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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

"On Becoming A Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy"

Jennifer Stundon

On Becoming A Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy
Carl Rogers
"Life, at best, is a flowing changing process in which nothing is fixed." ((1),222)

Today most bookstores have entire sections designated for self-help books, consumer's guides to psychological illnesses, and how-to guides for recovery from mental illness. In the 1960's, however, mental health remained a veiled science. People spoke about psychology in an unfamiliar language, it was a topic that made many uncomfortable. Freud felt that therapy had to be frustrating and increase the anxiety the patient to allow him to improve, and it was generally assumed that therapy was to be difficult and unpleasant. Carl Rogers's book, "On Becoming A Person", revolutionized the psychological literature. While his intent on publishing this book was simply to make his material more widely available to other practitioner's, he found that everyone from housewives to lawyers sought out the book, and over a million copies were sold. Rogers had not expected this, and his reputation was adversely affected by the success of this book among those outside of the behavioral science fields.
The book, "On Becoming A Person", was originally released in 1962. At that time, the Freudian school of thought prevailed. Studies were demonstrating that psychoanalysis actually made many patients less reflective, less comfortable, and less able to function at a high level socially. In spite of these facts, the silent psychoanalyst behind the couch continued to thrive throughout the fifties and into the early sixties. Studies were beginning to explore behavioral science, but the science was in its infancy. While little was known about neurochemistry, scientists were exploring stimulus-response conditioning, with experiments that attempted to show that patients simply reacted to the rewards they received. Robots were constructed to reward patients in mental institutions for good behavior, and psychiatrists believed this was the wave of the future. Rogers examined these studies, and found them dehumanizing and flawed. He felt out of place in psychology, as he questioned the ideals of the time, often to the dismay of his supervisors. Rogers proceeded to explore behavioral science in a mode similar to the pedagogy of serendip, the idea of "getting things progressively less wrong."((2)) While Rogers recognized that the current methods of psychotherapy in the 1950's were inherently flawed, he worked to apply the concepts he learned in his formal study to his independent research to find a less wrong way of treating patients. Rogers participated in many lectures and freely admitted to his ignorance in behavioral science, but his desire to learn and enjoy the process of learning inspired others and allowed him to make a lasting impact.

In a debate with Dr. R. F. Skinner, who was eager to objectively map out the brain and to diagnose and determine physiological reasons for everything, Rogers argued that all studies man ever completes will be subjective. Rogers felt that, because the hypothesis or ideas a man who begins research has inevitably effect the direction and outcome of his research, research can never be completely objective. Rogers was questioning the core of science- the idea that man could objectively acquire and amass information. His argument resonates in our time as clearly as it did in the fifties. Man always has a choice- a choice to pursue what interests him, and in pursuing these interests, he brings along a set of core values he has learned and chosen to accept as his own. This inherent subjectivity empowers us to pursue ideas that appeal to us.

Research that sought to label every action of man as somehow out of his personal control, as a biological impulse or reaction, seemed to strip man of free will and dignity. Determining the basis for behavior is a debate that spans nearly all disciplines. Philosophers, theologians, and persons alone ponder this point- what causes behavior? In discussions, people are often vehemently split on this point. Rogers, hoping to preserve the enigma of humanity while researching in behavioral science, Rogers felt that research in the behavioral science should be based on the following values:
"Man as a process of becoming; as a process of achieving worth and dignity through the development of his potentialities;
The individual human being as a self-actualizing process, moving on to more challenging and enriching experiences." (1, 396)
His fears, in a time before Prozac, before the frantic rush to label active children with ADD and medicate them, are quite similar to the fears raised today about over medication. He feared that the study of behavioral science, if done with values that did not promote the individuality of man and preserve the idea of free will, could lead to the elimination of creativity and a conforming society. How similar is this to a parent's fear that his child's individuality will be eliminated or altered by the administration of Ritalin? While Rogers did not live to see the psychopharmacology craze of the 1990's, he certainly recognized the power of behavioral science to create a happy, docile, homogenous society. Rogers concludes his lecture hopefully, stating:

"Unless as individuals and groups we choose to relinquish our capacity of subjective choice, we will always remain free persons, not simply pawns of a self-created behavioral science." ((1), 401).

Rogers's beliefs and study seem to center around the inherent value in the part of the mind that is not understood. He didn't label the unknown territory of the brain, what we've come to call the I-function, but he respected it. His contemporary, Dr. Skinner, felt that what we consider to be free will is just the part of the brain that we cannot explain yet. Similarly, in a class forum the I-function was called a default system, a place to put the ideas we couldn't explain. ((3)) The I-function is a known function which has a process that is not understood. It is the core of our humanity, our belief in our free will and ability to evaluate our decisions independently is what we see as setting us apart from other animals. This begs the question that still puzzles scientists and philosophers- what constitutes behavior? If biology does not equal behavior, what unknown elements allow us to behave the way we do? Rogers seems to feel that research in the behavioral science was only useful to the extent that it bettered humanity. Mapping the entire brain would be an incredible feat, if ever accomplished, but what would this do to society? Stripped of free will, how would we come to terms with life?

Rogers's research sought to explore man's life as a process, a continuum, that would never be completely understood, but hoped the discoveries made could better the lives of many without stripping them of their individuality. Rogers independently researched the outcomes of psychotherapy as quantitatively as possible. Rogers was one of the first psychotherapists to record sessions for further analysis. In his research, which was completely based on psychotherapy, not medication, he sought to preserve the idea that man was a unique and independent entity. Displeased with what he had learned from psychoanalysis and other prevailing theories, Rogers set out to do what he called "negative learning." When the ideas provided to him through formal education failed him, he pursued other options. Rogers coined the term "client centered therapy", a term still in use today. His overarching belief was that, through a constructive relationship with a patient in which he was "real", he would be able to help them learn things about themselves and help affect how they acted in their other relationships to become more successful and happy in life. He set out several models to explore what aspects had to be present in order for the relationship to be therapeutic. If a patient felt he was working cooperatively with the psychotherapist to solve a problem; if the psychotherapist was trustworthy and communicated this to the patient; if the patient could be allowed to express his thoughts free from external evaluation; and if the therapist could view the goal as a process of becoming, then he stated that therapy would succeed.

The ideas Rogers raised are helpful not only for use in therapy but also for education. While recognizing the flaws of the education system, Rogers applied the concepts he saw as effective stimuli for learning in the classroom. A class without teachers, lectures, or examinations was his ideal, but this ideal wasn't readily approved by any university. Instead, Rogers attempted to create an environment where students and faculty are seeking a solution to a problem or problems, pushing collectively away from flawed ideas and using resources collaboratively to advance to a less wrong idea. Rogers suggests we see examinations not as markers of the material we've learned, but as necessary tickets for entrance into points in life, such as graduate school. If we as learners could come to value to process of learning more than the examinations and final grade, what could we achieve together? Rogers states that there is no ideal that is a stasis, but a constantly flowing process that we can allow ourselves to become engaged in, and that in becoming part of this process, we can achieve what he considers to be the good life. ((1), 184-196). Learning too, is a process of constant change, of growth in our own knowledge and in the generally accepted ideas of society. By accepting knowledge as a fluid concept, we can further our enjoyment of life and our academic pursuits.


1. Rogers, Carl R. "On Becoming A Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy." 1961. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

2)"Science as getting it less wrong." Paul Grobstein, Bryn Mawr College serendip website.

3)Class discussion on the I-function, forum for Biology 202, on the serendip website.

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