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The Personality Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire

  wrought iron letters: UNH  
About the Laboratory:site homepeople in the lablist of laboratory publicationsselected reprints
Overview of Selected Theoretical Work: personality as a scientific discipline the Systems Framework for personalitypersonal intelligence emotional intelligence ethical commentary on the personality of public figures

Psychological Measures and Procedures: scales of mood,• mood-congruent judgment,• empathy, • meta-experience of mood, • personal intelligence emotional intelligenceintellectual experience • and experimental procedures

Other Resources: links to documents, video and websites on personalitysupplements to articles UNH Department of Psychology (New Window)

Ethics of Commentary on the Personalities of Public Figures


  • Introduction to ethics of commentary on the personalities of public figures
  • Laboratory model and publication on approaching commentary

Introduction to the Ethics of Commentary on Public Figures

It is natural to want to discuss the personalities of those around us, and some of us analyze the personalities of third parties in the conversations we have with our close friends and family members, as well as with confidants at work. Moreover, such discussions can provide important learning opportunities in considering different personalities. Such discussions also provide an opportunity for modeling accurate and tactful speech about others.

Discussions of character and personality are also part of public conversations, as when commentators discuss the personalities of politicians, business people and other public figures. Such public commentary helps inform citizenry as to the key qualities of their leaders, and expresses cultural values and understanding about personality, its healthy development, and sometimes, its disorders.

At the same time, such speech about others is limited both by cultural teachings and by law. Many cultural teachings, as well as the legal system, recognize the potential harm that can come from misjudging someone.

In any commentary on the personality of public figures, two sets of values collide. On the one hand, is the value of free speech to teach, clarify, and reason about the meaning of personal acts that a public figure engages in. On the other hand, is the value of protecting people and their reputations, that constrains the public expression of judgments about others.

When values conflict -- teaching and analyzing personality, on the one hand, and protecting the targets of such analyses on the other, a potential commentator must make decisions as to when it is appropriate to judge another person (and express that judgment) and when it is not appropriate to do so.

There are a number of ethical guidelines for professionals in mental health fields that concern such speech (see here for two sets).

Some of the ideas about what it takes to comment publically were outlined in a series of blogs on the Psychology Today website. One example was: "Three skills involved in ethical judgments of public figures 2: psychological knowledge."

Recently, Professors Michelle Leichtman (scroll down) and John D. Mayer collaborated on an article that describes some of the ethical issues involved in such commentary. Here is a depiction of some of the issues involved and that were examined in the article.

six issues to consider when commenting on a public figure

One of the reasons that Professor Leichtman and Mayer were interested in pursuing this topic was that commentary on public figures' personalities provides a metaphorical window into what is appropriate to say about other people's personalities and what is not. Although such commentaries represent a special case of the way we refer to one another's personalities, some of the issues involved in such commentary are likely generalizeable to more private situations, including issues of considering one's own intentions, how much knowledge one should have before speaking, and employing tact, for example.

More theoretical work in this area is ongoing.

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