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Psychobiography was invented by Sigmund Freud while investigating the psychological determinants of Leonardo da Vinci's artistic creativity. Following the founder of psychoanalysis there were about 300 psychobiographic analyses published until 1960. From the 1930's psychoanalysis also influenced the unfolding personality psychology trend called personology in the USA, led by G. W. Allport and Henry A. Murray, who also worked with life stories. However, the major methodological problems of classic psychobiography and the rising of nomothetic approaches in personality research effaced studying lives between the 1950's and the 1980's. The narrative turn in psychology made life story analysis accepted and popular again, and from the 90's we can talk about "a renaissance of psychobiography". The new endeavors encompass psychoanalytical and personological traditions and also integrate narrative perspectives. Contemporary psychobiography is constantly widening its focus: not only artists, but scientists, political and historical figures are also analyzed with more explicit methodology and comparative proceedings. In addition to the fact that psychobiography is a qualitative research method, it is very useful in exploring the psychology of creativity and personality itself and hence can be used as an instrument to train psychology students and prepare them for practical activities like psychotherapy or consultations. With the application of psychobiography the knowledge about human functioning and self-awareness is deepening, since it can be viewed as a practical realization of hermeneutical dialogue leading to the understanding of the human mind.
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Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 7(4), pp. 739-777
Psychobiography as a method. The revival of studying lives:
New perspectives in personality and creativity research
Zoltán Kőváry
Institute of Psychology, University of Szeged
Psychobiography was invented by Sigmund Freud while investigating the psychological
determinants of Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic creativity. Following the founder of
psychoanalysis there were about 300 psychobiographic analyses published until 1960.
From the 1930’s psychoanalysis also influenced the unfolding personality psychology
trend called personology in the USA, led by G. W. Allport and Henry A. Murray, who also
worked with life stories. However, the major methodological problems of classic
psychobiography and the rising of nomothetic approaches in personality research
effaced studying lives between the 1950’s and the 1980’s. The narrative turn in
psychology made life story analysis accepted and popular again, and from the 90’s we
can talk about “a renaissance of psychobiography”. The new endeavors encompass
psychoanalytical and personological traditions and also integrate narrative
perspectives. Contemporary psychobiography is constantly widening its focus: not only
artists, but scientists, political and historical figures are also analyzed with more explicit
methodology and comparative proceedings. In addition to the fact that
psychobiography is a qualitative research method, it is very useful in exploring the
psychology of creativity and personality itself and hence can be used as an instrument
to train psychology students and prepare them for practical activities like psychotherapy
or consultations. With the application of psychobiography the knowledge about human
functioning and self-awareness is deepening, since it can be viewed as a practical
realization of hermeneutical dialogue leading to the understanding of the human mind.
Keywords: psychobiography, psychoanalysis, personology, creativity, personality
research, education of psychologists, dialogue.
Psychobiography as a method
The much contested method called psychobiography has now a century-long
history: Freud published his groundbreaking essay on Leonardo da Vinci in 1910
(Freud, 1957). This approach became popular mainly within psychoanalysts who
cultivated psychology of arts as a secondary interest: about 300 similar articles were
published until 1960 and these works also heavily influenced literary criticism (Kraft,
1998). Psychobiography did not remain the interior case of psychoanalysis. The
idiographic approach in personality research studying life stories called personology
became widespread in the United States from the 1930’s by the works of G. W.
Allport (1980) and Henry A. Murray (2008) and their disciples. Allport himself
emphasized that life story has to be the starting point for every other research
method in the investigation of personality. However, in the second half of the last
century the nomothetic approach which studies and formulates the general or
universal laws - became hegemonic within personality psychology and, as a
consequence, psychoanalytic and personological traditions were relegated in the
background, rendering psychobiography an „out of favor” method for decades
(Barenbaum & Winter, 2003; Runyan, 1997).
Though critiques of the nomothetic perspective were already rising in the 1970’s
(“Where is the person in personality research?” asked Rae Carlson in 1971),
dramatic changes only appeared in the 80’s and 90’s, since after a „narrative turn”
in psychology (László, 2008) life story analysis became more accepted in personality
psychology and in applied psychology. After the spread of the narrative approach
and contemporary psychodynamic self-theories (Karterud, Monsen, ed. 1999),
psychobiographical research came to a kind of renaissance in psychoanalysis and
in personality research as well (Anderson, 2003; McAdams, 1988, 2001; Elms, 1994,
2007; Runyan, 1997). Since 2005 the first synthesis of modern endeavors is already
accessible (Schultz, 2005a).
This paper presents the theoretical, methodological and practical specificities of
contemporary psychobiography with respect to its important historical antecedents.
Besides personality psychological and psychoanalytic aspects it focuses on its
importance in creativity research. There are numerous reasons for this:
psychobiography, on one hand, arose from the psychoanalytic inquiry of artistic
creativity (Blum, 2001), whereas on the other hand, from the second half of the 20th
century, a lot of psychologists argued that normal personality functioning is strongly
connected with creativity (Csíkszentmihályi, 1996; May, 1959; Maslow, 1999; Richards,
2006, Winnicott, 2005). Therefore, by learning how creativity works, we will be able to
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define the conditions of healthy self-functioning. Finally, during my quest in studying
the dynamics of creative process I have also turned to psychobiographic analyses
(Kőváry, 2009a, 2009b). Using the elements of contemporary psychobiography I
came to the conclusion that this method’s outstanding significance not only lies
within personality and creativity research but I also believe that the utilization of
psychobiography in education can be very useful. In-depth life story analyses can
help psychology students to further expand their knowledge about the human mind
and behavior by integrating and using psychological attainments. Given that this
work is a dialogue an encounter with the other, it is a good chance for deepening
empathic skills and self-awareness.
Historical antecedents of psychobiography
Psychobiography just like it’s theoretical and methodological foundation,
psychoanalysis had not come into existence out of thin air: it has very important
and identifiable antecedents. One of them is the biographical literature based upon
pioneering works by Plutarch (45-125 AD.), who focused on political and historical
figures. The interest for the life and the personality of artists appeared much later in
the 16th century (Wittkower & Wittkower, 2006). Giorgio Vasari, who probably
invented the word “renaissance”, published his book, Lives of the Artists was
published in 1550 (Vasari, 1998); this book is often cited in the very first
psychobiography, Sigmund Freud’s Leonardo-essay. Biography writing reached its
zenith in the 19th century, in the age of romanticism, a period that had a great
intellectual influence on Freud’s conception of creativity (Kőváry, 2011) and also led
to the formation of modern hermeneutics (Dilthey, 1996). The heydays of biography
writing were in the 19th century wrote Hungarian publicist Aladár Schöpflin (1933).
History was rediscovered and reformed, first to fantasize about it with romantic
inspiration, then to create an uplifting collection of instances for the present, and
finally to get to know it pragmatically by scientific methods.
If we talk about writing and analyzing life-stories, it’s not easy to distinguish literature
from psychology. Lohmann (2008) thinks that if we take a look at Freud’s life work, it
actually begins with a bundle of short stories (Studies on hysteria) and ends with a
historical novel (Moses and monotheism). It’s also notable, that the father of
psychoanalysis was honored with the literary Goethe-prize of Frankfurt in 1930
(Schwielbusch, 1994). The demarcation is also complicated from the side of
literature. The biographies written by Freud’s friend Stefan Zweig, are filled with
psychological insights, like his masterpiece The struggle with the daemon (2001) or
even with psychoanalytic ideas, like his essay on Freud (1932). So we might agree
with Fathali Moghaddam (2004), who emphasizes that it is practically impossible to
Psychobiography as a method
set a system of criteria that enables us to distinguish psychology clearly from
The other source of psychobiography is a medical approach called pathography.
Pathography, as Schioldann’s (2003) defines it, is a ”historical biography from a
medical, psychological and psychiatric viewpoint. It analyses a single individual's
biological heredity, development, personality, life history and mental and physical
pathology, within the socio-cultural context of his/her time, in order to evaluate the
impact of these factors upon his/her decision-making, performance and
achievements” (2003, p. 303). Pathography is rooted in the philosophies of Plato and
Aristotle, who underlined that there is an inherent connection between madness
and genius. The first modern psychiatric approach, La psychologie morbide dans ses
rapport avec la philosophie de l'histoire ou l'influence des névropathies sur le
dynamisme intellectual (Psychopathology in connection with the philosophy of
history or the effects of nervous illnesses on the dynamics of the intellect) was written
by Jacques-Joseph Moreau (de Tours) in 1859, in the great century of biography
writing. This work had a great influence on the notorious author of Genius and
madness, Cesare Lombroso who published his famous book in 1864. In turn, the
concepts about degeneration by Lombroso (2000) and the Hungarian descent Max
Nordau influenced the era’s scientific standpoint and the advance of medical
discourse (Foucault, 1984). The phrase “pathography”, which is also mentioned in
Freud’s Leonardo-paper, was first used by German psychiatrist Paul Julius Möbius,
who wrote several pathographies, for example about Rousseau, Goethe,
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (Schioldann, 2003). In this respect, Ernst Kretschmer
and Karl Jaspers are also notable; Jaspers for example published writings about
Strindberg and Van Gogh (Bormuth, 2006).
Although Freud (1964) essentially denied philosophical inspirations, there are some
doubtless similarities between psychoanalysis and the continental Lebensphilosophie
of the late 19th century, concerning the role of studying the human individuum in an
idiographic way and the importance of biographical approach. Wilhelm Dilthey, the
founder of modern hermeneutics, in 1883 in his Introduction to human sciences
emphasized the importance of studying the whole individuum’s uniqueness, and he
also designated the tool for this work. “Biography – he wrote - is “an important
resource for the further development of a true Realpsychologie One can regard
the true work of the biographer as the application of the science of anthropology
and psychology to the problem of bringing to life and making intelligible the nature,
development and destiny of a life unit” (Dilthey, 1989, p. 85-86). Later (1894), in Ideas
concerning a descriptive and analytic psychology, Dilthey claimed that in the 18th
and 19th centuries, man had “created modern biography” for the understanding of
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human evolution and “natural history of psychic life” (Dilthey, 1977, p. 105). Dilthey,
through his disciple Eduard Spranger strongly influenced Gordon Allport, the pioneer
of idiographic approach in personality psychology, who worked as a postdoc
scholar in Germany in 1923 with Spranger (Barenbaum & Winter, 2003).
The other important connection to Lebensphilosophie is Friedrich Nietzsche. Freud’s
conceptions of creativity and the psychology of the artist which are inherently
related to the emergence of psychobiography are showing some mysterious
overlaps with Nietzsche’s apprehension (Kőváry, 2011). According to Thomas Mann
(1985), Agnes Heller (1994) and others, with the interpretation of an artist’s (i.e.
Richard Wagner’s) personality Nietzsche tried to handle his deep emotional
involvement and ambivalence towards the composer, whom he first admired,
before becoming enemies. In explaining the psychology of the creative process
(Nietzsche, 1994, 2001), the German philosopher used the same concepts (hypnosis,
neurosis, hysteria, instinct, sublimation) as Freud did 15 years later. The origins of this
obvious connection between the two thinkers have remained unsolved to this date
(Bókay, 1995; Lohmann, 2008). In the quoted paper (Kőváry, 2011) I used the
approach of “multiple case psychobiography” (see Isaacson, 2005) to reveal that
the likeness of Freud’s and Nietzsche’s theories of artistic creativity might stem from
the fact, that both formed their doctrines by an inquiry of the idealized Other
(Leonardo and Wagner), who represented the ideal self and the father for both of
them. Their investigations, which were psychological/psychobiographical studies,
were based on the empathic identification with the Other (or, using a
psychoanalytic phrase, transference to the Other), and both included implicit, in-
depth analysis of the self. By this, Nietzsche and Freud both contributed to the
modern hermeneutics of human subjectivity, which takes the unavoidable
involvement of the researcher into account (Bókay, 1995; Dilthey, 2002; Steele, 1979).
Later in the 20th century, some great findings in personality psychology were mostly
attached to idiographic, hermeneutic approaches, life story analyses and studying
single cases. It’s not specific only to psychoanalysis: Murray, Erikson, Maslow and
others formed their basic concepts about personality in the same way (Schultz,
The birth of psychobiography: Freud’s Leonardo-essay
We know through the reports written on the meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic
Society that Freud believed that pathography couldn’t provide any novel evidence
about the examined person, most commonly about an artist (Mack, 1971). As Freud
emphasized in the last chapter of his analysis of Jensen’s Gradiva (Freud, 1959), he
was more interested in answering the question: where was the poetic material
Psychobiography as a method
coming from, what are origins of the writer’s spontaneous knowledge of the depths
of the human soul? His essay on Leonardo was not the only effort to investigate the
enigma of the artist. Some years later he wrote a short analysis about Goethe (1955)
then about Dostoevsky (1961), but these writings are not approaching the level of
significance and influence of Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood.
This essay created a new genre in psychology, but it has been seriously criticized to
date. The analysis is based on the so called „vulture fantasy” that Freud explicated
by one detail of Leonardo’s diary. That particular note is the only one that tells
something about the artist’s childhood, according to which a vulture supposedly
flew on Leonardo’s cradle and stabbed his mouth with its tail. Freud, by his analytic
experiences and his knowledge about Egyptian mythology, created an exciting and
coherent narrative on Leonardo’s psychosexual development. Freud believed that
the characteristics of this event unambiguously influenced the Renaissance master’s
life story, art and scientific work. However, it turned out shortly that Merezhkovsky,
whose biography was a main source for Freud’s interpretation, had translated the
Italian word nibio inaccurately, confusing vulture with kite. However, by overrating
the significance of this mistranslation, we might draw erroneous conclusions about
Freud’s work as a whole. Ferenc Erős claims that from the viewpoint of psychological
significance of fantasies, the species of the bird that visited Leonardo’s cradle is
ultimately insignificant (Erős, 2001). Erős underlines that in a note added in 1919 (note
no. 31) Freud himself came to the conclusion that the big bird didn’t necessarily
have to be a vulture by all means. Nevertheless, contemporary psychobiography
approaches accent that building analysis on a „single cue” (just like the vulture-
fantasy) is a basic mistake in psychobiography, similar to using psychopathological
arguments (which appeared in the Leonardo-essay in spite of Freud’s caution) and
reconstructing childhood events without sufficient data (Schultz, 2005b).
Another problematic element, as Meyer Schapiro (1956) pointed out, is the fact that
Freud was probably not right, when he attributed psychological importance to the
composition of The virgin and child with St Anne. According to Freud, this unusual
layout (Virgin Mary is nursing the child Jesus sitting on the lap of St Anne) reflects on a
life-story fact and a psychological situation, namely that Leonardo had two mothers.
For some years he was raised by his biological mother, and subsequently his father’s
wife became his second mother. Schapiro thinks that this kind of artistic
representation in Leonardo’s age was not as extraordinary as Freud supposed,
hence questioning the validity of this psychological explanation. Schuster (2005)
stresses that it’s a general rule in the psychology of art not to draw far going
psychological conclusions from works of art without a comprehensive knowledge
about the conventions of imagery in a specific era.
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In addition to the above, there are some very strong critiques that refer to Freud’s
excessive identification with the artist, so his interpretation can be considered a
continuation of the self-analysis that led to the birth of his Interpretation of dreams in
the end of 19th century. Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer was one of the first who
implied this (Wittkower & Wittkower, 2006). Alan C. Elms (1994, 2005), -one of the
leading authors in contemporary psychobiography, thinks that in the background of
this phenomenon we can discover Freud’s ambivalence towards his own mother,
who fixed her own son with her enthusiastic and erotized love and robbed his
masculinity just like Freud supposed was the case of Leonardo’s mother in his
interpretation. Elms’ other concept contains some more daring hypotheses. From the
biographies it’s well-known that Freud’s wife, Martha became pregnant easily, but
as a consequence, serious medical complications emerged (not to speak about the
existential difficulties associated with the increasing number of children). The
contraceptive methods in those days were primitive and drastic, so the Freud couple
in lack of better solutions decided to suspene sexual intercourse. In the first
decade of the 20th century Sigmund Freud lived a kind of ascetic way of life, as
McLaren (2002) also noted. On the contrary, some say that there is some evidence
of a liaison between Freud and his sister in law, Minna Bernays (Rudnytsky, 2011). Elms
believes that these rumors (probably coming from Jung) are in contrast with the fact
that at that time Freud really became sexually abstinent. He also thinks that Freud’s
urge to finish and publish the Leonardo-essay as soon as possible can be associated
with the emergence of his homosexual libido’s (see his friendships with Fliess, Jung
and Ferenczi in Lohmann, 2008). According to Elms the Leonardo case was a serious
chance for him to sublimate these feelings intellectually. For this process, the in-
depth analysis of the Renaissance master seemed to be ideal, because according
to Freud, Leonardo da Vinci struggled with similar conflicts. Elms claims that the
phrase Freud used in a letter that was written to Jung in 1910 to describe his reviving
instinctual strives after the years of abstinence “Indian summer of my eroticism”
referred to this, and not to ongoing sexual activity (Elms, 1994. p. 46).
From another point of view, identification doesn’t seem that problematic for
psychological analyses. In human sciences, that are based on hermeneutic
approach, there is no “objectivity” (Steele, 1979; Dilthey, 1989) and in order to do
his/her job well, the psychobiographer has to “develop an empathic relationship
with his subject, a relationship, which aids him in listening” (Anderson, 1981, p. 474). In
identifying with Leonardo, Harold Blum (2001) sees a chance for constructing the self,
which also made it possible for Freud to expand the application of the
psychoanalytic method. In the Leonardo-essay, the creator of psychoanalysis
deployed almost every element of his ambitious conception of infantile
psychosexual development. Besides instinct theory considerations (as sublimation of
Psychobiography as a method
oral fantasies and Oedipal curiosity), his analysis also contains ideas that enabled
the widening of the repertoire of psychoanalytic approaches. Blum thinks that the
lack of theoretical and methodological background at that time underlines the
significance of Freud’s revolutionary ideas and dampens the consequences of the
naive mistakes he presumably made. In addition to inventing psychobiography,
even art historians confess that the paper is a cornerstone in their field of research.
Freud’s writing was the first serious effort to understand artistic creativity
psychoanalytically, and the effort remained a model for subsequent work.
Moreover, in Leonardo he introduced some psychoanalytic themes and concepts
that later became extremely important in the development of psychoanalytic
theory. These were the interpretation of the psychogenesis of one type of male
homosexuality, the idea of narcissism, and the recognition, in the pre-Oedipal phase,
that the mother-child relationship has an immense influence on shaping a man’s
fate. According to Freud, in Mona Lisa’s smile Leonardo succeeded in portraying the
simultaneous existence of the ominous threat and the promise of limitless delicacy
that both belong deeply to femininity (Freud, 1957). Freud thought that Leonardo’s
duality was coming from the imago of the mother, and that it was projected to the
model of the painting. The ambivalent representation of the mother later became a
basic conception in developmental ego psychology (Edith Jacobson) and in
Melanie Klein’s object relations theory (Fonagy & Target, 2002; Mitchell & Black,
An interesting question of priority might lead to an alternative to Elms’ interpretation
of Freud’s urge to finish and publish his work. In his writing about homosexuality, Freud
refers to the inquiries of his contemporary, Isidor Sadger, in a footnote (No. 43).
Sadger was an important figure in the history of early psychoanalysis. By the analysis
of homosexual patients he emphasized the early influence of the mother in the
formation of this disposition, and he was the first analyst, who ever used Paul Nacke’s
phrase „narcissism”. But what is the most important for us: Sadger also played an
important role in the development of psychobiography. In the year of the birth of the
Leonardo-essay (1910), he published a psychoanalytic biography about Heinrich
von Kleist, and even two years before, in 1908, he wrote one about Conrad
Ferdinand Meyer (Mijolla, 2005). One can easily imagine that Freud, who was very
sensitive about priority in psychoanalysis, with the urgent publishing of his Leonardo
work intended to ensure his primacy not only in the field of psychodynamic
concepts (homosexuality and narcissism) but also as a psychobiographer.
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The prosperity and decline of classic psychobiography
Following Freud’s pioneering explorations, psychoanalysts began to use
psychobiography widely to investigate the personalities of artists. From 1912 to 1937
Otto Rank Hanns Sachs edited Imago, a periodical dedicated to the application of
psychoanalysis to human sciences such as anthropology, literature, philosophy,
theology and linguistics. The writings published in Imago that dealt with arts were
about (1) examining the relationship of the artist and the neurotic, (2) providing
evince about the connections between biography and the peculiarities of a
particular artist and (3) legitimizing pathography and psychobiography as a
research method (Schönau, 1998). Representatives of early psychoanalysis wrote
several psychobiographies, as among them the aforementioned Isidor Sadger,
Ernest Jones (about Shakespeare), M. Graaf (about Wagner), Karl Abraham (about
Amenhotep the 4th) and P. Smith (about Luther). In the 1910’s some reviews about
this developing method such as Dooloey’s Psychoanalytic study of genius in 1916
were also published (Runyan, 2005a).
The rise of psychobiography elicited the opposition of art lovers, because the authors
handled existing literature like “some museum that is easy to access, using its
exhibited objects to justify new hypotheses (Schönau, 1998, p. 32). These
hypotheses were mostly of a psychopathological nature. In the personality and
creativity concepts of classic psychoanalysis, psychopathological viewpoints were
fairly dominant; consequently, in the first half of the 20th century, pathographical
aspects formed an essential part of psychobiographical analyses. One of the best-
known works of this kind is Princess Marie Bonaparte’s monumental, 700 pages long
book on Edgar Allen Poe, in which the author draws conclusions about the
American poet-writer concerning his supposed necrophilia. “Edgar Allan Poe was a
psychopath and not a pervert. Although the psychic traumata he experienced in
infancy induced necrophilia in him, it was a necrophilia that was partly repressed
and partly sublimated. This fact provides a key to his psychoneurosis, character, life
and work” - wrote Bonaparte in 1933 (quoted by Warner, 1991, p. 454). It’s very
interesting that, in addition to the abovementioned opposition between artists and
art-lovers, some of them for example surrealists accepted the psychoanalytic
approach as a relevant method to explore the dynamics of creative processes. At
the same year that Princess Bonaparte published her book, Hungarian poet Géza
Szilágyi, “the Hungarian Baudelaire”, who was analyzed by Sándor Ferenczi and was
personally very close to the members of the “Budapest School of Psychoanalysis”,
(Bókay, Lénárd & Erős, 2008) wrote a paper about late romantic Hungarian poet
János Vajda, which can be regarded as a psychobiography (Szilágyi, 1993). Szilágyi
drew a parallel between the neurotic love life of Vajda and the characteristics of his
Psychobiography as a method
poetry, and he interpreted this with the presumption of the poet’s unsolved Oedipal
conflicts. These approaches were criticized strongly not only because of being
overloaded with psychopathological concepts, but also because of unreliable data
management and dogmatic interpretations. American analysts Edmund Bergler in
the middle of the 20th century became notorious for this approach, and significant
literature critics like Lionel Trilling (1950) or Malcolm Cowley (1955) referred to his
works to provide deterrence. In his analyses Bergler defined creative writing as a
neurosis based on oral fixation and psychic masochism, similar to alcoholism and
homosexuality, which he believed to be correlated with writing talent (Bergler, 1947).
In the 1950’s some significant endeavors appeared, even within psychoanalysis,
which tried to clarify the opportunities and scientific status of psychobiography. In
1952 Ernst Kris in his classic Psychoanalytic explorations in art (2000), devoted a
chapter to the question of psychobiography (The image of the artist). He writes that,
from the age of Renaissance, biographers had generally referred to the childhood
of artists when they tried to demonstrate the special and outstanding nature of their
personality. By the biographies of Giotto and Dante, Kris demonstrates how this
formula became popular and widespread, and adds that the readers’ susceptibility
to accept this is connected with unconscious fantasies like Freudian “family
romance” or Rank’s “myth of the birth of the hero”. Related to this “our general
readiness to overvalue the children’s accomplishments and to regard them as
extraordinary and singular, an attitude obviously connected with the search for
augury in the child’s early behavioral manifestations. It is not difficult to deduce
some determinants of this attitude. We can often find ourselves in the desire to
discover those abilities and attributes in our children, which we deny to ourselves or
which we are especially proud of. We are under the spell of narcissism.” (Kris, 2000, p.
72) These psychological factors rephrase the legends of the talent’s discovery, and
also influence the way we elaborate and interpret data obtained from different
sources. Kris believes that the myth of the artist was formed by the interaction of
several psychological, social and historical factors, and it determined the traditions
of both historical and psychological biography writing ever since.
Some years later, David Beres intended to clarify the status of psychobiography in his
article The contribution of psychoanalysis to the biography of the artist
commentary on methodology (Beres, 1959). According to Beres, the analyst has to
limit his/her interest, and beware of identifying himself/herself with the object or
transpose hostile feelings on it. This kind of attitude helps analysts to avoid the
misunderstandings and misinterpretations during their work. Clinical experiences can
be used in the reinterpretation of life story data, but it can turn out that some of
them tough previously regarded as fact are only myths, and the plausibility of an
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interpretation doesn’t prove its validity by all means. The meaningful relationship
between psychological specificities of an artistic product and some supposed
childhood happenings is not always obvious. Beres names Ella Sharp as an example:
the English analyst speculated about Shakespeare’s infancy and personality through
the writer’s literary works and some available data of his early life. In addition,
applying psychoanalytic knowledge by non-analysts to answer some artistic
questions can also be problematic. In these cases it’s a typical mistake to come to
over-generalizations, for example to suppose that a poem expresses Oedipal or pre-
Oedipal conflicts. These statements do not add too much to our understanding of
the artist, being similar to cases when someone claims that the artist suffered from
neurotic or psychotic problems. The in-depth analyses by laymen remain at the level
of early psychoanalytic art-theory, when analysts used the model of dream
interpretation to enucleate the artist’s unconscious problems from the “manifest”
content of the work of art.
In spite of the constructive criticism by Kris, Beres and others who tried to call
attention to the importance of methodological clarification and the necessity of
diverging from the psychopathology-centered approach, in the middle of the 20th
century classic psychobiography lost its popularity and a substantial part of its
credibility. After World War II the landscape of personality psychology changed
markedly; researchers began to focus on decontextualized dispositional constructs
(e.g. field independence) and their measurement using laboratory experiments and
correlational studies (McAdams, 1997). Following the triumph of the nomothetic
approach in personality and creativity research from the 1950’s, dynamic life-history
analysis apart from Erik H. Erikson’s works (1968, 1993) – became a marginalized
scientific method for some decades (Barenbaum & Winter, 2003; Runyan, 2005a).
The traditions of idiographic personality research in the 20th century
When in the last decades of the 20th century due to the increasing popularity of
narrative psychology psychobiography revived, it was necessary to redefine the
theoretical background and methodological base of the method. On one hand,
authors had to clarify their intellectual relationship with the classic psychoanalytic
approach: what was useful and what is to be corrected? On the other hand, they
had to designate what kind of other theories and methods can be included in the
eclectic toolbar of modern psychobiography besides psychoanalysis. The other
source of theories and methods was the personological tradition. From the 1930’s the
psychobiographic approach was not restricted to psychoanalysis anymore:
following the pioneering work of G. W. Allport and Henry Murray at Harvard, a
personality research approach known as personology was formed. This trend
Psychobiography as a method
focused on the exploration of the individual through life stories, and though from the
1950’s it was relegated to the background (just like classic psychobiography), it
created a tradition in the American personality psychology that was easy to access
for those who preferred holistic approaches and wanted to develop their modern
version (Barenbaum & Winter, 2003; Runyan, 2005a). William M. Runyan (1997, 2003,
2005a) claims that psychodynamic and personlogical traditions together with
narrative psychology form a group called „historical-interpretative psychology”,
which is the third way to make scientific psychology besides the two approaches
defined by Cronbach (correlational and experimental). As he writes: „Historical
interpretive psychology employing narrative methods is used in clinical case studies,
in psychobiography and in studying lives in particular social, cultural, and historical
contexts” (Runyan, 2005a, p. 20-21) In the following, I will briefly refer to the works of
some North American personality psychologists, who contributed to the
development of idiographic personality research and the studying of lives in the 20th
(1) Gordon W. Allport was one of the leading personality researchers at Harvard
University between 1930 and 1967, and he was “interested in the German method
known as Verstehen which he translated the intuitive method” (Barenbaum & Winter,
2003, p. 186). As mentioned before, he learned Verstehen from Dilthey’s disciple
Eduard Spranger. In his encyclopedic book, Pattern and growth in personality (1961),
he ranked psychological means into 11 groups that are suitable for explorations of
personality. The third group is called “personal documents and case studies” that
can be used in studying lives. These are (a) autobiographies, (b) diaries, (c) letters,
(d) unstandardized, open questionnaires, (e) oral reports like interviews, and (f)
certain literary products. Allport calls these first-person documents, but besides these
we can use reports obtained from a third person, just as (g) case studies, (h) life
stories and (i) biographies. In the middle of the century, Allport wrote an entire book
on this topic called The use of personal documents in psychological science (1942).
In the case of first-person documents Allport mentions more then a dozen possible
motives that could play a significant role in the birth of the text (defence, literary
needs, catharsis, etc); the analyst always has to clarify these before the work begins.
It is true that psychologists sometimes do not go beyond common sense when
writing a case study or analyzing a life story. But Allport (1961) believed that this does
not mean that we have to question the applicability and usefulness of the method.
He emphasized the fact that life story is the only dimension that uncovers
individuality, and no one can deny that, when speaking of human personality, we
often mean the person’s life story.
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(2) The 20th century American idiographic approach in personality research is almost
completely interconnected with the creator of the famous Thematic Apperception
Test, Henry A. Murray. Originally Murray was a biologist, but in the beginning of his
thirties, around 1926, he had three important encounters in his life which made him
one of the greatest personality psychologists of the USA. As a married man, he fell in
love with Christiana Morgan, who - according to Rosenzweig - was the real inventor
of TAT (Duncan, 2002a). Through Morgan he was introduced to jungian psychology,
and later he met Jung in person and they remained life-long friends. Similarly to what
Allport did three years earlier, Murray travelled to Europe to gain inspiration for the
search of the soul. Sailing the Atlantic Ocean, he discovered Herman Melville, the
writer of Moby Dick. Writing about him was his first psychological work, and he
remained deeply involved in the topic through his entire life (Elms, 1994; Taylor, 2009).
Barresi & Juckes (1997) state that “even though Murray never completed his
biography of Melville, his four published studies of Melville represent perhaps the
most successful attempt by a psychologist to dive into the mind of a creative literary
genius” (p. 705). In 1938 in his colossal book, Explorations in personality (2008) Murray
presented his concepts that later became famous as “personology”. The
methodological part of the book was written with the contribution of Murray’s
disciples from the Harvard Psychological Clinic: Saul Rosenzweig, the creator of
Picture Frustration Test, Robert W. White, who developed an influential ego-
psychological theory on effectance-competence motivation, and Erik (Homburger)
Erikson. In the following decades Murray was the leading personality psychologist at
Harvard University. Beside the above mentioned contributors, he had several
creative and successful disciples and followers like David Winter and David
McClelland, who continued to develop Murray’s personality theory of needs, Donald
MacKinnon, the first director of Berkeley University’s IPAR (Institution of Personality
Assessment and Research), the illustrious representative of modern affect- and script-
theory, Silvan Tomkins, and the major contemporary narrative personality
psychologist Dan P. McAdams. In addition to psychoanalysis, personology is the most
important theoretical and methodological basis of contemporary psychobiography
(Runyan, 2005a).
(3) Starting from Murray’s circle, Saul Rosenzweig after his years in Harvard went to
Clark University in Worcester (where Freud held his American lectures in 1909), to
develop his Picture Frustration Test between 1938 and 1943. Two years before this he
wrote an important and prophetic article, Some implicit common factors in diverse
forms of psychotherapy. In this writing for the first time in psychotherapy’s history
he emphasized that different psychotherapeutic methods can be effectively
applied to the same problems, because results depend on some common factors
like the personality of the therapist rather than on particular techniques (Duncan,
Psychobiography as a method
2002b). Rosenzweig was deeply interested in literature, creativity, history and in the
possibilities of exploring personality’s individual aspects. From the 1950’s he intended
to integrate his concepts in an approach he called “idiodynamics”. The approach
of idiodynamics - according to Duncan - focuses on the dynamics of the life history
by studying the blending of the biogenic and cultural milieus in the matrix of the
idioverse (the individual world of events), with special emphasis on creative process”
(Duncan, 2002a, p. 36). After developing idiodynamics, Rosenzweig published
several psychobiographies: about Freud’s journey to America, Henry and William
James, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Lewis Carroll.
(4) Erik H. Erikson was trained as a psychoanalyst in Europe, but after his immigration
to the States he became a member of Murray’s legendary research group at
Harvard, and also worked for the IPAR (Alexander, 2005). After decades of research,
Erikson came to the conclusion that “the psychoanalytic method is essentially a
historical method” (1977, p. 14). Following this, he started a groundbreaking
experiment: he tried to capture the interaction of individual personality and historical
milieu by analyzing life stories. It is highly remarkable, that more than 50 years before
this, Wilhelm Dilthey wrote as the last sentences of Ideas concerning a descriptive
and analytical psychology: “It is a tremendous task to bridge the gap between
psychology that has up to now existed and the intuition of the historical world!”
(Dilthey, 1977, p. 117). It took another 50 years for psychologists to discover the
intellectual relationship between Dilthey and Erikson (Tonks, 2001). Erikson first
presented his solutions in Childhood and society (1977) through a psychoanalytic
interpretation of the young manhood of a historical (Adolf Hitler) and a literatury
(Maxim Gorkij) person. By demonstrating how to draw general historical conclusions
from life stories, Erikson overstepped the usual boundaries of psychobiography. His
work Young man Luher, that was published in 1958, is held in esteem not only by
psychobiographers (Alexander, 2005), but it is also regarded as the foundation of
“psychohistory” along with Norman O. Brown’s Life against death (Botond, 1991). In
his book, Erikson ventured to demonstrate how an individual life can become an
important historical event. But where can we draw the line between
psychobiography and eriksonian psychohistory? Psychohistory, according to Botond,
is the “application of psychology (especially psychoanalysis) in the search for the
past. Sometimes it lays once famous people on the coach of the imaginary analyst,
sometimes it explores the historical variations of the family and childhood (…) and
sometimes it tries to identify the psychological motivations behind the dynamics of
the masses and social groups” (Botond, 1991, p. 12) This definition which explicitly
refers to the three investigated areas of the psychohistorical approach regards
psychobiography as a part of psychohistory. This interpretation is confirmed by
Erikson himself: before he published his other significant psychobiography in 1969
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(Gandhi’s truth. On the origins of militant nonviolence), he expounded the method
of his research in his article On the nature of psychohistorical evidence. In search of
Gandhi (1968). Definitions of contemporary psychoanalysis in contrast to Erikson’s
view argue that despite some similarities there are essential differences between
psychobiography and psychohistory. „Psychobiography writes Shiner is a major
instrument of psychohistory for the study of leading historical figures. But the two are
not identical since psychohistory is especially concerned with group behavior”
(Shiner, 2005, p. 1388). Modern psychobiography does not refer to psychohistory at
all; probably by struggling for scientific recognition the approach is trying to distance
itself from this trend, which in the last decades became rather inacceptable due to
some radical ideas by the school of Lloyd De Mause (Botond, 1991).
In his previously mentioned article (1968), Erikson tried to clarify the methodological
principles of „psycho-historical” explorations, which can be placed at the
intersection of psychoanalytic and historical inquiries. In addition to that, the
researcher uses Freud’s basic psychological findings (repression, ambivalence, the
importance of infantile experiences) during analysis of the explored person’s texts, as
Erikson accented, one has to take into consideration that the author of the
autobiography can induce some unconscious countertransference reactions in his
reader. Erikson believed that even the best trained historian cannot defend
him/herself from these emotional impacts; most of the time the writer emphasizes,
ignores, loves or hates things about his/her subject under the influence of
unconscious motives. From this point of view, a psychoanalyst can profit from his/her
analysis training and also is able to identify these distorting motives. Therefore, the
researcher has to elucidate the functions that the analyzed record might play not
only in the life of the author and his/her community, but also in the reviewer’s actual
life, and uncover what meaning the review might gain in his/her community both
currently and historically (Figure 1).
Psychobiography as a method
Figure 1. Things the researcher has to clarify during his work
(Erikson, 1968, pp. 702-709)
Erikson thinks that this diagrammatic formula can be used even in the analysis itself,
for example when interpreting the subject’s partial or entire life we should look for a
historical analogy. In these cases, we have to compare the two persons’ actual and
historical conditions as well as the actual and historical conditions of their
environment. In this analysis model we can discover the prefiguration of
contemporary “multiple case” psychobiography (Isaacson, 2005). For example in his
book Erikson often draws a parallel between Luther and Freud (Erikson, 1993).
(5) One of the leading American personality psychologists of our time is Dan P.
McAdams, who integrates the narrative approach with Murray’s personology and
Erikson’s identity theory. His career began in the late 80’s, when he published Power
and intimacy: identity and the life story (1988), in which he called for the
revitalization of the personological tradition, and in the same year he edited
Psychobiography and life narratives with Richard Ochberg. McAdams thinks that
dynamic narratives derived from the individual’s life stories ensure the personality’s
goals and unity (identity). He developed an empirically tested structural model of
identity/life story that can be applied well in psychobiographical analyses. In this
model, life stories that form identity are determined by four components (nuclear
episodes, imagoes, ideological setting, generativity script) and two second-order
variables (thematic lines, narrative complexity), which mutually impact each other
(McAdams, 1988; see details later). Moreover, McAdams is making efforts to
integrate personality theories in a hierarchic model (McAdams & Pals, 2007), and
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emphasizes that contemporary psychobiography should apply more concepts of
modern personality psychology (McAdams, 2005).
(6) The rebirth of psychobiography overlapped with the renewal of American
psychoanalysis as Self psychology. An important bridge between these schools is the
work of author pair Robert Stolorow and George Atwood (Karterud & Island, 1999).
Stolorow wrote his PhD at Harvard University and his supervisor was Murray’s
colleague and adherer Robert W. White, who himself played an important role in the
history of psychobiography. In the 1970’s Stolorow went to Rutgers University, where
another outstanding Murray-disciple, Silvan Tomkins was working with his assistant
George Atwood. Tomkins developed an influential affect-theory that was applied by
self psychologists when they replaced the instinct-based theory of psychoanalysis
with motivational viewpoints (Monsen, 1999). Tomkins’ script-theory is often
mentioned and used in contemporary psychobiography and life-story analysis
(Barresi & Juckes, 1997; McAdams, 2005; Schultz, 2005c). Tomkins influenced the
cooperation between Stolorow and Atwood. Their works intended to explore the
nature of subjectivity, in which they were trying to integrate psychoanalysis with
phenomenology, hermeneutics and existential philosophy. Stolorow and Atwood
insisted that psychoanalysis had to break up with its positivist heritage, and had to
deal with human subjectivity, the meaning of human experience and behavior
(Stolorow & Atwood, 1984). During this work, they became acquainted with Kohut’s
calling for psychoanalysis as pure psychology (Kohut, 2009). Stolorow and Atwood
synthesized Kohut’s approach with their “psychoanalytic phenomenology”, and
created one of the strongest trend in psychoanalytic self psychology called
“intersubjectivity theory” (Karterud & Island, 1999). Their book, Faces in a cloud.
Subjectivity in personality theory (1979), in which they showed the subjective sources
of significant personality theories of the 20th century, is an important reference for
contemporary psychobiography (Elms, 2007; Runyan, 1997). Atwood’s article written
with Kyle Arnold about Nietzsche (2005) is a chapter in the Handbook of
psychobiography (Schultz, 2005a).
The “narrative turn” and the renaissance of psychobiography
The pretension to study individual lives scientifically returned to personality
psychology upon intensification of the critics in the 70’s (Carlson, 1971), and following
the so-called “narrative turn” in psychology that began in the 1980’s (Bruner, 1986;
Hargitai, 2007; László, 2008). Due to this processes, psychobiography as a method
began to resurrect in the 80’s through the pioneering works of James Anderson,
Irving Alexander, William Runyan, Alan C. Elms, Dan McAdams and others. In the last
two decades especially in the United States following the increasing popularity of
Psychobiography as a method
narrative approach, there has been a veritable renaissance of psychobiography
and the efforts of studying lives (Barenbaum & Winter, 2003; Runyan, 2005). In 1988,
the Journal of Personality published a thematic issue on psychobiography with the
writings of McAdams, Elms, Anderson, Runyan, Irving Alexander, Rae Carlson, David
Winter, Richard Ochberg and others; the issue later was published as a book as well
(Psychobiography and life narratives). In 1994, Elms issued Uncovering lives (Elms,
1994), and Runyan’s article, Studying lives: psychobiography and the structure of
personality psychology was included in the American Academic Press’ monumental
Handbook of personality psychology (Runyan, 1997). After the turn of the millennium
more and more journals and handbooks began to open towards psychobiography:
in 2007 the prestigious The Guilford Press published Handbook of research methods in
personality psychology, which contains a chapter by Alan C. Elms entitled
Psychobiography and case study methods (Elms, 2007). By the middle of the
decade, the first synthesis of “new” psychobiography was born: William Todd Schultz
edited Handbook of psychobiography with the contribution of McAdams, Runyan,
Elms, Alexander, Anderson, Ogilvie, Atwood and others (Schultz, 2005a).
The success of this revival helped the rebirth and reforming of the psychoanalytic
tradition. In 2003, the Annual of Psychoanalysis published a psychobiographic
special issue, the authors of which were partly identical with those of Handbook of
psychobiography (James Anderson, Alan C. Elms, William Runyan), though the latter
was not committed to psychoanalysis. Recent psychoanalytic attempts moved
further away from the original Freudian instinct theory and the formalism of ego-
psychology, and enriched psychobiography with concepts from object relations
theories and psychoanalytic self psychology (Anderson, 2003).
The development of the modern psychobiographic approach hasn’t stagnated; it
still contains some further opportunities. According to Elms (2007), the most striking
tendency is that the focus of analysis seems to shift from single cases to comparative
explorations (see “multiple case psychobiography”, Isaacson, 2005). The
accumulating results of idiographic research can form a database which will help
the comparative analysis of biographic categories. Elms stresses that, when utilizing
this database, we shouldn’t keep aloof from quantitative methods and statistical
tests, because their use will not mean a return to the much criticized nomothetic
approach. “We do have by now quite a few studies of creative writers,, so maybe
the more quantitatively oriented among our life history researchers can begin to
draw statistically meaningful conclusions across them… There is no reason to protect
our methodological purity by refusing to look also at data across a number of those
individual and unique writers.” (Elms, 2007, p. 111).
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Theoretical and methodological aspects of contemporary
What are the advantages and novelties of contemporary psychobiography
compared to its predecessor, the classic psychoanalytic approach? First of all, the
authors mentioned above tried to clarify their relation to the classic approach,
because its “bad reputation” and the partly justified critiques gave an opportunity to
question psychobiography’s mere raison d’être. Nevertheless, according to Schultz
(2005b), the existence of bad psychographies does not tell anything about
psychobiography in general and, with the knowledge of its potentials and
disadvantages, it is easier to write outstanding analyses (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Characteristics of good and bad psychobiographies (Schultz, 2005b)
Good psychobiography markers
Bad psychobiography markers
Narrative structure
Data convergence
Sudden coherence
Logical soundness
Single cues
Poor theory choice
Poor narrative structure
Runyan (1997) in the 80’s and 90’s has already called attention to the dangers of
reductionism in psychobiography: the pitfalls that lie in the reconstructions of early
childhood events or the overemphasis on infancy at the cost of later life events. He
also pays particular attention to the critical evaluation of alternative explanations
(Runyan, 2005b). Comparing more than a dozen, mostly psychoanalytic
interpretations of Van Gogh’s ear-cutting story, he asks the question: how can we
decide from the available data, which explanation is standing next to the truth? His
criteria are the following: (1) logical soundness, (2) comprehensiveness, i.e. taking
into account several different aspects, (3) surviving the tests of attempted
falsification, (4) consistency with the full range of relevant evidence, (5) supports
from above, i.e. consistency with general knowledge about human psychology and
with our knowledge about the particular person, and (6) its credibility is comparable
to that of other interpretations.
Psychobiography as a method
a) Theoretical background
“Perhaps the most frequent criticism of psychobiography concerns its heavy
dependence on psychoanalytic theory” wrote Alan C. Elms (1994, p. 9) The
psychoanalytic approach focuses on emotional questions that essentially determine
the formation of a life story; psychobiographical analysis is not functioning without
this outlook. For today’s psychobiographers, a broader theoretical arsenal is
available. Elms (2007) is adducing Erikson’s developmental model, Murray’s theory of
needs and its supplements by McClelland and Winter and finally, Tomkins’ script-
theory. Runyan (2005a) demonstrates in a historical context how theories and
methods have influenced the studying of lives in the 20th century from basic
psychoanalitic concepts (Freud), through the traditions of personology (Allport,
Murray, White), to contemporary narrative approaches (McAdams, Wiggins).
McAdams (2005) believes that psychobiography should rely more courageously on
different theories and methods of personality psychology. However, by applying
these authors have to keep in mind that the functioning of personality has at least
three different levels (dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, life stories). All of
these can play an important role in life stories and in the understanding of the
person, but their usage requires different theoretical and methodological
approaches, and providing the results of one level (e.g. dispositional traits) does not
mean that we have covered the other aspects as well. Elms (1994) points out that
this relationship is not one sided: psychobiography and psychology can mutually do
a lot for each other. Not only psychobiographic explorations have to take the more
rigorous methodological expectations of personal psychology research into
consideration, but personality psychology could also learn a lot from
psychobiography, for example to realize that sometimes it’s more useful to
investigate the personally significant then the statistically significant. And finally, adds
Schultz (2005b), one should also keep in mind that in personality psychology several
outstanding theorists Freud, Jung, Maslow, Piaget, Erikson, Laing, Murray, Allport
and Tomkins created their influential models by analyzing single cases or by
exploring only a few people.
b) Data management methods
The first step in biographical explorations is to choose the subject, which is not a
rational decision most of the time; “Let your subject choose you! suggests Elms
(1994, p. 19). In these cases as Erikson (1968) already pointed out it is useful to
clarify the analyst’s personal motivations. In current qualitative research this is called
personal reflexivity. As Carla Willig defines it, “personal reflexivity involves reflecting
upon the ways in which our own values, experiences, interests, beliefs, political
commitments, wider aims in life and social identities have shaped the research. It
also involves thinking about how the research may have affected, and possibly
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changed us, as people and as researchers.” (Willig, 2008, p. 10) These partly
unconscious aims exist regardless of whether we take them into consideration or not,
and they determine our approach. To avoid excessive subjectivity it is important that
the person we choose to analyze should not be too loveable (like Mother Theresa)
with the potential to cause idealization, or too deterrent (like Hitler); the best
condition to start with is ambivalence towards the person of choice (Elms, 1994).
The next step is to look after available data about our subject: this is when the first-
person and third-person documents come into view (biographies, confessions), as
Allport (1961) defined and ranked them. The data coming from different sources
have to be evaluated, selected, graded and interpreted. Irving Alexander in his
article published in Journal of Personality’s psychobiography issue (1988) and in his
1990 book on the psychobiography of Freud, Jung and Sullivan (Personology:
method and content in personality assessment and psychobiography) presented his
basically psychoanalytic oriented model, which helps to organize and to select
biographic material (Alexander, 1990). Alexander (Figure 3) listed eight
characteristics he calls “primary indicators of psychological saliency” that can be
used in psychological analysis. These are frequency, primacy, emphasis, isolation,
uniqueness, incompletion, error, distortion and omission and finally negation. For
example the only place where Leonardo spoke about his childhood in his diary
belongs to “primacy”, while the lion head with open jaws as pictorial repetition on
Salvador Dalí’s paintings in 1929 is corresponds to “frequency” (Kőváry, 2009).
Figure 3. The models of Alexander and Schultz that help in organizing biographical
material, for example to select the psychologically significant parts of an
autobiography (Schultz, 2005b)
Irving Alexander:
Primary indicators of
psychological saliency
William Todd Schultz:
Keys to identifying “prototypical
Error, distortion, omission
Vividness, specificity, emotional
Developmental crisis
Family conflict
Thrownness (getting into a scene
that places the subject into a
situation which violates the status
Psychobiography as a method
Schultz (2005b) claims that, by using the concepts of Alexander, we can identify a
large amount of outstanding motives in biography. But how shall we know which one
of them holds the key to understand the person’s life? Those life story events and
memories that possess this quality Schultz calls “prototypical scenes” and, according
to his assumptions, these can be extremely important in understanding an
individual’s life. In these scenes numerous motives and conflicts are compressed,
motives and conflicts that are very significant in the subject’s life. Every prototypical
scene is salient from Alexander’s viewpoint, but not every salient event or memory is
prototypical. (Salient for the researcher and for the subject, but for the latter it is not
always clear and conscious.) Schultz names five specificities to identify scenes:
emotional intensity, interpenetration, developmental crisis, family conflict and
throwness (Figure 3). By this it is assumed that the 24-year old Salvador Dalí’s
encounter with his future wife Gala in 1929 was a prototypical scene because it had
serious emotional, familiar and artistic consequences and it is related to the
emergence of lion heads on his paintings in the same year (Kőváry, 2009).
The “identity as life story” concept of Dan P. McAdams (1988), who is coming from
the direction of narrative psychology was presented in the reinterpretation of
Erikson’s Young man Luther. The model contains four components: nuclear episodes
of life stories, the characters of the story called imagoes, the ideological background
and a script of generativity. Each component is determined by two second-order
variables: thematic lines and narrative complexity (Figure 4). In our analysis, we can
reveal the specificities of these components in a particular life story and we can also
evince how second order variables influence the components and vice versa. The
identification of these connections could be very useful in organizing and
interpreting biographical data. In the case of thematic lines depending on the
subject the motives of power and intimacy can be replaced by other motives
defined by Murray and his followers (see for example Smith, 1992). Narrative
complexity is determined by the maturity of the ego that can be identified with the
help of Jane Loevinger’s model (Loevinger, 1997). Considering the connections of
the variables we can set hypotheses about the protagonist of the life story that can
be evaluated both with text analysis and empirical methods, depending on whether
the protagonists are alive or have already deceased (McAdams, 1988).
Europe’s Journal of Psychology
Figure 4. Identity as life story and its components the model of Dan P.
McAdams (McAdams, 1988, p. 61)
Naturally, in this phase we can use other models to organize our material, especially
if we are interested in aspects of personality that are beyond the dimensions
mentioned above by McAdams (2005). Based on the modern psychoanalytic
approach, during the organization and interpretation of biographical data one can
apply Winnicott’s conception of false/real self conception and his theory of
transitional phenomena; it is also possible to outline the principles and the level of
managing subjective experience of the self and the objects by using ideas from
Kernberg. Employing the theories of Kohut one can describe the consequences of
the interactions between self and mirroring self-objects (Anderson, 2003). In my
multiple case psychobiography of Hungarian writers and cousins Géza Csáth and
Dezső Kosztolányi (Kőváry, 2009), I applied the categories of Lipót Szondi from his
theory of the “family unconscious” (1996) to organize the biographic material.
c) Interpretive models
After collecting the data from first- and third-person documents defined by Allport
and organizing, selecting and evaluating them according to the above mentioned
models, the psychobiographer can begin to elaborate his or her interpretations.
According to Elms (1994, 2007) the process of a psychobiographic study does not
follow any predetermined standards. The form of the analysis always depends on
the explored person, on the investigator, on the place of the publication, on the
planned length of the article and some other variables. Shorter psychobiographies
may be organized according to the regular APA standard (literature review,
hypothesis, data, discussion, conclusion) but even in these cases it is not likely that
Psychobiography as a method
the study would strictly follow the progression of the typical psychological
In Elms’ description (2007), the process begins with (1) the choice of the subject,
followed by (2) the formulation of tentative hypotheses. Elms says that if we are
lucky, in this phase a “genuine mystery” emerges from the life story that can’t be
explained with the usual attributional schemes (for example: are there any
psychological factors that might explain why on every painting Dalí made in 1929
there is a lion’s head with open jaws?). After that we can start the (3) initial data
collection from varied sources: this usually begins with accessible biographies about
the chosen person (third-person documents), then it extends on autobiographies,
memoirs, diaries, letters and creative products (first-person documents). Since the
third-person documents are full of interpretations and can be distorted by the
prejudices of the author, it can be useful to read them in parallel and critically.
Psychobiographers often stop collecting data after some time, because too many
narratives can be confusing. But what is the point of stopping? Rae Carlson, who
was one of the pioneers of modern psychobiographic research in the 1970’s and
1980’s reclined on the most reliable biography of the investigated person (Elms,
2007). After data evaluation (4) we can revise the tentative hypotheses, depending
on the applied theoretical framework (psychoanalysis, personology, narrative
theories). Next (5) we can perform a more focused data collection. At this time, it
can be useful to apply Alexander’s concept of “primary indicators of psychological
saliency” or Schultz’s method to identify prototypical scenes in the life story. The data
collected from different sources could contain several contradictions. To handle
these (6) Elms suggests adopting some methods used by historians: whenever it is
possible we have to lean on primal sources, but if it is necessary to employ
secondary ones, the researcher has to clarify the author’s attitudes towards the
protagonist (see Erikson, 1968). We have to keep in mind that in the genre of
psychobiography, the research process is iterative. “Instead of cumulating every
possible bit of data in one big pile then pulling conclusions out of that pile, a
conscientious psychobiographer will engage a more or less continuous process of
examining preliminary data” – says Elms (2007, p. 103). So we have to apply further
operations in iterative analysis (7). On the basis of preliminary data we formulated
tentative hypotheses, then we were looking for justifying or refuting data to narrow or
shift the focus of the hypothesis. Now we can look for further evidence (independent
from the data that were the basis of tentative hypotheses): this will justify, refute,
narrow or modify our assumptions again. The method of this iterative analysis fully
resembles the hermeneutical circle that is well-known in European philosophy for
ages (Dilthey, 1996; Gadamer, 2004). Finally, we (8) can identify and delimit valid
conclusions; they will be probably followed by (9) further iterative studies of the
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subject done by other researchers. Time, readers and further testing will tell which
one will be considered more insightful.
A few years before Elms’ description, William M. Runyan (1997) developed a process
model for the progress of analysis and interpretation (Figure 5). Runyan thinks that
particular phases do not follow each other in fixed order in this process: the numbers
are only for denoting the sequences.
Figure 5. A model of the component process of studying lives (Runyan, 1997, p. 52.)
A special form of life story analysis is “multiple case” psychobiography, denoting the
parallel processing of more cases, the significance of which is increasing (Elms, 2007).
In psychobiographies containing the exploration of more than one person, one can
find the characteristic starting points of this approach (Isaacson, 2005): (1) We can
aim at unfolding the personality psychological background of a product created by
two or more individuals; (2) We can try to shed light on both sides of a relationship;
(3) We might compare two persons who have something significant in common (e.g.
both of them are writers); (4) We might want to study a political, historical, social or
cultural movement; (5) We can use comparative psychobiography for theory
building or testing. Multiple case psychobiography has two subtypes: (a) in one of
them there is a direct/indirect connection between the explored persons or,
alternatively, we can apply (b) categorical pairing or a single dimension
comparison. Sometimes these categories are overlapping. In my above mentioned
paper I was investigated the psychological background of some works of two
Hungarian writers, Géza Csáth and Dezső Kosztolányi (Kőváry, 2009). The analyzed
novels and short stories, Anyagyilkosság” (“Matricide”) by Csáth and “Édes Anna”
(“Sweet Anne”) by Kosztolányi were about murdering the real (Csáth) and the
symbolic (Kosztolányi) bad mother. Csáth and Kosztolányi were cousins and they
grew up together (Isaacson’s starting point no. 2). Both became writers (starting
Psychobiography as a method
point no. 3), though Csáth was a doctor as well. There was a direct relationship
between them (subtype a), but there are also several common motives in their lives
and works (dealing with literature, interested in psychoanalysis, using morphine,
writing about matricide subtype b). The similarities and differences between these
motives illuminate individual psychological specificities of the subphases in the case
of the creative process. In my analysis I focused on four intersections between their
lives and work, which all can be regarded as choices determined by their
personality and the unconscious (not only the Freudian personal subconscious but
the family unconscious observed by Szondi). These intersections were the choice of
occupation, the choice of ideals, the “choice” of sickness and the choice of love
object. These are similar to Szondi’s categories that describe the dynamics of family
unconscious. There are conspicuous similarities in their choices (as partly mentioned
above): Kosztolányi and Csáth both became writers, they both thought that
psychoanalysis was a kind of intellectual revolution, they used morphine, but what is
more important that there are significant differences between the outcomes of the
choices. All the differences show that Csáth was a more impulsive personality and
couldn’t keep up some boundaries. He became morhine addict and died at the
age of 32, and there are overgrown psychoanalytic concepts in his late short stories
(while Kosztolányi gave up morphine by himself and in his writings while influenced
kept a healthy distant from psychoanalysis).
It’s very interesting and salient that they both wrote their version of matricide. (The
fantasy of matricide is connected to individualization and creativity, see Julia
Kristeva’s Melanie Klein: Matricide as pain and creativity, 2001). The elaborations of
the matricide fantasy are different: Kosztolányi’s version is more symbolic and
decent, while the short story of Csáth is very direct and explicit. It is also notable, that
following his psychological disintegration caused by addiction (associated with the
loss of his poetical language) Csáth, who couldn’t find a symbolic way out of his
more and more abnormal impulses, committed a kind of real matricide by
murdering his wife.
Psychobiography as a method: its limits and its usefulness
Psychobiography can be regarded as a method of idiographic approach in
personality psychology. Classic Freudian psychobiography was about analyzing and
understanding the dynamic and developmental determinants of artistic creativity.
But the correlations and connections that were revealed by Freud’s research
illuminated not only some important aspects of the creative process, they led to
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significant insights into the functioning of the human mind and personality in general
(Blum, 2001).
Psychobiography is akin to some qualitative methods such as case studies and text
analysis, and its results have to be assessed within the context of the hermeneutic
tradition (Szokolszky, 2004). It is different however from text analysis because in
psychobiographical analyses the author of the text (for example in autobiography) is
not seen as a function of the text (as in discourse analysis) but rather as a real
phenomenon, who can be explored and interpreted psychologically(Schultz,
2005b). On the other hand case studies are usually focusing on clinical aspects, and
modern psychobiography tends to avoid pathography. In addition, in clinical case
studies several facts have to be withheld because of ethical and juristic
reasons which limit the exploration of the “connectedness of the world of human
spirit” or the “life-nexus” (Dilthey, 2002, p. 213 and 218) that is necessary for
understanding the psychological aspects of the subject’s life history. Findings about
the subject’s personality can be embarrassing, and publishing these can cause
trouble in the subject’s professional and private life. In psychobiography, which
usually deals with departed people, there are no such limits, and working with
entirely public data about an identified subject makes it easier to evaluate the
results of the research. Nevertheless, the number of available tools is limited.
Psychoanalytic psychobiography for example must do without two essential tools of
dynamic psychology: free associations and the analysis of transference. Some critics
hence suggested that it was much more rewarding to start from the psychoanalysis
of living artists than to apply an uncertain form of psychobiography (Kraft, 1998).
There are two problems with this suggestion: to begin with creative artists tend to
avoid in-depth analyses of their personality because they have a fear of losing their
capabilities (Schuster, 2005). The other factor is connected with time and distance.
Schultz (2005c) stated in his chapter on the psychobiography of artists: nothing alive
can be calculated, and this position is similar to the approach of Hans Georg
Gadamer, who says that temporal distance has a great significance in
hermeneutical interpretation and understanding. He wrote: “Everyone is familiar with
the curious impotence of our judgement where temporal distance has not given us
sure criteria.” (Gadamer, 2006, p. 334).
That the application of psychobiography in personality psychology is inevitable on
the other hand is connected with the specificities of personality psychology as a
discipline. McAdams (2005; McAdams & Pals, 2007) emphasizes, as mentioned also
above, that the three levels of personality research (dispositional traits, characteristic
adaptations and integrative life narratives) have different questions to answer and
use different methods, and results of one level do not mean that they cover other
Psychobiography as a method
dimensions as well. The first level is trying to capture individual differences by using
correlational methods, the second is focused on motivations, aims and needs;
laboratory experiments can help a lot to improve this approach. The third, holistic
dimension studies identity as it is constructed by life story narratives, and it can only
rely on case studies (Figure 5). Taylor (2009) argues that McAdams’ model should be
supplemented with two other levels: the unconscious, that is explored through
dialogue in the situation of transference-countertransference, and subjective
experiences inquired with the help of introspection.
Figure 6. The three levels in personality research (McAdams & Pals, 2007, p. 5)
Willam M. Runyan (1997, 2003) believes that the study of lives is based on historical-
interpretative methods, which are the third way to do scientific research in
personality psychology besides experimental and quantitative (correlational)
approaches. But Runyan goes further as he claims that, since the last decades, there
has been a tendency for integration in human sciences just as in the case of
personality psychology. It is easy to see that this synthesis usually concerns the
theories and methods of “hard” traditions in personality psychology (behavior
research, cognitive psychology, psychometric and biological approaches). Runyan
thinks that it would be very useful to find a similar synthesis for the approaches in
personality research that belong to the “soft” end like psychoanalysis,
phenomenological-humanistic psychology, cultural psychology or narrative
perspectives. (I would add that some psychoanalytic authors like John Gedo, Mark
Solms or Peter Fonagy would argue that psychoanalysis doesn’t belongs to the “soft
end”, as they regard it as natural science based on biology, see Fónagy & Target,
2002; Gedo, 1999). Studying lives could play a significant role in creating this soft
synthesis and, beside the abovementioned, this synthesis would also encompass
case studies and all the theoretical aspirations and quantitative-empirical
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researches that belong here. Runyan stresses that the formation of a “soft synthesis”
and “historicizing of psychology” is timely, because the “hard synthesis” and its
integration with biology (cognitive neuroscience) foreshadows a scientific
hegemony within psychology that could affect the decline of studying other
important dimensions, such as personality and life stories, subjective experiences,
texts and their meaning, and cultural-historical influences.
Finally, I would like to stress that research practice using psychobiography could also
serve the training of psychologists. In their education there is often a great emphasis
on theoretical training and on the learning of quantitative research and assessment
methods. However, developing practical competencies of the professional helper is
a much harder question, though after graduating most of the psychologists will
perform practical work. Psychology students therefore need comprehensive, deep
and personal knowledge of psychological functioning (including the functioning of
their own self) that can be applied in practice. What factors make psychological
consultations or psychotherapies successful? Reviewing the outcomes of relevant
investigations Duncan (2002b) claims that the client’s personality adds up to 40%,
technique and placebo effects (beliefs, expectations) 15-15%, and the qualities of
the relationship 30%. In this respect, university education can contribute to the future
success of psychology students if it focuses on the development of the student’s
personality (self-awareness) and their empathic skills.
An extremely hard question of socializing for this profession is how we can support
the students’ professional personality development and self awareness appropriately
within academic institutions, since forming self-knowledge groups out of student
groups can cause problems. Students also have to acquire a knowledge of human
functioning that is beyond “common sense” and that is useful in practical work, but
until their master practices they do not have enough opportunities to deal with
clients on a longer term basis, and in a supervises manner. In my opinion, this
knowledge can only be created by in-depth, integrative personal work that is not
based on statistic evaluation of correlated personality traits, but on the
understanding of individual lives by case studies and exploration of life stories. It is not
accidental that the traditions of training students in personality psychology
established by Henry A. Murray at Harvard contained the idiographic, in-depth,
semester-long inquiry of one chosen individual (Karterud & Island, 1999; Runyan,
Teaching and applying modern psychobiographic approaches could become part
of the theoretical and practical education of psychology students, and could play a
significant role in socializing for the profession of psychology. A century-long
Psychobiography as a method
experience reveals that studying lives can be extremely useful and contribute to the
development of the recognition of the self and the other, and its practical
applications such as psychobiography are able to prepare future professionals to
better understand the meaning of individual lives supported by indispensable self-
reflection; just as Dilthey wrote: “Understanding is the rediscovery of the I in the Thou
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About the author:
Zoltan Kovary, PhD is hungarian clinical psychologist and a litterateur and linguist. He
studied at universities of Szeged, Debrecen and Budapest, and finished his phd studies at
University of Pécs in a theoretical psychoanalysis program. Currently he lives in Budapest,
and working at University of Szeged. He is teaching personality psychology, personality
assessment, Rorschach test, psychotherapy and psychology of art. His main research
topics are the personality background of creative process and psychobiography as a
qualitative research method. He published psychobiographical studies about Salvador
Dalí and Hungarian writer Géza Csáth; the former was published by
founded and edited by Norman N. Holland. Besides teaching and research he have a
clinical practise in a student’s counselling center and also running a private practise, but
before that he also worked at a psychiatry department, a drug ambulance and
educational advisory centers. He is one of the editors of a Hungarian psychological
journal called Imago Budapest. Zoltan Kovary has just finished his book named Creativity
and personality. From psychoanalytic creation theories to psychobiographical research,
which will be published in 2012.
Address for correspondence: Zoltan Kovary, 1066 Budapest, Zichy Jenő utca 23, I/9,
... The psychobiographical subject is selected by means of a non-probability sampling procedure, termed purposive sampling or theoretical sampling (Kőváry, 2011). This type of sampling is appropriate in cases where the subject is especially unique or significant, or where the objective of the study is not to generalise to the larger population (i.e., statistical generalization) but to gain a rich understanding of a particular individual (Neuman, 1991(Neuman, /2003Yin 1984Yin /2009). ...
... This type of sampling is appropriate in cases where the subject is especially unique or significant, or where the objective of the study is not to generalise to the larger population (i.e., statistical generalization) but to gain a rich understanding of a particular individual (Neuman, 1991(Neuman, /2003Yin 1984Yin /2009). Psychobiographical sampling is chiefly based on the individual's significance in relation to the researcher's own particular interests (Howe, 1997;Kőváry, 2011). The psychobiographical literature indicates the need for psychological studies of great, significant and exemplary lives (Elms, 1994;Howe, 1997;Runyan, 1984;Schultz, 2005;Simonton, 1994). ...
... Additionally, we accessed publicly available evidence on Tambo for interpretive analysis (Kőváry, 2011;Ponterotto, 2017;Ponterotto & Reynolds, 2017, 2019 . The main sources of evidence are presented in Table 2 . ...
... Additionally, we accessed publicly available evidence on Tambo for interpretive analysis (Kőváry, 2011;Ponterotto, 2017;Ponterotto & Reynolds, 2017, 2019 . The main sources of evidence are presented in Table 2 . ...
... Additionally, we accessed publicly available evidence on Tambo for interpretive analysis (Kőváry, 2011;Ponterotto, 2017;Ponterotto & Reynolds, 2017, 2019 . The main sources of evidence are presented in Table 2 . ...
A psychobiography of Oliver Reginald Tambo from an African Psychology Perspective Abstract The objective of this study was to psychologically reconstruct the life of Oliver Reginald Tambo (1917-1993), using integrated African-centred psychological approaches. The researchers applied a constructivist, single-case psychobiographical approach and Alexander's (1988) principal identifiers of salience to analyse primary and secondary biographical data available on Tambo's life. From these analyses, we characterise Tambo's life to reflect the following influential values: (a) God and the humaneness of the traditional African grounded (within the macro-cosmos); (b) ubuntu in the view of human nature (as part of the micro-cosmos); as well as (c) Christianity that permeated all aspects of his everyday life from a young age. We conclude that a profound sense of humanity guided and influenced Tambo’s sense of being throughout his life. Keywords: African National Congress; African Psychology; Apartheid; Oliver Reginald Tambo; Psychobiography; single-case study; South Africa; traditional African
... Additionally, we accessed publicly available evidence on Tambo for interpretive analysis (Kőváry, 2011;Ponterotto, 2017;Ponterotto & Reynolds, 2017, 2019 . The main sources of evidence are presented in Table 2 . ...
Full-text available
A constructivist, single-case study, psychobiography on the life of Tambo (1917-1993). This was undertaken from an African Psychology Perspective. The most essential finding is that Tambo had a profound sense of humanity, that guided and influenced his sense of being throughout life.
... As a form of case study, psychobiography has traditionally been dominated by, and anchored within, a constructivist-interpretivist research paradigm (Kőváry, 2011), a paradigm within which many phenomenological studies are undertaken. Phenomenologists are concerned with understanding others' experiences in their own terms, a process that draws them closer to the subjects they study. ...
In our opinion psychobiography is not only an excellent research method, but if it were a part of the training of psychologists in higher education, it would support their personal and professional development in several ways. This idea came to our minds due to our personal experiences as psychobiographers, and due to the investigation of outstanding psychologists’ and philosophers’ creativity. These psychologists and philosophers also conducted investigations concerning other talented individuals’ personality and creativity, who deeply affected them. Our aim is to demonstrate this phenomenon by analyzing three historical cases with the use of psychobiography: philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and Hungarian psychiatrist Leopold Szondi, the discoverer of “family unconscious”. These (and other) cases suggest, that a psychobiography, or more generally, the investigation of a particular person’s creativity, who affects the researcher, might cause significant beneficial transformations in the scholar’s personality. We believe that the psychodynamics of this transformation can be understood theoretically with the psychoanalytic model of Norman Holland (1976). To support this idea scientifically, we designed a qualitative empirical study: we interviewed nine psychologists, who had formerly participated in a psychobiography course at our university, and who had completed an entire psychobiographical analysis. We interpreted the interviews with inductive thematic analysis (Terry, Hayfield, Clarke & Braun, 2017), and the results suggest, that the supposed interrelations exist, which empirically supports our opinion: psychobiography improves the researcher’s skills, professional identity and personality.
Though Charles Baudelaire often has been named as the quintessential modern poet, few scholars have been able to shed light on the poet’s religious beliefs as they relate to his art and life. A psychobiographical examination of the subject with a Kleinian emphasis found that Baudelaire forged a personal space for meaning making via his notion of “sacred prostitution”, according to which the human being in his finitude relates to the divine through aesthetic productivity and pious praxis, the goal being expiation of sins, or, in Klein’s language, reparation. The chapter traces how Baudelaire’s familial and professional struggles were partially solved through his attempts to forge a dynamic equilibrium between such classic religio-philosophical binaries as conventional-unconventional and intimacy-aloofness.
Harold ‘Kim’ Philby (1912–1988) was a British MI6 intelligence officer who became infamous for acting as a double agent for the Soviet Union during the Second World War and the early Cold War period. He has recently been subject to a character analysis by historian Ben Macintyre. The present paper applies psychological science to Macintyre’s evidence, to assess whether Philby could be considered psychopathic and, if so, whether his developmental history can shed light on how this might have come about. A charming, accomplished liar and sensation-seeker, displaying marked callous and manipulative traits, his dedication to the communist cause gave meaning to his life not achievable through close personal relationships. Philby’s case adds to discussion about the little-understood aetiology of psychopathy and supports the suggestion that espionage is a field in which psychopaths who are not antisocial or impulsive can achieve success.
The Hungarian politician, economist, and belletrist Loránt Hegedüs (1872–1943) lived a historically significant life. He was socialized before WWI. In his early 40s, he experienced the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and three political transitions. He suffered from the red terror. Surprisingly, he remained ambitious, and as a minister he attempted to create meaning for the apathetic society. This study aims at understanding Hegedüs’ meaning-making through Levinson’s psychosocial developmental theory and McAdams’ model of generativity in the socio-cultural and historical context. The analysis of unpublished and public sources was guided by a conceptual matrix. Findings show the interconnectedness of Hegedüs’ generativity, his Levinsonian dream and his meaning-making strategies together with their connection to the historical and socio-cultural context.
The study of personality focuses on two main areas: understanding individual differences in personality traits, and understanding how the unique aspects of a person come together as a whole. By investigating individuals in personal, in‐depth detail to achieve a unique understanding of them (as is done with psychobiography, case study methods, and other qualitative methods) the idiographic approach can make unique and valuable contributions to our understanding of personality. This idiographic understanding is one of the central objectives of personality psychology. The notion was generally accepted that the history of the person is the personality. For Murray and others, the life history of the individual was the unit of study that psychologists needed to concern themselves. Psychobiographies are just one type of case study. To be exemplary, a case study must also be well defined, must analyze the data through the lens of rival explanations, and report the results in an engaging manner. An advantage with the case study and psychobiographical approaches is that it allows us to study cases and events that are rare.
Preface PART 1: TWO NATURAL KINDS 1. Approaching the Literary 2. Two Modes of Thought 3. Possible Castles PART 2: LANGUAGE AND REALITY 4. The Transactional Self 5. The Inspiration of Vygotsky 6. Psychological Reality 7. Nelson Goodman's Worlds 8. Thought and Emotion PART 3: ACTING IN CONSTRUCTED WORLDS 9. The Language of Education 10. Developmental Theory as Culture Afterword Appendix: A Reader's Retelling of "Clay" by James Joyce Notes Credits Index
This book sets forth a provocative agenda for the scientific study of human personality. Blending no-nonsense empiricism with the humanistic desire to understand the whole person, the book is as relevant today as it was to its many readers seventy years ago. The book sets forth a full theory of human personality, illustrated with a bevy of creative methods for personality assessment, and presenting the results of a landmark study of fifty Harvard men. The book is one of the great classics in 20th-century psychology.