Carl Ransom Rogers (January 8, 1902 – February 4, 1987) was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach (or client-centered approach) to psychology. Rogers is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research and was honored for his pioneering research with the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1956.
The person-centered approach, his own unique approach to understanding personality and human relationships, found wide application in various domains such as psychotherapy and counseling (client-centered therapy), education (student-centered learning), organizations, and other group settings. For his professional work he was bestowed the Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Psychology by the APA in 1972. In a study by Haggbloom et al. (2002) using six criteria such as citations and recognition, Rogers was found to be the sixth most eminent psychologist of the 20th century and second, among clinicians, only to Sigmund Freud.
Rogers was born on January 8, 1902, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His father, Walter A. Rogers, was a civil engineer and his mother, Julia M. Cushing, was a homemaker and devout Pentecostal Christian. Carl was the fourth of their six children.
Rogers was intelligent and could read well before kindergarten. Following an education in a strict religious and ethical environment as an altar boy at the vicarage of Jimpley, he became a rather isolated, independent and disciplined person, and acquired a knowledge and an appreciation for the scientific method in a practical world. His first career choice was agriculture, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he was a part of the fraternity of Alpha Kappa Lambda, followed by history and then religion. At age 20, following his 1922 trip to Peking, China, for an international Christian conference, he started to doubt his religious convictions. To help him clarify his career choice, he attended a seminar entitled Why am I entering the Ministry?, after which he decided to change his career. In 1924, he graduated from University of Wisconsin and enrolled at Union Theological Seminary. He later became an atheist.
After two years he left the seminary to attend Teachers College, Columbia University, obtaining an MA in 1928 and a PhD in 1931. While completing his doctoral work, he engaged in child study. In 1930, Rogers served as director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Rochester, New York. From 1935 to 1940 he lectured at the University of Rochester and wrote The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (1939), based on his experience in working with troubled children. He was strongly influenced in constructing his client-centered approach by the post-Freudian psychotherapeutic practice of Otto Rank. In 1940 Rogers became professor of clinical psychology at Ohio State University, where he wrote his second book, Counseling and Psychotherapy (1942). In it, Rogers suggested that the client, by establishing a relationship with an understanding, accepting therapist, can resolve difficulties and gain the insight necessary to restructure their life.
In 1945, he was invited to set up a counseling center at the University of Chicago. In 1947 he was elected President of the American Psychological Association. While a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago (1945–57), Rogers helped to establish a counseling center connected with the university and there conducted studies to determine the effectiveness of his methods. His findings and theories appeared in Client-Centered Therapy (1951) and Psychotherapy and Personality Change (1954). One of his graduate students at the University of Chicago, Thomas Gordon, established the Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.)movement. Another student, Eugene T. Gendlin, who was getting his Ph.D. in philosophy, developed the practice of Focusing based on Rogerian listening. In 1956, Rogers became the first President of the American Academy of Psychotherapists. He taught psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1957–63), during which time he wrote one of his best-known books, On Becoming a Person (1961). Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow (1908–70) pioneered a movement called humanistic psychology which reached its peak in the 1960s. In 1961, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Carl Rogers was also one of the people who questioned the rise of McCarthyism in 1950s. Through articles, he criticized society for its backward-looking affinities.
Rogers continued teaching at University of Wisconsin until 1963, when he became a resident at the new Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI) in La Jolla, California. Rogers left the WBSI to help found the Center for Studies of the Person in 1968. His later books include Carl Rogers on Personal Power (1977) and Freedom to Learn for the 80’s (1983). He remained a resident of La Jolla for the rest of his life, doing therapy, giving speeches and writing until his sudden death in 1987. In 1987, Rogers suffered a fall that resulted in a fractured pelvis: he had life alert and was able to contact paramedics. He had a successful operation, but his pancreas failed the next night and he died a few days later.
Rogers’s last years were devoted to applying his theories in situations of political oppression and national social conflict, traveling worldwide to do so. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, he brought together influential Protestants and Catholics; in South Africa, blacks and whites; in Brazil people emerging from dictatorship to democracy; in the United States, consumers and providers in the health field. His last trip, at age 85, was to the Soviet Union, where he lectured and facilitated intensive experiential workshops fostering communication and creativity. He was astonished at the numbers of Russians who knew of his work.
Together with his daughter, Natalie Rogers, and psychologists Maria Bowen, Maureen O’Hara, and John K. Wood, between 1974 and 1984, Rogers convened a series of residential programs in the US, Europe, Brazil and Japan, the Person-Centered Approach Workshops, which focused on cross-cultural communications, personal growth, self-empowerment, and learning for social change.
Rogers’ theory of the self is considered to be humanistic, existential, and phenomenological. His theory is based directly on the “phenomenal field” personality theory of Combs and Snygg (1949). Rogers’ elaboration of his own theory is extensive. He wrote 16 books and many more journal articles describing it. Prochaska and Norcross (2003) states Rogers “consistently stood for an empirical evaluation of psychotherapy. He and his followers have demonstrated a humanistic approach to conducting therapy and a scientific approach to evaluating therapy need not be incompatible.”
His theory (as of 1953) was based on 19 propositions:
All individuals (organisms) exist in a continually changing world of experience (phenomenal field) of which they are the center.
- The organism reacts to the field as it is experienced and perceived. This perceptual field is “reality” for the individual.
- The organism reacts as an organized whole to this phenomenal field.
- A portion of the total perceptual field gradually becomes differentiated as the self.
- As a result of interaction with the environment, and particularly as a result of evaluational interaction with others, the structure of the self is formed – an organized, fluid but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the “I” or the “me”, together with values attached to these concepts.
- The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain and enhance the experiencing organism.
- The best vantage point for understanding behavior is from the internal frame of reference of the individual.
- Behavior is basically the goal-directed attempt of the organism to satisfy its needs as experienced, in the field as perceived.
- Emotion accompanies, and in general facilitates, such goal directed behavior, the kind of emotion being related to the perceived significance of the behavior for the maintenance and enhancement of the organism.
- The values attached to experiences, and the values that are a part of the self-structure, in some instances, are values experienced directly by the organism, and in some instances are values introjected or taken over from others, but perceived in distorted fashion, as if they had been experienced directly.
- As experiences occur in the life of the individual, they are either, a) symbolized, perceived and organized into some relation to the self, b) ignored because there is no perceived relationship to the self structure, c) denied symbolization or given distorted symbolization because the experience is inconsistent with the structure of the self.
- Most of the ways of behaving that are adopted by the organism are those that are consistent with the concept of self.
- In some instances, behavior may be brought about by organic experiences and needs which have not been symbolized. Such behavior may be inconsistent with the structure of the self but in such instances the behavior is not “owned” by the individual.
- Psychological adjustment exists when the concept of the self is such that all the sensory and visceral experiences of the organism are, or may be, assimilated on a symbolic level into a consistent relationship with the concept of self.
- Psychological maladjustment exists when the organism denies awareness of significant sensory and visceral experiences, which consequently are not symbolized and organized into the gestalt of the self structure. When this situation exists, there is a basic or potential psychological tension.
- Any experience which is inconsistent with the organization of the structure of the self may be perceived as a threat, and the more of these perceptions there are, the more rigidly the self structure is organized to maintain itself.
- Under certain conditions, involving primarily complete absence of threat to the self structure, experiences which are inconsistent with it may be perceived and examined, and the structure of self revised to assimilate and include such experiences.
- When the individual perceives and accepts into one consistent and integrated system all her sensory and visceral experiences, then she is necessarily more understanding of others and is more accepting of others as separate individuals.
- As the individual perceives and accepts into his self structure more of his organic experiences, he finds that he is replacing his present value system – based extensively on introjections which have been distortedly symbolized – with a continuing organismic valuing process.
In relation to No. 17, Rogers is known for practicing “unconditional positive regard,” which is defined as accepting a person “without negative judgment of …. [a person’s] basic worth.”
Development of the personality
With regard to development, Rogers described principles rather than stages. The main issue is the development of a self-concept and the progress from an undifferentiated self to being fully differentiated.
Self Concept … the organized consistent conceptual gestalt composed of perceptions of the characteristics of ‘I’ or ‘me’ and the perceptions of the relationships of the ‘I’ or ‘me’ to others and to various aspects of life, together with the values attached to these perceptions. It is a gestalt which is available to awareness though not necessarily in awareness. It is a fluid and changing gestalt, a process, but at any given moment it is a specific entity.(Rogers, 1959)
In the development of the self-concept, he saw conditional and unconditional positive regard as key. Those raised in an environment of unconditional positive regard have the opportunity to fully actualize themselves. Those raised in an environment of conditional positive regard feel worthy only if they match conditions (what Rogers describes as conditions of worth) that have been laid down for them by others.
Fully functioning person
Optimal development, as referred to in proposition 14, results in a certain process rather than static state. He describes this as the good life, where the organism continually aims to fulfill its full potential. He listed the characteristics of a fully functioning person (Rogers 1961):
- A growing openness to experience – they move away from defensiveness and have no need for subception (a perceptual defense that involves unconsciously applying strategies to prevent a troubling stimulus from entering consciousness).
- An increasingly existential lifestyle – living each moment fully – not distorting the moment to fit personality or self-concept but allowing personality and self-concept to emanate from the experience. This results in excitement, daring, adaptability, tolerance, spontaneity, and a lack of rigidity and suggests a foundation of trust. “To open one’s spirit to what is going on now, and discover in that present process whatever structure it appears to have” (Rogers 1961)
- Increasing organismic trust – they trust their own judgment and their ability to choose behavior that is appropriate for each moment. They do not rely on existing codes and social norms but trust that as they are open to experiences they will be able to trust their own sense of right and wrong.
- Freedom of choice – not being shackled by the restrictions that influence an incongruent individual, they are able to make a wider range of choices more fluently. They believe that they play a role in determining their own behavior and so feel responsible for their own behavior.
- Creativity – it follows that they will feel more free to be creative. They will also be more creative in the way they adapt to their own circumstances without feeling a need to conform.
- Reliability and constructiveness – they can be trusted to act constructively. An individual who is open to all their needs will be able to maintain a balance between them. Even aggressive needs will be matched and balanced by intrinsic goodness in congruent individuals.
- A rich full life – he describes the life of the fully functioning individual as rich, full and exciting and suggests that they experience joy and pain, love and heartbreak, fear and courage more intensely. Rogers’ description of the good life:
This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. (Rogers 1961)
Dr. Jordan Peterson’s summarization of Carl Rogers psychological premise:
Deceit makes people pathological.