Between Stimulus and Response There Is a Space. In That Space Is Our Power To Choose Our Response

Viktor E. Frankl? Stephen R. Covey? Rollo May? Thomas Walton Galloway? Sheldon P. Stoff? B. F. Skinner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is possible to control ones reactions and feelings even when one is faced with frightening hardships. The psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl has been credited with the following:

Between stimulus and response there is space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

I doubt this ascription because no one provides a proper citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find this passage in the works of Viktor E. Frankl.

Instead, the words were popularized by the influential motivational author Stephen R. Covey; however, he disclaimed authorship. Covey stated that he read the passage in a book while he was on sabbatical in Hawaii, but he was unable to recall the name of the book or the author. Also, the precise phrasing employed by Covey varied over time. Details are given further below.

An intriguing thematic precursor appeared in the 1917 book “The Use of Motives in Teaching Morals and Religion” by Thomas Walton Galloway. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Personality has three main parts: (1) the receiving portion (receptors) that looks out on stimuli (attention and appreciation are its great functions); (2) a responding side (effectors) that looks toward behavior or response; and (3) that which lies between stimulus and response whose function is to correlate and adjust behavior to stimulus. This third region is where our real personal values lie. This is where we grow most.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1975 the influential psychologist Rollo May published a book titled “The Courage to Create” which included a chapter called “The Delphic Oracle as Therapist”. The chapter contained a statement that matched the saying under examination: 2

Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.

A nascent version of May’s essay appeared earlier in a 1968 book, but the passage above was absent. 3

In 1976 a collection called “Opening Up Education” included an essay titled “The Currency of Freedom” by Sheldon P. Stoff of Adelphi University. The essay contained a thematic statement: 4

Yet human behavior is still being explained by current psychology in terms of the stimulus-response theory. This theory may suit automatons but it denies the very premise of human freedom: Namely, that man himself shall intervene (to choose and to decide) between stimulus and response. It ignores the real man and his climb towards lasting values. In its undue emphasis on externals it loses sight of the inner quest, the fateful encounter of a man with himself, his primary need for self-conquest.

In 1989 Stephen R. Covey published the bestselling self-help book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” which included a discussion of Viktor Frankl who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Covey spells “Viktor” as “Victor”: 5

They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Victor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.

Covey reiterated the point above several times in the book, but he was not presenting a quotation from Victor Frankl: 6

Our unique human endowments lift us above the animal world. The extent to which we exercise and develop these endowments empowers us to fulfill our uniquely human potential. Between stimulus and response is our greatest power—the freedom to choose.

Near the end of the volume Covey mentioned that years earlier he and his family had taken a sabbatical leave from his university to live for a year in Oahu, Hawaii. While visiting a local college library he encountered a book with a passage that affected him deeply: 7

I read the paragraph over and over again. It basically contained the simple idea that there is a gap or a space between stimulus and response, and that the key to both our growth and happiness is how we use that space.

I can hardly describe the effect that idea had on my mind. Though I had been nurtured in the philosophy of self-determinism, the way the idea was phrased—“a gap between stimulus and response”—hit me with fresh, almost unbelievable force.

In 1994 Covey co-authored a book titled “First Things First” with A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill. In this work Covey presented an exact match to the quotation under examination. He saw the words in an unnamed book, but he employed the phrase “the essence of it” to signal that his memory was inexact: 8

Stephen: Years ago, as I was wandering between the stacks of books at a university library, I chanced to open a book in which I encountered one of the most powerful, significant ideas I’ve ever come across. The essence of it was this:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

That idea hit me with incredible force. In the following days, I reflected on it again and again.

In 2001 a message in the Usenet newsgroup alt.martial-arts.karate.shotokan implausibly attributed the quotation to psychologist B. F. Skinner: 9

It follows my discussion on faith, finances, and this: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom (B.F. Skinner).

In 2004 Covey wrote the foreword to a book by Pat Croce. Covey retold the tale of discovering the book that inspired the quotation. Interestingly, he specified the year 1969: 10

In 1969, I took a sabbatical from my university teaching to write a book. Wandering through the stacks of a university library in Hawaii one day, I pulled down a book, opened it, and read three lines that truly changed my life. They became the foundation for my own work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Covey’s memory from 2004 of what he read in 1969 suggests that he was not directly inspired by an excerpt from Rollo May’s 1975 book “The Courage to Create”. Thus, there may be an earlier matching statement. Alternatively, Covey’s memory might be inaccurate.

Also in 2004 a message in the Usenet newsgroup alt.recovery.addiction.alcoholism attributed the quotation to Victor Frankl and specified a book that does not contain the quotation: 11

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” — Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In 2008 Covey wrote the foreword to “Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work” by Alex Pattakos. Covey gave a slightly different version of the quotation and stated that he had unsuccessfully attempted to determine the author: 12

I read the following three lines, which literally staggered me and again reaffirmed Frankl’s essential teachings:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our happiness.

I did not note the name of the author, so I’ve never been able to give proper attribution. On a later trip to Hawaii I even went back to find the source and found the library building itself was no longer present.

In conclusion, Stephen R. Covey discovered a passage in a book that he believed beautifully articulated the thoughts of Viktor E. Frankl. The passage was not written by Frankl. Also, Covey was never able to recall who wrote the words. Further, Covey altered the words over time. By 2004 one version of the text had incorrectly been ascribed directly to Frankl.

The 1917, 1975, and 1976 citations above are designed to show that the core idea of the saying had entered circulation via other writers before 1989. The match to Rollo May’s statement published in 1975 suggests a joint lineage. Yet, Covey has stated that he saw the source passage in 1969. Perhaps May wrote a similar remark before 1969, or perhaps Covey’s memory is faulty. Future research may resolve the uncertainties.

Image Notes Picture of Stephen Covey; author: Stephen Covey (author) – FMI Show Palestrante; Abras2010; derivative work: Hekerui; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. Picture of fingers in sunlight; author: ClaudiaBassi; retouched and resized by QI; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0. Picture of Viktor Frankl circa 1965; author: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, Viktor-Frankl-Archiv; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

(Great thanks to Craig Terlau, Shira Taylor Gura, Gavin Morrice, Brian Salomaki, and Gary Gach whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Both Terlau and Salomaki helpfully pointed to Covey as the popularizer of the saying. The Wikiquote webpage for Viktor Frankl also points to Covey. Special thanks to Charles McLafferty Jr. who told QI about the important passage written by Rollo May in “The Courage to Create”. McLafferty acknowledged the help of Dmitry Leontiv and Alex Pattakos in identifying the connection to Rollo May.)

Update History: On March 23, 2018 the 1968 and 1975 citations for Rollo May were added. On March 26, 2018 the article was revised to indicate that the quotation was missing in the 1968 citation. On March 27, 2018 the 2004 citation to Covey’s foreword within a book by Pat Croce was added.

Notes:

  1. 1917 Copyright, The Use of Motives in Teaching Morals and Religion by Thomas Walton Galloway (Professor of Zoology, Beloit College), Chapter 3: Some Essential Natural Elements in Education, Discussion of Figure 3, Quote Page 40, The Pilgrim Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1975, The Courage to Create by Rollo May, Chapter 5: The Delphic Oracle as Therapist, Quote Page 100, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1968, The Reach of Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein, Edited by Marianne L. Simmel, Essay: The Delphic Oracle as Therapist by Rollo May, Start Page 211, (Quotation is absent), Springer Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1976, Opening Up Education: A Theoretical and Practical Guide to the Open Classroom, Edited by Gene Thibadeau (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), Chapter 2O: The Currency of Freedom by Sheldon P. Stoff (Professor of Education and Chairman of the Department of Education at Adelphi University, Garden City, New York), Start Page 218, Quote Page 219, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, Iowa. (Verified with hard copy)
  5. 1989, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic by Stephen R. Covey, Chapter: Habit 1 Be Proactive, Quote Page 69 and 70, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1989, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic by Stephen R. Covey, Chapter: Habit 1 Be Proactive, Quote Page 70, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1989, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic by Stephen R. Covey, Chapter: Habit 7 Inside-Out Again, Quote Page 309 and 310, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 2003 (Copyright 1994), First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill, Section One: The Clock and the Compass, Chapter 3: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy, Quote Page 59, Free Press: Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  9. 2001 June 1, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.martial-arts.karate.shotokan, From: Tazman @hotmail.com, Subject: Re: What’s wrong with the Dojo Kun? (Google Groups Search; Accessed February 18, 2018) link
  10. 2004, Lead or Get Off the Pot!: The Seven Secrets of a Self-Made Leader by Pat Croce with Bill Lyon, Section: Foreword by Stephen R. Covey, Start Page xiii, Quote Page xiii, A Fireside Book: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  11. 2004 March 20, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.recovery.addiction.alcoholism, From: neuro equipoise @webtv.net, Subject: Re: It’s not your fault. (Google Groups Search; Accessed February 18, 2018) link
  12. 2008, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work by Alex Pattakos, Ph.D., Section: Foreword by Stephen R. Covey, Quote Page viii, Read How You Want; Large Print Books, Sydney, Australia. (Google Books Preview)