ROGERS: PERSON-CENTERED THEORY
I. Overview of Rogers’s Person-Centered Theory
Although Carl Rogers is perhaps best known as the founder of client-centered therapy, he also developed a theory of personality that, more than any other, follows an if/then format. For example, Rogers stated that if certain therapeutic conditions are present, then predictable changes can be expected in clients.
II. Biography of Carl Rogers
Carl Rogers was born in a Chicago suburb in 1902, the fourth of six children of upper-middle class, devoutly religious parents. When the family moved to a farm near Chicago, Carl became interested in scientific farming and learned to appreciate the scientific method. When he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Rogers intended to become a minister. To realize that goal, he attended the Union Theological Seminar in New York, but he gave up this aspiration after attending education and psychology classes at neighboring Columbia University. From that point forward, he devoted his life to education and psychology. He completed a Ph.D. in 1931 and spent nearly a dozen years away from an academic life working as a clinician. In 1940, he took a position at Ohio State University, where he first elucidated his views on psychotherapy. He spent his most productive years at the University of Chicago, from 1945 to 1957. Next, he returned to the University of Wisconsin, but his stay there was less satisfying. Finally, in 1964, he moved to California, where he helped found the Center for Studies of the Person. He died in 1987 at age 85.
III. Person-Centered Theory
Rogers’s person-centered personality theory, which followed from and was based on his client-centered approach to psychotherapy, is perhaps the only personality intentionally stated in an if-then framework. For example, Rogers proposed that if people experience certain conditions, then they will grow in a predictable manner.
A. Basic Assumptions
Person-centered theory rests on two basic assumptions—the formative tendency and the actualizing tendency.
1. Formative Tendency
The formative tendency assumes that all matter, both organic and inorganic, tends to evolve from simpler to more complex forms.
2. Actualizing Tendency
The actualizing tendency holds that all living things, including humans, tend to move toward completion, or fulfillment of potentials. However, in order for people (or plants and animals) to become actualized, certain identifiable conditions must be present. For humans, these conditions include a relationship with another person who is genuine and who demonstrates complete acceptance and empathy.
A sense of self or personal identity begins to emerge during infancy, and, once established, it allows a person to strive toward self-actualization, which is a subsystem of the actualization tendency and which refers to the tendency to actualize the self as perceived in awareness. The self has two subsystems: the self-concept and the ideal self.
1. The Self-Concept
The self-concept includes all those aspects of one’s identity that are perceived in awareness. Once formed, the self-concept tends to resist change, which makes psychological growth difficult.
2. The Ideal Self
The ideal self is our view of our self as we would like to be or aspire to be. Gaps between the ideal self and the self-concept result in incongruence and various levels of psychopathology.
People are aware of both their self-concept and their ideal self, although their awareness is not always accurate or at a high level.
1. Levels of Awareness
Rogers saw people as having experiences on three levels of awareness: (1) experiences that are subceived; that is, experiences symbolized below the threshold of awareness that are either ignored or denied and not allowed into the self-concept; (2) distorted perceptions of events, as when a person reshapes an experience to fit it into an existing self-concept; and (3) accurately symbolized experiences that are consistent with the self-concept and hence freely admitted into the self-structure.
2. Denial of Positive Experiences
Any experience not consistent with the self-concept—even positive experiences—will be distorted or denied. Thus, positive comments from another person may be neutral or even threatening to the person receiving the compliments.
The two basic human needs are maintenance and enhancement, but people also need positive regard and positive self-regard.
Maintenance needs include those for food, air, and safety, but they also include our tendency to resist change and to maintain our self-concept as it is.
In addition to maintenance, people have a need to enhance the self, to grow, and to realize their full human potential.
3. Positive Regard
awareness of self emerges, infants begin to receive positive regard (love and
acceptance) from parents and others. As with other people, infants naturally
value those experiences that satisfy their needs for positive regard, but,
unfortunately, this value sometimes becomes more powerful than the reward they
receive for meeting their organismic needs. This sets up the condition of incongruence, which is experienced when
basic organismic needs are denied or distorted in favor of needs to be loved
4. Positive Self-Regard
As a result of their experiences with the frustration or the satisfaction of their positive regard needs, people develop the need for self-regard. People acquire feelings of positive self-regard only after they perceive that someone else cares for them and values them. Once established, however, self-regard becomes autonomous and no longer dependent on other people’s continuous positive evaluation.
Unfortunately, most people are not unconditionally accepted. Instead, they receive conditions of worth. People experience conditions of worth when they feel that other people love and accept them only on the condition that they live up to the expectations of those other people.
When the organismic self and the self-concept are at variance with one another, a person may experience incongruence, including vulnerability, threat, defensiveness, and even disorganization.
Incongruence, or a discrepancy between self-concept and organismic experience, is the source of psychological maladjustment. This incongruence occurs because people experience conditions of worth, which lead to a self-concept based on distortions and denials. The greater the incongruence, the more vulnerable people become; that is, the more they are unaware of the discrepancy between their self-concept and their organismic experience. Anxiety exists whenever people become dimly aware of the discrepancy between their organismic experience and their self-concept, whereas threat is experienced whenever people become more clearly aware of this incongruence.
prevent incongruence, people react with defensiveness, typically in the form of
distortion and denial. With distortion, people misinterpret an experience so
that it fits into the self-concept; with denial, people refuse to allow the experience
When people’s defenses fail to operate properly, their behavior becomes disorganized or psychotic. With disorganization, people sometimes behave consistently with their organismic experience and sometimes in accordance with their shattered self-concept.
In order for client-centered psychotherapy to be effective, certain conditions are necessary: A vulnerable client must have contact of some duration with a counselor who is congruent, and who demonstrates unconditional positive regard and listens with empathy to a client. The client, in turn, must perceive the congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy of the therapist. If these conditions are present, then the process of therapy will take place and certain predictable outcomes will result.
Although these conditions are required, three are more specifically crucial to client-centered therapy. Rogers called these core conditions the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic growth.
1. Counselor Congruence
The first necessary and sufficient condition is counselor congruence, or a therapist whose organismic experiences are matched by an awareness and by the ability and willingness to openly express these feelings. Congruence is more basic than the other two conditions because it is a relatively stable characteristic of the therapist. In contrast, the other two conditions are limited to a specific therapeutic relationship.
2. Unconditional Positive Regard
Unconditional positive regard exists when the therapist accepts the client without conditions or qualifications. The therapist does not evaluate or criticize but has a warm caring for the totality of the client.
3. Empathic Listening
Empathic listening is the therapist’s ability to sense the feelings of a client and also to communicate these perceptions so that the client knows that another person has entered into his or her world of feelings without prejudice, projection, or evaluation.
If the conditions of therapist congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy are present, then the process of therapeutic change will occur.
1. Stages of Therapeutic Change
the process of therapeutic change as taking place in seven stages: (1) clients
are unwilling to communicate anything about themselves; (2) they discuss only
external events and other people; (3) they begin to talk about themselves, but
still as an object; (4) they discuss strong emotions that they have felt in the
past; (5) they begin to express present feelings; (6) they freely allow into
awareness those experiences that were previously denied or distorted; and (7)
they experience irreversible change
2. Theoretical Explanation for Therapeutic Change
believed that when people experience themselves as prized and unconditionally
accepted, they will realize that they are lovable. This realization leads to
self-acceptance, unconditional positive self-regard, congruence, and the
freedom to listen with empathy to their own feelings. In other words, these
people have become their
When client-centered therapy is successful, clients become more congruent, less defensive, more open to experience, and more realistic. The gap between their ideal self and their true self narrows, and, as a consequence, they experience less physiological and psychological tension. Finally, their interpersonal relationships improve because they are more accepting of self and others.
V. The Person of Tomorrow
Rogers was vitally
interested in the psychologically healthy person, called the “fully functioning
person” or the “person of tomorrow.” He listed seven characteristics of the
person of tomorrow. The person of tomorrow (1) is able to adjust to change, (2)
is open to experience, (3) is able to live fully in the moment, (4) is able to
have harmonious relations with others, (5) is more integrated with no
artificial boundaries between conscious and unconscious processes, (6) has a
basic trust of human nature, and
(7) enjoys a greater richness in life.
VI. Philosophy of Science
insisted that a scientist must care
about and be involved in the phenomena
being studied and that psychologists should limit their objectivity and precision to
their methodology, not to the creation of hypotheses or to the communication of
VII. The Chicago Study
While at the University of Chicago, Rogers and his associates conducted a sophisticated and complex study on the effectiveness of psychotherapy. The purpose of the Chicago study was to investigate both the process and the outcomes of client-centered therapy.
The Chicago studies tested
several broad hypotheses: (1) clients will become more aware of their feelings
and experiences; (2) the gap between the real self and the ideal self will
lessen as a consequence of therapy; (3) clients’ behavior will become more
and mature; and (4) clients will become both more self-accepting and more accepting
To assess change from an external view, the researchers used the Thematic Apperception Test, the Self-Other Attitude Scale, and the Willoughby Emotional Maturity Scale. To measure change from the client’s view, they used the Q sort technique, which asks people to sort cards according to how they see themselves or others. Participants were adults who sought therapy at the University of Chicago counseling center. Experimenters asked half the participants to wait 60 days before receiving therapy. In addition, they tested a control group of “normals” who were matched with the therapy group. This control group was also divided into a wait group and a non-wait group.
Rogers and his associates found that the therapy group—but not the control group—showed a lessening of the gap between real self and ideal self. They also found that clients who improved during therapy—but not those rated as least improved—showed changes in social behavior, as noted by their friends.
D. Summary of Results
Although client-centered therapy was successful in changing clients, it was not successful in bringing them to the level of the fully functioning person or even to the level of “normal” psychological health.
VIII. Related Research
Other researchers have investigated Rogers’s facilitative conditions both outside therapy and within therapy.
A. Facilitative Conditions Outside Therapy
In the United Kingdom, Duncan Cramer
(1989, 1990a, 1990b, 1994) has conducted a series of studies investigating the
therapeutic qualities of Rogers’s facilitative conditions in interpersonal
relationships outside of therapy. In general, Cramer found positive
relationships between self-esteem, as measured by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem
Scale, and the four facilitative conditions that make up the Barrett-Lennard
Relationship Inventory—level of regard, unconditionality of regard, congruence,
and empathy. Moreover, the direction of the relationship strongly suggested that Rogers’s facilitative conditions precede the acquisition of higher levels
B. Facilitative Conditions and Couples Therapy
In Belgium, Alfons Vansteenwegen (1996) used a revised form of the Barrett-Lennard to determine if Rogers’s facilitative conditions related to success during couples therapy. He found that client-centered couples therapy can bring about positive changes in couples, and that some of these changes lasted for at least seven years after therapy.
IX. Critique of Rogers
person-centered theory is one of the most carefully constructed of all
personality theories, and it meets quite well each of the six criteria of a
It rates very high on internal consistency and parsimony, high on its ability to be falsified and to organize knowledge, and high-average on its ability to serve as a guide
to the practitioner.
X. Concept of Humanity
Rogers believed that humans have the capacity to change and grow—provided that certain necessary and sufficient conditions are present. Therefore, his theory rates very high on optimism. In addition, it rates high on free choice, teleology, conscious motivation, social influences, and the uniqueness of the individual.