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European Personality Reviews: A conversation with Chris Hopwood

An interview

We talked to Chris Hopwood about his research and his paper, "Interpersonal dynamics in personality and personality disorders", which was recently published in European Personality Reviews (2018). Chris is an associate professor at the Department of Psychology at University of California, Davis.

 Chris Hopwood

Chris Hopwood

Q: Hi Chris! The topic of the special issue is personality and personality disorders. This is not a new topic in psychology. Can you tell us about its relevance to personality psychology today?

This topic may not be new but it should be of interest to the readership of EJP because personality pathology represents an area where the importance of personality for human welfare is clear and concrete. Personality disorder diagnoses are common and are among the most severe psychiatric conditions in terms of personal suffering and public expense. They would be even more common if they were not under-diagnosed. Figuring out better ways to assess and treat personality pathology would have a meaningful positive effect on society. The DSM Alternative Model and ICD-11 frameworks are steps in the right direction. Moreover, many of the solutions to the riddle of personality disorder diagnosis also solve problems with mental health diagnosis more generally, as demonstrated by the HiTOP model. So establishing improved conceptualizations of personality disorders could go a long way in relieving the mental health burden. One of the theses of my paper is that contemporary personality psychology and more traditional clinical theories hold some of the keys to doing this.

But the issue of old and new is quite interesting. What is new in clinical personality assessment is old in basic personality assessment and vice versa. Personality psychology has crossed the rubicon into the area of dynamics. Several highly visible papers have recently outlined theoretical models of how dynamic processes might be useful for explaining the trajectories of personality traits, understanding personality-situation transactions, and elaborating the role of genes in personality-relevant behavior. There has been a coincident interest among personality psychologists in sampling, assessment, and analytic methods that can capture dynamic processes. What is missing is a solid theoretical model from which to make predictions about the types of dynamic processes that are likely to occur, and how they might play out.

Ironically, academic clinical personality psychology mostly retreated from dynamic thinking with the advent of categorical personality disorders in DSM-III (1980), and a lot of the emphasis in that area has been on the ability of traits, derived primarily through factor analyses of cross-sectional questionnaire data, to better account for the covariation among personality disorders. This solves an important problem with regard to the structure of personality problems and it has spurred significant improvements in the DSM and ICD and thus public health, but it is really old hat from a basic personality psychology perspective. It is also not particularly useful for clinical practice on the ground, because clinicians are generally interested in the dynamics of the individual more than the covariation of traits among groups. I don't believe we are going to make much progress with these kinds of data moving forward. But that doesn't mean giving up on clinical psychology; in fact there is a lot of good stuff in there, albeit muddled and old.

So the idea was that marrying contemporary thinking about and measurement of dynamic processes in basic personality psychology with models of dynamic processes that have laid dormant in clinical psychology for a generation or so could solve some problems for both basic and clinical personality assessment; in other words, what was old is now new and what was new is old.

Q: In your paper, you aim to synthesize knowledge from the areas of clinical and basic psychology. What do you think are the most important things these two areas can learn from each other? And, what have you learned from bringing knowledge from these two areas together?

Personality psychology can learn from clinical psychology that there are sophisticated theoretical frameworks that bring a body of specific predictions about personality processes that are only hinted at in recent theoretical work in basic personality psychology. I tried to elaborate some examples of the way personality disorders have traditionally been conceptualized (i.e., before DSM-III) using interpersonal theory. Clinical personality assessment can learn from basic personality psychology that the analysis of cross-sectional questionnaire data has relatively little to offer beyond what we already know for understanding personality problems/psychopathology, and it is time to take the leap into trying to use multiple methods to measure dynamic processes, even though this kind of work is difficult.

Q: What is the next step in personality and personality pathology research according to you?

Taking dynamic processes seriously would be the next step in personality pathology research. This would involve using clinical theories to make specific predictions about the kinds of processes that are implicated in dysfunction. The predictions would ideally be specified in terms of:

a) whether they are in reference to within-person or between-person differences
b) if they are within-person, whether they are expected to be idiographic or nomothetic
c) the level of behavior being focused upon and the types of assessments best suited to measuring that level of behavior
d) the time scale at which processes are expected to occur and the right sampling interval/frequency for capturing that timescale
e) the association between the processes being studied and contextual/situational factors (e.g., intervention techniques).

It is satisfying to see that it has become difficult to publish cross-sectional questionnaire data in top personality journals, and that authors are increasingly expected to justify their claims in more specific ways given their data (e.g., avoid making within-person claims based on between-person data). This list is really just an extension of that trend, which I believe will lead to substantially more nuanced theories about the nature of personality and personality development, as well as significantly improved methods for assessing and treating people with mental health problems.

Q: Thanks for the chat, Chris!

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