Sunday, July 31, 2016

Prescott Lecky and Self-Consistency

I have been reading Prescott Lecky's book Self-Consistency: A Theory of Personality, edited and interpreted by Frederick C. Thorne.

From Wikipedia:

Prescott Lecky (1892–1941) was a lecturer of Psychology at Columbia University from 1924 to 1934. At a time when American psychology was dominated by behaviorism, he developed the concept of self-help as a method in psychotherapy of the self in the 1920s. His concepts influenced Maxwell Maltz in his writing of the classic self-help book, Psycho-Cybernetics. Lecky stressed the defense mechanism of resistance as an individual's method of regulating his self-concept.

Lecky's self-consistency theory is that self-consistency is a primary motivating force in human behavior. Lecky's theory concerned the organization of ideas of the self and the self's overall need for a "master" motive that serves to maintain for the self a consistency in ideas. Self-consistency theory remains relevant to contemporary personality and clinical psychologists. He was well known as a psychologist and counseled John F. Kennedy when he was having trouble at Choate preparatory school.

His students gathered together his ideas and posthumously published them as Self Consistency: a theory of personality in 1945.

Well, Lecky was a maverick psychologist during an age dominated by Freud and his disciples and by the new upstart behaviorists.  Lecky gained little professional esteem or influence during his academic career.  After his untimely death, a few of his students -- keepers of the flame -- gathered their class notes and the small store of Lecky's articles and presentations and published a thin book in 1945.  This book was subsequently expanded in 1950 by Dr. Frederick C. Thorne into the book I am reading.

I like some of Lecky's insights.  I will here stretch "fair use" to the breaking point and give excerpts from the book.


From Chapter 7:

If it be true that learning is essentially a means of resolving conflicts, it follows that a conflict must always be present before the learning can occur.  This conclusion, indeed, seems inevitable from a theoretical standpoint, even the nature of the ambiguity in any particular instance of learning may be difficult to demonstrate.  Conflict then is a necessary accompaniment of personality development, and the progressive assimilation of disturbing stimuli the only practical means by which a stable organization can be attained.  But in that case a well-adjusted personality is not a matter of emotional habits so much as an emotional achievement, though after the learning has been accomplished, of course, there is no apparent difference.  If the habit theory were applied in a literal manner, however, and the child shielded from conflicts in order to exercise him more thoroughly in so-called habits of confidence and cheerfulness, we could confidently predict a profound maladjustment later as the outcome of his lack of preparation.  It seems to us that behaviorism must give up the habit theory and frankly recognize the organism as a problem-solver before it can consistently explain its own experiments....

Learning is not mechanical but adventurous.  If a certain type of situation has been assimilated, its presence tends to support the attitude of confidence, but if it has not been assimilated the normal attitude is threatened, and the process of assimilation itself brings about a temporary disturbance.  Thus the problem of development is that of maintaining and strengthening the normal attitude by gradually assimilating the situations which formerly had a disturbing effect.  To use a spacial metaphor, the field of normal behavior grows at the expense of the abnormal.

From Chapter 8:

The greatest handicap to constructive action in education is the well-entrenched dogma that learning is the direct result of teaching, a mechanical reaction to the school environment instead of a purposive achievement.  Learning cannot be understood as a process of forming separate habits, but only in terms of the development of the entire personality.  When one value has been accepted, it opposes the acceptance of other values which are not consistent with it.  Hence resistance must be accepted as a normal and necessary aspect of learning.  Indeed, a unified organization could not be maintained without it.  Early impressions are important not only in themselves, but because they set the conditions for rejection of other values, whatever their nature, which would tend to precipitate a conflict.

Nevertheless, since the experience of everyone is more or less haphazard from an educational standpoint, there are always present in the system a certain number of values accepted on insufficient evidence.  These values, whose retention depends entirely upon the success with which they can be rationalized and made to seem consistent, or at any rate not inconsistent, give rise to resistances which are likely to be detrimental to the individual.

The clinical technique which follows from the theoretical conception of the problem must therefore aim to bring about in the subject a reexamination of those values which block his development.  Academic difficulties and social maladjustments are both conceived of as due to resistances arising from the subjects conception of himself.  If a student shows resistance toward a certain type of material, this means that from his point of view it would be inconsistent for him to learn it.  If we are able to change the self-conception which underlies this viewpoint, however, his attitude toward the material will change accordingly.

[Lecky takes the case of an intelligent student who is deficient in spelling.]

This deficiency is not due to a lack of ability, but rather to an active resistance which prevents him from learning how to spell in spite of the extra instruction.  The resistance arises from the fact that at some time in the past the suggestion that he is a poor speller was accepted and incorporated into his definition of himself, and is now an integral part of his total personality.  A standard is a conception that a person maintains because he has accepted it as a part of his personality.  Standards need not be admirable, even from the standpoint of the person who maintains them, so long as he believes them to be valid.  As in the present instance, he may accept as his standard the conception of his own inferiority in some particular respect.  His difficulty is thus explained as a special instance of the general principle that a person can only be true to himself.  If he conceives himself as a poor speller, the misspelling of a certain proportion of the words which he uses becomes for him a moral issue.  He misspells words for the same reason that he refuses to be a thief.  That is, he must endeavor to behave in a manner consistent with his conception of himself....

So-called laziness, lack of concentration, etc., are due to the acceptance of definitions at cross purposes with one another.  Such individuals cannot act in consistency with one definition without being inconsistent with another.  For example, a student may define himself as intelligent, but poor in mathematics.  To maintain the first definition, he should make high grades in mathematics, but to maintain the second he should fail.  However, since he must act, as long as he is playing both roles at once he is forced to compromise.  His grades in mathematics will split the difference somewhere near the passing mark, and the teacher will characterize him as lazy.  For his own part, he will claim that he cannot concentrate, and the claim will be perfectly true.  This seems to be the explanation of the characteristic level of performance already noted in regard to spelling.  As long as the definitions remain unchanged, the characteristic rate or grade of activity  tends to remain constant.

The remedy is not to be found by means of tests which reveal the specific weakness, therefore, or in persistent drilling on the fundamentals, but only in changing the definition.  Energetic concentration simply means that a person is free from conflicts and able to bring his united efforts to focus on the task at hand.

What a person is able or unable to learn, in other words, depends, to a large extent at least, upon what he has already learned, and especially upon how he has learned to define himself.  Differences in native ability cannot be summarily dismissed, but at present this explanation is frequently dragged in simply to serve as an alibi, both for the school and for the individual.

LECKY'S DEFINITIONS (Freudian terms reinterpreted from the standpoint of self-consistency)

Resistance is determined by the nuclear structure (Ideas of Self), with specific patterns being related to the distribution of positive and negative ideas.  Experiences which are perceived as a threat to unification will be resisted since their assimilation would require reorganization of the nucleus.

Repression occurs when new ideas or feelings are interpreted as threatening to existing organization.  Dream distortion and symbolism, dissociation, humor [!] and error and many other psychopathological phenomena may be understood in therms of the dynamics of nuclear organization and the striving to maintain unity where inconsistent ideas reflect disorganizational phenomena.

Infantilism and Fixation reflect failure of normal reorganization responsive to normal maturation processes, i.e., the nucleus is largely composed of infantile or immature ideas of self.

Escape Mechanisms, as in alcoholism or drug addiction, reflect the attempt to maintain inconsistent unrealistic nuclear composition by refusing to face new ideas which would involve a threat to ideas of self and force a painful reorganization.

Conflict is a natural phenomenon, a process in which by the constant assimilation of new ideas and attitudes the individual's conception of himself evolves continuously as he learns to define himself in terms of ideas of self which have greater consistency both internally and in relation to reality.  Conflict only becomes pathological when disorganization phenomena become so acute as to destroy unity and cause dissolution of self.

Rationalization is a process in which an attempt is made to preserve unity of the organization of ideas by a method of self-justification whereby intellectualized reasons are given to account for an unconsciously motivated thought or act.  A plausible excuse makes it possible to maintain a semblance of self-consistency.

Thinking, Day-dreaming, and Dreaming to lesser extent, are dynamic mental processes involving reorganization and recombination of ideas regulated by the need for unity and self-consistency.

Identification occurs when ideas consisting of interpretations of enviable or admirable qualities in other persons or institutions are assimilated into nuclear structure and thereby result in enhancement of self.  Identification with undesirable qualities sometimes occurs in the presence of nuclear composition characterized by negative ideas of self.

Feelings of Inferiority have their origin in areas of behavior in which the person is unable to maintain one or more ideas of self.  Once a negative idea has been assimilated, the person will behave consistently  with his negative self-evaluation.   Restriction of behavior then occurs, and negative attitudes may progressively pervade nuclear composition and eventually result in a neurotic structure with more or less disorganization.

Ambivalent Behavior usually indicates that a given nuclear idea is undergoing transformation.  It reflects unstable nuclear composition.

Projection describes the process of striving to maintain unity and self-consistency by attributing to others the ideas and complexes which belong to oneself, in pathological degree it can result in unhealthy nuclear composition characterized by logically systematized delusions which are maintained in the interests of self-consistency.

Introversion characterizes a type of nuclear composition in which there is a tendency to interpret the environment subjectively and with the self as the center of reference.  In Extraversion, nuclear composition is much more responsive to external stimulation and much less concern with the subjective viewpoint.

Defense Mechanisms tend to maintain positive ideas of self by resorting to fictions.  Threats to unity are reacted to by withdrawal, escape mechanisms, symptom elaboration or compensatory mechanism.

Wish-fulfillment involves the vicarious satisfaction of the striving for unity through dreams and phantasies.  Frustrated desires reflect themselves in compensatory interpretations of experience.


In order to be effective any form of therapy, including psychoanalysis, must result either directly or indirectly in a genuine nuclear reorganization.  The first step in therapy is to identify ideas or attitudes which are inconsistent either internally in relation to other ideas, or externally in relation to reality.  The second step is reorganization consists of demonstrating the inconsistency of untenable ideas under conditions where the resulting conflict can be controlled within reasonable limits.  Third, now and more valid ideas are introduced which are more consistent with the striving for unity.  A genuine nuclear reorganization results in the rejection of immature or infantile interpretations which are replaced with more consistent and realistic organizations.

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