The American Psychological Association ranks Rogers as the 6th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. Why is this psychologist so influential? Let’s find out.
Who Is Carl Rogers?
Carl Rogers was an American psychologist, researcher, and author. He is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology. Rogers also developed person-centered therapy—a form of talk therapy that emphasizes a personal, supportive relationship between therapist and client.
Carl Rogers Family Background
Carl Ransom Rogers was born on January 8, 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois. His parents were Walter Rogers and Julia Cushing. Rogers was the fourth of six children. His father worked as a civil engineer and his mother was a homemaker.
Rogers was raised in an educated, conservative, middle-class, Protestant family. His parents had strict views on proper behavior. According to Rogers, his parents did not “dance, play cards, attend movies, smoke, drink, or show any sexual interest.” Walter and Julia Rogers expected their children to maintain high moral standards, work hard, and limit expressions of emotion.
Even though Rogers’ parents had a subtle approach and were not overbearing, they still had a powerful influence on him. He reported that he felt choked by his parents’ beliefs for much of his childhood and adolescence. To Rogers, it seemed as if he was living by someone else’s view of the world. These emotions would result in him rebelling against his parents’ restrictions when he got older.
Carl Rogers Early Life
Despite having five siblings, Rogers often felt lonely. One reason for his loneliness was his belief that his parents had greater love for one of his older brothers. This led to considerable competition between Rogers and his brother. When he was an adult, Rogers recalled several bad childhood memories in which he was the butt of his brother’s jokes.
A second reason for Rogers’ childhood loneliness was that he had little social life outside his family. He described himself as “shy, solitary, dreamy, and often lost in fantasy.” Rogers was able to read well before he was five years old and his loneliness led him to read all the books he could, including a dictionary and an encyclopedia. Over time, his solitude helped him to develop discipline, independence, resilience and his own way of thinking.
When Rogers was twelve years old, his family moved from the suburbs to live on a farm in the country. They raised sheep, pigs, and cows. Rogers read through all the books on agricultural science that his father brought home. This knowledge and his ability to work independently on the farm sparked his love for science.
Rogers was an excellent student. Over the course of several months, he observed, captured, and bred a specific type of moth that he discovered in the woods. As his father used modern scientific methods to farm, Rogers learned how to study individual variables, use control groups, and collect and analyze data. These experiences contributed much to his future work as a psychologist.
Carl Rogers’ Educational Background
Rogers enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after leaving high school. This was the same college that his older brothers and sister had attended. His goal was to study agriculture. However, these plans would change during his junior year at the university.
In 1922, a 20 year old Rogers was invited to attend an international Christian student conference in China. During his 6 months of travel, he wrote to his parents that his religious views had changed from fundamentalist to liberal. After going to a seminar entitled Why am I entering the Ministry? Rogers decided to quit agriculture. His new goal was to study theology and become a minister.
Rogers’ parents were upset when he informed them of his new views on religion. However, Rogers felt emotionally and intellectually free after letting go of his parents’ beliefs. He remarked that he could now think his own thoughts, draw his own conclusions and stand up for what he believed in. Rogers graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1924 with a bachelor’s degree in history and immediately enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Two years after joining the seminary, Rogers left. The liberal approach to religion that the seminary encouraged as well his participation in several YMCA conferences convinced him that he could not work in a field where he had to stick to one set of beliefs. Instead, Rogers was drawn to psychology after being influenced by a psychology course he took at Columbia University. He transferred to Teachers College of Columbia University (which was located across the street from Union Theological Seminary) and entered the clinical psychology program.
Rogers earned his master’s degree in psychology in 1928 and his PhD in psychology in 1931. He then joined the staff of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Rochester, New York. At the center, Rogers diagnosed and treated delinquent and underprivileged children. He also helped to develop a highly successful child study department.
During his time at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Rogers encountered strong opposition from the psychiatrists who also worked at the center. Despite Rogers’ excellent work, the psychiatrists believed psychologists and counselors should not be allowed to practice psychotherapy. In 1939, Rogers was appointed as director of the center. The psychiatrists started a campaign to remove him, but Rogers was firmly supported by the board of trustees.
Rogers lectured at the University of Rochester from 1935 to 1940. He then accepted an offer to become professor of psychology at Ohio State University. During his time in Ohio, Rogers formulated and shared his views on treating people with mental health issues. He also worked to bring awareness to clinical psychology.
In 1947, Rogers accepted the position as professor of psychology and executive secretary of the counseling center at the University of Chicago. However, when he was unable to help a client with a serious mental illness, he experienced a nervous breakdown. He left Chicago and remained secluded in a cabin for six months. When he returned to the university, he entered therapy himself and regained his composure, drive, and confidence.
From 1957 to 1963, Rogers taught at the University of Wisconsin. He published several articles and books that brought his theories and client-centered therapy to the attention of the general public. During the last few years of his life, Rogers focused on bringing conflicting groups together. He worked on reducing tension between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.
At the time when Rogers began his work, psychology was dominated by psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism. Both perspectives promoted a deterministic view of the individual, suggesting that all behaviors are determined, or caused, by either unconscious forces within the individual (psychoanalytic theory) or external factors in the environment (behaviorism).
Rogers rejected these perspectives and promoted a more optimistic view of humans’ ability to shape their own behavior and enhance themselves in positive ways. His approach was central to the humanistic movement in psychology. Some of the main concepts from Roger’s theory are explained below.
Carl Rogers and Self-Actualization
Rogers believed all organisms are born with one basic motive – a tendency toward development, maintenance, enhancement, and fulfillment. This actualizing tendency, as he termed it, moves organisms to satisfy their biological needs and promotes physical maturation.
In humans, the actualizing tendency also motivates individuals to develop psychologically, for example, to increase autonomy, self-regulation and personal growth. Rogers referred to this unique, psychological aspect of the actualizing tendency as self-actualization since it involves development of the self. Self-actualization is a striving to achieve one’s highest potential. It is the primary drive behind personality development. (You may recognize this term from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.)
In the face of unfavorable life events, the actualizing tendency may become impaired or inhibited. However, Roger’s belief was that it cannot be destroyed, except by death. Even when adverse circumstances severely limits an organism’s ability to grow, Rogers believed it will keep striving as best as it can, while adjusting to the constraints of the situation.
The actualizing tendency is regulated by what Rogers called the organismic valuing process. This is an inborn mechanism that allows us to evaluate experiences regarding how well they support or oppose our tendency to develop and enhance the self. Experiences that support this tendency are valued positively and we actively seek them; those that oppose it are valued negatively and we actively avoid them.
The Self, Congruence, and Incongruence
According to Rogers, the self (or self-concept) consists of those conscious perceptions and sensations that we associate with “me” or “I.” It is an organized, yet fluid, set of characteristics that develop through our interactions with the environment, particularly our interactions with significant others. Development of the self-concept begins in infancy.
Some of the characteristics we incorporate into our self-concept are based on our own organismic valuing process; others are based on values which we take over (or introject) from others. Because the self-concept is derived in part from others, the possibility exists that our experiences may sometimes be at odds with the view we have formed of ourselves.
Take, for example, a young man who has been taught by his parents that it is wrong to show any sign of anger. He internalizes these values and comes to think of himself as a very calm person who never gets angry. Yet, when teased by his coworkers, his face gets red, he breaks out in sweat, and his heart rate quickens, all while he is seething inside.
Such an individual is experiencing what Rogers called incongruence – a clear discrepancy between one’s perception of the self and one’s actual experiences. Incongruence invariably results in tension, which is often experienced as anxiety. In order to reduce this anxiety and protect the self-concept, the individual may employ defenses such as denial or distortion of their experiences. For example, the young man in the example may choose to block out those occasions when he became genuinely angry, or he might attribute his physiological reactions to dealing with a stressful project at work.
According to Rogers, healthy individuals do not need to rely on defenses to protect their self-concept. They are able to assimilate and incorporate most, if not all, of their experiences, including those that are inconsistent with their existing self-structure. Rather than clinging to a rigid view of the self, they allow room for their self-concept to adapt and grow. They learn to accept themselves and embrace all their experiences.
Healthy individuals exist in a state of congruence, where their experiences closely match their internal representation of the self. It is important to note though, that people rarely experience a state of total congruence, where all their experiences are consistent with their self-image. All of us experience some degree of incongruence. The greater our level of incongruence, the greater our level of psychological distress.
Roger’s view of congruence and incongruence can also be understood in relation to what he called the real self and the ideal self. The real self refers to the way individuals actually see themselves; the ideal self refers to the type of person they believe they should be. Incongruence occurs when there is a gap between the real and ideal selves. The greater this gap, the greater the tension and anxiety experienced.
Conditional vs Unconditional Positive Regard
As children grow and develop an awareness of self, they experience a need for positive regard, that is, a need for love and acceptance. Children who are raised in an atmosphere of conditional positive regard receive love and acceptance only under certain conditions or when they engage in certain behaviors. In an environment of unconditional positive regard, love and acceptance are provided independent of the child’s behavior, with no strings attached.
Children who are raised with conditional positive regard may begin to view themselves in much the same way they are viewed by significant others. Instead of being guided by their organismic valuing process, they begin to act according to introjected conditions of worth. These are external values that others place on a person’s behavior. They result in a person feeling valued in some respects, but not in others.
Conditional positive regard and conditions of worth set the stage for incongruence. Consider a young girl who enjoys playing soccer and has dreams of playing professionally. Her mother disapproves of her soccer playing but constantly tells her how proud she would be of her if she became a teacher like her sisters. These conditions of worth soon become incorporated into her self-concept. She starts to believe she should excel at teaching because this would result in greater approval from her mother.
The result is conflict or incongruence between what the young girl naturally experiences as satisfying (playing soccer) and what her self-concept now demands from her (abandoning soccer in favor of teaching). Of course, the result in this situation would be psychological tension and discomfort, along with the associated defenses.
What Are The 6 Core Conditions?
In order for the tension to dissipate and change to occur, Carl Rogers believed six core conditions must exist:
- Psychological contact between counselor and client
- The client is incongruent
- The counsellor is congruent
- The client receives empathy from the counsellor
- The counsellor shows unconditional positive regard towards the client
- The client perceives acceptance and unconditional positive regard
The Fully Functioning Person
With these core conditions in place, a person can become a “fully functioning person.” People who fall into this category developed in an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard and possess a positive view of themselves. They are self-actualizing and are led by their organismic valuing process rather than introjected conditions of worth. They exist in a state of congruence and are well-adjusted psychologically.
Rogers specified five characteristics of a fully functioning person:
- Openness to experience – acknowledging one’s experiences without denying or distorting them; free from defenses
- Existential living – living in the here and now, in the present moment
- Organismic trust – trusting one’s own experiences and beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad; not led by other people’s opinions
- Experiential freedom – making choices for oneself and accepting responsibility for those choices
- Creativity – being able to adapt to changing circumstances; constantly seeking new experiences and challenges.
In Rogers’ view, being fully functioning is not a state one achieves but a continual process of growth. The fully functioning person lives what Rogers called the good life – a life that is rewarding, enriching, challenging and meaningful. He or she also shows genuine concern for others and feels obliged to help them become fully functioning as well.
Applications of Rogers’ Theory
Rogers applied his humanistic theory to the practice of psychotherapy, developing what came to be known as person-centered therapy. This form of therapy is based on the Rogerian belief that all clients possess within themselves the potential for change and better health. The role of the therapist is simply to free or stimulate the individual’s actualizing tendency through a relationship marked by empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard.
The three pillars of person-centered therapy include the six conditions, seven stages of process, and 19 propositions.
What Are Carl Rogers’ 19 Propositions?
Together, the 19 propositions put together Carl Rogers’ larger theory of personality. They include hypotheses like:
- The best vantage point from which to understand behavior is from the internal frame of reference of the individual himself.
- Most of the ways of behaving which are adopted by the organism are those which are consistent with the concept of the self.
- When the individual perceives and accepts into one consistent and integrated system all his sensory and visceral experiences, then he is necessarily more understanding of others and is more accepting of others as separate individuals.
You can read the full list of 19 propositions here.
Is Person-Centered Therapy Still Used Today?
Person-centered therapy (or a version of it) is still practiced by some mental health professionals today. Even therapists who do not identify as person-centered have nonetheless absorbed some of Rogers’ core recommendations for developing an effective therapeutic relationship.
Roger’s person-centered approach has also been applied to a wide variety of areas outside of psychotherapy. For example, in the field of education, Rogers advocated student-centered teaching where the goal of the instructor is to facilitate full expression of each student’s potential. Person-centered nursing is also practiced, with an emphasis on developing a trusting relationship with the patient.
Other areas where the person-centered approach has been applied include child-rearing, conflict resolution, management training, group leadership, employee relations, and international politics.
Criticisms of Rogers Theory
Although Rogers showed a willingness to test his theory empirically, he has been criticized for his overemphasis on self-report instruments due to their subjective nature and the potential for deception. Some of Rogers concepts, such as congruence and unconditional positive regard, have also proven difficult to measure and study scientifically.
Other critics argue that by relying primarily on clients’ self-reports, Rogers completely ignores the unconscious factors that influence behavior and personality. As a result, his approach has been viewed as somewhat superficial.
Roger’s considered the healthy personality to be one that is self-actualizing, differentiated from others, and focused on achievement. This aspect of his theory may not be very applicable to non-Western cultures, where family and community are emphasized over individual strivings, and where the self is largely defined in relation to others.
Carl Roger’s Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
Rogers authored a number of influential scholarly papers and books throughout his career. They include:
- The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child, (1939)
- Counseling and Psychotherapy: Newer Concepts in Practice, (1942)
- Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory, (1951)
- Psychotherapy and Personality Change, (1954)
- Rogers, C.R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 21: 95-103.
- On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, (1961)
- Person to Person: The Problem of Being Human, (1967)
- Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become, (1969)
- On Encounter Groups, (1970)
- Carl Rogers On Personal Power: Inner Strength and Its Revolutionary Impact, (1977)
- A Way of Being, (1980)
- Freedom to Learn for the 80’s, (1983)
- On Becoming an Effective Teacher—Person-centered Teaching, Psychology, Philosophy, and Dialogues with Carl R. Rogers and Harold Lyon, (2013).
Rogers also received several prestigious awards and held influential positions in a number of organizations. Some of his accomplishments include:
- Elected President of the American Psychological Association, 1946
- Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, 1956
- Elected President of the American Academy of Psychotherapists, 1956
- Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, 1961
- Humanist of the Year, 1964
- Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Psychology, 1972
Carl Rogers’ Personal Life
Carl Rogers married Helen Elliot in 1924. She was his childhood friend. The couple had two children named David and Natalie. They also had six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Rogers had the pleasure of seeing both his children find academic success and achieve their career goals. David became a medical doctor and eventually served as the dean for Johns Hopkins University. Natalie became a respected psychotherapist in her own right and conducted a number psychology workshops with her father.
In 1987, Rogers broke his pelvis after a bad fall. Although his operation was successful, his pancreas failed the following day. He died from a heart attack several days later on
February 4, 1987. A few months after he passed away, Rogers was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
American Psychological Association. (2002). Eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Monitor on Psychology, 33 (7) 29. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug02/eminent
Carducci, B. J. (2009). The psychology of personality: Viewpoints, research, and applications (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Ellis, A., Abrams, M., & Abrams, L. D. (2009). Personality theories: Critical perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Carl Rogers. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Carl-Rogers
Engler, B. (2014). Personality theories (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Freeth, R. (2007). Humanising psychiatry and mental health care: The challenge of the person-centered approach. Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing.