Best of the Century – psychology, psychologists

Albert Ellis


What a difference a century makes. The field of mental health has changed radically and PSYCHOLOGY TODAY has been right there–through the sexual and technological revolutions, the explosion of clinical psychology and the rise of brain science and pharmacology. Dr. Albert Ellis, one of the century’s most influential psychotherapists, highlights the leaps and bounds psychology has made throughout the decades, setting the stage for excerpts from some of the best articles we have had to offer.

One usually had to be semi-psychotic and rich to get psychotherapy in the 19th century. People would pay thousands of dollars for four to five weekly sessions in which therapists would thoroughly explore their early childhood experiences and barely acknowledge present day problems. This could go on for two to five years with little result. But, alas, times have changed.

Let me list a few of psychotherapy’s many 20th century advances:

* It has now–finally!–reached the masses, with millions of people engaging in regular individual and group therapy, taking workshops, seminars and intensive weekends led by therapists. Self-help books, cassettes and computer-assisted materials have improved, and are widely accepted by experts. Public demonstrations of psychotherapy–such as those I hold every Friday night at the Albert Ellis Institute in New York–have become very popular and helpful. An extensive study conducted by Consumer Reports showed that therapy significantly helps nearly 80% of people who participate in it.

* Multicultural therapy is rapidly replacing a one-culture mentality. White, middle-class therapists are turning in great numbers to examine the cultural views of their clients, devising special methods of dealing with people of different backgrounds.

* In the field of addiction, psychotherapy has inspired thousands of 12-step and other support groups; it has reached education, business, management and labor areas.

* In the 19th century, major methods, such as behavior therapy, hardly existed; and cognitive-behavior therapy, which itself is multimodal and which I originated in 1955, is immensely popular today. Most therapists blend many therapies into their own main theory and practice, whereas in the past, they were forced to be loyal to one school of thought.

* The biological and neurological study of emotional disorders recently picked up speed, leading to distinctly improved medication for some disorders. Psychotherapists now refer many more of their clients to psychopharmacologists and psychiatrists, and physicians refer many more of their patients to psychotherapy.

* Although religious and spiritual issues were seriously neglected in early 20th century psychotherapy, recent research has shown that they are an important part of the human condition and may contribute significantly to helping people with disturbances. The research–which is quite rational as well as spiritual–is now common in later 20th century psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy is hardly the only miracle of this century. But as one of my clients recently remarked, “If therapy didn’t exist, you or some other genius would have to invent it!” “Thank you,” I replied, “not invent, but damned well try to improve!”


Those Who Simply Thought to Ask

BREAKTHROUGH: Jean Piaget? Interview by Elizabeth Hall, May 1970

Pour a tall glass of milk into a wide bowl and a child thinks she now has less milk. Piaget discovered that young children have no concept of “conservation”–the idea that matter maintains itself despite its container. He showed for the first time that human intelligence develops in stages.

PT: Your research revealed that children did not understand things that adults assumed they knew.

Piaget: It’s just that no adult ever had the idea of asking children about conservation. It is so obvious to adults that if you change the shape of the object, the quantity will be conserved. Why ask a child? The novelty lay in asking the question.

PT: Going back 40 years, I know you did research on children’s sense of justice. Suppose adults did not impose standards of right and wrong and cooperation upon children; would they develop a sense of morality anyway?

Piaget: It would happen even earlier. And if adults are ready to discuss matters seriously with the children they will form a system of cooperation with the adults. From about the age of 7 or 8, justice prevails over obedience.

BREAKTHROUGH: Stanley Milgram, Interview by Carol Tavris, June 1974

In his most famous, most controversial study, Milgram raised the possibility that nearly everyone has the potential to follow authority to the point of committing murder. He also has a sense of humor and has conducted lighter studies–like the one below–to demonstrate our enduring fear of breaking rules, no matter how pointless they may seem.

Milgram: I suggested to the class we each go up to someone on the subway and simply ask for his seat. The immediate reaction of the class was exactly the same as yours (laughter). The class felt that no one in New York would give up his seat. They said the person would have to justify his request by asserting illness. Graduate students recoiled en masse. Why was it so frightening a project? Finally, one brave soul accompanied by a student observer was assigned the task of making the request courteously, and without initial justification, to 20 passengers.

The rumors started: “They’re getting up!” The news provoked astonishment, delight, wonder. Students made pilgrimages to the brave student, as if he had uncovered a profound secret of survival in tine New York subway. He announced that about half of those he had asked had gotten up without his needing to give a reason.

BREAKTHROUGH: Ellen Langer, April 1982

Langer demonstrated that thinking–just thinking–may help you live a longer, healthier, more productive life. She has shown us the power of mindfulness.

“The ultimate harm of mindlessness is that it may shorten one’s life span. In several investigations, we created situations that allowed nursing-home residents to be more mindful, to engage in active decision making, and we gave each one a plant for which he was responsible. We found that significantly fewer of the mindful residents had died–in one study, 14% compared with 47%.”

Women and Psychology: Sex, Sexism and Success

BREAKTHROUGH: William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Interview by Mary Harrington Hall, July 1969

Masters and Johnson were the first to: 1) study real sex in the laboratory; 2) reveal the physiological mechanisms of orgasm; and 3) discover that women can have more than one orgasm in a lovemaking session. They laid the foundation for modern sex therapy.

PT: Your research has exploded a number of myths that found their way into marriage manuals and gynecological textbooks.

Johnson: In an area where nothing was known, medicine had to draw on social lore. A textbook on psychosomatic gynecology published in 1957 stated that women had neither the interest in nor the capacity for orgasmic response!

Masters: When I reviewed the literature in 1954, everything said about female orgasm was written by males. Suddenly it occurred to me, “how the hell did they know?” That’s one of the reasons Gini [Virginia Johnson] was such an essential part of this.

PT: According to your research, are all women multiorgasmic?

Masters: The human female is naturally orgasmic. Now this doesn’t mean that all women experience multiple orgasms, but while the male generally loses the ability to ejaculate more than once after the age of 30, the female is still potentially multiorgasmic in her 70s.

PT: Men should really take this into consideration.

BREAKTHROUGH: Matina Horner, November 1969

Former president of Radcliffe College, Horner helped clarify sex roles in the modern era.

“Consider Phil and Monica, both honor students. We ask Phil to tell us a story based on this situation: After first term finals, a student named John finds himself at the top of his medical school class. Phil responds: `John is a conscientious student and pleased with himself. He has always wanted to go into medicine … He continues working hard and eventually graduates at the top of his class.’ We present Monica with the same situation, but with a female protagonist named `Ann.’ Monica writes: `Ann starts proclaiming her surprise and joy. Her fellow classmates are so disgusted with her behavior that they jump on her and beat her. She is maimed for life.’

“Next we ask Monica and Phil to work on a series of achievement tests by themselves. Monica scores higher than Phil. We get them together, competing against one another in the same room. Phil excels, while Monica dissolves into a bundle of nerves.

“The glaring contrast between the two stories and the dramatic changes in performance in competitive situations illustrate important differences between men and women in reacting to achievement. The motive to avoid success has an all-too-important influence on the intellectual and professional lives of women in our society.”

BREAKTHROUGH: Harry F. Harlow, Interview by Carol Tavris, April 1973

Through his research with monkeys, Harlow showed that love and care from a mother in the early years is critical to normal emotional and intellectual development. Some have found his interpretation of monkey behavior–and his reliance on it to Inform his perspective on human behavior–to be offensive.

Harlow: We have found sex differences in monkeys. If you don’t believe that God created women to be mothers and essentially nothing else, let me prove it to you. Young female and male monkeys respond differently to infants: Males become either indifferent or mildly abusive, whereas females love the infants immediately.

God created two species: man and woman. Man is the only animal capable of speaking, and woman is the only animal incapable of not speaking.

PT: Women’s liberation will get you for that one.

Harlow: They did already … The sexes play differently. Males play rough, and females play soft and gentle. They sit on the sidelines saying mean, catty, nasty things about other women. Maturation brings out the capabilities that God intended.

PT: I was a tomboy as a child, and I don’t like to say nasty things about other women. Does that mean I am not a female?

Harlow: You prove my point. Speaking is the one trait in which woman is superior to man. Consider what happens when a couple argues. The man tries to talk to the woman. the stupid tool, he can never win. Are you married?

PT: Do you have to be married to argue with a man?

Harlow: I have been married twice but both of my wives have been too bright to be sucked in by women’s lib. My wife Peggy probably had more of a gripe because she lost her job [assistant professor in psychology] when she married me. But being a smart woman, she knew it was better to marry a man and lose a job than hold a job and not marry.

PT: Why shouldn’t women have the opportunity for both, as men do?

BREAKTHROUGH: Judith Rodin, December 1984

Rodin showed that the mere sight of sweets gets certain people hungry because it raises insulin levels. Her pioneering research on hunger and obesity shows that, for some, food obsessions are controlled by such hormones.

“Women today feel too fat, even if they’re five pounds underweight. To lose weight effectively, you must feel in command of your life.”

What Makes Us Tick

BREAKTHROUGH: Robert Rosenthal, September 1968

Rosenthal was the first to show scientifically how the “self-fulfilling prophecy” affects outcomes in education and even in science itself (see above).

BREAKTHROUGH: Elizabeth F. Loftus, February 1984

A pioneer in memory research, Loftus showed how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, and how easily false memories can be implanted in both children and adults. Her work is regularly relied upon by defense teams in courts nationwide.

“One of the reasons jurors place so much faith in eyewitness testimony is that we are unaware of how many factors influence its accuracy: what questions witnesses are asked by police and how the questions are phrased; the difficulty people have in distinguishing among people of other races; whether witnesses have seen photos of suspects before viewing the lineup; the size, composition type (live or photo) of the lineup itself.”

BREAKTHROUGH: B.F. Skinner, Interview by Mary Harrington Hall, September 1967

Possibly the century’s most influential psychologist, Skinner developed “operant conditioning”–the systematic use of positive reinforcement to modify behavior. Various kinds of animal training, parenting techniques and incentive programs–with tactics as ubiquitous as stock options, bonuses and sales commissions–were influenced by Skinner’s concept.

PT: I’m curious, how were you raised, Fred? Were your parents strict?

Skinner: I don’t think my mother and father ever had any doubts about what I was to be punished for or not. My parents come from a very strictly defined culture. But now we really don’t have an ongoing culture that gives us any guidance on how to handle people.

PT: Not even religion provides unquestioned rules today.

Skinner: I don’t know whether I want to improve religion or not. I prefer to get rid of it.

I think my novel, Walden Two, has made people stop and look at the culture they have inherited and wonder if it is the last word or whether it can be changed. I would still put my basic scientific contribution to operant behavior as the analysis of contingencies of reinforcement, but what I really expect to be known for is the application of all this to education, psychotherapy, economics, government, religion and its use in designing a world that will make us into the kind of people we would like to be and give us the things we could all agree that we want. Properly used, positive reinforcement is extremely powerful. Aversive control (punishment) is immediate and quick so we use it. But the use of aversive control has serious, inherent disadvantages. It is used at a terrible cost.

BREAKTHROUGH: Alan Kazdin, “The Rich Rewards of Rewards,” November 1976

Kazdin helped to bring behavioral principals (left) to real-life problems, trying to combat antisocial behavior through programs at jails, hospitals and schools.

BREAKTHROUGH: Robert Epstein, Capturing Creativity, July 1996

Epstein’s research has taken much of the mystery out of creativity, demonstrating that the creative process in individuals is orderly and predictable. His techniques are used by parents, teachers and managers to boost creativity.

“A kindergarten teacher told me recently, ‘I can’t believe I get paid to ave so much fun–before the kids get ruined … in the first grade the kids have to work all the time. There’s no more time for fun, because there’s so much they’ve got to learn. They’re not even allowed to daydream anymore. It’s a wonder any of them grow up to be artists or inventors. In kindergarten, on the other hand, all the kids are artists and inventors.’

“In the 1970s, in animal studies began at Harvard with B.F. Skinner, I became intrigued with the fact that much of the interesting behavior we observed on our subjects had never been trained. We would provide certain training, and then new, often very complex behavior would emerge. Over the years, the research team became increasingly adept at providing certain minimal training that would inexorably lead to a new–`creative’–performance.

“What we learned is that creativity is not something mystical; it’s an extension of what you already know. I have devised four techniques to boost creativity: 1) Capturing. New ideas are like rabbits. If you don’t grab them quickly, they’re usually gone forever; 2) Challenging. Put yourself in difficult situations in which you’re likely to fail to some extent; 3) Broadening. The more training you have and the more diverse that training is, the greater the potential for creative output; and 4) Surrounding. Surround yourself with diverse stimuli–and, even more importantly, change those stimuli regularly.”

BREAKTHROUGH: Marian Diamond, November 1984

Diamond demonstrated that rats raised in enriched environments–those with more stimuli and activities–developed more complex brains.

The Challenges of Our Times: Meaninglessness, Stress and Depression

BREAKTHROUGH: Howard Gardner, Interview by James Ellison, June 1984

Gardner expanded the concept of intelligence by proposing a theory of multiple intelligences. He suggests that “intelligence” should encompass diverse abilities such as self-knowledge, musical intelligence and “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.”

I’m essentially trying to knock language and logic off a pedestal…. Nothing would make me happier than if society were to stop measuring people in terms of some unitary dimension called `intelligence.'”

BREAKTHROUGH: Erik Erikson, June 1983

Erikson was the first to propose that intellectual and emotional development occurs throughout the life span; until his theory, it was generally accepted that development ceased at age 12.

This tapestry was woven by Joan Erikson to depict the eight life stages–or crises –described by her husband: trust, shame, guilt, fear of inferiority, identity confusion, isolation, stagnation and despair.

BREAKTHROUGH: Philip G. Zimbardo, August 1980

Zimbardo placed college students in the roles of prison guards and prisoners in the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment. In these positions, the students became so dangerous that he had to cancel the experiment–demonstrating how societal roles determine much of our behavior. Zimbardo has also done pioneering research on shyness, showing that it is far more common and serious a problem than we have thought.

“The Devil’s strategy for our times is to trivialize human existence and isolate us from one another while creating the delusion that the reasons are time pressures, work demands or economic anxieties.”

BREAKTHROUGH: Martin Seligman, June 1973

In research with dogs, Seligman showed that unconditional punishment has serious and persistent debilitating, emotional effects. He suggested that such behavior in humans leads to adult “helplessness” and depression. He developed the theory of “learned helplessness” based on his findings.

“Depression is the common cold of psychopathology, at once familiar and mysterious. Most of us have suffered depression in the wake of some traumatic events; like the common cold, these depressions run their course in time. Serious forms of depression afflict four to eight million Americans. The Wall Street Journal has called depression the disease of the 1970s and perhaps it is part of the character of our times. It is not a new malady, however. Physicians have been describing depression since the days of Hippocrates; he called it melancholia. The 2,500 years since have added little to our knowledge of the cure and prevention of depression.

“But we can protect our children against the effects of depression: to see oneself as an effective human being may require a childhood filled with powerful synchronies between responding and its consequences.”

BREAKTHROUGH: Hans Selye, Interview by Laurence Cherry, March 1978

Selye was the first researcher to identify psychological “stress.” In the 1930s, he borrowed the concept of stress from modern physics and applied it for the first time to human beings. He showed through extensive laboratory research that the body responds to environmental threats in very specific ways. His wink laid the foundation for our understanding of the role that stress plays in illness, mood and performance.

PT: How do you cope with stress?

Selye: By being as busy with my work as I possibly can…. I almost always put in at least a 10-hour day, and often more.

PT: Doesn’t that contradict all the grim advice we heard about the need to slow down to avoid stress?

Selye: Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion about what stress actually is and how we should deal with it. Stress is the body’s nonspecific response to any demand placed on it. Our aim shouldn’t be to completely avoid stress, but to learn how to recognize our typical response to stress and then try to modulate our lives in accordance with it.

There are two main types of human beings: “resources,” who thrive on stress and are only happy with the vigorous, fast-paced lifestyle, and “turtles,” who in order to be happy require peace, quiet and a generally tranquil environment.

We hear a great deal these days about the dangers of overwork and excessive striving, being the so-called “Type A” personality But I think in many ways this is exaggerated, and arouses unnecessary anxiety. I am a most pronounced racehorse type–at the age of 71 I’ve never suffered a heart attack or any stress-linked disease, and I think it would be far more stressful for me to cut back my schedule. If a danger does exist, its main cause is that some people occasionally mistake their own type and push themselves beyond their normal stress endurance, and that of course should be avoided.

BREAKTHROUGH: Carl Rogers, December 1969

Rogers created the “humanistic” approach to therapy, emphasizing the therapist’s genuineness and openness and unconditional positive regard for the client. He also was known as the “grandmaster” of group therapy.

“The intensive group experience appears to be one cultural attempt to meet the isolation and alienation of contemporary life. The person who is involved in a basic encounter with another is no longer an isolated individual. Since alienation is one of the most disturbing aspects of our modern life, this is important.

“In a climate of freedom and facilitation, group members become more closely related to their feelings–open to their experience and closer and more expressively intimate in their interpersonal relationships. This is the kind of human being we seem to be moving toward.”

B.F. Skinner on Carl Rogers, September 1967

“Rogers’ technique is to agree with everything everybody says–reinforce support. Did you hear the joke about Carl? Someone took him out duck hunting one morning. Carl shot at a duck the same time somebody else shot it from down along the shore. When the two men met at the duck, Carl looked up at the man and said, `You feel this is your duck.’ Of course the point of the story is that Carl got the duck. His technique does work, you see.”

BREAKTHROUGH: Albert Ellis, July 1973

Ellis developed rational-emotive therapy (RET)–which helps clients identify irrational beliefs and replace them with rational ones.

“RET is not a miracle cure. It requires a considerable amount of effort and practice on the part of the client. Hence, it is hardly the therapy of choice for the individual who wants to be coddled, who thinks he must have immediate gratification within therapy sessions, or who refuses to work at helping himself. RET therapists will listen as you whine about your mother, but in the final analysis, they will put you at the center of the universe, responsible for your own actions and feelings.”


PT’s Best-of-the-Century Reader Quiz * By Phyllis Wentworth

1. In the early 19th century–before psychology as we know it existed–“scientists of the mind,” called phrenologists, traveled from town to town testing intelligence levels and personality traits by:

a. Feeling the shape of people’s skulls

b. Asking them to analyze ink blots

c. Watching how they navigated a maze

d. All of the above

2. In the 1880s, women were thought to experience “hysteria,” characterized by a tightening of the chest, choking, falling into a convulsive fit and suffering a slight lapse of memory. Which of the following was developed in an attempt to prevent the onset of this now debunked disorder?

a. Electromechanical vibrator

b. Valium

c. Aromatherapy

d. All of the above

3. Stop “rationalizing,” he’s so “repressed,” and she’s just “projecting,” are all examples of Freudian concepts that have become part of everyday language. Freud believed that the ego uses defensive strategies when a person is:

a. Anxious about being hurt by others

b. Too fearful to face a personal truth

c. Feeling threatened or overwhelmed by a situation

d. Possibly all three

4. Have you ever felt that your friend’s therapist was a little too supportive of his neuroses and lifestyle choices? Carl Rogers, a humanist therapist, wouldn’t have agreed. He believed that the most important thing was for clients to:

a. Feel loved and respected

b. Realize that their personality is based on their heredity and temperament

c. Realize that their problems are based on the unconscious workings of the mind

d. All of the above

5. During World War II, B.F. Skinner applied his laboratory research on pigeon behavior by:

a. Training the birds to navigate an automated bomber for the military

b. Developing optimum flight patterns for Air Force jets

c. Making predictions about the behavior of captured hostages

d. All of the above

6. In the original 1952 issue of the American Psychiatric Associations’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM)–the bible of mental health–homosexuality was listed as a sociopathic personality disorder. It wasn’t removed from the manual until:

a. 1958

b. 1962

c. 1969

d. 1973

7. Motivated partly by public’s the fascination with subliminal messages, psychologists have conducted many years of research, concluding that subliminal perception:

a. Can briefly influence simple but not complex behavior (such as self-esteem)

b. Can have a long-standing influence on behavior

c. Is a complete hoax

d. None of the above

8. During the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the first African-Americans to receive Ph.D.s from Columbia University’s psychology department, collected data for a study that played a central role in the rising civil rights struggle a decade later. The Clarks found that black children became aware of their racial identity at around age 3, and at the same time:

a. Developed a negative self image

b. Developed a sense of black pride

c. Developed an ambivalent sense of self

d. None of the above

9. Driven by the desire to understand the horrors that occurred during the Holocaust, psychologist Stanley Milgrim conducted a study to learn whether ordinary Americans would electrically shock another person at the command of an authority figure. (The participants were unaware that the “victim” was an actor.) What percent of his participants complied with the instructions, increasing the voltage of the shocks even as the screams of the victim intensified?

a. 11%

b. 28%

c. 35%

d. 66%

10. Sigmund Freud was a scientist living in relative obscurity in Austria until he was invited to come to America and give a series of five lectures at Clark University in 1909. This medical doctor worked outside the academic world in his native country partly because:

a. He preferred solitude

b. He was sensitive to the hostility he knew his theories would draw

c. His Jewish identity held him back in a country rife with anti-Semitism

d. All of the above

Answers to Quiz











Wentworth is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire, specializing in the history of psychology.


SMART WORMS: Ever wonder what would happen if you ate a genius? Would you acquire her smarts? A research team at the University of Michigan set out to investigate: They conditioned flatworms to cringe at a flashing light, then killed them, ground them up and fed them to a second set of worms. The new bunch learned to cringe more quickly! But scientists were unable to replicate the findings.

ORGASM BOX: Wilhelm Reich, the psychologist who coined the term “sexual revolution,” also believed in the healing power of “orgasmic energy.” His claim that his “Orgone-Accumulator”–a box in which you would sit–cured hysteria, depression and even cancer landed him in jail, where he died in 1957.

PIGEON PING-PONG: The influential B.F. Skinner knew how to have fun: He developed creative ways to test his theory that behavior can be conditioned by positive reinforcement. But Skinner admitted that he went too far: “If I could do it all over again,” he told PT in 1967, “I’d never teach those pigeons to play ping-pong.”

WAKE-A-THON: To investigate the effects of sleep deprivation, researchers observed an 88-hour, 1960s “talk-a-thon” in which cash prizes were given for nonstop talking. By the end, participants showed signs of psychosis: they hallucinated, experienced emotional instability and questioned their own sanity.

Albert Ellis is the director of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City and creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.3

COPYRIGHT 1999 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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