PsycCRITIQUES - Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books
Twilight: Sun Rising
A review of
The Experimental Study of Personality
Douglas P. Crowne
Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1979. Pp. xi + 254. $14.95

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THE scientific study of personality is in a period of crisis and transition. More than 50 years after Freud's death, the claims of psychoanalysis continue to dominate popular psychology, literature and the arts, the media, and not a few consulting rooms. But formal research on psychoanalytic concepts is caught in a double bind: most in the analytic community reject the experimental work as ill-conceived, irrelevant, and unnecessary; and most experimentalists are skeptical of psychosexual theory, clinical observation, and the interpretive method. Similarly, after almost 50 years of factor analysis, the structural relationships among personality traits remain as obscure as ever. Even the most carefully constructed questionnaires purporting to measure some dispositional dimension fail to predict nontest behavior better than the person's own self-assessment given in ordinary language; and within such dimensions, individual behavior across contexts is considerably more variable than the notion of a personality trait would seem to permit. The conceptual and empirical failures of both psychoanalysis and trait psychology call for a reexamination of the assumptions underlying modern personology, and the methods by which personality is investigated.

The purpose of this book is to survey for the student the wide variety of approaches to the experimental study of personality, their strengths and weaknesses, so that a new generation can build upon the advances, and learn from the errors, of its predecessors. Crowne specifies the scope of his book with his definition of personality as "the organized system of potentialities for behavior" (p. 10) that underlies the consistencies in people's behavior across time and contexts. Whereas this would seem to limit personality to the study of traits, in fact Crowne expands his domain to include many general processes involved in social behavior. There is little attention paid to grand schemes for the structure of personality as indicated by factor analysis of questionnaire items, or the joint influence of several dispositional variables on behavior as indicated by multiple regression—two classic approaches to empirical research on personality. Crowne argues that personality is a primitive science, and for that reason it is most appropriate to study its constructs in piecemeal fashion. Therefore, the emphasis in the book is on the validity of minitheories of personality—the empirical observations that tie down the nomological networks surrounding particular constructs.

Noting that the concepts of personality have their sources in clinical and other forms of naturalistic observations, Crowne argues that true understanding comes from the experimental method. Although there is room in this definition for strictly correlational studies, Crowne criticizes the "passive experimenter" who is content simply to collect correlations, and expresses a clear preference for studies in which relevant variables are placed under tight experimental control and studied in contexts selected or designed with the target construct clearly in mind. The medium for this research is the interaction of persons and situations: personality researchers manipulate situational variables, take advantage of preexisting individual differences that parallel the levels of the manipulation, and determine how individuals differing on some dimension respond to different situations. In this way, Crowne seeks to expose the workings of the behavioral potentialities that lie at the core of personality.

THE heart of the book consists of chapter-length reviews of six representative constructs targeted by the classic approach: anxiety, conflict, repression, stress, the approval motive, and locus of control. These chapters provide excellent coverage of the areas, with detailed expositions of the central experiments and constructive critiques of both concept and method. Crowne faults much research on anxiety for emphasizing highly generalized responses represented by a sum score while ignoring the situational conditions evoking anxiety, the frequency and intensity of experienced anxiety across time and contexts, and differences among specific manifestations of anxiety. His review of conflict research focuses on experiments in the Miller-Dollard tradition and underscores the problems involved in comparing the gradients of approach and avoidance. The chapter on stress covers the work of Selye, Janis, A. Lazarus, and Seligman and underscores the importance of cognitive processes in determining what kind of stimulus will serve as a stressor for the person, and the central role of cognitive transformations in coping with stress that cannot be avoided. Crowne's survey of research on repression shows that to the extent the work was dominated by the interrupted-tasks technique, repression was inevitably confounded with the Zeigarnik effect, leading to ambiguous results. In an account of his own explorations of the approval motive, Crowne discusses the problem of deciding among alternate interpretations of correlational findings—to wit, do the findings reflect a positive need for approval or a fear-based avoidance of disapproval? Most of the empirical literature discussed in the earlier chapters focuses on laboratory contexts, but the material on locus of control takes the reader into the real world to show how generalized expectancies develop out of life experiences, and how they influence behavior in situations of appreciable social importance.

Even though Crowne reviews some of the best representatives of these traditions, it is apparent throughout that these lines of research were beset by serious errors of conceptualization and execution, or foundered on the shoals of nonidentifiability and indeterminacy. Rightly, Crowne wants to save the next generation from all that. In his conclusion he points out some directions for the future, including the following: a quieting of the person-versus-situation furor and an emphasis on person-situation interactions; increased use of clinical and naturalistic observation and of longitudinal studies of personality development and change; a focus on cognitive processes mediating person-situation interactions; and expanded interest in socially relevant and personally consequential interpersonal behavior outside the confines of the laboratory. No one would seriously argue with any of these recommendations, and it is the case that most recent advances in personality research have occurred in areas of person perception, attribution and judgment, self-regulation, and impression management—all of which are explicitly cognitive in nature. There is at least one other direction, however: a radical shift away from dimensions of behavioral dispositions and situations as objectively defined by experimenters, toward the cognitive mediators of person-situation interactions, how they develop and change, and how they relate to the social processes by which the individual responds to his or her life situation. To be sure, this will entail a focus upon the general as opposed to the differential in personology—a step away from the familiar traditions in personality research. But there is room here for the latter, especially when individual differences are simulated by appropriate experimental manipulations, as well as for the idiographic study of individual lives.

Douglas P. Crowne is professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. A Purdue University PhD, he has also been a faculty member at Ohio State and Northwestern, Universities and at the University of Connecticut. Crowne is coauthor of The Approval Motive: Studies in Evaluative; Dependence with D. Marlowe and of a chapter with D. D. Radcliffe in Isaacson, and Pribram's The Hippocampus. A Comprehensive Treatise.

John F. Kihlstrom is associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. A University of Pennsylvania PhD, he has been associate professor at Harvard University and visiting assistant professor at Stanford University. Kihlstrom received the 1979 APA Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology in the area of personality. He is coeditor of Functional Disorders of Memory with F. J. Evans and of Personality, Cognition, and Social Interaction (in press) with N. Cantor.

Previously published in Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, December 1980, Vol. 25, No. 12, 996–997
© 1980, American Psychological Association