Biographical Data

Biography—the writing of a life (from Greek graphein and bio)—is an ancient concern of humankind. The Odyssey, the Bible, and Plutarch's Lives provide examples. In everyday life even a short conversation on meeting a person is probably going to include questions about background. Professionals working with people obtain histories of health events, employment, and education. In psychological lore, it is often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior—especially under similar circumstances. Despite this widespread and age-old interest, there are no widely accepted tests or inventories and little psychological research using systematic scoring of personal histories over the life span.

Five major sources for constructing possible scores or indexes from life-history data are the following: (1) interviews with the target person and his or her acquaintances; (2) written biographies and autobiographies; (3) personal documents and products such as diaries or works of artists and others; (4) institutional records such as hospital charts, application forms, and school records; and (5) specially constructed biographical inventories and checklists. The first four are mainly used impressionistically and informally, but they may be quantified by judges counting frequencies of specified events or by rating or coding the nature of the material. As an interesting example, Gordon Allport in his 1965 Letters from Jenny coded for emotions and thoughts the 301 letters written when Jenny was aged 58-70.

Organizational and industrial psychologists have taken the lead in biodata research, often using standardized application blanks quantified by attaching weights to items. As early as 1894, an insurance company used standard forms for selecting salespeople. Later, military and industrial psychologists developed forms. In World War II, psychologists demonstrated good validity, with coefficients ranging from 0.25 to 0.45, in predicting success in training U.S. pilots, navigators, and army officers. Weights of items on a biodata form, sometimes called a biographical information blank (BIB), can be validated against outcome criteria such as supervisors' ratings or productivity. Such a biodata score may contain a variety of items, such as marital status, previous job tenure, health conditions, or hobbies. Care must be taken to specify the relevance of items to the position and to avoid misleading or illegal bias from background factors, such as minority status, sex, age, or disability.

Abiographical inventory or checklist is a set of items representative of life-history events or experiences that are pertinent to the purpose of assessment. Psychometric techniques using such indicators as health status, social adjustment, and job success will select and weight items. Items on inventories emphasize factual events or conditions, but some items may verge on the attitudes and subjective impressions found in personality inventories. All of these self-report procedures are subject to the usual criticisms of the reporting of life histories, such as poor recall, intentional or unintentional distortion, and various test-taking attitudes. Especially if biographical items are transparently related to the situation of assessment, subjects may slant responses, for instance, to get a job or to avoid incarceration. These problems are similar to those found on all self-report inventories. Intensive interviewing compared with checklists and inventories would improve accuracy of reports, but interviews take costly professional time.

Personality inventories often include life-history items, but there are few published inventories specific to biography. Child development tests and inventories cover only part of the life span. For adults, the Minnesota-Briggs His tory Record provides seven scales having titles such as "Social Misfit" and "Introversion." There is also a verbal projective technique, Bruhn's Early Memories Procedure, which, however, produces no scores. Another more limited approach is that of checklists and inventories of life changes on which subjects indicate whether they have had various stressful events, but these refer only to the last few weeks or months and are not life histories. Clinicians may use the informal technique of having clients draw a lifeline marked by major shifts or decisions for better or worse. As life span theory develops and recognizes the changing conditions surrounding the person, it seems likely that inventories and other procedures will be produced to measure important variables over a long period of time. Until then we will depend mainly on reported life stories, often very interesting, but judged impressionistically. Some psychologists, instead of pursuing factual life histories, frankly acknowledge that much of what passes as life history is really narrative and should be analyzed as stories are.

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