Course Work on Psychology: Defining the Phenomenal Field

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Wesleyan University
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Course work
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The phenomenal field theory is one of the early theories of personality that was suggested by Arthur Combs and Donald Snygg. Unlike other theorists who are complicated and scientific, these two strive to make the argument as straightforward as possible for easy applicability. This theory helps us to come to an understanding of human behavior. It suggests that every behavior exhibited by an organism is pertinent to and determined by the phenomenal field. This field is the subjective reality of the surrounding world of that organism including people, freedom, physical objects, feeling, ideologies the organism hold like justice among others. This field is provided by various elements that are gradually changing and dictate how the organism will behave. Additionally, individual thoughts, perceptions and persuasions upheld by an individual are subjective elements playing a central role in determining behavior. With the understanding of the part played by the phenomenal field, it becomes imperative that, for one to gain understanding and predict the behavior of another, having a clear understanding of their phenomenal field is inevitable.

As human beings, we are limited such that we cannot be able to access the phenomenal field of another and as such we can only make inferences of this field from the observable characteristics. One way that can happen is talking with a person, giving them various tests or recording their behavior patterns over time so that one predict. Snygg and Arthur (1959) suggest that many methods can be used to understand the phenomenal field of another. Alternatively, several observers can provide information used to know the phenomenal field. With a proper understanding of the phenomenal field, it becomes easy to predict and understand the behavior of a given individual. Notably, every form of behavior exhibited by a person normally follows a meaningful, purposeful and reasonable response to the persons phenomenal field.

The phenomenal Self-Motivation

The phenomenal self is the individuals view of herself or himself. It is based on what a person believes they are whether other people acknowledge it or not. Every persons basic need and motivation is to enhance and preserve the phenomenal self as much as possible, and that need governs every part of this field. These views towards ones physical characteristics change and are developed throughout the lifetime based on cultural upbringing and other personal occurrences in the life of a person. The culture teaches a person to value or devalue oneself and sets in place which behavior would be regarded as acceptable and ideal. Every human being strives to maintain this phenomenal self as much as it is possible and this need to promote one goes beyond meeting basic needs and mere survival.

Although the physical needs and the body are possible elements of the phenomenal self, they do not consist of the inevitable elements of self. For example, a prisoner who prefers starvation than eating is not serving his body well but he/she is promoting his/her own image and perception of who they are. To this prisoner, his bodily needs are of less value compared to maintaining his phenomenal self and to the others not in his position, he may look miserable, but he may not see himself as such. As such, human beings can do some strange things and take some steps that others would consider absurd simply because they have no understanding of the other persons phenomenal self and field.

It is significant to note that the goal of each human being is to be better than they are as highlighted by Combs and Snygg, (1959). None of us is contented with who we are, and often we want to be more and exploit the vast possibilities to getting better. Comb and Snygg propagate this concept more from other ideas or theories. For example, to understand the human discontentment of whom they are, Comb and Snygg looks deeper in Maslows hierarchy of needs in the self-actualization level where people with basic needs will strive to increase the value of who they are. Additionally, using Alfred Adlers principle about compensating inferiority and replacing it with superiority one can understand the motivation for a person to grow and be better every day. Others outside their phenomenal field who may not have a good understanding of their motivation may judge and criticize their actions.

Differentiation Process

Snygg and Combs suggests a way that people become more by a process called differentiation. This process pertains to hauling a figure out of a background. What this process also alludes is the fact that learning does not involve linking one stimulus to another or a stimulus to a response, but learning is associated with the improvement of the individuals phenomenal field. The enhancement occurs by deliberate choice to extract relevant details from the confusion as such details are essential and meaningful to that particular person. This concept was borrowed from George Kellys concept of constructs. People learn about the value of a certain concept once it has been taken out of the background. However, as long as the information is in the background, no learning can occur. Sometimes, an individual is not in a position to make the differentiation and draw important details from the background. However, when the significant others use differentiation, a person can learn from anothers differentiation process. People learn from others even adults in the social psychological issues in pursuit of a better self and redefining the phenomenal field. Such learning experiences can help one to understand peoples persuasions, discard the former views and replace them with new others that will promote the essence of who they are. Notably, the differentiation to improve the image of self can occur in the company of others or when one is alone.

The Concept of threat and therapy

In discussing this theory, Combs and Snygg introduced the concept of threat to the phenomenal self and how an individual handles it. They defined threat as the awareness and knowledge of a risk to the phenomenal self. As such, an individual has to come with ways and strategies to deal with this threat. Additionally, necessary actions are taken, and new differentiation approaches taken to help a person deal with such threats in similar future occurrences. Proper organization is important in addressing possible threat because if sustainable measures are not taken, one can eliminate the threat in the short run but in the long term lead to psychotic symptoms, defenses or worse still criminal activities. All these activities are taken to protect the essence of who a person is.

Psychopathology occurs when the mental state of the individual is not preserved in the event of a threat. The threat that hasnt been handled appropriately results in mental disorders necessitating psychotherapy to help reverse the situation. Therefore, therapy in its simplest form would entail psychologists liberating clients who have held destructive emotions, cognitions, behaviors and perceptions in order to protect themselves from the threat. This liberation is not passive on the clients side, but active as the therapist takes a facilitative role to assist the client reclaim their normal drive for the enhancement or maintenance of the phenomenal self. The therapist, therefore, helps the client to understand the situation and various approaches that can be used to remain within the normal range such that can respond appropriately to the threat. The decision to change remains with the client but in a pragmatic and flexible manner, active intervention of a therapist, a client is able to know what their immediate needs are and establish appropriate interventions. Further, the psychologist helps the client view the threat as an everyday occurrence in life which cannot be avoided and should not be avoided but ought to be dealt with accordingly.

The concept of Learning and Phenomenal field

In this theory, learning is associated with differentiations, but the learner sieves the process such that they retain only the content that they think has value and is relevant. For differentiations to occur, the student ought to attach meaning to the education and the importance it will have. Therefore, learning becomes a voluntary activity that only happens when there is change following the new information that the learner is exposed to. Therefore, when teachers and instructors try to force content that in the learners perspective is irrelevant, then the education process turns to strenuous activity. The mind of a student attaches value to any material taught to them that they believe it will be of help. Otherwise, the mind shuts down, and it becomes difficult to comprehend and remember concepts of that material. For example, a student who does not see the value of statistics in class and fails miserably in that subject can as well be a good performer in a music class. Such a scenario means that the student has attached meaning to music and disregarded statistics. It is with this understanding that Snygg and Combs suggested that the teachers responsibility is to strive to know their learners so well that they will appeal to the intrinsic motivation which is based on the students phenomenal selves and fields. Once the tutor knows the phenomenal field of their students then, teaching and learning become a productive activity.

Additionally, when a concept is first understood at a young age, it becomes very hard to change that mindset, especially if a significant person taught it like a parent or a teacher. For example, when children are young, they mingle in schools between the Blacks and the Whites and the color difference does not register a thing. However, if the parent of White child propagates racism and supposes that Black people are of less value the child will pick that. And from that time henceforth, the child might associate Black people with less value and the White with a higher. In a sense, the parent taught the child to do differentiation and pick details that were important and use them to form a belief system that would determine the behavior.



Combs, A. W., & Snygg, D. (1959). Individual behavior: A perceptual approach to behavior, Rev. pages 12 20.

Freud, S. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1933

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