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Using context-centered and person-centered therapies to unite a divided nation.

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UNITE A DIVIDED NATION
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Using Context-Centered and Person-Centered Therapies to Unite a Divided Nation
Jonathan D. Raskin, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology, State University of New York at New Paltz
Preformatted, prepublication version of paper accepted to The Humanistic Psychologist.
© 2021, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly
replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. Please do not copy or cite without authors'
permission. The final article will be available, upon publication, via its DOI:
http://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000276
Author Note
An earlier version of this article, under the title “Using Humanistic Psychology to Unite a Divided
Nation,” was presented at the 2021 American Psychological Association Convention as the presidential
address to the Society for Humanistic Psychology (APA Division 32).
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Jonathan D. Raskin,
Department of Psychology, Wooster Hall, 1 Hawk Dr., New Paltz, NY 12561. E-mail:
raskinj@newpaltz.edu.
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Abstract
President Biden has made uniting a divided nation a major theme of his presidency. Humanistic
psychology is well-positioned to provide tools necessary to heal the divisions that plague us. Herein, two
humanistic theories are combined in just such an effort: (a) using context-centered therapy to foster
shifts from defensive and self-protective “mind”-based engagement to more accepting and appreciative
“self”-based responding, and (b) employing person-centered therapy’s core conditions for
understanding the mind-based anger and upset of our fellow citizens. Combining these perspectives
provides a basis for overcoming polarization and fostering the kinds of interpersonal relationships
required to carry on together.
Public Significance Statement
Using President Joe Biden’s calls for unity as a starting point, this paper employs two humanistic
theories—Jay Efran’s context-centered therapy and Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapyto
understand and address longstanding political divisions in the United States. The theoretical analysis
offered generalizes to other interpersonal, social, and sectarian conflicts, and offers concrete ways for
psychologists to conceptualize social tensions and work towards alleviating them.
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Using Context-Centered and Person-Centered Therapies to Unite a Divided Nation
For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.
Joseph R. Biden, 2021 Presidential Inaugural Address
President Biden’s call for unity has elicited enthusiasm in some quarters, but skepticism and
ironicallydivisiveness in others (Baker, 2021; Haltiwanger, 2021; Wolf, 2021). Two significant pitfalls
undercut efforts at unity. First, we regularly become ensnared by the need to win and be right; we
prioritize defending ourselves over staying open to alternative perspectives. Second, we often fail to
heed or understand our adversaries’ concerns; we spend too much time talking rather than listening.
Luckily, humanistic psychology provides theoretical tools to help us avoid these pitfalls. Herein, two
humanistic approaches well-suited for the task are integrated. First, Jay Efran’s context-centered
therapy and its notions of “mind” and “self” can aid us in confronting the first pitfall by fostering
awareness of defensive postures that inhibit openness. Second, Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy,
with its core conditions for change, lets us overcome the second pitfall by encouraging mutual
understanding. By combining context-centered and person-centered theories, a productive way forward
might just emerge.
A caveat before proceeding: Embracing unity does not mean tolerating mistreatment or turning
a blind eye to injustice. After all, unity cannot be achieved without alleviating suffering and inequality. If
someone abuses or mistreats me and then says “let’s just forget it in the name of unity,” I cannot
reasonably be expected to comply. Unity must be distinguished from acquiescence; achieving it requires
reconciliation and addressing past wrongs. The humanistic perspectives combined herein acknowledge
this important proviso; only by so doing can they foster unity.
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Moving Beyond Defensiveness and the Need to Be Right
The first step toward unity requires us to overcome the defensiveness and self-righteousness
that plague our current political culture. To accomplish this, we need a theoretical conceptualization of
the problem. Context-centered psychotherapy provides a promising place to start.
Context-Centered Therapy’s Mind and Self
Developed by Jay Efran and colleagues, context-centered therapy is a humanistic-constructivist
approach influenced by Humberto Maturana’s radical constructivism (Maturana, 1988; Maturana &
Varela, 1992) and George Kelly’s personal construct psychology (Kelly, 1955/1991a; 1955/1991b). It
concentrates on how people make meaning within “contexts”—sets of psychological presuppositions
that shape experience (Efran et al., 1990; Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008; Raskin & Efran, 2020, 2021;
Smothermon, 1980). Two contexts of particular importance are “mind” and “self”—familiar terms that
context-centered therapists define in specific ways. By attending to mind-self discrepancies,
psychologists gain a powerful tool to promote unity and overcome divisiveness. Context-centered
therapy conceptions of mind and self are described below, and Table 1 succinctly summarizes several
mind-self polarities.
Mind
When construing events via the context of mind, we adopt a defensive and self-protective
posture (Efran et al., 1990; Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008; Raskin & Efran, 2020, 2021; Smothermon, 1980).
We see risk everywhere, focus unwaveringly on safety and security, feel victimized and taken advantage
of by others, and experience scarcity and depredation as ubiquitous. For example, we operate from
mind at the morning breakfast buffet when we construe those around us as competitors preventing us
from securing our eggs, bacon, and coffee; we grab an extra serving or two because the mind is certain
we will not receive our fair share. To make matters worse, when viewing the world from the vantage
point of mind, people prioritize “being right” and “winning” at all costs. If they cannot win, they will
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work tirelessly to at least avoid losing. A car might cut me off on the highway, but I can “even the score”
by speeding up and overtaking it in return, orif that is not feasibleat least giving the offending driver
the finger.
The mind of context-centered therapy has analogues in other humanistic-existential
approaches, most notably Kirk Schneider’s notion of the polarized mind. In Schneider’s (2013)
conception, our minds become “polarized” when we elevate one viewpoint to the exclusion of all
others. Thus, we insist that our view is right and all others wrong. Drawing on existential theory (Becker,
1973) and its later incorporation into terror management theory (Florian & Mikulincer, 1997; Greenberg
et al., 1986; Hart, 2019; Lewis, 2014), Schneider (2013) sees polarization as a reaction to humanity’s
inexorable dilemmanamely, that we humans are small and insignificant, our existences are inherently
meaningless, and we are desperately fearful of and frantic to avoid the imminence of our own deaths.
Polarized thinking serves as a defense against feelings of smallness and insignificance in the universe.
When polarized, we inflate our own importance by trumpeting (or imposing) our own views while
denigrating (or persecuting) those with alternative perspectives. This may keep existential anxiety at
arm’s length but has tremendous psychological costs. As I observed elsewhere,
hoisting one perspective above all others ignores complexity; it encourages the subjugation of
points of view that diverge from our own. Thus, not only do we psychologically make our own
world smaller. Even worse, we run the risk of oppressing others in an effort to sustain our own
self-comforting dogmatisms. (Raskin, 2020)
Though Efran’s context-centered mind emerges from radical constructivism’s structure
determinism and Schneider’s polarized mind from existential theory’s emphasis on death denial, they
can be seen as complementary conceptions that fit squarely within a humanistic paradigm. Further,
although the context-centered mind sounds awful, it serves a highly functional purpose. Its unremitting
negativism and sense of threat helps us evade the world’s many hazards (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008;
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Raskin & Efran, 2021). However, the mind has evolved exclusively for survival. It cares not a whit about
human happiness. Safety and security are its singular concerns (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008; Raskin &
Efran, 2020, 2021).
Self
The self provides a broader context than the mind. Rather than construing others as dangerous
competitors to be kept at bay or defeated, the self emphasizes connectedness and interrelatedness
(Efran et al., 1990; Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008; Raskin & Efran, 2020, 2021; Smothermon, 1980). When we
function from the context of self, we are nonpossessive, unselfish, open, generous, accepting, and
lovingone might even say the term “self” is a bit misleading because when we view the world from the
perspective of self, our altruism and kindness are quite selfless (Raskin & Efran, 2021). Nomenclature
notwithstanding, one of the most important things we gain from the self is its appreciation of the mind’s
influence over our own behavior and that of others. Thus, when acting from self we avoid characterizing
others in essentialist terms. Rather than seeing the driver who cuts us off as an “aggressive idiot” or the
breakfast buffet patron who snatches the last donut as a “greedy boor,” we recognize their behavior as
unfortunate instances of the mind in action. We might disapprove of their conduct, but we neither take
it personally nor assume it provides any particular insights into their fundamental character. None of us
is immune from the mind’s pernicious effects; we all have “mind-based” moments for which we might
seek forgiveness. Mind and self are contexts for making sense of our experiences that everyone
alternates between; they are not immutable underlying personality traits. Consequently, people can
change by attending to ways their minds get the best of them.
In sum, when construing from a mind-based defensive posture, people become single-mindedly
preoccupied with blaming, judging, securing, and winning. By contrast, when operating from the
broader context of self, people shift to a more accepting, loving, caring, and giving orientation. The mind
focuses exclusively on its narrow safety protocols and has no awareness of the self. The selfbeing the
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broader and more inclusive contextdeeply appreciates the mind as important and valuable, albeit
limited; when acting from self, we acknowledge that all of us operate from mind sometimes (Efran &
Soler-Baillo, 2008).
Goal of Context-Centered Therapy
The goal of context-centered therapy is to help people observe the mind from the context of self
(Efran et al., 1990; Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008; Raskin & Efran, 2020, 2021). Because we cannot operate
from both mind and self simultaneously, observing the mind from the context of self inevitably lessens
the mind’s influence. In this vein, context-centered therapy teaches people to accept the mind and be
consciously aware of its activity (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008). This runs counter to approaches that try to
squelch or quiet mind-oriented thoughts and impulses. The mind cannot be denied; as the old saying
goes, “whatever you resist persists; whatever you let be lets you be(Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008, p. 91,
emphasis in original). When I acknowledge and dispassionately observe my inclination to argue some
arcane point for no other reason than to simply “be right” or when I accept my irrational impulses to
avoid compromising or resist something new because I fear “losing,” I inevitably find that these mind-
based proclivities exert less hold over me.
The Mind in Politics
Mind-oriented construing is prevalent in politics, where success is often defined as
implementing objectives at our adversaries’ expense. Current U.S. politics seem especially mind-driven,
with Republicans and Democrats operating from a defensive posture that often places scoring political
points ahead of collaboratively solving problems. Of course, simply by saying this I am likely to elicit
strong mind-based reactions—such as “You can’t collaborate with a [fill in your favorite epithet:
socialist, insurrectionist, racist, fundamentalist, fanatic, etc.].” However, I encourage readers to bracket
their political orientation during the present discussion because the perniciousness of the mind
transcends partisan distinctions; it affects us all regardless of political affiliation. To illustrate the mind’s
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grip on our politics, let us consider two highly publicized political news item. As we do so, try to suspend
the inclination to identify who is “right” and who is “wrong.Instead, aspire simply to observe and
identify the mind in action.
The Mind in Politics, Example 1: Blocking the January 6 Commission
Congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked Democratic efforts to establish a
commission to investigate the January 6 Insurrection. This is a classic example of the mind doing what it
does best: defending against perceived threats to avoid losing. A commission might have implicated the
Republican Party in fomenting the events of January 6. This was threatening to Republicans, who
worried it might place them in the wrong. Thus, they instinctively resisted by objecting and obfuscating.
They complained that the proposed commission would have been biased—“a purely political exercise,”
in the words of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (Naylor, 2021) that would have been “short-
sighted,” “duplicative,” and “potentially counterproductive,” according to House minority leader Kevin
McCarthy (Blake, 2021). They also resorted to “what about-ism” by demanding that Black Lives Matter
and antifa protests be investigated too (Blake, 2021). Because Republicans construed the proposed
commission as deeply threatening, they blamed Democrats for treating them unfairly (the mind’s
“victim-mentality”). Negating rather than considering someone else’s position, engaging in “make-
wrongs,” and shifting culpability are all quintessential mind-based maneuvers to defend against
perceived threats and avoid losing. Human beings are at increased risk for mistreating one another
when they feel under siege or do not get their way.
The Mind in Politics, Example 2: Disagreement Over Voting Rights and the Filibuster
Democrats expressed outrage when a member of their own party, Senator Joe Manchin,
stymied their legislative agenda by opposing the “For the People” voting rights bill and the elimination
of the filibuster (Wesiman, 2021). Several resorted to archetypal mind-based strategies such as blaming,
characterizing, and castigating Manchin. For instance, Representative Jamaal Bowman blasted Manchin
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as an obstructionist who has “become the new Mitch McConnell” and was “doing everything in his
power to stop democracy” (Forgey, 2021). Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further impugned
Manchin’s motives, speculating that his opposition to the voting rights bill was attributable to the “old
way of politics” and his corrupt connections to “dark money” and lobbyists (Oshin, 2021; Santiago,
2021). Wanting to achieve outcomes they believe in and feeling understandably threatened by
Manchin’s stance, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez resorted to characteristic mind-driven strategies;
defeated at the legislative level, they at least were able to salvage a “draw” by disparaging Manchin’s
character, calling into question his motives, and making him wrong. Translating this into Schneider’s
(2013) language, win-lose scenarios fuel polarized thinking by evoking feelings of inferiority and
insignificance.
Beyond the Mind in Politics
So what if politicians engage in mind-based recriminations? Is not speaking truth to power a
recognized strategy for generating change? Yes, it is. However, let us distinguish speaking truth by
describing one’s own experiences and interpretations while remaining open to what others are thinking
and feeling (a self-based approach) from blaming, characterizing, and making people wrong (a mind-
driven tactic). The former invites others to engage with us and consider our viewpoint, while the latter
demands that they get on board or be condemned. When Republicans called Democrats duplicitous for
trying to form a January 6 commission or when Democrats labeled a dissenting colleague as corrupt for
not wanting to eliminate the filibuster, they shifted from sharing and listening to accusing and
condemning. The problem with this is that people typically respond better to self-based invitations than
mind-driven ultimatums (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008). Most of the time, the latter have the opposite
effect of what is desiredthey push people into even more extreme mind-focused defensiveness rather
than fostering self-oriented openness.
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Mind-based attacks feel good in the short-term but have corrosive long-term consequences
because mind begets mind. When we make others wrong, it drives them to make us wrong in return
(Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008). For example, those aligned with Senator Manchin did not react to assaults
on his character by saying, “Gee, you have a point. How closed-minded of us!” Rather, in response to
attacks on him, they returned the favor and hit back with denunciations of their own. For example,
Manchin defender Meghan McCain rebuked Manchin’s Democratic critics on her television show, “The
View”:
“There's so many conversations about whether or not Republicans have had to bend the knee to
Trump. Well, do Democrats have to bend the knee to the squad and everything on the far left?"
McCain asked. "Because it looks like AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and the squad is
dictating who is allowed in your party, as well.” (Petrizzo, 2021)
Likewise, Republican refusal to support the proposed January 6 commission and their attacks on
Democrats for supporting it did not encourage people like former Republican Michael Steele, who
supported the Democrat’s proposal, to reconsider the Republican’s position. To the contrary, Republican
attacks merely led him to castigate his former colleagues as “pathetic cowards” (Lemon, 2021).
These examples of mind-focused blame and recriminations among political adversaries are all-
too familiar, and the prospects for overcoming them likely seem bleak. However, context-centered
therapy recommends a very simple and basic starting point for ameliorating the malign influence of
mind in our political discourse: awareness. If all of uspoliticians and the citizens who follow them
were to simply begin paying attention to when we are operating from mind, we would likely notice
immediate shifts in our experience and behavior. Identifying when Representative McCarthy calls the
Democrats “duplicative” or Representative Ocasio-Cortez accuses Senator Manchin of corruption
crystallizes how they are playing to our mind’s sense of threat and its irrational need to win. It is difficult
to imagine given our current political climate, but mere awareness of these dynamics is extremely
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powerful. Of course, politicians are not always interested in such awareness because sometimesjust
like the rest of usthey are animated by the benefits achieved by riling people’s minds. As we have
seen, the mind’s desire to win at all costs is strong. Thus, I am not suggesting there will be a Kumbaya
moment when politicians and pundits permanently shift from mind-based blaming to self-oriented
acceptance; the mind can be managed but never eliminated, especially in the political arena where the
stakes are high and therefore feelings of threat are to be expected. However, if we at least can spot
when politicians are playing to our minds, we will be better equipped to resist getting sucked into their
mischiefand when we do successfully resist, they may need to adjust their tactics. Importantly, what is
being encouraged is awareness, not condemnation. This mind-to-self contextual shift is critical because
being mindful of the mind, rather than resisting it or reacting to others when they exhibit it, constitutes
the first step toward surmounting it. It makes empathy and humanitarianismconcepts discussed
nextmore likely.
Empathizing with Our Adversaries
Awareness is a good first step, but there is more that humanistic psychology has to offer. One of
the ways context-centered therapy encourages improved relationships is by engaging people from self.
Recall that the self is tolerant, caring, and loving; when we operate from it, we empathize and accept
people as they are. This sounds remarkably like Carl Rogers’ (1951, 1959, 1961) person-centered
therapy, especially his core conditions for change. Given this similarity, as well as Rogers’ (1952, 1965)
seminal attempts to apply his therapeutic ideas to transforming sociopolitical settings, person-centered
therapy nicely supplements context-centered efforts to overcome political discordwith the caveat
that, based on research findings since Rogers’ work, humanitarianism must supplement empathy,
genuineness, and unconditional positive regard if we hope to overcome the divisions that plague us.
Before unpacking this, let us briefly clarify Efran and Rogers’ divergent uses of the term “self, highlight
Rogers’ core conditions, and consider how Rogers’ ideas pertain to the context-centered view of “mind.”
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Clarifying Definitions of “Self”
It is unfortunate that both person-centered and context-centered therapies speak of the “self”
because each defines the term differently. Rogers’ person-centered self is more classically humanistic
than Efran’s context-centered self; it consists of innate aspects of personhood experienced as uniquely
“I,” “me,” and “mine” (Rogers, 1959). By contrast, Efran offers a more constructivist take on the self,
viewing it as a universally built-in framework for empathically understanding the world that, when
adopted, constitutes how events are experienced and comprehended (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008; Raskin
& Efran, 2020). Despite this difference, the context-centered selfwith its focus on generosity,
acceptance, empathy, and loveshares much in common with person-centered theorizing, in particular
Rogers’ core conditions.
Person-Centered Therapy’s Core Conditions
As every therapist knows, Rogers (1959) described three core conditions that he believed were
central to fostering client changeempathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness. Empathy
involves trying to see the world through others’ eyes; we endeavor to understand their experiences,
share their feelings, and inhabit their worldview (Cain, 2010; Rogers, 1959). Empathy comports with
unconditional positive regard, wherein we aspire to accept others even when we disagree with them or
some of their actions (Cain, 2010; Rogers, 1959). Finally, genuineness (or congruence) requires that we
be self-consistent; if we wish to help others be true to themselves, we must be too (Cain, 2010; Rogers,
1959).
Operating from self in context-centered therapy can be equated with providing Rogers’ core
conditions. Context-centered therapists accept and love their clients; they empathize with their mind-
driven anxieties butbecause they recognize that construing and acting from mind is a part of being
humanthey do not pathologize or demonize their clients for doing so (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008;
Raskin & Efran, 2021). In other words, knowing that it will only elicit further mind-driven behavior,
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context-centered therapists refrain from making their clients wrong. This is akin to person-centered
therapists who, rather than judging clients or pointing out their irrationality, stick to empathizing with
and unconditionally accepting them. Providing core conditions can be viewed as constituting an act of
the context-centered self.
Rogers on Mind
Although Rogers did not use the term “mind,” his analysis of why individuals, groups, and
nations experience conflict often sounds like it was drawn directly from context-centered therapy. In
applying person-centered theory to social conflicts, Rogers (1952, 1965) stressed the importance of
transcending the inclination to make others wrong. In so doing, he anticipated Efran’s warnings about
the dangers of the mind. He noted that in all human conflictwhether it be marital discord, sectarian
strife, or international disagreementsthe combatants inevitably embrace two fundamental
statements: “I am right and you are wrong,” and “I am good and you are bad” (Rogers, 1965, p. 7). He
expands on this by asking
whether these actual tension situations you are considering do not also contain the following
element of further value judgment. “I am honest and straightforward and fundamentally good
in my approach to our relationship and its problems. Unfortunately, you are none of these
things. You are essentially bad and evil and untrustworthy in your approach to the whole
situation. My motives are good. Yours are not.” (Rogers, 1965, p. 8)
Context-centered therapists would undoubtedly agree with Rogers’ conclusion that “these
views, held in essentially identical fashion by each party to the dispute, characterize almost every
serious tension situation, whether between individuals, groups, or nations” (Rogers, 1965, p. 8). When
Rogers discourages condemning people and making them wrong, he sounds remarkably like Efran, who
warns about “wrong-making” triggering the mind’s need to win and be right at all costs. Along these
lines, Efran cautions that “calling the mind ‘wrong’ is self-defeating” because attempts to make it
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wrong merely increase its power” (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008, pp. 91-92). He shares the following
political example of the lengths the mind will go to when confronted:
At a press conference, when President George W. Bush was forced to concede that we weren’t
winning the war in Iraq, he adopted the fallback position that we weren’t losing, either. That
kind of convoluted logic is typical of the mind’s insistence on maintaining the upper hand. (Efran
& Soler-Baillo, 2008, p. 90)
Although mind-based blame and recriminations are gratifying while they last, they do not foster
comity and collaboration. Achieving constructive and cooperative social ends requires changing
contextsspecifically, moving from mind-driven wrong-making to self-based compassion and care. This
is in sharp contrast to the penchant in many psychotherapy circles, as well as in our political discourse,
where there remains a strong pull to disabuse people of their irrational beliefs, “call them out,” and “set
them straight” (Beck, 1979; Ellis & Ellis, 2011). Again, making our adversaries wrong may permit us to
feel superior and temporarily escape awareness of our mortality and insignificance in the cosmos
(Becker, 1973; Greenberg et al., 1986; Schneider, 2013), but it very likely discourages them from
reconsidering their positions. By comparison, context-centered and person-centered therapies
substitute love and acceptance for blame and recrimination. Rogers accomplishes this by encouraging
the spontaneous development of insight through the provision of “warmth, permissiveness,
understanding, and nondirectiveness” (Rogers, 1952, p. 16), while Efran stresses digital and
instantaneous contextual shifts via awareness and acceptance of the mind from the “observational
‘perch’” of self (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008, p. 92). In both cases, they overcome the mind by
commiserating with it rather than confronting it.
Person-Centered Efforts to Remedy Social Tensions through a Context-Centered Lens
Rogers theorywith its emphasis on empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive
regard—combines nicely with Efran’s efforts to foster mind-self shifts. However, recent research on
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empathy complicates matters and requires a nuanced view of when it may or may not prove helpful in
remediating polarization. Considering this research can aid us in using Efran and Rogers’ ideas to address
our current political divisions.
Empathy and Humanitarianism
Despite the value humanistic psychology places on empathy, overreliance on it to break down
barriers between social groups is not always effective. Context matters a great deal. Research
consistently finds that empathy can enhance in-group biases and prejudice while exacerbating hostility
toward out-groups (Cikara et al., 2011; Redford & Ratliff, 2018; Vorauer & Sasaki, 2009). When
participating in intergroup exchanges, people tend to empathize with other in-group members but often
become less tolerant of out-group members (Cikara et al., 2011; Vorauer & Sasaki, 2009). Thus, fostering
empathy for out-group members in the context of in-group relations inadvertently runs the risk of
thwarting the very out-group understanding desired. To remedy this, we must incorporate
humanitarianism—defined as “care for the welfare of all people” (Redford & Ratliff, 2018, p. 746).
Humanitarianism consists of two parts: support for distributive justice and universal tolerance. Research
suggests that while empathy fosters in-group empathy, humanitarianism is a necessary ingredient for
improving the plight of out-group members (Redford & Ratliff, 2018). Thus, as we relate Rogers’ seminal
1980s encounter group work with opposing factions to today’s divisive U.S. politics, it is important to
integrate humanitarianismwhich, in its tolerance and acceptance of others, shares much in common
with the accepting and loving self at the forefront of Efran’s context-centered therapy.
Applications from Rogers’ Work
Rogers’ seminal work adapting his person-centered therapy approach to the political arena
affords pertinent insights into using empathy and humanitarianism to alleviate conflict. Rogers devoted
extensive time to how behavioral scientists can tackle the problem of social tensions (Rogers, 1952,
1965, 1987c, 1987d; Rogers & Malcolm, 1987; Rogers & Skinner, 1956). He not only talked the talk but
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also walked the walk”—routinely conducting encounter groups with members of political factions in
conflict, including Black and White South Africans during apartheid (Rogers, 1987b; Rogers & Sanford,
1987), government officials confronting challenges in Central America (Rogers, 1986; Solomon, 1990),
and Soviet professionals during the Cold War (Rogers, 1987a).
Rogers’ theorizing about the causes of social tension appears consistent with Efran’s ideas about
mind and self. Rogers (1965) maintained that all conflicts share certain elements, regardless of whether
they originate in personal, social, work, or political realms. First, the combatants hold their beliefs rigidly
rather than tentatively; from a context-centered view, they operate from mind instead of self. Second,
communication breaks down; this is expected given that the mind prizes defending itself and being right
over mutual understanding. Third, the participants distort one another’s words and actions; the mind is
highly partisan, inexorably misinterpreting others as a threat to be countered. Fourth, there is an
absence of trust; trust is foreign to the mind’s playbook because it perceives others as adversaries out to
inflict harm.
To address social tensions, Rogers (1965) recommended the establishment of behavioral science
task forces to “advise governmental and private agencies involved in international, intercultural, and
interracial affairs” (Solomon, 1990, p. 42). He also outlined steps to reducing social tension, which can
encourage mind-to-self contextual shifts. In Rogers’ (1965) model, providing the core conditions of
empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness to individuals from dissenting political factions
reduces defensiveness and elicits congruence. What Rogers calls defensiveness, Efran identifies as mind-
based construing. Translating from person-centered to context-centered language, providing a
supportive and nonjudgmental environment for exploring differences (i.e., establishing Rogers’ core
conditions) involves moving from mind to self. Congruence (a synonym for genuineness) begs the
question, “congruence with what?” From a context-centered perspective, congruence can be defined as
accepting all aspects of one’s experience—both those grounded in mind and self. Permitting the mind to
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“do its thing” constitutes a context-centered way of understanding congruence. Further, because what
we resist persists, such congruence opens space for more self-oriented engagements with others. As the
parties increasingly approach one another from the context of self, they come to empathize with one
another. As such, they can shift from making judgments and demanding agreement to considering one
another’s interests while sharing their own concerns.
Although Rogers’ work helping adversarial groups to address their longstanding political
conflicts preceded research on the risks of empathy and the critical role of humanitarianism in rousing
people to help out-group members, in practice his work intuitively captured the essence of
humanitarianism by bringing in-groups and out-groups together in joint encounter sessions. This blurred
the lines between them and mitigated the empathy gaps that likely would have arisen had he worked
separately with each group. This leads us to how Rogers manifested the change process in real life.
When working with constituencies in South Africa, Central America, and the Soviet Union, Rogers
conducted encounter groups and trainings using person-centered principles. In keeping with his theory,
these sessions were generally nondirective but often quite intensewith strong feelings expressed by
participants.
Rogers’ experience facilitating a mixed-race group in South Africa during the 1980s apartheid-
era offers an especially powerful analog to our current political and racial divides. Over the course of
several meetings, group members shared their attitudes and feelings in a setting where they were
encouraged to listen, empathize, and accept one another’s experiences—even when that entailed some
of them sharing flat-out racist and intolerant beliefs and impulses. For example, in one group session, “a
blonde White woman of Danish descent, Karen” shared how she had come to hate Blacks for all the
trouble they were causing(Rogers, 1987b, p. 30). The trouble, to her mind, was that “there are too
many Blacks” (Rogers, 1987b, p. 32). She lamented that when she went downtown “where formerly
Whites were the predominant numbers, now it is Blacks,” and she “wishes they would disappear”
UNITE A DIVIDED NATION
18
(Rogers, 1987b, p. 32). Karen’s sentiments provide an unsettling example of mind-based threat and
blaming. On the opposite end of the political spectrum was Fazio, who “wanted it understood that he
could not accept anyone who is not anti-racist, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist’” (Rogers, 1987b, p. 30).
Rogers noted that Fabio’s statement, a clear but relatable manifestation of the mind’s preference for
righteous indignation over understanding and reconciliation, “was met with some horror by some of the
more conservative Whites(Rogers, 1987b, p. 30). Again, mind begets mind.
The sessions were at times painful and upsetting to participants, but yielded results that pleased
and surprised Rogersand which, through a context-centered lens, reflect the positive changes that
accompany mind-to-self transitions. Rogers noted how people of vastly different racial and political
backgrounds came to form a shared basis for communication and cooperation. By the end of the
sessions, Rogers reported how “Karen, initially arrogant and apathetic, Fazio, initially Marxist and
intolerant, and Arva, a radical young Black woman, had become very close” and were united in their
desire to teach others about the person-centered methods they were learning (Rogers, 1987b, p. 36).
From this, Rogers concluded that if leaders from all the major South African groups could be brought
together in “a prolonged, facilitated, person-to-person meeting,” he was convinced that “a reasonably
peaceful solution would be found(Rogers, 1987b, p. 37).
The divisions of 1980s South Africa were certainly as large or larger than those we face today. Of
course, some psychologists have taken the baton from Rogers and are carrying on his efforts. In recent
years, Arnold and Amy Mindell’s (Mindell, 2008) deep democracy project and Marshall Rosenberg’s
(2015) work on non-violent communication extend and elaborate upon humanistic attempts to foster
constructive dialogue with members of groups in conflict. Going forward, might humanistic
psychologists provide an invaluable service to Americans locked in political combat by modeling,
facilitating, and teaching the kinds of communication Rogers championed? What possibilities for change
might emerge if we did? Would we see less mind and more self?
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19
Conclusion
Perhaps President Biden’s call for unity—and my optimism about using context- and person-
centered conceptualizations to advance itstrikes you as naïve. That is understandable. Rogers himself
faced this very same pessimism. He recounted speaking to a despairing reporter during his South African
trip. The reporter doubted that Rogers’ effort would be effective, comparing it to placing “a wet cloth on
a burning lake(Rogers, 1987b, p. 26). We all have moments where we are convinced nothing can be
done to improve things, and that we will never overcome our partisan rancor. When we recognize these
feelings of despair as products of the mind working to protect us in its predictably limited way, the
certainty that all is lost recedes. The mind will always be with us in all its ugliness; it is part of who we
are. But so is the self, and from it we can draw hope for the prospects of a more unified tomorrow.
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Table 1
Mind vs. Self in Context-Centered Therapy
Mind
Self
Survival: Makes others wrong, blames,
judges, operates from a self-
protective/defensive stance
Living: Seeks connectedness and
interrelatedness; nonpossessive, unselfish, open,
generous, accepting, loving
Blame: Finds fault, makes others wrong
(True) Responsibility: Acknowledges own role
in how one experiences circumstances
Insufficiency: Perceives survival resources
(both physical and psychological) as
lacking; leads to selfishness
Sufficiency: Acts from conviction that the world
is bountiful and there is enough for all;
materially and psychologically generous
At Effect: Views oneself as victim of
circumstances (bad luck, perniciousness of
others, events beyond one’s control)
At Cause: Takes charge and makes choices to
care for oneself and serve others, even if unable
to alter material circumstances
Avoidance: Steers clear of what seems
frightening or risky; avoids facing
psychologically or physically threatening
issues
Mastery: Faces threats and works to cope with
and/or overcome them
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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