Eclecticism – Integrating the feeling, thinking and behaving dimensions of the individual

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

When opposites supplement each other, everything is harmonious.” - Lao Tsu, 6th century Chinese philopsher
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The nature of human thoughts, emotions and behavior has been a point of inquiry for centuries. Since the ancient oracle at Delphi was interpreted to deliver the inspired message, “Know thyself,” philosophers, scientists and common people have endeavored to untangle the mystery of human consciousness. From this extensive examination, theorists have developed numerous and diverse philosophies to account for the complex nature of human beings, each encompassing a unique paradigm for an explanation of the human condition and a corresponding approach for effective intervention and advocacy. The modern social sciences abound with diverse theories which still attempt to answer these ancient questions.

Cognitive theory maintains the basic tenet that an individual’s cognitive processes are the determining factors affecting emotion and behavior. It focuses exclusively on the conscious mental activities which allow individuals to know their environment and their self - i.e. how they perceive, evaluate, learn, think, make decisions and solve problems. The cognitive orientation asserts that emotional and behavioral responses to a situation are based on the individual’s perception, interpretation and assignment of meaning to that event (Schultz, 1990; Gregory, 1987).

According to the cognitive perspective, the behavioral and emotional patterns that constitute a personality are derived from individual rules about life and beliefs about the self. Specifically, an individual’s personality is forged from schemas or constructs, which exist as cognitive structures that develop early in life from personal experiences and identification with significant others. From these schemas, the individual forms concepts about themselves, others and how the world operates. These concepts become reinforced by further learning experiences and reciprocally influence the subsequent formation of other beliefs, values and attitudes (Corsini & Wedding, 1989).

The specific schemas may be functional and adaptive or dysfunctional and maladaptive. Thus, each individual constructs a set of idiosyncratic vulnerabilities and sensitivities that together formulate predispositions to psychological distress under certain circumstances or stressors. Similarly, an individual develops a unique conglomeration of strengths and assets which promote growth and functional adjustment. Human relations interventions based on this perspective, then, consist of problem solving and generation of alternative interpretations in support of more adaptive basic beliefs which consequently lead to behavior change in relation to dysfunctional patterns and reinforcement of functional constructs. Typically, cognitive oriented practices are empirical, present-centered and problem oriented, requiring explicit identification of the problem, the context in which it occurs and the consequences which result in order to recognize and adjust the underlying cognitive mistakes or deficits and strengthen the healthy fundamental schemas (Gladding, 1988).

Behaviorism is oriented around the scientific method, emphasizing observable behavior and the corresponding environmental conditions that regulate that behavior while disregarding or downplaying the more internal and unobservable aspects of human experience. This approach focuses solely on the overt responses made by subjects to external stimuli and is thus grounded in experimental research detailing precise quantification of both these stimulus and response variables. Behaviorism is only concerned with observable, measurable and operationally defined behavior while concepts common to other theories, such as the self and the unconscious, are considered irrelevant and unnecessary for the understanding of human functioning. In essence, the mind is reduced to a learning brain affected by stimuli in the internal and external environment (Kaplan & Sadock, 1991; Schultz, 1990).

The Behaviorist perspective adopts a learning model of human behavior which de-emphasizes the intrapsychic aspects of an individual and employs such concepts as classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning focuses on behavior as a series of learned stimulus-response bonds. Operant conditioning considers behavior as a function of its environmental consequences, constituted by either reinforcement or punishment, which serve to strengthen or weaken the likelihood of repeated responses, respectively. Interventions by a human relations practitioner focus on corrective learning experiences which provide the client with concrete new coping skills and competencies in the form of behaviors and which conversely extinguish maladaptive habits (Phares, 1991).

The Existential perspective emphasizes freedom of choice, taking responsibility for one’s own life and the achievement of one’s full potential. Existentialist orientation maintains a dynamic model of personality structure which proposes that human behavior and emotions are the result of intrapsychic conflict that occurs at various levels of awareness. These conflicts, according to existential theorists encompass the ultimate concerns individuals face as a natural manifestation of the human condition, including death, freedom, isolation, authenticity, alienation and meaninglessness. An individual’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors are a result of confronting these basic issues (Phares, 1991; Corsini & Wedding, 1989).

The philosophical foundation of the Existential perspective is apparent from a basic definition of the individual - “a singular, unique and irreparable being who strives to transcend the limits of the world and achieve full potential in a free and choosing fashion” (Pervin, 1960, p.305). Following this, human relations practitioners operating from the Existential perspective view a client’s problems as the individual’s failure to make meaningful choices and maximize personal potential. Thus, interventions focus on exploration of the inner person and the individual’s search for meaning and values in order to facilitate adaptive, life-enhancing choices.
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Eclecticism is the practice of drawing out and integrating the essential features from multiple theories and techniques and diverse sources into a comprehensive and inclusive theory for formulating interventions and devising treatment plans for client problems. In theoretical eclecticism the practitioner draws from diverse systems which may be epistemologically incompatible. In technical eclecticism the practitioner utilizes procedures drawn form different sources without necessarily subscribing to the theories or disciplines from which they arose (Phares, 1992; Corsini & Wedding, 1989; Gregory, 1987). When conducted properly, the eclectic integration of multiple orientations is a powerful means of addressing the often diverse needs of a client in a comprehensive and unified manner.

Cavanagh (1982) posits that a healthy eclectic approach requires that the practitioner have “(1) a sound knowledge and understanding of the theories used; (2) a basic integrative philosophy of human behavior that brings together disparate parts of differing theories into a meaningful collage; and (3) a flexible means of fitting the approach to the client” (p.146). Similarly, Harman (1977) asserts that the critical variables involved in operating from an eclectic approach include a mastery of theory and an intuitive sensitivity regarding judgment for when, how and with whom to utilize a specific orientation or strategy. In order to be effective, eclectic approaches must reflect systematic assimilation of appropriate intervention techniques, strategies and philosophies.

Ohlsen (1983) reiterates the necessity for understanding both the content and the context for the independent theories which one integrates to develop an eclectic approach, pointing out that they were developed on the basis of extensive experience and observation. He further insists, however, that one theory alone will not necessarily be adequate for different clients or for the same client over an extended period of time. Thus, integrated approaches must be assimilated carefully and reassessed periodically for their effectiveness.

In the process of eclectic integration, it is necessary that the different facets be fully identified rather than blurred. Disadvantages can arise from the attempted integration of various constructs into an eclectic approach if the practitioner is not thoroughly familiar with the theories involved and the ramifications of the techniques used. When employed in an unsystematic and haphazard manner a practitioner who lacks the necessary understanding regarding what will actually contribute to the ultimate goal of helping the client may inadvertently inflict harm or lead a client into a undesirable position. The medley of techniques and tools available to an eclectic practitioner cannot be viewed as a bag of tricks from which one pulls an amusing distraction, but rather must be considered a repertoire of powerful methods and strategies from which one can extract an appropriate experience which will facilitate the development or strengthening of relevant coping mechanisms.

One of the first modern efforts to formulate a systematic eclecticism was undertaken by Frederick Thorne (1909-1978) who spent his entire career developing, reformulating and expostulating an eclectic approach of psychology and counseling. He referred to the practitioner’s role as case handling and posited that it encompassed “all the operations conducted by competent and trained personnel in helping clients to get along better in life” (Thorne, 1968, p.23). Similarly, he proposed a broad, holistic view of health which, “depends upon the degree to which any person succeeds in actualizing his potentials in learning to cope with all the standard situations of life, living actively and creatively, and acting out many roles well” (Thorne, 1965, p. 155). These philosophies reflect the broad and comprehensive roles and processes of the modern human relations practitioner.

The Multimodal approach is a systematic and comprehensive eclectic psychotherapeutic strategy developed by clinical psychologist Arnold Lazarus which offers a strong example of an effective and pragmatic eclectic program. Specifically, the Multimodal method derives from the interactive effects of the cognitive and behavioral orientations while having at its philosophical base a humanistic existential orientation which transcends the use of particular strategies and techniques (Corsini & Wedding, 1989; Gregory, 1987). Lazarus’s approach embodies the philosophy behind effective use of an eclectic orientation, stating, “the emphasis in any rehabilitative program must be on a synthesis which would embrace a diverse range of effective therapeutic techniques, as well as innumerable adjunctive measures, to form apart of a wide and all-embracing re-educative program” (Lazarus, 1981, p.36). The multimodal position emphasizes that individuals have diverse needs and expectancies, come from very different backgrounds and require abroad range of stylistic, tactical and strategic interventions form the practitioner. In this way, this approach emphasizes flexibility and versatility layered over a strong base of theoretical knowledge.

As humanity sits poised on the brink of an uncertain future, modern philosophers, scientist and common people still contemplate the mysteries of human consciousness. Theorists and practitioners alike attempt to fine tune philosophies and interventions in order to reach a better understanding of human thought, emotion and behavior. In terms of practical application, an eclectic approach which integrates various perspectives (including, but not limited to the aforementioned cognitive, behavioral and existential orientations) can often serve the diverse and complex needs of a client better than any singularly focused approach. When used effectively, the eclectic approach selects the best and most appropriate features from a variety of sources and orientations and attempts to reconcile the differences among those orientations in order to deliver the most effective helping intervention in a complex and changing world.


Cavanagh, M. E. (1982). The counseling experience. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Corsini, R. J. & Wedding, D. (1989). Current psychotherapies, 4e. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Gladding, S. T. (1988). Counseling: A comprehensive profession. Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Company.

Gregory, R. L. (Ed). (1987). The Oxford companion to the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harman, R. L. (1977). Beyond techniques. Counselor Education and Supervision, 17, 157 - 158.

Kaplan, H. I. & Sadock, B. J. (1991). Synopsis of psychiatry: Behavioral sciences & clinical psychiatry, 6e. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

Lazarus, A. A. (1981). The practice of multi-modal therapy. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ohlsen, M. M. (1983). Introduction to counseling. Itasca, IL: Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Pervin, L. A. (1960). Existentialism, psychology and psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 25, pp. 305 - 309.

Phares, E. J. (1991). Introduction to personality, 3e. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Phares, E. J. (1992). Clinical psychology: Concepts, methods and profession, 4e. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Schultz, D. (1990). Theories of personality, 4e. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Thorne, F. C. (1965). Tutorial counseling: How to be psychologically healthy. Brandon, VT: Journal of Clinical Psychology Press.

Thorne, F. C. (1968). Psychological case handling: An eclectic system of counseling and psychotherapy.Brandon, VT: Journal of Clinical Psychology Press.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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