Carl Rogers’ Theory of Human nature and Human Personality
Nature: "The fundamental dispositions and traits of humans" (Webster’s Dictionary)
Roger's concept of human nature can perhaps best be understood in light of the background
influences he was reacting to. The two most obvious background influences that influenced his view of human nature that we
can discern from his writings were his strict puritanical Christian upbringing and his exposure to Freud's theory of human
nature through his clinical practice.
Rogers’ upbringing on a farm in Illinois by devout Christian parents seems to have instilled in him
a deep sense of distrust in his feeling self. He mentions in one place that the act of drinking a bottle of pop as a boy had
produced a sense of sinfulness in him. He didn’t see this influence being restricted to his family alone. He comments,
“Religion has permeated our culture with the concept that man is basically sinful”. (On Becoming a Person,
As he undertook his clinical training, Rogers
encountered widespread use of Freudian approaches to therapy. He himself incorporated much of this in his early practice.
However he gradually came to question the basic usefulness of this approach as his own non-directive philosophy took shape.
He comments, “Freud has presented convincing arguments that man’s basic and unconscious nature is primarily made
up of instincts which would, if permitted expression, result in incest, murder and other crimes”. (On Becoming a
Person, page 91)
In an article entitled, “A Note on “The Nature of Man”” published
in The Journal of Counselling and Psychology in 1957, Rogers
admits that the issue is important. He says, “one cannot engage in psychotherapy without giving operational evidence
of an underlying value orientation and view of human nature”. He turns to examine what he saw as the three theoretical
possibilities for human nature. They are as follows: (1) that we are basically hostile and “bad”, (2) that we
have we are neutral, malleable nature, and (3) that we are basically trustworthy and “good”.
In order to guide the exploration, Rogers
looks at how we might describe a non-human species within the animal kingdom. He mentions some of the most striking characteristics
of the sheep (gregarious) and the mouse (timid) or the lion (ravenous). He goes on to point out that to label any of these
species as basically “bad” or “hostile” is ridiculous. Each species has some capacity for aggression,
in certain situations, but not in some general sense. For instance, the Lion will kill to eat when it is hungry, but
generally will not otherwise. Likewise, to describe a species as being “neutral” and completely malleable in nature
is equally ridiculous. Each has its own particular species nature that has evolved over time that makes it most adapted to
its way of life and to fulfilling its needs across its lifetime. Likewise, in this light we can perhaps see that our species
has its own species nature, which is neither bad nor infinitely malleable, but rather is well adapted to meeting our needs
within the context of our environment.
In the same article Rogers
attempts to engage with Freud’s concept of human nature as being basically untrustworthy. He does this by speculating
that it was because Freud engaged in self-analysis instead of being counselled by a sympathetic other that he developed
his negative view of human nature. Rogers contends that as
Freud grew in awareness of his darker motives and desires that were denied to himself, he grew fearful of the destructive
potential within each of us. If he had being able to have had the benefit of a warmly accepting relationship, according to
Rogers, he might have been able to accept these dark thoughts
and feelings fully, to appreciate their meaning within his own personal history, and integrate them as useful aspects of his
Throughout his writings, Rogers
postulated that every living organism, including humans, has an innate drive or tendency to grow and develop to become a mature
member of their species. He called this the “actualising tendency”. A lion cub invariably grows into a lion. It
does so with all the qualities and tendencies of a mature lion, unless it is injured or damaged. Likewise, a human baby will
grow into a fully formed, functioning human, both physically and psychologically, unless something happens during its development
to cause injury or damage. Rogers held that the actualising
tendency is always present in and fundamental to the organism, and the only way to destroy it is the destruction of the organism
itself. As he puts it, “persons have a basically positive direction” (On Becoming a Person, page 26) and,
“whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive towards self-actualisation, or a forward-moving directional tendency,
it is the mainspring of life”, (On Becoming a Person, page 35).
One of the characteristics of being a human is a high level of co-operation. We have
an innate need for affection and acceptance from other people. As he puts it, “the inner core of man’s personality
is the organism itself, which is essentially both self-preserving and social”. (On Becoming a Person,
page 92). This, according to Rogers, is part of our human
nature, and this is shared by all of us. Our deepest over-riding drive, long-term, is the actualising tendency: the drive
to become fully human in every way.