What Do We Know When We Know a Person?


  • Preparation of this manuscript was aided by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. I would like to thank David Watson, Jeff McCrae, and Bob Emmons for their helpful comments on an early draft of this article.

should be addressed to Dan P. McAdams, Program in Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University, 2115 North Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208-2610.


ABSTRACT Individual differences in personality may be described at three different levels. Level I consists of those broad, de contextualized, and relatively non conditional constructs called “traits,” which provide a dispositional signature for personality description. No description of a person is adequate without trait attributions, but trait attributions themselves yield little beyond a “psychology of the stranger.” At Level II (called “personal concerns”), personality descriptions invoke personal strivings, life tasks, defense mechanisms, coping strategies, domain-specific skills and values, and a wide assortment of other motivational, developmental, or strategic constructs that are contextualized in time, place, or role. While dispositional traits and personal concerns appear to have near-universal applicability. Level III presents frameworks and constructs that may be uniquely relevant to adulthood only, and perhaps only within modern societies that put a premium on the individuation of the self. Thus, in contemporary Western societies, a full description of personality commonly requires a consideration of the extent to which a human life expresses unity and purpose, which are the hallmarks of identity. Identity in adulthood is an inner story of the self that integrates the reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future to provide a life with unity, purpose, and meaning. At Level III, psychologists may explore the person's identity as an internalized and evolving life story. Each of the three levels has its own geography and requires its own indigenous nomenclatures, taxonomies, theories, frameworks, and laws.