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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