Lee Anna Clark, William J. and Dorothy K. O'Neill Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, is the 2016 Jack Block Award for Distinguished Research in Personality. Lee Anna’s current research focuses on the core elements of personality pathology that are needed to diagnose personality disorder, and to determine how personality pathology relates to psychosocial disability. SPSP asked Lee Anna about how she got into the field, her past, current, and future research interests, the best professional advice she’s ever received, where she’d like to see the field evolve, and more.
SPSP: How did you first decide to pursue a career in personality and social psychology?
Lee Anna: It’s not possible to pinpoint a single moment; it was more of a process starting with really enjoying the second semester of Intro to Psychology which focused on correlational approaches to psychology, including personality. In preparing for graduate school, I read Walter Mischel’s Personality and Assessment, and I remember that it did not convince me that personality wasn’t important or didn’t influence behavior, and so on. I became even more convinced of the importance of personality when I took Auke Tellegen’s Seminar in personality in graduate school. Also, my major advisor was Jim Butcher, who introduced me to cross-cultural psychology in the context of the MMPI and there again personality was clearly important. If there was a final “aha” moment, it would be when DSM-III was published in 1980 and in the Axis II Personality Disorders I saw the opportunity to merge my interests in clinical and personality psychology by applying basic personality findings to the clinical problem of personality disorder.
SPSP: What are your past, current, and future research interests?
Lee Anna: The consistent theme in my research over the years has been the centrality of personality in clinical psychology. My earliest work was focused as I indicated in the previous question—on applying basic personality findings to the clinical problem of personality disorder. I had a particular focus on trait dimensions that spanned the full range either from healthy/ adaptive to pathological/ maladaptive or between two extremes, both of which are pathological/ maladaptive with healthy/ adaptive personality in between. Also, from the beginning I’ve been convinced that solid measurement is at the heart of our field, so in one way or another, all of my work is about assessment.
Also fairly early on, I became interested in the importance of personality not just for personality disorder, but for much of psychopathology—depression, anxiety, substance use, and so on. Although of course we still have much to learn, I think it’s fair to say that there are strong relations between personality and psychopathology is now quite well established.
In the past few years, I’ve become interested in the notion of personality functioning. John Livesley’s work has had a big influence on me on that topic. The idea goes back to a distinction that Gordon Allport made between what personality “is”—the notion of traits—and what personality “does”—how it shapes our functioning in the world. The extent to which these two construct domains overlap conceptually and how we can best differentiate between them empirically is the main question that I’m grappling with now.
SPSP: What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Lee Anna: Let the data talk and listen to it carefully. Figure out what it’s telling you, make sense of it, and embrace it. Don’t try to fight it and shape it into what you’d like it to say.
SPSP: How has being a member of SPSP helped to advance your career?
Lee Anna: Mostly via the annual meeting—people I've met and interacted with, conversations that have sparked a research idea or furthered my thinking conceptually or made me aware of a new measure or a topic relevant to my primary interests.
SPSP: What’s one thing that you wish other people knew about the field?
Lee Anna: That psychology is truly a science and a very difficult one, which is why we still have so much to learn and why it’s such an exciting field to be in. Physics may be closing in on the answers to the big questions in their field, but it will be a long time before we even begin to do that in psychology. The human mind/brain and behavior are endlessly complex, which is what makes psychology so interesting.
SPSP: How would you like to see our field change or evolve in the future?
Lee Anna: To become more measurement based, more rigorous, and more integrated. The various subdisciplines in psychology are too siloed. We’re starting to move in that direction, which I think is great, and in my utopian ideal the subfields of psychology would all be intertwined. This is completely pie-in-the-sky because our minds aren’t capable of grasping that big a picture—at least not yet.
Congratulations to Lee Anna on receiving this prestigious award!