David R. Williams

Professor of Psychology Emeritus

215-898-6947 (office)
215-724-7327 (study at home)
Office Address:
D22 Solomon Lab Building
Department of Psychology
3720 Walnut Street
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6196
fax: 215-726-4043

useful local links

Research Interests:


I am interested in uniting two century-old traditions of psychology that have contributed much to me but little to each other.

Personality Theory generalizes from encounters that are intended to liberate people from needless self-imposed limitations, not to predict or control them further.

My research is aimed at exploring a new paradigm that makes experimental work in Personality Theory a realistic possibility for interested scientists, regardless of their interpersonal skills or fundamental beliefs about human nature. This new paradigm is expressed in web-based interactive teaching programs that provide an authentic introduction to core principles of the existential/humanistic branch of Personality Theory. It aims to uncover and support human freedom rather than control it.

Successful implementation of the tutorial program would be demonstrated in two ways. Relative to controls without experience of the tutorial program, those who complete it would be expected to show:

Within the new paradigm, nurturing the exercise of liberty in pursuit of the subjective goal of happiness provides a natural complement--not a competitor--to the emphasis on prediction and control that characterizes behavioral and cognitive science. It is a necessary complement as well, if experimental psychology is to approach the phenomenon of human freedom and creativity as more than a scientific embarrassment. As I gain experience implementing the teaching method, I intend to include other realms of Personality Theory as well, until the full range of its concepts--the psychodynamic as well as the existential/humanistic--becomes accessible to experimental analysis.

There is complexity as well as irony in this undertaking. The complexity arises because Personality Theory's principles are "holistic": formulated for "top-down" application, they first define the entities and attributes whose dynamics they proceed to explain. The irony arises from redirecting an outlook originally developed for the experimental analysis of predictable behavior to the task of supporting cognitive and behavioral freedom.

Beyond the complexity and irony is an exciting possibility: understanding human nature as something not just mechanical but animated as well; not just computational but also creative; and not just rational but also free. Working in two traditions of psychology has helped me understand my own human nature this way. I hope in my research to bring a similar understanding to others, and to introduce it into the science as a whole.

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    This page is maintained by David Williams.
    Created November 19, 1997, revised June 7, 2007