Motschnig-Pitrik R. & Nykl L. (2002). Uniting Rogers' and Vygotsky's Theories on Personality and Learning. Paper presented at the
Carl Rogers Conference 2002, 24-28 July, San Diego, USA.
Uniting Rogers’ and Vygotsky’s Theories on Personality and Learning
2Department of Computer Science and Business
1080 Vienna, Austria
Rathausstr. 19/9, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Abstract: In this article we overlay Vygotsky’s theory about the lower and higher psychological
functions with Rogers’ theory of personality and behavior. This enterprise allows us to perceive
insightful parallels and to complement the constituent theories, paving the way to a united, more
comprehensive theory. We explain the basic ideas and derive arguments on the effectiveness of
processes aiming at promoting experiential- or whole-person learning and personal growth.
From experience, confirmed by numerous empirical experiments, Carl Rogers and his colleagues
proved that learning is deeper and more effective if it addresses the whole person, rather than his/her
intellect alone (“whole-person learning”, “experiential learning”) [Aspy 1972], [Rogers 1983]. Also,
in several articles Rogers argues that our intellect alone is not sufficient for personal development to
take place but that true experiencing is essential for growth to occur [Rogers 1961]. Almost one
decade earlier, the Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky proposed the theory of lower and higher
psychological functions. He claims that the higher functions cannot exist without the lower ones,
and the lower levels hosting natural instincts are raised into the higher ones, but simultaneously are
preserved [Vygotsky, 1992]. (In German, the word “aufgehoben” has a twofold meaning: to raise up
or to preserve and to cause to cease). The borders between these individual levels are of central
interest to us, since we conjecture that along these lines natural instincts are raised ( in the sense of
“aufgehoben”) to cultural, interpersonal values and attitudes such as congruence, acceptance, and
empathic understanding. As will be discussed below, it was Vygotsky who focused on the
relationship between a primitive, intuitive reaction to a stimulus and a consequent reaction mediated
by symbols and higher psychological functions. It was Rogers who discovered under which
conditions personal growth was most likely to occur. Thus, independently, these two researchers
seemingly agree on the vital role of the true experiencing of feelings at a fundamental, instinctive
level and the role of cognitions at a higher level, seeing these as two basically different, but
nevertheless interconnected systems that have the potential to support one another synergistically,
particularly when they work in harmony. Vygotsky writes: “ This new viewpoint [he refers to the
gestalt or structure] is characterized by the fact that the focus is on the meaning of the whole – the
whole that possesses its particular properties and determines the functions of its constituent parts.”
([Vygotsky 1992], p. 191]. In the rest of the paper we aim to try to bring the basic ideas of the two
theories together and draw some conclusions regarding personal growth and learning. For the more
comprehensive, united theory we refer the reader to [Nykl 2002] and just note that researchers in
cognitive neuroscience (e.g. [Squire 1999], [Damasio 2000]) are in the process of confirming
essential aspects of the theories addressed in this article.
Vygotsky’s triangle and its complement by three levels of psychological
We start from Vygotsky’s triangle, depicted on the left-hand side of Figure 1 showing a stimulus A
that leads to some arbitrary reaction B. The direct line between A and B denotes a response on the
level of lower or primitive psychological functions. The connection A-X-B, accordingly, shows the
path followed by the higher psychological functions. In this constellation, X stands for a symbol or
some intra-organismically symbolized structure. In Vygotsky’s terms: “Stimulus A causes a reaction
consisting in finding a stimulus X that again acts on B. In this way, a mediate rather than immediate
connection between A and B is established. This is the characteristic of the selected reaction as it is
the characteristic of every higher form of behavior. […] In the course of a natural construction of a
concatenation, however, a direct, conditioned-reflex-induced connection between A and B is
established. […] This triangle shows and emphasizes the relationship between the higher forms of
behavior and their constituent, elementary processes.” [Vygotsky 1992, p. 185-186, italics added]
Figure 1: Vygotsky’s triangle of higher forms of behaviot (left-hand side) and its complement by
three levels of psychological processes (right-hand side).
As soon as we see the connection between stimulus A and reaction B as an intra-psychological
process that covers the area between A, X, and B (referring to Figure 1) rather than being just a
linear process, then social skills must be considered as an inevitable element of this area.
Accordingly, we adopt a well known schema [Bühler 1907], [Vygotsky 1992, p. 208] that views
psychological processes on three levels, namely the level of feelings, intuitions, emotions, the level
of skills, or social competence, and the level of cognitions or intellect. Integrating this schema into
Vygotsky’s triangle on lower and higher psychological processes (Vygotsky, 1992, p. 186), results
in the complemented triangle as shown on the right-hand side of Figure 1. This simple graphic
symbolization of intra-psychological processes in the context of Vygotsky’s theories allows us to
observe essential human capacities and relate them to Rogers’ theory of whole-person learning, i.e.
learning involving processes at all three levels. Before exploring these individual issues in more
detail, let us point out that the influence of the individual levels as depicted in Figure 1 may vary
from situation to situation, whereby we use the term situation to encompass, in the first place,
persons. In a concrete context, the contribution of the individual levels will depend on particular
circumstances such as the stimulus, the associated cognitive structures, the person as such, and
his/her contemporary constitution, etc.
The lower levels in the triangle constitute the foundations of being and are able to dominate or
empower the higher levels in certain circumstances. In real life, this can be verified in the case of
intense feelings, like that of hurt, love, or strong fear which can swamp or block the higher levels
from becoming functional (“emotional hijacking”, [Goleman 1995]). On other occasions, such as in
intellectual discussions, or focused scientific conversation, the intellect can consume all attention
and blend out the lower levels. This may last as long as the instinctive level does not interrupt the
process, e.g. by a sudden crash or something unexpected that makes us startle.
We further conclude that under certain, optimal conditions, the lower and the higher functions, i.e.
feeling, experience, intuition on the one hand and cognitions or intellect on the other hand can arrive
at the same target, namely reaction B. In this case, the intellect, or the conscious self, is congruent
with the feelings or experience. With reference to the graphical illustrations, it is important that all
levels are traversed such that the concatenated path leads to the same result as the immediate path
emanating from A.
Let us now try to view Figure 1 in terms of Rogers’ constructs. Rogers’ only source of motivation,
the actualising tendency that is inherent in every living organism, can be seen as causing the direct
reaction along the x-axis, namely the immediate connection between A and B. A more sophisticated
reaction can be achieved by including the differentiation of the self, caused by the self-actualising
tendency that springs from the actualising tendency. Thus the direction toward X can be seen as a
more differentiated behavior. If it is consistent with the experiencing at the intuitive level, the
connection between X and B is achieved. Alternatively, some other reaction might occur that
inhibits the connection to B and thus does not exploit the full potential of a process that covers the
whole area of the triangle and hence is characterized by incongruence between intellect and
experiencing, or, in other words, cognitions and feelings. Rogers suggests that the associative
structures in the cognitive areas can become rigid as a consequence of previous judgement leading
to valuing conditions. In this scenario, the process may be blocked in these areas and either inhibited
from reaching the lower levels, or detracted from the straight line towards B. From this observation
we conclude that any reaction, learning, or behavior that includes cognitive constituents is more
effective or more congruent if it is in line with the skills, emotions, intuitions, and personal values of
Traditionally, each of the three levels of psychological processes have specific terms to refer to their
expansion or growth that proceeds at the respective level. As illustrated on the left-hand side of
Figure 2, the cognitive level tends to be expanded by learning, the level of skills by training, and the
personality level by assimilating experiences. Since the biological centres and structures that are
involved in expanding the individual levels are separate regions that basically can function
independently of one another [Squire 1999], it follows in particular, that personal growth and
experiencing in awareness [Rogers 1961] cannot be achieved purely cognitively [Damasio 2000],
[Motschnig-Pitrik 2002]. Also note that, traditionally, the ripening or expansion of processes at the
individual levels for the purpose of their more rapid growth is addressed in some characteristic
social or institutional setting. As indicated on the right-hand side of Figure 2, conventional learning
is typically practiced in schools or at universities, social skills tend to be trained in courses on
various aspects of social competence, and personal growth is known to be accelerated by encounter
group experience [Rogers 1970].
Yet, as has been argued above, whole-person learning encompasses all three levels. This is
consistent with real life situations, where expansion co-occurs continually across levels. One of the
questions that we pose here and will turn to later concerns the effectiveness of institutional means to
accelerate the expansion of single-level processes. In other words, what does it mean to learn purely
cognitively? While Rogers and his colleagues [Rogers 1983], [Aspy 1972] have laid solid and, in the
authors’ view, highly convincing foundations we appreciate so much to build upon, there is still
significant, primarily empirical, research to do, to facilitate university courses (on various subject
matter) targeted toward simultaneous growth on all three levels [Motschnig-Pitrik 2001b]. Given
that Rogers’ conditions of growth play a key role in the success of whole-person learning, as
established by extensive empirical research [Rogers 1983], [Aspy 1972], this indicates that these
variables or attitudinal conditions are essential in facilitating the successful interaction between the
three levels. The goal therefore is to come up with the most suitable reaction for each particular
situation, having at one’s disposal the whole continuum of intra-psychological processes. We will
elaborate on this issue shortly after a more detailed look at the interplay of the lower levels with the
cognitions at the topmost level.
Figure 2: Typical processes at the individual levels (left-hand side) and characteristic settings to
accelerate the expansion of the contents of the levels (right-hand side).
Viewing the triangle in terms of Rogers’ Theory of Personality and Behavior
Above, we have mentioned that particular situations encountered at e.g. schools make specific
demands on one of the three levels. In the following section we discuss the effects of, visually
demonstrated, cutting off the level of cognitions from the more basic levels, as is often practiced in
conventional learning in the classroom. This scenario is sketched on the left-hand side of Figure 3.
In this constellation, cognitive structures tend to be rigid and concentrate and consume energy
within themselves [Bower 1981].
becoming, growth, “whole-person learning”
Figure 3: Rigid structures with valuing conditions, typical for purely intellectual learning (left-hand
side) versus becoming, growth, “whole-person learning” (right-hand side).
Interpreting the situation shown on the left-hand side of Figure 3 in the context of Vygotsky’s and
Rogers’ theories, we observe that some stimulus A, while propagating towards X’, will, at the
elementary level, also propagate towards B. Now, if the constructs at higher levels are rigid, as is the
case with conditions of worth or prejudices, the process will be blocked somewhere on that level
(visually indicated by a thick line) say, at point X2 in Figure 3. It will propagate toward point or
reaction B1 instead of reaction B that has at its disposal the full organismic experience.
Consequently, some of the organismic experience will be denied or distorted. In a learning situation,
we could also observe that the motivation is reduced. We can interpret the area spanned by the
rectangle B1-X2-B as the denied organismic experience in the person’s response to stimulus A. Note
that in many cases, particularly those where the rigid, learned structures fit the situation, the reaction
B1 will be adequate and potentially faster. However, if no suitable constructs can be found at the
intellectual level, the respective person will perceive a problem and his/her reaction may turn out not
to be adequate.
Symmetrically, rigid constructs at the cognitive level have the power to extinguish or obstruct some
fraction of the organismic experience originating from stimulus A. In this way, at the level of
experiencing or perceiving, the stimulus A is filtered, such that only its part, call it A1 is permitted
to be propagated. Turning to Figure 3, we interpret the area spanned by the rectangle A-X1-A1 as
that part of the perception or organismic experience that is ignored and hence not available to whole
intra-psychological process. The remaining area in the triangle on the left-hand side of Figure 3, the
area of the polygon A1-X1-X’-X2-B1 hosts the more or less distorted experience. Comparing this to
the area spanned by A-X-B on the right-hand side of Figure 3, which denotes a fully congruent
process, the area depicted by the polygon grows (i.e. the distortions decrease) with increasing
flexibility of the constructs at the intellectual level such that intuitions and feelings may gain more
importance. In such situations “learning” becomes inherently more meaningful, motivation rises,
and cognitive achievement is increased [Damasio 2000].
The right-hand side of Figure 3 illustrates an analogous situation, in which cognitive knowledge is
essential to solving some problem the respective person is eager to resolve, but this time in an
atmosphere allowing for whole-person learning. In this situation, naturally, the cognitive level
would expand or flow into the other levels, as indicated by the waved pattern and the dotted
borderlines on the right-hand side of the Figure. However, this seems possible only if the associative
structures of the higher levels are flexible and transparent enough to allow for a communication with
or a process flow into the lower levels.
Figure 4: Rogers’ schema of the total personality and overlapping areas
Surprisingly, our interpretation can be transformed to match Rogers’ view on the total personality
[Rogers 1986, p. 451] as redrawn in Figure 4. In Rogers’ schema, the area I denotes that part of the
personality where the self is congruent with the experience. It can be seen to correspond to the
whole area in Vygotsky’s triangle A-X-B. Area II stands for that part of the total personality, in
which social or other experiences are distorted, and corresponds to the area A1-X1-X’-X2-B1 in our
interpretation given in Figure 3. Finally, Rogers’ area III depicts organismic experiences that are
denied. It corresponds to the area of the triangle spanned by B1-X2-B.
The correspondence between the individual sections/areas in Rogers’ schema with our expanded
version of Vygotsky’s triangle along with the matching interpretations lead us to conclude that the
constituent theories overlap smoothly and significantly. Hence, their unification and resulting
mutual enrichment can fully be appreciated. It is further evident from the fact that, in his theory
about the differentiation of the lower structure of whole in the higher psychological functions,
Vygotsky touches Rogers’ theory about the differentiation of the self-actualisation tendency in the
Consequences in the context of Rogers’ Theory
The observation discussed above leads us to conclude that psychological processes in general, and
learning in particular, are most effective if they have at their disposal the full range of cognitions,
skills, and feelings. For this condition to hold, the cognitive structures need to be flexible and
transparent on the one hand and have access to and equally be nourished by stimuli from the lower
levels. This is completely consistent with Rogers’ assumption, namely that the actualising tendency
is the only source of motivation and causes living beings to maintain, enhance, and actualise their
organisms. Carl Rogers further established which conditions are necessary and sufficient for
enhancement, becoming, or personal growth. In the context of our united theory, we hypothesize
that Rogers’ three variables or attitudinal conditions of congruence, acceptance, and empathic
understanding are raised (in the sense of “aufgehoben”) from instincts. In this interpretation, they
can, to some degree, substitute natural instincts for humans in their role as social, cultural beings.
They can be seen to act as mediators between the lower and higher processes. Thus, their
congruence and maturity — clearly a life-long task – leads to the development towards a fully
function person [Rogers 1959].
In the case that the self-structure is congruent with the experience (directed towards a complete
overlap of the circles in Figure 4), reactions tend to cover the whole area of the triangle A-X-B and
hence have access to the full range of a person’s psychological functions. This more theoretical
perspective immediately gives rise to some pragmatic conclusions :
• “Learning” or “training” at higher levels without respecting the lower levels ignores and
represses some fraction of the organismic experience and hence cannot make use of the full
potential of the respective person.
• Psychological development is potentially most effective, if it addresses all three levels. This is
quite in line with Rogers’ emphasis on the capability of experiencing feelings in awareness and
with his seven phases of psychological growth. [Rogers 1961].
• The 3 Rogers variables, as cultural or social values, are assumed to raise, replace (but
simultaneously preserve) or differentiate the instincts at the level of lower psychological
functions. An immediate consequence is that they span the three levels and neither can be
“learned” purely cognitively nor can be acquired purely experientially or instinctively in a
deprived environment in complete solitude. Rather, they need to be cultivated in social contact
with the surroundings [Motschnig-Pitrik 2001]. Besides everyday social situations, Person-
Centered encounter groups are effective settings that emphasize the experiencing and
communicating of these attitudinal conditions in a supportive climate. As Vygotsky put it: “Not
nature, but society must, in the first place, be seen as the determining factor of human behavior.”
[Vygotsky p. 146]
To end in C. Rogers’ words: „If they [these hypotheses] prove to be a stimulation to significant
study of deeper dynamics of human behavior, they will have served their purpose well.” [Rogers
1995, p 532]
Acknowledgement: We’d like to thank Colin Lago for his precious comments on an earlier version
of this article and for communicating them to us despite a chain of technical difficulties.
D. N. Aspy: Toward a Technology for Humanizing Education; Champaign Illinois: Research Press
Bühler K.: “Tatsachen und Probleme zu einer Psychologie der Denkvorgänge I. Über Gedanken.“
Archiv für die gesamte Psychologie 9. 1907.
Bower G., H.: "Mood and Memory"; American Psychologist, Vol. 36, 129-148, 1981.
Damasio A.: “The Feeling of What Happens – Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness”;
Goleman D.: "Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ"; Bantam Books, New York,
etc. , 1995.
Motschnig-Pitrik R., Nykl L.: "The Role and Modeling of Context in a Cognitive Model of Rogers'
Person-Centred Approach"; in Proc. of CONTEXT'01, Internat. and Interdisciplinary
Conference on the Modeling of Context, LNAI, Lecture Notes in Computer Science and AI,
Springer Verlag, to appear, Dundee, GB, July 2001.
Motschnig-Pitrik R.: "Using the Internet with the Student-Centred Approach to Teaching - Method
and Case Study"; Proc. of ICL2001, 4th International Workshop on Interactive Computer
Aided Learning - Experiences and Visions, Villach, Austria, September 2001
Motschnig-Pitrik R., Nykl L.: „Ein kognitiv-emotionales Modell zur Klärung der Wirkungsweise
von Rogers’ Personenzentriertem Ansatz"; GWG Gesprächspsychotherapie und
Personzentrierte Beratung; to appear in June 2002.
Nykl L.: "Psychologische Kontexte in Rogers' Psychotherapie in Relation zur Persönlichkeitstheorie
- ein Vergleich mit dem Behaviorismus"; Dissertation, Karlova Universita, Prague, 1999.
Nykl L.: “Psychologische Kontexte in Rogers' Psychotherapie - das Selbst im Mittelpunkt der
Persönlichkeitstheorie"; Virya - Zeitschrift für Psychotherapie und Kommunikation, L.
Nykl: editor; No. 4, Vienna, 1 - 108 September 2000.
Nykl L.: “Psychologische Kontexte in der Rogers‘ Psychotherapie im Zusammenhang mit der
Persönlichkeitstheorie – Vergleich zum Behaviorismus und anderen Theorien besonders zu
der Theorie der höheren psychischen Funktionen nach L.S.Vygotskij“; Nostrification,
University of Vienna, 2002.
Nykl L.: “Eine Theorie zur Vereinigung der Persönlichkeitstheorie von C. R. Rogers mit dem
Gedankengut von L. S. Vygotskij“; submitted for publication, June 2002.
Rogers C., R.: ”A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, as Developed in
the Client-Centered Framework.” in: Psychology: A Study of a Science; Vol. 3, S. Koch,
ed., Mc. Graw-Hill, Inc., 1959.
Rogers C., R. : "On Becoming A Person - A Psychotherapists View of Psychotherapy"; Constable,
Rogers C., R.: "Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups. New York, Harper and Row, 1970.
Rogers C., R. "A Way of Being"; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980.
Rogers C., R : "Freedom to Learn for the 80's"; Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, A
Bell&Howell Company, 1983.
Rogers C., R.: "Die Nicht-Direktive Beratung (Non-Directed Counseling)"; Fischer Taschenbuch
Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 6th Ed., 1985.
Rogers C., R.: “Eine Theorie der Psychotherapie, der Persönlichkeit, und der zwischenmenschlichen
Beziehungen, GwG-Verlag Köln, 3. Auflage, 1991.
Rogers C., R. : "Client-Centered Therapy"; (first ed. in 1951), Constable, 1995
Squire L.,R., Kandel E.,R.: "Memory; From Mind to Molecules"; Scientific American Library, New
Vygotsky, L., S.: “Mind in Society”; Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1978.
Vygotskij, L., S.: “Geschichte der höheren psychischen Funktionen“; Münster Hamburg, Lit Verlag,