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Thursday, April 21, 2005 | This is part four in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part three.

Arguably the most important social scientist ever to live and work in San Diego was Carl Rogers, widely considered to be America’s most influential psychologist. Those of us who became the staff of La Jolla’s Western Behavioral Sciences Institute are deeply indebted to his instrumental role in creating, and then joining, the institute.

It all began in 1958. California Institute of Technology physicist and philanthropist Paul Lloyd, whose financial support and wise leadership eventually initiated and sustained WBSI for 20 years, had that year become interested in knowing more about Rogers’ work. To further his understanding he joined a workshop that my colleague Thomas Gordon and I had organized, featuring Rogers. The chemistry was just right, and later when I approached Paul with a proposal for an institute that could build upon Rogers’ work, he signed on, and WBSI was born.

Rogers was the first person to undertake research into the process of psychotherapy, and in that work he demonstrated that, given the right conditions, individuals were capable of intelligent self-direction. Since therapy at the time was either highly directive or psychoanalytic, this was a radical development indeed.

Rogers’ ideas were so powerful and universally applicable that they found their way into disciplines well beyond psychotherapy – into education, religion and business. Indeed, his broad influence helped foment the revolution in political participation that characterized the latter half of the 20th century. He became a member of the first board of trustees of WBSI, and a few years later left academia to join the full-time staff as a resident fellow.

Given the right conditions, people can be trusted

Rogers understood that designing the form of these situations, these relationships, gives them their real power. His contribution then was not only to psychotherapy. His greater contribution was to give us a new form for human interaction, a new ethical basis for relationships. His design forgoes judgment, fostering the kind of intimacy that comes from that special brand of interaction that only occurs when one person can genuinely enter the feelings and perceptions of another. When that level of understanding is communicated, when Rogers’ conditions of safety, empathy, understanding and unconditional positive regard are present, relationships prosper.

For nearly half a century, from its first research grant to study the leadership of small groups to its current program in policy dialogue, WBSI has explored that design. In that very first research program, an impressive finding emerged supporting that approach. Randomly selected individuals arriving for a social experiment were encouraged to try to increase their social power in a group of strangers. Almost all of the subjects denied they had that ability, but without telling them how, we encouraged them to try anyway. Although their success in that effort did not reach statistical significance, we were impressed to discover that they were able to attempt those power roles with such natural skill that not once in our conducting 29 such groups did anyone detect that these individuals had been told to do so. Apparently all of us have a mastery of roles that we may never have an opportunity to play.

This guiding philosophy of attempting to create conditions in which people can be at their best continued through all of WBSI’s projects. Under the leadership of institute co-founder and social psychologist Wayman Crow, the staff designed and simulated tension reduction activities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were seeking deterrence strategies during the Cold War. That work led staffers Hall Sprague and Garry Shirts to develop a range of highly successful educational games for use in schools.

Reducing convenience store robberies

With sociologist Thomas Gillette, economist Tore Tjersland and others, WBSI conducted a variety of governmental policy research programs, studying the conditions that would enable people to escape from poverty, perform better in schools, reduce racial tensions and live more satisfying family lives. Studies of Skid Row inhabitants, conducted by Tony Gorman, showed their relations with each other to be more compassionate and caring than those of the middle and upper classes.

Over and over again, the institute’s work involved the design of relationships, experiences or environments that enabled people to realize their potential. Having discovered the power of computer communications, the institute explored other ways to form virtual communities that could serve that goal.

Its current program, the International Leadership Forum, uses Internet conferencing to conduct dialogues that elicit the wisdom of highly influential leaders from around the world on the great policy issues of our time. This virtual think tank is the first group ever to be assembled in this manner. The wisdom generated in its conferences, interviews and commentaries is communicated to policymakers by means of its electronic magazine, the ILF Digest.

The range of potential future projects includes developing leadership forums considering the larger challenges facing the professions of design, education and criminal justice; working with the Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego to conduct mass media dialogues between Islam and the West; and joining with top environmentalists to work on the social and community development aspects of their projects using seawater irrigation technology to enable hungry people living along desert coastlines all over the world to produce their own food, develop a sound economy, and fully enjoy the benefits of community life.

Forty-six years after its founding, the institute still explores Carl Rogers’ insight – given the right conditions, people can be trusted.

Richard Farson is a psychologist, author, president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, www.wbsi.org, and executive director of its International Leadership Forum.

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