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Responsibility assumption is a doctrine in the personal growth field holding that each individual has substantial or total responsibility for the events and circumstances that befall them in their life. While there is little that is notable about the notion that each person has at least some role in shaping their experience, the doctrine of responsibility assumption posits that the individual's mental contribution to his or her own experience is substantially greater than is normally thought. "I must have wanted this" is the type of catchphrase used by adherents of this doctrine when encountering situations, pleasant or unpleasant, to remind them that their own desires and choices led to the present outcome.

The term responsibility assumption thus has a specialized meaning beyond the general concept of taking responsibility for something, and is not to be confused with the general notion of making an assumption that a concept such as "responsibility" exists.

Variations in degree of personal responsibility postulated

The main variable within various interpretations of the responsibility assumption doctrine is the degree to which the individual is considered the cause of his or her own experience, ranging from partial but substantial, to total.

Partial but substantial responsibility

In its forms positing less than total responsibility, the doctrine appears in nearly all motivational programs, some psychotherapy, and large group awareness training programs. In programs as non-controversial as books on the power of positive thinking, it functions as a mechanism to point out that each individual does affect the perceived world by the decisions they make each day and by the choices they made in the past. These less absolute forms may be expressed within the rubric that we cannot control the situations that befall us, but we can at least control our attitudes toward them.

Total responsibility

In its more absolute form, the doctrine becomes both more pronounced and more controversial. Perhaps the most prominent dividing line of controversy is the threshold of reversed mental causation, where sufficient responsibility is assigned to the individual that their thoughts or mental attitudes are considered the actual cause of external situations or physical occurrences rather than vice-versa, along the lines of the catchphrase, "mind over matter." In this realm the doctrine can present controversial propositions such as, "you chose to have cancer and can just as easily become well if you choose," or the even more shocking and unpalatable proposition, "this genocide took place because the victims wanted to die." Despite the extremity of these positions, there are indeed groups and schools of thought subscribing to the doctrine of responsibility assumption that would support these propositions and more.[1]

Religious and philosophical roots and usage

The est seminars popularized the doctrine "responsibility assumption" in the 1970s although they did not explicitly use the term.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The doctrine both predates est and is found in a far wider variety of settings. The doctrine has spiritual roots in the monism of Eastern religious traditions which hold that only one true being exists, and all people are one with each other and with god and hence possess Godlike powers, though they are often unaware of it. It has been likened to karma, which however tends to suggest later retribution for earlier acts, while responsibility assumption posits more of an immediate link between the experience desired and the outcome received. The doctrine also has associations with the neoplatonist notion of an illusory world, which the doctrine's adherents would phrase more precisely as an illusion of external worldly effects on inner mental states. It finds further support in philosophical idealism, which posits thought as the one true substance.

In counseling and psychotherapy

See also


  1. Espouse total responsibility
    “Responsibility,” according to The Charter of The Landmark Education Corporation, “begins with the willingness to be cause in the matter of one’s life. Ultimately, it is a context from which one chooses to live.” To be cause in the matter of one’s life is only possible if there are no other causes to which one is ultimately subject.


  • May, Rollo, and Irvin D. Yalom (1984). "Existential Psychotherapy," pp. 354-391 in Raymond J. Corsini, ed., Current Psychotherapies (3rd ed.). Itasca, IL: Peacock.


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