U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Varel, "Saving the Self" (Personality and the Self Panel, Part I)

Dear Readers: As a special holiday season treat, I give you one of the more interesting panels from our recent conference–“Personality and the Self in Twentieth-Century American Social Thought”–with papers by Dave Varel and Dave Steigerwald, followed up with comments by Leo Ribuffo.

Saving the Self:
Henry Murray and Humanistic Personality Psychology, 1920-1940
by Dave Varel
PhD Candidate, University of Colorado-Boulder

When asked about the reasons for his shift from physiology to psychology in the 1920s, Henry Murray, a leading early personality psychologist, explained: “human personality, because of its present sorry state, had become the problem of our time—a hive of conflicts, lonely, half-hollow, half-faithless, half-lost, half-neurotic, half-delinquent, not equal to the problems that confronted it, not very far from proving itself an evolutionary failure.” [1] This comment reveals Murray’s concern for the fate of the individual in modern society at the same time that it suggests an activist element inspiring his work in the field. Yet too often scholarship on Murray has overlooked the social and cultural context in which he self-consciously functioned, instead highlighting his place in the disciplinary dialogue of psychology and the interpersonal relationships that informed his life. [2] This paper argues that the life, work, and significance of Murray can only be fully understood by linking his personal and professional life with the broader historical context. It also shows how Murray, in addition to reflecting the emergent “culture of personality” and fear over the “masses,” imbued the concept of personality with mystery, complexity, and uniqueness through his work in the social sciences. [3]

Despite his important later accomplishments in the discipline, there was nothing inevitable about Murray’s turn to psychology, and, in fact, it appeared highly unlikely at first. Born into a conservative, moderately wealthy family in New York City in 1893, Murray remained an indifferent student through grade school and college at Harvard, where he mused that his “two fields of concentration had been rowing and romance.” [4] Despite a troubled relationship with his mother, some eye problems, and stuttering issues, Murry’s childhood was that of “an average, privileged American boy.” [5] Murray became a more serious student after marrying the upper-class Josephine Lee Rantoul in 1916 and entering medical school at Columbia. He took an M.D. from there in 1919 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge in 1927, where he conducted extensive research on chicken embryos. In other words, the evolution of his professional career still revealed few signs that he would be a man to enter the field of psychology, much less revolutionize it.

Beneath the impressive veneer of this professional career was a much less stable and complacent personal life. Murray described the 1920s as a period of “profound affectional upheaval” for him. He began cultivating his emotional potential, which he felt had been denied by the exacting biochemical work in the lab, by engrossing himself in humanistic literature like that by Melville and Proust, in music by Beethoven and Wagner, in poetry by E.A. Robinson, and in plays by Eugene O’Neill. [6] This was a man searching for deeper meaning and understanding of the human experience, and in 1923 two experiences changed his life. The first was his reading of Carl Jung’s Psychological Types and the subsequent personal relationship he struck up with the famous Swiss psychiatrist. The second was his encounter with a young woman named Christiana Morgan, whose beauty, intelligence, and fascination with psychology excited in Murray feelings previously unknown to him. [7] These two relationships – one unlocking profound insight into the human being through the unconscious, the other unleashing intense sexual and emotional desires – pushed Murray away from biochemistry and into psychology. In 1926, while still finishing up his Ph.D., Murray took an assistantship position under Morton Prince of Harvard, who had just founded the Harvard Psychological Clinic to study hypnosis and abnormal psychology. Soon after, Harvard appointed Murray as an assistant faculty member of the psychology department, though he had never received any formal training in the discipline (unbeknownst to most of the faculty). [8]

Culture conditioned Murray’s personal experiences and his path towards psychology. Take his feelings of superficiality and his longing for deep experience and fulfillment. This was a common feeling among Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. T.J. Jackson Lears has written about this extensively, contending that Americans began to feel that their “sense of selfhood had become fragmented, diffuse, and somehow ‘weightless’ or ‘unreal’” as a result of “the corrosive impact of the market on familiar values, the dislocating impact of technological advance on everyday experience—and above all in the secularization of Protestantism.” [9] Lears traces how consumption and the “therapeutic ethos” associated with it became the major way Americans attempted to secure their identity and attain personal fulfillment in the modern world. Along with consumption, Americans at the turn of the century sought fulfillment through bodily vigor and emotional intensity, evident in a range of popular activities from the Arts and Crafts movement to camping and competitive sports. [10] Murray’s longing for deep experience and emotional intensity can only be understood as part of this larger context.

Murray responded to this sense of weightlessness in both common and unique ways. His immersion in literature and music, as well as his prolonged extramarital affair with Christiana Morgan, were not atypical ways Americans dealt with modern life. His interest in psychology and selfhood, furthermore, was widespread. Murray’s privileged life and education, however, positioned him to use the social sciences to explore his ideas and thus shape an academic discipline in ways obviously unavailable to most. Though helping to forge the field of personality psychology would certainly not fall into the category of a “typical” response to modernity, his life and work only makes real sense when understood in that light.

While modernity conditioned his movement towards personality psychology as a career (and, indeed, the career itself was a distinctively modern one, with Gordon Allport founding the sub-discipline in the 1920s), it also informed his entire research agenda. As mentioned previously, Carl Jung had a decisive impact on Murray’s early career, for in the unconscious Murray saw an avenue to exploring the complexity, nuance, and mystery of human beings. Murray came to Harvard intending to explore the unconscious through psychoanalysis and other techniques, only to discover that mainstream American psychology had very different interests. The discipline remained dominated by psychometrics and behaviorism, which Murray explained as: “almost everyone was nailed down to some piece of apparatus, measuring a small segment of the nervous system as if it were isolated from the entrails.” [11] While Murray longed to study people holistically, most of academic psychology concerned itself with outwardly measurable behaviors perceived as reactions to external stimuli. Murray’s uniqueness here can be explained partly by his training outside of formal American psychology, but it also must be seen as part of his activism to rescue modern selfhood. Regardless, Murray’s frustration prompted him to unleash a virulent attack on the discipline in a published paper in 1935, where he complained that mainstream psychology “has contributed practically nothing to the knowledge of human nature…It has not only failed to bring light to the great, hauntingly recurrent problems, but it has no intention, one is shocked to realize, of attempting to investigate them.” [12] Much to his dismay, he perceived personality psychology as simply mirroring and reinforcing the plight of the individual in a mass society.

In direct opposition to most practitioners of the discipline in the U.S., then, Murray set out to investigate the self in a holistic, comprehensive, often psychoanalytic way. Here he borrowed from Freud as well as Jung, all the while maintaining a methodological independence, insisting “I have never called myself a Freudian, a Jungian, or any other –ian.” [13] In terms of psychoanalysis, he accepted “a large part (more than half) of the psychoanalytic scheme,” but he used it only to inform his research, not totally direct it. [14] His specific entrees into personality research reveal his eclecticism, as his magnum opus, Explorations in Personality, published in 1938, drew from interviews, self-report questionnaires, and a whole host of projective tests. This eclecticism underscored Murray’s wider goal of developing a comprehensive view of the human personality, using any and all tests that would move in the direction of that goal.

A closer look at Explorations and at the now famous Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) reveals how Murray attempted to deal with the self in modern society. He based the project on two premises: 1) personality can be measured comprehensively, and 2) personality needs to be measured. The first premise reveals Murray’s faith in science to approach something as complex and amorphous as “personality.” Despite his insistence on the complexity and final mystery of human beings, he maintained that science could provide a valuable, comprehensive framework for evaluating the self. The second premise reveals Murray’s unease with the place of the individual in modern society – his insistence that “human personality…had become the problem of our time.” [15] He believed that a more complete portrait of human beings was needed because, like many modernists, he saw the modern self as fractured, shallow, and weightless due to the dislocations of urban, industrial society. In a footnote in Explorations, he comments directly on this superficiality, saying there is:

A general disposition which is widespread in America, namely, to regard the peripheral personality—conduct rather than inner feeling and intention—as of prime importance. Thus, we have the fabrication of a ‘pleasing personality,’ mail courses in comportment, courtesy as good business, the best pressed clothes, the best barber shops, Listerine and deodorants, the contact man, friendliness without friendship, the prestige of movie stars and Big Business, quantity as an index of worth, a compulsion for fact-getting, the statistical analysis of everything, questionnaires and behaviorism. [16]

Here, in his focus on “inner feeling and intention” over “conduct” and performance, we see his criticism of Victorian culture and his espousal of more modern ideas of selfhood. We also see his disdain for reducing human beings and their world to an endless stream of shallow statistics. So, for Murray, by mapping the self in a comprehensive way that accounted for the unconscious and the conscious, he hoped to add depth to the human personality.

From the very beginning, the massive project that would be published as Explorations aimed to further this goal. Rather than focusing on “the perceptive and cognitive functions of the human mind” or “the behaviour of animals” in laboratory settings, Murray analyzed “emotional and behavioural reactions” in conditions that “resembled as nearly as possible those of everyday life.” [17] The project examined 51 male subjects of college age over the course of several weeks or several months. An eclectic group of researchers administered an equally eclectic array of 29 procedures and tests to each subject. [18] The research began with self-report questionnaires, free association exercises, and interviews to gain as much background information as possible, but then researchers gave a broad array of projective tests. The staff administered these tests and then collaborated to determine the major aspects of each subject’s personality. This was a massive project that presumed the complexity of each subject – a complexity that could only be approached through the thorough, sustained, and diverse testing of each candidate by a collection of variously-trained researchers. This was in stark contrast to the simple personality inventories and questionnaires dominating much of the field, which naturally had very different assumptions about the human personality and how it could be measured.

Despite the diversity of approaches utilized by Murray, the most important tests were “projective” ones. Freud first developed the theory of projection in 1894, and it held that people unconsciously cast outward onto other people or objects any unacceptable thoughts or feelings they have. [19] Murray drew from a host of projective tests that attempted to penetrate the unconscious in a variety of creative ways. By far the most important and enduring of these was the Thematic Apperception Test – “Thematic” because “it elicited the animating themes of a person’s life, ‘Apperception’ because it drew on the internal imaginative process.” [20] The TAT presented subjects with a variety of provocative images that they then had to narrate into a story. The directions for this test are as follows:

This is a test of creative imagination. I am going to show you some pictures. Around each picture I want you to compose a story. Outline the incidents which have led up to the situation depicted in the picture, describe what is occurring at the moment—the feelings and thoughts of the characters—and tell what the outcome will be. Speak your thoughts aloud as they come to your mind. I want you to use your imagination to the limit. [21]

Murray and other psychologists found the test so useful because they believed patients reveal a great deal about their unconscious in narrating a story, but they do not realize it because it is focused on a particular external image.

The TAT and its projective nature reflect Murray’s wider humanistic ideals. Murray, quoting George Santayana, declared that “in the human being imagination is more fundamental than perception.” [22] He saw humans as creative, self-actualizing beings, where the whole being is “as essential to an understanding of the parts as the parts are to an understanding of the whole.” [23] In other words, individuals are “dynamic” and “goal-directed,” not merely a collection of competing impulses reacting to external stimuli. Seeing imagination and creativity as the most basic elements that defined humanity, he found continuity among Native American art, the great literature of Melville, and the stories formulated during the sessions of the TAT. This was a direct repudiation of behaviorist scientists as well as cultural commentators who lambasted the irrational, lemming-like quality of individuals in crowds – ideas that came to enjoy further prestige amid the spread of fascism in Europe. These ideas also rebuffed Freudian conceptions of the unconscious. Murray saw Freudian psychoanalysis as excessively pessimistic and overly focused on neuroses. The unconscious, for Murray, was more than merely a repository of repressed drives, it was also a bastion of creativity and human mystery. In this way, Murray used the unconscious partly as a shelter for Romantic ideas. Precisely because of its final immeasurability, the unconscious would remain a source of mystery and individuality that neither the impositions of mass society nor the incursions of scientific and technocratic rationality could extinguish. [24] In the end, Murray insisted that both human rationality and irrationality were central in coming to terms with the full human personality, thus revealing his part in the modernist project, which aimed to overcome false dichotomies and integrate and synthesize opposites into something new. [25]

The word best describing Murray’s philosophical position, then, is “humanist.” He was far from a behaviorist and departed crucially from psychoanalysts. More than anything else, he was a man reacting to the fractured and superficial aspects of the self that permeated modern American culture. In his personal life he fought against the superficial nature of modern life by attempting to live deeply through intense emotional experiences with Morgan and through immersing himself in literature, music, and art. In his professional life, he fought the same battles in attempting to map the personality in a way that revealed the depth and ultimate uniqueness of every human being. Every person, for Murray, had his or her own unique mind, individual experiences, and singularly creative imagination. This emphasis on unique individuality was a clear response to the fears over the fate of the individual in a mass society that homogenized people.

By imbuing “personality” with this rich uniqueness through his work in the field, in turn, Murray helped load the term with a meaning that could resolve these fears. Though the richness of Murray’s humanism would lessen among the commercial and clinical success of the TAT, Murray’s ideas and his test would live on in personality psychology and in popular culture as symbols of the complexity and mystery of human beings. [26] These ideas would always exist in dialectic with behaviorist and psychometric psychology, as well as with a wider culture increasingly obsessed with mapping the “average” with statistics, both of which tend to reduce the complexity of human beings by breaking them into their component parts. [27] Perhaps ultimately then, it is “personality’s” ability as a concept to house such competing impulses regarding the self that allow it to function so well as the concept we now use to embody our modern, complicated selves. [28]

So Murray’s final significance, I think, lies in how his life and work both reflected the emerging “culture of personality” and helped to reinforce and redirect it. Contra Warren Susman and some later cultural historians, personality was no simplistic modal type in line neatly with the evolving economic structure. Instead, that term was capacious and contested. Joan Shelley Rubin, for one, has shown this contestation among middlebrow literature. [29] But social scientists like Murray deserve more attention here, for as experts in an age of science, they enjoyed particular prestige, and, hence, particular power to infuse notions of the self with specific meanings. Despite being a minority voice in his field, Murray’s conceptions of the self are still with us today. With his characteristic sense of excitement and optimism, he insisted upon the creativity and final mystery of human beings. In his own words, he called for us all to “Await the unforeknown. Expect the unforeseeable. Welcome the improbable.” [30]


1. Henry Murray quoted in Salvatore R. Maddi and Paul T. Costa, Humanism in Personology: Allport, Maslow, and Murray (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, Inc., 1972), 38.

2. See, for example: James William Anderson, “The Life of Henry A. Murray: 1893-1988” in Studying Persons and Lives, edited by A. I. Rabin, et al (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1990), 304-334; Also: Lon Gieser and Morris Stein, eds, Evocative Images: The Thematic Apperception Test and the Art of Projection (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1999).

3. Research on the “culture of personality” is rich, but it began with Warren I. Susman’s “‘Personality’ and the Making of Twentieth Century Culture,” in Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).

4. Murray quoted in Anderson, “The Life of Henry A. Murray,” 311.

5. Ibid., 305.

6. Ibid., 315.

7. For a full account of this relationship and its professional and personal implications, see: Forrest Robinson, Love’s Story Told: A Life of Henry A. Murray (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

8. Paul, 76-78. Murray was very much an outsider in this department, and many faculty members resented his presence there – especially after learning of his formal training in biochemistry and not psychology. He was almost let go a number of times, and he did not earn tenure for another two decades.

9. T.J. Jackson Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American Essays, 1880-1980, edited by Richard Wrightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), xiii.

10. As a formative example of this literature, see: Fox and Lears, The Culture of Consumption.

11. Murray quoted in Annie Murphy Paul, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves (New York: Free Press, 2004), 78.

12. Murray quoted in Anderson, “Life of Henry A. Murray,” 319.

13. Murray quoted in Paul, 80.

14. Murray quoted in Anderson, “Life of Henry A. Murray,” 320.

15. Henry Murray quoted in Maddi and Costa, Humanism in Personology, 38.

16. Henry A. Murray, Explorations in Personality: A Clinical and Experimental Study of Fifty Men of College Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 9.

17. Ibid., vii-viii.

18. The diverse staff of researchers was “composed of poets, physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, criminologists, physicians; of democrats, fascists, communists, anarchists; of Jews, Protestants, Agnostics, Atheists; of pluralists, monists, solipsists; of behaviourists, configurationists, dynamicists, psycho-analysts; of Freudians, Jungians, Rankians, Adlerians, Lewinians, and Allportians.” Ibid., xi.

19. Paul, 86.

20. Ibid., 85.

21. Murray, “Techniques for a Systematic Investigation of Fantasy,” 130-31.

22. Henry A. Murray. “In Nomine Diaboli,” The New England Quarterly 24 (December 1951): 438.

23. Murray, Explorations in Personality, 38-39.

24. Robert C. Fuller, Americans and the Unconscious (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 199-200.

25. Maddi and Costa, Humanism in Personology, 25-26. On modernism, see Daniel Singal, “Modernist Culture in America,” American Quarterly 39 (1987).

26. See Paul, 90-103.

27. See Sarah Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

28. See also Ian Nicholson, Inventing Personality: Gordon Allport and the Science of Selfhood (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2003).

29. Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

30. Murray quoted in Paul, 103.