How Does Conditional Positive Regard Affect Well-Being?

Updated August 27, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW

Have you ever tried to help someone that suffers from poor motivation and low self-esteem? Your natural inclination may have been to give them some version of a pep talk to brighten their mood.

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You may have had a couple of thoughts before you inquired about the behavior. If your friend is normally healthy and happy, your response likely came out of the concern that something was wrong. From a psychological standpoint, your response would be considered unconditional positive regard. Essentially, this means that you were inclined to respond empathetically, no matter what their reason was for feeling down that day. It would be considered an act of unconditional love.

Let’s change things up a bit. Let’s say that your friend suffers from poor motivation and low self-esteem most of the time. Your friend often acts this way and no matter how you’ve tried to help pick up your friend’s mood, they’re resistant. They always seem to have one reason or another why they’re in a sour mood and it’s been wearing on you. On this particular day, you decide that you’ll give it one try. If your friend offers up a legitimate reason for being down in the dumps, you’ll be as sympathetic as you can. If they have a flimsy reason for their negative attitude once again, you decide to be sympathetic for a quick moment and excuse yourself from the conversation quickly. Because you’ve put conditions on your response, that is considered conditional positive regard.

Conditional positive regard is an interesting topic in psychology which is more often studied from the context of unconditional positive regard. The definition of conditional positive regard is to acknowledge or demonstrate respect toward someone in a conditional way.

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Researchers have long studied the effect that personal or professional feedback has on an individual’s self-esteem, affect, and motivation to learn. This study shows that conditional positive regard motivated students to learn.

Understanding Conditional Positive Regard

Psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) based some of his research on the main assumptions of Abraham Maslow. Rather than focusing on fixing what goes wrong with people as many other psychologists do, Rogers researched the things that go right for people. Rogers believed that people need an environment of genuineness, empathy, and unconditional acceptance for them to grow into mature, healthy adults. He compared the notion of unconditional love and acceptance to a tree that can’t grow without the essential components of sunlight and water.

Rogers also developed the concept of self-actualization, which means that people have one basic motive, which is the tendency to achieve their own vision of their goals, wishes, and desires.

Conditional positive regard is essentially the opposite of unconditional regard. Researchers that reject Rogers’ stance on unconditional positive regard, tend to regard conditional positive regard by default.

Another example of conditional positive regard is a parent that values their child more if they’re willing to enter the same profession as the parent. Parents that have the same expectations for their children that they had for themselves are inclined to provide warmth, affection, and acceptance when the child meets their standards, conditions, or expectations.

Rogers’ research on unconditional positive regard is important because it has helped therapists to better understand how they can use these scientific principles to help shape their behavior. Most behaviorists favor the position that the best way to shape an individual’s behavior is to provide positive outcomes when they engage in the desired behavior. That concept supports conditional positive regard.

Psychologists view conditional positive regard as an indirect control process that works with direct negative measures like yelling or revoking privileges to encourage certain types of behavior.  Another advantage of conditional positive regard is that it doesn’t require as much effort or trust as unconditional positive regard.

Adverse Effects of Conditional Positive Regard

Conditional positive regard isn’t all good. Some researchers point out that it can cause people to act in ways that don’t reflect their personal values. The expectations of others cause them to behave and make decisions, so they don’t feel anxiety, guilt, or suffer from low self-esteem. Researchers have also learned that conditional and unconditional positive regard patterns manifest differently in romantic relationships than in child and parent relationships.

In particular, conditional positive regard doesn’t work nearly as well for romantic relationships as it does for children. This study shows that conditional positive regard has a negative impact on the quality of romantic relationships.

By contrast, parents that show unconditional positive regard to their children open up opportunities for children to be creative in problem-solving which often yields better personal growth. Conditional positive regard by parents doesn’t send the message to children that they can rely on their true selves to gain understanding about the world around them.

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Researchers also believe that conditional positive regard teaches children to value their experiences in light of what their parents’ value. According to researchers Joseph and Murphy (2013), children whose parents implemented conditional positive response developed less authentically, had internal feelings of compulsion, experienced shame following failure, and experienced unstable self-esteem and low self-worth. Such children also felt disapproval toward their parents and harbored resentment against them.

The Use of Unconditional Positive Regard in Therapy

In therapy, a therapist may show unconditional positive regard when asking a client to expand on their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that the therapist considers being morally unacceptable. The therapy goes to the root of the thoughts behind the client’s views rather than targets the illegality or immorality of the behavior.

Substance abuse counselors also sometimes use unconditional positive regard when a client shares behaviors and habits that are harmful or detrimental to themselves such as abusing drugs or alcohol, cutting themselves, binge eating, or having anorexic tendencies to help them understand why their behavior is harmful. Such clients experience much criticism from people in their lives. A competent therapist may be able to use unconditional positive regard to help assure individuals that they’re worthy of love and that self-care plays an important role in helping them to have healthy, happy lives. The therapist works to help the client accept him or herself as they are.

The Role of Unconditional Positive Regard in Social Work

The concept of unconditional positive regard is simple enough that it can be applied in many different capacities. For example, it’s been proven to work well in the area of social work.

Social work has many crossovers with counseling and therapy. One of the differences is that social workers tend to interact with more people than therapists. In addition, they work in contexts that have a wider range of relationship-based issues including couples, families, and others. What’s similar is that social workers and counselors often work with people who have reached a very low point in their lives.

The clients of social workers most often rise from a notable different culture, childhood, or set of experiences than social workers. Unconditional positive regard is an essential part of their work because their client base is significantly diverse.

In their work, social workers need to do their best to accept people where they are and encourage them to follow a path that’s consistent with their views, values, and beliefs instead of imposing their own belief systems on their clients. This is an important part of establishing and building professional trust.

Having unconditional acceptance doesn’t mean that the social worker accepts or approves of their clients’ behaviors. What it does is place the focus on the client’s ability to direct themselves and guide themselves toward their desires and goals. In this way, it sets the stage for a working relationship where clients are more apt to be open. In time, they learn that they can accept themselves as they are and that they’re capable of making positive changes in their lives.

Overall, unconditional positive regard has significant value in promoting positive character development in individuals which creates an environment for healthy relationships between family members, romantic partners, parents and children, co-workers, and others.

The key to the success of using unconditional positive regard is to ensure that the support that’s being given is truly unconditional and that it is in no way contingent on one person behaving in an expected manner.

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As it pertains to parenting, unconditional positive regard isn’t equivalent to a permissive parenting style. Parents still need to provide clear expectations and guidelines for their children and have rules for their behavior. The difference is that with unconditional positive regard, they don’t impose conditions that speak to their children’s worth. As a result of unconditional positive regard, children can have responsibility for their actions while still reserving some ability to make good or bad choices.

If you’re struggling with how to have a relationship with someone who is negative due to their own issues or if you’re struggling in your own issues, you might find that a competent licensed online counselor can help you sort things out. Things aren’t always as they seem on the surface. A therapist may be just what you need to help you see things from other perspectives.


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