I. Overview of Sullivan's Interpersonal Theory
Although Sullivan had a lonely and isolated childhood, he evolved a theory of
personality that emphasized the importance of interpersonal relations. He insisted
that personality is shaped almost entirely by the relationships we have with
other people. Sullivan's principal contribution to personality theory was his
of developmental stages.
II. Biography of Harry Stack Sullivan
Harry Stack Sullivan, the first American to develop a comprehensive personality
theory, was born in a small farming community in upstate New York in 1892.
A socially immature and isolated child, Sullivan nevertheless formed one close
interpersonal relationship with a boy five years older than himself. In his
interpersonal theory, Sullivan believed that such a relationship has the power
to transform an immature preadolescent into a psychologically healthy individual.
Six years after becoming a physician, and with no training in psychiatry, Sullivan
gained a position at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., as a psychiatrist.
There, his ability to work with schizophrenic patients won him a reputation
as a therapeutic wizard. However, despite achieving much respect from an influential
group of associates, Sullivan had few close interpersonal relations with any
of his peers. He died alone in Paris in 1949, at age 56.
Sullivan conceptualized personality as an energy system, with energy existing
either as tension (potentiality for action) or as energy transformations (the
actions themselves). He further divided tensions into needs and anxiety.
Needs can relate either to the general well-being of a person or to specific
zones, such as the mouth or genitals. General needs can be either physiological,
such as food or oxygen, or they can be interpersonal, such as tenderness and
Unlike needs-which are conjunctive and call for specific actions to reduce them-anxiety
is disjunctive and calls for no consistent actions for its relief. All infants
learn to be anxious through the empathic relationship that they have
with their mothering one. Sullivan called anxiety the chief disruptive force
in interpersonal relations. A complete absence of anxiety and other tensions
Sullivan used the term dynamism to refer to a typical pattern of behavior. Dynamisms
may relate either to specific zones of the body or to tensions.
The disjunctive dynamism of evil and hatred is called malevolence, defined by
Sullivan as a feeling of living among one's enemies. Those children who become
malevolent have much difficulty giving and receiving tenderness or being intimate
with other people.
The conjunctive dynamism marked by a close personal relationship between two
people of equal status is called intimacy. Intimacy facilitates interpersonal
development while decreasing both anxiety and loneliness.
In contrast to both malevolence and intimacy, lust is an isolating dynamism.
is, lust is a self-centered need that can be satisfied in the absence of an
intimate interpersonal relationship. In other words, although intimacy presupposes
tenderness or love, lust is based solely on sexual gratification and requires
no other person for
The most inclusive of all dynamisms is the self-system, or that pattern of behaviors
that protects us against anxiety and maintains our interpersonal security. The
self-system is a conjunctive dynamism, but because its primary job is to protect
the self from anxiety, it tends to stifle personality change. Experiences that
are inconsistent with our self-system threaten our security and necessitate
our use of security operations, which consist of behaviors designed to reduce
interpersonal tensions. One such security operation is dissociation, which includes
all those experiences that we block from awareness. Another is selective inattention,
which involves blocking only certain experiences from awareness.
Sullivan believed that people acquire certain images of self and others throughout
the developmental stages, and he referred to these subjective perceptions
A. Bad-Mother, Good-Mother
The bad-mother personification grows out of infants' experiences with a nipple
that does not satisfy their hunger needs. All infants experience the bad-mother
personification, even though their real mothers may be loving and nurturing.
Later, infants acquire a good-mother personification as they become mature enough
to recognize the tender and cooperative behavior of their mothering one. Still
later, these two personifications combine to form a complex and contrasting
the real mother.
B. Me Personifications
During infancy, children acquire three "me" personifications: (1)
the bad-me, which grows from experiences of punishment and disapproval, (2)
the good-me, which results from experiences with reward and approval, and (3)
the not-me, which allows a person to dissociate or selectively inattend the
experiences related to anxiety.
C. Eidetic Personifications
One of Sullivan's most interesting observations was that people often create
imaginary traits that they project onto others. Included in these eidetic personifications
are the imaginary playmates that preschool-aged children
often have. These imaginary friends enable children to have a safe, secure relationship
with another person, even though that person is imaginary.
VI. Levels of Cognition
Sullivan recognized three levels of cognition, or ways of perceiving things-prototaxic,
parataxic, and syntaxic.
A. Prototaxic Level
Experiences that are impossible to put into words or to communicate to others
are called prototaxic. Newborn infants experience images mostly on a prototaxic
level, but adults, too, frequently have preverbal experiences that are momentary
and incapable of being communicated.
B. Parataxic Level
Experiences that are prelogical and nearly impossible to accurately communicate
to others are called parataxic. Included in these are erroneous assumptions
about cause and effect, which Sullivan termed parataxic distortions.
C. Syntaxic Level
Experiences that can be accurately communicated to others are called syntaxic.
Children become capable of syntaxic language at about 12 to 18 months of age
when words begin to have the same meaning for them that they do for others.
VII. Stages of Development
Sullivan saw interpersonal development as taking place over seven stages, from
infancy to mature adulthood. Personality changes can take place at any time
but are more likely to occur during transitions between stages.
The period from birth until the emergence of syntaxic language is called infancy,
a time when the child receives tenderness from the mothering one while also
learning anxiety through an empathic linkage with the mother. Anxiety may increase
to the point of terror, but such terror is controlled by the built-in protections
of apathy and somnolent detachment that allow the baby to go to sleep. During
infancy children use autistic language, which takes place on a prototaxic or
The stage that lasts from the beginning of syntaxic language until the need
for playmates of equal status is called childhood. The child's primary interpersonal
relationship continues to be with the mother, who is now differentiated from
other persons who nurture the child.
C. Juvenile Era
The juvenile stage begins with the need for peers of equal status and continues
until the child develops a need for an intimate relationship with a chum. At
this time, children should learn how to compete, to compromise, and to cooperate.
These three abilities, as well as an orientation toward living, help a child
develop intimacy, the chief dynamism of the next developmental stage.
Perhaps the most crucial stage is preadolescence, because mistakes made earlier
be corrected during preadolescence, but errors made during preadolescence are
nearly impossible to overcome in later life. Preadolescence spans the time from
for a single best friend until puberty. Children who do not learn intimacy during
preadolescence have added difficulties relating to potential sexual partners
E. Early Adolescence
With puberty comes the lust dynamism and the beginning of early adolescence.
Development during this stage is ordinarily marked by a coexistence of intimacy
with a single friend of the same gender and sexual interest in many persons
of the opposite gender. However, if children have no preexisting capacity for
intimacy, they may confuse lust with love and develop sexual relationships that
of true intimacy.
F. Late Adolescence
Chronologically, late adolescence may start at any time after about age 16,
but psychologically, it begins when a person is able to feel both intimacy and
lust toward the same person. Late adolescence is characterized by a stable pattern
of sexual activity and the growth of the syntaxic mode, as young people learn
how to live in the adult world.
Late adolescence flows into adulthood, a time when a person establishes a stable
relationship with a significant other person and develops a consistent pattern
of viewing the world.
VIII. Psychological Disorders
Sullivan believed that disordered behavior has an interpersonal origin, and
can only be understood with reference to a person's social environment.
Sullivan pioneered the notion of the therapist as a participant observer, who
establishes an interpersonal relationship with the patient. He was primarily
concerned with understanding patients and helping them develop foresight,
improve interpersonal relations, and restore their ability to operate mostly
on a syntaxic level.
X. Related Research
In recent years, a number of researchers have studied the impact of two-person
relationships, involving both therapy and non-therapy encounters.
A. Therapist-Patient Relationships
Hans Strupp, William Henry, and associates at Vanderbilt developed the Structural
Analysis of Social Behavior, an instrument for studying the dynamics between
therapist and patient. This group of researchers found that patients tended
to have relatively stable behaviors that were consistent with the way their
therapists treated them. Later, these researchers reported therapists' professional
training was less important to successful therapy than the therapists' own developmental
B. Intimate Relationships with Friends
Elizabeth Yaughn and Stephen Nowicki studied intimate interpersonal relationships
in same-gender dyads and found that women-but not men-had complementary interpersonal
styles with their close women friends. Also, women were more likely than men
to engage in a wide variety of activities with their intimate friend, a finding
that suggests that women develop deeper same-gender friendships than do men.
C. Imaginary Friends
Other researchers have studied Sullivan's notion of imaginary playmates and
have found that children who have identifiable eidetic playmates tend to be
more socialized, less aggressive, more intelligent, and to have a better sense
of humor than children who do not report having an imaginary playmate.
XI. Critique of Sullivan
Despite Sullivan's insights into the importance of interpersonal relations,
his theory of personality and his approach to psychotherapy have lost popularity
in recent years. In summary, his theory rates very low in falsifiability, low
in its ability to generate research, and average in its capacity to organize
knowledge and to guide action. In addition, it is only average in self-consistency
and low in parsimony.
XII. Concept of Humanity
Because Sullivan saw human personality as being largely formed from interpersonal
relations, his theory rates very high on social influences and very low on biological
ones. In addition, it rates high on unconscious determinants, average on free
choice, optimism, and causality, and low on uniqueness.