Psychology 212h: Personality Assessment

Doug Davis

Following are notes on Robert White's biographical presentation of "Earnst," a subject in the classic study Explorations in Personality, by H.A. Murray's group at the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the 1930s. Please read the excerpts from Earnst's record and comment on the following questions:

Earnst is a tall, slender young man of twenty-four. His asthenic features, narrow shoulders, and thin nasal speech convey an impression of extreme physical frailness which subsequent acquaintance proves to be but partly correct. He was born on a farm in Wisconsin, the youngest of a large family, and received most of his education at country schools until he entered an engineering college. Almost from birth he was exposed to the press of Frequent Illness; the press of Family Poverty rarely abated; while the press of Family Discord had an effect of special significance, as the subsequent reports will show.1

The following events of his life are relevant to the present study:

  • Age 6 weeks Measles
  • 1-5 years Succession of illness
  • 6 Mother began long absences
  • 7 Began school; badly bullied
  • 10 Changed school; began to excel in studies
  • 14 Death of mother
  • 15 Father became an invalid
  • 18 Left farm and entered engineering college
  • 22 Engaged to be married
  • 23 Death of father
  • Engagement broken
  • Left graduate school; began work for engineering firm

When Earnst first came to the Clinic, he was a student in engineering. Before long he was forced to abandon this pursuit because he reached the end of his funds. Then followed several months of hand-to-mouth existence, during which, though much depressed, he sought unremittingly for employment in the profession for which he was trained. Many of the session reports reflect the exhaustion and despair engendered by long late hours of grubbing work on which was imposed the heartache of continual rebuffs in his search. At the same time the affections of the girl to whom he was engaged were gradually transferred to a luckily situated rival, and the engagement was broken. Not until a few days after the Final Interview did the quest for employment succeed. He left in high spirits for Cleveland to begin work in the laboratory of an engineering concern.

Picture C:

"Experimenter": This is a married couple--old friends of yours. The husband has been taught by another man to take morphine. If you came upon this scene, what would you do?
"Subject": I would get medical attention for the man. That would be the only sensible thing to do because I wouldn't know what to do for an addict. The surroundings seem to indicate poverty, I should say. Therefore, it might be a good idea to call on the state authorities. If the wife has to be taken care of, that would be up to the state authorities; I am darned sure I couldn't do anything. Take me just as I am, I couldn't help her very much. It would be hard to find out who taught him. That would again be up to the authorities. I might have some desire for vengeance, but I couldn't very well take it myself.

Blank Card.

S: Yes, I can imagine a picture. It is a sandy plain, possibly a poor road on it, travelled by a few solitary people perhaps oil derricks dotted here and there. The only person I can think of would be one of these people who go around looking for new mines--a prospector. A very easy story might be that of two prospectors going along in an old flivver looking for gold fields. There would always have to be trouble, and a villainous person to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery. To make the story amusing, it would be necessary to have them succeed in getting the gold.

CONFERENCE (with H.A. Murray)

Earnst remembered that he was questioned on incidents of childhood and adolescence, and asked to recall "social situations which were outstanding in his mind." He was undecided as to his greatest blunder, and so mentioned the humiliation incident when he was unable to dance. He came to the blank card, and now, warming to his narrative, he described the rest of the Conference with quiet, dry satire, taking off the voices of the different experimenters. "`On these cards,'" Earnst quoted, "'you will see scenes representing various episodes of something or other.' So I immediately proceeded to project a scene of the desert. There had to be something moving, apparently, so I found a desert road and an old flivver, with two boys in it. I may have been wrong, but I had the feeling they would have preferred a young lady. They asked me who these boys were, what they were doing, and what they were going to do--so I filled in a Horatio Alger plot--they were boys who had come west to search for a fortune in order to lift the mortgage off the old farm. They asked for the outcome, and I said, 'They lifted the mortgage.'" Laughing, Earnst said to the interviewer, "If I break down you'll have to carry me out." Then he continued, "They all seemed to be the most intent on one scene, a bedroom scene. A young woman found her husband unconscious from some malady. She was afflicted with great shame, distress, and horror. That was probably to stimulate my imagination, and I was asked to fill in the horrible details. So I took the least obvious explanation, and revealed the young man as a dope addict. Circumstances strongly pointed to something else, I mean to some sexual disorder. I was strongly aroused that evening." The interviewer said, "Why?" and the subject continued, "I had a nasty feeling this chap was a Freudian psychologist. I rather dislike them--too narrow in their belief. I've read enough so I dislike the idea of relating everything to sex. No doubt the Freudian school has its very decent place in psychology, just the same as the gold standard has its significant place in economics. Yeah, money and sex." After this digression Earnst returned to the picture, and from it continued to a question put him by one of the experimenters whose name he remembered incorrectly, a question "in regard to my preference for female sex, whether I enjoyed the companionship of the other sex." "Then," said Earnst, "Dr. Murray announced that the session was concluded. Before I could say a word, all the men at the table rapped out 'Good-night' like so many machine guns going off. I went outside with the uncomfortable feeling of being at a loss. I wondered if they said it that way to create a psychological situation." Earnst laughed at this, and the interviewer asked whether the man seemed unfriendly. "Well, it was most unusual, as I was sitting there answering questions in a very friendly way, they went right around the table like pop-guns. I couldn't have been more surprised if they'd shoved revolvers into my face. Possibly they were very busy. Incidentally, this is my only way of getting back at them."

AUTOBIOGRAPHY--Childhood. the subject's early years were unhappy:

My earliest impressions of life that I can remember now, were to a large extent miserable. As a baby I was constantly ailing, apparently having one childhood disease after another, starting off with measles at the age of six weeks. During the first few years of my life there were more or less frequent occasions when all hope of my living was given up. One thing which impressed me greatly as a baby was a large china mug or cup inlaid with gold which was used only when company was present. I remember drinking water from a tin dipper for days, a sip at a time, to ease the feverish burning of my throat. This was during the war. Also, I can remember the talk of big guns and had frightened visions of Germans setting off cannons in the field across from our house and shooting at us.

My father was at times a brutal man and inclined, when drinking to be vindictive toward me. At such times he would make fun of me, call me all sorts of unpleasant names and say that I probably wouldn't live the year out, and that it would be better if I didn't. I was extremely sensitive and cried rather easily at such things.

TAT, Picture #13

Picture No. 13 (on the floor against the couch is the huddled form of a boy with his head bowed on his right arm. Beside him on the floor is an object which resembles a revolver).

5: This youngster is discontented about something. He is trying to find something which he can do to amuse himself. His store of resources has given out. He is bored to tears. At present he is weary of himself. He is thinking of stories which he has read of people who have done things. He is wishing he were a hero, or he might have a hero with whom to identify himself. He wishes he were doing something else than just hanging around. If he is like the usual boy of 14 he feels he isn't understood at home and should be out in the big world.

1Why is White telling us each of these things? How might Earnst's physique ("Asthenic" = skinny), farm background, birth order, interrupted education, and other aspects of his history be affecting his TAT responses?