The course Great Ideas in Personality uses a goal-based scenario to teach you valuable real-life skills that revolve around finding something meaningful to say and writing about it. In the anatomy of a goal-based scenario there are four parts: cover story, mission, focus, and operations.

Cover Story

Personality theorists offer us a cornucopia of ideas about personality. Some of these ideas may be great, but some are likely to be poor. Some may be great in one respect and poor in another. For example, psychoanalysis is often criticized as being bad science or non-science. However, many clinicians have found the ideas offered by Freud to be highly serendipitous--that is, the ideas lead them to see important connections they would otherwise miss.

The paradoxical example of psychoanalysis leads to a suggestive hypothesis--perhaps there is no single way to evaluate a theory that works in all cases. This hypothesis can be tested by experience, and that is what we will do in this class. You will all become personality psychologists for a quarter, and as such you will do what personality psychologists do: (1) summarize and evaluate the merits of other people's theories; (2) create a theory of your own that explains routine observations, takes account of existing research, and makes testable predictions; (3) submit your papers for peer review and possible publication; (4) review the prospective publications of your peers, helping to decide whether they get published; (5) write commentaries on those papers of your peers that are accepted for publication.

Publication is a very real option because of the technology made available by the world wide web. The instructor will serve as editor of an on-line repository of personality papers. If your manuscript is accepted for publication, then your grade for the assignment will be raised by a third of a letter (typically from A to A+). Needless to say, accepted manuscripts should be of very high quality. All manuscripts accepted for publication will be posted on the web at the Great Ideas in Personality website, which is visited over 2000 times per month by persons interested in personality.

This scenario should put you in a good position to evaluate scientific theories generally, and also to make friendly conversation about personality functioning. (If people know you are taking a class in personality, they predictably say, "Oh, you must be analyzing me--so what's my personality?" Now you can tell them!)


This class is meant to teach you to think critically and creatively about personality, and to communicate your thoughts about personality effectively. You will have succeeded in meeting these goals when you produce a written document that shows your command of the major ideas in a particular personality research program discussed in class, and another document, of a very different sort, that details your own theory of personality. Your own theory should be artfully rendered and interesting to read, including, if possible, alternative represenations such as charts, maps, and tree diagrams; should be compared and/or contrasted with other theories discussed in class (e.g., "My theory uses the following ideas from psychoanalysis . . . ," or, "My theory does not fall into the same traps as psychoanalysis because . . . "); and should make sense of some common interpersonal or intrapersonal observations that you have made.


The focus in this class will be on the evaluation and creation of theories. The evaluation of theories' scientific quality requires hard scientific evidence. The evaluation of theories' serendipitous quality requires observations that either fit or do not fit the theory. The creation of theories requires a different mindset from the evaluation of theories--it requires juxtaposing facts and ideas, and creating ideas that not only explain known facts, but outpace the known facts and predict new facts.


We will use writing and rewriting, with a hefty dose of reading and discussions, to refine our ideas about personality. A self-evident, if often neglected, observation is that good writing requires that one first have something worthwhile to say, or at least that one finds one's voice and discovers something worthwhile to say during the writing process. This requires reading, thinking, and observing outside of class, and participating in discussions in class. You should become aware of interpersonal or intrapersonal observations that are relevant to personality, and one sure way to become aware of such things is by reading, talking, and writing about them.

Back to Syllabus

Back to the Great Ideas in Personality Home Page