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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Tabula Rasa

Blank slate

It is said that behaviorist John B. Watson “viewed humans as being born tabula rasa, a blank slate, devoid of innate mental content.” Supporting the notion that human beings are born with the capacity to become any sort of individual they choose or which is assigned, Watson stated:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

This simplistic view of humanity has been criticized, because, as one source states, the “belief downplays the effects of genetics and biology on the development of the human personality.” It may be hopeful to pretend as though we are all created equal—literally the same—though this simply is not the case.

For quite some time, in regards to the social sciences—and yes, the field of mental health is included in this consortium—I’ve observed as people have proposed and enforced diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility standards as a means of wiping clean the socialized slate.

The idea is that each of us is born with the same abilities, though some malevolent offender has dirtied the tablet. Therefore, a cleansing of the canvas is needed so that the social landscape will allow for prosperity of marginalized and oppressed people to thrive.

As one source summarizes, “Alter the supposed culprit environmental cause, and the issue will apparently be resolved.” While I can appreciate that Watson and his colleagues didn’t know what they didn’t know, the advancement of knowledge about human development as rendered the tabula rasa theory open to question.

Observation from film

I could cite many references and post various examples from sociopolitical, academic, and activist sources which support the archaic blank slate proposition. I suspect the reader is already familiar with this prominent pattern as is.

When I watch a film created in the United States within the past five years, I presuppose it will follow a predictable motif. There will likely be a non-white lead, a female in a position of authority (e.g., a general) or intelligence (e.g., a scientist), and at least one non-straight character.

I anticipate that white males will serve as an example of buffoonery, tyranny, or misogyny. Overrepresentation of multiracial characters, particularly children, will likely be present and it isn’t uncommon for children to display skills equal or superior to a bumbling adult.

Women will probably assume traditionally masculine traits—characteristics which if displayed by a man would doubtlessly be vilified. Likewise, females tend to outperform males. This includes small girls besting grown men four times their size.

I’m not making a values-based judgement about this observation. It’s not up to me to determine what is good, bad, right, wrong, or otherwise.

As well, I’m not professing what should, must, or ought to—or not to—occur in film. I’m describing, not prescribing the world.

Still, I suspect what I’ve witnessed in movies largely relates to the tabula rasa. I’ve heard a number of interviews from entertainment sources which claim that representation of underrepresented identities is necessary in order to bring about social change.

Presumably, one of the reasons an average woman may not be able to compete with an average male in hand-to-hand combat is because females never grew up seeing a girl or woman beat a boy or man in a physical fight. The slate was apparently dirtied by representations of male success.

Seemingly, there aren’t as many women at high levels of science, business, or the government, because they didn’t see people like them occupying these roles when growing up. Clean the slate of yesteryear, introduce a different theme, and voila—women will rise to superiority.

This is as fanciful an idea as Watson’s guarantee to create human outcomes in accordance with the blank slate. Though hopeful, this impractical theory and subsequent measures haven’t produced any convincing data, at least not that I’ve observed.


My critique of the tabula rasa is not to suggest that “behaviorism is dead,” because if I believed that I wouldn’t practice Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Rather, I value honoring the is-ought paradigm—assessing what is without prescribing what ought to be.

When people view the world according to a false representation of reality—using an irrational lens—the resulting behavior of their shortsighted view may not serve them or others well in the present or moving forward. This is precisely the sort of matter I address using REBT.

I help clients sift through the myriad ways in which they disturb themselves by attempting to change the world to fit their desired perspectives. The people with whom I work will not be deceived by me about how society has apparently dirtied a proverbial slate.

As well, my approach to REBT does not value victimhood, so those looking to be placated and have unreasonable and illogical beliefs validated may find it challenging to work with me. Nonetheless, for those willing to push through discomfort and grow, I’ve observed clients experience phenomenal growth.

If you’re searching for a clinician who will coddle you, clear obstacles in your path, wipe your slate, and set you up for failure down the line by granting you unearned privilege, I’m not the psychotherapist you seek. Undoubtedly, there are thousands of therapists who will meet that requirement.

However, if you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—and who accepts the slate with which you were born, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


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