The Psychologist as Biographer
Alan C. Elms
years ago, Henry Murray began to write a biography of Herman Melville. This was to be Murray's
first effort at psychological analysis.
Indeed, as he told me many years later, it was the first professional
work he attempted "outside of chemistry and embryology and things like
that" (interview, August 10, 1977). In 1927 Murray asked
his new-found literary friend, Conrad Aiken, to look at the first hundred pages
of his Melville biography. According to
Murray, Aiken "spent a day over it and then he said, Oh, it was just
terrible....He said, 'Start again, throw it away, no good, can't do anything
with it'" (ibid.) Murray may
have exaggerated Aiken's negative response, but he took it to heart. He did not give up on Melville, but he put
the manuscript away and apparently did little further work on it until the late
1930s. I have heard that when he asked
for Aiken's opinion of a revised draft, Aiken responded, "Not
bad"--sufficient criticism for Murray to
hide the manuscript for another decade.
Murray eventually did publish something on Melville, it was neither a
full-scale psychological biography nor a psychological journal article, but a
ninety-page introduction to one of Melville's least-read novels, Pierre, or,
the Ambiguities (Murray, 1949). That
introduction to Pierre, together with an essay on Moby-Dick that appeared in a
literary quarterly two years later (Murray, 1951), represented only a fraction
of Murray's thinking and writing about Melville over a quarter-century.
Nonetheless, those two publications "transformed Melville
scholarship" with their psychological insights, according to a later
psychological scholar of Melville, Edwin Shneidman (1981, p. 5). Had Murray published his full-scale study of
Melville a decade or two earlier, someplace where psychologists would read it,
he might have transformed scholarship in biographical psychology as well--or
rather, he might have created a field of biographical psychology through his
brave and brilliant example. But Murray,
who was in many ways one of the most courageous figures in twentieth-century
psychology, in this instance feared to make a fool of himself before other
psychologists, literary scholars, and especially other Melville scholars.
by no means the only major figure in psychology who paid serious attention to
individual biography. Sigmund Freud
wrote one truly psychobiographical book, his 1910 study of Leonardo (actually
briefer and less detailed than Murray's introduction
to Pierre), plus several psychobiographical essays and a sketchy
speculative work on Moses, which Freud himself referred to as a
"historical novel" (1939).
Carl Jung's first major effort to move beyond the Freudian theoretical
model was in large part a psychological study of one individual, an American
woman referred to as Miss Miller, which drew upon her autobiographical memoir
(Jung, 1912). Jung also gave
considerable thought to how the individual characters of Freud and Adler led to
their distinctive theoretical positions; indeed Jung attributed his concepts of
introversion and extraversion to his comparison of Adler's and Freud's
personalities (1917). Similarly, Abraham
Maslow said he derived his concept of self-actualization originally from close
attention to the lives and personalities of two exemplary individuals,
anthropologist Ruth Benedict and psychologist Max Wertheimer (1972, pp.
40-41). One of Gordon Allport's earliest
publications was an analysis of a rather bizarre autobiography called The
Locomotive-God (1929), and one of his final publications was the book version
of an elderly woman's autobiography-in-letters, accompanied by Allport's
psychological commentary (1965). Erik
Erikson emigrated to the United States with a psychobiographical manuscript on Adolf Hitler in his
luggage (interview, August 10, 1982); Erikson
subsequently wrote major psychobiographical works about Luther (1958) and
Gandhi (1969), as well as briefer studies of other figures. Even B. F. Skinner, early in his career,
taught and wrote about the psychological development of such writers as Lewis
Carroll, D. H. Lawrence, and Dostoevski, though like Murray he
eventually stored his psychobiographical writings away and presented a
different face to his professional colleagues (Skinner, 1979, pp. 208 &
autobiographical statements by prominent psychologists describe how they were
first attracted to psychology by its potential for helping them understand
specific individuals--sometimes the psychologist's own personality, more often
the distinctive personalities of others, famous and ordinary. But if so many psychologists have entered the
field for that reason, why have so few psychologists continued to devote significant
effort to the study of individual biography?
And why is there, to this day, no widely recognized field or subfield of
biographical psychology, no professional journals or organizations devoted to
that topic, hardly even any psychobiographical papers in journals concerned
with such relevant research areas as personality and developmental psychology?
quick answer to these questions is that psychologists are actively discouraged
from pursuing individual biographical research.
Murray's passion for biography was most immediately discouraged by a
professional writer, but he also faced continual pressure from his academic
peers to move toward the topical and theoretical norms of mainstream
psychology, or at least to attain methodological respectability through the
study of quantifiable data on large numbers of individuals. To this day, undergraduate psychology majors,
however strong their initial interest in understanding the individual human
being, are quickly socialized by their teachers and their textbooks to value
similar criteria: abstraction and generalization rather than specificity and
individuality; the collection and analysis of numbers summarizing shared
variance among many anonymous "subjects," rather than the qualitative
study and comprehension of the lives of a few fully-formed human beings. Psychology graduate students are given even
more emphatic lessons about professional respectability. They're told to find a manageable
dissertation project, one that uses standard methods of measurement and
analysis, one that will "look scientific" to colleagues and
prospective employers. A biographical
study, no matter how sophisticated or innovative, will surely raise too many
doubts about the seriousness of one's scientific commitments.
I want to argue that we should have an active field of biographical psychology,
a field in which psychologists make their own best contributions to biography
and develop better ways for others to do psychological biographies. I will
argue that there are many strong reasons to develop such a field, but only a
few weak reasons to continue rejecting it.
Others before me have argued for the existence of such a field--as long
ago as Henry Murray and Gordon Allport and Robert White, as recently as last
year's Murray Award winner, Mac Runyan, and the March 1988 special issue of the
Journal of Personality edited by Dan McAdams.
But history suggests that biographical psychology will continue to face
strong resistance from the advocates of traditional approaches to psychology,
and that only vigorously sustained efforts will overcome such resistance. As my contribution to that continuing
struggle, I will ask two major questions: "Why should psychologists become
biographers?" and "Why do psychologists stay out of biography?"
Why Should Psychologists Become Biographers?
am tempted to answer this question simply by saying, "Why not?" Instead I will discuss six reasons, out of
the many that could be listed.
To make useful applications of psychological knowledge.
is one of the most obvious reasons for psychologists to get involved in doing
biography: they already know plenty of things about human psychology that can
help answer biographical questions.
Judging from the wide variety of biographical books and articles
published each year, there is a continuing thirst for biographical
understanding of key figures in such areas as literary studies, music, history,
the social sciences, biology, even the physical sciences. Biographical scholars in all of those fields
often try to find psychological answers for their questions about the
personality development and the crucial life episodes of their subjects. Indeed some non-psychologists develop a great
deal of psychological sophistication concerning a particular subject--as
witness, for instance, literary scholar Leon Edel's deep understanding of the
psychology of Henry James (1985). Others
may consult psychologists about concepts that could prove useful in dealing
with their subjects. For example, I have
recently been consulted on my home campus by a classicist intrigued with the
apparently pathological lying displayed by the discoverer of the ruins of Troy,
Heinrich Schliemann; by a scholar in the Russian Department who was writing
about indications of repressed homosexuality in
Josef Stalin; and by a literary scholar reviewing books about the
origins of Ernest Hemingway's macho persona.
In each case I offered some suggestions, but I also realized that I
didn't know enough about Schliemann, Stalin, or Hemingway to be very
helpful. Such consultation of psychologists
by other kinds of scholars does have its uses.
But biographical understanding is typically so dependent on both the
breadth and the depth of a scholar's knowledge of a life that such uses are
existing psychological knowledge can be applied to biographical subjects in
another way: through the psychologist's own development of detailed familiarity
with a particular biographical subject.
That does not mean the psychologist must pursue the kind of
life-consuming involvement with a subject that Henry Murray did with Herman
Melville. More limited biographical
research may permit a psychologist to recognize the specific relevance of a
psychological construct to a subject's life, and thus elegantly organize the
biographical data in ways that might have escaped a non-psychologist. In a recent instance, I became interested in
the life and work of a pioneer of modern science fiction, a writer named Jack
Williamson, who published his first story in 1928 and will publish his most
recent story next month. Williamson
underwent two years of psychoanalysis half a century ago, and his therapist at
the Menninger Clinic published a paper
at that time, diagnosing him as a schizoid personality. Williamson's recent autobiography, as well as
the principal themes of his fiction throughout his career, seemed to me
inconsistent with that diagnosis. I am
not a clinician, but I knew enough about the clinical literature to identify a
more appropriate diagnostic category, named in the DSM-III as the avoidant
personality syndrome (Elms, 1989). Of
course even the latter diagnosis does not fully characterize the personality or
the fiction of this complex and creative writer, but it does efficiently pull
together various elements in his personal history and his work, in ways that
have made sense to a number of science fiction scholars and to Jack Williamson
applications of existing psychological knowledge to biography need not come
only from the clinical literature, though that is certainly a valuable body of
information. Several years ago, when
Alexander Haig was still a prominent figure in foreign affairs and was
beginning to talk about running for President, I started to wonder whether Haig
was as much of a Machiavellian personality as his former boss, Henry Kissinger
(Elms, 1976, pp. 136-148). When I
assembled all the published biographical and autobiographical information I
could find about Haig, I was surprised to recognize that another classic
concept in personality psychology explained Haig much better than
Machiavellianism--namely, the construct of the authoritarian personality (Elms,
1986). Given that authoritarian
personalities seem to me less than optimal candidates for the U. S. Presidency,
I am pleased that Haig has decided not to pursue the Presidency further at this
time. Had he done so, however, I think
quite a few people might have found this application of psychological knowledge
helpful in evaluating Haig's qualifications for high office.
Murray's preferred word "personology" to describe the
psychology of the whole person (Murray,
1938), we might describe such uses of psychological knowledge in biography as a
form of applied personology. Just as
applied social psychology can tell us useful things about decision-making in
trial juries, obedience among hospital nurses, etc., so biographical psychology
may help us to understand better the public individuals who become important to
us for many reasons in our everyday lives.
Even psychobiographies of literary figures--perhaps the most frequently
published kind of psychobiographical study--can serve in this sense as
genuinely applied personology. As Murray often
argued, imaginative activity stands at the core of ordinary human life. We often base our self-concepts as well as
our moral standards and our life goals on what the great and some not-so-great
(but still personally significant) writers communicate to us. Psychobiographical research can subtly or
dramatically redefine the messages of these writers' lives and work, for
researchers and readers alike.
individuals in the other arts have also transformed the lives of attentive
audiences. Psychobiographical studies of
such individuals can affect their devoted fans further still--whether by
deepening their appreciation of the artists' achievements, or by challenging
misplaced and meretricious enthusiasms.
From Mozart (Hildesheimer, 1982) and Verdi (Mendelsohn, 1978-79) to
Elvis Presley (Heller & Elms, 1988) and the Beatles, musical composers and
performers have powerfully influenced our culture and its component
members. From Michelangelo (Liebert,
1983) to Marilyn Monroe, from Picasso (Gedo, 1980) to Akira Kurosawa, our
concepts of personal beauty and our styles of furnishing our own imaginative
worlds have been shaped by prototypical individuals and their creative
achievements. Studying the personal histories of these individuals through
serious psychobiography may give us a clearer understanding of what they
contribute to our subjective lives, or a new freedom from their previously
unappreciated domination of our lives.
Political figures and charismatic leaders
(sometimes but not always the same people) have received special attention from
psychobiographers. Even in cases that
might appear mainly of historical interest (e.g., Martin Luther, Andrew
Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia),
psychobiographers have identified important connections between their
personality development and contemporary culture (Erikson, 1958; Rogin, 1975;
George & George, 1964; Mack, 1976).
The potential value of psychobiographical research in helping us as
citizens to assess our recent, current, and future political leaders should be
even more obvious. (It certainly seems
to be obvious to the CIA, which reportedly devotes a fair amount of effort to
psychobiographical studies of foreign leaders--and quite possibly, I would
guess, to studies of potential domestic leaders as well.)
other subjects of psychobiographical study, neither artistic nor political nor
charismatic, have also influenced the members of contemporary societies in
important ways. These are the major
psychological theorists. Childraising
procedures, the schooling of our youth, the practice of psychotherapy, the
structure of business and industry, the themes of our popular
entertainments--all these and more have been influenced by Freud, Skinner,
Maslow, and their fellow theorists.
Given that their theories are permeated with their personalities and
with the precipitates of their life histories, careful psychobiographical study
of these theorists becomes an important avenue for assessing what is least
idiosyncratic and thus perhaps most broadly applicable of their hypothesized
"truths" about human nature (Stolorow & Atwood, 1979; see also
Elms, 1972, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1988).
To make useful applications of methodological and conceptual
has no distinctive research methodology of its own. Each individual biography, depending on the
nature of the life being studied and the records of that life which are
available for study, demands a new combination of research skills and
strategies. The well-trained research
psychologist can bring to biography not only a wider array of theories and
psychological knowledge, but also a more diverse array of skills and strategies
for collecting new biographical knowledge or for making sense of what is
already available. Thoughtful
biographers of whatever background have never relied entirely on simple
accumulations of chronologically arranged "facts," or on
impressionistic guesses about the central themes of a life. Rather, they have
developed various rules of thumb about how to judge the reliability and
validity of apparent facts and about how to move from fact to interpretation. Psychologists should be able to bring greater
clarity and order to such rules of thumb, by insisting on explicit statements
of what the rules are and how they can best be used. W. M. Runyan (1981) has provided a good
example of such a process in evaluating an array of explanations for Van Gogh's
ear-cutting episode. Runyan has also
discussed a number of other criteria for biographical explanation in his
methodological book (1982). And Irving
Alexander (1988) has recently proposed a very useful list of criteria for
evaluating the relative importance of items of biographical evidence. Prospective biographers in any field would
benefit from studying the core methodological concepts enumerated by these two
personality psychologists have adapted diverse psychological research methods
to the study of individual life histories.
IPAR staff members at UC Berkeley, for instance, have long made use of
Q-sort methodology to move from biographical data to judgments about the personality
of an individual (Historical Figures Assessment Collaborative, 1977). David Winter and his colleagues have
imaginatively adapted Thematic Apperception Test scoring procedures to the
analysis of presidential speeches and other biographical documents (Winter
& Stewart, 1977; Winter & Carlson, 1988). Abigail Stewart and her colleagues have
extended various content analysis procedures to the study of autobiographical
documents such as memoirs, diaries, and letters (Stewart, Franz, & Layton,
1988). Seymour Rosenberg and his
colleagues (e.g., Rosenberg & Jones, 1972) have applied other
content-analytic procedures to the comparison of autobiographical fiction with
other kinds of biographical evidence. In
each of these instances, nomothetic research procedures have been applied to
individual case studies, with provocative results.
research training involves not only specific methodological procedures but
general conceptual skills--ways of framing research problems, ways to improvise
new and better data-collection and data-analysis procedures as each problem
demands. Such conceptual approaches
should be at least as useful in biographical research as specific research
skills are--perhaps more so, because of the difficulty and complexity of each
new biographical project. I have often
recommended to my students and others that they choose biographical subjects
about whom they feel strongly ambivalent, in order to offset the effects of
both positive and negative biases. I now
suggest also that the best biographical research is likely to come from those
who remain strongly ambivalent about their methods and theories--who feel on
the one hand that biographical research is worth doing and that skilled use of
their existing knowledge will help get it done, but who feel on the other hand
that no research procedure is completely adequate to the study of a human life,
that improvement and innovation in method and theory are essential for the
advance of biography, and that no substantial conclusion drawn from
biographical research is ever absolutely conclusive. I would not go so far toward the negative
side of this ambivalence as Henry Murray did, always reluctant to let go of his
Melville research because he knew it was not yet perfect. (He once told Silvan Tomkins, in true
obsessive-compulsive language, "It will take a mighty physic to separate
me from this manuscript" [Tomkins, personal communication, September 24,
1981].) But both the positive and the
negative sides of such ambivalence must be maintained if the quality of
psychological biography is to be improved.
To test nomothetic hypotheses.
we all know, a large portion of the hypothetical constructs in human psychology
have emerged from, and been further tested by, observations on college freshmen
and sophomores. Of those that have not,
the bulk have come from observations of neurotic or borderline patients. Most nomothetic hypotheses in psychology, in
order to be certified pure through laboratory research, experimental design,
and statistical analysis, have concentrated on extremely narrow samples of
behavior. Would it not be interesting
occasionally to put these hypotheses to another kind of test--by using them in
an attempt to make sense of the life of one whole, adult, fully-functioning
individual? That is the sort of
opportunity offered to psychologists by biographical research.
Allport once said that the understanding of the individual case should be the
bottom line in psychological research. I
would not go quite that far. But testing
hypotheses from nomothetic psychology against an individual biographical bottom
line could accomplish several things: 1.) The nomothetic hypotheses might
actually help to explain the course of individual lives--probably a surprising
result to everyone involved, but not a totally impossible one. If this happens often, psychobiographers will
not need to rely so much on speculative psychoanalytic hypotheses, and the
field of psychobiography will become more healthily eclectic as a result. 2.) The hypotheses might fail to explain any
important aspects of the life history effectively. Perhaps certain lines of nomothetic research
would be appropriately abandoned as a result, and research questions more
relevant to real life could be taken up instead. 3.) Attempts to apply nomothetic hypotheses
in a psychobiographical context might be only partially successful, but enough
so that the original hypotheses can be modified and retested in the laboratory
or other non-life-history setting. The
new results could then be applied to the same life histories and then to still
others. Such a cyclical process of
hypothesis-testing, revising, and re-testing would be beneficial to individual
life history research and to nomothetic psychological research at the same
date, rather few hypothetical constructs from other than psychoanalytic or
clinical sources have been applied to individual life histories. Thus there are whole domains of hypotheses on
the one hand, and life histories on the other hand, just waiting to get
together. B. F. Skinner has been
promising or threatening for at least a decade (e.g., personal communication,
August 15, 1979) to write a kind of psychobiographical analysis, expressed in
strictly behaviorist terms, which would trace the reinforcement contingencies
that shaped the life of B. F. Skinner; but he concluded his three-volume
autobiography without doing so. Rae
Carlson (1988) has recently used Silvan Tomkins' script theory, derived from an
eclectic program of research on emotional development, to explain central
conflicts in the lives of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Eleanor Marx. Though she did so mainly to illustrate and
clarify important elements of Tomkins' difficult theory for a wider audience,
Carlson also acknowledged the value of life-history study as a "laboratory
for developing and testing basic personality theory," and for
"deepening and sharpening our theoretical insights" (1988, p. 106)
Tomkins himself has emphasized (1988), the further development of personality
psychology requires that, as in other sciences, competing hypotheses be tested
on publicly available bodies of data.
The data on which psychobiographical tests of hypotheses can
appropriately be made are fully public.
The psychobiographer need not disguise the identity of the subject, as
in clinical cases, and need not select the data to be published from a much
larger body of data that remains inaccessible to other researchers for reasons
of professional confidentiality. This
important distinction between psychobiographical and clinical research, which
has received little attention, may effectively answer the arguments of such
critics as Spence (1982) and Grunbaum (1984) that psychoanalytic data on
personality are unscientific because they are irreparably contaminated by the
private nature of the therapeutic relationship.
To yield new theoretical concepts.
is perhaps the most readily accepted use of biographical study in
psychology. Most psychologists
acknowledge the mystery of theory-creation at the same time that they emphasize
the stern necessities of theory-testing.
The comprehensive study of a single life may, if anything, generate so
many theoretical questions that the researcher feels overwhelmed and returns
eagerly to rat learning or five-point scales.
But by focusing on particular aspects of a life, a researcher may be
just sufficiently stimulated to develop theoretical concepts that will make
more sense of those aspects than anything previously available. I am not ordinarily a theorist, but I
recently had the experience of trying to apply a construct I had previously
developed, a phenomenon I had called "superego-tripping," to the
statesman and moralist John Foster Dulles.
I had conceptualized superego-tripping as a kind of moral
self-aggrandizement that occurs when a person assumes that the external world
will necessarily fall into congruence with his or her most strongly felt
superego concerns--as illustrated by Charlie Brown's famous line from the
Peanuts comic strip, "How can we lose when we're so sincere?" (Elms,
1976, pp. 48-57). As Eisenhower's
Secretary of State, Dulles was well known for his moralizing about the sacred
mission of the United
States and the
inevitable downfall of the godless Communists.
But try as I might, my construct of superego-tripping did not seem to
describe much of Dulles' experience or thinking. Eventually I differentiated between
superego-tripping and a newly defined construct, which I christened ego-idealism--judging
external events and behavior largely in terms of how well they measure up to
one's standards of moral perfection, rather than in terms of their pragmatic
effects (Elms, 1986). Ego-idealism worked much better in analyzing Dulles, as it
may for some additional portion of the biographical subjects I encounter in the
a psychobiographer will choose a specific biographical subject with the idea
that this subject may be particularly appropriate for teasing out the strands
of a new theoretical understanding.
Freud seems to have done that with regard to Leonardo and homosexuality;
he may also have felt ready to make his formulation of the Oedipus complex more
complex, and so deliberately chose a psychobiographical subject who apparently
did not live in a patriarchal family during his early life. But in many other instances of life-history
research, new theoretical constructs seem to rise unbidden, perhaps not even
closely related to the subject at hand.
The specific biographical subject in such instances serves mainly to
keep the theoretical pot bubbling, rather than to provide the clay for a
particular theoretical brick. I do not
know of a single major theoretical construct that developed specifically out of
Henry Murray's six-decade-long study of Melville. But Murray felt
challenged by Melville until the end of his own life--challenged to understand
more, to conceptualize personality in new ways, to keep revising the hypotheses
he had already formulated. Melville was
a big enough subject to maintain such a challenge--indeed, he proved to be a
giant white whale that Murray never fully succeeded in harpooning. Though Murray
expended much of his explanatory effort on smaller fish, his career as a
personality theorist surely benefited from the Melvillian challenge.
To understand a personality as a worthy goal in and of
have been discussing how the study of particular persons enables us to attain
various external goals--developing and testing theories and hypotheses, making
responsible use of our knowledge and skills as psychologists. But surely the understanding of a single life
can be an important terminal goal, with no necessity to justify it through
reference to other ends. This is
especially true when the life being studied is of one of the greats among
humanity--Melville or Gandhi, Einstein or Freud, Florence Nightingale or Thomas
Jefferson. Leon Edel did not set out to
write a five-volume biography of Henry James in order to see how well a
Freudian interpretation would fit.
Rather, he felt that James was "a Shakespeare of the novel"
(Edel, 1985, p. xiv) who demanded close attention. To give an example closer to home (or to Atlanta), I
need only turn to the psychobiography of Elvis Presley on which I have been
working with my colleague Bruce Heller. We
are not seeking to test a particular brand of psychological theory or to
develop a nomothetic typology of rock musicians. We simply want to gain a better grasp of the
personal psychology and charismatic appeal of one of the key figures of
contemporary culture. After all, Elvis
is The King--what greater justification do we need?
course lesser figures demand attention as well.
The sheer particularity of personality should provide sufficient grounds
for us to say, as psychologists, "Let us study not only what is found in
everyone or in most people, but in a few or in one." The old woman whom Gordon Allport (1965)
called Jenny had contributed little to our culture. In her final years she had probably caused
more hurt than help to a variety of people.
She might well have died unknown and largely unlamented. But she was, as Allport emphasized, a
distinct individual, not easily pinned down or pigeonholed by any single theory,
but worth looking at for her own singularity.
Obviously that is a statement of value; but what value is worth
defending more vigorously in these times than the value of the individual human
To add to the available body of psychobiographical studies.
all my defense of individual biographical study, I am enough of a traditional
scientist and a traditional psychologist to feel that we should not stop with
the study of the individual. If we study
enough individuals in enough detail, we will emerge with a greatly strengthened
foundation for a nomothetic science of psychology--a psychology that does not
ignore what is difficult to measure in human beings, but that instead balances
the diversity and the commonality of many distinct members of our complex
species. Significant moves have already
been initiated to develop such accumulations of biographical data, especially
by the Goertzel family (1978) and by my next-door office neighbor at UC Davis,
Dean Simonton (1984). But the accuracy
of these accumulations can surely be increased by adding more precisely
detailed, more conceptually sophisticated, more psychologically informed
biographies to the basic data pool.
eventual availability of large numbers of psychobiographies will also give the
author of any new psychobiography a ready context for assessing the relative uniqueness
or commonness of the subject's personal qualities. When I last saw Harry Murray, he listened to
me expound upon psychobiography as applied personology and then responded,
"That's where your [personology] group has a future, one of the ways, in being
applied. If we had eighty or ninety
psychobiographies where the person had had a business failure, and you did
another study of a person who'd been a business failure, you'd have something
to go on" (personal communication, May 24, 1986).
important type of biographical accretion is the multiple study of key
figures--as with the several psychobiographical works already available on
Woodrow Wilson (George & George, 1956; Weinstein, 1981; Bongiorno, 1985,
etc.) and the half-dozen or more on Richard Nixon (Mazlish, 1972; Levitt &
Levitt, 1979; Brodie, 1981, etc.)
Clearly, psychobiography is as susceptible to individual scholarly bias
as any other approach to the study of human psychology. Just as clearly, it cannot easily benefit
from some of the standard ways of controlling researcher bias, such as avoiding
or averaging out the more subtle and idiosyncratic phenomena of human
psychology. But the study of an
important biographical subject need not stop with a single biography of that
individual by one bias-prone researcher.
Over time, as more psychologists take up the challenge of biography, and
as more subjects undergo multiple biographical study from diverse theoretical
and methodological perspectives, a clearer picture should emerge both of the
replicated conclusions concerning those subjects and of the limits of any one
theoretical perspective in biographical research. This is a vital part of what Runyan refers to
as "progress" in psychobiography (1988).
Why Do Psychologists Stay Out of Biography?
there we have a number of important reasons why at least some psychologists
should be doing biography. My other big
question is: Why do so few psychologists do it?
Earlier I mentioned the most obvious reason: psychologists are
socialized during their training to avoid biographical research. But there are other reasons as well, some of
which enter into the socialization process and some of which are rather
personal. Based of course not on
factor-analytic manipulations of systematic survey data but on individual
remarks I've heard and read from a variety of psychologists, I will briefly
discuss several of the most important reasons for not doing biographical
Feelings of inexpertise.
know what they are trained to do, and biographical research is not something
about which they get any specific training.
Therefore they avoid attempts to do biographical research--indeed they
avoid it much more conscientiously than literary scholars or historians avoid
psychological speculation. There seems
to be a common assumption among psychologists that biography is an arcane
enterprise requiring a special kind of expertise that they must forever
lack. Even such an expert personologist
as Rae Carlson protests that "relatively few psychologists are prepared to
undertake the rigors of original psychobiographical research" (1988, p.
137), and that therefore "psychologists' best contribution . . . consists
less in the 'doing' of psychobiography than engaging in basic theoretical work
that makes psychobiography worth doing" (p. 106). I think the strategy Carlson uses
instead--applying her expertise in psychological theory to an existing body of
biographical data accumulated and organized by someone else--is one appropriate
way to use psychology in improving biography.
But it is by no means the only research strategy that psychologists
interested in biography are qualified to use.
have good news and more good news for psychologists. One kind of good news is that hardly anybody
in any field gets substantial formal training in biographical research. Take a look at the graduate course catalogs
of any major university, under such headings as Literary Studies or History or
Political Science, and you will have a hard time locating courses explicitly
designed to teach biographical research methodology. Some graduate students in each of those areas
write biographical and occasionally even psychobiographical dissertations. But they do so mainly on the basis of reading
biographies, reading the scholarly literature about biography, and reading some
psychological theory, then writing a biography on their own. No special credentials are necessary.
other kind of good news is that a well-trained psychologist, especially in an
area such as personality or clinical psychology, already possesses a number of
skills that will come in handy during biographical research--such skills as
knowing how to assemble and organize many bits of behavioral data into a form
that displays a substantial degree of coherence and reliability; knowing how to
compare one kind of data with other kinds to attain some sort of convergent
validation; knowing how to interpret symbolic patterns of meaning; knowing how
to identify defensive structures and adaptive strategies in individual
behavior. I have worked with graduate
students in other departments often enough to know that their training rarely
gives them these research skills that psychology graduate students acquire as a
matter of course.
research is learned best, as most research skills are learned best, by going
out and doing it, then getting feedback from already skilled practitioners,
then going out and doing some more.
Biographical research is usually best done on primary data, as James W.
Anderson (1981) has persuasively advocated--mainly because the non-psychologist
biographer is unlikely to include in a published biography all the kinds of
data most salient to a psychological analysis.
Collecting primary data on a biographical subject can be an
extraordinarily time-consuming process, especially if the subject has never
been studied before. But--one more piece
of good news for psychologists--there are libraries and archives all over the
U. S. and Europe that exist primarily to preserve for scholars the personal
records, the letters and manuscripts and memorabilia, that good biographical
research is built upon. Sometimes the
official archivists seem more concerned with protecting the biographical
materials for eternity than with aiding the struggling researcher; but most
archivists are generous with their time and eager to help. For the psychologist willing to take a
tentative step into it, the world of biographical research can be a refreshing
change from the experimentalist's struggles to lure subjects into the lab or to
get the campus Human Subjects Committee's approval for yet another mass survey
on sex and/or aggression.
Self-image as scientists.
are notoriously uneasy about their professional identity, their occupational self-concept. Many become research psychologists in part
because they want to be regarded as scientists, not as artists or
humanists. But they soon find that the
so-called "hard" scientists, ranging from physicists and
mathematicians to chemists and physiologists, continue to look down upon them
as "soft" scientists or as not scientific at all. In response, many of this century's leading
psychologists have insisted that psychology must be a strongly positivistic
science, and a considerable portion have further insisted that it must be a
quantitative science. Until recently,
the first of these dogmas kept most researchers at some distance even from a
genuinely cognitive psychology, let alone from any approach that deals
centrally with the powerful emotional experiences of ordinary life. The second dogma, the quantitative one, has
seriously interfered not only with large areas of personology but with major
avenues of social psychological research, as Kenneth Gergen and others have
eloquently argued. Thousands of
psychologists have accepted and continue to accept such criteria in defining a
scientific pecking-order, one that may demean a considerable portion of their
colleagues but at least leaves them in the right place: "I may not be a
physicist but at least I'm a positivistic behaviorist." "I may not be an absolute behaviorist
but at least I'm an experimentalist."
"I may not do experiments but at least I do statistical
analyses." "I may not do
statistical analyses but at least I take a broadly nomothetic approach to
psychology." The other end of this
continuum, of course--the end that nearly everyone tries to use as a point for
negative identity formation--is the individual case history approach, the
biographical approach, the idiographic approach.
Allport (1937) introduced the nomothetic-idiographic distinction into American
psychology as a way to advocate the increased study of the individual. Allport's intentions were good, but he
initially stated his idiographic position in language as extreme as any of the
positivists and statisticians--as a science of the totally unique, absolutely
distinct from the generalizing nomothetic approach usually found in
psychological science. Robert Holt's
(1962) devastating criticism of this idiographic extreme probably did more than
any other single work to discourage even personologists from attempting
individual case-history research, except as an idle exercise in
"artistic" psychology. Holt
repeatedly drew the line: idiographics equal art, nomothetics equal science
(e.g., "On this particular point, I shall try to show, the artist in
[Allport] has probably dimmed the vision of the scientist," p. 377;
"...the feeling of understanding [rather than prediction and control] is a
subjective effect aimed at by artists, not scientists," p. 389;
"There is a legitimate art of personality, literary biography. An artist like Andre Maurois is not hindered
by not being a scientist of any kind," p. 390).
realized that he had made a strategic error in trying to draw such a contrast
between idiographic and nomothetic approaches.
He thereafter tried to replace "idiographic" with a less
extreme term, "morphogenic," which refers to the study of
individualized patterning processes in personality rather than of totally
unique personalities (Allport, 1962). As
Allport recognized, a personality researcher can find ways to capture the
qualities that create a subject's individuality, while remaining a serious
scientist who abides by all the unartistic "hindrances" involved in
responsible treatment of data.
Unfortunately, though, the word "morphogenic" never really
caught on, while the word "idiographic" remains a term of opprobrium
among psychologists who want to continue thinking of themselves as scientists
rather than as artists.
matter of scientific self-image appears to be a deeply affecting personal
issue, even among many psychologists who stand far from the Skinnerian extreme
of insisting on externally observable and easily measurable behavior as the
only acceptable kind of datum. The
question recently arose in my own academic department of whether a
psychobiographical study can be accepted as a dissertation research
project. The department rules, since the
early days of our Ph. D. program, had stipulated one primary methodological
requirement: that a Ph. D. dissertation must be based on empirical
research. When the psychobiography issue
arose, several faculty members suddenly announced that they had always taken
the word "empirical" in our program description to mean
"quantifiable" and "nomothetic"--even though the issue had
never been addressed publicly, and though dictionaries inside and outside of
psychology commonly define "empirical" in such broad terms as
"related to facts or experiences . . . based on factual
investigation" (English & English, 1958, p. 178).
own professional identity having thus been challenged, I responded with some
vigor in saying that serious psychobiography involves "factual
investigation" of the most painstaking kinds, and that there is no
inherent difference between the many items of biographical fact collected about
one individual in a life-historical study and the few facts collected about
each of many individuals in the standard sort of "empirical"
psychological study. Most faculty
members in my department were sufficiently tolerant to permit the formation of
a dissertation committee appropriate for a psychobiographical study. But for some psychologists there and surely
for many psychologists elsewhere, the idea that a biographical study of one
individual can be genuinely "empirical" remains a sore point of
considerable dimensions. I hope the
still-troubled members of my own department, at least, will be reassured when
they see the firmly factual but methodologically and theoretically creative
dissertations that evolve out of my students' work during the next several
sensitivities about scientific self-image may be heightened by the frequent
publication in the popular press of critical articles and book reviews that
fail to differentiate between psychobiographical studies in terms of their
general quality or methodological rigor.
The writers of such criticisms appear to assume that psychobiographies
are a common lot, with the most notorious ones (ad hominem, viciously biased,
ignorant or inventive of biographical detail) taken to define the character of
the entire field. I don't like such
guilt-by-association, and I can see why young psychologists in particular would
want to avoid an approach that might saddle them with that kind of
reputation. Some psychologists have
tried to escape such negative categorization by using alternative
terminology--by saying, "I am not a psychobiographer but a biographical
psychologist or a life-historian."
The term "life-historian," however, invites other professional
confusions. The term "biographical
psychologist" sounds respectable enough to me and I have used it
occasionally in this talk and elsewhere, but the quick-witted and mean-spirited
journalist or book reviewer will probably see through it and call you a
psychobiographer anyway. At any rate,
critics of any field will try to define it by its worst examples. The most honorable response to such criticism
is to continue striving to do valid research and to explain to one's audiences
the distinctions between the best and the worst. Getting out or remaining out of the field
will only leave a potentially valid scientific enterprise to the mercy of
practitioners who feel no responsibility toward science.
Tolerance vs. intolerance of ambiguity.
addition to the individual psychologist's self-image as a scientist, various
core and peripheral personality dimensions may influence the approval or
disapproval of biographical research as appropriate for psychologists. One such dimension is tolerance vs.
intolerance of ambiguity. Robert Holt
(1963) has identified tolerance of ambiguity as a key feature of Freud's
cognitive style, permitting him to continue exploring diverse psychological
phenomena that would not yield immediate and firm conclusions. Many individuals who are emphatic about their
identity as empirical scientists, however, appear to be highly intolerant of
ambiguity. Whether such intolerance
comes from a broader pattern of authoritarian personality (Adorno et al.,
1950), a normative personality orientation (Tomkins, 1963), or a general
neurotic character pattern (Freud, 1908), it is likely to respond to the
ambiguities and complications inherent in any life history as being so
distasteful that all but the most reductionistic psychobiographical work is
Personal preferences for area of study.
feature of individual personality patterns readily acknowledged by
psychobiographers is our development of distinctly personal preferences: for
what we enjoy in literature and the other arts, for what we like to eat, for
whom we wish to mate with, and so on.
There's no accounting for tastes, as various clean and dirty jokes and
sayings in several languages tell us.
Likewise our career choices, at least in the higher socioeconomic levels
of this society, are intensely personal, based not only upon such personality
dimensions as tolerance of ambiguity but on our whole life history. It should come as no surprise that some
people prefer psychology and others physics, or that some enjoy statistical
modeling, others the close observation of infant speech development, and still
others the pursuit of biographical research.
I am quite willing to tolerate such idiosyncratic career choices as
neuroendocrinology or attribution research, but I would appreciate a similar
tolerance by others of psychobiography as my career choice.
we could get into the role of unconscious concerns in career choice, but I had
better not--at least not until I have done a detailed psychobiographical study
of any person whose career choice I am trying to understand. Anyway, we don't usually need to talk about
defensive structures and unconscious ambivalences when we speculate on why a
particular young personality psychologist has decided not to specialize in
research is likely to be avoided for quite rational career reasons. Though a few psychology departments may
tolerate the writing of non-experimental, non-quantitative psychobiographical
dissertations, I don't know of any department that actually encourages
them. Advertisements for academic
positions that specifically mention an interest in life-history research are
still few and far between. Even if he or
she gets a decent job, the would-be psychobiographer may be deterred by the
long periods of time required to bring most psychobiographical projects to a
satisfactory conclusion, the lack of research money to support such studies,
and the small number of reliable publication outlets. These are all realistic concerns.
certain regards, however, reality has been slowly changing in ways that may
encourage the choice of biographical psychology as a career. For instance, a methodological literature has
been developing (in such journals as the Psychohistory Review and in such books
as Runyan, 1982) that can provide a respectable basis for graduate training or
for self-training in the field. The
number of journals regularly publishing psychobiographical papers has increased
by at least three since the mid-seventies (Journal of Psychohistory,
Psychohistory Review, Biography), with additional publications (such as the
Journal of Personality, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and
Perspectives in Personality) occasionally opening up to biographical
research. Other professional problems
may be alleviated or resolved when more psychologists become active in
biographical research and band together--as, say, cognitive psychologists or
psychoanalytic psychologists have been able to do in the past decade.
years ago, Henry Murray proposed that "the life cycle of a single
individual should be taken as a unit, the long unit for psychology . . . . The
history of the organism is the organism" (1938, p. 39). A few pages later, he continued, "In the
organism the passage of time is marked by rhythms of assimilation,
differentiation and integration. The
environment changes. Success and failure
produce their effects. There is learning
and there is maturation. Thus new and
previously precluded combinations come into being, and with the perishing of
each moment the organism is left a different creature, never to repeat itself
exactly. No moment nor epoch is typical
of the whole. Life is an irreversible
sequence of non-identical events. Some
of these changes, however, occur in a predictable lawful manner . . . . These
phenomena make biography imperative" (p. 43). Murray's
terminology here, which refers to organisms in the broadest sense, may slightly
mask what he was really saying throughout that great book, Explorations in
Personality, and throughout his career: Life history is personality. A thorough study of personality must include
the dimension of time; the combination of time and idiosyncratic experience
necessitates biographical study.
Therefore, regardless of how they do their research or what theories
they employ, some psychologists ought to keep looking closely at specific
instances of the individual's life as it is lived.
three years ago, George A. Miller said this about work in his own area of
specialization: ". . . recent advances in linguistic science did not
result from better instrumentation, or more accurate measurements, or better
experimental design, or new methods of statistical analysis. They resulted from a profound reformulation
of our ideas about what it means to be a human being" (1985, p. 45). More such reformulations are essential for
the psychology of the future. I am sure
that some of those reformulations of "what it means to be a human
being" will come from continuing to study the lives of real human beings,
whole and individual, in the most resourceful and comprehensive ways we can
develop as psychologists and as biographers.
This paper was presented as the Henry A.
Murray Award lecture at the annual meeting of the American Psychological
Association in Atlanta, GA, August 14, 1988. Correspondence concerning it should be
addressed to Alan C. Elms, Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, or to email@example.com.
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