A Clinical Upstart Elbows Its Way into the Personality-Assessment Fray

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, August 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

A Clinical Upstart Elbows Its Way into the Personality-Assessment Fray


Bower, Bruce, Science News


A clinical upstart elbows its way into the personality-assessment fray

The landscape of an individual's personality has much in common with one of those 19th-century impressionist paintings made up of thousands of colored dots. From across the room, an art lover gazing at such a framed creation sees sunbathers lolling by a lake, or perhaps a circus scene. Personality features pondered from a suitable distance also seem to coalesce into familiar forms. For example, a coworker comes across as friendly and fun loving, while an office supervisor always seems grouchy and distracted.

From up close, however, so-called pointillist paintings drive observers dotty. Beautiful scenes crumble into a crazy quilt of tiny tinted flecks. Close-up scrutiny of someone's personality can prove just as disorienting. Solid-looking dispositions dissolve into pools of often-contradictory desires, feelings, and habits.

Consider that hale and hearty coworker. He may cozy up to lots of folks because he loves social contact and craves his peers' approval. Or perhaps his chummy behavior masks discomfort around others and a deep-seated need to manipulate them for his own ends. If the latter proves true, is he more shy than gregarious, or vice versa?

Drew Westen, a psychotherapist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, takes the close-up perspective in treating people whose personalities have gone awry. Like most psychotherapists, Westen relies on clinical experience and intuitive guesswork to do his job. Current methods of classifying personality and its disturbances offer clinicians little practical help, he contends.

So, Westen and Aspen, Colo., psychotherapist Jonathan Shedler, both of whom are also research psychologists, have developed their own personality-assessment tool.

They hope their technique will inspire psychiatrists to revise and refine official diagnoses of personality disorders. Westen and Shedler also would like to break psychologists from the habit of using volunteers' questionnaire responses to map out personality characteristics. This popular approach has yielded a handful of traits that scientists are trying to link to various genes. Its proponents, however, have failed to generate any theories of how personality develops and what purposes it serves, Westen argues.

In his view, questionnaire responses tap into a person's self-concept and social reputation without addressing the deeper organizing principles of his or her personality.

Not surprisingly, some personality researchers disagree. Westen and Shedler, however, are targeting their method to psychotherapists. These practitioners could use a tool that would act as a scalpel to cut through the sews outer hide to explore personality's inner workings, Westen and Shedler say.

Many clinicians find fault with commonly used systems for personality classification. Psychotherapists disparage as laundry lists of symptoms the personality disorders described in psychiatry's official diagnostic manual. These categories mainly exist for the convenience of insurers that cover mental health care, they say. Moreover, clinicians frequently denigrate the handful of personality traits studied by psychologists as statistical entities that only skim personality's surface.

Behavioral researchers return the favor by tending to brand psychotherapists as hopelessly subjective, mistake-prone in their judgments about clients, and willfully ignorant of scientific advances.

Westen hopes his new personality measure, which combines clinical experience with hard-nosed statistical analysis, will ease tensions between mental-health practitioners and scientists. However, he notes, it could just as easily alienate both camps.

"It's hard to sustain the view that fundamental aspects of personality can be found by asking people direct questions about themselves and others on questionnaires," Westen says. …

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