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What does the contemporary positive psychology movement say about human personality and potentials?




1. Psychopathology

1. Self-Experience Discrepancy

2. Psychological Change

1. Therapeutic Conditions Necessary for Change

2. Outcomes of Client-Centered Therapy

3. Presence



1. Semantic Differential: Phenomenological Theory

2. Comments on the Data


1. The Human Potential Movement

1. Abraham H. Maslow (1908–1970)

2. The Positive Psychology Movement

1. Classifying Human Strengths

2. The Virtues of Positive Emotions

3. Flow

3. Existentialism

1. The Existentialism of Sartre: Consciousness, Nothingness, Freedom, and Responsibility

2. Contemporary Experimental Existentialism


1. Discrepancies Among Parts of the Self

2. Fluctuations in Self-Esteem and Contingencies of Worth

3. Authenticity and Internally Motivated Goals

4. Cross-Cultural Research on the Self

1. Cultural Differences in the Self and the Need for Positive Self-Regard


1. Scientific Observation: the Database

2. Theory: Systematic?

3. Theory: Testable?

4. Theory: Comprehensive?

5. Applications

6. Major Contributions and Summary



Chapter Focus

A good friendship has qualities that are both wonderful and mysterious. If you’re stressed out, if life is giving you too much to handle, talking to a friend—simply discussing your problems and having the person listen carefully—can make you feel better. It’s hard to know why. Even if your friend doesn’t have any specific advice, even if he or she doesn’t offer any solutions to life’s problems, the mere fact that the person is there for you, ready to listen, can make things feel better.

And what does your friend make you feel better about? School? Relationships? Maybe. But if you’re lucky, your friend makes you feel better about that most important of things: you. By letting you explore and express your feelings, your friend somehow improves your sense of self. You end up accepting your limitations and appreciating your strengths.

Providing this type of relationship, and accomplishing this sort of change in self-concept, was Carl Rogers’s goal in his client-centered therapy. His therapeutic approach, which was a foundation on which he built his theory of personality (Chapter 5), is one focus of this chapter. As you will learn, in therapy Rogers tried to discover how his clients denied and distorted aspects of their everyday experience. He then created a therapeutic relationship—a kind of trusting friendship in a therapeutic setting—within which clients could abandon these distortions, explore their true self, and thereby experience personal growth.

In addition to learning about this clinical application of Rogers’s theory of personality, a second goal of this chapter is to review theoretical conceptions that are closely related to that of Rogers. We will consider three conceptions: (1) the human potential movement, including the contributions of the psychologist Abraham H. Maslow; (2) the positive psychology movement, a significant force in contemporary psychology; and (3) existentialism, a school of thought in philosophy that shows signs of increased influence in personality psychology.

Our third focus in this chapter is contemporary research on the self. Much current research in personality science bears on Rogers’s ideas about self and personality. As you will see, some of the research confirms Rogers’s original ideas, other research extends them in novel directions, and yet other research challenges Rogers’s conclusions. For example, cross-cultural studies question whether the psychological dynamics studied by Rogers in the United States are a universal feature of human psychological experience. This third chapter focus, then, speaks to a primary goal of this book: enabling you, the student, to use contemporary research findings to evaluate critically the classic theoretical conceptions of human nature.


1. According to Rogers, how do psychological distress and pathology develop, and what factors are necessary to bring about psychological change in therapy?

2. How did writers in the human potential movement add to Rogers’s understanding of human personality?

3. What does the contemporary positive psychology movement say about human personality and potentials?

4. What is existentialism, how do existentialist ideas relate to personality theory and research, and how do they relate, specifically, to Rogers’s work?

5. What are the implications of contemporary research—including cross-cultural research on self-concept, motivation, and personality—for Rogers’s phenomenological theory?


We begin this chapter where Rogers began his own professional career: in the psychological clinic, facing the challenges of psychopathology and personality change. These clinical applications were integral to Rogers’s development of his personality theory and remained a major focus of Rogers’s work throughout his career.

Rogers’s work in therapy involved more than just a set of techniques; it included a worldview—that is, a broad perspective on the nature of the therapeutic setting. Rogers’s thinking can be understood by contrasting it to Freud’s. Freud, trained as a physician, treated his clients as patients. The client was a person with problems that had to be diagnosed and cured. The therapist was the person with diagnostic and curative expertise. Rogers, in contrast, emphasized the expertise and curative power of the client. In developing his therapeutic approach, “a person seeking help was not treated as a dependent patient but rather as a responsible client” (Rogers, 1977, p. 5). To Rogers, the client possesses an inherent drive toward psychological health. The therapist’s task is merely to help the client to identify conditions that may interfere with personal growth, thereby allowing the person to overcome these obstacles and to move toward self-actualization.


Self-Experience Discrepancy

Before we consider Rogers’s approach to treating psychological distress, we should address a logically prior question: From where does psychological distress come? If people have such a strong capacity for self-actualization, then why are they experiencing psychological distress in the first place? The core elements of Rogers’s answer to this question were introduced in the previous chapter. They involve the self and whether the person experiences a congruence between self and experience.

To Rogers, healthy persons are individuals who can assimilate experiences into their self-structure. They are open to experiencing rather than interpreting events in a defensive manner. It is such persons who experience a  congruence  between self and experience.

In contrast, the neurotic person’s self-concept has become structured in ways that do not fit organismic experience. They deny awareness of significant sensory and emotional experiences. Experiences that are incongruent with the self-structure are subceived; that is, threatening events are detected below levels of conscious awareness and then are either denied or distorted. This distortion results in a discrepancy between actual psychological experiences and the self’s awareness of experience, or a  self-experience discrepancy . Such discrepancies involve a rigid defense of the self against experiences that might threaten the self-concept. Rogers (1961) gives the immediately recognizable example of “the intellectualizing person who talks about himself and his feelings in abstractions, leaving you wondering what is actually going on within him” (p. 64). Rogers’s point, of course, is that you, the observer, are not the only person who is unaware of what is actually going on within. By distorting his experiences, the person has lost an accurate sense of his or her true self.

Consistent with his rejection of a medical model, Rogers did not differentiate among types of pathology. He did not want a diagnostic scheme within which individual persons were classified and then treated merely as examples of one versus another type of psychological disorder. He did, however, differentiate among forms of defensive behaviors. For example, one such defensive behavior is rationalization. In rationalization, a person distorts behavior in such a way as to make it consistent with the self. If you view yourself as a person who never makes mistakes and then a mistake seems to occur, you may rationalize it by blaming the error on another person. Another defensive behavior is fantasy. A man who defensively believes himself to be an adequate person may fantasize that he is a prince and that all women adore him, and he may deny any experiences that are inconsistent with this image. A third example of defense behavior is projection. Here an individual expresses a need but in such a form that the need is denied to awareness and the behavior is viewed as consistent with the self. People whose self-concept involves no “bad” sexual thoughts may feel that others are making them have these thoughts.

The descriptions of these defensive behaviors are quite similar to the ones given by Freud. For Rogers, however, the important aspect of these behaviors is their handling of an incongruence between self and experience by denial in awareness or distortion of perception: “It should be noted that perceptions are excluded because they are contradictory, not because they are derogatory” (Rogers, 1951, p. 506). Furthermore, classification of the defenses is not as critical to Rogerian theory as it is to Freudian theory.


In the preceding chapter, you learned about Rogers’s most important contribution to personality science: his theory of personality. This theory, however, was not Rogers’s own highest priority. His main professional focus was the process of psychotherapy. Rogers committed himself to understanding how personality change can come about. Thus, the process of change, or of becoming, was his greatest concern. His most enduring contribution to understanding change was work in which he outlined necessary conditions of therapy; he described, in other words, types of circumstances and events that need to occur in the relationship between client and therapist in order for personality change to occur. To many people, this therapeutic approach remains as vibrant and relevant today as it was when Rogers first formulated it a half-century ago (McMillan, 2004).

Therapeutic Conditions Necessary for Change

In his early work, Rogers emphasized the therapeutic technique of reflection. In this nondirective approach, therapists do not guide the flow of events in therapy. Instead, they merely summarize, or reflect back to, the client their understanding of what the client has just said. Reflection, though simple, is effective. It conveys to the client a feeling of having been thoroughly, deeply understood by the therapist.

Because some nondirective counselors were perceived as passive and uninterested, Rogers changed his focus to emphasize client-centeredness. In his  client-centered therapy , the therapist not only uses the technique of reflection but also plays a more active role in understanding the experiences of the client. Ultimately, Rogers believed that the critical variable in client-centered therapy is the nature of the interpersonal encounter that develops between the therapist and client, or what is referred to as the therapeutic climate (Rogers, 1966). Rogers described the ideal therapeutic climate in terms of a set of conditions, three of which are core conditions that he saw as necessary for therapeutic change to occur (McMillan, 2004). If therapists provide these conditions in a way that is phenomenologically meaningful to the clients, then therapeutic change should occur.

Rogers hypothesized three conditions as critical to the therapeutic movement: congruence (or “genuineness”), unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding.

The first of the three conditions is congruence or genuineness. Congruent or genuine therapists display to clients their true thoughts and feelings. The congruent therapist does not present a scientific or medical façade but instead is interpersonally open and transparent. He or she experiences events in the therapeutic encounter in a natural manner and shares with the client his or her genuine feelings—even when feelings toward the client are negative. “Even with such negative attitudes, which seem so potentially damaging but which all therapists have from time to time, I am suggesting that it is preferable for the therapist to be real than to put on a false posture of interest, concern, and liking that the client is likely to sense as false” (Rogers, 1966, p. 188). The client thus experiences a real interpersonal relationship with the therapist rather than the stilted, formal relationship that one might usually experience with a health care or mental health care provider.

The second condition essential for therapeutic movement is  unconditional positive regard . This means that the therapist communicates a deep and genuine caring for the client as a person. The client is prized in a total, unconditional way. The experience of respect and unconditional positive regard enables clients to explore their inner self with confidence.

Finally, the third therapeutic condition is  empathic understanding . This refers to the therapist’s ability to perceive the client’s experiences as they are experienced by the client. The therapist strives to achieve empathy with the client during the moment-to-moment encounter of psychotherapy. The therapist, then, does not intellectually detach himself or herself from the encounter in order to provide a technical diagnosis of the client’s problems. Nor does the client receive a reformulation of his or her life in technical psychological jargon. Instead, through active listening, the therapist strives to understand the meaning and subjective feeling of the events experienced by the client and to make it clear to the client that he or she is in fact being understood empathically by the therapist.


The day before a big test you find yourself visualizing what it would feel like to get an A. Then you imagine what it would be like to get an F. Both possibilities can feel very real. The A may seem so ideal, and the F so frightening, that you decide to study an extra hour.

What are your ideal and feared selves? Some research has emphasized the ideal self and the feared self and compared them with the current self as the individual perceives it (e.g., Harary & Donahue, 1994). Here is an exercise that you may find useful for thinking about your ideals and fears in relation to your current self-concept.

First think about how you see yourself in general and rate your current self-concept as you perceive it right now using the five descriptive statements listed here. Next, consider your ideal self—the way you wish your personality would be—and rate it using the same five statements. Finally, consider your feared self—the way you are afraid your personality might become—and rate it accordingly. For all three types of ratings, use the following scale and enter your ratings in the appropriate column:

Disagree Agree
Strongly A little Neither/nor A little Strongly
1 2 3 4 5

Once you have completed your ratings, you can compute two discrepancy scores, one for the discrepancy between current and ideal self and another between current and feared self. For example, consider a person who is quite a party-goer (a current self-rating of 5 on “outgoing”) but feels that ideally she should be more reserved and spend more time on schoolwork (an ideal self-rating of 3); the resulting current–ideal discrepancy (−2) indicates that she needs to cut back on social activities to get closer to the ideal self. Another person might feel he has overcome his shyness (a current self-rating of 3 on “outgoing”) but fears that he might drift back into his lonely old self (a feared self-rating of 1). The resulting current–feared discrepancy (+2) is positive and indicates that for now he is successfully avoiding this feared self.

How I see my various selves:
Current Self Ideal Self Feared Self Current minus Ideal Current minus Feared
Outgoing, not reserved ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
Forgiving, doesn’t hold grudges ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
Is lazy ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
Is tense, easily stressed out ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
Sophisticated in art, music, or literature ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

You might find it interesting to calculate the two discrepancy scores for each of the five rating dimensions and consider where your current self stands in relation to your ideal self and feared selves. Your current self might be further from your ideal self (and closer to your feared self!) on some dimensions more than others. Are these discrepant aspects of your personality ones that you would like to change? The key is to know what you want for yourself (your ideals), what you don’t want (your fears), and what motivates you. Some people are inspired by visualizing their ideal self, and others are jump-started into action by the image of their feared self. Which one sounds more like you? If you want to change, a good way to start is to visualize the vast array of possibilities in your life.

image1 Rogers’s approach to therapy involves clients in direct, face-to-face interaction with the therapist, who tries to create a therapeutic climate that features genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding.

In Rogers’s view, these three therapeutic conditions are of fundamental importance, independent of the theoretical orientation of the therapist. The theory behind client-centered therapy thus has an “if–then” quality: If certain therapeutic conditions exist, then processes inherently will occur that lead to personality change.

Outcomes of Client-Centered Therapy

What the hell is wrong with me?

I’m not who I want to be.

Source: The Clash

Having presented the core elements of Rogers’s therapeutic approach, we now ask, Does it work? Does client-centered therapy benefit the client?

To determine whether a therapy works, one must first determine what it means, in principle, for a therapy to “work.” What is the core aspect of psychological distress that should be relieved by therapy? Rogers’s answer to this question is the one suggested—in more blunt terms than Rogers’s—by the British punk rock band The Clash. Deep psychological distress does not arise merely from objective events in the world. It results from an internal sense of personal inadequacy, from a sense that one is not “who I want to be”—or, in Rogerian terms, from a lack of congruence between one’s actual self and ideal self. For therapy to “work,” then, the client should achieve greater actual–ideal self congruence.

Having said that, the research challenge is to devise scientifically objective and reliable methods of testing the hypothesis that one’s therapy improves this core aspect of personality, the self-concept. Rogers contributed greatly to the development of research methods for meeting this challenge. He was part of a movement important to the profession of psychology, namely, the process of opening up the field of psychotherapy for systematic investigation. Rogers’s main goal was to evaluate therapy through methods that were objective. He recognized that a big limitation in the methods of evaluating therapy provided by Freud and his followers was that their methods were too subjective. In psychoanalytic therapy, the only way for an outsider (i.e., someone other than the therapist and client) to evaluate the success of therapy was to read a case study written by the therapist. The problem here should be obvious to you. The case study may be biased. The therapist—the psychoanalyst whose professional success is supposed to be evaluated—is writing the case study that is the basis of the evaluation. In principle, the therapist might unwittingly overestimate the degree of beneficial therapeutic change that occurred when writing his or her case report. In his client-centered therapy, then, Rogers wanted a means of evaluating therapeutic success that was superior to the subjective reports of a therapist.

Rogers took a number of steps designed to allow the scientific community and the public at large to evaluate his therapeutic efforts. He allowed himself and his colleagues to be taped, and sometimes even filmed, while engaging in therapy. He and his colleagues employed objective measures of self-concept, such as the Q-sort (Chapter 5), so that therapy outcomes could be evaluated objectively. Such steps may seem obvious in retrospect—yet they were not taken by psychoanalysts.

A classic study that illustrates the efforts of Rogers and his students to meet the challenge of evaluating Rogerian therapy through objective procedures was conducted by Butler and Haigh (1954), two of Rogers’s students. First consider their research hypothesis at a conceptual level: It was that Rogerian therapy would bring about, in clients, a greater congruence between the ideal and actual self. Now consider the challenge of moving from the abstract conceptual level to the concrete level of actually doing research. How would you test this idea about relations among different aspects of a person’s self-concept? This is the hard part of personality psychology—moving smoothly and convincingly from the theoretical formulation to the research details. Butler and Haigh made this move by using the Q-sort. Specifically, they used it twice. They asked research participants to complete one Q-sort procedure in which they rated their actual self (i.e., participants sorted items according to how they currently see themselves) and a second one in which participants rated their ideal self (i.e., they sorted items according to whether the attributes described features they ideally would like to possess). With two measures, it is possible to compute a correlation, for any given person, between the actual and ideal self Q-sortings. This correlation is, then, a numerical index of the degree of congruence between the actual and ideal self; a higher positive correlation indicates a greater congruence between the actual and ideal self.

With this index of actual–ideal self congruence in hand, then, Butler and Haigh (1954) looked at the effects of Rogerian therapy. They examined a group of people both before and after the individuals experienced an average of 31 sessions of Rogerian therapy. What did they find? Before therapy, the relation between people’s actual and ideal self was quite low: The average correlation was zero. But after therapy, the congruence between these two aspects of self increased significantly. The average post-therapy correlation between the actual and ideal self Q-sorts was .34. Rogers’s therapy worked, as evaluated by an objective measurement procedure, the Q-sort.

Having read that conclusion, you might ask yourself at least two other questions. First, were the effects of therapy long lasting? Fortunately, Butler and Haigh (1954) tested for this by conducting a follow-up measurement six months after therapy ended. At the time of follow-up, the actual–ideal correlation remained about the same, .31. This suggests that therapeutic changes indeed do last. A second question is, Are psychologically distressed people who experience therapy as well off, after therapy, as people who were never distressed in the first place? This question does not have quite as happy an answer. Butler and Haigh (1954) also asked a group of persons who were not seeking counseling to complete the Q-sort measures, and in this group the ideal–actual self correlation was .58; this group, in other words, displayed considerably higher congruence between the actual and ideal self than did the therapy group after counseling. Nonetheless, Rogerian therapy was shown to produce significant gains.

In the years since the pioneering work of Butler and Haigh (1954), much work has evaluated the popularity and effectiveness of Rogerian therapy. A recent appraisal of the status of client-centered therapy indicates that the approach flourished not only during Rogers’s lifetime but after his death. Therapeutic applications and scientific evaluations of the effectiveness of Rogerian therapy frequently were conducted in both the United States and Europe (Kirschenbaum & Jourdan, 2005). A clear majority of studies indicates that a combination of the three conditions identified by Rogers in fact do foster therapeutic change. Therapy changes include a decrease in defensiveness and an increase in openness to experience among clients, the development of a more positive and more congruent self, the promotion of more positive feelings toward others, and a shift away from using the values of others to asserting one’s own evaluations. These results underscore the conclusion that Rogers’s identification of conditions that foster success in psychotherapy is one of his most enduring contributions to psychology.


Rogers’s view of the conditions necessary for therapeutic improvement changed relatively little over the years after he first formulated them. However, one addition is noteworthy. It is the notion of presence (see Bozarth, 1992; McMillan, 2004). Rogers gradually came to believe that “perhaps I have stressed too much the three basic conditions (congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding)” (quoted in Bozarth, 1992) and that, in addition to these three relative objective features of the therapeutic setting, another feature was more elusive, difficult to describe, almost mystical, yet of much importance. “When I am intensely focused on a client,” Rogers came to believe, “just my presence seems to be healing” (quoted in Bozarth, 1992). Rogers became aware that, in particularly successful therapeutic encounters, he himself experienced his own core self in interaction with his clients and responded to them in a deeply intuitive way that they sometimes were able to share with him. “I may behave in strange and impulsive ways in the relationship, ways which I cannot justify rationally … but these strange behaviors turn out to be right … my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other” (Rogers, quoted in McMillan, 2004). To the client-centered therapist, these deeply intuitive, almost spiritual encounters can be highly transformative. Interpersonal experiences between client and therapist that seem “beyond words and logic” (McMillan, 2004, p. 65) are thought to foster deep psychological change.

The notion of presence, and its potential therapeutic benefits, has received little scientific attention. Yet the concept of presence, as used by Rogerians, is recognized in other intellectual circles and other cultures, which suggests that it may have a reality that is deserving of scientific study. For example, Tibetans refer to their social and political leader, the Dalai Lama, as Kundun, which, in Tibetan, literally means “presence” (or “The Presence”). They use the term to refer to the same psychological qualities recognized by Rogers: the powerful feeling of interpersonal connection created by the exceptional awareness and emotional openness of their spiritual leader.


Why do people abuse alcohol and drugs? Why, after treatment, do so many relapse? In Chapter 3 it was suggested that many alcoholics and drug addicts use the defense mechanism of denial to cope with painful feelings. However, evidence of this relationship was not presented, nor was there analysis of how substance abusers experience the self. This would appear to be important since substance abusers commonly report that they use drugs to handle painful feelings, with alcoholics often reporting that they drink to create a blur that blots out the painful aspects of life. Though not conducted within the Rogerian framework, some recent research in this area is relevant to Rogers’s views. The basic hypothesis of this research is that alcohol reduces self-consciousness and that alcoholics high in self-consciousness drink to reduce their awareness of negative life experiences. Individuals high in self-consciousness of inner experiences are those who would describe themselves in terms of statements such as the following: “I reflect about myself a lot;” “I’m generally attentive to my inner feelings;” “I’m alert to changes in my mood.”

In laboratory research with social drinkers, it has been found that individuals high in self-consciousness consume more alcohol following failure experiences than do members of three other groups: those (1) high in self-consciousness following success experiences, and those low in self-consciousness after either (2) success or (3) failure experiences. Further, in a study of alcohol use in adolescents, it was found that increased alcohol use was associated with poor academic experience for students high in self-consciousness but not for those low in self-consciousness.

But what of alcoholics? And what about relapse? The second question would appear to be particularly significant since one-half to three-quarters of all treated alcoholics relapse within six months of the end of treatment. In a study of relapse in alcohol abuse following treatment, results comparable to the above were found; relapse appeared to be a joint function of negative events and high self-consciousness. In many different populations and kinds of studies, a consistent relationship has been found between drinking, high self-consciousness, and experiences of personal failure. The research suggests that many individuals drink to reduce their level of awareness of painful negative experiences.

Defensive Behaviors: Alcohol can be used to reduce awareness of painful feelings.

Source: Baumeister, 1991; Hull, Young, & Jouriles, 1986; Washton & Zweben, 2006.

Case A Case Example: Mrs. Oak

Statistical summaries of the overall effectiveness of Rogers’s therapy, such as those cited, are critical to evaluating the effectiveness of Rogers’s therapy. Yet they fail to capture its spirit. The experience of a therapeutic encounter with Rogers is much better conveyed by a case study. Let us consider, then, one of Rogers’s well-known cases, that of Mrs. Oak. This case is available to us because, as part of his process of opening up clinical psychology for objective investigation, Rogers (with this client’s permission, of course) taped therapy sessions and made transcripts available to the public.

As Rogers described in a 1954 book, Mrs. Oak was a housewife in her late thirties when she came to the University of Chicago Counseling Center. She reported having great difficulty in her relationships with her husband and her adolescent daughter. Mrs. Oak blamed herself for her daughter’s psychosomatic illness. Mrs. Oak was described by her therapist as a sensitive person who was eager to be honest with herself and deal with her problems. She had little formal education but was intelligent and had read widely. Mrs. Oak was interviewed 40 times over a period of five-and-one-half months, at which point she terminated treatment.

In early interviews, Mrs. Oak spent much of her time talking about specific problems she had with her daughter and her husband. Gradually, though, the conversation shifted. She increasingly talked about her feelings:

[The] last time I was here I experienced a—an emotion I had never felt before—which surprised me and sort of shocked me a bit. And yet I thought, I think it has a sort of a—the only word I can find to describe it, the only verbalization is a kind of cleansing. I—I really felt terribly sorry for something, a kind of grief.

Source: p. 311

At first the therapist thought Mrs. Oak was a shy, almost nondescript person. He quickly sensed, however, that she was a sensitive and interesting person. His respect for her grew, and he described himself as experiencing a sense of respect for—and awe of—her capacity to struggle ahead through turmoil and pain. He did not try to direct or guide her; instead, he found satisfaction in trying to understand her, in trying to appreciate her world, in expressing the acceptance he felt toward her.

MRS. OAK And yet the—the fact that I—I really like this, I don’t know, call it a poignant feeling. I mean … I felt things that I’ve never felt before. I like that, too. Uh-uh … maybe that’s the way to do it. I—I just don’t know today.
THERAPIST M-hm. Don’t feel at all sure, but you know that you somehow have a real, a real fondness for this poem that is yourself. Whether it’s the way to go about this or not, you don’t know.

Source: p. 314

Given this supportive therapeutic climate, Mrs. Oak began to become aware of feelings she had previously denied to awareness. In the 24th interview, she became aware of conflicts with her daughter that related to her own adolescent development. She felt a sense of shock at becoming aware of her own competitiveness. In a later interview, she became aware of the deep sense of hurt inside of her.

MRS. OAK And then of course, I’ve come to … to see and to feel that over this … see, I’ve covered it up. (Weeps) But … and … I’ve covered it up with so much bitterness, which in turn I had to cover up. (Weeps) That’s what I want to get rid of! I almost don’t care if I hurt.
THERAPIST (Gently) You feel that here at the basis of it, as you experienced it, is a feeling of real tears for yourself. But that you can’t show, mustn’t show, so that’s been covered by bitterness that you don’t like, that you’d like to be rid of. You almost feel you’d rather absorb the hurt than to … than to feel bitterness. (Pause) And what you seem to be saying quite strongly is, “I do hurt, and I’ve tried to cover it up.”
MRS. OAK I didn’t know it.
THERAPIST M-hm. Like a new discovery really.
MRS. OAK (Speaking at the same time) I never really did know. But it’s … you know, it’s almost a physical thing. It’s … sort of as though I— I—I were looking within myself at all kinds of … nerve endings and—and bits of—of … things that have been sort of mashed. (Weeping)

Source: p. 326

At first, this increased awareness led to a sense of disorganization. Mrs. Oak began to feel more troubled and neurotic, as if she were going to pieces. She also felt resentful that her therapist was not being very helpful and would not take responsibility for the sessions. She felt very strongly at times that the therapist didn’t “add a damn thing.” But in the course of therapy, she eventually developed exactly what Rogers was striving for in his client-centered approach: a sense of relationship with the therapist that, she came to recognize, was the basis of her therapeutic improvement. Although progress did not occur in all areas, by the end of therapy Mrs. Oak exhibited significant gains in many areas. She began to feel free to be herself, to listen to herself, and to make independent evaluations. She began to accept herself as a worthwhile human being. She decided that she could not continue in her marriage, arrived at a mutually agreeable divorce with her husband, and obtained and held a challenging job. Through the conditions created within the therapeutic environment, Mrs. Oak was able to break down defenses that had been maintaining a marked incongruence between her self and her experience. With this increase in self-awareness, she was able to make positive changes in her life and become a more self-actualized human being.

The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s consistently empathic focus in interpersonal interaction creates a powerful psychological climate that contributes to his being called Kundun, which in Tibetan means “presence” (or “The Presence”)—precisely the term that Rogers eventually came to use to capture the psychological effects of empathic focus that he observed occurring in his client-centered therapy.



Jim completed ratings of the concepts self, ideal self, father, and mother using the semantic differential (Chapter 5), a simple rating scale. Although the semantic differential is not the exact measure recommended by Rogers, its results can be related to Rogerian theory since its procedures have a phenomenological quality and assess perceptions of self and ideal self.

First, consider how Jim perceives his self. Based on the semantic differential, Jim sees himself as intelligent, friendly, sincere, kind, and basically good—as a wise person who is humane and interested in people. At the same time, other ratings suggest that he does not feel free to be expressive and uninhibited. Thus, he rates himself as reserved, introverted, inhibited, tense, moral, and conforming. There is a curious mixture of perceptions: being involved, deep, sensitive, and kind while also being competitive, selfish, and disapproving. There is also the interesting combination of perceiving himself as being good and masculine but simultaneously weak and insecure. One gets the impression of an individual who would like to believe that he is basically good and capable of genuine interpersonal relationships at the same time that he is bothered by serious inhibitions and high standards for himself and others.

This impression comes into sharper focus when we consider the self ratings in relation to those for the ideal self. In general, Jim did not see an extremely large gap between his self and his ideal self. However, large gaps did occur on a number of specific scale items. For example, Jim rated his actual self as low on a weak–strong scale and his ideal self as high on the same scale; in other words, Jim would like to be much stronger than he feels he is. Assessing his ratings on the other scales in a similar way, we find that Jim would like to be more of each of the following than he currently perceives himself to be: warm, active, egalitarian, flexible, lustful, approving, industrious, relaxed, friendly, and bold. Basically, two themes appear. One has to do with warmth: Jim is not as warm, relaxed, and friendly as he would like to be. The other theme has to do with strength: Jim is not as strong, active, and industrious as he would like to be.

Jim’s ratings of his parents give some indication of where he sees them in relation to himself in general and to these qualities in particular. First, if we compare the way Jim perceives his self with his perception of his mother and father, he clearly perceives himself to be much more like his father than his mother. Also, he perceives his father to be closer to his ideal self than his mother, although he perceives himself to be closer to his ideal self than either his mother or his father. However, in the critical areas of warmth and strength, the parents tend to be closer to the ideal self than Jim is. Thus, his mother is perceived to be warmer, more approving, more relaxed, and friendlier than Jim, while his father is perceived to be stronger, more industrious, and more active than Jim. The mother is perceived as having an interesting combination of personality characteristics. On the one hand, she is perceived as affectionate, friendly, spontaneous, sensitive, and good. On the other, she is perceived as authoritarian, superficial, selfish, unintelligent, intolerant, and uncreative.


Compared to the earlier data, involving the Rorschach (Chapter 4), we begin here to get another picture of Jim. We learn of his popularity and success through high school and of his good relationship with his father. We find support for the suggestions from the projective tests of anxiety and difficulties with women. Indeed, we learn of Jim’s fears of ejaculating too quickly and not being able to satisfy women. However, we also find an individual who believes himself to be basically good and interested in doing humane things. We become aware of an individual who has a view of his self and a view of his ideal self, and of an individual who is frustrated because of the feelings that leave a gap between the two.

Given the opportunity to talk about himself and what he would like to be, Jim talks about his desire to be warmer, more relaxed, and stronger. We feel no need here to disguise our purposes, for we are interested in Jim’s perceptions, meanings, and experiences as he reports them. We are interested in what is real for Jim—in how he interprets phenomena within his own frame of reference. We want to know all about Jim, but all about Jim as he perceives himself and the world about him. When using the data from the semantic differential, we are not tempted to focus on drives, and we do not need to come to grips with the world of the irrational. In Rogers’s terms, we see an individual who is struggling to move toward self-actualization, from dependence toward independence, from fixity and rigidity to freedom and spontaneity. We find an individual who has a gap between his intellectual and emotional estimates of himself. As Rogers would put it, we observe an individual who is without self-consistency, who lacks a sense of congruence between self and experience.


You now have seen the fundamentals of Rogers’s phenomenological theory of personality. The remainder of this chapter presents two related topics. First, we consider theoretical conceptions that are related to Rogers’s work. Specifically, we will consider three of them: (1) the human potential movement, (2) the positive psychology movement, and (3) existentialism. Next, we present contemporary research that bears on Rogerian theory. This research often is conducted by people who may not call themselves “Rogerians,” yet their work addresses topics that are at the heart of Rogers’s conception of human nature.


Rogers is not the only theorist to have emphasized people’s capacity for self-actualization. Others recognized that personality functioning involves more than a mere repetition of past motives and conflicts, as suggested by Freud. Instead people have potentialities; that is, a basic feature of personality functioning is that people have a capacity to move forward to realize their inherent potentials. This theme was developed in the middle of the 20th century by writers such as Gardner Murphy (1958), who placed the study of potentialities at the center of personality psychology, and Kurt Goldstein, who felt that, despite its merits, Freudian theory “fails to do justice to the positive aspect of life … to recognize that the basic phenomenon of life is an incessant process of coming to terms with the environment” (1939, p. 333). Such theoretical contributions to the  human potential movement  came to be known as a “third force” in psychology (e.g., Goble, 1970) because they offered an alternative to psychoanalysis (Chapter 3) and to behaviorism (Chapter 10). We will consider one major theorist in the human potential movement, Abraham H. Maslow.

Abraham H. Maslow

Abraham H. Maslow (1908–1970)

Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971), like Rogers, emphasized the positive aspects of human experience. He proposed that people are basically good or neutral rather than evil, with everyone possessing an impulse toward growth and the fulfillment of potentials. Psychopathology results from a twisting and frustration of this essential nature of the human organism. To Maslow, social structures that restrict the individual from realizing his or her potential are a root cause of this frustration. Thanks in part to Maslow, the human potential movement became popular among individuals who felt excessively restricted and inhibited by their environment. Maslow speaks to these concerns and encourages the belief that things can be better if people are free to express themselves and be themselves.

In addition to this overall spirit, Maslow’s views have been important in two ways. First, he suggested a view of human motivation that distinguishes between such biological needs as hunger, sleep, and thirst and such psychological needs as self-esteem, affection, and belonging. One cannot survive as a biological organism without food and water; likewise, one cannot develop fully as a psychological organism without the satisfaction of other needs as well. Thus, these needs can be arranged in a hierarchy from basic physiological needs to important psychological needs (Figure 6.1). Maslow suggested that, in their research and theorizing, psychologists have been overly concerned with basic biological needs, especially the organism’s response to tension caused by biological deficits. While accepting that such motivation exists, Maslow highlighted higher-level motivational processes of the sort that are expressed when people are creative and are fulfilling their potential.


Figure 6.1  Schematic Representation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

A second major contribution by Maslow (1954) was his intensive study of healthy, self-fulfilling, self-actualizing individuals. Maslow basically reasoned that, if one wants to learn about personality, there is no need to restrict one’s study merely to either (1) everyday, normal personality functioning or (2) breakdowns in normal functioning that result in psychopathology. Instead, the psychologist should attend to the other end of the spectrum: people who are “abnormal” in that they are exceptionally positive, unusually highly functioning, self-actualized individuals.

Who are these people? Maslow considered individuals from history as well as from his own historical period (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt; a more contemporary writer might consider figures such as Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela). The point is that these exceptional figures possessed qualities that are informative to the personality psychologist because they tell us about human potentials. Maslow concluded that these people’s features included the following characteristics: They accept themselves and others for what they are; they can be concerned with themselves but also are free to recognize the needs and desires of others; they are capable of responding to the uniqueness of people and situations rather than responding in mechanical or stereotyped ways; they can form intimate relationships with at least a few special people; they can be spontaneous and creative; and they can resist conformity and assert themselves while responding to the demands of reality. Maslow suggested that all of us have the potential to move increasingly in the direction of these qualities.


Maslow’s focus on the positive aspects of human nature anticipated a contemporary movement in psychology. It is known as the positive psychology movement (Gable & Haidt, 2005; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) or sometimes called the human strengths movement (Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2002).

The writings of psychologists in the 21st century positive psychology movement echo themes sounded a half-century earlier by Rogers and writers in the human potential movement. Contemporary positive psychologists believe that, in the past, human frailty and psychopathology have been overemphasized (i.e., except in the words of people such as Rogers and Maslow). Psychologists have tended to examine individuals suffering from distress, to use those experiences as their foundation for theorizing about people in general, and as a result to end up with theories that emphasize the negative. Recall what you have learned about Freud. He was trying to build a model of personality that applied to all persons. Yet his database for the theory—the experiences on which he built his conception of the individual—almost entirely involved persons who were suffering from high levels of psychological distress.

What is the cost of focusing on distress and pathology? The positive psychologist argues that this focus causes the psychologist to overlook human strengths. One ends up with a distorted picture of personality that underemphasizes the positive. In an effort to rectify this situation, contemporary psychologists have tried to portray the nature of human strengths and virtues. The psychologist Martin Seligman, who has been key in promoting the positive psychology movement, has contributed much to this work (Seligman & Peterson, 2003; Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006).

Classifying Human Strengths

Seligman and colleagues (Seligman & Peterson, 2003) have tried to classify human strengths. In other words, they have attempted to bring the positive side of human nature to the attention of psychological scientists and thereby to foster systematic research, they have tried to take an initial step that often is critical to scientific progress: the development of a comprehensive classification scheme. This effort has two objectives: (1) to identify criteria that would cause a psychological characteristic to be called a strength, and (2) to use these criteria to identify a list of strengths.

Seligman and colleagues identified a set of criteria that are defining of human strengths. They include the following. For a characteristic to be a strength, it should be an enduring characteristic of the person that is beneficial in a variety of life domains. (Thus “creativity” would be classified as a strength, whereas a narrow-focused skill such as “good at poker” would not.) It should be something that both parents and the larger society try to foster in children and that is celebrated by one’s community when it is developed. (Qualities such as perseverance and honesty, and institutions that try to foster these qualities such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, illustrate what Seligman and colleagues have in mind.) Finally, these researchers suggest that a strength is something that is valued in all or almost all cultures of the world. This set of features, then, serves as the criteria for calling something a human strength.

What, then, are the qualities that meet these criteria? Seligman and Peterson (2003) provide a preliminary list that groups strengths into six categories: wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance (e.g., forgiveness), and transcendence (e.g., appreciation of beauty). These are qualities that we, today, immediately recognize as positive features of the human personality. Importantly, they also are qualities that would be recognized as positive across cultures and across historical time periods. The point of listing these qualities—obvious as any such list may seem in retrospect—is that the process serves as a corrective to theories that emphasized the negative side of human experience. In psychoanalytic theory, many of these qualities would have been seen as secondary to human experience. They would be classified merely as products of the superego, which is ultimately weaker than the impulsive id. Positive psychology gives us a different view of the human condition. It suggests that these virtues are central to human experience and can be enhanced by parenting and by social institutions.

Seligman’s early research was on learned helplessness and depression. Although he more recently switched to an interest in the positive aspects of personality functioning, he has retained an interest in the treatment of depression, developing a positive psychotherapy approach to lowering depression and raising well-being (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006). In contrast with standard approaches to the treatment of depression that target depressive symptoms, positive psychotherapy focuses on increasing positive emotion and meaning. Exercises such as listing one’s strengths and how to apply them in daily life, each day writing down three good things that happened, and writing a letter to someone expressing gratitude illustrate the focus fundamental to positive psychotherapy. Seligman reports preliminary positive results, but the approach to treatment is in need of further independent research.

The Virtues of Positive Emotions

In addition to its identification of human virtues, another notable quality of research associated with the positive psychology movement is its study of positive emotions. Psychologists commonly have studied emotions such as fear, anxiety, and anger. However, they have devoted less attention to the role of positive emotions—pride, love, happiness—in personality development and functioning.

A very positive step toward understanding these emotions has been taken by the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who has proposed a broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001). This theory posits that positive emotions have a specific effect on thoughts and action. Positive emotions broaden thought and action tendencies. They widen the range of ideas that come to mind and the range of actions that individuals pursue. The positive emotion of interest, for example, leads people to pursue novel activities. The emotion of pride motivates one to continue the creative or achievement activities that caused one to feel proud of oneself. In this way, positive emotions contribute directly to the further building of human competencies and achievements.

Research has supported the predictions of Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory. For example, in one study (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004) research participants were presented with a stressful experience; they were told they were to give a public speech that would be videotaped. (If you picture yourself suddenly being asked to give a videotaped speech in front of strangers, you’ll recognize that this is a stressor for most persons.) The investigators measured three qualities of interest: (1) how resilient people were, that is, individual differences in people’s general tendency to recover from stress and deal effectively with novel situations; (2) physiological indications of stress, such as heart rate, as people prepared their speech; and (3) positive emotions, that is, the extent to which people reported feeling positive emotions during the experiment, despite the fact that it was stressful.

As expected, people who scored high on resilience (i.e., people who generally tend to cope well with things) experienced lesser degrees of cardiovascular activity indicating stress. However, the key result of interest involved the third measure, positive emotions. People who experienced positive emotions during the study—people who were able to look on the bright side of things, remaining interested and amused during the experience of giving a speech—experienced less stress. This means that the primary reason that some people were resiliently calm is that they were able to experience positive emotions. As predicted by Fredrickson’s theory, these people’s positive emotions seemed to cancel out some of the effects of stress. They thus were able to remain in greater control of their thoughts and actions and to feel less stressful arousal than others. People who experience more positive emotions, then, could be said to be more resilient. Positive emotions act as “coping resources that help buffer (psychologically and physiologically) against negative emotional life experiences” (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004, p. 331).


A third notable area of investigation in positive psychology is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) work on the concept of flow. Flow describes a feature of conscious experiences. It refers specifically to positive states of consciousness with the following characteristics: a perceived match between personal skills and environmental challenge, a high level of focused attention, involvement in an activity such that time seems to fly by and irrelevant thoughts and distractions do not enter into consciousness, a sense of intrinsic enjoyment in the activity, and a temporary loss of self-consciousness such that the self is not aware of functioning or regulating activity.

Flow experiences can take place in activities as diverse as work, hobbies, sports, dancing, and social interactions. It is expressed in statements such as “When I am involved, everything just seems to come to me. I just float along, feeling both excited and calm and want it to continue endlessly. It’s not rewards that count but just the pleasure in the activity itself.” Csikszentmihalyi’s interest in the positive aspects of human functioning began with his observation during World War II that, although many people lost their decency, others expressed the best of what people can be. Subsequently, he was influenced by the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, leading to an emphasis on the study of strength and virtue as opposed to weakness and pathology.

These three areas of study—Seligman’s classification of human strengths, Fredrickson’s broad-and-build theory of positive emotions, and Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow—illustrate the promise and achievements of the positive psychology movement. Yet more work remains. A primary challenge is not only to show that some people have superior virtues and relatively positive emotional experiences but also to show how these qualities can be developed in everybody. Commentators have noted that this remains a limitation of the field. Researchers have yet to identify social practices and community institutions that are best for building personal strengths (Gable & Haidt, 2005).


The approach known as  existentialism  is not new to psychology, but one could hardly say that it has an established or secure place in mainstream academic psychology. Existentialism is an approach that many people are deeply moved by, yet there is no single representative figure, nor is there agreement about its basic theoretical concepts. There are religious existentialists, atheistic existentialists, and antireligion existentialists. There are those existentialists who emphasize hope and optimism, as well as those who emphasize despair and nothingness. There are those who emphasize the philosophical roots of existentialism and those who emphasize the phenomena of clinical cases.

Granted all this diversity, what is it that establishes a common ground among those who would define themselves as existentialists? What is it about this approach that captivates some and leads others to reject it? Perhaps the most defining element of existentialism is the concern with existence, the concern with the person in the human condition. The existentialist is concerned with phenomena that are inherent in the nature of being alive, human, existing. What constitutes the essence of existence varies for different existentialists; however, all agree that certain concerns are fundamental to the very nature of our being and cannot be ignored, dismissed, explained away, or trivialized. Perhaps most of all, for the existentialist, people and experience are to be taken seriously.

Another major aspect of the existential view is the significance of the individual. The existentialist sees the person as singular, unique, and irreplaceable. Related to this is an emphasis on freedom, consciousness, and self-reflection. Freedom distinguishes humans from other animals. Freedom also involves responsibility for choices, for action, for being authentic, or for acting in “bad faith” and being inauthentic. In addition, there is the existential concern with death, for it is here as nowhere else that the individual is alone and completely irreplaceable. Finally, there is an emphasis on phenomenology and an understanding of the unique experience of each person rather than in terms of some standardized definition or the confirmation of some hypothesis: “Existentialism works at the personal meaning in contrast to general theory” (Marino, 2004, p. xii).

In many ways Rogers represented an existential emphasis. For example, consider his discussion of loneliness (Rogers, 1980). What is it that constitutes the existential experience of loneliness? Rogers suggested a number of contributing factors: the impersonality of our culture, its transient quality, the fear of a close relationship. However, what most defines loneliness is the effort to share something very personal with someone and to find that it is not received or is rejected. In contrast, there is the feeling of being understood. Here the person has the sense that another individual can empathize in an understanding, accepting way. The feeling of being understood is associated with safety and relief from existential loneliness.

Another illustration involves the search for meaning in human existence. The existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1955, 1958) struggled to find meaning while imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II. Frankl suggests that the will to find meaning is the most human phenomenon of all, since other animals never worry about the meaning of their existence. Existential frustration and existential neurosis involve frustration and lack of fulfillment of the will to find meaning. Such a neurosis does not involve the instincts or biological drives but rather is spiritually rooted in the person’s escape from freedom and responsibility. In such cases the person blames destiny, childhood, the environment, or fate for what is. The treatment for such a condition, logotherapy, involves helping patients to become what they are capable of being, helping them to realize and accept the challenges of the opportunities that are open to them.

The Existentialism of Sartre: Consciousness, Nothingness, Freedom, and Responsibility

A 20th-century existentialist philosopher who greatly advanced the intellectual tradition begun by Kierkegaard is the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Although Sartre was a philosopher, not a psychologist, his existentialist philosophy is of particular interest to personality psychology because it is grounded in theoretical analyses that are fundamentally psychological. Sartre was interested in people’s mental capacities and their implications.

Sartre’s concerns can best be introduced with an historical example. In the early 1940s, citizens of France faced a terrible crisis. Their country was occupied by the military forces of Nazi Germany. This national disaster confronted individuals with a hard personal choice. Should one accept that the Germans had occupied the land and collaborate with them (at least passively, by not resisting their rule)? Collaboration could enhance one’s own personal safety. Alternatively, should one join the underground French resistance movement and fight the Nazi occupiers? This would bring great risk but could help save the nation.

Existentialism is not directly concerned with the question, Which course of action should one choose? Instead, it addresses a more subtle question: What are the psychological capacities, and what is the nature of the psychological experience, of the individual facing such a choice? The fundamental issue is the question of free will. When facing a choice such as this, does the person have free will? Is it correct to say that persons basically are free to choose one versus another course of action? Or are the environmental forces (in this case, the powerful, threatening environment that was the Nazi occupation) so strong that the person does not really have a choice? Maybe the environment fundamentally determines the person’s behavior.

Consider how we think about free will versus determinism in cases that do not involve human beings. If we think of the behavior of, for example, a rock thrown into the air, we do not say that it chooses to fall back to earth. Its actions obviously are determined entirely by physical forces. Similarly, if we look at the behavior of an animal, we generally recognize that its behavior reflects instinctual behavior patterns that are triggered by environmental cues. So the question is, Is human behavior like this? Are our actions caused by the environment in the same sense that, for example, gravity causes a rock thrown into the air to fall back to earth?

Looking at human versus physical objects or animals, Sartre might say “Vive la différence.” To Sartre, the human case is entirely different. Humans, Sartre argues, are free to choose. Indeed, they are always free to choose; the individual cannot escape his or her capacities for free choice and the responsibilities that these capacities bring. To Sartre, when people do something they are not proud of and then say that they “had no choice,” they simply are not being honest with themselves. They are escaping personal responsibility. Even extreme environments—even a Nazi occupation—do not eliminate the human capacity for free choice. A central feature of existentialism, then, is that people fundamentally are free and, therefore, have responsibility for their personal choices and actions.

What is the basis of Sartre’s claim? It is thoroughly psychological. Sartre believes that human freedom is based in people’s distinctive mental abilities (Lavine, 1984). Unlike any other organisms, humans not only respond to the environment that is facing them, that is, to the things that are there. Humans also think about things that are not there, or what Sartre referred to as nothingness. People have the mental ability to think about alternative possibilities, how things might be different, future courses of action they could take, and so forth. These capacities, Sartre believes, give people freedom. The environment does not cause people to act in the same way that environmental forces cause objects to move about. Human beings are not like rocks, plants, or animals that lack humans’ cognitive capacities. Because humans can raise questions and doubts about the world and can imagine future possibilities for themselves, they are free from the simple deterministic causality that controls the behavior of other objects in the world.

These cognitive capacities and the freedom they bring have one other implication. It concerns the question of whether there is such a thing as an essential human nature. Essentialism is a way of thinking that supposes that the most important thing about a person or thing is some inner core quality that it possesses. It essentially “is” that quality, even if one’s experience of the thing does not suggest that quality at a particular time. To give an extremely simple example, if you cover a brown horse with white paint, it is not a white horse; it still possesses its essential quality of being a brown horse. If you put black stripes on the white paint, the horse does not become a zebra. Things have essential qualities. Sartre recognized this but suggested that human beings are not like things. Humans are not born into the world with essential qualities. Instead, Sartre writes, “at first” a person “is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be … man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre, 1957/2004, p. 345). To understand a person, Sartre argues, one must examine his or her current experience of the world, rather than search for some abstract, hidden, essential quality of the person. In Sartre’s phrase, the person’s existence precedes his or her essence. People, in their experiences, make something of themselves; you make yourself into a college student, or an athlete, or a parent, or a businessperson. Then that is what you become and what you are to others. Your existence is primary. Your apparently essential features—your being a student, or a parent—follow.

To summarize, Sartre’s existentialism has two core features. One is that people are free to choose and therefore have responsibility for their actions. The second is that existence precedes essence, that is, that individuals first experience the world and then, through their choice, make something of themselves.

Before we consider contemporary developments in existential psychology, it is important for you, the student, to ask yourself a question. We have just seen Sartre’s classic existential statement on the human condition: that people have free choice. A person’s defining feature, to Sartre, is the set of mental capacities that give us all free will. So this is what Sartre thought. The question to ask yourself is, What would other people think? What, according to other theorists, might be wrong with this argument? A moment’s reflection on our previous chapters should cause you to realize that Freud would not agree with Sartre. Freud would say that Sartre underestimated the influence of unconscious mental forces that are uncontrollable. In Chapter 10, we will see that behavioral psychologists also disagreed with Sartre. They argued that the phenomenological experience of free will is an illusion that is caused by the environment (Skinner, 1971). Some contemporary research psychologists side with the behaviorists. They believe that most mental processes are automatic; that is, they occur spontaneously in response to environmental cues. Being automatic, these processes are not under people’s control (Wegner, 2002). The existence of automatic processes, some conclude, significantly undermines the existentialists’ arguments about freedom and self-control (Bargh, 2004). We will return to these issues in Chapter 10. For now, you should bear in mind that the question of environmental control versus personal control of one’s own thought and behavior is one of the great issues that divides theorists of human nature.

Contemporary Experimental Existentialism

Can one study issues raised by existentialists, such as fear of death, with experimental methods? A particularly compelling example of such research is work on people’s awareness and fear of death. Existentialists have long conjectured that thoughts of death are a central feature of human experience. Experimental existential psychologists have advanced beyond the earlier philosophical analyses by taking this general idea—people’s awareness of, and fear of, death— and turning it into specific, testable hypotheses. A significant step forward in this regard is terror management theory (Greenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2008; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2004). Terror management theory (TMT) examines the consequences of combining two factors: people’s desire to live (which people share with all other animals) and people’s awareness of the inevitability of death (an awareness that is uniquely human). TMT posits that people’s awareness of death makes them vulnerable to being completely overwhelmed by terrifying death anxiety. The question that arises then is how people manage to avoid terror. How do people obtain meaning in life once they recognize that death is inevitable and (in principle) could occur at any time?

Terror management theorists suggest that part of the answer lies in social and cultural institutions or worldviews. These institutions and worldviews serve a psychological function: They buffer against the fear of death. The idea of TMT is that cultural institutions furnish meaning in life—even if one does dwell on the inevitability of death. How does this work? Well, the exact answer depends on where in the world you live; different cultures furnish different types of meaning systems. But two examples make the TMT point clear. In many cultures, religious institutions teach that there is an afterlife (e.g., a heaven and a hell). The belief in an afterlife buffers against the terror of death. Even if one starts to feel terrified at the prospect of the death of the body, one can find comfort in the belief in the afterlife of the soul. Other cultures emphasize that the individual is one component of a larger circle of persons: the family, the community, and so forth (see Chapter 14). Even though one may die as an individual, there is a sense in which one lives on in the life of one’s offspring. The idea of TMT, then, is that these social practices are resources that help people to cope with the fear of death.

A specific hypothesis follows from TMT: Increasing death anxiety, what is known as mortality salience, should lead to greater commitment to one’s cultural beliefs and greater rejection of cultural beliefs that might threaten one’s worldview. Along similar lines, increased mortality salience should lead to greater agreement with and affection for those who share one’s beliefs and greater hostility and disdain for those who do not share or challenge one’s beliefs. To study this hypothesis experimentally, one must be able to manipulate mortality salience and observe the effects on commitment to one’s own cultural beliefs relative to those of others.

In various studies, mortality salience has been increased in the following ways: Subjects are asked to respond to tasks such as “Describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouse in you” or “Write down what you think will happen to you as you physically die.” Subjects view a film of a gory automobile accident; subjects respond to death anxiety scales; and subjects are exposed to subliminal death primes. In support of the hypothesis, such increases in mortality salience have been found to produce effects such as the following: greater fondness for members of one’s own group and rejection of members of different groups; greater anxiety about a blasphemous attitude toward cultural icons such as the American flag or symbols of one’s own religion; greater physical aggression toward those who attack one’s political orientation; and increased donations to charities that benefit one’s in group. Increasing mortality salience has also been found to decrease interest in sex when sex is viewed as more of an animal act but to increase interest in sex when sex is viewed as an act of human love. Finally, high self-esteem has been found to serve an anxiety-buffering effect in relation to death anxiety; that is, increased mortality salience has more of an effect on individuals low in self-esteem than on people high in self-esteem.

In summary, existentialism is a philosophical movement that is defined by its topics of primary interest. As we have seen, four features of existentialism stand out. First, existentialists are concerned with understanding existence—the person in the human condition. Second, existentialists are concerned with the individual. Rather than trying to understand human existence by searching for abstract theoretical principles, by studying broad political or social systems, or by engaging in metaphysical speculations about the universe and where it came from, the existentialist addresses the experiences of the individual person. Third, existentialists emphasize the human capacity for free choice, a capacity that comes from people’s unique ability to reflect consciously on alternative possibilities. Finally, existentialists devote much attention to the phenomenological experiences of anguish and despair—the feelings of “existential crisis”—that result when people reflect on their alienation from the world, a loss of meaning in life, or the inevitability of death.



According to Rogers, then, psychological pathology results from discrepancies between self-concept and actual experience. Much contemporary research similarly focuses on the role of discrepancies in psychological distress. However, this work differs somewhat from that of Rogers. It tends to focus less on discrepancies between self and experience, and more on an internal psychological discrepancy: discrepancies between different parts of the self.

A particularly influential theory of discrepancies among parts of the self has been proposed by the psychologist Tory Higgins (1999; Higgins & Scholer, 2008). Higgins’s work addresses the relation between aspects of self-concept and emotional experience. His work extends Rogers’s thinking by differentiating between two aspects of one’s future self. In addition to the ideal self, which was recognized by Rogers, Higgins suggests that everyone possesses an ought self—that is, an aspect of self-concept that is concerned with duties, responsibilities, and obligations. The ideal self, in contrast, centers on personal hopes, ambitions, and desires.

According to Higgins’s theory, discrepancies between actual self and ideal self lead to dejection-related emotions. For example, if someone has an ideal self of being an A student but receives a C in a class, he or she will likely feel disappointed, sad, or even depressed. In contrast, discrepancies between self and ought self should lead to agitation-related emotions. For example, if someone has an ought self of being an A student but receives a C, he or she will likely feel fearful, threatened, or anxious. Thus, the distinction between ideal self and ought self is important because it helps separate two kinds of self-relevant emotions: those related to dejection (e.g., disappointment, sadness, depression) and those related to agitation (e.g., fear, threat, anxiety).

In research related to this theory, people are asked to describe how they actually are (their actual self) and how they ideally would like to be (their ideal self). Researchers determine the degree to which these different descriptions are discrepant. (For example, if you say “I actually am lazy” and “Ideally, I would be hardworking,” that is coded as a self-discrepancy.) It is predicted that people with larger self-discrepancies will be more vulnerable to negative emotional experiences. In a key piece of research, Higgins, Bond, Klein, and Strauman (1986) found that people with large discrepancies between the actual self and ideal self were more likely to be depressed, whereas people with actual–ought discrepancies were more likely to be anxious. Because Higgins’s theory and research methods are closely related to a personality theory you will learn about later in the text, social-cognitive theory, we will return to his work in Chapter 13.

More recent findings by other investigators suggest that the relation between self-discrepancies and emotional experience is not fixed but, instead, can vary. An important factor is the degree to which people are aware of their self-discrepancies at any given time. If some feature of the social environment causes people to dwell on themselves, then discrepancies among aspects of the self-concept may influence emotional experience more strongly. Phillips and Silvia (2005) tested this idea using a simple experimental manipulation employed frequently in research on the self: a mirror. Looking at a mirror has the effect of drawing one’s attention to oneself. In their research, some people completed measures of self-concept and of emotional experience while sitting at a table that faced a large mirror. Other people, in a different experimental condition, could not see themselves in a mirror. (The experimenters simply turned the mirror around so that its nonreflective back side faced the research participants.) The researchers found that self-discrepancies were linked more strongly to emotional experience in conditions of high self-awareness, that is, when people faced the mirror (Phillips & Silvia, 2005). The results indicate that, to understand the role of self-concept in psychological experience, one must consider situational factors with the power to draw attention to features of the self.


Rogers’s ideas about the self implied that people possess a relatively stable sense of self-worth, or self-esteem. To bring about changes in people’s sense of self, it appeared that systematic efforts, such as client-centered therapy, were required. There is evidence that children as young as four years of age begin to develop a sense of self-worth and that between the ages of six and nine they develop a sense of global self-esteem (Robins, Tracy, & Trzesniewski, 2008). At the same time, some contemporary research suggests that self-esteem may fluctuate to a greater extent than Rogers had anticipated. Particularly informative work on this topic comes from Jennifer Crocker and colleagues (Crocker & Knight, 2005; Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).

Crocker and Wolfe (2001) are interested in “contingencies of self-worth.” Their idea is that a person’s self-esteem depends on—or is “contingent on”—positive and negative events. Self-esteem rises when we get an A+ in a class and falls when we get an F-. We feel better about ourselves when someone asks us out on a date and worse when we ask someone out and they laugh at us and hang up the phone. It is these successes and failures that are the  contingencies of self-worth  on which self-esteem depends. Although a person’s typical, average level of self-esteem may be relatively stable, one’s day-to-day sense of self-worth may fluctuate considerably as one experiences these positive and negative contingent events.

In addition to the possibility of fluctuations in self-esteem, Crocker and Wolfe’s theoretical framework highlights another point: People may differ in the degree to which any given event is, for them, a contingency of self-worth. One person might not care much about his or her grades in classes because he or she is basically interested in getting dates. Another might not be concerned with acceptance/rejection by dating partners because his or her only big concern is academic grades. Such people should experience fluctuating self-esteem in different situations. “The impact of events” on one’s self-esteem should depend “on the perceived relevance of those events to one’s contingencies of self-worth” (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001, p. 594).

Crocker and colleagues have applied their theoretical ideas to a topic of particular relevance to those readers of this book who might be considering going to graduate school: fluctuations in self-esteem among college students as they receive acceptances and rejections from graduate programs (Crocker, Sommers, & Luhtanen, 2002). Participants in this study completed a measure of self-esteem, as well as measures of positive and negative affect, twice a week on a regular schedule, as well as on any days on which they received a notification of admission (or not) from a graduate program. This enabled the investigators to study fluctuations in self-esteem. At the outset of the study, the degree to which each participant’s self-worth was contingent on academic success was measured; this was done by asking people to report the degree to which they get a self-esteem boost from events such as getting good grades. This procedure enabled the investigators to test the hypothesis that self-esteem would fluctuate as a result of acceptances/rejections, but only for students for whom academic success was an important contingency of self-worth. This hypothesis was confirmed. Among students who based their self-esteem on academic performance, self-esteem went up and down as a result of acceptances and rejections (respectively). However, among students for whom academic success was not a central element of self-worth, the same objective events—graduate school acceptances and rejections—had little impact on self-esteem.

The analyses of Crocker and colleagues are a valuable extension of Rogers’s analyses of self-concept. They extend the work by identifying particular social contexts that contribute not only to typical, average levels of self-esteem but also to those day-to-day fluctuations in people’s sense of self that are so much a part of everyday life.

Before leaving discussion of the concept of self-esteem, it is worthwhile to note that although high self-esteem would appear to be a good thing, surprisingly it is not necessarily related to measures of objective outcome. For example, self-reported self-esteem has not been found to be related to objective measures of outcome such as school achievement, social popularity, and job performance (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vons, 2003). Rather than a global self-esteem that is related to all aspects of performance, self-esteem may have many components to it, each of which is related to a specific area.


Another research trend that is in accord with Rogers’s views is recent work on the concept of  authenticity , defined as the extent to which people behave in accord with their self as opposed to behaving in terms of roles that foster false self-presentations (Ryan, 1993; Sheldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne, & Ilardi, 1997). A key idea in work on authenticity is that, to understand human experience, one cannot look merely at people’s observable behaviors. One must explore inner feelings as well. Specifically, one must ask whether people feel that their activities are consistent with their true self—that is, are authentic—rather than being phony actions that express a false self.

Certainly, we all are aware of times when we have felt we were being more “authentic” and other times when we felt we were being “inauthentic” or “phony.” Is the degree to which an individual feels authentic in situations in daily life related to measures of satisfaction and well-being? Indeed, this has been found to be the case. That is, in accord with the prior theorizing of humanistic and phenomenologically oriented psychologists, authenticity was found to be associated with being a more fully functioning person. In addition to this overall relationship with psychological being, it was found that the more genuine and self-expressive people feel they are in a specific situation, the more extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, and open to experience they are likely to be in that situation (Sheldon et al., 1997). In other words, individuals may vary in their behavior from situation to situation, but the critical question is whether they feel they are being authentic and true to their self overall as well as in specific situations.

Related to the concept of authenticity is the question of the kinds of goals that individuals pursue. Is the individual pursuing goals that fit his or her enduring personal interests and values? Or are the individual’s daily goals dictated by external sources or internal feelings of conflict, guilt, and anxiety (Ryan & Deci, 2008; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999)? These contrasts are highlighted in what is known as self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2008; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). According to self-determination theory, people have an inherent psychological need to act in autonomous, self-determined ways and to engage in tasks that are intrinsically meaningful as opposed to action that is coerced, forced, or compelled, whether by internal forces or external forces. There are at least two critical elements to this difference. First, there is the question of whether action is autonomous, or self-initiated, as opposed to controlled by others, or externally regulated. In addition, there is the question of whether action is freely chosen as opposed to compelled. Action conducted out of feelings of guilt and anxiety would emanate from within the person but would have a compelled as opposed to a freely chosen quality, and it would not qualify as self-determined action. In sum, self-determined action takes place because of its intrinsic interest to the person and its quality of being freely chosen.

Does it make a difference whether action is reflective of self-determined motivation? Recent research suggests that people show greater effort and persistence in relation to autonomous goals than in relation to goals that are pursued only because of external pushes or internal sanctions such as anxiety or guilt (Koestner, Lekes, Powers, & Chicoine, 2002; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). In addition, there is evidence that the pursuit of self-determined, intrinsic, approach goals is associated with physical health and psychological well-being in contrast with the deleterious effects of the pursuit of forced, extrinsic, avoidance goals (Dykman, 1998; Elliot & Sheldon, 1998; Elliot, Sheldon, & Church, 1997; Kasser & Ryan, 1996). Thus, it is suggested that “to the extent that goal self-concepts do not represent or are not concordant with the true self, people may not be able to meet their psychological needs” (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999, p. 485). More generally, studies confirm the hypothesis that people make particularly good progress on personal goals when the goals are “self-concordant,” that is, consistent with one’s own personal values rather than being imposed by someone else (Koestner et al., 2002).

Self-determination theory suggests that fundamental to human nature are basic psychological needs. The need for autonomy is one such need; the other two specified by the theory are the need for competence and the need for relatedness. The need for competence refers to feeling effective in one’s actions. The need for relatedness refers to feeling connected with others and having a sense of belonging in one’s community. Satisfaction of these basic psychological needs is associated with healthy psychological functioning, just as Rogers would suggest. It also is associated with greater satisfaction in interpersonal relationships. In a spirit very much in tune with Rogers and existential psychologists, Ryan and Deci suggest that “existentially, what defines a person’s life is the way in which it is experienced. Well-being, mental health, and a life well lived are all about experiencing love, freedom, efficacy, and meaningful goals and values” (2008, p. 654).

From a humanistic standpoint, these results make perfectly good sense. Yet, two caveats are worthy of note. First, it is important to keep in mind that it is not the goal per se that is important but why the goal is being pursued. The same goal can be pursued for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, suggesting that goals such as financial success and community involvement can express either motivation. This is important in reminding us that we cannot assume that we know the motivation for a goal just from awareness of the content of the goal.

The second caveat is the following: It is easy to assume that these principles of motivation apply to all people. However, recent research suggests that they may be culturally specific rather than universal features of human psychology. In this work, Anglo-American and Asian-American children were compared in terms of their relative intrinsic motivation when choices were (a) made for them versus (b) made by authority figures or peers. Anglo-American children showed more intrinsic motivation when they made their own choices. However, Asian-American children showed greater intrinsic motivation when their choices were made for them by trusted authority figures or peers (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999). Thus, the extent to which self-determination reflects a universal human need requires careful consideration and more research. More generally, the Rogerian emphasis on self-actualization may be most appropriate to understanding people who live in a Western culture in which Rogers formulated his theory.


The research on intrinsic motivation among Asian-American and Anglo-American children that we have just reviewed raises a general question. Carl Rogers was an American psychologist. He developed his theory on the basis of clinical experiences with Americans. Most of the psychological research on self processes conducted during Rogers’s lifetime was conducted with citizens of the United States, Canada, or western Europe. The question that arises, then, is as follows: Does Rogers’s work provide us with a general view of human nature or with a view that pertains primarily to people in the industrialized Western world? This is a deep and important question that has relevance far beyond the personality theory of Carl Rogers. All theoretical conceptions of human nature inevitably are constructed by people who live in a certain geographical location, in a certain culture, at a certain point in history. The question, then, is whether the theorist possibly can circumvent the limits of his or her circumstances to provide a theoretical framework that applies to all persons, in all cultures and all historical contexts.

Cultural Differences in the Self and the Need for Positive Self-Regard

The basic nature of the self, as well as the extent of the need for positive regard, may vary from culture to culture (Benet-Martinez, 2008; Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; see Chapter 14). For example, one of the distinctive differences between Eastern and Western cultures is the degree to which the self is viewed as connected to others (Markus & Cross, 1990). In Eastern cultures, the self-concept consists of connections with others, and individual parts that cannot be understood when separated from the greater, collective whole. This cultural understanding of self stands in contrast to the dominant view of the self in Western civilization, which views the self as unique and separate from others. One of the authors of this book, while teaching a multiethnic group of students in Hawaii, was struck with the very different views of the self expressed by students from these two cultures. In fact, what was particularly striking was that at times those from one culture could not comprehend what was being expressed about the self by members of the other culture.

As we have reviewed, Rogers believed that all people have a need for positive self-regard. To Rogers, unconditional acceptance of the individual, whatever his or her faults may be, is the pathway to psychological health. Such unconditional regard builds the individual’s sense that he or she is a valued, prized person. In the absence of such unconditional regard, the individual’s need for a positive self-view may be unfulfilled, leading to psychological distress.

But is this how things work for all persons the world over? If psychological processes regarding the self are akin to biological processes, then the answer is yes. But psychological processes involving the self may not be like this. The very notion of self—of one’s identity, one’s role in family and society, one’s goals, one’s purpose in life—is acquired socially. People acquire a sense of self from interaction with the individuals who make up their family, community, and wider culture. It is possible, then, that some cultures in essence teach people to have a need for positive regard; a culture that values the individual and individual achievements may foster the belief that individuals should enhance their own well-being. In principle, other cultures may teach people a different way of life that does not involve a striving for positive self-regard.

Research suggests that people in Western and Eastern cultures differ, with Western cultures promoting the enhancement of self-esteem and Eastern cultures supporting psychological tendencies that involve a striving for self-improvement.

Personality and the Brain

Culture and the Self

Not long ago in the history of psychological science, “culture” and “brain” were explanations of behavior that competed. Some theorists explained behavior by referring to the beliefs and skills that people acquire by living in a culture. Others disagreed, saying that the proper explanation would refer to neural systems within the brain.

The debate between these competing camps of theorists has a happy conclusion: They were both right. The brain evolved, in part, to enable people to acquire the beliefs and skills of their culture. Cultural experience, in turn, shapes the “wiring” of the developing brain. An example of how this works comes from research on a central feature of personality, namely, the self.

People learn who they are—their roles in life; their rights and obligations; what it means to be a person—through interactions with the people and social practices of their culture. Neuroscience research shows how these cultural experiences are represented in the brain. A key strategy in this research is to compare brain activity among individuals from parts of the world whose cultures are known to differ.

Zhu, Ziang, Fan, and Han (2007) compared college students from Eastern (China) and Western (e.g., England and North America) cultures. They took brain images while participants performed the following task. As each of a series of personality trait adjectives (e.g., “brave,” “childish”) appeared on screen, participants judged whether the word accurately described (1) themselves or (2) their mother. The study employed a within-subjects experimental design, so each participant made a number of “self” judgments and “mother judgments.” When analyzing the resulting brain images, the researchers focused on a region in the front of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) because it had been shown, in prior research, to be a brain region that is highly active when people make judgments about themselves. Consistent with prior research in Western cultures, the researchers found that, among Western participants, the MPFC was highly active during judgments about the self but not during judgments about one’s mother. However, Eastern participants were different. Among people from China, the MPFC was active during both self-judgments and mother-judgments. As the researchers summarized, “the representation of Chinese mother cannot be distinguished from the representation of their selves, in terms of the MPFC Activity” (Zhu et al., 2007, p. 1314). Fascinatingly, this merger of self and other at a biological level of analysis parallels cultural findings at a psychological level of analysis, which show that self-concept in the East consists of closer psychological connections with others than in the West.

Subsequent work provides related evidence about culture and the brain. In a study with participants from the United States and Japan, variations in participants’ cultural beliefs (specifically, their beliefs about the degree to which they are interconnected with others in their culture) predicted levels of MPFC activation that occurred while people made judgments about themselves (Chiao et al., 2009). Again, then, culturally based thinking and brain activity were linked.

Thanks to findings such as these, psychology’s traditional debates about “culture versus biology” are being replaced by new understandings of how culture and biology work together in the shaping of personality.

Compelling evidence that there are, in fact, variations from culture to culture in the nature and functioning of self-esteem are found in the study of differences between Japanese and American culture. Heine, Lehman, Markus, and Kitayama (1999) review evidence that the basic patterns and functions of self-esteem seem to vary from one culture to another. In the United States, most people report having relatively high self-esteem; as Rogers might have predicted, people seem biased to maintain positive self-views. But in Japan there is no sign whatsoever of this bias; as many people report low self-esteem as high self-esteem. In psychological studies conducted in the United States, people seem inevitably to engage in psychological strategies to maintain high self-esteem. For example, they compare themselves to others who are not doing well, they blame others for personal failure, and they lower the perceived importance of activities on which they cannot perform competently (reviewed in Brown, 1998). But Heine and colleagues (1999, p. 780) “are unable to find clear and consistent evidence of any self-esteem maintenance strategies within the Japanese psychological literature.”

Rather than being prone to an enhancement of self-esteem, Heine and colleagues (1999; also see Kitayama & Markus, 1999; Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakkunkit, 1997) contend that Japanese culture makes one prone to self-criticism. In Japan, this self-criticism serves a valuable personal and social function. It motivates people toward self-improvement that can benefit the individual and his or her society. In Japan, then, self-criticism is not “bad.” It is not a sign of being depressed or down on oneself. Instead, it is “good”—that is, it is a functional, valuable way for individuals to mesh with their surrounding culture. Consistent with this view, tendencies toward self-criticism and the experience of discrepancies between the actual and ideal self are predictive of depression in North America but are less strongly related to depression in Japan (Heine et al., 1999).

In summary, it appears that the cultures of the United States and of Japan teach people different ways of evaluating the self. If you, the reader, are a citizen of North America, then you may be particularly prone to engage in psychological strategies that maintain a positive view of self. If your professor gives you a bad grade on a paper, you may conclude that there is something wrong with the professor. If a romantic partner dumps you, you may conclude that the relationship wasn’t all that important anyway. If you didn’t get into the college of your choice, you may conclude that it was because you didn’t take your application seriously enough. These conclusions are functional in the cultural system of the United States; they enable you to maintain a high sense of self-esteem in a culture that values high self-esteem. But if you are a citizen of Japan, you may be much more likely to draw other conclusions that are more self-critical; in so doing, you would be fitting in with a culture that values continual personal improvement. These variations in the nature and functioning of self-evaluation and self-esteem are understandable in light of contemporary research on culture and personality; however, these variations were not well anticipated by Carl Rogers when he formulated his theory of personality and self.


We conclude our coverage of Rogers’s theory by evaluating it critically. We do so in the same manner as we evaluated the psychodynamic approach, namely, by assessing its success in achieving five goals enumerated at the outset of our text, in Chapter 1. We then summarize the theory’s major contributions.


The first goal is to build a personality theory on a database of solid scientific observations. In many respects, the scientific observations on which Rogers based his theory are quite admirable. Far more than Freud, Rogers was sensitive to the fact that scientific observations must be objective. One must ensure that any personal biases are eliminated from the process of data collection. Rogers and his colleagues took a number of steps to achieve this objectivity. They used objective personality assessment techniques such as the Q-sort. They employed experimental methods to evaluate whether client-centered therapy is effective. Even when working with traditional clinical interview data, Rogers took a major step forward that was never taken by Freud. Rogers allowed (with his clients’ permission) transcripts and recordings of his therapy sessions to be made public. Outside observers thus could verify Rogers’s clinical reports.

Other features of Rogers’s scientific observations seem limited in light of contemporary science. One limitation involves the type of personality assessment method he used. Rogers relied exclusively on measures that are explicit, that is, measures in which clients and research participants make statements about their personality that are formed through conscious self-reflection and are stated publicly. The limitation is that people may not be able—or willing—to put some aspects of their personality into words. There may exist personality qualities that people cannot articulate explicitly. Recognizing this, many contemporary researchers employ implicit measures of self-concept. Rather than relying on people’s explicit, conscious self-reports, research employs subtle, indirect measures, such as indices of the speed with which people respond to certain words or ideas that are related to the self-concept (Asendorpf, Banse, & Mücke, 2002; Greenwald et al., 2002). These implicit measures often are correlated only modestly with explicit measures of self-concept. This, in turn, suggests that people possess implicit beliefs about the self that are not revealed by the explicitly self-reported methods on which Rogers relied. The general point is that the phenomenological approach may exclude from investigation critical psychological processes that occur outside of conscious experience. Rogers, a self-critical thinker, was aware of this problem. His response was that the phenomenological approach is a valuable, necessary one for psychology, but perhaps not the only one of value (Rogers, 1964).

A second limitation of Rogers’s database is its relative lack of cultural diversity. Rogers devoted surprisingly little attention to the possibility of cultural variation in the nature of self-concept. The contemporary research reviewed in our discussion of culture and self processes suggests that Rogers’s theorizing may be compromised by this limitation in its database.


When one reads much of Rogers’s work, it often seems surprisingly unsystematic. Rogers commonly wrote in an impressionistic style that lacked the strict logic structure of traditional scientific theorizing. However, this was not always the case. When Rogers turned his attention from writing about the process of therapy to writing a formal personality theory (Rogers, 1959), his work became far more systematic. He presents his theory of personality in a series of propositions that build systematically, one from the other. As a result, different elements of the theory are reasonably well integrated. One does not learn from Rogers merely that there are alternative types of parent–child interactions, alternative types of self-concept, and alternative types of psychological distress versus well-being. One also learns how these different phenomena are functionally interrelated. His theory specifies, for example, how childhood experiences influence the development of self-concept, which in turn influences emotional well-being.

The main limitation to Rogers’s systematic theorizing is how little of it there is. Rogers devoted relatively little of his effort to the explication of systematic theory. A biographer notes that Rogers was “reluctant to begin theorizing in the first place” and that even when he began his theoretical work he was “still reluctant to place too great an emphasis on his own formulation” (Kirschenbaum, 1979, p. 240). Even Rogers himself recognized the lack of development of his theoretical work. Reflecting back on the propositions of his own theory, Rogers (1959; 1977, p. 232) laments its “immaturity … only the most general description can be given of … functional relationships” that, ideally, would be specified with mathematical rigor. In sum, Rogers provided a theory that was systematic, yet less systematic than that of some other theorists discussed in this text, if only because he composed less formal theoretical work than did others.


If one asks whether Rogers provided a theory that is testable through standard scientific methods, the answer depends on which elements of his theory one is talking about. In some aspects of his work, Rogers defined constructs with great clarity and provided suggestions for personality assessments that could be used to measure those constructs. Rogers’s work on the actual and ideal self stands out in this regard. He formulated these theoretical ideas with clarity. He indicated that the Q-sort is a viable method for assessing aspects of self-concept. As a result, he provided an overall theoretical conception of self-concept that was testable. In addition, to this day his work on the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic change stands out as among the very best of research on the process of psychotherapy.

Other aspects of Rogers’s work are far less testable. Consider his belief that there is a universal motive toward self-actualization. How would one test this idea? As we noted in Chapter 5, Rogers’s writing about self-actualization sometimes is more poetic than scientific; Rogers does not provide the sort of clear definition of the construct that could guide research. He himself also provided no objective assessment tool for measuring a person’s degree or level of self-actualization. Rogers also provided few conceptual tools for comparing his belief in a single self-actualizing motive to potential alternative beliefs, such as that there are a number of fundamentally distinct motives that each play a role in self-actualization (e.g., a motive to understand oneself, a motive to understand the spiritual world, a motive to be compassionate toward others, etc.). It is hard to know what kind of evidence Rogers would have accepted as proof that there is not, in fact, a single overarching motive for self-actualization. This element of this theory, then, is not clearly testable.


When introducing personality theories in Chapter 1, we explained that one task for the theorist is to develop a framework that is comprehensive. In psychology, theories abound. But the field houses few theories with the intellectual breadth to qualify as a theory of the whole person, or a theory of personality.

The first theory you learned about, Freud’s, was extraordinarily comprehensive. It is difficult to formulate questions about personality, personality development, and individual differences that are not addressed, either directly or indirectly, in Freud’s framework. The same cannot be said of the theory of Rogers. Consider some of the following questions. How does our evolutionary background contribute to the explanation of personality structure and functioning? How do emotional states influence thinking processes? If people are so self-actualizing, why are sexual and aggressive impulses so central to human experience? How does our genetic endowment interact with social influences in the course of development? Now consider the question “What does Rogers say about these issues?” A limitation of Rogers’s work is that he simply does not say much at all about these issues. In this regard, and others, his work is not comprehensive.

If one were to ask why Rogers’s work is relatively lacking in comprehensiveness, one simple answer is that he devoted much of his energies to developing individual and group therapies rather than to establishing basic theory and research on personality. A further answer, though, is that in Rogers’s efforts—and the highly related efforts of other phenomenological, humanistic, and hermeneutic thinkers—to treat people as social beings, he sometimes fails fully to treat people as biological beings. Sometimes we feel bad because of our views of ourselves. But sometimes we feel bad owing to biochemical factors that influence our mood. Sometimes we are anxious because events are incongruent with self-perceptions. But sometimes we are anxious because of the activation of basic biological mechanisms that have nothing to do with self-perception (see Chapter 9). Integrating the biological and the social aspects of human nature is difficult. Rogers’s failure to tackle this task head on makes his work less comprehensive than some of the other personality theories we review in this text.

Rogers at a Glance
Structure Process Growth and Development
Self; ideal self Self-actualization; congruence of self and experience; incongruence and defensive distortion and denial Congruence and self- actualization versus incongruence and defensiveness


Rogers’s contributions to applied psychology are profoundly important. At least three aspects of his client-centered therapy are of enduring significance to the field. Rogers underscored the importance of the interpersonal relationship between client and therapist, while also providing techniques for building that relationship. He helped to establish objective methods for determining whether a given therapeutic approach actually benefited clients. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he treated his clients as persons, not as patients. Rather than treating people as patients who harbored mental illnesses that needed to be diagnosed, he empowered clients by treating them as people who were capable, through the power of the self-actualizing motive, of improving their own lives. Few other figures in modern psychology can claim as strong a set of contributions to the field. Rogers’s ability to generate not only abstract theory but useful applications is a great strength of his work.


Carl Rogers’s contributions to personality theory must be understood in historical context. Today, in early 21st-century psychology, discussion of the role of the self is commonplace. Almost all personality psychologists recognize that cognitive and affective processes involving the self are central to personality structure and functioning. This, however, was not the case in Rogers’s day. When he began his work in the mid-20th century, neither of the guiding theoretical models in the field, psychoanalysis and behaviorism, attended carefully to the role of self processes. Rogers and his colleagues in the phenomenological and humanistic traditions contributed importantly to a historical redirection of attention to aspects of human psychology that had been neglected.

We conclude by summarizing the strengths and limitations of Rogers’s contributions (Table 6.1). We encourage you, the reader, to weigh these strengths and limitations against those of other theories you learn about in this text. We end by applauding Rogers for something he did uniquely. More than any other personality theorist, Rogers attempted to be objective about what is otherwise left to the artist:

Truly, nothing in the world has occupied my thoughts as much as the Self, this riddle, that I live, that I am one and am separate and different from everybody else, that I am Siddhartha; and about nothing in the world do I know less than about myself, about Siddhartha.

SOURCE: HESSE, 1951, P. 40

TABLE 6.1 Summary of Strengths and Limitations of Rogers’s Theory and Phenomenology

Strengths Limitations
1. Focuses on important aspects of human existence that are neglected in many other theories, including self-concept and the human potential for personal growth. 1. Less comprehensive than some other theories, with little attention devoted to the biological bases of human nature.
2. Provides concrete therapeutic strategies that have proven useful in bringing about psychological change in therapy. 2. May exclude from research and clinical concern phenomena that lie outside of conscious experience.
3. Brings scientific objectivity and rigor to difficult-to-study processes involving both interpersonal relations and phenomena experience. 3. Devotes little attention to the possibility of cultural variation or situation-to-situation variation in psychological structures and processes involving the self, and thus provides few tools for explaining those variations that exist.
Pathology Change Illustrative Case
Defensive maintenance of self; incongruence Therapeutic atmosphere: congruence, unconditional positive regard, empathic understanding Mrs. Oak


Authenticity  The extent to which the person behaves in accord with his or her self as opposed to behaving in terms of roles that foster false selfpresentations.

Client-centered therapy  Rogers’s term for his earlier approach to therapy in which the counselor’s attitude is one of interest in the ways in which the client experiences the self and the world.

Congruence  Rogers’s concept expressing an absence of conflict between the perceived self and experience. Also one of three conditions suggested as essential for growth and therapeutic progress.

Contingencies of self-worth  The positive and negative events on which one’s feelings of self-esteem depend.

Empathic understanding  Rogers’s term for the ability to perceive experiences and feelings and their meanings from the standpoint of another person. One of three therapist conditions essential for therapeutic progress.

Existentialism  An approach to understanding people and conducting therapy, associated with the human potential movement, that emphasizes phenomenology and concerns inherent in existing as a person. Derived from a more general movement in philosophy.

Human potential movement  A group of psychologists, represented by Rogers and Maslow, who emphasize the actualization or fulfillment of individual potential, including an openness to experience.

Self-experience discrepancy  Rogers’s emphasis on the potential for conflict between the concept of self and experience—the basis for psychopathology.

Unconditional positive regard  Rogers’s term for the acceptance of a person in a total, unconditional way. One of three therapist conditions suggested as essential for growth and therapeutic progress.


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