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The Personality of Alfred Kinsey

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The Personality of Alfred Kinsey

By Andrew Clapper

April 18, 2007

Psych 240 - 005

Lisa Duke, Ph.D.

Alfred Kinsey is known for conducting the largest interview based study of sexual behavior that the scientific community had ever seen.  His two books on human sexuality, collectively called The Kinsey Report, shattered social myths and misconceptions about human sexuality.  Sometimes, he is credited with laying the foundation for what would become the Sexual Revolution: a period known for sexual exploration and openness in American society.  Kinsey is still regarded as one of the most well respected sex researchers.  The information he gathered on thousands of encrypted cards is still used by scientists today to form hypotheses about sexuality.  Kinsey grew up in a relatively poor family in New Jersey, although over time they became more fortunate.  Unfortunately, because his family could not afford the latest medical care when Kinsey was a child, he suffered lasting effects from rickets, rheumatic fever, and typhoid fever.  His family was a conservative Christian one, and his father was a part time Methodist preacher.  Both heterosexual contact with girls and all other forms of sexual gratification were severely discouraged by Kinsey's father, a fact that was to play an important role in Kinsey's line of research some years later (Gathorne, 1998). 

The needs and motives that drove Kinsey depended on what stage in his intellectual and emotional development he was in.  During his childhood, other children were able to dominate and ridicule him because of his malnutrition and sicknesses, so he developed a need for achievement.  The way that he was eventually able to surpass his rivals was through academic success.  Where he couldn't beat them in the playgrounds, he did so in the classroom.  Abasement motivated Kinsey for a time as a child, because he felt compelled to accept injury, criticism, and blame from his father and for a time his more aggressive peers.  The child Kinsey avoided humiliation at all costs; because of the social environment in which he was raised, he was sexually repressed for a long period of time.  Towards the end of this childhood, Kinsey joined a local Boy Scout troop, and there he came to be motivated by a need for affiliation.  He enjoyed the interaction and cooperation he experienced with other boys while on the many camping trips he embarked on as a child.  As far as the Big Three motives are concerned, the strongest indication is that achievement was the most important (Larsen & Buss, 2008).  Kinsey put most of his energy into doing well in school and receiving high grades, although he did not receive support and nurturance from both parents, as might be expected (Gathorne, 1998). 

During late adolescence and early childhood, achievement continued to motivate Kinsey.  He was by then an accomplished boy scout, and he used his knowledge to fulfill other needs.  For example, he now was motivated by exhibition.  He enjoyed being the center of attention during camping trips, as he taught and mentored the younger scouts around him.  Autonomy became more and more important to him, and at one point he confronted his father about wanting to study biology instead of engineering.  From that point on, Kinsey preferred to be as independent from others as possible.  Affiliation became more important to Kinsey, and the interaction with fellow scouts and members of the field of biology had a more central role in his life.  Nurturance was more important to him now as well, as he began to take on more and more of a role of mentor of younger scouts that he took camping during summers.  Again, the Big Three motivation most important to Kinsey was Achievement, as his academic and scouting careers continued to be a major source of self esteem for him (Gathorne, 1998).  

            Middle and late adulthood saw another expansion of motivations around previously established ones.  Kinsey pursued the largely unexplored scientific areas of gall wasps and human sexuality in order to make a name for him, indicating that achievement was now as important to him as ever.  Exhibition became important to him.  Kinsey wanted his work to be well known, and he put a significant amount of time and energy into publicity for his sex research, as well as fostering book sales and giving lectures based on his new research.  Kinsey matured as a scientist at the beginning of this period, and one can see that order now has a central role in his activities.  Kinsey developed strong organizational and analytical skills while he studied gall wasps and sexuality.  For example, he gathered detailed data about the gall wasps he collected by taking many more measurements than had been taken of the wasps in the past.  The same can be said of the sexuality questionnaire that he and his counterparts developed.  Kinsey was then able to take the data he gathered, analyze it, and present it in a way that was easily understood by others.  As an adult, Kinsey became motivated by a need for dominance.  He defended his ideas and research through persuasion and argument, and he compulsively micromanaged his research staff, as well as his family, albeit benevolently.  Autonomy was also a major need for Kinsey, because as a sex researcher, he sought to break out of the confines of the traditions and orthodoxies of society and the scientific community.   Affiliation continued to drive Kinsey, and the opinions of other scientists, especially those he respected, were high on his mind.  Kinsey's drive to be nurturing also continued, which he showed by counseling the students at Indiana University.  He also was sympathetic to the people he interviewed, and he tried to respond to all letters he received in the mail.  As before, the Big Three motive most important to Kinsey was achievement.  Kinsey deliberately choose areas of science that were largely unexplored to study so that he could make a name for himself, and in the case of sexuality, try to change society for the better (Gathorne, 1998).

            Kinsey, when interacting with other people, appeared to be characterized more by negative affect because he put himself in situations where he knew he would be in conflict with other people.  For example, Kinsey was very openly critical of peers and superiors that worked at Indiana University, and he developed a reputation for being combative there.  Kinsey also often expressed exasperation and anger at traditional beliefs about sexuality, as well as contemporary parenting styles.  He would show a considerable amount of distress when he experience any kind of rejection.  Kinsey was also saddened by the lack of apparent change in society brought about his sexuality work, although he may have been more satisfied had he lived a few more decades.  Kinsey, according to his biography, was characterized more by approach related emotions.  He preferred to address questions and problems head on, and he didn't shy away from disagreements with others once he was an adult.  Kinsey tended to be calm in most situations: while taking sex surveys, writing, measuring and analyzing gall wasps.  However, he was occasionally emotionally unstable when the stress of some situations exceeded a certain point.  For example, when he was confronted with other scientists that he disagreed with or disapproved of, his emotions would sometimes control him and he would lose his temper (Gathorne, 1998). 

            Kinsey appears to have been field independent when it came to the perceptual level of intelligence.  He showed a great deal of self discipline and focus, which allowed him to study individual gall wasps and people in great detail.  Also, the fact that a natural science was his life work is consistent with the idea that he was field independent.  Kinsey could be interpersonally detached at times.  For example, he rejected the notion that love was necessary for sex, and acted upon this belief.  Another trait consistent with field independence is the fact that Kinsey could focus on difficult tasks for hours on end while taking very little time away from the task.  Several of his assistants recall how Kinsey would often eat a lunch of peanuts and raisins while he worked.  Kinsey was also adept at spotting inconsistencies in the responses of interviewees he was talking to about sexuality, which helped the accuracy of his data gathering.  He also demonstrated linguistic intelligence; he wrote a biology textbook, a guide of edible plants, books on gall wasps, and of course his famous sexual behavior books.  Kinsey was also a highly praised public speaker.  He was also good at analyzing information and identifying trends (Gathorne, 1998). 

            The two Big 5 personality traits that were most apparent in Alfred Kinsey were conscientiousness and openness (Larsen & Buss, 2008).  Kinsey was well organized; he developed the system used by him and his assistants to obtain drawers full of thousands of carefully measured and categorized gall wasps.  He demonstrated an ability to be careful when he took precise measurements of hundreds of thousands of wasps.  Several further examples of Kinsey's self discipline exist.  He was able to go on long camping trips alone, at times going for more than a week without seeing another person.  Although data gathering on gall wasps and human sexuality was tedious, Kinsey did not shy away from doing so year after year in order to reach his goals.  Kinsey's openness manifests itself at the beginning of his adulthood when he was able to defy his father and choose his own path.  Kinsey also was not afraid to contradict tradition and the scientific community when he thought truth and science would benefit from it.  He also showed a preference for variety.  Kinsey enjoyed traveling, and he explored as many different aspects of human sexuality as he could think of, both scientifically and personally (Gathorne, 1998). 

            Kinsey struggled at several stages of life described by Erikson.  Autonomy from his father was an issue from him, and he did not overcome this stage until much later than Erikson predicts, when he was finally able to defy his father's plans for his life.  Kinsey struggled with guilt about sexuality brought on by his conservative Christian environment, and was finally able to overcome this guilt as he became more independent as a scientist.  Kinsey showed a short period of difficulty in choosing his own identity, because for a time he did succumb to his father's wishes and attended engineering school for a few years.  He also had to choose to assume a sexual identity that was not conventional, but once he made the decision to assume his own identity, Kinsey was strongly in control of who he was.  Kinsey appeared to be at Erikson's seventh stage at the time of his death.  He was still driven to complete an extremely large body of sex research.  Kinsey also told those around him that his greatest fear was dying before completing his work, which seems to indicate that he did not yet feel satisfied with his accomplishments (Gathorne, 1998). 

            During Kinsey's development, studying biology and the scientific seems to have gradually but profoundly changed Kinsey's way of thinking.  He learned to think empirically, test his own ideas and the ideas of others, and it made him value the scientific method much more than tradition as a way to seek truth.  Kinsey's father was apparently one of the most important people in his life.  His restrictive and stern upbringing may have caused Kinsey to resent the ideas and practices associated with his father.  Over the course of his life, Kinsey progressed from a repressed, torn child to a confident, independent adult (Gathorne, 1998). 

            Within the context of the sex research and the events that are prominent in Kinsey's biography, one might actually conclude that a strong current of narcissism runs through his personality.  The fact that Kinsey relished in giving lectures and chose to actively become a famous scientist may be consistent with people with narcissism.  Kinsey has been criticized for taking the self serving bias to an extreme; he very rarely was able to admit when he was wrong or had made a mistake.  Also, he insisted that love was unnecessary in order for sex to occur, and at times he seems to have ignored the fact that some of the people around him did in fact associate strong emotions with sex.  One might be able to argue that Kinsey exploited those around him when he researched sex; one of his associates called him a tyrant, and another called him a despot.  Kinsey also showed several instances where he reacted strongly to rejection, and he once obsessed over one review of his first sexuality book for weeks (Larsen & Buss, 2008).  Despite these possible indications of narcissism in Kinsey, it's possible that they could simply be a result of Kinsey's insatiable drive to achieve success.  Also, even if in fact Kinsey was narcissistic, he appears to have been so in a benevolent way, if such a thing is possible.  Besides Kinsey's apparent narcissistic qualities, the drive to succeed appears to be the central quality throughout his life.  He was defined by his desire to achieve, and he did so by using his analytical mind and independent spirit to measure gall wasps and human sexuality tirelessly until his body gave out.  His high degree of self discipline combined with these traits and an ability to communicate verbally and in writing let to his success and rightful place as a major figure in sex research (Gathorne, 1998). 



Larsen, R. J. & Buss, D. M. (2008).  Personality Psychology: Domains of

    Knowledge About Human Nature, 3rd Edition. New York: McGraw



Gathorne-Hardy, J.  (1998).  Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things.

    Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.         

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