David C. McClelland (1917-1998) was an eminent personality and motivational psychologist who pioneered the use of thematic and competency-based assessments in the study of individual differences, economic development, job performance, and health. One of the intellectual giants in personality psychology over the past 75 years, he is ranked #15 in the American Psychological Association’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists in the 20th century.
Born in Mt. Vernon, New York, McClelland spent much of his childhood in the Midwestern part of the United States, where his father served as the head of a Methodist women’s college. Dinner conversations were heady and stimulating, but intimidating too, for David felt that his rhetorically gifted father could argue nearly any point of view, regardless of his true beliefs or the facts of the case. These experiences reinforced David’s antipathy for hollow debates and turned him toward science, where he believed that empirical knowledge could be garnered to settle difficult questions. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, he took classes with John McGeoch, a prominent learning theorist who was then editor of Psychological Bulletin. McGeoch was a role model for the kind of psychologist that McClelland would ultimately become – broad-minded and intellectually adventurous, but focused on practical research questions for which clear answers might be obtained. McClelland went on to receive his MA in 1939 from University of Missouri and his Ph.D. in 1941 from Yale University, where he studied with Carl Hovland and Robert Sears. Along the way, he met Mary Sharpless, who was his wife from age 21 until her death in 1980. Through Mary, David became involved in the Quaker church. He was a lifelong pacifist.
McClelland taught at Connecticut College, Wesleyan University, and Bryn Mawr College before taking a position at Harvard University in 1956. He served as the Chair of the Department of Social Relations from 1962-1967. In 1987, he became a distinguished research professor at Boston University. In 1963, he established what later became McBer and Company, a Boston-based behavioral science research and consulting firm. Among the many professional honors he received over the long course of his career were the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (1987), the Bruno Klopfer Award from the Society for Personality Assessment (1988), and the Henry A. Murray Award (posthumously) from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology for excellence in research on personality psychology and the study of human lives.
McClelland is most widely known for his research on achievement motivation. Working with John Atkinson in the years immediately following World War II, McClelland devised a thematic, narrative-based method for assessing individual differences in a person’s desire to achieve excellence. The assessment method was ultimately adapted to score motivational imagery in children’s readers and other cultural texts so as to understand and predict economic development in society and history, as detailed in McClelland’s most famous book, The Achieving Society (1961). Reflecting McClelland’s commitment to pragmatic solutions to problems, he and his associates developed training programs designed to cultivate achievement motivation and entrepreneurship in business settings. His students developed coding systems for assessing individual differences in power and affiliation/intimacy motivation, too. The work on power and affiliation/intimacy generated a range of creative research programs examining phenomena such as alcohol consumption, romantic love, mysticism, coronary health, and even war. Decades before the widespread acceptance of implicit measures in social and personality psychology, McClelland championed indirect, implicit measures of motivational dispositions as naturally expressed in narrative and fantasy. In another line of work, he pushed for the use of competency-based assessments of job performance, arguing against the widespread use of standardized intelligence and achievement tests. The magisterial scope of his science and his scholarship was readily apparent in an early textbook he wrote, Personality (1951), and in his magnum opus on motivational psychology, Human Motivation (1984).
David was an inspiring and compassionate mentor for three generations of young scientists. He was especially effective in promoting a student’s autonomy. Although he had strong opinions on how psychological science should be done, he encouraged students of different persuasions to follow their own intellectual dreams, even when they decided to cross over to what he considered to be the dark side – as might be the case if you decided to develop a self-report (rather than an implicit, narrative-based) assessment of personality, or if you were foolish enough to tell him that you incorporated an IQ test into your study. He was a captivating teacher. In McClelland’s American Psychologist obituary (2000, 55, pp. 540-541), David Winter writes this about what it was like to encounter David McClelland in the classroom:
In the opening lecture of his “Human Motivation” course, [McClelland] quoted from the Hindu sacred text Bhagavad Gita, Plato’s Republic, and a German philosopher’s distinction between knowledge, desire, and action. He discussed the connection between knowledge and sexual “knowledge.” He proposed an alternative, more thorough interpretation of Freud’s self-analysis about forgetting the name of the artist (Signorelli) who painted the frescoes in the cathedral of Orvieto. Finally, he concluded with a thematic analysis of the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. At the end of 50 minutes, in the words of one student writing for the University’s course evaluation guide, “I saw God.”
Dan P. McAdams
- Over the years I came increasingly to admire David for his intellectual independence, his willingness to ignore academic orthodoxy, and his ability to take on and sell big ideas – i.e., his willingness to make big, risky research bets.
-Robert Hogan, Hogan Assessment Systems
- One of the happiest days in my life was when I received a call from Dave McClelland in the spring of 1986 inviting me to do a post-doc with him in Boston. Dave had just retired from Harvard University and was moving to Boston University where he was organizing a team of post-docs to explore the role of motivation in life success. Dave was about 69 years old at the time but he still had a vast reservoir of ideas and energy. I was excited about the opportunity to work with David because my own background was in a very different motivational tradition. What I did not realize was what an exceptionally gentle, nurturing, and collaborative man David was. We hit upon a few ideas for new studies regarding David’s ideas about how the implicit and explicit motive systems worked. Although planning the studies was exciting, what I recall most vividly was how much fun it was to work with David in trying to make sense of the data. David loved fresh data. I thought I would impress David by presenting him with the most complicated statistical analyses I could muster. I quickly learned, though, that what he liked most was to have lists of numbers corresponding to participants’ scores on key variables so that he could do some basic analyses by hand! I think I learned to love the research process from working with David. I have also tried to model his gentle, benevolent approach to working with students. I feel so fortunate to have had a chance to work with him.
-Richard Koestner, McGill University
- When I first came into contact with David McClelland’s work as a student, I was already interested in the psychology of motivation. But reading his book on “Human Motivation” changed the course of my studies and later career entirely. Here was a researcher who, much more than any other, was very hard-nosed, pioneering, and creative when it came to exploring the causes, processes, and consequences of human motivation. He was hard-nosed in his insistence that a science of motivation should be built not on what people think they should do nor might want to do but on the development of clever and direct measures of the motivated mind. He was a pioneer by validating measures of motivation through experimental arousal, captured in his famous dictum that “you don’t know what it [i.e., the measure] means unless you know what produces it” and foreshadowing modern validity theory by several decades. He was also a pioneer in his research on the relationship between motivation and endocrine, physiological, and immunological parameters, again long before terms such as “psychoneuroimmunology” or “psychoendocrinology” were coined. And his creativity, once he had devised suitable measures of motivation, simply knew no bounds, extending from the biological “basement” of personality all the way to the sociocultural “roof,” with all kinds of fascinating phenomena on the levels in between. When I read about his ideas about human motivation and its study in that book, I had an instant, intuitive, and very compelling sense of “That’s it! That’s how science should be done!” And when I started using his concepts and measures in my own work as a graduate student, I was immediately rewarded by a wealth of fascinating and rich findings that I couldn’t have obtained in any other way. It’s been that way ever since, as I further explored the endocrine, neuronal, and cognitive underpinnings of motivational needs in humans. Although Dave McClelland laid the foundation for his approach to studying human motivation long before I was born, I also had the good fortune to personally benefit from his tutorship and support as a post-doc student. Dave was a wonderfully open-minded, gentle, and generous human being. And he was a great scientist, showing us what is possible in the study of human motivation if it is done both rigorously and creatively, and thereby leaving a lasting legacy to our field.
-Oliver Schultheiss, Friedrich-Alexander University
- When I was getting my masters at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there was a point when a few of us were sitting around in a restaurant or something, and the discussion went towards gender differences. Without a moment’s hesitation, Dave turned and said, “Steve’s the expert on that subject. What do you think?” He knew I was studying with Carol Gilligan, but no way on Earth could a half-finished masters student be considered an “expert,” and especially not compared to him, since he had already spent some time himself on the subject. To me, that shows his intellectual generosity (he never had to be the smartest person in the room), and his own high standards (because he wasn’t studying it currently, he didn’t think he was expert enough to comment). Dave also solved a tricky problem I had when researching my book into motivating writers, in a typically elegant and compelling way. In brief, I had found that writers published at novel length, regardless of genre, had highly similar motive profiles: high Power motive, low on n Ach and n Aff, and extraordinarily high Activity Inhibition [AI]. AI had a mean of 1.75 in the U. S. and a standard deviation of .25, so scoring 2 or higher meant you had “mature” motivation and could restrain your motives and emotion as a matter of course. The average writer in my study had a score of 18. Eighteen! The range was 14-24, in fact, across two dozen published writers (and it has held up with additional writers I assessed later). This staggered me, and I had no idea what it meant to have such ridiculously socialized Power motive. So I asked Dave. “No, it’s very simple!” he cried. “An ordinary person gets mad at you – they hit you! A writer gets mad at you – they sit down and take a year to write a book killing you off!” Brilliant, and oh, so true. How can I be so sure? Because my wife is a murder mystery author. She killed off her ex-boyfriend in her fourth novel – after we’d been married for ten years! I’ve been using Dave’s elegant formulation of the issue ever since, in front of hundreds of writers, and it never fails to make people laugh and nod.
-Stephen P. Kelner, Jr., Spencer Stuart Boston
- Dave McClelland saved me in graduate school. As a disaffected and confused first-year student, I was on the verge of leaving Harvard in 1976 and going into something like clinical work or law school. But a note arrived in all the first-year students’ mailboxes in November saying that Professor McClelland had a new grant and he needed to recruit a few graduate students to help him spend the money in a scientifically productive way. I didn’t know Dave beyond hearing him give a talk in the Pro-Sem. But he seemed intriguing, and I had nothing to lose, so I scaled the 15 floors of William James Hall, upon receipt of the note, expecting to find a long line outside his office. Nobody was there – except him. We met weekly from then onward to discuss how I might make some kind of contribution in the area of affiliation motivation. He was so kind and patient, though a little scary, too, I must admit, and he validated my weird interests in the humanities, Dostoyevsky, and Martin Buber. A breakthrough came when he mentioned some obscure study on schematic faces conducted by a German psychologist in the 1930s, and I managed to dig up the original article and bring it in to him. I could not read German, but I faked my way through it, and he was totally impressed, or maybe he was faking being impressed. In any case, I basked in Dave McClelland’s approval from that point onward. I will never forget the long silences during our meetings in his office. At first, it seemed very awkward, but eventually I realized that Dave used those silences productively to think through issues. After 5-10 minutes of nothing, he would blurt out some sort of profound conceptual insight, or a solution to a methodological conundrum with which the two of us had been wrestling. As a Quaker, Dave was comfortable with the long, meditative silences that were at the heart of Quaker meetings. Stemming from his deep involvement in Eastern religious traditions, moreover, he meditated everyday. He could surely get agitated and anxious, but usually there was a deep calm about him – a grace and comfortableness that never needed to be stated. A few years later, when I taught a course with him at Pepperdine College, we shared an apartment for a short period of time, along with his beautiful wife Mary. There in Malibu, CA, I witnessed again the power of the silence. Mary and David seemed to share a private, nonverbal language that continuously expressed their love for each other and the joy and wonder of their daily existence. Dave McClelland has been the single greatest source of intellectual inspiration for me and the best model I have personally known for how to live a worthwhile life.
-Dan P. McAdams, Northwestern University