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Posthumanity How?
Rebellious Laterborns
The Psychologist as Biographer

The Psychologist as Biographer

Alan C. Elms 

            Sixty-three 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.

            When 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.

            Murray was 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 & 245).

            Many 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?

            The 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.

            Today 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?

            I 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.

            This 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 rather limited.

            However, 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 himself. 

            Such 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.

            Employing 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. 

            Creative 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.)

            Certain 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 skills.

            Biography 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.

            Other 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.

            Psychological 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.

            As 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.

            Gordon 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 time.

            To 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)

            As 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.

            This 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 future.

            Sometimes 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 itself. 

            I 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?

            Of 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 life?

To add to the available body of psychobiographical studies. 

            For 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.

            The 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).

            Another 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?

            So 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 research.

Feelings of inexpertise.

            Psychologists 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.

            I 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.

            The 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.

            Biographical 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.

            Psychologists 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.

            Gordon 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). 

            Allport 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.

            This 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).

            My 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 years.

            Such 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. 

            In 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 rejected.

Personal preferences for area of study.

            One 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.

            Here 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 psychobiography.  Psychobiographical 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. 

            In 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.


            Fifty 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.

            Only 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



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