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What we don't know can hurt us: mental health counselors' implicit assumptions about human nature.

All people have implicit assumptions, often existing outside conscious awareness, about a range of human attributes. Mental health counselors may have unique sets of implicit assumptions about human nature which affect their view of client problems and influence their professional behavior This article describes possible sets of counseling-relevant assumptions about human nature and discusses the importance of mental health counselors gaining greater awareness of their assumptions. Strategies for increasing this awareness are presented, and implications for mental health counseling educators and supervisors are discussed.


A critical element in the training and ongoing professional development of mental health counselors is the development and refinement of self-knowledge (Mahoney, 1998). Indeed, developing a better understanding of oneself as well as others is explicitly stated in the preamble of the Code of Ethics of the American Mental Health Counselors Association (2000). One aspect of serf-knowledge is becoming aware of one's unique set of implicit beliefs. Theory and research from several fields indicate that people have implicit beliefs and assumptions about a range of human attributes. These unspoken beliefs and assumptions have been alternately labeled implicit theories (e.g., Dweck, Hang, & Chiu, 1993), philosophies of human nature (Wrightsman, 1992), personal constructs (Kelly, 1955), and tacit assumptions about human nature (Mahoney, 1991).

Recent research has demonstrated the influence of implicit assumptions on people's beliefs and behavior. One line of research on people's implicit theories has explored individuals' tendencies to believe that human attributes such as intelligence and moral character are either fixed or malleable. These implicit theories have been experimentally linked to a number of outcomes. For example, college students who tended to believe human attributes were relatively fixed were more likely to change to a different college major when experiencing academic difficulties, while students believing human attributes are changeable were more likely to stick with their current major in similar circumstances (Zuckerman, Gagne, & Nafshi, 2001). In simulations where individuals were asked to judge the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants, individuals who believed human qualities were relatively fixed were more likely to make judgments of guilt based on initial impressions of the character of the defendant and are more likely to view the goal of imprisonment as being punishment rather than rehabilitation (Gervey, Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1999). A tendency to view human attributes as fixed has also been linked to an increased likelihood of believing stereotypical information about groups of people and a greater tendency to perceive less intragroup variability among stereotyped groups (Levy, Stroessner, & Dweck, 1998).

Other types of implicit theories have also been studied. An individual's level of satisfaction with a romantic relationship that falls short of ideal has been found to depend on whether the individual has an implicit belief that the success of romantic relationships is a matter of destiny or that romantic relationships can develop with work over time (Knee, Nanayakkara, Vietor, Neighbors, & Patrick, 2001). In addition, research indicates that mothers who have implicit theories consistent with either a whole language approach or a phonics-based approach to reading development tend to model and encourage literacy behaviors in their children consistent with the implicit beliefs (DeBaryshe, Binder, & Buell, 2000).

The assumptions and beliefs that people have about human nature can be described as "attitudes about people in general--attitudes that emphasize the interpersonal qualities of people. They are expectancies that people possess certain qualities and will behave toward others in certain ways" (Wrightsman, 1992, p. 45). These expectancies are necessary to function effectively in our highly social world. Imagine the difficulty people would have if they were unable to predict with some degree of accuracy the behavior of serving staff in restaurants, fellow spectators at cultural or sporting events, or motorists at a four-way stop sign. The key point is that these assumptions and expectancies exist, they are widely held, and they are often difficult for individuals to recognize and verbalize. They are not unique impressions one forms of other individuals after having some contact with them. They are not personal values, which are explicit propositions about the way the world should be. They are not beliefs, which are explicit views of how the world really is in the eyes of the perceiver (Najavits, 1997). They are not an individual's moral beliefs.

Instead, assumptions about human nature are broader and more pervasive than specific impressions of unique individuals and are not consciously reflected upon as are personal values, beliefs, and morals. The hallmark of these assumptions is that they are unexamined and largely outside of awareness.

It is clear that people's implicit beliefs about many aspects of human nature have an important impact on their attitudes and behavior. Like all people, mental health counselors have implicit assumptions and beliefs about human nature. These assumptions have direct and powerful implications for envisioning and conducting counseling. As stated by Mahoney (1991), "Our tacit assumptions about human nature unquestionably influence how we view and serve individuals who seek psychological services" (p. 254). A mental health practitioner who implicitly believes that people are naturally self-healing, for example, might view counseling as a process of creating conditions that facilitate the client's inherent healing abilities. Conversely, a mental health practitioner who assumes people behave in self-defeating ways because they have not learned adaptive social behaviors would view counseling as a process of teaching missing skills. Mental health counselors can benefit from critically examining the assumptions they hold and becoming aware of the implications of these assumptions for their current counseling practices. In this article, I discuss the manner in which these assumptions develop, review possible sets of counseling-relevant assumptions that mental health professionals may hold, present strategies mental health counselors can use to identify and reflect upon their implicit assumptions, and present suggestions for mental health counseling educators and supervisors for encouraging their students to examine and refine their counseling-relevant assumptions about human nature.


Mental health trainees and practitioners may be better able to identify their own unexamined beliefs and assumptions if they have an understanding of how these beliefs and assumptions develop. So how do implicit assumptions about human nature develop? For one, like more explicit beliefs, they are acquired through learning (Wrightsman, 1992). For instance, learning begins early in life through observations of others, especially the primary caretaker. Observations of other significant people such as family members and playmates also contribute to the development of the assumptions. It is easy to see how a child who observes significant people in his or her environment being reliable, caring, and responsive would develop a very different set of assumptions about the world than a child who sees significant people behaving in an erratic, unpredictable, and explosive manner. People also learn through exposure to the opinions and teachings of significant others. Children learn many things from parents and significant others, some of which are basic beliefs about how people in the larger world think and behave. In addition, people learn by constantly retesting their assumptions in life. As children gain more experience outside the family and are exposed to school, media, and other aspects of society, their assumptions about human nature begin to change and become more complex. A child who has been exposed in early life to rigid stereotypes of different racial groups, for example, may modify his or her resulting racist assumptions after learning from wider experiences that not all members of those racial groups behave according to the stereotype. In addition, this learning is influenced by individual differences in personality (Wrightsman, 1992) and the sociocultural environment (Hochwalder, 2000). For example, a person who feels a greater sense of serf-acceptance will tend to see the world as a friendlier place and be more accepting of others (Wrightsman). Research with students at colleges across the country found a significantly higher level of mistrust among students at two predominately African American colleges as compared to students at other institutions (Wrightsman). This finding is not surprising, given the exposure of African Americans as a group to racism and prejudice (Sue & Sue, 1999), but it does support the notion that the sociocultural environment can influence the development of one's assumptions about human nature. Indeed, the social zeitgeist itself also seems to influence assumptions about human nature. Annual studies with first year college undergraduates from 1959 to 1971 found a decrease in idealism and increase in pessimism and distrust over the decade of the 1960s, a trend attributed by the researchers to the affect of social events such as the Vietnam war, assassinations, and riots (Baker & Wrightsman, 1992).

The development of a unique set of assumptions about human nature, then, begins with the strong influence of the implicit and explicit teachings of primary caretakers and immediate family members. As children grow, their unique assumptions about human nature are shaped by wider influences such as peers and the media. In ensuing years, people's assumptions are further influenced by broad social forces and changes. The process is complex and different for each individual. The complexity is illustrated by the finding that children's assumptions about human nature do not seem to be strongly related to those of their parents (Stack,Young, & Wrightsman, 1992). It seems apparent that no single factor is predominately influential in the development of one's unique set of assumptions about human nature.


One way to think about assumptions is evident in Wrightsman's (1992) model consisting of six dimensions of human nature. They are:

* Trustworthiness vs. untrustworthiness

* Strength of will and rationality vs. external control and irrationality

* Altruism vs. selfishness

* Independence vs. conformity to group pressures

* Complexity vs. simplicity

* Similarity vs. variability

All of these dimensions are relevant for mental health counselors. The first, trustworthiness vs. untrustworthiness, refers to the degree to which one assumes that people are basically trustworthy and moral. This dimension may be most applicable to counseling with child and adolescent clients. Mental health counselors who assume that children are basically untrustworthy might recommend interventions that are more restrictive and involve higher levels of supervision than interventions suggested by those who view children as being basically moral and trustworthy. The second dimension, strength of will and rationality vs. external control and irrationality, reflects assumptions about how sufficiently one's ego and cognitions control one's emotions and behavior. Mental health counselors who implicitly believe in the rationality of life may overpathologize clients or blame them for their problems, rejecting the competing assumption that some client problems are simply due to the vagaries of life (Wrightsman). The third dimension, altruism vs. selfishness, refers to the degree to which individuals believe people are mostly concerned about their own welfare or the welfare of others. There are a myriad of situations where a mental health counselor's interpretation of client behavior would be affected by the assumption that the client is or is not acting selfishly. An example would be a female client whose spouse buys her an expensive piece of jewelry following a major argument. The mental health counselor's view of this situation would vary depending on whether the practitioner assumed the spouse's actions were motivated by a desire to curry favor with the client or to genuinely lift the spirits of the client. The fourth dimension discussed by Wrightsman, independence vs. conformity to group pressures, refers to the extent to which one assumes that people can maintain their convictions in the face of pressures from a group or an authority figure. A counseling-relevant example would be a situation where an adolescent client followed the behavior of friends and consequently behaved in an uncharacteristic or illegal manner. A mental health counselor assuming that groups can exert a powerful influence would likely view this situation much differently than one who assumes that individuals with some willpower can easily resist group pressures. The fifth dimension, complexity vs. simplicity, refers to the extent to which individuals believe that people are complex and difficult to understand or easy to understand. As an example, a mental health counselor with the assumption that people are easy to understand would likely be comfortable with uncomplicated suggestions such as telling parents to deal with behavioral problems by increasing the positive consequences for positive behaviors and increasing the negative consequences for negative behaviors. In contrast, a mental health counselor assuming that people are complex would likely find such a suggestion simplistic and would implement additional interventions. Finally, the sixth dimension, similarity vs. variability, refers to the degree to which an individual assumes people differ in their human natures. A mental health counselor who assumes that people are largely the same would likely be comfortable basing his or her professional approach on universal maxims such as "deep self-exploration should be a goal for all clients" and "advice that is not asked for is never effective." A mental health counselor who assumes people vary in a number of ways would likely find these types of universal rules overly rigid and dogmatic.

Because subjectivity was involved in the development of these six assumptions about human nature, other assumptions may exist (Wrightsman, 1992). Another model (Mahoney, 1991) that is clearly applicable to the mental health counseling field consists of three fundamental questions about human nature: (a) Can humans change? (b) Can humans help humans change? (c) Are some forms of help better than others? Because mental health counselors are people, it seems likely that they, like others, have implicit and possibly unexamined beliefs regarding each of these questions. As Mahoney noted, different theoretical approaches to professional practice tend to provide different answers to the question of whether humans can change. Whether one believes humans can change also depends on what type of change is being considered; change in one's core processes is much more difficult than change in the peripheral aspects of the self (Mahoney). A behavioral approach presumes humans can change, if one is able to control contingencies following behaviors. Traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, on the other hand, presumes human behavior is much more difficult to change. Experienced mental health counselors may also have unexamined beliefs regarding how much change can be expected from different types of clients, such as clients with personality disorders versus clients with adjustment disorders.

It is easy to presume that mental health counselors would respond to Mahoney's (1991) second question by asserting that humans can help other humans to change. However, mental health practitioners may have unexamined beliefs regarding their ability to facilitate change in some types of clients.

In fact, experienced clinicians may be more likely than trainees to have pessimistic beliefs about the ability of clients such as sex offenders, recalcitrant substance abusers, and involuntary clients to change, because of having seen first-hand the challenge of making significant progress with many of these types of clients. This notion that the unexamined beliefs of mental health practitioners become more practice-specific with experience is supported by research. There is evidence that experienced clinicians make diagnostic decisions based on an implicit comparison of new clients with previous clients rather than diagnostic criteria (Garb, 1996). In addition, experienced mental health practitioners have been found to be just as prone as trainees to confirmatory biases in clinical decision making (Strohmer & Shivy, 1994).

It does seem, therefore, that experienced mental health practitioners are not immune to the influence of unexamined beliefs and assumptions. Whether one tends to favor Wrightsman's model or Mahoney's questions, each framework allows both mental health counseling trainees and experienced mental health counselors to explore how such assumptions might influence their professional behavior.


Because assumptions about human nature are generally outside of conscious awareness, people need strategies to intentionally identify the assumptions they tend to operate from. This process is particularly important for mental health counselors, because of the problems associated with unexamined assumptions.

Problems Associated with Unexamined Assumptions

Implicit assumptions about human nature can have a powerful, and at times detrimental, influence on mental health practitioners' professional behaviors (Mahoney, 1991). Take the case of a mental health clinician who has an implicit assumption that people, by nature, are antisocial and prone to aggressive behavior. A reasonable response to this assumption is to advocate that families and the broader society impose strong limits and consequences on people's behavior to ensure that people behave in a prosocial manner. So when working with adolescents and their families, the mental health clinician may favor interventions that increase the limits and structure in the adolescents' lives. The problem with this approach is that it could fail to recognize and foster the developmentally healthy process of separation and individuation that adolescents need to accomplish (Seifert & Hoffnung, 2000). Another example would be a mental health practitioner who holds the implicit assumption that men are inherently selfish and untrustworthy. A female client comes to the mental health practitioner to explore her feelings about her spouse and to discuss her thoughts of ending the marriage. It seems likely that the mental health practitioner would have much difficulty, given his or her implicit assumptions, approaching the client's issues with her spouse with any measure of objectivity.

Mental health counselors' implicit assumptions may have the most potential for creating problems when clients are of a different cultural background. People's implicit world views are highly correlated with their cultural upbringing and life experiences (Sue & Sue, 1999). Further, a mental health professional who holds a world view that differs from the client's may be unaware of this fundamental difference and, therefore, presume that the client shares the same basic assumptions and perceptions (Sue & Sue). This discrepancy would likely lead to a situation where the mental health professional could neither sufficiently understand the client's point of view nor respond in a fully therapeutic manner to the client's concerns. Similarly, Abreu (2001) has noted that most people have subtle perceptual biases that affect their perceptions of members of different racial groups. These perceptual biases grow out of unexamined cognitive schemas related to race. Research has found that mental health trainees tend to assign different personality attributes to clients based on race, although the mental health trainees were not found to expect different client behavior based on the raceethnicity of the client (Fisher, Matthews, Robinson Kurpius, & Burke, 2001). In sum, theory and research suggest that in addition to general assumptions about all humans, mental health professionals may have additional implicit assumptions about those clients who are of different races, ethnicities, or cultural backgrounds.

In each of the examples presented in this section, it can be argued that the main source of difficulty is not the mental health practitioners' assumptions but their lack of awareness of the assumptions and a lack of understanding of how the assumptions influence professional mental health practices. Rather than presuming that non-facilitative counseling assumptions must be changed, perhaps a better goal would be to increase mental health counselors' awareness of their assumptions. Studies indicate, however, that major changes in people's assumptions about human nature rarely occur after adolescence (Baxter, Claxton, & Wrightsman, 1992). Nonetheless, programs specifically intended to change philosophies of life (e.g., programs intended to help unskilled workers view people as being more complex, trustworthy, and altruistic) have been successful in bringing about the intended changes (Baxter et al.).

Exploring One's Assumptions About Human Nature

Because assumptions might affect therapeutic behavior, mental health counselors have much to gain from developing and continuing to monitor a solid awareness of their assumptions. Although worthwhile, becoming self-aware is not a simple matter and can best be viewed as a process rather than a final destination (Mahoney, 1998). The process toward greater awareness can be developed in a number of ways. One way is self-examination, in which the mental health practitioner carefully considers what he or she believes at a fundamental level about human nature. Although mental health practitioners may have some bedrock personal beliefs about human nature that are easily identifiable, most mental health practitioners will likely find that excavating implicit assumptions requires considerable thought and sometimes requires additional methods and strategies.

A second technique that mental health professionals can use to increase awareness of their implicit assumptions about human nature is to examine their reactions to strangers. In reacting to strangers, the only determinant of one's emotional response is the implicit set of assumptions about how the stranger will behave (Wrightsman, 1992). This technique seems particularly useful for discerning implicit assumptions one may have about classes of people, such as persons of a different gender, race, or age class.

A third technique is for mental health practitioners to include a discussion of possible underlying assumptions when they consult with supervisors or peers about difficult cases. A particularly difficult client or client issue often stimulates mental health practitioners to seek consultation or additional professional reading. As a part of this process, mental health counselors could search for underlying assumptions of which they have been unaware. For example, when working with personality disordered clients, mental health clinicians may realize they have been assuming that these clients are satisfied with their lifestyle and are choosing to maintain present behavior. Mental health clinicians may work toward a more therapeutic assumption that clients with personality disorder are in pain, albeit hidden pain (Demmitt & Rueth, 2002).


Mental health counselor educators and supervisors can play key roles in assisting mental health counselor trainees in identifying and exploring implicit assumptions about human nature. The first obvious step is for mental health counseling faculty and supervisors to recognize that these assumptions exist and fully understand that assumptions can influence professional behavior. Presuming this step is accomplished, there are several additional strategies mental health counselor educators and supervisors can implement to facilitate students' exploration of implicit assumptions about human nature. One strategy is to ensure that students are encouraged to reflect on the underlying assumptions of relevant theorists. Most mental health trainees who read the work of major counseling or personality theorists resonate with a selected few. For instance, some may be enthralled by the ideas of Carl Rogers (e.g., Rogers, 1957), while others may find Rogers naively simplistic but become immersed in the teachings of Carl Jung (Read, Fordham, & Adler, 1954-1991). It is likely that mental health trainees feel most drawn to theories that are based on assumptions similar to their own. In reading for classes, a mental health counseling trainee who feels particularly drawn to the notion of an innate self-actualizing tendency, as proposed by Rogers (Raskin & Rogers, 2000) and Maslow (1968), may realize that he or she shares this implicit belief. In addition to exposing students to major counseling and personality theorists, it is also useful to present the works of major philosophers (Wrightsman, 1992). In thoroughly exploring assumptions about human nature, the thinking of philosophers such as Plato (1928) and Sartre (1953) are as relevant as theorists such as Skinner (1971) and Freud (1966). The key is for mental health counseling students to go beyond developing an understanding of the thoughts and beliefs of major theorists to recognizing how their reaction to different theorists and their ideas can illuminate the mental health trainees' own implicit beliefs and assumptions about human nature.

Exposure to the assumptions of major counseling and personality theorists and philosophers could be supplemented by students completing relevant instruments (e.g., Wrightsman's [1992] Philosophies of Human Nature scale) or discussing lists of assumptions or questions like those in Wrightsman's and Mahoney's (1991) models. A mental health counseling educator, for example, could create small discussion groups where students could talk about Mahoney's three questions, reflect on their implicit beliefs regarding the questions, and explore whether their behavior is consistent with the assumptions they believe they hold.

In addition, faculty can formally teach self-study processes as a part of the coursework, model a strong commitment toward self-examination and selfstudy, and actively encourage mental health trainees to reflect carefully on their personal experiences during their training (Mahoney, 1998). This selfsearching might uncover links to early experiences related to the development of assumptions. Peer support groups and individual therapy can provide additional opportunities to gain self-knowledge and need to be supported by mental health counseling educators. Finally, retreats for mental health counseling trainees can be organized to allow for the consolidation of selfknowledge.


Like all people, mental health counselors have basic assumptions about how humans behave and how change in human behavior occurs. The assumptions have developed over the years in a complex learning process that begins with the explicit and implicit teachings of a primary caregiver and eventually includes broad social and cultural influences. These assumptions seem to have an important influence on case conceptualization and intervention. Mental health practitioners at all levels of professional experience likely have some assumptions of which they are not completely aware. There are, however, a number of strategies mental health counselors can use to become better aware of their implicit assumptions. As a part of fulfilling their ethical obligation to continually strive to develop knowledge of self that enhances professional effectiveness, it is important for mental health counselors to seek to identify and explore their implicit assumptions about human nature. By doing this, mental health counselors can develop a better understanding of their own internal world, and ultimately provide better services to their clients.


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Richard W. Auger, Ph.D., is an assistant professor, Department of Counseling and Student Personnel, Minnesota State University, Mankato. E-mail:
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Author:Auger, Richard W.
Publication:Journal of Mental Health Counseling
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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