The Quandary of Modern Psychology

In recent years the concept of “system” has gained increasing influence in psychology and psychopathology. Numerous investi- gations have referred to general system theory or to some part of it (for example, F. Allport, 1955; G. W. Allport, 1960; Anderson, 1957; Arieti, 1962; Brunswik, 1956; Biihler, 1959; Krech, 1950; Lennard 8c Bernstein, 1960; Menninger, 1957; Menninger et ah, 1958; Miller, 1955; Pumpian-Mindlin, 1959; Syz, 1963). Gordon W. Allport ended the réédition of his classic (1961) with “Personality as System”; Karl Menninger (1963) based his system of psychiatry on general system theory and organismic biology; Rapaport (1960) even spoke of the “epidemiclike popularity in psychology of open systems” (p. 144). The question arises why such a trend has appeared.

American psychology in the first half of the 20th century was dominated by the concept of the reactive organism, or, more dramatically, by the model of man as a robot. This conception was common to all major schools of American psychology, classical and neobehaviorism, learning and motivation theories, psychoanalysis, cybernetics, the concept of the brain as a computer, and so forth. According to a leading personality theorist,

Man is a computer, an animal, or an infant. His destiny is completely determined by genes, instincts, accidents, early conditionings and reinforcements, cultural and social forces. Love is a secondary drive based on hunger and oral sensations or a reaction formation to an innate underlying hate. In the majority of our personological formulations there are no provisions for creativity, no admitted margins of freedom for voluntary decisions, no fitting recognitions of the power of ideals, no bases for selfless actions, no ground at all for any hope that the human race can save itself from the fatality that now confronts it. If we psychologists were all the time, consciously or unconsciously, intending out of malice to reduce the concept of human nature to its lowest common denominator, and were gloating over our success in so doing, then we might have to admit that to this extent the Satanic spirit was alive within us. (Murray, 1962, pp. 36-54)

The tenets of robot psychology have been extensively criticized; for a survey of the argument, the reader may consult Allport’s well- balanced evaluations (1955, 1957, 1961) and the recent historical outline by Matson (1964) which is both brilliantly written and well documented. The theory nevertheless remained dominant for obvious reasons. The concept of man as robot was both an expression of and a powerful motive force in industrialized mass society. It was the basis for behavioral engineering in commercial, economic, political, and other advertising and propaganda; the expanding economy of the “affluent society” could not subsist without such manipulation. Only by manipulating humans ever more into Skinnerian rats, robots, buying automata, homeostatically adjusted conformers and opportunists (or, bluntly speaking, into morons and zombies) can this great society follow its progress toward ever increasing gross national product. As a matter of fact (Henry, 1963), the principles of academic psychology were identical with those of the “pecuniary conception of man” (p. 45ff.).

Modern society provided a large-scale experiment in manipulative psychology. If its principles are correct, conditions of tension and stress should lead to increase of mental disorder. On the other hand, mental health should be improved when basic needs for food, shelter, personal security, and so forth, are satisfied; when repression of infantile instincts is avoided by permissive training in bodily functions; when scholastic demands are reduced so as not to overload a tender mind; when sexual gratification is provided at an early age, and so on.

The behavioristic experiment led to results contrary to expectation. World War II—a period of extreme physiological and psychological stress—did not produce an increase in neurotic (Opler, 1956) or psychotic (Llavero, 1957) disorders, apart from direct shock effects such as combat neuroses. In contrast, the affluent society produced an unprecedented number of mentally ill. Precisely under conditions of reduction of tensions and gratification of biological needs, novel forms of mental disorder appeared as existential neurosis, malignant boredom, and retirement neurosis (Alexander, 1960), i.e., forms of mental dysfunction originating not from repressed drives, from unfulfilled needs, or from stress but from the meaninglessness of life. There is the suspicion (Arieti, 1959, p. 474; von Bertalanffy, 1960a) (although not substantiated statistically) that the recent increase in schizophrenia may be caused by the “other-directedness” of man in modern society. And there is no doubt that in the field of character disorders, a new type of juvenile delinquency has appeared: crime not for want or passion, but for the fun of it, for “getting a kick,” and born from the emptiness of life (Anonymous, Crime and Criminologists, 1963; Hacker, 1955).

Thus theoretical as well as applied psychology was led into malaise regarding basic principles. This discomfort and the trend toward a new orientation were expressed in many different ways such as in the various neo-Freudian schools, ego psychology, personality theories (Murray, Allport), the belated reception of European developmental and child psychology (Piaget, Werner, Charlotte Buhler), the “new look” in perception, self-realization (Goldstein, Maslow), client-centered therapy (Rogers), phenomenological and existential approaches, sociological concepts of man (Sorokin, 1963), and others. In the variety of modern currents, there is one common principle: to take man not as reactive automaton or robot but as an active personality system.

The reason for the current interest in general system theory therefore appears to be that it is hoped that it may contribute toward a more adequate conceptual framework for normal and pathological psychology.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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