personality psychology  SULLIVAN’S INTERPERSONAL THEORY 3

Cognitive Process

Sullivan’s unique contribution regarding the place of cognition in the affairs of personality is his threefold classification of experience. Experience, he says, occurs in three modes; these are



Syntaxic. 1-Prototaxic experience “may be regarded as the discrete series of momentary states of the sensitive organism”. This type of experience is similar to the “stream of consciousness,” the raw sensations, images, and feelings that flow through the mind of a sensate being. They have no necessary connection” among themselves and possess no meaning for the experiencing person.


The prototaxic mode of experience is found in its purest form during the early months of life and is the necessary precondition for the appearance of the other two modes. 2-The Parataxic mode of thinking consists of seeing causal relationship between events that occur at about

the same time but which are not logically related. When ever a black cat comes my way I face disaster, we see causal connections between experiences that have nothing to do with one another.


All superstitions, for instance, are examples of parataxic thinking.

3-The third and highest mode of thinking is the syntaxic, which consists of consensually validated symbol activity, especially of a verbal nature. A consensually validated symbol is one which has been agreed upon by a group of people as having a standard meaning. Words and numbers are the best examples of such symbols. The syntaxic mode produces logical order among experiences and enables people to communicate with one another.

In addition to this Sullivan emphasizes the importance of foresight in cognitive functioning. “Man, the person, lives with his past, the present and the neighboring future all clearly relevant in explaining his thought and action” Foresight depends upon one’s memory of the past and interpretation of the present.

4-The Dynamics of Personality

Sullivan, in common with many other personality theorists, conceives of personality as an energy system whose chief work consists of activities that will reduce tension.


Sullivan begins with the familiar conception of the organism as a tension system that theoretically can vary between the limits of absolute relaxation, or euphoria as Sullivan prefers to call it, and absolute tension as exemplified by extreme terror. There are two main sources of tension:

4-The Dynamics of Personality

Sullivan, in common with many other personality theorists, conceives of personality as an energy system whose chief work consists of activities that will reduce tension.


Sullivan begins with the familiar conception of the organism as a tension system that theoretically can vary between the limits of absolute relaxation, or euphoria as Sullivan prefers to call it, and absolute tension as exemplified by extreme terror.

There are two main sources of tension:

(1)Tensions that arise from the needs of the organism, and

(2)Tensions that result from an anxiety.

Needs are connected with the physiochemical requirements of life; they are such conditions as lack of food or water or oxygen that produce a disequilibrium in the economy of the organism.

Needs may be general in character, such as hunger, or they may be more specifically related to a zone of the body, such as the infant’s need to suck.

Needs arrange themselves in a hierarchical order; those lower down on the ladder must be satisfied before those higher on the ladder can be accommodated. One result of need reduction is an experience of satisfaction. The typical consequence of prolonged failure to satisfy the needs is a feeling of apathy that produces a general lowering of the tensions.

b- Anxiety

Anxiety is the experience of tension that results from real or imaginary threats to one’s security. In large amounts, it reduces the efficiency of the individuals in satisfying their needs, disturbs interpersonal relations, and produces confusion in thinking. Anxiety varies in intensity depending upon the seriousness of the threat and the effectiveness of the security operations that the persons have at their command.

Severe anxiety is like a blow on the head; it conveys no information to the person but instead produces utter confusion and even amnesia. Less severe forms of anxiety can be informative. In fact, Sullivan believes that anxiety is the first great educative influence in living.

5-The Development of Personality

Sullivan spells out the sequence of interpersonal situations to which the person is exposed in passing from infancy to adulthood, and the ways in which these situations contribute to the formation of personality.

Stages of Development

Sullivan spells six stages in the development of personality. They are

(1) infancy,

(2) childhood,

(3) the juvenile era,

(4) preadolescence,

(5) early adolescence, and

(6) late adolescence.

1) Infancy The period of infancy extends from birth to the appearance of articulate speech. It is the period in which the

oral zone is the primary zone of interaction between the baby and its environment. Nursing provides the baby with its first interpersonal experience. The other characteristic features of the stage are

1-transition from a prototaxic to a parataxic mode of cognition,

2- the organization of personifications such as the bad, anxious, rejecting, frustrating mother and the good, relaxed, accepting, satisfying mother,

3-the differentiation of the baby’s own body so that the baby learns to satisfy its tensions

independently of the mothering one, for example, by thumb sucking, and

4- the learning of coordinated movements involving hand and eye, hand and mouth, and ear and voice.

2) Childhood

The transition from infancy to childhood is made possible by the learning of language and the organization of experience in the syntaxic mode. Childhood extends from the emergence of articulate speech to the appearance of the need for playmates.

The development of language permits, among other things, the fusion of different personifications, for instance, the good and bad mother, and the integration of the self-system into a more coherent structure.

3- Juvenile Era

• It extends throughout the most of the school years.

• One acquires social subordination to authority figures outside of family .

• one becomes competitive and cooperative.

4- Preadolescence

The self-system begins to develop the conception of gender: the little boy identifies with the masculine role as prescribed by society, the little girl with the feminine role. The growth of symbolic ability enables the child to play at being a grownup- Sullivan calls these as-if performances dramatizations-and to become concerned with various activities both overt and covert that serve the purpose of warding off punishment and anxiety- Sullivan calls these preoccupations.

5- Early Adolescence

The main problem of the period of early adolescence is the development of a pattern of heterosexual activity. The physiological changes of puberty are experienced by the youth as feelings of lust; out of these feelings the lust dynamism emerges and begins to assert itself in the personality. The lust dynamism involves primarily the genital zone, but other zones of interaction such as the mouth and the hands also participate in sexual behavior. There is a separation of erotic need from the need for intimacy; the erotic need takes as its object a member of the opposite sex while the need for intimacy remains fixated upon a member of the same sex. If these two needs do not become divorced, the young person displays a homosexual rather than a heterosexual orientation. Sullivan points out that many of the conflicts of adolescence arise out of the opposing needs for sexual gratification, security, and intimacy.

6-Late adolescence

The period of late adolescence constitutes a rather prolonged initiation into the privileges, duties, satisfactions, and responsibilities of social living and citizenship. The full complement of interpersonal relations gradually takes form and there is a growth of experience in the syntaxic mode that permits a widening of the symbolic horizons. The self-system becomes stabilized, more effective sublimations of tensions are learned, and stronger security measures against anxiety are instituted.

When the individual has ascended all of these steps and reached the final stage of adulthood, he or she has been transformed largely by means of their interpersonal relations from an animal organism into a human person. One is not an animal, coated by civilization and humanity, but an animal that has been so drastically altered that one is no longer an animal but a human being—or, if one prefers, a human animal.

6-Characteristic Research and Research Methods

As a young psychiatrist, Sullivan discovered that the method of free association did not work satisfactorily with schizophrenics because it aroused too much anxiety. Other methods were tried but these also proved to provoke anxiety that interfered with the communication process between patient and therapist. Sullivan became interested in studying the forces that impede and facilitate communication between two people. In so doing, he found that the psychiatrist was much more than an observer; he or she was also a vital participant in an interpersonal situation. The psychiatrist had his or her own apprehensions, such a professional competence and personal problems, to deal with. As a result of this discovery Sullivan developed his conception of the therapist as a participant observer.

a-The Interview

The psychiatric interview is Sullivan’s term for the type of interpersonal, face to face situation that takes place between the patient and the therapist. There may be only one interview or there may be a sequence of interviews with a patient extending over a long period of time. Sullivan defines the interview as “a system, or series of systems, of interpersonal processes, arising from participant observation in which the interviewer derives certain conclusions about the interviewee”. How the interview is conducted and the ways in which the interviewer reaches conclusions regarding the patient form the subject matter of Sullivan’s book, the psychiatric interview (1954).

Sullivan divides the interview into four stages:

(1) the formal inception,

(2) reconnaissance,

(3) detailed inquiry, and

(4) the termination.

The interview is primarily a vocal communication between two people. Not only what the person says but how he or she says it, rate of speech, and other expressive behavior- are the chief sources of information for the interviewer. The interviewer should be alert to subtle changes in the patient’s vocalizations (e.g., changes in volume) because these clues often reveal vital evidence regarding the patient’s focal problems and attitudinal changes towards the therapist. In the inception, the interviewer should avoid asking too many questions but should maintain an attitude of quiet observation. The interviewer should try to determine the reasons for the patient’s coming and something about the nature of the patient’s problems.

b-Research on Schizophrenia

In his association with the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Maryland, during the years 1924 to 1931, reveal Sullivan’s great talents for making contact with and understanding the mind of the psychotic. Empathy was a highly developed trait in Sullivan’s personality, and he used it to excellent advantage in studying and treating the victims of schizophrenia.

VN:F [1.9.14_1148]
Rating: 9.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.14_1148]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
SULLIVAN’S INTERPERSONAL THEORY 3, 9.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating