Expeditions into the Known

On not minding my own business

Marshall P. Duke, Candler Professor of Psychology


In the late nineteenth century, many wealthy aristocrats in Great Britain and elsewhere included in their homes special rooms where they would display the odd and interesting things that they brought back from their world travels. They did not intend to move lock, stock, and barrel to these exotic places, but their travels and the things they brought back surely made their lives richer and provided comparators for their own culture as well as new ways of thinking and doing things.

In many ways, my own forays into the unfamiliar domains of my academic colleagues—I think a useful term for these journeys might be “interdisciplinary expeditions”—have served similar purposes. When I return, I bring back conceptual “souvenirs,” and I see my own discipline very differently. I will try to explain.

First, last, and always I am a personality psychologist—I have been driven for almost four decades now by a simple desire to know why people behave as they do and to arrive at a satisfactory conceptualization of human personality. Unsurprisingly, I have not achieved these goals. In fact, based on my experience, during the first meeting of my graduate seminar on personality theory, I enjoin my students to savor their last moments of intellectual clarity about personality, because the longer they as psychologists ask questions about the nature of being human, the more confused they will become. (Alas, regardless of discipline, this seems to me to be the blessing and the curse of scholars. It is also the reason that this job is so much fun.) The confusion inherent in the study of personality, it seems to me, is born of our search for answers in the same places decade after decade—traits, genes, parenting, family patterns, intra-psychic forces. For those of us with a more interdisciplinary bent (born of frustration?), the strategy has been to look outside of our own discipline, to set out on journeys of inquiry into “foreign” cultures. Thus far, I have mounted four such expeditions and have begun a fifth.

My first foray was in the mid-1970s when, with the help of an electrical engineer at Georgia Tech, I generated and published a model of personality based upon principles of electrical circuitry and simple data processing. My second sojourn took me into mathematics and physics. There, with the aid of a mathematician willing to tolerate my simple questions, I found that fractal geometry and non-linear systems seemed to add significantly to my understanding of certain aspects of personality function; this journey resulted in the publication of a paper dealing with chaos theory and personality.

My third major expedition began as an effort to trace the origins of the study of nonverbal behavior, an important aspect of my research in social and personality development. I quickly ran out of history in psychology (only one hundred years), but some wonderful conversations with Clark Poling, Jean Campbell, Sara MacPhee and others in the art history department put me on the trail of nonverbal language in the history of art. There my suitcase runneth over. I brought back a treasure trove of art historical writings that informed a new and exciting (at least for me) way of thinking about personality and person perception. From this bit of travel emerged an article titled “Theories of Personality and Theories of Art: A Budding Consilience?” for which I have received fives of reprint requests from all over my family!

My current expedition is co-traveled with Walt Reed, chair of the ILA and English professor. In addition to playing some old-fashioned blues together, Walt and I share questions about the nature of literary characters and their relationship to actual people. We wonder about the relationship that exists between the author/Self and the dramatis personae/Jamesian multiple selves created by the author/Self. Walt gave me Bakhtin and Harold Bloom; I gave Walt narrative theorists like MacAdams, Tomkins, and Hermanns. We had lunch. We wrote a paper titled “Personalities as dramatis personae: An interdisciplinary examination of the self as author.” Walt came to the psychology department and we presented our ideas as a psychology colloquium (he shuddered and shook). Soon thereafter, we were invited to present our notions to the ILA Brown Bag Lunch (I shuddered and shook). We submitted the paper to a psychology journal, which was interested in publishing it but wanted it revised to be more “psychological.” We decided instead to submit the piece to Common Knowledge, and the editor liked it enough to ask our permission to touch it up here and there (to make it more “humanistic”?) and to publish it. At the invitation of its director, Martine Brownley, we are now co-leading a yearlong faculty seminar on personality and character at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Talk about some traveling!

My newest interdisciplinary excursion is as a member of the core faculty of The Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual in American Life (marial). I am working with anthropologists, sociologists, historians, geographers, and theologians. My question remains the same—why do people behave as they do—but I have come upon an interdisciplinary gold mine. Can we learn something about personality theories if we re-frame them as creation myths? Does where you live (regionally) affect who you are? Do family rituals and family stories make for more psychologically resilient kids? (The answer is “yes” on this one, by the way.) My suitcase is filling quickly.

As I write this, I wonder what my colleagues in Emory College might make of all of these shenanigans. I am not sure. I hope they do not see me as a misdirected dilettante. But if dilettante is the label, I think I might prefer to be seen as a highly directed, even methodical, dilettante. I can only tell you that these expeditions into other disciplines (acts of what art historian Irwin Panofsky insightfully termed “decompartmentalization”) have transformed my way of thinking about the thing in which I am ultimately interested—human behavior. I am surely not an original thinker in this regard, and I am surely not alone in my commitment to and belief that departmental borders are made more of concrete than concepts.

In 1917, R. Buckminster Fuller presented a delightful and compelling justification for the sort of interdisciplinarity that I have come to value so deeply: I decided that nature did not have separate independently operating departments of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, ethics, etc. Nature did not call a department heads’ meeting when I threw a green apple into the pond, with the department heads having to make a decision about how to handle this biological encounter with chemistry’s water and the unauthorized use of the physics department’s waves. I decided that it did not require a Ph.D. to discern that nature had only one department.

The questions psychologists ask are psychological in nature, but they are asked of the same universe as the questions physicists and biologists ask. They are different only in specific focus from the questions asked by the art historians, linguists, musicians, chemists and all of the other wonderful scholars among whom we live these blessed academic lives. The penultimate line in my story is that I am a better student of human behavior because of my intellectual travels. The ultimate line is in the form of a favorite quotation from the legendary American psychologist E.R. Guthrie in 1959 upon his retirement:

I have liked to think about psychology in ways that have proved congenial to me. Since all of the sciences, and especially psychology, are still immersed in such tremendous realms of the uncertain and the unknown, the best that any individual scientist, especially any psychologist, can do seems to be to follow his own gleam and his own bent, however inadequate they may be. In fact, I suppose, that actually this is what we all do. In the end, the only sure criterion is to have fun. And I have had fun.