McAdams on Bush: a psychobiography

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

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

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

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

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