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A Reflection on the Legacy of Ravenna M. Helson’s Work

SPSP had the opportunity to ask Ravenna M. Helson, the 2017 Annual Convention Legacy honoree, how she believes the field has changed over time, and what she considers to be her greatest professional contributions. Ravenna’s responses are below:

Changing Personality

“In the 1970s and 1980s there was great controversy about what personality was, whether it existed at all,” Ravenna noted. “Whether personality changes was a question that obsessed psychologists in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and even since. The Mills Study contributed a steady stream of evidence that personality kept adapting to a changing world. Now we are pretty comfortable about accepting a diversity of traits, situations, and levels of personality.”

What are the biggest shifts you’ve seen since the Mills Study began?

Developing Attachment “When the Mills Study began in the late 1950s, Freud and psychoanalysis were potent influences in the culture. But about the same time two new approaches to psychology were just getting started, attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969; Ainsworth, 1969) and Self Theory (Mahler, 1968; Kohut, 1971). At the age-43 follow-up of the Mills women we sent questions about their relations to their parents as children that prodded impressive support to Kohut's concepts of mirroring and idealizing, and we used a scale that enabled Klohnen and Bera (1998) to write a paper on attachment patterns in the Mills sample. We began to see the continuing importance of our social clock patterns involving marriage and children as attributable to attachment. These are three big kinds of change that the Mills Study has tried to take into account.”

Measuring Femininity ”Over time, the Mills Study has used both the California Psychological Inventory (CPI) and the Big Five, along with other measures. The scale that showed the most change over time in the Mills Study from age 21 to 61 was the CPI Femininity scale, which may be considered a measure of feelings of vulnerability in the feminine role. It increased sharply from ages 21 to 43, and decreased sharply from ages 43 to 61. The Big 5 has no Femininity scale, so I am very glad we used the CPI.”

Ravenna commented that she also appreciates using the Big 5, though.

Adding Emotion “When the Mills Study began in the late 1950s, emotion was regarded in terms of disruption of behavior, for example as irritability or self-control that was too high or too low. In the 1980s Extraversion and Neuroticism came to be described as tendencies to experience positive and negative emotion, respectively (Costa and McCrae, 1980), and Tellegen's (1985) model of personality identified its primary personality dimensions in terms of affective experience. In a study of personality change from ages 27 to 61, Chris Soto and I (2006) found the variables associated with most change to be Labouvie-Vief's scales for two strategies of emotional regulation, affective optimism and affective complexity. Eva Klohnen and I wrote an article about the affective coloring of personality from young adulthood to middle age (PSPB, 1998). We were excited to be a part of bringing emotion into personality.”

What are some examples of collaboration in your work?

“One of the main contributions of the Mills Study was to offer concepts encouraging the integrative study of social and psychological concepts through time. The best example is Neugarten's construct of the social clock, referring to the timing norms that influenced the performance of family and work roles over time, which we made into individual difference variables.

Abby Stewart and David Winter brought several of their graduate students and spent a sabbatical with us at Berkeley. Abby and I combined our efforts to call attention to the value and importance of conducting and comparing longitudinal studies. We conducted studies which compared Abby's Radcliffe Study, the Mills Study, the IHD longitudinal studies, Cartwright's longitudinal study of women physicians, and sometimes other samples (e.g., Peterson and Klohnen, Realization of generativity in two samples of women at midlife, Psychology of Aging, 1995). Two studies by Duncan and Agronick concerned the influence of importance attached to the women's movement in Mills and Radcliffe samples, the role of personality and of life stage. We published ten papers that compared longitudinal studies.”

Do you have any favorite research?

“I have always loved the article Jen Pals (JP, 1999) wrote for her second-year project, on how women changed in ego-resilience from ages 21 to 27 depending on whether they felt their identities were restricted, confused, or consolidated in their relation with their marital partner. I was intrigued by what Brent Roberts and I found about how the culture of individualism (1950-85) seemed to help some women adjust to the radical changes in women's roles in the late 1960s and 1970s (Changes in culture, changes in personality: The Influence of individualism in a longitudinal study of women, JPSP, 1997).”


Dr. Jennifer Beer, the 2017 Legacy Award Program Chair, also shared why Ravenna was selected as this year’s Legacy honoree. Her thoughts are as follows: 

“Who could have guessed the bounty that would result after Ravenna M. Helson was offered a half-time appointment at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) in 1957? She was asked to take over IPAR’s project on creativity in women, and shortly thereafter, she started what would later become the Mills Longitudinal Project when she conducted a study of creativity in the women of the Mills College classes of 1958 and 1960. Between the years of 1960 and 1980, Ravenna maintained a commitment to personality research during a very difficult time for the field of personality psychology.

It was not until 1980 that Ravenna was awarded an NIMH grant to study adult development in the Mills women whom she had first studied 20 years earlier. What followed were three remarkably productive decades for Ravenna, as she, along with her many students and collaborators, developed the Mills Project into one of the premier longitudinal studies of its kind, with assessments of the women in their 20s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.

The 100+ articles and chapters that have been published on the Mills Project examine how patterns of personality stability and change over time relate to social roles, socio-historical context, and critical life events. One of Ravenna’s seminal contributions was her concept of the social clock project, which she used to show how personality patterns relate to the timing of work and family role commitments (Helson, Mitchel, & Moan, 1984).

Two enduring themes that emerge from Ravenna’s rich and varied body of work are (1) personality is more than “just traits” and must include a conceptualization of the whole person, and (2) personality does indeed change, and it changes in different ways for different people depending on their life experiences and circumstances.”


We congratulate Ravenna on being recognized as the 2017 Annual Convention Legacy honoree, and thank her for her contributions to the field. 

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