Portraits of Personality

Jim Butcher's journey has taken him from poverty to personality, painting, and PowerPoint

Jim Butcher
JIM BUTCHER'S WORK on cross-cultural personality assessment has branched across the world. Its seed was planted in a foxhole. The year was 1952, and Butcher, then an 18-year-old infantryman from the Appalachian coal country, had just arrived in Korea. He was put on the frontlines of the war beside a young South Korean soldier.

"He knew no English and I knew no Korean at the time," recalls Butcher. "All through the night, with the shells and flares going off, we learned how to communicate."

Thus began a remarkable career in personality assessment and cross-cultural research. Butcher, emeritus professor of psychology, is one of the world's foremost authorities on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). He played a central role in the revision of the test and solidified Minnesota's position as the hub of one of the world's best-known assessment tools.

"He's the master of the MMPI in the world," says Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., a longtime colleague. "If it weren't for him, it probably still wouldn't be around. To have the key figure on probably the most widely used psychological test in the world here in Minnesota certainly brings prestige and distinction to the department."

These academic achievements are particularly amazing given Butcher's biography. He was born in the bleak coal country of West Virginia during the Great Depression. One day when he was eight, he returned home from school and heard the blare of an emergency siren. His father had been killed in a mine accident. Butcher's mother moved her five children to Charleston and went to work in a war production plant. Two years later, she died of a coronary embolism.

The children, ages 17 to 7, somehow managed to raise themselves without adult supervision. When they grew fearful that someone would come to take them to an orphanage, they hid in the woods. Butcher went to work at age 11. He believes this hardscrabble upbringing stamped him with two traits that shaped his academic career: independence and a love of work.

After his discharge from the Army, Butcher worked as a salesman, private detective, and textile worker. He went back to school as one of the only whites at an all-black college, then transferred to Guilford College, where he first began thinking of himself as an academic. Later, as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, he became fascinated by personality assessment.

In 1964, Butcher passed up a job offer at Harvard University to join the clinical psychology program at Minnesota. He quickly became the department's authority on the MMPI. A conference that he organized on the test grew into an annual event that has attracted thousands of researchers from around the world for 40 years.

By the late 1960s, Butcher began advocating a revision of the test. This quest turned into one of the most arduous sagas of his career. After twenty years, he finally prevailed. He played a central role in the creation of the MMPI-2 in 1989, and an adolescent version of the test, MMPI-A, in 1991.

The revisions, says Butcher, ensure that the tool will remain viable for years to come. "Two words describe it pretty clearly: it works," he says. "The MMPI has been shown to be very effective in describing symptoms, mental health problems, and personality applied across a wide number of settings."

International perspectives

It also has exported the Department of Psychology's expertise around the globe. Butcher has taught workshops in 33 countries. These international contacts drew him into another fertile area of research: cross-cultural personality assessment. Butcher traces this interest to his service in Korea, where he was part of an international force that included Koreans, Turks, and Ethiopians. "I saw an awful lot of similarities in people from different cultures," he recalls. "There was a certain common core that was recognizable."

Butcher has been an innovator in other ways. He created the Butcher Treatment Planning Inventory (BTPI), a self-reporting instrument to detect problems in patients undergoing psychological therapy. In the 1960s, he pioneered the use of computer- assisted personality assessment.

He has written or edited more than 50 books -- including three last year alone -- and 175 articles. Even in retirement, he remains busy with research and book projects. And last year, he attained a new publishing credential -- cover artist.

In his mid 60s, while he was on sabbatical in London, Butcher took up painting and quickly discovered a dormant skill. Like his academic work, his art has an international flair, and Butcher often paints while he's traveling in places like Greece or Italy.

His new talent has also brought him new acclaim in his field. A colleague cajoled Butcher to paint a courthouse as a cover illustration for a legal guidebook to the MMPI that they had co-written. Soon afterwards, the American Psychological Association selected one of his watercolors for the cover of the October 2005 issue of the American Psychologist. Last summer, he gave a presentation on the relationship between psychology and art at the APA convention.

"I am still involved in psychology -- writing, consulting, and lecturing," says Butcher. "But now I take a paint set along with my PowerPoint files."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on June 26, 2008 5:34 PM.

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