Dan McAdams’s New Book Depicts Personality Change across Life Span

Dan McAdams’s New Book Depicts Personality Change across Life Span

Art and Science of Personality Development

In his new book The Art and Science of Personality Development, professor Dan McAdams illuminates how personality evolves throughout a lifetime as individuals develop from infancy through old age. The book integrates the best research in personality and developmental psychology as McAdams offers what has been described as “the first comprehensive theory of personality development to emerge in the 21st century.”

“The ‘art’ of personality refers to the idea that every human life is like a unique work of art — a never-to-be-repeated variation on human nature, developing over time. The ‘science’ comes in when we notice regular patterns or trajectories of the developing person — regularities that can be observed, measured and predicted,” says McAdams.  

His book captures the art of personality development through case studies of famous people including Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Jane Fonda, Mother Teresa and Jay Z. He conveys the science through a review of recent research findings on how people develop over time, including his own findings at the Foley Center for the Study of Lives.

“The new book represents the culmination of 30 years of study for me in two very different areas of science: personality psychology and developmental psychology,” says McAdams, who holds a PhD from Harvard University in both areas and brings them together in the book into “one major statement.” Since personality psychology focuses on individual variations and developmental psychology on changes over time, “the book is about how those important variations in design that distinguish one person from the next develop over time, from birth through old age,” McAdams explains.

The book’s key premise is that for each person personality develops in three layers: as social actor, motivated agent and autobiographical author. McAdams defines personality as a developing complex of traits, goals and stories, set within culture and context, evolving from infancy through old age.

“The first and most basic layer, apparent even at birth, is the person as a social actor, who performs emotion and behavior as does an actor on the stage,” McAdams says. He notes that everyone is a social actor, with performances shaped by temperament traits that appear very early in life. These traits continue to develop over the course of a person’s life, even in the latest years.  

Dan McAdams

“A second line or layer of development begins to emerge in middle childhood — the person as a motivated agent. As agents, we develop goals, plans and values for our lives, and we strive to attain them,” says McAdams. While these goals and plans change dramatically over time, as a function of changing life circumstances, basic traits are mainly stable.

“Finally, in late adolescence and young adulthood, we begin to construct stories to make sense of our lives — the reconstructed past, experienced present, and imagined future,” McAdams says. “These life stories provide us with a sense of unity and purpose; they explain to ourselves and to others how we have become the person we are becoming.” In constructing stories about their lives, people express the third line of personality development — the person as an autobiographical author.  

Reviews of The Art and Science of Personality Development have praised McAdams’s new book, published by Guilford Press, as innovative and engaging. For example, Rebecca Shiner of the Department of Psychology at Colgate University says, “This fascinating book presents an integrative 'big picture' of personality development.”

“This is a powerful book that succeeds on two levels. First, it communicates how personality research is done and how researchers arrive at scientifically defensible answers to questions about human nature. Second, it invites readers to introspect—to ask themselves how they came to be who they are,” says Avshalom Caspi, the Edward M. Arnett Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.

The Art and Science of Personality Development is a landmark achievement in an already illustrious career. This volume heralds the first comprehensive theory of personality development to emerge in the 21st century,” adds Jefferson Singer, the Elizabeth H. Faulk Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College.

McAdams is the author of more than 200 scientific articles and chapters, numerous edited volumes and six books. His writings focus on concepts of self and identity in contemporary American society and on themes of power, intimacy, redemption and generativity across the adult life course. McAdams is best known for formulating a life-story theory of human identity, which maintains that modern adults provide their lives with a sense of unity and purpose by constructing and internalizing self-defining life stories or “personal myths.”

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 7/9/15