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An experiment tested the hypothesis that art can cause significant changes in the experience of one's own personality traits under laboratory conditions. After completing a set of questionnaires, including the Big-Five Inventory (BFI) and an emotion checklist, the experimental group read the short story The Lady With the Toy Dog by Chekhov, while the control group read a comparison text that had the same content as the story, but was documentary in form. The comparison text was controlled for length, readability, complexity, and interest level. Participants then completed again the BFI and emotion checklist, randomly placed within a larger set of questionnaires. The results show the experimental group experienced significantly greater change in self-reported experience of personality traits than the control group, and that emotion change mediated the effect of art on traits. Further consideration should be given to the role of art in the facilitation of processes of personality growth and maturation.
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On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction Transforms the Self
Maja Djikic a; Keith Oatley a; Sara Zoeterman a; Jordan B. Peterson a
a University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
Online Publication Date: 01 January 2009
To cite this Article Djikic, Maja, Oatley, Keith, Zoeterman, Sara and Peterson, Jordan B.(2009)'On Being Moved by Art: How Reading
Fiction Transforms the Self',Creativity Research Journal,21:1,24 — 29
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/10400410802633392
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10400410802633392
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On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction
Transforms the Self
Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman, and Jordan B. Peterson
University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
An experiment tested the hypothesis that art can cause significant changes in the
experience of one’s own personality traits under laboratory conditions. After completing
a set of questionnaires, including the Big-Five Inventory (BFI) and an emotion checklist,
the experimental group read the short story The Lady With the Toy Dog by Chekhov,
while the control group read a comparison text that had the same content as the
story, but was documentary in form. The comparison text was controlled for length,
readability, complexity, and interest level. Participants then completed again the BFI
and emotion checklist, randomly placed within a larger set of questionnaires. The results
show the experimental group experienced significantly greater change in self-reported
experience of personality traits than the control group, and that emotion change
mediated the effect of art on traits. Further consideration should be given to the role
of art in the facilitation of processes of personality growth and maturation.
The discussion of art and personality in psychological
literature often takes one of the following forms: inves-
tigation of what constitutes artistic personality (Feist,
1998, 1999; Gridley, 2006; Kogan, 2002; Roy, 1996),
whether and in what way artistic personality is linked
to mental illness (Andreasen, 1987; Jamison, 1994;
Nettle, 2006), how artists’ personalities affect their aes-
thetic styles (Dudek & Marchand, 1983; Loomis &
Saltz, 1984), and how aesthetic judgments are shaped
by judges’ personalities (Machotka, 2006). Less frequent
are examinations of what traits in the general popula-
tion are related to appreciation of particular artistic
styles (Feist & Brady, 2004), what similarities obtain
between theories of personality and theories of art
(Duke, 2002), and whether personality can be consid-
ered a work of art in itself (Pe
´rez-A
´lvarez & Garcı
´a-
Montes, 2004). What is missing is an examination of
the impact of art on the personalities of those who
appreciate it. This is not surprising. Although many
art lovers feel personally transformed as a consequence
of an interaction with what they find to be moving
works of art, this change seems rare, unpredictable,
unique, and difficult to measure. Such experiences tend
to be dismissed as anecdotal.
Yet interest persists in the transformative potential of
art on its consumers. Sabine and Sabine (1983), who inter-
viewed 1,382 readers around the United States as a part of
the ‘‘Books That Made the Difference’’ project, found
that for avid readers, books were powerful instigators of
self-change. In a more formal setting that alleviated some
of the self-selection issues of Sabine and Sabine’s (1983)
work, Ross (1999) found that among her sample of 194
committed readers, 60% found reading to be a personally
transforming experience. It appears that many individuals
found the books they read had literally changed them.
The vagueness of what respondents in these studies meant
by transformative does not preclude a systematic study of
whether their intimation—that the art to which they were
exposed transformed them—could be accurate.
Two questions arise. Firstly, can stable ways of relat-
ing to oneself and others (i.e., personality) be changed?
After all, personality, by definition, includes stable ways
of interacting with oneself and one’s environment
(Burger, 2007). Earlier theories suggest that traits are
fully developed by the age of 30, and stable thereafter
This research was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Grant# 451894) to
Jordan B. Peterson.
Correspondence should be sent to Maja Djikic, Marcel Desautels
Center for Integrative Thinking, Rotman School of Management,
University of Toronto, 105 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada, M5S 3E6. E-mail: maja.djikic@rotman.utoronto.ca
CREATIVITY RESEARCH JOURNAL, 21(1), 24–29, 2009
Copyright #Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1040-0419 print=1532-6934 online
DOI: 10.1080/10400410802633392
Downloaded By: [Canadian Research Knowledge Network] At: 07:13 8 June 2009
(Costa & McCrae, 1994; McCrae & Costa, 1990, 1996).
These theories have, however, been revised, in response
to research showing that the mean levels of personality
traits change well into middle adulthood (McCrae
et al., 1999, 2000; Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer,
2006; Sristava, John, Gosling, & Potter, 2003). The
‘set-like plaster’ model of personality traits (Costa &
McCrae, 1994) appears no longer to hold. It is, there-
fore, possible that, at least for some participants in
Sabine and Sabine’s (1983) and Ross’s (1999) studies,
the subjective experience of change could have marked
genuine transformation of their personalities.
Second, what theoretical frameworks would support
the suggestion that art might facilitate such a process
of personality maturation? From the cognitive science
perspective, it does seem possible that art could indeed
cause changes in the experience of one’s own self. The
schematic constructions of others that are used in
everyday life are the same as those used when under-
standing a piece of fictional literature (Gerrig, 1998).
Reading fictional narratives has been found to involve
processes of identification and self-implication (Kuiken,
Miall, & Sikora, 2004) and to modify the self (Miall &
Kuiken, 2002). Furthermore, literature can be concep-
tualized as a cognitive and emotional simulation, in
which the travails of characters are literally run on
our minds, as a computer simulation runs on a compu-
ter (Oatley, 1999). It would not be surprising if the
result of this simulation, then, is cognitive and emo-
tional re-schematization of categories, including those
relating to oneself.
Also explored is the possibility that the process of
change described here is mediated by changes in emotion.
What may be moving about art likely includes moving
emotions (Oatley, 2003). Averill (2005) argued that emo-
tions are both mediators and products of creative works.
Langer (1953) took the relationship between art and emo-
tion even further and asserted that art represents forms
symbolizing dynamic transformation of human emotions.
It seems reasonable to assume, then, that changes in emo-
tions may, at least for some individuals, lead the way
toward more permanent changes in personality structure.
In this article, the facilitating effect of art on person-
ality was examined in a controlled laboratory experi-
ment. Bringing this process into laboratory, despite the
benefits of isolating causal relationship between the
variables, has its limitations.
Personality change is a complex, gradual, uniquely
individual process. Respondents in the Sabine and
Sabine’s (1983) and in Ross’s (1999) work were explicit
in explaining how books that transformed them were
uniquely suited to their individual preoccupations, artis-
tic tastes, and particular life stages. Rather than aiming
to produce such profound effect in our laboratory, a
sensitive dependent variable was created to register
small (but possibly significant) shifts in participants’
experience (perception) of their own traits following a
short story (art condition) or a control story with the same
content, but documentary in form (control condition).
The only difference between the stories was the presence
(or absence) of artistic (literary) form. The hypothesis
tested here is that even in laboratory conditions, exposure
to an artistically recognized short story would cause sig-
nificantly greater changes in one’s self-reported traits
(even if temporary) than exposure to the documentary
story of the same content. The potential mediational role
of emotion in this process was tested as well.
METHOD
Participants
One hundred and sixty-six first-year undergraduates
(112 women and 54 men, mean age ¼19.5 years) from
a large urban university participated in the experiment.
All were fluent in English. Participants were treated in
accordance with the Canadian Psychological Associa-
tion’s (and the American Psychological Association’s)
ethical standards with regard to treatment of human
participants. They were awarded course credit for their
participation.
Procedure
After the initial introduction, participants were ushered
into a room and left in front of a 15-inch (38.1 cm) color
monitor attached to an IBM-compatible computer. A
computer program guided them through the entire
experiment. At Time 1 they answered questions on a
series of questionnaires, among which were the Big-Five
Inventory (John, Donahue, & Kentle, 1991) and an
Emotions Checklist (see below). Following the question-
naires, participants were randomly assigned to one of
the two groups. The experimental group read the short
story The Lady With the Toy Dog by Anton Chekhov
(1860–1904), and the control group read a comparison
text that had the same content as the story, but was doc-
umentary in form (see below). After this phase, at Time 2,
participants completed a manipulation check, and again
received a questionnaire set including the Big-Five
Inventory and Emotions Checklist. Finally, participants
were fully debriefed. The computer was programmed to
randomize the presentation of questionnaires, as well as
the order of items within the questionnaires. The large
number (and randomization) of questionnaires dimin-
ished the variability due to respondents’ purposeful
manipulation of their answers due to response style
(either to be similar, or different from what they had
answered previously).
ON BEING MOVED BY ART 25
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Instruments
Texts.
1. Short story. In the experimental condition,
participants were required to read a short-story
by Anton Chekhov entitled The Lady With the
Toy Dog. The story was originally published
in 1899 and was translated from Russian into
English by S. S. Koteliansky and Gilbert
Cannan. The story is 6,367 words long and has
the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score of 6.7. This
score is a readability statistic, and the formula for
its calculation is (.39 ASL) þ(11.8 ASW)
15.59, where ASL is average sentence length
(the number of words divided by the number of
sentences), and ASW is average number of sylla-
bles per word (the number of syllables divided
by the number of words). This story is among
the five most highly regarded Chekhov’s stories
(Llewellyn-Smith, 1973), and Chekhov himself is
known to be among the best short-story writers
in the history of literature. The story’s artistic
merit is thus difficult to dispute. None of our par-
ticipants had previously read the story. It was
therefore possible to measure the direct effect of
the story, without worrying about potentially con-
founding previous readings.
2. Comparison text. Because the hypothesis of
interest was to test the impact of the literary form
of the text on the self-reported trait change, a
version of the short story was constructed that
changed nothing but its formal artistic properties.
The content of the short story deals with an adul-
terous love affair between two married people, so
a court document meant to represent an ostensible
divorce proceeding was constructed, and within it
the main protagonists of the story re-tell the events
of their involvement with each other in court.
Thus, it was possible to include all events of the
story in a documentary way, rather than in
Chekhov’s fictional mode. The control text was
controlled for length (6,358 words) and readability
(Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score 6.7).
Questionnaire Measures
1. The Big Five Inventory (John et al., 1991) is a
44-item scale measuring the Big-Five dimensions
of personality—extraversion, conscientiousness,
agreeableness, emotional stability=neuroticism,
and openness. It uses short descriptive phrases
prototypical of each of the Big Five dimen-
sions (John & Srivastava, 1999). In these items,
individuals are asked whether they see themselves
as someone who, for example, ‘‘is talkative,’’ or
‘‘tends to find fault with others,’’ and the
responses are scored on 5-item Likert scale
(1 ¼strongly disagree,5¼strongly agree). John et
al. (1991) reported test–retest correlations (based
on 6-week interval) between .65 and .83.
2. Emotion checklist. An emotion checklist contained
10 emotions: sadness, anxiety, happiness, bore-
dom, anger, fearfulness, contentment, excitement,
unsettledness, and awe. Participants were required
to indicate, on an 11-point scale (0 ¼The least
intensity I’ve ever experienced,10¼The most inten-
sity I’ve ever experienced), how much they feel
each emotion at that moment.
3. Manipulation check. Following the reading of the
text, the participants were asked to complete a
checklist that included adjectives artistic and
interesting to evaluate, on Likert scales from 0
to 5 (0 ¼Not at all,5¼Extremely), to what extent
each of the adjectives could be applied to the text
they have read. This was used to check whether
participants found the short story, indeed, more
artistic than the control text. Unless the experi-
mental condition was perceived as more artistic,
no claims could be made with regards to impact
of art versus control condition. Similarly, unless
participants found both stories equally interest-
ing, any effect that would be found could be seen
as driven by the interest level, rather than by the
experimental manipulation.
Dependent Measures
The hypothesis tested here was a general one—that expo-
sure to the experimental condition would create
significantly greater change in traits than the control con-
dition, and the change that each individual might experi-
ence could be in any trait and in any direction. An index
of personality change was created that included change
on all five traits, and followed a similar procedure for
an index of emotion change (see Results). This also pre-
vented potentially inflating p-values to an exaggerated
degree due to a large number of traits being tested. An
added benefit was the increased sensitivity of the mea-
sure. Because the text was not chosen to alter any parti-
cular trait in any particular direction, and because, due
to individual differences, we had no way of knowing
which traits would be affected for which individuals,
creating a composite index made it possible to detect
changes in the entire personality profile that might,
otherwise, be lost in the overall variability of individual
responses. The change in emotions was assessed as well,
to check its potential mediating function.
26 DJIKIC, OATLEY, ZOETERMAN, PETERSON
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RESULTS
The means and standard deviations of emotion change
and trait change were .73 (.30) and .77 (.32), respectively,
and the correlation between the two dependent variables
was statistically significant (r¼.24, p<.01). To check
whether our experimental manipulation was experienced
as more artistic than the control, a t-test was run, which
showed that participants found the short story more
artistic than the comparison text (M
art
¼2.86 vs.
M
control
¼2.15), t(164) ¼4.29, p<.001). There was,
however, no significant difference between experimental
and control texts in how interesting participants found
them, t(164) ¼–.50, p>.05.
Trait Change
Scores for the five traits at Time 2 (assessed with the
Big-Five Inventory) were regressed on scores for the five
traits at Time 1, and absolute values of standardized
residuals were summed over the five traits. Absolute
values were used because there was no prediction about
which way the traits would change. The index represents
an overall change in trait profile for each individual.
The main hypothesis, that condition would affect
trait change, was tested by a one-tailed t-test, t(164) ¼
1.64, p¼.053, R
2
¼.016. Participants who read the
Chekhov story scored significantly higher trait change
(M
art
¼.77) than participants who read the comparison
text (M
control
¼.69).
Emotion Change
For each individual, Time 2 emotions (assessed with the
Emotion Checklist) were regressed on Time 1 emotions,
for each of the 10 emotions. An index including all the
emotions was constructed to represent an overall change
in emotion profile for each individual. The results show
there was a significantly greater emotion change among
the readers of the Chekhov story than among those
who read the comparison text (t(164) ¼2.39, p<.009,
R
2
¼.034).
The results for both trait and emotion change are
presented in Figure 1. Post-hoc analyses revealed that,
on average, no particular trait was changed for all
individuals (results of t-tests for all 5 traits separately
had ps>.05, as was expected from large anticipated
individual differences in response to the texts), but
rather that each individual had unique changes across
all five traits, as captured by their trait change profile.
Mediational analysis (Baron & Kenny, 1986) was
conducted to check whether the impact of literary form
on trait change was causally mediated by emotion
change. The regression showed a significant association
of condition and trait change,F(1,164) ¼2.64, p¼.05,
R
2
¼.016, a significant association of condition and
the mediator (emotion change), F(1,164) ¼5.73, p<.01,
R
2
¼.034, a significant association of the mediator
(emotion change) and trait change,F(1,164) ¼10.11,
p<.01, R
2
¼.058, and in the final step, a loss of associa-
tion of condition and trait change when the mediator
(emotion change) has been controlled for (ps>.05).
DISCUSSION
This research confirmed the hypothesis that art can
cause significant changes in self-reported experience
of traits under laboratory conditions. A mediating
role of emotion in this process was also found. The
results of the manipulation check show that whatever
differences did occur between the experimental and
control groups, they were due to the difference in the
artistic form between the experimental and control
conditions, rather than the difference in interest level
or story content.
The results are somewhat surprising considering that
the experiment measured artistic form conservatively—
the difference between the conditions was as minimal
as possible (the only difference between the stories was
that of the overall form, at the sentence and paragraph
level) to avoid introducing confounds. Yet the form of
Chekhov’s prose, even though the story was set in
turn-of-the-century Russia, seemingly distant from our
undergraduates, changed (even if temporarily) how they,
more than a century later, experienced their own person-
ality traits. The effects were significantly greater than for
an equally interesting and thematically identical control
text. The results of the present study, particularly the
FIGURE 1 Mean trait change and emotion change as a function of
condition.
ON BEING MOVED BY ART 27
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observed mediating effect of emotion on the relationship
between literary form and trait change, also suggest that
people who read literary art respond in kind to what
could be the artist’s own process of transformation
through emotional change, encoded symbolically within
the art (Djikic, Oatley, & Peterson, 2006).
While studying differential personality traits of fiction
and nonfiction readers, Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz,
and Peterson (2006) found that exposure to fiction,
unlike exposure to nonfiction, predicts a more positive
performance on a variety of social ability measures.
Although some might argue that this association is due
to the fact that those with better social skill might simply
choose to read more fiction, our experiment shows
that the causal arrow points in the opposite direction.
If fiction can produce fluctuations in one’s own traits,
through simulation (Oatley, 1999), identification, or
self-implication (Kuiken et al., 2004), it seems reasonable
to assume that this process can casually lead to a gradual
change of oneself toward a better understanding of
others as well.
An important issue is the possibility that our results
are artifacts of mood induction. Given that art is some-
times used in experiments to induce mood, and that the
traits of extraversion and neuroticism have been found
to be correlated with positive and negative moods,
respectively (Costa & McCrae, 1980), one could argue
that the artistic form (as compared with the non-artistic
form) simply induced a mood that then correlated with
expected changes in traits. We tested this possibility by
checking whether the observed change in traits affected
implicated extraversion and neuroticism selectively. This
was not the case: The art versus control conditions did
not significantly impact these traits in particular.
Instead, it affected the whole trait profile of individuals.
For participants in the art condition, the collective
changes across all five of their traits were greater than
the changes across all five traits calculated for the parti-
cipants in the control condition. The art condition did
not make all participants score more or less highly on
neuroticism or extraversion, but uniquely and differen-
tially affected their entire trait profile. It therefore
appears important to consider that it may not be the
sheer presence, but the quality of art-induced
emotions—their complexity, depth, range, and intensity—
that potentially facilitate the process of trait change.
It is not our argument that art necessarily causes
permanent or strong personality changes in those who
encounter it. A relationship of an individual psyche to
a work of art is a highly complex process that cannot
be easily brought into laboratory. Instead, this study
shows that the potential for change is there, given that
human psyche appears to respond to the artistic form
through subtle shifts in the vision of itself. This potential
is worth exploring.
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... Mar, Djikic and Oatley (2008) also note that readers commonly self-report changes to themselves as a result of books they have read. Furthermore, they have demonstrated experimental evidence of change to participants' personality trait profiles following the reading of a short story, mediated by emotion (Djikic et al., 2009b). Importantly, this is not a specific change as a result of persuasion, rather reading opens one up to "fluctuation" that can take an individual direction (Djikic & Oatley, 2014). ...
... An alternative would have been to create texts that were analogous except for one being a fictional and the other a nonfictional account, which is an approach taken in other research (e.g. Djikic et al., 2009b). However, this comes with other limitations due to poor ecological validity, and potentially skewed ecology validity if only one text is authentic. ...
... especially given the nature of fictional material and how it can prompt emotional and deeply personal responses (e.g.Djikic et al., 2009b), in each of the studies care was taken in study design to ensure participants could easily quit at any time, or could have ...
Thesis
This thesis presents research into the relationship between reading fiction, as distinct from nonfiction, and critical thinking. Critical thinking is framed in the context of information literacy research. Prior research has shown increased fiction reading to be associated with social (Mumper & Gerrig, 2017), as well as cognitive and imaginative (Black et al., 2018; Oatley, 2011), capacities. These capacities are also associated with critical thinking (Byrne, 2016; R. H. Ennis, 2015; Thayer-Bacon, 2000). Thus, reading fiction may increase factors which in turn yield changes to critical thinking. To explore this potential relationship both normatively and subjectively, a sequential mixed methods approach was adopted. Four studies were conducted: one, an observational survey study assessing correlations between reading and factors associated with critical thinking; two, a reading log with pre- and post- critical thinking assessment, and experimental manipulation of assigned reading, testing a causal relationship; three, a reader interview study exploring experiences of reading and critical thought; four, a reading diary study exploring the day-to-day interplay of reading and critical thinking experiences. In conjunction, the four studies revealed: fiction reading was associated with experiential engagement in critical thought, while nonfiction was connected to the building of knowledge and procedure of critical thinking; fiction reading was predictive of disposition towards, change in, and improvement to critical thinking; nonfiction reading in long sessions was associated with improvement, but many short engagements were detrimental to critical thinking; assigning fiction reading to nonfiction readers was shown to be an efficacious critical thinking intervention. These findings suggest fiction is a utile resource for developing critical thinking, and as such imply that the inclusion of fiction as part of information literacy and wider arts and humanities education, and across society through public library provision, is valuable.
... Finally, even conceding that literature (by whatever definition) has a positive impact on mental health, there remains an explanatory gap concerning what causal mechanisms may meditate or moderate this impact. So far as it has been theorised at all, the main approaches seem to volunteer literature as a form of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), such that literary texts allow readers to re-frame their orientation to the world by allowing the self to be refracted through identification with a third-party perspective [29,30]. Though such ideas have an intuitive appeal, the fact is that they often better resemble the hard-to-test constructions of psychoanalysis than they do the pragmatic paradigm of CBT. ...
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... Using this approach, Djikic et al. (2013) found that participants who scored low on the personality trait "openness" experienced an increase in self-reported cognitive empathy (as measured with the self-report Perspective Taking scale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, IRI; Davis, 1983) after reading a literary story, but not after reading an expository text that was matched in terms of content, complexity, and length. The authors suggest that individuals who are generally not as open to new experiences benefit especially from the exposure to others' perspectives that literary narratives offer, increasing their self-reported empathic abilities (see Djikic et al., 2009b). ...
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... Bal & Veltkamp, 2013;Djikic et al., 2013b;Kidd & Castano, 2013), and related outcomes including moral cognition (e.g. Johnson et al., 2013;Koopman, 2015), benefits of reading fiction have been reported in other outcomes as well, for instance the need for cognitive closure (Djikic et al., 2013a), creativity (Black & Barnes, 2021), or changes in personality (Djikic et al., 2009). Across outcome variables, the majority of experimental studies have investigated the effects of reading short fictional narratives. ...
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Publisher Summary The dominant paradigm in current personality psychology is a reinvigorated version of one of the oldest approaches, trait psychology. Personality traits are “dimensions of individual differences in tendencies to show consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions.” In this context, trait structure refers to the pattern of co-variation among individual traits, usually expressed as dimensions of personality identified in factor analyses. For decades, the field of personality psychology was characterized by competing systems of trait structure; more recently a consensus has developed that most traits can be understood in terms of the dimensions of the Five-Factor Model. The consensus on personality trait structure is not paralleled by consensus on the structure of affects. The chapter discusses a three-dimensional model, defined by pleasure, arousal, and dominance factors in which it is possible to classify such state-descriptive terms as mighty, fascinated, unperturbed, docile, insolent, aghast, uncaring, and bored. More common are two-dimensional systems with axes of pleasure and arousal or positive and negative affect. These two schemes are interpreted as rotational variants—positive affect is midway between pleasure and arousal, whereas negative affect lies between arousal and low pleasure.
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A review of Emerging Lives, Enduring Dispositions, by Robert R. McCrae and Paul T. Costa, Jr. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1984. Pp. 142, ISBN: 0-316-15764-3, $8.95 (paper).