Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Rationality as a Goal of Psychotherapy

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Rationality as a Goal of Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

Rationality is commonly conceptualized as the absence of inappropriate emotions or irrational beliefs. It may be more usefully defined as the self-reflective, intentional, and appropriate coordination and use of genuine reasons in generating and justifying beliefs and behavior. Available evidence indicates that both deductive and inductive reasoning develop through a sequence of stages in which each stage is an explicit reflection on and reconstruction of processes implicit in the previous stage. There thus appears to be a natural developmental trend toward increasing rationality. Therapists can facilitate this developmental process by focusing on clients' reasoning and encouraging self-reflection. Facilitation of rationality through interventions of this sort addresses the source of inappropriate beliefs and emotions and thus not only relieves current problems but improves clients' abilities to deal with future problems. As an approach to psychotherapy, promotion of rationality thus has the ethical merit of fostering intellectual autonomy.

We propose in this article that the development of rationality should be a major goal of psychotherapy. After defining rationality in terms of reflection on reasons, we propose a theoretical account, based on current evidence, of how rationality naturally develops. We then relate our account to some general issues in cognitive psychology and cognitive psychotherapy and provide some specific suggestions as to how a therapist can facilitate the development of rationality.


One of the central themes of Star Trek is the continuing tension between Mr. Spock, the unemotional Vulcan, and Dr. McCoy, the emotional earthling, whom Spock regards as quite irrational. Central to the relationship of Spock and McCoy is the commonplace equation of emotionality and irrationality.

Although inappropriate emotions are indeed a major issue in psychotherapy, few therapists would accept this simplistic formulation. Intense emotions, of course, can interfere with good reasoning and thus be associated with irrationality. It is equally possible, however, that absence of emotion may result in inadequate motivation to apply one's best reasoning to a problem. Thus emotions may either help or hinder rationality. Emotionality is not inherently irrational, nor does lack of emotion in itself constitute rationality.

Among psychotherapists who have directly addressed the issue of rationality, most focus not on emotion but on irrational ideas (e.g., Beck, 1976; Cash, 1984; Deffenbacher, Zwemer, Whisman, Hill, & Sloan, 1986; Ellis, 1977, 1987; McLennan, 1987). It is argued that clients' psychological problems result from irrational beliefs and that the therapist should help the client identify those beliefs, recognize their pernicious influence, and either give them up or replace them. In recent years, there has been important work identifying irrational reasoning processes that may be the source of irrational ideas (Beck, 1976; Cook & Peterson, 1986).

The psychotherapeutic focus on irrational beliefs is an important advance over popular ideas of irrationality as emotionality. The more recent focus on inadequate reasoning as a more general aspect of cognition that may underlie specific irrational beliefs represents a valuable further insight. The various professional and popular conceptions still share an important limitation, however, in their focus on irrationality rather than on rationality: rationality is construed as the absence of irrational ideas or modes of reasoning. As a result of this somewhat negative approach, intervention is often limited to the identification and removal of specific beliefs or processes. The facilitation of rationality is considered only in an indirect sense: Rationality is promoted by eliminating irrationality.

We believe a more positive characterization of rationality would be helpful for both theory and practice. …

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