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Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory of Personality

Part Two. Personality

  1. Seymour Epstein PhD

Published Online: 15 APR 2003

DOI: 10.1002/0471264385.wei0507

Handbook of Psychology

Handbook of Psychology

How to Cite

Epstein, S. 2003. Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory of Personality. Handbook of Psychology. Two:7:159–184.

Author Information

  1. University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Psychology Department, Amherst, Massachusetts

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 APR 2003


Cognitive-experiential self-theory (CEST) is a psychodynamic theory of personality that achieves a high degree of integration through a synthesis of the psychodynamic, emotional unconscious of psychoanalysis, the affect-free unconscious of cognitive science, and principles of learning theory. According to CEST, people operate by two information-processing systems, a predominantly conscious, verbal, rational system and a predominantly preconscious, automatic, experiential, learning system. The two systems operate in parallel by different rules and are interactive. The influence of the experiential system on the rational system can account for everything that the psychoanalytic unconscious can and, unlike the latter, to do so in a manner consistent with evolutionary principles and cognitive science. An extensive research program is described that provides support for many of the assumptions in CEST, including the operating principles of the experiential system and the interaction of the two systems. The implications of the theory are discussed for psychotherapy and psychological research. According to CEST, there are three basic ways in which psychotherapeutic change can occur: by using the rational system to correct the experiential system, by learning directly from emotionally significant experience, and by communicating with the experiential system in its own medium (e.g., fantasy, imagery, metaphor). It is important in research to take into account the two processing systems and their influence on each other, rather than following the more customary procedure of assuming there is a single, unified system.


  • basic beliefs;
  • basic needs;
  • cognitive-experiential self-theory;
  • experiential system;
  • intuitive thinking;
  • preconscious;
  • psychotherapy;
  • rational system;
  • unconscious