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Carl R. Rogers was arguably America’s most inﬂuential psychotherapist and one of its most prominent psychologists. His therapeutic approach, known most often as ‘client-centered therapy,’ was validated through voluminous scientiﬁc research and taught widely, profoundly affecting the ﬁelds of counseling and psychotherapy throughout the world and permeating many other helping professions. A leader in the humanistic psychology movement of the later twentieth century, Rogers’ writings and personal example inﬂuenced individuals personally and professionally in many continents.
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1. Education And Inﬂuences
Rogers was born on January 2, 1902 in suburban Oak Park, Illinois, where he spent his childhood with four brothers, a sister, and conservative, Protestant parents. Spending teenage years on the family farm in Glen Ellen, Illinois, he developed a love of nature and serious working knowledge of scientiﬁc method, conducting agricultural experiments on a plot he and his brothers managed. He majored in agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but switched to history after experiencing the call to religious work. Motivated by the ‘social gospel’ as much as religious conviction, he eschewed his parents’ dogmatism and attended liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City, also taking courses at adjoining Teachers College, Columbia University. There, religious doubt combined with fascination with psychology. Inﬂuenced by instructors Leta Hollingworth, Goodwin Watson, William Heard Kilpatrick, the leading proponent of John Dewey’s progressive education philosophy, and others, Rogers transferred to Teachers College to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology.
At Columbia, exposure to the testing and measurement movement of E. L Thorndike was balanced by his experiences in clinical work and fellowship at the Institute for Child Guidance, where he encountered Freudian thought, a lecture by Alfred Adler, Rorschach testing, and other psychoanalytic and psychiatric approaches. Seeking to integrate these inﬂuences, Rogers came to appreciate the importance of attending to and honoring clients’ inner experience while also striving to assess objectively any changes which resulted from treatment. His doctoral dissertation, Measuring Personality Adjustment in Children Nine to Thirteen Years of Age (1931), combined both subjective and objective measures. Rogers’ ‘Personality Adjustment Inventory’ was subsequently published by YMCA Press and used for over 50 years.
His next major learning experience was the 12 years working with thousands of troubled children and adults in Rochester, New York, where he gradually developed his nondirective approach to counseling and psychotherapy. During this period, he was inﬂuenced by students of Otto Rank, especially Jessie Taft whose ‘relationship therapy’ shifted emphasis from past content to a focus on the patient’s self-insight and self-acceptance within the therapeutic relationship.
2. Positions Held
In Rochester, Rogers worked at the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (1928–38), where he directed the Child Study Department, then became director of the Rochester Guidance Center (1939–40). Based on his practical experience and ﬁrst book, Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (1939), he was offered a full Professorship at Ohio State University, where he taught from 1940 to 1944. After an interim year training United Service Organization (USO) workers to counsel returned servicemen, he moved to the University of Chicago, where he developed and ran the internationally renowned Counseling Center and taught in the Psychology Department from 1945 to 1957. He held joint appointments in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin from 1957 to 1963 before leaving academic life and moving to the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California (1963–72). He and others then formed their own organization, Center for Studies of the Person, where Rogers remained until his death in 1987.
3. Client-Centered Therapy
Rogers’ approach to counseling and psychotherapy was based on a core hypothesis about human growth and personality change, which he summarized in 1950:
Client-centered therapy operates primarily upon one central and basic hypothesis which has undergone relatively little change with the years. This hypothesis is that the client has within himself the capacity, latent if not evident, to understand those aspects of his life and of himself which are causing him pain, and the capacity and the tendency to reorganize himself and his relationship to life in the direction of self-actualization and maturity in such a way as to bring a greater degree of internal comfort. The function of the therapist is to create such a psychological atmosphere as will permit this capacity and this strength to become effective rather than latent or potential.
While other therapies might profess similar belief, Rogers’ method of creating the therapeutic psychological atmosphere was radically different from other approaches commonly employed. Avoiding questions, interpretation, or other directive techniques, Rogers’ initial ‘nondirective method’ relied exclusively on careful listening and skillful ‘reﬂection of feelings,’ leading to client insight and positive action. Although he always remained primarily nondirective in his practice, Rogers soon recognized that the counselor’s attitudes were more important than his particular techniques. Still later he clariﬁed that it was the therapeutic relationship, which the attitudes helped create, that was growth producing. Rogers called this therapeutic relationship ‘client-centered’ and described three key ‘conditions’ in the relationship that bring about positive change in clients.
First is to accept the client as he or she is, as a person of inherent worth possessing both positive and negative feelings and impulses. Rogers called this acceptance and prizing of the person ‘unconditional positive regard.’ Second is ‘the therapist’s willingness and sensitive ability to understand the client’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from the client’s point of view … to adopt their frame of reference.’ Third is to be ‘genuine, or whole, or congruent in the relationship … It is only as [the therapist] is, in that relationship, a uniﬁed person, with his experienced feeling, his awareness of his feelings, and his expression of those feelings all congruent or similar, that he is most able to facilitate therapy.’
When a counselor communicates this unconditional positive regard, empathic understanding, and congruence so that the client perceives them, the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic personality change’ are present. Rogers argued and demonstrated that clients have within themselves the ability and tendency to understand their needs and problems, to gain insight, to reorganize their personality, and to take constructive action. What clients need is not the judgment, interpretation, advice, or direction of experts, but supportive counselors and therapists to help them rediscover and trust their ‘inner experiencing’ (a concept borrowed from Gendlin), achieve their own insights, and set their own direction.
4. Recording Therapy
Rogers was able to demonstrate these propositions cogently, in part because he was the ﬁrst person to record and publish complete cases of psychotherapy. This was a remarkable achievement before the invention of tape recorders, requiring a microphone in the counseling room connected to alternating phonograph machines in an adjoining room, which cut grooves in blank record disks that had to be changed every three minutes. With graduate student Bernard Covner, Rogers and his team recorded thousands of disks, involving scores of clients. These recordings were pivotal in the clinical training of psychotherapists which, in the 1940s, Rogers may have been the ﬁrst to offer in an American university setting.
Beyond audio recording of therapy sessions, Rogers was among the ﬁrst to make cinematic recordings of counseling and psychotherapy. The American Academy of Psychotherapists became a leading distributor of training tapes and movies, with Rogers the most frequent therapist portrayed. A still widely distributed set of training ﬁlms showed Rogers, gestalt therapist Frederick Perls, and rationale–emotive therapist Albert Ellis each demonstrating his method with the same client.
5. Scientiﬁc Research And Theory
Recording actual therapy sessions also provided the data with which Rogers and his colleagues conducted more scientiﬁc research on one therapeutic approach than had ever been undertaken before. Rogers devised and used numerous instruments for measuring the variables of client-centered therapy and its outcomes: therapist acceptance, empathy and congruence; client expression of feelings, insight, self-concept, self-acceptance, self-ideal, level of experiencing; clients’ positive actions, social adjustment, and numerous other variables. In 1959 the American Psychological Association awarded Rogers its ﬁrst ‘Distinguished Scientiﬁc Contribution Award’ for developing an original method to objectify the description and analysis of the psychotherapeutic process, for formulating a testable theory of psychotherapy and its effects on personality and behavior, and for extensive systematic research to exhibit the value of the method and explore and test the implications of the theory.
As the award citation suggests, Rogers was interested in psychological theory and in the effects of therapy on personality as well as behavior. Building upon the Gestalt and phenomenological movements in psychology, and work of his students Victor Raimy and Arthur Combs, he developed a ‘self-theory’ of personality which is still included in many textbooks (Rogers 1959). The theory describes how an individual’s concept of self emerges, how the process of socialization causes individuals to distrust their feelings and sense of self, how experiences which are inconsistent with the concept of self become denied and distorted causing personal distress and psychological problems, and how the therapeutic relationship can help the individual restructure the sense of self, allowing previously denied and distorted experience into awareness, leading to reduction in stress and openness to new experiencing.
6. Impact On The Professions
More than anyone, Rogers helped spread professional counseling and psychotherapy beyond psychiatry and psychoanalysis to other helping professions. While not the ﬁrst to use the term ‘client’ for the recipient of therapy, he popularized it, emphasizing that ‘a person seeking help was not treated as a dependent patient but as a responsible client,’ and that those in psychological distress were not necessarily ‘sick,’ requiring treatment by medical specialists. Rather all people could be helped by the growth-producing conditions of empathic understanding, unconditional positive regard and congruence, and professionals from many ﬁelds could be trained to provide these conditions. Thus counselors, social workers, clergy, medical workers, youth and family workers, and other helping professionals could employ counseling methods and client-centered attitudes in their work. Rogers’ books Counseling and Psychotherapy (1942) and Client-Centered Therapy (1951) described the principles of effective therapy and presented ample case studies from recorded sessions to illustrate his points. In 1982, surveys in the Journal of Counseling Psychology and American Psychologist still ranked Carl Rogers as the most inﬂuential author and psychotherapist.
Rogers also impacted the helping professions through leadership in many professional associations. He served on the executive committee of the American Association of Social Workers, was Vice-President of the American Association of Orthopsychiatry (social workers), and President of the American Association of Applied Psychology, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Psychotherapists, among other distinguished positions.
7. Applications To Other Fields
Through teaching, writing, and personal example, Rogers continually applied his theory and method to other ﬁelds—education, parenting, group leadership, and the health professions, to name a few. In each instance he demonstrated how the facilitative conditions of empathy, positive regard, and congruence could unleash growth, creativity, learning, and healing in children, students, group members, patients, and others. Applied to education, his views on ‘student centered learning’ coincided with and contributed to the ‘open education’ movement in the USA, Great Britain, and elsewhere. His book Freedom to Learn (1969) went through two new editions over 25 years.
He expanded his theory and practice into the areas of group leadership and group facilitation over several decades. In the 1940s Rogers, Thomas Gordon, and colleagues had experimented with ‘group-centered leadership,’ whereby the leader’s acceptance, understanding, genuineness, and willingness to let the group set its own directions stimulated great energy, creativity, and productivity among group members. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Gordon, Richard Farson, Rogers, and associates extended this approach to what Rogers called the ‘basic encounter group’—an unstructured group experience in which ‘normal’ group members came to greater self-understanding, spontaneity, improved communication, and genuineness in relationships. Rogers led scores of encounter groups in professional, business, religious, medical, academic, personal growth, and organizational settings. Look magazine called Rogers an ‘elder statesmen of encounter groups.’ Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups (1970) was a major seller, and his and Farson’s ﬁlmed encounter group, ‘Journey into Self,’ won an Academy Award (Oscar) for best full-length feature documentary.
Recognizing the ever-widening applicability of the client-centered, student-centered, group-centered approach, Rogers increasingly used a broader term, ‘person-centered,’ to describe his work. In the 1970s and 1980s he experimented with a person-centered approach to resolving intergroup and international conﬂict. Through workshops and ﬁlmed encounter groups involving different races, generations, and political persuasions—including Catholic and Irish protagonists from Northern Ireland—Rogers demonstrated how the same growth-promoting conditions useful in all helping relationships can enhance communication and understanding among antagonistic groups. He and colleagues led person-centered workshops for groups of 100 to 800 participants in Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Hungary, Soviet Union, other newly emerging democracies, and other countries. They organized a gathering of international leaders in Austria, about resolving tensions in Central America, which vividly demonstrated the potential of the person-centered approach for resolving international conﬂict. Testimonials suggested these efforts in professional development and citizen diplomacy helped foster democratization in several countries.
8. Humanistic Psychology
Rogers was a leader in what Abraham Maslow described as a ‘third force’ in psychology, which became prominent in the latter half of the twentieth century. ‘Humanistic psychology,’ as it came to be known, differed from psychoanalysis and behaviorism in at least three ways. First, this psychology gave more emphasis and credence to the individual’s phenomenal ﬁeld—e.g., the client-centered therapist empathizes with the client’s frame of reference rather than evaluating or diagnosing from the outside; the existential psychotherapist helps the patient ﬁnd ‘meaning’ in his life. Second, this psychology focused not just on remediation of psychological problems, but on psychological health, creativity, self-actualization—what Rogers described as ‘the fully functioning person.’ The goal was more than ‘adjustment,’ rather helping people experience their full human potential. Third, it was a psychology interested in what distinguishes human beings from other species. Choice, will, freedom, values, feelings, goals, and other humanistic concerns were all central subjects of study.
As Rogers’ career and that of leading behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner were parallel in timing, productivity, and inﬂuence, their views were inevitably contrasted. Meeting on several occasions, including a six-hour debate–dialogue in 1962 (Kirschenbaum and Henderson 1989a), one of their exchanges on Some Issues Concerning the Control of Human Behavior (Rogers and Skinner 1956) became one of the most reprinted articles in the behavioral sciences. Rogers became a leading spokesperson for the humanistic psychology movement.
9. Enduring Inﬂuence
Major factors in Rogers’ impact on psychology and the helping professions were his personal example, longevity, and proliﬁc writings. He presented a vivid role model of the person-centered approach for almost six decades, demonstrating his theories through teaching, lecturing, live demonstrations and workshops, and audio-visual recordings. By all accounts, he embodied his theories by being an exceptional listener and communicator and a decent, honorable person. He wrote 17 books and over 200 professional articles and research studies. Millions of copies of his books have been printed, in over 60 foreign language editions. His most popular book On Becoming a Person (1961), written for both a professional and general audience, continues to spread his ideas.
Critics of Rogers’ work have argued (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) that client-centered therapy is superﬁcial, unworkable with some populations, and unmindful of recent advances in behavioral, drug, or alternative therapies; that Rogers’ views on human nature are unrealistically optimistic and underestimate human evil; that encounter groups and humanistic psychology have fostered widespread selﬁshness, narcissism, and moral permissiveness; and that Rogers’ experiments with organizational change were naive and counter-productive. Nevertheless, in the USA, although no longer a central ﬁgure in popular psychology, Rogers’ inﬂuence endures. In 1972, he was awarded the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Professional Contribution Award, becoming the ﬁrst psychologist to receive the organization’s highest scientiﬁc and professional honor. The citation read:
His commitment to the whole person has been an example which has guided the practice of psychology in the schools, in industry and throughout the community. By devising, practicing, evaluating and teaching a method of psychotherapy and counseling which reaches to the very roots of human potentiality and individuality, he has caused all psychotherapists to reexamine their procedures in a new light. Innovator in personality research, pioneer in the encounter movement, and respected gadﬂy of organized psychology, he has made a lasting impression on the profession of psychology.
After Rogers’ death in 1987, the greatest new interest in his work has been outside the USA, including Russia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. As a Japanese counselor explained in the 1960s, Rogers helped ‘teach me … to be democratic and not authoritative.’ His life’s work demonstrated how supportive, growth-producing conditions can unleash healing, responsible self-direction, and creativity in individuals and groups in all walks of life. As countries strive to resolve intergroup tensions and practice self-government and self-determination, many have recognized in Rogers’ work not only useful methods for helping professionals, but a positive, person-centered, democratic philosophy consistent with their national aspirations. Rogers eventually recognized the political implications of his theories and methods and explored these in Carl Rogers on Personal Power (1977). At Rogers’ memorial service, Richard Farson eulogized him as ‘a quiet revolutionary.’
10. Personal Life
Upon college graduation, Rogers married childhood friend Helen Elliott (1901–79), an aspiring commercial artist. Their two children, David (1926–94) and Natalie (1928– ), distinguished themselves professionally, David in medicine (e.g., Dean of Medicine, Johns Hopkins; President, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) and Natalie in art therapy and ‘client-centered expressive therapy.’ For many years the Rogers spent the academic winter quarter in the Caribbean and Mexico, where Carl read widely and developed a number of his theories, Helen painted, and both snorkeled. They regularly traveled to visit their children and six grandchildren. Carl pursued life-long hobbies of photography, making mobiles, and gardening. When Helen became ill in her seventies, Carl cared for her until her death in 1979. Thereafter he remained involved in work, cultivated old and new friendships with both men and women, and traveled widely. He was active until his death at age 85, on February 4, 1987 in La Jolla, California.
- Hart J T, Tomlinson T M 1970 New Directions in Client- Centered Therapy. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
- Kirschenbaum H 1979 On Becoming Carl Rogers [a biography]. Delacorte Press, New York
- Kirschenbaum H, Henderson V L (eds.) 1989a Carl Rogers: Dialogues. Houghton Mifflin, Boston [Conversations with Buber, Tillich, Skinner, Polanyi, Bateson, May and Niebuhr]
- Kirschenbaum H, Henderson V L (eds.) 1989b Carl Rogers Reader. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
- Lietaer G, Rombauts J, Van Balen R (eds.) 1990 Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy in the nineties. Leuven University Press, Louvain, Belgium
- Rogers C R 1931 Measuring Personality Adjustment in Children Nine to Thirteen Years of Age. Ph.D. thesis
- Rogers C R 1939 Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
- Rogers C R 1942 Counseling and Psychotherapy: Newer Concepts in Practice. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
- Rogers C R 1951 Client-Centered Therapy. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
- Rogers C R 1959 A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In: Koch S (ed.) Psychology: A Study of a Science, Vol III. McGraw-Hill, New York
- Rogers C R 1961 On Becoming a Person. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
- Rogers C R 1969 Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become, 1st edn. C. E. Merrill, Columbus, OH
- Rogers C R 1970 Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups, 1st edn. Harper & Row, New York
- Rogers C R 1977 Carl Rogers on Personal Power. Delacorte Press, New York
- Rogers C R, Dymond R F 1954 Psychotherapy and Personality Change. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
- Rogers C R, Skinner B F 1956 Some issues concerning the control of human behavior. Science 124(3231): 1057–66