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McAdams on Bush: a psychobiography

December 3, 2010

Personality psychologist Dan McAdams has a new book out called George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream. Dan was my undergraduate advisor, and I saw him give a provocative talk about this work at last summer’s ARP conference. I just told my wife to add the book to my Christmas list.

Most of McAdams’s research centers on personal narratives — the stories that people create and tell about themselves, and what role these stories play in identity and personality. But in the talk — and I gather in the book as well — Dan drew on a variety of theories and frameworks to understand some of Bush’s most consequential actions before and during his time in office. Here’s a brief description from an announcement I got about the book:

This short, streamlined psychological biography uses some of the best scientific concepts in personality and social psychology to shed light on Bush’s life, with a focus on understanding his fateful decision, as President, to launch a military invasion of Iraq.  The analysis draws heavily from contemporary research on Big Five traits, psychological goals and strivings, and narrative identity, as well as social identity theory, evolutionary psychology, research on motivated social cognition, research on authoritarianism and related concepts in political psychology, and Jon Haidt’s brilliant synthesis of moral intuitions.

Once upon a time, psychobiography was a pretty well-respected enterprise in personality psychology. I think it’s fallen out of favor in part because of the field’s emphasis on the Big Five traits and other discrete, fractionated variables. That emphasis has had benefits, focusing the field on constructs and theories that we can rigorously quantify and formalize.

But early personality psychologists like Gordon Allport and Henry Murray emphasized that any comprehensive study of personality must be able to account for the person as an integrated whole and a unique individual. The field has lost track of that to a substantial degree. But unlike earlier psychobiographers, who had very little and/or bad science to draw upon, McAdams has almost a century worth of theories and empirical research to bring to bear. That doesn’t mean the task is easy now. But I’m definitely looking forward to reading how Dan took it on.

2 Comments
  1. December 5, 2010 2:36 pm

    I’ll be curious as to what you think. I’ll admit that I have a negative preconception of a lot of the psychobiography, maybe because I lump the pop psychobiographers with the serious academics (which I guess I didn’t realize existed until you mentioned it).
    But I am very skeptical of this sort of thing with political decisions, and celebrities. Doesn’t it become nearly impossible to get “primary” data, when every “personal” event or narrative has been focus grouped, or finessed with a group of advisors? Did Bush really write his book (even leaving aside the plagiarism accusations)? How much of the decision to invade Iraq was his alone, and how much of it was a consequence of the people he surrounded himself with?
    Anyways, I am curious, but skeptical. Maybe you’ll write a post after you read it to convince me.

  2. Sanjay Srivastava permalink
    December 6, 2010 2:22 pm

    My understanding from Dan’s talk is that he was not relying very much, if at all, on Bush’s own statements or official biographies. And the book was written before Decision Points came out so I don’t think that factored in.

    I’d imagine there’s a lot of material floating out there that wasn’t fully controllable by the campaign — press stories and interviews, memoirs of people who’ve crossed paths with Bush, etc. I’m not sure how McAdams picked sources or evaluated their validity. It must be the same sort of thing journalists and historians have to do, and it must be pretty hard.

    Here’s a guest blog McAdams wrote that probably gives a flavor of how he sourced some of his book:

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/political-bookworm/2010/11/what_bush_left_out_of_decision.html

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