An Interview with 2014 Murray Award Winner Dean Keith Simonton

by Rodica Damian

Dean Keith Simonton

Why do you study personality and, specifically, why genius?

All of my research is ultimately rooted in a childhood event: My parents purchasing a set of encyclopedias for our home upon the advice of my kindergarten teacher. Very early I loved to browse through the volumes, observing the many pictures, including the photos or paintings of strange people dressed in unusual clothes and donning odd hairdos – such as bearded men in long robes. I wondered how anyone got a place in those hallowed repositories of universal knowledge – especially given that nobody I knew, not even my kindergarten teacher, had an entry. Over time I realized that almost all people so featured earned a spot for their phenomenal achievements, whether in art, science, technology, politics, or war. That led to an interest in creativity and leadership, and particularly when creators and leaders display genius-level accomplishments. What sets the greatest geniuses apart from their less well-known colleagues? Why is Michelangelo far better known than, say, Francesco da Ponte, his Italian contemporary? Clearly, the answer must include individual-difference variables, such as intelligence and personality. In short, I studied personality to help understand the mystery of genius. The findings from such studies should help demystify the phenomenon.

What is your most exciting discovery?

Wow, that’s hard to answer because my research has covered so many different questions in such a variety of achievement domains. It is really like the proverbial dilemma “who’s your favorite child?” (Fortunately, I only have one, so I have a definite favorite!) I guess the best response is that I get the most excited when I manage to test hypotheses or conjectures that most researchers would not even deem capable of empirical test. Such as demonstrating that the episodes of mental illness suffered by King George III could indeed be partly explained by the ups and downs in the major stresses he encountered during his long reign. Even more amazing has been my work on the computer content analysis of the themes making up the classical repertoire. Not only was I able to show that a computer-generated measure of melodic originality predicted a composition’s performance frequency, but I found that melodic originality corresponded to events and circumstances in the composer’s life, such as biographical stress. Most recently, I demonstrated that computer content analysis could distinguish between Beethoven’s odd- and even-numbered symphonies, a contrast that has drawn much speculation without any empirical demonstration. There’s an objective reason why the odd-numbered are more prominent than the even-numbered.

As the founder of the field of historiometrics, what are some of the advantages of the historiometric method in studying personality?

Please, can I be modest? I’m often identified as the founder of historiometrics, but I’m actually just the reviver or resuscitator. Adolphe Quetelet, Francis Galton, and Alphonse de Candolle were conducting historiometric research in the 19th century, and James McKeen Cattell, Catharine Cox, and Edward L. Thorndike did so in the early 20th century. The term “historiometrics” itself dates from 1909. The only credit I can claim is that historiometric methods have produced the vast majority of my research findings. That makes me unique.

But to answer your question, I think the main advantage is that historiometric research can show that personality really matters, big time! Individual differences in personal characteristics do help us understand extraordinary creativity and leadership. This explanatory value is probably best illustrated in my extensive historiometric work on the presidents of the United States, devising at-a-distance methods to extract personality traits and factors from biographical materials. The resulting measures were shown to correlate with actual performance indicators, including presidential greatness. Just as importantly, the moderating effects of situational factors are also demonstrated. For example, the relation between the president’s flexibility and his successful use of the executive veto power depends on the electoral mandate enjoyed on entering office as well as the degree to which his own party controls Congress.

Your research is highly interdisciplinary and diverse, while at the same time exhibiting a high level of depth and forming a coherent body of work. Do you have any advice on how to balance breadth and depth, especially at different career stages?

I was fortunate to discover very early a core question that contained many diverse subsidiary questions. If I want to understand the origins of genius, I have no other choice to become a cognitive, personality, developmental, and social psychologist. Moreover, genius can adopt many different forms – such as the various forms of creativity and leadership – and manifest itself in all of the world’s civilizations. In addition, the richness of the inquiry demands that I use multiple methods. I may be best known for my historiometric research, but people should not forget that I have also published mathematical models, computer simulations, qualitative single-case studies, and even laboratory experiments. Even my statistical analyses had to utilize a great variety of techniques in order to match a particular question with the optimal method.

Although it’s obviously easier to balance breadth and depth later in the career – post-tenure in particular – I believe the balance should come earlier rather than later. This gets me to your next question.

What is the secret of your extreme level of productivity? Do you have a specific “recipe” that you could share with us?

It’s much easier to be productive if you are working on multiple projects simultaneously – what has been called a “network of enterprises” in the creativity sliterature. Besides pursuing a variety of projects, the projects should vary from the big to the small, and should be in various states of progress. Some of my projects required several years from conception to submission, whereas others were conceived, executed, and submitted with a week. That means that you always have something to work on. Got writer’s block? Well, then collect more data on a different project. Tired of crunching numbers? How about just catching up on those pdf’s stored in your to-read folder. Burned out on leadership? Then turn to creativity. You get the idea.

In addition, you get cross-talk among the various projects, so often work on one idea will have a surprising implication for another idea. This interplay is most obvious in the case of theoretical and empirical research feeding into each other, but it can even happen within certain projects that seem unrelated. For example, in the 1980s I worked simultaneously on the US presidents and Shakespeare’s plays. What could be more different? Yet it turned out that they both presented me with similar methodological problems: What do you do when N (the sample size) is appreciably smaller than k (the number of available variables)? And are inferential statistics even meaningful when the “sample” is equivalent to the entire population? Don’t the descriptive stats say it all?

Of course, in certain respects my research program does not easily generalize to others. For example, I can collect data any time, day or night. I do not need to depend on the research participant cycle like those colleagues who do laboratory or survey research using college undergraduates. Not only are archival data more accessible, but it’s also probably much more fun to collect and code. To carry out my research program, I’ve had to read innumerable biographies of famous geniuses and histories of great civilizations. To me, that’s intrinsically rewarding.

In your opinion, what are important but understudied topics in personality?

Not being a mainstream personality psychologist, that’s really hard for me to answer without revealing the idiosyncrasies of my own research program. Certainly I would like to see more personality research on genius, creativity, and leadership. And not just historiometric. Psychometric, too. As a student, I was excited about the research conducted at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at UC Berkeley (now the Institute of Personality and Social Research). I even spent a semester there as Visiting Research Psychologist back in the 1980s. IPAR researchers studied truly top-level creators using an impressive range of assessment techniques. I’d love to see much more work like that today.

Where do you think the field of personality is headed? Do you anticipate any major changes? If yes, what kind of changes?

We’ve now gone from the present tense to the future tense, making me even more wary. My significant others will tell you that I do not like forecasting beyond today. That’s one reason why I don’t like writing grant proposals: Who knows what serendipitous result might deflect you along a different path? Hence, I can only state what I would like to see. And this statement will betray my status as a general psychologist whose work cuts across many disciplines besides psychology. I would like to see personality psychology more strongly coherent within itself and more firmly integrated with psychology as a whole. Very likely, this comprehensive integration would entail even greater contact with the biological sciences, with behavior genetics, the neurosciences, and evolutionary psychology providing some promising points of connection. I’m not arguing for reductionism by any means. As a former chemistry major, I saw firsthand how that discipline’s phenomena could not just be reduced to physics, just as biological phenomena cannot be reduced to chemistry. Perhaps paradoxically, I would hope that the field would tighten links with the social sciences, such as economics, political science, sociology, and cultural anthropology. A person is embedded in a very complex context from both “above” and “below.”

Any career advice for new researchers?

Just two straightforward tidbits.

First, find a question big enough that it can occupy your interest for a lifetime. I gave an example above from my own career, so this advice needs no elaboration.

Second, do not allow rejections and criticisms deflect you from that personal enterprise. Just carefully weigh the feedback and then make your own decision. When I went up for my tenure appraisal as an assistant professor, I was warned that I would not likely earn tenure without publishing research using more conventional methods. Not only did I ignore that warning, but I waited to publish a “mainstream” study (a laboratory experiment) until after I was promoted to full professor. Naysayers can serve as a source of inspiration.