Robert White and the Study of Lives
- Raymond E. FancherRaymond E. FancherYork University, Department of Psychology
Robert Winthrop White was an important psychologist and personality researcher at Harvard University during the middle years of the 1900s. First as a student and then chief lieutenant and colleague of Henry A. Murray at the Harvard Psychological Clinic, White became a leading proponent of Murray’s intensively case study-oriented “personological” approach to personality analysis and description. This approach emphasized that personality is not a fixed entity but a constantly changing and developing configuration of many different factors, which must be appreciated as a whole and is best conveyed in the context of individual life histories. Although sometimes overshadowed by both Murray and Harvard personality psychologist Gordon Allport, who both promoted the life study approach, White became the most prolific and skilled early practitioner of that approach. His early case study of “Earnst” was the only one selected to illustrate the Murray project’s personological approach in the seminal 1938 work Explorations in Personality. As the “caretaker” director of the clinic in the late 1930s and early 1940s, White oversaw the collection of numerous further case histories, several of which became the foundations of four highly influential books: The Abnormal Personality, Lives in Progress, Opinions and Personality, and The Enterprise of Living. In 1959, White made important contributions to the theory of motivation by asserting that the standard conception of motives as tension-reducing instincts or drives was severely limited and should be complemented by an innate “effectance” motive: an innate tendency to seek rather than reduce tension while achieving “competence” in dealing with the outside world.