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Theories I Find Most Useful

Alan C. Elms

There are personality theories that I admire but never use. Those listed below are theories that I have actually used in doing psychobiography. None of them works for every biographical subject, but each one works some of the time. For examples of use, see my book Uncovering Lives, or my chapter titled "If the Glove Fits" in the upcoming Handbook of Psychobiography, edited by William Todd Schultz (Oxford University Press, late 2004 or early 2005).

1) Freudian theory. It's obviously wrong in certain ways, outdated in others, but insightful and revealing in still others. Unconscious motivation is important to humans, though it isn't always just sexual or aggressive (and Freud didn't limit himself to discussing those two categories, either). Psychological defenses are an important component of each individual's psyche. Dreams can be revealing, though Freud's ideas about the primary psychological functions of dreams are only partially supported by systematic research. And so on.

2) Erik Erikson's psychosocial developmental stages. Above, I didn't list Freud's psychosexual stages; I find them a little useful (for instance in analyzing the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears), but not a lot useful. Erikson's psychosocial stages help me to some degree with virtually every psychobiographical subject I study. Again, there are problems with Erikson's concepts, and we can get into those elsewhere on this website. But they do remind me of important issues that are worth exploring in any individual's life, and give me ways to think about those issues.

3) Clinical theory. Psychotherapists have found out a lot about human beings over the past century, and what they've found and re-found and re-re-refound adds up to a body of theory that is to some extent independent of Freudian or Jungian or other big-theory concepts. Clinicians can sometimes come up with pretty wacky ideas, but when a concept keeps arising in interactions between many clinicians and many patients, it's worth paying attention to. The DSM-IV is one compendium of such concepts, but not the best source for a lot of them.

4) Silvan Tomkins' script theory. I won't go into its details here, but I'll say that out of all the broad personality theories developed since the great heyday of psychoanalysis and its immediate descendants, script theory is the most promising. It's often hard to follow Tomkins' highly compressed writing style; take a look at Rae Carlson's "translations" of Silvan's work into much plainer English. I'm not sure all of Tomkins' theoretical structure is needed in order to support various of his more specific concepts, but I'm happy to borrow some of those concepts.

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