Carl Rogers’s Person-Centered Theory

Overview of Rogers’s Person-Centered Theory

Although Carl Rogers is best known as the founder of client-centered therapy, he also developed an important theory of personality that underscores his approach to therapy.


  1. Biography of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers was born into a devoutly religious family in a Chicago suburb in 1902.  After the family moved to a nearby farm, 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, but he gave up that notion and completed a PhD in psychology from Columbia University in 1931.  In 1940, after nearly a dozen years away from an academic life working as a clinician, he took a position at Ohio State University.  Later, he held positions at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin.  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 carefully crafted his person-centered theory of personality to meet his own demands for a structural model that could explain and predict outcomes of client-centered therapy.  However, the theory has implications far beyond the therapeutic setting.

  1. Basic Assumptions

Person-centered theory rests on two basic assumptions: (1) the formative tendency that states that all matter, both organic and inorganic, tends to evolve from simpler to more complex forms and (2) an actualizing tendency, which suggests 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 a person, these conditions include a relationship with another person who is genuine, or congruent, and who demonstrates complete acceptance and empathy for that person.

  1. The Self and Self-Actualization

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 refers to the tendency to actualize the self as perceived in awareness.  The self has two subsystems: (1) the self-concept, which includes all those aspects of one’s identity that are perceived in awareness, and (2) the ideal self, or our view of our self as we would like to be or aspire to be.  Once formed, the self concept tends to resist change, and gaps between it and the ideal self result in incongruence and various levels of psychopathology.

  1. Awareness

People are aware of both their self-concept and their ideal self, although awareness need not be accurate. For example, people may have an inflated view of their ideal self but only a vague sense of their self-concept.  Rogers saw people as having experiences on three levels of awareness: (1) those that are symbolized below the threshold of awareness and are ignored, denied, or not allowed into the self-concept; (2) those that are distorted or reshaped to fit it into an existing self-concept; and (3) those that are consistent with the self-concept and thus are accurately symbolized and freely admitted to the self-structure.  Any experience not consistent with the self-concept—even positive experiences—will be distorted or denied.

  1. Needs

The two basic human needs are maintenance and enhancement, but people also need positive regard and 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.  Enhancement needs include needs to grow and to realize one’s full human potential.  As awareness of self emerges, an infant begins to receive positive regard from another person, that is, to be loved or accepted.  People 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 or accepted.  As a result of experiences with positive regard, people develop the need for self-regard which they acquire 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 another person’s continuous positive evaluation.

  1. Conditions of Worth

Most people are not unconditionally accepted.  Instead, they receive conditions of worth; that is, they feel that they are loved and accepted only when and if they meet the conditions set by others.

  1. Psychological Stagnation

When the organismic self and the self-concept are at variance with one another, a person may experience incongruence, anxiety, threat, defensiveness, and even disorganization.  The greater the incongruence between self-concept and the organismic experience, the more vulnerable that person becomes.  Anxiety exists whenever the person becomes dimly aware of the discrepancy between organismic experience and self-concept, whereas threat is experienced whenever the person becomes more clearly aware of this incongruence. To prevent incongruence, people react with defensiveness, typically in the forms of distortion and denial.  With distortion, people misinterpret an experience so that it fits into their self-concept; with denial, people refuse to allow the experience into awareness. 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.


  1. Psychotherapy

For client-centered psychotherapy to be effective, six conditions are necessary: (1) A vulnerable client must (2) have contact of some duration with a counselor who is (3) congruent and who demonstrates (4) unconditional positive regard and who (5) listens with empathy to a client.  In addition, the client must (6) perceives the congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy.  If these conditions are present, then the process of therapy will take place and certain predictable outcomes will result.

  1. Conditions

Three of these conditions are crucial to client-centered therapy, and Rogers called them the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic growth.  The first 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, whereas the other two conditions are limited to a specific therapeutic relationship.  Unconditional positive regard exists when the therapist accepts and prizes the client without conditions or qualifications.  Empathic listening is the ability of the therapist to sense the feeling 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.

  1. Process

Rogers saw 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 and growth.


  1. Outcomes

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, clients experience less physiological and psychological tension.  Finally, clients’ interpersonal relationships improve because they are more accepting of self and others.


  1. The Person of Tomorrow

If people receive the three necessary and sufficient conditions for psychological health person, then they will grow toward becoming the “fully functioning person” or the “person of tomorrow.”  Rogers listed seven characteristics of the person of tomorrow.  First, persons of tomorrow would be more adaptable and more flexible in their thinking. Second, they would be open to their experiences, accurately symbolizing them in awareness rather than denying or distorting them.  Persons of tomorrow would listen to themselves and hear their joy, anger, discouragement, fear, and tenderness.  A third characteristic would be a tendency to live fully in the moment, experiencing a constant state of fluidity and change.  They would see each experience with a new freshness and appreciate it fully in the present moment.  Rogers (1961) referred to this tendency to live in the moment as existential living.  Fourth, persons of tomorrow would remain confident of their own ability to experience harmonious relations with others.  They would feel no need to be liked or loved by everyone, because they would know that they are unconditionally prized and accepted by someone.   Fifth, they would be more integrated, more whole, with no artificial boundary between conscious processes and unconscious ones.  Because they would be able to accurately symbolize all their experiences in awareness, they would see clearly the difference between what is and what should be. Sixth, persons of tomorrow would have a basic trust of human nature.  They would experience anger, frustration, depression, and other negative emotions, but they would be able to express rather than repress these feelings.   Finally, because persons of tomorrow are open to all their experiences, they would enjoy a greater richness in life than do other people. They would live in the present and thus participate more richly in the ongoing moment.


  1. Philosophy of Science

Rogers agreed with Maslow that scientists must care about the phenomena they study and that psychologists should limit their objectivity and precision to their methodology, not to the creation of hypotheses or to the communication of research findings.


VII.     The Chicago Studies

When he taught at the University of Chicago and again at the University of Wisconsin, Rogers along with colleagues and graduate students conducted an experimental investigation on the effectiveness of psychotherapy.  These studies, though now old, remain as some of the best designed and most sophisticated of all such investigations.

  1. Hypotheses

This study at the University of Chicago tested four broad hypotheses.  As a consequence of therapy (1) clients will become more aware of their feelings and experiences, (2) the gap between the real self and the ideal self will lessen; (3) clients’ behavior will become more socialized; and (4) clients will become both more self-accepting and more accepting of others.

  1. Method

Participants were adults who sought therapy at the University of Chicago counseling center.  Experimenters asked half of them to wait 60 days before receiving therapy while beginning therapy with the other half.  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.

  1. Findings

Rogers and his associates found that the therapy group—but not the wait group—showed a lessening of the gap between real self and ideal self.  They also found that clients who improved during therapy showed changes in social behavior, as reported by their friends.

  1. 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 persons or even to the level of “normal” psychological health.


VIII.    Related Research

More recently, other researchers have investigated Rogers’ facilitative conditions both outside therapy and within therapy.

  1. Self-Ideal, Congruence, and Mental Health: Self-Discrepancy Theory

In the 1980s, E. Tory Higgins developed a version of Rogers’ model called self-discrepancy theory.  Higgins hypothesized that individuals with high levels of self-discrepancy were most likely to experience high levels of negative affect in their lives, such as anxiety and depression.  Ann Phillips and Paul Silvia (2005) predicted that the negative emotion experienced from either real-ideal or real-ought discrepancies would be greatest when people are more self-aware or self-focused.  Their hypothesis was supported by their findings when they compared participants completing their questionnaires in front of a mirror to participants without a mirror.

Other researchers have found that college students with a high discrepancy between real and ideal self-perceptions tended to drink more alcohol in a controlled setting (Wolfe & Maisto, 2000).  Others applied Higgins’ self-discrepancy theory to eating disorders (Veale, Kinderman, Riley, & Lambrou, 2003), and to general mental health (Liao & Fan, 2003).   In general, these results supported Rogers’ notion that people whose ideal self is at variance with their real self may turn to unhealthy behaviors as a means of coping with this discrepancy.

  1. Motivation and Pursuit of Goals

Rogers proposed (1951) that we all have an organismic valuing process (OVP), or a natural instinct guiding us toward the most fulfilling pursuits.  Ken Sheldon and colleagues (2003) explored the existence of an OVP in college students.  Their hypothesis that if people have an OVP, over time they will rate more inherently fulfilling goals as more desirable than materialistic goals, was supported by their findings.   Schwartz and Waterman found from their longitudinal study (2006) that the more self-realizing experiences people have, the more intrinsic motivation they are likely to experience, just as Carl Rogers would have predicted.


  1. Critique of Rogers

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 useful theory.  It rates very high on internal consistency and parsimony, high on its ability to be falsified and to generate research, and high average on its ability to organize knowledge and to serve as a guide to the practitioner.

  1. 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.


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