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Some Observations on the Organization of Personality

Carl R. Rogers (1947)

Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by

Christopher D. Green

York University, Toronto, Ontario

ISSN 1492-3173

(Return to Classics



Some Observations on the Organization of Personality

Carl R. Rogers (1947)

Address of the retiring President of the American Psychological Association the September

1947 Annual Meeting.

First published in American Psychologist, 2, 358-368.

Posted March 2000

In various fields of science rapid strides have been made when direct observation of significant

processes has become possible. In medicine, when circumstances have permitted the

physician to peer directly into the stomach of his patient, understanding of digestive processes

has increased and the influence of emotional tension upon all aspects of that process has been

more accurately observed and understood. In our work with nondirective therapy we often feel

that we are having a psychological opportunity comparable to this medical experience -- an

opportunity to observe directly a number of the effective processes of personality. Quite aside

from any question regarding nondirective therapy as therapy, here is a precious vein of

observational material of unusual value for the study of personality.

Characteristics of the Observational Material

There are several ways in which the raw clinical data to which we have had access is unique in

its value for understanding personality. The fact that these verbal expressions of inner

dynamics are preserved by electrical recording makes possible a detailed analysis of a sort not

heretofore possible. Recording has given us a microscope by which we may examine at leisure,

and in minute detail, almost every aspect of what was, in its occurrence, a fleeting moment

impossible of accurate observation.

Another scientifically fortunate characteristic of this material is the fact that the verbal

productions of the client are biased to a minimal degree by the therapist. Material from client-

centered interviews probably comes closer to being a "pure" expression of attitudes than has

yet been achieved through other means. One can read through a complete recorded case or

listen to it, without finding more than a half-dozen instances in which the therapist's views on

any point are evident. One would find it impossible to form an estimate as to the therapist's

views about personality dynamics. One could not determine his diagnostic views, his standards

of behavior, his social class. The one value or standard held by the therapist which would

exhibit itself in his tone of voice, responses, and activity, is a deep respect for the personality

and attitudes of the client as a separate person. It is difficult to see how this would bias the

content of the interview, except to permit deeper expression than the client would ordinarily

allow himself. This almost complete lack of any distorting attitude is felt, and sometimes

expressed by the client. One woman says:

It's almost impersonal. I like you -- of course I don't know why I should like you or

why I shouldn't like you. It's a peculiar thing. I've never had that relationship with

anybody before and I've often thought about it.... A lot of times I walk out with a

feeling of elation that you think highly of me, and of course at the same time I

have the feeling that "Gee, he must think I'm an awful jerk" or something like

that. But it doesn't really-those feelings aren't so deep that I can form an opinion

one way or the other about you.

Here it would seem that even though she would like to discover some type of evaluational

attitude, she is unable to do so. Published studies and research as yet unpublished bear out

this point that counselor responses which are in any way evaluational or distorting as to content

are at a minimum, thus enhancing the worth of such interviews for personality study.

The counselor attitude of warmth and understanding, well described by Snyder (9) and Rogers

(8), also helps to maximize the freedom of expression by the individual. The client experiences

sufficient interest in him as a person, and sufficient acceptance, to enable him to talk openly,

not only about surface attitudes, but increasingly about intimate attitudes and feelings hidden

even from himself. Hence in these recorded interviews we have material of very considerable

depth so far as personality dynamics is concerned, along with a freedom from distortion.

Finally the very nature of the interviews and the techniques by which they are handled give us a

rare opportunity to see to some extent through the eyes of another person-to perceive the world

as it appears to him, to achieve at least partially, the internal frame of reference of another

person. We see his behavior through his eyes, and also the psychological meaning which it had

for him. We see also changes in personality and behavior, and the meanings which those

changes have for the individual. We are admitted freely into the backstage of the person's living

where we can observe from within some of the dramas of internal change, which are often far

more compelling and moving than the drama which is presented on the stage viewed by the

public. Only a novelist or a poet could do justice to the deep struggles which we are permitted

to observe from within the client's own world of reality.

This rare opportunity to observe so directly and so clearly the inner dynamics of personality is a

learning experience of the deepest sort for the clinician. Most of clinical psychology and

psychiatry involves judgments about the individual, judgments which must, of necessity, be

based on some framework brought to the situation by the clinician. To try continually to see and

think with the individual, as in client-centered therapy, is a mindstretching experience in which

learning goes on apace because the clinician brings to the interview no pre-determined

yardstick by which to judge the material.

I wish in this paper to try to bring you some of the clinical observations which we have made as

we have repeatedly peered through these psychological windows into personality, and to raise

with you some of the questions about the organization of personality which these observations

have forced upon us. I shall not attempt to present these observations in logical order, but

rather in the order in which they impressed themselves upon our notice. What I shall offer is not

a series of research findings, but only the first step in that process of gradual approximation

which we call science, a description of some observed phenomena which appear to be

significant, and some highly tentative explanations of these phenomena.

The Relation of the Organized Perceptual Field to Behavior

One simple observation, which is repeated over and over again in each successful therapeutic

case, seems to have rather deep theoretical implications. It is that as changes occur in the

perception of self and in the perception of reality, changes occur in behavior. In therapy, these

perceptual changes are more often concerned with the self than with the external world. Hence

we find in therapy that as the perception of self alters, behavior alters. Perhaps an illustration

will indicate the type of observation upon which this statement is based.

A young woman, a graduate student whom we shall call Miss Vib, came in for nine interviews. If

we compare the first interview with the last, striking changes are evident. Perhaps some

features of this change may be conveyed by taking from the first and last interviews all the

major statements regarding self, and all the major statements regarding current behavior. In the

first interview, for example, her perception of herself may be crudely indicated by taking all her

own statements about herself, grouping those which seem similar, but otherwise doing a

minimum of editing, and retaining so far as possible, her own words. We then come out with

this as the conscious perception of self which was hers at the outset of counseling.

I feel  disorganized, muddled; I've lost all  direction; my personal  life has


I sorta experience things from the forefront of my consciousness, but nothing

sinks in very deep; things don't seem real to me; I feel nothing matters; I don't

have any emotional response to situations; I'm worried about myself.

I haven't been acting like myself; it doesn't seem like me; I'm a different person

altogether from what I used to be in the past.

I don't understand myself; I haven't known what was happening to me.

I have withdrawn from everything, and feel all right only when I'm all alone and

no one can expect me to do things.

I don't care about my personal appearance.

I don't know anything anymore.

I feel guilty about the things I have left undone.

I don't think I could ever assume responsibility for anything.

If we attempt to evaluate this picture of self from an external frame of reference various

diagnostic labels may come to mind. Trying to perceive it solely from the client's frame of

reference we observe that to the young woman herself she appears disorganized, and not

herself. She is perplexed and almost unacquainted with what is going on in herself. She feels

unable and unwilling to function in any responsible or social way. This is at least a sampling of

the way she experiences or perceives herself.

Her behavior is entirely consistent with this picture of self. If we abstract all her statements

describing her behavior, in the same fashion as we abstracted her statements about self, the

following pattern emerges -- a pattern which in this case was corroborated by outside


I couldn't get up nerve to come in before; I haven't availed myself of help.

Everything I should do or want to do, I don't do.

I haven't kept in touch with friends; I avoid making the effort to go with them; I

stopped writing letters home; I don't answer letters or telephone calls; I avoid

contacts that would be professionally helpful; I didn't go home though I said I


I failed to hand in my work in a course though I had it all done: I didn't even buy

clothing that I needed; I haven't even kept my nails manicured.

I didn't listen to material we were studying; I waste hours reading the funny

papers; I can spend the whole afternoon doing absolutely nothing.

The picture of behavior is very much in keeping with the picture of self, and is summed up in

the statement that "Everything I should do or want to do, I don't do." The behavior goes on, in

ways that seem to the individual beyond understanding and beyond control.

If we contrast this picture of self and behavior with the picture as it exists in the ninth interview,

thirty-eight days later, we find both the perception of self and the ways of behaving deeply

altered. Her statements about self are as follows:

I'm feeling much better; I'm taking more interest in myself.

I do have some individuality, some interests.

I seem to be getting a newer understanding of myself. I can look at myself a little


I realize I'm just one person, with so much ability, but I'm not worried about it; I

can accept the fact that I'm not always right.

I feel more motivation, have more of a desire to go ahead.

I still occasionally regret the past, though I feel less unhappy about it; I still have

a long ways to go; I don't know whether I can keep the picture of myself I'm

beginning to evolve.

I can go on learning -- in school or out.

I do feel more like a normal person now; I feel more I can handle my life myself; I

think I'm at the point where I can go along on my own.

Outstanding in this perception of herself are three things -- that she knows herself, that she can

view with comfort her assets and liabilities, and finally that she has drive and control of that


In this ninth interview the behavioral picture is again consistent with the perception of self. It

may be abstracted in these terms.

I've been making plans about school and about a job; I've been working hard on

a term paper; I've been going to the library to trace down a topic of special

interest and finding it exciting.

I've cleaned out my closets; washed my clothes.

I finally wrote my parents; I'm going home for the holidays.

I'm getting out and mixing with people: I am reacting sensibly to a fellow who is

interested in me -- seeing both his good and bad points.

I will work toward my degree; I'11 start looking for a job this week.

Her behavior, in contrast to the first interview, is now organized, forward-moving, effective,

realistic and planful. It is in accord with the realistic and organized view she has achieved of her


It is this type of observation, in case after case, that leads us to say with some assurance that

as perceptions of self and reality change, behavior changes. Likewise, in cases we might term

failures, there appears to be no appreciable change in perceptual organization or in behavior.

What type of explanation might account for these concomitant changes in the perceptual field

and the behavioral pattern? Let us examine some of the logical possibilities.

In the first place, it is possible that factors unrelated to therapy may have brought about the

altered perception and behavior. There may have been physiological processes occurring

which produced the change. There may have been alterations in the family relationships, or in

the social forces, or in the educational picture or in some other area of cultural influence, which

might account for the rather drastic shift in the concept of self and in the behavior.

There are difficulties in this type of explanation. Not only were there no known gross changes in

the physical or cultural situation as far as Miss Vib was concerned, but the explanation

gradually becomes inadequate when one tries to apply it to the many cases in which such

change occurs. To postulate that some external factor brings the change and that only by

chance does this period of change coincide with the period of therapy, becomes an untenable


Let us then look at another explanation, namely that the therapist exerted, during the nine

hours of contact, a peculiarly potent cultural influence which brought about the change. Here

again we are faced with several problems. It seems that nine hours scattered over five and

one-half weeks is a very minute portion of time in which to bring about alteration of patterns

which have been building for thirty years. We would have to postulate an influence so potent as

to be classed as traumatic. This theory is particularly difficult to maintain when we find, on

examining the recorded interviews, that not once in the nine hours did the therapist express any

evaluation, positive or negative, of the client's initial or final perception of self, or her initial or

final mode of behavior. There was not only no evaluation, but no standards expressed by which

evaluation might be inferred.

There was, on the part of the therapist, evidence of warm interest in the individual, and

thoroughgoing acceptance of the self and of the behavior as they existed initially, in the

intermediate stages, and at the conclusion of therapy. It appears reasonable to say that the

therapist established certain definite conditions of interpersonal relations, but since the very

essence of this relationship is respect for the person as he is at that moment, the therapist can

hardly be regarded as a cultural force making for change.

We find ourselves forced to a third type of explanation, a type of explanation which is not new

to psychology, but which has had only partial acceptance. Briefly it may be put that the

observed phenomena of changes seem most adequately explained by the hypothesis that

given certain psychological conditions, the individual has the capacity to reorganize his field of

perception, including the way he perceives himself, and that a concomitant or a resultant of this

perceptual reorganization is an appropriate alteration of behavior. This puts into formal and

objective terminology a clinical hypothesis which experience forces upon the therapist using a

client-centered approach. One is compelled through clinical observation to develop a high

degree of respect for the ego-integrative forces residing within each individual. One comes to

recognize that under proper conditions the self is a basic factor in the formation of personality

and in the determination of behavior. Clinical experience would strongly suggest that the self is,

to some extent, an architect of self, and the above hypothesis simply puts this observation into

psychological terms.

In support of this hypothesis it is noted in some cases that one of the concomitants of success

in therapy is the realization on the part of the client that the self has the capacity for

reorganization. Thus a student says:

You know I spoke of the fact that a person's background retards one. Like the

fact that my family life wasn't good for me, and my mother certainly didn't give

me any of the kind of bringing up that I should have had. Well, I've been thinking

that over. It's true up to a point. But when you get so that you can see the

situation, then it's really up to you.

Following this statement of the relation of the self to experience many changes occurred in this

young man's behavior. In this, as in other cases, it appears that when the person comes to see

himself as the perceiving, organizing agent, then reorganization of perception and consequent

change in patterns of reaction take place.

On the other side of the picture we have frequently observed that when the individual has been

authoritatively told that he is governed by certain factors or conditions beyond his control, it

makes therapy more difficult, and it is only when the individual discovers for himself that he can

organize his perceptions that change is possible. In veterans who have been given their own

psychiatric diagnosis, the effect is often that of making the individual feel that he is under an

unalterable doom, that he is unable to control the organization of his life. When however the

self sees itself as capable of reorganizing its own perceptual field, a marked change in basic

confidence occurs. Miss Nam, a student, illustrates this phenomenon when she says, after

having made progress in therapy:

I think I do feel better about the future, too, because it's as if I won't be acting in

darkness. It's sort of, well, knowing somewhat why I act the way I do ... and at

least it isn't the feeling that you're simply out of your own control and the fates

are driving you to act that way. If you realize it, I think you can do something

more about it.

A veteran at the conclusion of counseling puts it more briefly and more positively: "My attitude

toward myself is changed now to where I feel I can do something with my self and life." He has

come to view himself as the instrument by which some reorganization can take place.

There is another clinical observation which may be cited in support Of the general hypothesis

that there is a close relationship between behavior and the way in which reality is viewed by the

individual. It has many cases that behavior changes come about for the most part Imperceptibly

and almost automatically, once the perceptual reorganization has taken place. A young wife

who has been reacting violently to her maid, and has been quite disorganized in her behavior

as a result of this antipathy says:

After I ... discovered it was nothing more than that she resembled my mother,

she didn't bother me any more. Isn't that interesting? She's still the same.

Here is a clear statement indicating that though the basic perceptions have not changed, they

have been differently organized, have acquired a new meaning, and that behavior changes

then occur. Similar evidence is given by a client, a trained psychologist, who after completing a

brief series of client-centered interviews, writes:

Another interesting aspect of the situation was in connection with the changes in

some of my attitudes. When the change occurred, it was as if earlier attitudes

were wiped out as completely as if erased from a blackboard.... When a situation

which would formerly have provoked a given type of response occurred, it was

not as if I was tempted to act in the way I formerly had but in some way found it

easier to control my behavior. Rather the new type of behavior came quite

spontaneously, and it was only through a deliberate analysis that I became

aware that I was acting in a new and different way.

Here again it is of interest that the imagery is put in terms of visual perception and that as

attitudes are "erased from the blackboard" behavioral changes take place automatically and

without conscious effort.

Thus we have observed that appropriate changes in behavior occur when the individual

acquires a different view of his world of experience, including himself; that this changed

perception does not need to be dependent upon a change in the "reality," but may be a product

of internal reorganization; that in some instances the awareness of the capacity for reperceiving

experience accompanies this process of reorganization; that the altered behavioral responses

occur automatically and without conscious effort as soon as the perceptual reorganization has

taken place, apparently as a result of this.

In view of these observations a second hypothesis may be stated, which is closely related to

the first. It is that behavior is not directly influenced or determined by organic or cultural factors,

but primarily (and perhaps only), by the perception of these elements. In other words the crucial

element in the determination of behavior is the perceptual field of the individual. While this

perceptual  field is, to be sure, deeply influenced and largely shaped by cultural  and

physiological forces, it is nevertheless important that it appears to be only the field as it is

perceived, which exercises a specific determining influence upon behavior. This is not a new

idea in psychology, but its implications have not always been fully recognized.

It might mean, first of all, that if it is the perceptual field which determines behavior, then the

primary object of study for psychologists would be the person and his world as viewed by the

person himself. It could mean that the internal frame of reference of the person might well

constitute the field of psychology, an idea set forth persuasively by Snygg and Combs in a

significant manuscript as yet unpublished. It might mean that the laws which govern behavior

would be discovered more deeply by turning our attention to the laws which govern perception.

Now if our speculations contain a measure of truth, if the specific determinant of behavior is the

perceptual field, and if the self can reorganize that perceptual field, then what are the limits of

this process? Is the reorganization of perception capricious, or does it follow certain laws? Are

there limits to the degree of reorganization? If so, what are they? In this connection we have

observed with some care the perception of one portion of the field of experience, the portion we

call the self.

The Relation of the Perception of the Self to Adjustment

Initially we were oriented by the background of both lay and psychological thinking to regard the

outcome of successful therapy as the solution of problems. If a person had a marital problem, a

vocational problem, a problem of educational adjustment, the obvious purpose of counseling or

therapy was to solve that problem. But as we observe and study the recorded accounts of the

conclusion of therapy, it is clear that the most characteristic outcome is not necessarily solution

of problems, but a freedom from tension, a different feeling about, and perception of, self.

Perhaps something of this outcome may be conveyed by some illustrations.

Several statements taken from the final interview with a twenty year old young woman, Miss

Mir, give indications of the characteristic attitude toward self, and the sense of freedom which

appears to accompany it.

I've always tried to be what the others thought I should be, but now I am

wondering whether I shouldn't just see that I am what I am.

Well, I've just noticed such a difference. I find that when I feel things, even when

I feel hate, I don't care. I don't mind. I feel more free somehow. I don't feel guilty

about things.

You know it's suddenly as though a big cloud has been lifted off. I feel so much