United States already had a sizeable reading public that readily consumed literature on self-improvement and the "gospel of success," and there was also a strong market for spiritualism and mental healing. Books and articles of popular psychology merged easily into these two streams, one secular and the other metaphysical, because they aimed to provide an understanding of the mind's workings that could be used for either practical self-improvement or for more mystical psychic explorations.

Although psychology detached itself from religion when it became an academic discipline, popular psychology maintained a fairly close relationship with the religious lives of Americans. This connection was visible from the start. William James, the most influential of all American psychologists, believed in mesmerism, the practice of inducing a trance so as to open the mind of the subject to extrasensory perceptions and healing forces. Mesmerism in America yielded a very popular mind-cure philosophy that predisposed Americans to consider psychology a means for tapping unconscious psychic forces for the general betterment of the person.

The phenomenal 1897 bestseller, In Tune with the Infinite by Ralph Waldo Trine, exemplified this "transcendentalist" characteristic of American popular thought. Until the appearance of the not dissimilar Power of Positive Thinking (1952) by Norman Vincent Peale, Trine's book was the biggest selling inspirational book of the twentieth century. In it, the author offered his readers peace of mind through a meditative, ecumenical approach for achieving psychic oneness with God. Though not a book of psychology, In Tune with the Infinite drew on the concept of the unconscious as a deep spiritual reservoir. Trine urged the reader "to come into the full realization of your own awakened interior powers":

There is a mystic force that transcends the powers of the intellect and likewise of the body. There are certain faculties that we have that are not a part of the active, thinking mind.… Through them we have intuitions, impulses, leadings, that instead of being merely the occasional, should be the normal and habitual.

As formally trained psychologists, neurologists, and psychiatrists entered the fray of popular literature, they often seemed to be saying much the same thing, but in a secular form and with titles that were less ethereal, more "scientific" or simply duller. Directing Mental Energy by Francis Aveling, for example, a 1927 book whose jacket carried the supertitle "The Business of Thinking," aimed to help readers "economize" their mental and emotional energy so as to lead more productive and satisfying lives. "The successful man or woman of today," the book's promotional copy read, "must know how to organize every ounce of energy to meet the pressure of our complicated existence."

Efficiency in the use of one's inner resources and relaxation of an overtaxed body and mind were common themes of psychological self-help books, all of which were based on the premise that Americans were coping with a complex and nerve-wracking civilization. The words "nervous" or "nerves" frequently appeared in the title of this literature. Some of the most popular books of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were neurologist Abraham Myerson's The Nervous Housewife (1920), psychiatrist Josephine Jackson's Outwitting Our Nerves (1921), and psychiatrist David Harold Fink's Release From Nervous Tension (1943). These authors aimed to help their readers cope with anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion, boredom, and depression, problems that were linked to the peculiar demands of America's fast-paced, competitive, work-oriented, and technologically-driven society.

It is clear that many of the same problems and goals of Americans at the end of the twentieth century were already well articulated in its early decades. Then, as now, the quest for inner reserves of power and tranquility, for methods of maximizing energy and efficiency, and for solutions to vexatious emotional problems has fueled the engine of popular psychology. Yet, across the span of a century, there are discernible phases and eras of popular psychology, which reflected significant changes in American society and culture.

The genesis of popular psychology can be observed partly through the career of Joseph Jastrow, the first person to receive a Ph.D. in psychology in the United States and a pioneer popularizer of the discipline. Born in Warsaw in 1863 and raised in Philadelphia, Jastrow was the son of a prominent rabbi and Talmud scholar. Studying with Charles S. Peirce and G. Stanley Hall, he completed the Ph.D. in psychology at Johns Hopkins in 1886 and went on to the University of Wisconsin, where he set up one of the nation's first and best psychology laboratories. At the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Jastrow and Hugo Munsterberg, a pioneer of applied psychology, made the first big public demonstration of modern psychology. The two young men set up an apparatus to measure various mental responses and distributed an explanatory pamphlet. For a nominal fee, visitors tried out the testing laboratory and learned something about their mental characteristics.

From the beginning of his career, Jastrow regularly wrote on psychological topics for magazines, but his fame as a popular psychologist was rooted in the 1920s and 1930s, when he wrote syndicated newspaper columns of psychological advice. These became the basis of two popular books, Keeping Mentally Fit (1928) and Piloting Your Life (1930). Jastrow also hosted a radio program on this subject for NBC from 1935-38. His writing and speaking encompassed all aspects of the field and told something about prevailing attitudes toward psychology at the time. Jastrow authored a book for the general public on the theories of Freud (The House That Freud Built (1932)), but he himself was no Freudian. Like many psychologists, as opposed to psychoanalysts, Jastrow preferred to discuss the facts produced by tests of perception and cognition rather than wander into grand theories of childhood sexuality.

One of the purposes he set for himself, and one that typified books of psychology for the layman, was to puncture myths and weigh generalizations with data. "Are bright children weaklings?" "Do school leaders make good?" and "Are city children bright-er?"—these were the sort of questions being answered by citing the latest studies of aptitude and achievement. A second goal was simply to explain psychological categories that had come into vogue, such as "complex" and "repression," and to give an explanation of such everyday phenomena as absent-mindedness, fatigue, anxiety over dreams, and sexual self-consciousness. The most obvious defect of these "genres" of popular psychology, even in the hands of an eminent scholar like Jastrow, was their tendency to degenerate into glibness and conviviality. For example, in Keeping Mentally Fit Jastrow answered one young woman's appeal for advice about her "sex-consciousness" with the jest that men cannot really understand the way women think about sex: "A man can have only the man's sense of this sex relation, and he sees nothing in other men to get excited about. He isn't blind to the fact that women find men attractive, and he tries to see some compliment in it to himself; he doesn't get much farther than recognizing it as an amiable weakness of women."

By far the overriding theme of Jastrow's psychology, and of many of his contemporaries, was the need for emotional self-control and proper social adjustment to one's work, community, and family. The Mental Hygiene movement of the Progressive Era and 1920s emphasized bodily integrity through exercise and diet, emotional integrity through relaxation, and mental integrity through proper self-assessment and concentration on one's tasks. Americans were dedicated enough to an optimistic philosophy of efficiency and advancement, both personal and social, that they managed to transform even Freudianism in their own image, deleting its atheism and pessimism and making it another program for social betterment. Freud's notion of sublimation, whereby unruly impulses were turned to productive endeavors, was easily compatible with the psychology of usefulness. While child psychology underscored the value of giving children freedom to express themselves, particularly through constructive play, Jastrow's generation nonetheless emphasized the dangers of the self-indulgent personality type. "For efficiency and happiness we must have emotional control," advised the 1929 book The Healthy Mind: Mental Hygiene for Adults edited by Henry Elkind:

The angry man cannot think clearly; the man in fear of losing his job does poor work.… The infant, a complete tyrant, absolutely selfish, is a model exhibition of anger, or fear and of most of the undesirable emotions. He has to learn control of his responses through social pressure. That is the object of modern education—the comfortable adjustment of the individual to his surroundings.

Popular psychology entered a second phase of popularity in the 1940s, catalyzed by the Second World War. As had happened in World War I, the reality of war-related mental disorders—"psycho-neuroses," as they were then known—stimulated great public interest in the workings of the mind and its effect on the soul. Sympathetic to the plight of GIs who returned home troubled by insomnia, nightmares, nervousness, and malaise, the American public showed not only a heightened interest in psychology but also a greater appreciation of its usefulness for normal people experiencing temporary or occasional problems. Popular magazines ran feature stories candidly conveying the emotional effects of war on fighting men and approving the soldiers' need to express their emotions by crying when necessary. Psychologist Abraham Sperling began his 1946 book Psychology for the Millions by discussing this new phenomenon: "The model of courageous behavior is no longer portrayed by a stoic, tight-lipped, muscle-bound he-man.… The supposed hard-bittensoldier bares his soul and is that much better off for it." Psychology for the Millions, in its praise of the new emotional openness of Americans, reflected the rising sophistication about psychology and the more exuberant self-expression that characterized American society since the 1920s.

The psychology boom of the 1940s was perhaps most obvious in its penetration of religious inspirational literature. The postwar therapeutic age was heralded in 1946 by an immensely popular book on psychology that was written not by a psychologist but by a clergyman, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman. The book, Peace of Mind, sold a million and a half copies in a few years, preaching a new creed in which an optimistic neo-Freudian psychology, based on the work of Karen Horney and Alfred Adler, teamed up with religion to help Americans overcome angst and personal problems en route to spiritual fulfillment. Liebman believed in the power of modern psychotherapy to cure ills that had befuddled traditional religion and in this belief he was joined by two of the most influential Protestant ministers of the century, Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale.

Both these men had begun to introduce psychology into their pastoral counseling in the 1930s, and along with Liebman, they helped disseminate it to millions of people in the 1940s and 1950s. The special significance of these writers lay in their being clergymen, for their audience included many people who might not otherwise have considered psychology a legitimate resource. Fosdick's On Being a Real Person (1943) was based on actual cases of people who came for pastoral counseling. The book, Fosdick hoped, would describe the "familiar mental and emotional maladies" of ordinary people, "their alibis and rationalizations, their ingenious, unconscious tricks of evasion and escape, their handling of fear, anxiety, guilt, and humiliation, their compensations and sublimations also, and the positive faiths and resources from which I have seen help come." Peale, the biggest selling inspirational writer of the century, collaborated with a psychiatrist for the popular 1950 book The Art of Real Happiness which, following the lead of Liebman's Peace of Mind, showed how psychological insight and religious guidance could solve personal problems. Like Fosdick, Peale discussed real cases, frankly presenting stories of guilt and neurosis induced by repressed sexuality and repressed anger, family harmony ruined by alcoholism, and inundating his readers with uplifting accounts of people overcoming obstacles through prayerful concentration. Peale's 1948 Guide to Confident Living, which went through thirty-five printings in seven years, was promoted as a "book of workable spiritual prescriptions [that] used the principles of religion and modern psychiatry to bring practical help and new hope to millions of readers."

In the 1960s and 1970s Peale's blend of Christianity and psychology found a competitor in a "countercultural" melange of Eastern meditation, consciousness-raising, and humanistic and Gestalt psychology. Instead of concentrating on the book of Psalms and the Gospel, some Americans now strove for a "zen mind" and "peak experiences." The venerable American belief in the great hidden capacities of the mind, in a subconsciousness where the mental and the spiritual could be unified, transformed from "the power of positive thinking" to "transcendental meditation." Peale's positive thinking was supposed to produce public success, not just peace of mind. The meditationist trend of the 1960s and 1970s, however, rejected social convention and focused intensely on the state of the mind. At its most extreme, this trend was personified by psychologist Timothy Leary.

Leary's idiosyncratic career started with the prestigious job of directing the Kaiser Foundation Hospital of Oakland, California. Swept up by the current of the times and by experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, Leary quit his practice to preach to American youth about a new drug-based psycho-spiritual creed: "Turn on, tune in, drop out." The college-oriented youth culture produced wide-ranging demands for a new psychology of insight and growth, whether through the fiction of Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East (1964) or Siddhartha (first published in the United States in 1951), Richard Bach's quirky best-seller Jonathan Livingston, Seagull (1970), the lectures and writings of Zen disseminator Alan Watts, or the holistic and growth-oriented theories of Gestalt and humanistic psychology. Gestalt therapists introduced the idea of the "holistic" into American awareness, and the founders of humanistic psychology, especially Abraham Maslow, purveyed the concepts of "self-actualization" and "peak experiences." These ideas gained currency fairly rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s for they conformed to the era's optimistic, almost utopian, expectations of human growth and potential.

In the 1980s and 1990s popular psychology took another turn, this time back toward religion and physiology, both of which were predominant interests at the start of the century. M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist with a strong Christian orientation, wrote one of the biggest bestsellers of the late twentieth century. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth first appeared in 1978 and stayed on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list until the early 1990s. Peck merged psychoanalytic and humanistic insights with a strong commitment to lasting relationships of marriage and family. Turning away from the idealization of the self that was apparent in the popular psychology of the 1960s, he insisted that to love another person required emotional self-discipline, an ability to subordinate one's immediate gratification to the spiritual needs of another. These decades also saw another type of traditionalist return to biology. After several generations dominated by environmentalist approaches, psychologists reasserted the importance of biochemical processes in the brain. Peter D. Kramer's Listening to Prozac (1993) was the most popular exposition of the new evidence for physical sources of depression, one that mirrored and stimulated the sudden popularity of this and other antidepressants. Public fascination with the neurology of the brain surfaced in the 1980s with Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1985), which detailed case histories of people whose relationships and identity were derailed by discrete forms of brain damage or dysfunction.

The close of the twentieth century also witnessed a flowering of psychology books on interpersonal communication between men and women, such as John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) and Deborah Tannen's That's Not What I Meant! (1986) and You Just Don't Understand! (1990). Counterpoised to the emphasis on biological roots of behavior, these books emphasized the social and cultural bases of gender differences in language. Interpersonal communication—"getting along with others"—had long been an interest of American popular psychology, although these books showed a new sensitivity to the role of gender differences.

There was, however, one completely new development that defined much of American popular psychology in the final decades of the century. This was the literature of "recovery"—meaning recovery from addictions. Rooted in the Twelve-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, a unique American organization founded in the 1930s, the concept of addiction expanded in the 1980s to include not only substance abuse—alcohol and drugs—but also other kinds of deeply engrained, habitual behavior ranging from temper tantrums to sexual obsessiveness. Although the addiction idea was undoubtedly stretched too far, the A.A. model for coping with seriously troubled people was magnetic. Merging with the newly popular idea of "dysfunctional families," it produced a separate psychotherapeutic literature that counseled individuals on how to maintain their own dignity while involved with "out-of-control" friends and family members. The Twelve-Step idea was grounded in a non-sectarian monotheistic creed and therefore represented a unique fusion of self-help and religion. As addicts came increasingly into the domain of psychiatric rehabilitation centers during and after the 1960s, the grass-roots A.A. approach was adapted by psychiatrists like Abraham Twerski. Founder of a rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania, Twerski, a Hasidic rabbi, wrote a number of popular books on recovery in the 1980s and 1990s. Like M. Scott Peck, he blended traditional religious values with therapeutic insights. For American popular psychology, the twentieth century ended much as it had begun, with intense public interest in both the physiology of the brain and the theology of psychological healing.

—Andrew R. Heinze

Further Reading:

Aveling, Francis. Directing Mental Energy. New York, George H. Doran, 1927.

Elkind, Henry, ed. The Healthy Mind: Mental Hygiene for Adults. New York, Greenberg, 1929.

Fosdick, Harry Emerson. On Being a Real Person. New York, Harper & Bros., 1943.

Fuller, Robert C. Americans and the Unconscious. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Hale, Nathan G. The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in the United States: Freud and the Americans, 1917-1985. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Holifield, E. Brooks. A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1983.

Jastrow, Joseph. Keeping Mentally Fit. Garden City, Garden City Publishing Co., 1928.

Meyer, Donald B. The Positive Thinkers: A Study of the American Quest for Health, Wealth and Personal Power from Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale. New York, Doubleday, 1965.

Peale, Norman Vincent. Guide to Confident Living. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1948.

Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. New York, Harper and Row, 1966.

Sperling, Abraham. Psychology for the Millions. New York, Frederick Fell, 1946.

Trine, Ralph Waldo. In Tune with the Infinite. New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1897.

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