Broadening the Parameters of the Psychobiography

“Broadening the Parameters of the Psychobiography. The Character Motivations of the ‘Ordinary’ Extraordinary” in C.-E. Mayer, P. Fouche, R. van Niekerk, Psychobiographical Illustrations on Meaning and Identity in Sociocultural Contexts, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2022.


For over a century, psychobiography has focused on the eminent individual who has achieved historical or social recognition. Ignoring the character strengths of the ‘ordinary’ individual who has reached a significant and noteworthy personal milestone is a disservice to psychology and those who might benefit from this research. Some experts claim that embracing a psychobiographic focus on the ordinary individual would pervert the process, some open the door to innovation, and others have, unwittingly, provided templates. The psychological benefits seem apparent if consideration of the character strengths and virtues of the ordinary extraordinary supplement psychobiographic research. Their motivations are no less extraordinary or worthy of consideration than those of the accomplished individual who has achieved historical or social recognition; each complements psychological research both generally and topically.

Keywords Psychobiography · Motivation · Maslow · Positive psychology · Human potential

13.1 Introduction. 

The purpose of this paper is fourfold. It suggests that psychobiography limits its potential to study the character strengths underlying motivation, persistence, and perseverance by restricting its concentration to the significant individual who has achieved historical or social recognition (the ’eminent extraordinary’). It recommends expanding that concentration by adopting a partnering focus on the ‘ordinary extraordinary’ who has achieved a significant and noteworthy personal milestone. It supports the implicit theory of positive psychology, humanism, and mentor Abraham Maslow (1943) that all individuals are extraordinary by their humanness, each possessing the potential for significant personal achievement. It disputes the notion put forward by Alexander (1988), Knight (2019), McAdams (1988), Schultz (2005), and Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) that the examined life-narrative [of a psychobiography] should be on a ‘finished’ life, arguing the character strengths of the evolving ‘ordinary extraordinary’ could greatly assist in the psychological study of human motivation and development. It is a fundamental principle that actions are motivated to achieve individual needs; it is the role of psychology and psychobiography to research what character strengths generate that motivation, whatever their source. 

    The psychobiography is “usually” (du Plessis 2017: 218; McAdams 1988: 2) concerned with the extraordinariness (Cilliars and Mayer 2019; Mayer and May 2019) of accomplished individuals who have achieved historical or social recognition (Alexander 1988; Burnell et al. 2019; Carlson 1988; du Plessis 2017; Kőváry 2019; McAdams 2001; Ponterotto 2014; Runyan 1984). This can be interpreted as contradicting Schultz’s (2005: 3) description of the goal of psychobiography “as simply as ‘the understanding of persons” (du Plessis 2017: 217). 

    Filling the eminent extraordinary ranks is the accomplished artist, scientist, philosopher, activist, and politician (Burnell et al. 2019; Carlson 1988; du Plessis 2017; Runyon 1988). Emerging with Freud’s (1910) pathographic study of Leonardo DaVinci’s childhood, subjects include Hitler (Murray 1943), Robespierre (Gallo 1971), Stalin (Tucker 1973), Turkey President, Ataturk (Volkan and Itzkowitz 1986), Bertrand Russell (Brink 1989), Margaret Thatcher (Abse 1989), Gandhi (Erikson 1993), Virginia Woolf (Bond 2000), King Herod (Kasher 2007), Napoleon (Falk 2007) and, more recently, Paulo Coehlo (Mayer 2017), Goethe (Holm-Hadulla 2018), Frederick Douglas (Gibson 2018), Charlize Theron (Prenter et al. 2019), cult leader, Jim Jones (Kelley 2019), and Thomas Jefferson (Holowchak 2020). 

    Howe (1997: 236) believes the purpose of a psychobiography is to generate “ideas about possible motives and conflicts that may drive a person towards undertaking various activities.” Analyzing the character strengths of the ordinary extraordinary who has achieved a noteworthy personal milestone would significantly enhance psychological understanding of motivational character development. Broadening the psychobiographic perspective would open new avenues of study that would benefit research into the character strengths, virtues, and attributes that facilitate motivation, persistence, and perseverance. Examples of the ordinary extraordinary who has reached a significant and noteworthy personal milestone might include the nurse who has committed his life to children with cancer, the high school teacher who has ‘reached’ her students, the writer who has finally published. Have they not, through trial and error, attained a recognizable personal plateau of achievement? Are their character strengths, objectives, and motivations any less significant than those of the acclaimed actor or heart transplant surgeon? 

    ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger’s goal was to play for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Undersized and undervalued, he was relegated to the scout squad. On November 8, 1975, Rudy was put into a game against Georgia Tech and, memorably, sacked their quarterback on the game’s last play. He was the first man in Notre Dame history to be carried off the field by his teammates. Not only would a psychobiography of Rudy’s days at Notre Dame be a respectable character study of motivation, but psychology could benefit from the determination of many unheralded persons who have achieved significant and noteworthy personal milestones. Expanding current study could generate a more in-depth understanding of the qualities and characteristics that motivate any individual to achieve, or overcome adversity of any nature. 

    Embracing the ordinary extraordinary does not impinge on the psychobiography that has been the mainstay for over a century. It merely adds a species to the psychobiographic genus within the psychological family. A bus and a bicycle may be distinct modes of transportation, but they can both transport to a conclusion. 

13.2 Supporting Arguments

The psychological knowledge gathered by psychobiography provides general and specific applications. Universal themes of the character strengths that generate motivation, persistence, and perseverance are particularized by topical relevance. The psychobiographies of Coleridge (Weissman 1990), Poe (Krutch 1926), and Emily Dickinson (Cody 1971) have their inter-relevance; those of Lincoln (Clark 1933), Nixon (Volkan et al. 1999), and Obama (Falk 2010) have theirs; as have those of Jesus (Caldwell 1976), Joseph Smith (Anderson 1999), and Muhammed (Sina 2008) theirs. Kelley’s (2019: 363) interest in the “motivational dynamics that undergird religious leaders’ often Januslike relations to their followers,” for example, supplements the latter group.   

13.2.1 Implicit Superiority 

The assumption that the motivational character strengths of the eminent extraordinary are more desirable to psychological study suggests an implicit arrogance towards those of the ordinary extraordinary. Society often justifies arrogance in academics, politics, the arts, and other ventures when it leads to and supports achievements (Whitbourne 2017). The academic swayed by the intimate relationship of knowledge and power is not an oddity. So, a relevant question might be: does the eminent extraordinary provide a better source of psychological motivations than the ordinary extraordinary, or are the historically accomplished more biographically interesting? Analyzing the motivational characteristics of the eminent extraordinary is valuable to psychological research and study, but academic idolization warrants consideration.  

13.2.2 Eminent as Exemplary?

It is safe to claim that not every eminent extraordinary who meets psychobiographic criteria is an exemplary role model. Many are psychologically dysfunctional, prone to clinical narcissism, megalomania, perfectionism, suicidal ideation, disconnectedness, substance abuse, hostility, and aggression. Artists Van Gogh and Pollack, philosophers Nietzsche and Rosseau, politicians Trump and Napoleon, and writers Plathe, Hemingway, and Poe are sustained by moral and physiological dysfunctions that do not comfortably fall within Seligman’s classification of character strengths and virtues (al Taher 2020; Peterson and Seligman 2004).

   Successful persons are generally perceived to be passionate, continually trying to improve themselves, perpetually striving to be better. As Koulopoulos (2020: 2) noted “being successful is fundamentally about needing to win; the reasons vary, but the determination doesn’t. [Successful people] hate losing with an abiding passion.” The obsessive attention to detail and control of many successful persons are characteristics of perfectionism, and the unbridled compulsion to succeed is often diagnosable. Psychologists (Benson 2003; Flett and Hewitt 2002) have discovered that perfectionism and compulsion correlate with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, anorexia, suicide, and other mental health dysfunctions. Hallmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorders are perfectionism, the need for mental and interpersonal control, addiction to work and productivity, and a preoccupation with details (APA 2013). Peterson and Seligman (2004) define character strengths as the good qualities that people possess rather than a compilation of their faults and issues, while Ponterotto (2014: 379) affirms that a psychobiography “may represent the worst of human nature.” This paper recognizes that knowledge is acquired as much from the failure of a system or subject as from success and disputes the authenticity of generalizing the psychobiographic focus on the exemplary. The same argument could be made for ‘eminent,’ which is usually accepted as an adjective used to emphasize the presence of a positive quality. This argument does warrant precluding psychological research of the eminent extraordinary, but the acceptance of such interpretational awareness should bolster the argument for additional inclusiveness. 

13.2.3 Expanding Diversity

Fordham psychologist, Ponterotto’s (2014: 379) definition of psychobiography leaves little room for variation: “Psychobiography represents a specialty area that applies psychological theories and research tools to the intensive study of an individual of historic significance.” Cilliers and Mayer (2019 115) maintain that psychobiography is “based on the analysis of extraordinary individuals by using psychological theories . . . to gain a holistic view of the individual’s life.” Burnell et al. (2019: 180) look for “the characteristics and traits that indicate generative and exemplary lives.”

    To limit psychobiographic diversification by its solitary emphasis on a certain segment of society is counterproductive and discriminating, as is the assumption that motivational character strengths and attributes of the eminent extraordinary are any more formidable or psychologically relevant than those of the ordinary extraordinary. This recognition does not warrant precluding psychological research of the eminent extraordinary, but the awareness of counterproductivity and discrimination should bolster the argument for additional inclusiveness. 

13.2.4 Peer Relationships. 

Finally, evidence supports that the primary facilitator to character development is the peer relationships of the child/adolescent (Bandura 1985). “Peers are defined as belonging to the same societal group especially based on age, grade, or status” (Reitz et al. 2014: 6). Psychobiographical studies of the motivational character strengths and virtues of the eminent of a different stratosphere cannot hold the same comparative validity or relevance to those of the ordinary extraordinary. 

13.3 Psychobiography

In recent years, researchers have recognized the importance of a more unified and cross-disciplinary approach to study character motivation (Braver et al. 2014). There is broad support for expanding the psychobiographic focus. Atwood and Stolorow (1993: 9) campaigned for the use of multiple perspectives, promoting “a psychobiographic method capable of flexibly drawing upon the knowledge of all the different schools of thought, and also of devising new concepts as it goes along.” Runyan (1988: 320) concedes, “in further research, a number of other aspects of progress in psychobiography might be examined, such as progress in the range of persons studied.” Anderson and Dunlop (2019: 11) argue “Theory should open up, not close down; provide new questions, not easy answers; complicate, not simplify; produce possibilities, not reductions,” while the author (Mullen 2019: 4) adds “The [psychobiography] maintains its flexibility by drawing upon the knowledge of many schools of thought while devising new concepts as they become necessary for evaluation.” Kőváry (2019: 739) acknowledges that “contemporary psychobiography is constantly widening its focus.” Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000: 8) call for “massive research on strengths and virtues.” British psychologist Howe’s (1997: 241) article on the synthesis of psychology and biography in psychobiography entertains the following:

The benefits recede and the limitations become pressing when the aim is to understand individuals, especially if they are at all extraordinary, and even more so when their very uniqueness is a primary reason for taking an interest in them. 

Descriptors of personality studied in the normative sense, such as “traits, styles, types, motives, ideologies, attitudes, affective dispositions, and psychopathological categories” (Alexander 1988: 266), are relevant to the ordinary extraordinary as well as the eminent extraordinary. There are “a multitude of ways of measuring traits and attributes, and techniques for recording individual’s experiences, as well as various methods for analyzing qualitative data objectively” (Howe 1997: 240).  Perkins and Repper (2003) point to Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) six core virtues of character strengths to which every individual, ordinary or historically eminent, has access: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

13.3.1 Purposes of the Psychobiography.

For psychologist McCarron (2017), psychobiography pursues “the salient themes of a life and the psycho-dynamics behind them in hopes of capturing the psychological ‘fingerprint’ of a person” (p. 1). Du Plessis and Stones (2019: 210) offer the rote psychobiographic motivation, “to understand the lives and personalities of exemplary individuals.” Howe (1997) sources eighteen distinguished psychobiographers who state psychobiography’s general purpose is to examine the growth of original thinking and creativity in individuals. Many psychobiographers define its purpose as learning why a person thinks and behaves as she or he does (Anderson and Dunlop 2019; Howe 1997), or “to generate theoretical insight into, and understanding of, the individual” (Knight 2019: 134). A coalescent vision might define the purpose of the psychobiography as (1) the study of the character strengths, virtues, and attributes that generate motivation, persistence, and perseverance towards achievement; and (2) to apply these understandings toward optimal functioning, and improving life satisfaction and the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

13.4 Psychobiography, Positive Psychology, and Maslow

Mayer and May (2019: 165) inform “Over the past decade, the importance of positive psychology concepts has been emphasized in psychological research in general . . . but also recently in psychobiographical research.” The psychobiographic affiliation with positive psychology reinforces the justification to broaden the parameters of psychobiography to embrace the ordinary extraordinary. Positive psychology, according to Gable and Haidt (2005: 103), is the “study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions.” Mayer and May (2019) cite Schultz (2005: 165) in calling for more “positive aspects in the psychobiographical perspectives on the life of individuals.” Sheldon and King (2001: 216) define positive psychology as “nothing more than the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues,” one that “revisits the average person.”

13.4.1 Positive Psychology

In their study of positive psychology, Mukund and Singh (2015: 201) write, “Positive psychology theory and research has been applied across many domains, from education to health to neuroscience.” Positive psychology is a relatively new field (since 1998) that ostensibly complements rather than replaces traditional psychology. Common elements of positive psychology include savoring, mindfulness, “gratitude, kindness, and pursuing hope and meaning” (Chakhssi et al. 2018: 2). Schrank et al. (2014: 103) write: “positive psychology serves as an umbrella term to accommodate research investigating positive emotions and other positive aspects such as creativity, optimism, resilience, empathy, compassion, humour, and life satisfaction.”

    Positive psychology’s ambition “to study, identify and amplify the strengths and capacities that individuals, families, and society need to thrive” (Carruthers and Hood 2004: 30) indeed welcomes any individual who has achieved. Psychology would benefit by including the “positive, adaptive, creative and emotionally fulfilling aspects” (Mukund and Singh 2015: 197) of the ordinary extraordinary.

    Positive psychology is the science of optimal functioning. Cultural psychologist Levesque (2011) describes optimal functioning as the study of how ordinary individuals attempt to achieve their potentials and become the best that they can be. Like psychobiography, positive psychology researches the “experiences and positive character or virtues” (Mayer and May 2019: 160) that generate the motivation, persistence, and perseverance needed to cultivate the “potential for psychological well-being that lends itself to optimal functioning” (Carruthers and Hood 2004: 31). Optimal functioning is vital to sports, work, education, wellness, and everyday living. Like positive psychology’s attempts to understand human potential and Maslow’s hierarchy of natural human development, optimal functioning is a universal application.

13.4.2 Maslow

Extending the genealogy of positive psychology reaches the character developmental philosophy of Abraham Maslow. According to psychologist Nelson Goud (2008: 449), “the recent Positive Psychology movement focuses on themes addressed by Maslow over 50 years ago.” Cited as the tenth most influential psychologist of the 20th century (Haggbloom et al. 2002), Maslow introduced positive psychology in Motivations and Personality (1954). Described as the ‘third force’ in psychology after behaviorism and psychoanalysis, his humanistic approach stressed the importance of focusing on ordinary individuals’ positive qualities (Mukund and Singh 2015; Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000).

Fig. 1.1 Genesis of the psychobiography.

Maslow used the term metamotivation to describe self-actualized people who explore the parameters of their human potential. Self-actualization, “the full realization of one’s creative, intellectual, and social potential” (Selva, 2020b: 1), is the foundation of advanced human potential and a principal tenet of positive psychology (Mayer and May 2019). Self-actualization is achievable pending satisfaction of a hierarchy of physiological, cognitive, and other requisites of natural human development. Maslow (1943: 92) describes this penultimate level as “the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be,” the satisfaction of the need to know our role in the meaning of life. Selva, 2020a: 3) adds “Themes addressed by Maslow over 50 years ago . . . such as happiness, flow, courage, hope and optimism, responsibility, and civility” became central to the positive psychology movement.

    The implicit foundation of humanism and positive psychology is balance, inclusion, and human ability, development, and potential. Any aspect of discrimination, prejudice, exclusionism, or preferential treatment assaults their integrity.

13.5 Adapting the Psychobiography to the ‘Ordinary’ Extraordinary

Adopting psychobiography’s multiple strategy approaches could provide better access to the complexities of the individual personality. These strategies have been developed for the eminent extraordinary; it is, therefore, important to evaluate how they can be utilized in the study of the ordinary extraordinary. We are concerned, here, with the case study, history, hermeneutics, data collection, and narrative of the subject. 

Hermeneutic evidence of the ordinary extraordinary would, ostensibly, be easier to interpret from interviews than unavailable historical records as it requires”a degree of inter-subjective agreement and certainty that one has understood an expression accurately” (Polkinghorne 1983: 221). The narrative aspect of the psychobiography favors the ordinary extraordinary. According to Alexander (1988: 265), “the richest sources of data are those which deal with the spontaneous recollection from memory of various aspects of life already lived,” and no one is closer to a life already lived than the person living that life. The narrative of an ordinary extraordinary might lack in spectacularism but not creativity. Every individual’s life is distinctive, consisting of unique experiences, beliefs, and sensibilities that help convey “the coherence and the meaning of lives” (McAdams 2001: 102). Finally, a case-study is created through an in-depth psychological investigation to generate a reconstructive, clinical, and interpretive analysis of the subject “based upon the synthesis of all available evidence culled from all available sciences providing systematic analyses of information” (Erickson 2003: 40). The key is availability, be it historical, anecdotal, or in the next room. 

    The investigation methods utilized in psychobiography require modest adaptation to the ordinary extraordinary. More in-depth interpretation, inference, and speculation would compensate for any lacuna of known history and philosophical, ethical, and religious evolution found in studies of the full life of the eminent extraordinary. Evaluation of the character strengths and virtues of the ordinary extraordinary would come from autobiography, academic and clinical records, and the subject’s personal associations. None of these falls outside the purview of the psychobiographic process. Data and evidence of ordinary individuals are already available in analysis and research. Statistical research is abundant; comparative or correlational evidence supports conclusions. 

13.6 Conclusions

This paper addresses four issues with the psychobiographic approach which, for over a century, has focused on the character motivations of the extraordinary eminent who has achieved historical or social recognition. It argues that psychobiography limits its potential to study the character strengths that generate the character strengths, virtues, and attributes that generate motivation, persistence, and perseverance to achieve by restricting its concentration. It contends that consideration of the character motivations of the ordinary extraordinary would significantly enhance psychological study. It affiliates positive psychology and Maslowian humanism with contemporary psychobiography. It provides evidence that researchers have an interest in broadening psychobiography’s vision. Finally, this paper demonstrates that the psychobiographic approach is as relevant to the ordinary extraordinary as the eminent extraordinary. It is a fundamental principle that actions are motivated to achieve individual needs; it is psychology’s obligation to understand better the character strengths that generate and support that motivation by broadening the psychobiographic perspective.



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