Allen Bergin: Encounters with B.F. Skinner, Carl Rogers, and Albert Ellis

The other day, Allen Bergin, a very influential LDS psychologist guest lectured in the History of Psychology graduate course I am taking at BYU. Bergin, probably more than any other individual, can be credited for opening up psychology to spiritual and religious phenomena, especially in psychotherapy.

There are a few very interesting “nuggets” of information, especially concerning Bergin’s encounters with some very famous psychologists, that I would like to report.

First, let me tell you a little bit about Bergin’s background, based on some things he said in the class. You can read more in this Ensign article. Bergin began his studies at MIT (in mathematics or engineering, I think), but he grew to be dissatisfied with the lack of humanities in his technical education. So he transferred to Reed College in Oregon where he enjoyed a liberal arts education, majoring in physics. While at Reed, Allen met and started dating Marian Shafer, a lifelong Mormon from Ogden, Utah. As a result, Bergin began to investigate the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a long process that resulted in his joining the Church (after he began being a student at BYU, where he and Marian both transferred) and marrying Marian. Robert K. Thomas, a BYU professor and Reed College alumnus, played a key role in Bergin’s conversion.

At BYU, Bergin switched his study emphasis to psychology, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. He then was privileged to enter a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at Stanford University, in which he worked with Albert Bandura, among others. Bandura, famous for his social-cognitive theory, was a leader of the cognitive-behaviorist movement in psychology. After Stanford, Bergin completed post-doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin with Carl Rogers, one of the most famous psychologists of all time. Rogers, along with Abraham Maslow, is seen as the founder of humanistic psychology.

Bergin was hired as a professor at Columbia University, where he co-authored (with Sol Garfield) the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, a landmark text that is widely cited by clinicians and researchers today. In 1972, Bergin came to BYU where he retired sometime in the 90s (not sure the exact year). In 1980, Bergin wrote an extremely influential article in which he advocated for the inclusion of spirituality and religion in psychotherapy. Since then, there has been such a tremendous turn, due in large part to Bergin, towards the spiritual in therapy that it is difficult for the upcoming generation to imagine that it was once seen as completely off-limits. In his later years, Bergin co-authored and co-edited with BYU’s P. Scott Richards several books regarding spirituality and psychotherapy, all of which are seen as significant works in the area. (You can’t talk about spirituality in psychotherapy without citing Richards and Bergin.)

OK, let me tell you about some interesting experiences Bergin had — all of which he spoke about with remarkable tenderness and fondness for the famous psychologists involved.


Bergin had an interesting encounter with B.F. Skinner, an enormously famous and controversial psychologist who is the founder of modern behaviorism. When Bergin was at Columbia, Skinner gave a guest lecture there and then had lunch with several faculty members. Skinner, an outspoken atheist, casually talked about the cover newspaper story that day, which showed a picture of a Star of David carving, purported to be a thousand years old (or something like that) on a tree in South America. He then something like, “It would probably upset a whole lot of people if Joseph Smith ended up being right.”

Bergin commented that he was surprised that Skinner even knew of this connection, but in talking with him about it, he learned that Skinner grew up in the Harmony, Pennsylvania area and so he was well acquainted with the tradition. (I wonder also if Skinner had some familiarity because of S.S. Stevens, a Mormon from rural Utah who was a classmate of Skinner’s at Harvard; both worked under E.G. Boring. Stevens became a very influential psychologist in his own right, playing a major role for removing the subjective from psychology through operational definitions — a very poor move, in my opinion. Interestingly, nearly everyone who knew Stevens well saw him as an arrogant egoist with awful people skills; he left the Church in his early years at Harvard. Also, Harold Miller, a current professor of psychology at BYU, knew Skinner when he was a student at Harvard, though I imagine this might have been after Bergin’s encounter. But I digress.) Bergin also mentioned that Skinner spoke with great fondness of his daughter Deborah, then an adult, for whom he had been (wrongly) vilified as a monster for using his “Skinner box” to reinforce her behavior when she was an infant.


When Bergin was working with Rogers, he would occasionally bring up the subject of religion in psychology, which Rogers, if I remember correctly, was somewhat sympathetic to but was not very interested in pursuing. This climate discouraged Bergin from pursuing much by way of his interests in religious and spiritual issues while at Michigan.

Years later, around 1980, when Bergin was at BYU, he gave a presentation where he presented the ideas that would soon be published in his landmark article on spiritual and religious psychotherapy interventions. Carl Rogers was part of the same panel of presenters, and afterwards gave Bergin a giant bear hug, telling him he is happy that he is finally speaking from his gut. Rogers’ reaction to Bergin is characteristic of his humanistic theory, for which Rogers argued that individuals should have unconditional positive regard to others. A climate of unconditional positive regard allows for congruency between one’s real self and one’s ideal self. Bergin jokingly commented in class that, ironically, Rogers was an important contributor to his previous incongruency! Bergin also talked about how Rogers became more interested in spirituality in his later years.


Albert Ellis, who recently passed away, is famous for his rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). He was an outspoken atheist and promoter of sexual liberation (famous for his controversial prescriptions of promiscuity without guilt.) After Bergin’s famous 1980 article was published, Ellis published a rebuttal in which he argued for a refined view of his own atheist stance and asserted that he is not totally opposed to religion, simply dogmatism. Ellis argued that religion, on the whole, is unhealthy and people would be better off to stop believing in such superstitions, especially the belief of any kind of certainty about God. Bergin agreed with several of Ellis’ points in the rebuttal, but argued that many secular atheist-agnostic humanistic views that are common in psychology were just as guilty as dogmatic certainty, if not more so in some cases. This exchange between Bergin and Ellis is one of the most famous exchanges in psychology in the past 30 years.

Sometime after this time, Bergin and Ellis were both part of the same panel of presenters at a psychology meeting. Bergin presented empirical research that showed, using a large sample of BYU students compared with other (non-religious) students, that religion can have positive effects on mental health. Ellis quipped with something like, “I know about those BYU students — they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear.” Bergin responded that the lie scale detected by the MMPI (one of the surveys used in the study) was not significantly different among the groups. Ellis responded that he didn’t believe in the MMPI… (neither do I, judging from my experience administering it at the Utah State Prison).

Interestingly, Bergin noted, Ellis’ animosity towards religion toned down considerably in his later years. Ellis acknowledged (citing his Wikipedia article) “that belief in a loving God can be psychologically healthy.” He even co-authored a book about how REBT can be used from a religious perspective: Counseling and Psychotherapy With Religious Persons: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Approach. The book’s first author, Steven Lars Nielsen, is a Latter-day Saint psychologist at BYU. Bergin credited Nielsen’s relationship with Ellis as an important factor in Ellis’ greater openness to religion.

Well, I hope you found this to be an interesting exploration of some very famous names in psychology.

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14 Responses

  1. Just a few sticky points:

    1) I would like to see documentation for any ancient Star of David in South America. In any case, Skinner did know about Mormons. He was raised in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Skinner says, “My formal religious training… covered many years” (Particulars of My Life, p. 60).

    2) Stanley Smith Stevens was very well respected and liked. Sure, he pushed his Power Law excessively, but that is what Harvard professors are supposed to do.

    3) Hal Miller studied under Richard Herrnstein at Harvard, not Skinner.

  2. S. Faux:

    1. Well, I only have the story from Bergin… I was surprised to hear the story myself, but it’s hard for me to think that either Skinner or Bergin made it up.

    2. Respected, maybe. But he doesn’t appear to have been well liked by his Harvard colleagues. I’ve researched a fair amount about Stevens lately. Of particular notice is Ian Nicholson’s “From the Book of Mormon to the Operational Definition: The Existential Project of S.S. Stevens.” In this article, Nicholson gives ample evidence that Stevens was not well liked at all — he definitely stood out as the arrogant bully of the department. You couldn’t even have a casual relationship with him without him trying to one-up you. As a result, he had virtually no friends and his family relationships suffered. Many chose simply to avoid him. Even Boring, who had been his mentor, and who was pretty arrogant himself, had to keep Stevens reined in. Nicholson cites a number of passages of letters from Boring to Stevens that are VERY disapproving of Stevens’ behavior. And Boring was without a doubt the person most sympathetic to Stevens. In addition, Stevens was a questionable husband and father. His wife suffered from severe postpartum depression and ended up leaving him and their child to go back to Utah with her parents. But some of Stevens’ colleagues suspected it had to do with Stevens’ behavior and his obsession with psychology. He then cared more about his career than taking care of his son, so he basically gave his son away to a nice Mormon couple.

    Also, Stevens did much more than simply push his Power Law. He pushed out everything from his mind that wasn’t properly objective, including the social psychologists and clinicians at Harvard. He ended up getting them kicked out of the Psychology Dept. (for a time), and he couldn’t be happier.

    3. I guess I assumed Miller studied under Skinner because of how he talks a lot about his experiences with Skinner and because he is, in my estimation, about as close to a Skinnerian as most behaviorists are now days. At any rate, if I am not mistaken, Miller knew and worked with Skinner at Harvard, and was influenced by him. I’ve modified the post slightly to say that Miller simply knew Skinner.

  3. Here is an article with a little more information on what I believe was the source of the article that Skinner read. (A claim that was rebutted by a BYU professor!)

    I attended the same lecture as Dennis. He did an excellent job of summarizing the lecture. One other interesting tibit. Bergin has come “full circle” and has recently been studying physics. He’s digested 7 books recently, the latest being Warped Passages. Interesting stuff.

  4. Brent,

    Thanks for that link. That must be the same story that Skinner read. The year, 1971, sounds about right.

    S. Faux (or anyone else who is interested):

    The full text for the Ian Nicholson article, “From the Book of Mormon to the Operational Definition: The Existential Project of S.S. Stevens,” is available online. Click here. Very fascinating reading — I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of psychology, and would doubly recommend it to Latter-day Saints who are.

  5. Dennis, I have studied Stevens’ professional life, not his personal life. He was extremely well liked and respected within his field. Let me give you a taste (since sensory metaphors are particularly appropriate):

    The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America — October 1973 — Volume 54, p. 857 —
    “On January 18, 1973, S. Smith Stevens, Professor of Psychophysics at Harvard University, died at the age of 66. A last-minute change was made in the program of the 85th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America to include a session in Stevens’s honor.”

    Note the title: Professor of Psychophysics — Harvard made it official — to the best of my knowledge, the first such title.

  6. S. Faux,

    You really need to read Nicholson’s article — I just made it available in my above comment.

    According to Nicholson, the professor of psychophysics title was made because Stevens had demanded it (before he died, of course). You really should check out the article….

  7. Dennis:

    I just finished reading the Nicholson article, and I wish I could give you a review, but I need to go to bed. Let’s put it this way: there are two sides to every story. I really do not like the tone of the article in a number of places. Pavlov wanted his students working during the Russian revolution. Stevens’ standards for tardiness seem mild by comparison. Believe me, there is a Harvard culture that nurtures such behavior. Anyway, a good perspective would come from Hal Miller who was one of Stevens last Home Teachers!! He is a must interview on the topic.

  8. Regarding Stevens’ title, I was merely making the point that there have been very few Professors of Psychophysics — even today. Stevens was probably the first to get such a title.

    Your use of the word “demand” is too loaded. Professors routinely can get a change of title by making a request to their Chair and Dean, such as changing Professor of Psychology to “Psychology & Neuroscience.” It happens all the time and is NOT that big of a deal.

  9. S. Faux,

    That’s interesting about Miller being Stevens’ home teacher. I’ll have to ask him about that some time.

    I agree that there are definitely two sides to every story — I would be interested in anything that directly challenges Nicholson’s account. I do not know of any. Also, considering that Nicholson was the one who did the entry on Stevens in the Encyclopedia of Psychology, he probably knows his stuff as much as anybody, at least as far as the historical evidence goes.

    If we’re going to talk about meaningful comparisons regarding Stevens, we should compare him with his fellow Harvard associates, especially those in his same program. That way, his behavior can’t be chalked off by saying, “Well, it IS Harvard” or “Not as bad as Pavlov.” I think that Nicholson makes a good case — presenting ample evidence — that Stevens was an outlier even for Harvard. I’m not terribly concerned with his standards of tardiness (a lot of professors are arrogant in this way) — it’s the way he allegedly treated his colleagues (that even Boring called him on the carpet for) that concerns me.

    You’re right that “demand” is too strong of a word. I’ll settle for “request” — Stevens’ new title came at his request and had more to do with his being disenchanted with the current state of psychology than anything else. I certainly wasn’t making a big deal out of it — you are the one who brought it up as evidence of respect and likability for Stevens. I rebutted that it might be little more than evidence of Stevens’ own arrogance — and not simply THAT he requested a new title, but why he did. Nicholson calls it “an act of petty defiance,” and such acts of petty defiance appear to have been noticeably common by those who knew him well. But I’d be happy to read something or hear from someone (like Dr. Miller) which challenges Nicholson’s assessment.

  10. Dennis:

    The “Professor” title is NOT a testament of likeability. To me, it is just a historical first — a footnote, I suppose. It is not much else.

    We are talking at cross-purposes. You are concerned with his personal life, something I care nothing about (such as Skinner’s). Nor do I care about Harvard politics, which, as described, seem pretty typical to me, believe it or not. I am merely making the point that in his field of psychophysics, acoustics, etc., he was well liked and respected. I never met Stevens, but I know professionals in the field who knew him — having lived in the academic circles of Boston for five years.

    Also, let me be sure you understand. I am NOT saying Miller would challenge Nicholson’s article (how would I know?). I am just saying he knows Stevens probably better than anyone else at BYU.

    Fun discussion. I think I am challenging you, because too many times in the past (not necessarily now) I have heard “philosophical” types at BYU conclude that someone’s science (or music or novel or art) was flawed because the scholar was flawed. We are all flawed, and so it is not much of a distinction. Stevens’ scientific contributions were immense, and he probably will be discussed for centuries to come as a sensory scientist. You may be right that his personal life was forgettable. So was Skinner’s, if you want an example of a fellow-associate.

    It is easy to dish dirt upon the dead, and Nicholson’s article certainly did not convince me that I would understand Stevens’ science better if I knew the dirt. The Power Law works — better than Weber’s and better than Fechner’s — that is all I really care about.

  11. While there is much to be said for merely looking at an individuals professional life without worrying about his or her personal vices and virtues, it is still interesting to hear about, and, I think, very in keeping with the main topic of this thread (some personal ancedotes of psychology’s greats).

    In that sense, tidbits like who Stevens’ home teacher was are quite interesting, thanks Faux!

    Speaking only from my personal experience, I’ve actually never heard anything negative about Stevens until this week. He’s been lauded in my BYU stats classes at least…

  12. S. Faux:

    Regarding Dr. Miller, I understood you fine.

    Fair enough about the personal vs. professional distinction. As someone who is interested in the historical construction of ideas, I think that the personal is important (so did Percy Bridgman, who paved the way for Stevens’ operational definitions). That doesn’t mean that finding flaws or casting dirt upon the dead is a way to say that their ideas were flaws. But I do think that understanding the personal motivations and personality of scientists helps us to understand their work.

    If I were to criticize Stevens’ work in an impersonal way, though, I’d simply say that his notion of the operational definition (for which he was as responsible as anyone in psychology, though for some reason not well known regarding this) was flawed, and that psychology has hung onto it (including Stevens throughout his life) in spite of virtually every major philosopher of science, including those who formally advocated for it, arguing against its validity.

    Nicholson’s article certainly did not convince me that I would understand Stevens’ science better if I knew the dirt. The Power Law works — better than Weber’s and better than Fechner’s — that is all I really care about.

    Spoken like a true Stevensian.

  13. Heehee, and wouldn’t you know it — I like operational definitions! Without them we are stuck with reified concepts guaranteed to lead to miscommunication. Ahh, and while I am confessing, I am a behaviorist and an evolutionist to boot!! Now I wonder what in my past led this poor LDS kid to adopt all that nonsense? Oh, yeah, because it all works — which is why I remain a Mormon, come to think of it.

    Hey, good luck in your historical studies.

  14. This is a link to the above mentioned NYTimes article regarding the Star of David symbol, referred to by Skinner and discussed with Bergin. Their meeting occurred on Thursday, March 25, 1971. The article appeared in the Times on Tuesday March 23, 1971. It refers to the same professor, Dr. Alexander Wuthenau, who spoke on the subject at Brandeis University.

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