Chapter 22: Rogers: Humanistic Psychology

Part 1: Carl Rogers

In contrast to both the often dark, subconscious emphasis of the psychodynamic theorists, and the somewhat cold, calculated perspectives of behavioral/cognitive theorists, the humanistic psychologists focus on each individual’s potential for personal growth and self-actualization.  Carl Rogers was influenced by strong religious experiences (both in America and in China), and his early clinical career in a children’s hospital. Consequently, he developed his therapeutic techniques and the accompanying theory in accordance with a positive and hopeful perspective.  Rogers also focused on the unique characteristics and viewpoint of individuals.

Abraham Maslow is best known for his extensive studies on the most salient feature of the humanistic perspective: self-actualization.  He is also the one who referred to humanistic psychology as the third force, after the psychodynamic and behavioral/cognitive perspectives, and he specifically addressed the need for psychology to move beyond its study of unhealthy individuals.  He was also interested in the psychology of the workplace, and his recognition in the business field has perhaps made him the most famous psychologist.

Carl Rogers is the psychologist many people associate first with humanistic psychology, but he did not establish the field in the way that Freud established psychoanalysis.  A few years older than Abraham Maslow, and having moved into clinical practice more directly, Rogers felt a need to develop a new theoretical perspective that fit with his clinical observations and personal beliefs.  Thus, he was proposing a humanistic approach to psychology and, more specifically, psychotherapy before Maslow. It was Maslow, however, who used the term humanistic psychology as a direct contrast to behaviorism and psychoanalysis.  And it was Maslow, who in 1954, contacted some friends in order to begin meetings that led to the creation of the American Association for Humanistic Psychology. Rogers was included in that group, but so were Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, both of whom had distinctly humanistic elements in their own theories, elements that shared a common connection to Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology (Stagner, 1988).  In addition, the spiritual aspects of humanistic psychology, such as peak experiences and transcendence, have roots in the work of Carl Jung and William James, and go even further back in time to ancient philosophies of Yoga and Buddhism.

In at least one important way, Rogers’ career was similar to that of Sigmund Freud.  As he began his clinical career, he found that the techniques he had been taught were not very effective.  So, he began experimenting with his own ideas and developing his own therapeutic approach. As that approach developed, so did a unique theory of personality that aimed at explaining the effectiveness of the therapy.  Rogers found it difficult to explain what he had learned, but he felt quite passionately about it.

Brief Biography of Carl Rogers

Carl Ransom Rogers was born on January 8, 1902, in Chicago, Illinois.  His parents were well-educated, and his father was a successful civil engineer.  His parents loved their six children, of whom Rogers was the fourth, but they exerted a distinct control over them.  They were fundamentalist Christians who emphasized a close-knit family and constant, productive work, but approved of little else.  The Rogers household expected standards of behavior appropriate for the ‘elect’ of God. “There was no drinking of alcohol, no dancing, no visits to the theater, no card games, and little social life at all” (DeCarvalho, 1991; Thorne, 2003).

Rogers was not the healthiest of children, and his family considered him to be overly sensitive.  The more his family teased him, the more he retreated into a lonely world of fantasy. He sought consolation by reading books, and he was well above his grade level for reading when he began school.  In 1914, the family moved to a large farm west of Chicago, a move motivated primarily by a desire to keep the children away from the temptations of suburban city life. The result was even more isolation for Rogers, who lamented that he’d only had two dates by the end of high school.  He continued to learn, however, becoming something of an expert on the large moths that lived in the area. In addition, his father encouraged the children to develop their own ventures, and Rogers and his brothers raised a variety of livestock. Given these interests, and in keeping with family tradition, Rogers enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study scientific agriculture (DeCarvalho, 1991; Thorne, 2003).

During his first year of college, Rogers attended a Sunday morning group of students led by Professor George Humphrey.  Professor Humphrey was a facilitative leader who refused to be conventional and who encouraged the students to make their own decisions.  Rogers found the intellectual freedom very stimulating, and he also began to make close friends. This increased intellectual and emotional energy led Rogers to re-examine his commitment to Christianity.  Given his strong religious faith, he decided to change his major to history, in anticipation of a career as a Christian minister. He was fortunate to be chosen as one of only twelve students from America to attend a World Student Christian Federation conference in Peking, China.  He traveled throughout China (also visiting Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, and Hawaii) for 6 months, surrounded by other intelligent and creative young people. He kept a detailed journal, and wrote lengthy letters to his family and Helen Elliott, a childhood friend whom he considered to be his “sweetheart.”  His mind was stretched in all directions by this profound cross-cultural experience, and the intellectual and spiritual freedom he was embracing blinded him to the fact that his fundamentalist family was deeply disturbed by what he had to say. However, by the time Rogers was aware of his family’s disapproval, he had been changed, and he believed that people of very different cultures and faiths can all be sincere and honest (Kirschenbaum, 1995; Thorne, 2003).  As a curious side note, Rogers’ roommate on the trip was a Black seminary professor. Rogers was vaguely aware that it was strange at that time for a Black man and a White man to room together, but he was particularly surprised at the stares they received from the Chinese people they met who had never seen a Black person before (Rogers & Russell, 2002). After his return from China, Rogers graduated from college, and 2 months later, he married Helen. Again his family disapproved, believing that the young couple should be more established first.  But Rogers had been accepted to the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and both he and Helen wanted to be together. His family may have wanted them to wait because Union Theological Seminary was, perhaps, the most liberal seminary in America at the time (DeCarvalho, 1991; Rogers & Russell, 2002; Thorne, 2003).

Rogers spent 2 years at the seminary, including a summer assignment as the pastor of a small church in Vermont.  However, his desire not to impose his own beliefs on others made it difficult for him to preach. He began taking courses at nearby Teachers’ College of Columbia University, where he learned about clinical and educational psychology, as well as working with disturbed children.  He then transferred to Teachers’ College, and after writing a dissertation in which he developed a test for measuring personality adjustment in children, he earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Then, in 1928, he began working at the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (DeCarvalho, 1991; Thorne, 2003).

Rogers was immersed in his work in Rochester for 12 years.  He found that even the most elaborate theories made little sense when dealing with children who had suffered severe psychological damage after traveling through the courts and the social work systems.  So Rogers developed his own approach, and did his best to help them. Many of his colleagues, including the director, had no particular therapeutic orientation:

When I would try to see what I could do to alter their behavior, sometimes they would refuse to see me the next time.  I’d have a hard time getting them to come from the detention home to my office, and that would cause me to think, “What is it that I did that offended the child?”  Well, usually it was overinterpretation, or getting too smart in analyzing the causes of behavior…So we approached every situation with much more of a question of “What can we do to help?” rather than “What is the mysterious cause of this behavior?” or “What theory does the child fit into?”  It was a very good place for learning in that it was easy to be open to experience, and there was certainly no pressure to fit into any particular pattern of thought. (pg. 108; Rogers & Russell, 2002)

Eventually Rogers wrote a book outlining his work with children, The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (Rogers, 1939), which received excellent reviews.  He was offered a professorship at Ohio State University.  Beginning as a full professor gave Rogers a great deal of freedom, and he was frequently invited to give talks.  It has been suggested that one such talk on December 1940 at the University of Minnesota, entitled “Newer Concepts in Psychotherapy,” was the official birthday of client-centered therapy.  Very popular with his students, Rogers was not so welcome amongst his colleagues. Rogers believed that his work was particularly threatening to those colleagues who believed that only their own expertise could make psychotherapy effective.  After only 4 years, during which he published Counseling and Psychotherapy (Rogers, 1942), Rogers moved on to the University of Chicago, where he established the counseling center, wrote Client-Centered Therapy (Rogers, 1951) and contributed several chapters to Psychotherapy and Personality Change (Rogers & Dymond, 1954), and in 1956, he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.  Then, in 1957, he accepted a joint appointment in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin to study psychotic individuals.  Rogers had serious doubts about leaving Chicago, but felt that the joint appointment would allow him to make a dramatic contribution to psychotherapy.  It was a serious mistake. He did not get along with his colleagues in the psychology department, whom he considered to be antagonistic, outdated, “rat-oriented,” and distrustful of clinical psychology, and so he resigned.  He kept his appointment in the psychiatry department, however, and in 1961, published perhaps his most influential book, On Becoming a Person (Rogers, 1961).

This is a black and white sketch of Carl Rogers.
Image Source: Didius. (2006, January 6). Carl Ransom Rogers. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

In 1963, at the invitation of one of his former students, Richard Farson, Rogers moved to California to join the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute.  This was a non-profit institute dedicated to the study of humanistically-oriented interpersonal relations. Rogers was leery of making another major move, but eventually agreed.  He became very active in research on encounter groups and educational theory. Five years later, when Farson left the institute, there was a change in its direction. Rogers was unhappy with the changes, so he joined some colleagues in leaving and establishing the Center for Studies of the Person, where he remained until his death.  In his later years, Rogers wrote books on topics such as personal power and marriage (Rogers, 1972, 1977). In 1980, he published A Way of Being (Rogers, 1980), in which he changed the terminology of his perspective from “client-centered” to “person-centered.”  With the assistance of his daughter, Natalie, who had studied with Abraham Maslow, he held many group workshops on life, family, business, education, and world peace.  He traveled to regions where tension and danger were high, including Poland, Russia, South Africa, and Northern Ireland. In 1985 he brought together influential leaders of seventeen Central American countries for a peace conference in Austria.  The day he died, February 4, 1987, without knowing it, he had just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (DeCarvalho, 1991; Kirschenbaum, 1995; Thorne, 2003).

Placing Rogers in Context:  A Psychology 2,600 Years in the Making

Carl Rogers was an extraordinary individual whose approach to psychology emphasized individuality.  Raised with a strong Christian faith, exposed to Eastern culture and spirituality in college, and then employed as a therapist for children, he came to value and respect each person he met.  Because of that respect for the ability of each person to grow, and the belief that we are innately driven toward actualization, Rogers began the distinctly humanistic approach to psychotherapy that became known as client-centered therapy.

Taken together, client-centered therapy and self-actualization offer a far more positive approach to fostering the growth of each person than most other disciplines in psychology.  Unlike the existing approaches of psychoanalysis, which aimed to uncover problems from the past, or behavior therapies, which aimed to identify problem behaviors and control or “fix” them, client-centered therapy grew out of Rogers’ simple desire to help his clients move forward in their lives.  Indeed, he had been trained as a psychoanalyst, but Rogers found the techniques unsatisfying, both in their goals and their ability to help the children he was working with at the time. The seemingly hands-off approach of client-centered therapy fit well with a Taoist perspective, something Rogers had studied, discussed, and debated during his trip to China.  In A Way of Being, Rogers (1980) quotes what he says is perhaps his favorite saying, one which sums up many of his deeper beliefs:

If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves,

If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves,

If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves,

If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves.

Lao Tsu, c600 B.C.

(Note: This translation differs somewhat from the one cited in the References.)  This quote has been included because it is the translation Rogers quoted, since the difference likely influenced his impression of this saying.

Rogers, like Maslow, wanted to see psychology contribute far more to society than merely helping individuals with psychological distress.  He extended his sincere desire to help people learn to really communicate with empathic understanding, and to efforts aimed at bringing peace to the world.  On the day he died, he had just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Since a Nobel Prize cannot be awarded to someone who has died, he was not eligible to be nominated again.  If he had lived a few more years, he may well have received that award. His later years were certainly committed to peace in a way that deserved such recognition.

Supplemental Materials

Biography of Carl Rogers

This video [21:31] provides a comprehensive biography of Carl Rogers.  The narrator of this video explores the key events and people that influenced the development of his client-centered theory.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

CounsellingTutor.  (2011, October 10).  Biography of Carl Rogers.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.