Some Observations on the Organization of Personality
Carl R. Rogers (1947)
Classics in the History of Psychology
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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
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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