Paul E. Meehl

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Paul E. Meehl
Born Paul Everett Swedow
(1920-01-03)3 January 1920
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Died 14 February 2003(2003-02-14) (aged 83)
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Citizenship American
Alma mater University of Minnesota
Known for Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Genetics of Schizophrenia, Construct Validity, Clinical v. Statistical Prediction, Philosophy of Science, Taxometrics
Awards National Academy of Sciences (1987), APA Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology (1996), James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award (1998), Bruno Klopfer Award (1979)
Scientific career
Fields Psychology, philosophy of science
Institutions University of Minnesota
Doctoral advisor Starke R. Hathaway
Doctoral students Harrison G. Gough, William M. Grove, Dante Cicchetti, Donald R. Peterson, George Schlager Welsh

Paul Everett Meehl (3 January 1920 – 14 February 2003) was a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Meehl as the 74th most cited psychologist of the 20th century, in a tie with Eleanor J. Gibson.[1] Throughout his nearly 60-year career, Meehl made seminal contributions to psychology, including contributions on construct validity, schizophrenia etiology, behavioral assessment and prediction, and philosophy of science.



Paul Meehl was born January 3, 1920 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Otto and Blanche Swedal. His family name "Meehl" was his stepfather's.[2] When he was age 16, his mother died as the result of poor medical care which, according to Meehl, greatly affected his faith in the expertise of medical practitioners and diagnostic accuracy of clinicians.[2] After his mother's death, Meehl lived briefly with his stepfather, then with a neighborhood family for one year so he could finish high school. He then lived with his maternal grandparents, who lived near the University of Minnesota.

Education and career[edit]

Meehl started at the University of Minnesota in March 1938.[2] He earned his Bachelor's degree in 1941[3] with Donald G. Paterson as his advisor, and took his PhD in psychology at Minnesota under Starke R. Hathaway in 1945. Meehl's graduate student cohort at the time included Marian Breland Bailey, William K. Estes, Norman Guttman, William Schofield, and Kenneth MacCorquodale.[2] Upon taking his doctorate, Meehl immediately accepted a faculty position at the University that he held throughout his career, with appointments in psychology, law, psychiatry, neurology, philosophy, and as a fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, founded by Herbert Feigl, Meehl, and Wilfrid Sellars.[2] Meehl was chairman of the University of Minnesota Psychology Department at age 31, president of the Midwestern Psychological Association at 34, recipient of the American Psychological Association's Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Psychology at 38, and president of that association at age 42. He was promoted to the highest academic position at the University of Minnesota in 1968. He received the Bruno Klopfer Distinguished Contributor Award in personality assessment in 1979, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987.[2]

Meehl was not particularly religious during his upbringing,[2] but in adulthood collaborated with a group of Lutheran theologians and psychologists to write What, Then, Is Man? (1958).[4] This project was commissioned by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod through Concordia Seminary. The project explored both orthodox theology, psychological science, and how Christians (Lutherans, in particular) could responsibly function as both Christians and psychologists without betraying orthodoxy or sound science and practice.

In 1995, he was a signatory of a collective statement titled Mainstream Science on Intelligence, written by Linda Gottfredson and published in the Wall Street Journal.[5]

Meehl practiced as a clinical psychologist throughout his career. In 1958, Meehl performed psychoanalysis on Saul Bellow as a patient, while Bellow was an instructor at the University of Minnesota.[6]

Meehl died on February 14, 2003 at his home in Minneapolis of chronic myelomonocytic leukemia.[3]

In 2005, Donald R. Peterson, a student of Meehl's, published a volume of their correspondence.[7]

Philosophy of science[edit]

Meehl founded, along with Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars, the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science, and was a leading figure in philosophy of science as applied to psychology.[2] Early in his career Meehl was a proponent of Karl Popper's Falsificationism, and later amended his views as neo-Popperian.[2] Meehl was a strident critic of using statistical null hypothesis testing for the evaluation of scientific theory. He believed that null hypothesis testing was partly responsible for the lack of progress in many of the "scientifically soft" areas of psychology (e.g. clinical, counseling, social, personality, and community).[8]

Meehl with his colleague Lee J. Cronbach introduced the notion of construct validity in psychology, as well as the application of nomological networks to understand psychological test properties and scientific theorizing and practice.[9]

Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory[edit]

Meehl conducted research on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), including development of the K scale.[3][10][11] While Meehl did not directly develop the MMPI (he was a high school junior when Hathaway and McKinley created the item pool, for example), in the years after obtaining his PhD he contributed widely to the literature on interpreting patterns of the MMPI scores.[2][12] In particular, Meehl argued that the MMPI could be used to understand personality profiles systematically associated with clinical outcomes, something he termed a statistical (versus a "clinical") approach to predicting behavior.[13][14]

Clinical versus statistical prediction[edit]

His 1954 book Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence, analyzed the claim that "mechanical" (formal, algorithmic) methods of data combination outperformed "clinical" (e.g., subjective, informal, "in the head") methods when such combinations are used to arrive at a prediction of behavior.[12] The analysis favored mechanical modes of combination and caused a considerable stir amongst clinicians. Meehl (1954) argued that mechanical methods of prediction would, used correctly, make more efficient decisions about patients' prognosis and treatment. As recently as 2009, however, clinicians make such decisions based on their professional judgment, that is, they combine all kinds of information "in their head" and arrive at a conclusion/prediction about a patient.[15] Meehl (1954) theorized that clinicians would make more mistakes than a mechanical prediction tool created for a similar decision purpose. Mechanical prediction methods are simply a mode of combination of data to arrive at a decision/prediction concerning the emission of behavior. Mechanical prediction does not exclude any type of data from being combined. Mechanical prediction approaches can incorporate clinical judgments, properly coded, in their predictions. The defining characteristic is that, once the data to be combined is given, the mechanical approach will make a prediction that is 100% reliable. That is, it will make exactly the same prediction for exactly the same data every time. Clinical prediction, on the other hand, does not guarantee this.[16] Meta-analyses comparing clinical and mechanical prediction efficiency have supported Meehl's (1954) conclusion that mechanical data combination and prediction outperforms clinical combination and prediction.[17][18]

In response to substantial objections from clinicians, Meehl continued his argument for the superiority of mechanical or actuarial prediction and proposed that only under the rarest circumstances should a clinician deviate from mechanical prediction. [19] To illustrate this, Meehl gave the famous “broken leg” scenario in which actuarial prediction methods indicated that an individual has a 90% chance of attending the movies given the information necessary for accurately predicting this behavior. However, the “clinician” is aware that this individual has a broken leg, thus making it impossible for the individual to attend the movies. This additional information, which is not included in the actuarial methods of prediction, provides the clinician with enough confidence to accurately refute the actuarial prediction. Meehl noted that this “broken leg” scenario should only supersede an actuarial prediction if the additional information is an objective fact and determined with high accuracy, very highly correlated with the associated outcome across a wide range of individuals, and is theoretically sound. While Meehl’s “broken leg” scenario meets these requirements, he claimed that clinician’s arguments of insight over actuarial formulas usually do not.

Meehl argued that it is difficult for humans to make accurate decisions from the large amount of information typically obtained in a clinical assessment. [20][21] He noted that clinical judgment is often influenced by biases. For example, clinicians may be more likely to seek out information to support their presuppositions and to miss or ignore information that challenges them. Meehl wrote that clinical judgment can be influenced by overconfidence or by anecdotal relationships between factors that are not supported in research. In contrast, actuarial prediction is better able to use all important clinical information in an optimal way, is not influenced by biases, and bases results on the designated formula alone. In studies that compared clinical vs. mechanical predictions of clients outcomes, he and his colleagues found that even when clinicians were provided with the actuarial judgment they still made decisions that were less accurate than the actuarially-based predictions. [21]


Meehl was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1962. That year, he theorized that schizophrenia had a genetic link,[22][12] contrary to the prevailing notion at the time that schizophrenia was caused by the rearing environment including parenting.[3]


Meehl developed taxometrics, a field concerned with using mathematical formulas to determine the natural groupings of biological or psychological variables.[3] Coherent Cut Kinetics (CCK) is Paul Meehl's method for taxometric analysis.[23]

Applied clinical views and work[edit]

In 1973, Paul Meehl published Why I Do Not Attend Case Conferences.[24] He stated that his main reason for not attending case conferences in a psychological or psychiatric clinic is that he feels that they are intellectually unstimulating and boring, sometimes to the point of being offensive. Meehl directly identified problems and fallacies that he noticed in the psychology or psychiatry case conference setting. In contrast, he stated he found case conferences for internal medicine or neurology illuminating, in part because they often contain a pathologist's report containing the true disease and/or pathophysiology. In other words, the medical case conference often benefits from having a gold standard to which the clinical symptoms and signs could be compared and contrasted. Meehl argues that creating a psychiatric analogue to the pathologist's report is a promising area of research, and he proposes a format for case conferences that includes data provided for discussion, and a subset of data revealed at the end to show whether conference attendees' clinical inferences about the patient's diagnosis were in fact correct. Why I Do Not Attend Case Conferences also addresses the issue of clinical versus statistical judgment, and the fact that clinical decision making, in case conferences and other environments, is often not very accurate. More generally, Meehl's paper encourages clinicians to be humble when it comes to skills used in decision making, and pushes for a higher scientific standard for clinical case conferences.[24]

These fallacies can also be considered more general errors of thinking that all individuals (not just psychologists) are prone to making.

  • Barnum effect: Making a statement that is trivial and true of nearly all patients, but which is made as though it is important for the current patient.[25]
  • Sick-sick ("pathological set"): The tendency to generalize from personal experiences of health and ways of being, to the identification of others who are different from ourselves as being "sick".
  • Me too: The opposite of Sick-sick. Imagining that "everyone does this" and thereby minimizing a symptom without assessing the probability of whether a mentally healthy person would actually do it. A variation of this is Uncle George's pancake fallacy. This minimizes a symptom through reference to a friend/relative who exhibited a similar symptom, thereby implying that it is normal.[3]
  • Multiple Napoleons fallacy: "It's not real to us, but it's 'real' to him". "So what if he thinks he’s Napoleon?" There is a distinction between reality and delusion that is important to make when assessing a patient and so the consideration of comparative realities can mislead and distract from the importance of a patient's delusion to a diagnostic decision.[11] "If I think the moon is made of green cheese and you think it's a piece of rock, one of us must be wrong". For this, pointing out that the deviated cognitions of a delusional patient "seem real to him" is a waste of time. So, the statement "It is reality to him," which is philosophically either trivial or false, is also clinically misleading.[26]
  • Hidden decisions: Decisions based on factors that we do not own up to or challenge. An example is the placement of middle- and upper-class patients in therapy while lower-class patients are given medication. Meehl identified these decisions as related to an implicit ideal patient who is young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and successful (YAVIS). He argued that YAVIS patients are preferred by psychotherapists because they can pay for long-term treatment and are more enjoyable to interact with.[citation needed]
  • The spun-glass theory of the mind: The belief that the human organism is so fragile that minor negative events, such as criticism, rejection, or failure, are bound to cause major trauma---essentially not giving humans, and sometimes patients, enough credit for their resilience and ability to recover.
  • Crummy criterion fallacy: This fallacy refers to how psychologists explain away the technical aspects of tests, using inappropriate and 'crummy' criterion that is observational instead of scientific, rather than incorporating the psychometric aspects into the interview, life-history, and other material being presented at case conferences.
  • Understanding it makes it normal: The act of normalizing or excusing a behavior just because one understands the cause or function of it, regardless of its normalcy or appropriateness.
  • Assumptions that content and dynamics explain why this person is abnormal: Those who seek psychological services have certain characteristics associated with the fact they are seeking services. However, not only do they have the characteristics of clients but also characteristics of being human. To attribute one’s complete life dysfunction to attributes that make one a patient ignores the fact that some problems are just human problems.[clarification needed]
  • Identifying the softhearted with the softheaded: The belief that those who have sincere concern for the suffering (the softhearted) are the same as those who tend to be wrong in logical and empirical decisions (softheaded).
  • Ad hoc fallacy: Creating explanations after we have been presented with evidence that is consistent with what has now been proven.
  • Doing it the hard way: Going about a task in a more difficult manner when an equivalent easier option exists; for example, in clinical psychology, using an unnecessary instrument or procedure that can be difficult and time consuming while the same information can be ascertained through interviewing or interacting with the client.
  • Social scientists’ anti-biology bias: Meehl argued that social scientists like psychologists, sociologists, and psychiatrists have a tendency to react negatively to biological contributors to abnormal behavior, and therefore tending to be anti-drug, anti-genetic, and anti-EST.
  • Double standard of evidential morals: When one is making an argument and requires less evidence for him or herself than does so for another.

Selected works[edit]


  1. ^ Haggbloom, Steven J.; Warnick, Jason E.; Jones, Vinessa K.; Yarbrough, Gary L.; Russell, Tenea M.; Borecky, Chris M.; McGahhey, Reagan; et al. (2002). "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century". Review of General Psychology. 6 (2): 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Paul E Meehl (2007). Lindzey G, Runyan WM, ed. A History of Psychology in Autobiography (PDF). 8. American Psychological Association. pp. 337–389. ISBN 978-1-59147-796-9. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Goode, Erica (19 February 2003). ""Paul Meehl, 83, an Example For Leaders of Psychotherapy"". New York Times. New York, NY. Retrieved 4 January 2017. 
  4. ^ Meehl, Paul E. (1958). What, Then, Is Man?: A Symposium of Theology, Psychology, and Psychiatry. St. Louis (MO): Concordia Publishing House. 
  5. ^ Gottfredson, Linda (December 13, 1994). Mainstream Science on Intelligence. Wall Street Journal, p A18.
  6. ^ Menand, Louis (May 11, 2015). "Young Saul". The New Yorker. New York, NY. Retrieved October 18, 2016. 
  7. ^ Peterson, Donald R. (2005). Twelve Years of Correspondence With Paul Meehl: Tough Notes From a Gentle Genius. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  8. ^ Meehl, Paul E. (1978). "Theoretical risks and tabular asterisks: Sir Karl, Sir Ronald, and the slow progress of soft psychology". Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 46 (4): 806–834. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.46.4.806. ISSN 0022-006X. 
  9. ^ Cronbach, Lee J.; Meehl, Paul E. (1955). "Construct validity in psychological tests". Psychological Bulletin. 52 (4): 281–302. doi:10.1037/h0040957. ISSN 0033-2909. PMID 13245896. 
  10. ^ Meehl, P. E.; Hathaway, S. R. (1946). "The K factor as a suppressor variable in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory". Journal of Applied Psychology. 30 (5): 525–564. doi:10.1037/h0053634. ISSN 0021-9010. 
  11. ^ a b Konnikova, Maria. "The perils of hindsight judgment". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  12. ^ a b c "Paul E. Meehl: Smartest Psychologist of the 20th Century?". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2018-02-14. 
  13. ^ Starke Rosecrans Hathaway; Paul Everett Meehl (1951). An atlas for the clinical use of the MMPI. University of Minnesota Press. 
  14. ^ Meehl, Paul E. (1956). "Wanted--a good cook-book". American Psychologist. 11 (6): 263–272. doi:10.1037/h0044164. ISSN 0003-066X. 
  15. ^ Vrieze, Scott I.; Grove, William M. (2009). "Survey on the use of clinical and mechanical prediction methods in clinical psychology". Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 40 (5): 525–531. doi:10.1037/a0014693. ISSN 1939-1323. 
  16. ^ Paul Meehl (1 February 2013). Clinical Versus Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence. Echo Point Books & Media. ISBN 978-0-9638784-9-6. 
  17. ^ Grove, W.M.; Zald, D.H.; Hallberg, A.M.; Lebow, B.; Snitz, E.; Nelson, C. (2000). "Clinical versus mechanical prediction: A meta-analysis". Psychological Assessment. 12: 19–30. doi:10.1037/1040-3590.12.1.19. 
  18. ^ White, M. J. (2006). "The Meta-Analysis of Clinical Judgment Project: Fifty-Six Years of Accumulated Research on Clinical Versus Statistical Prediction Stefania Aegisdottir". The Counseling Psychologist. 34 (3): 341–382. doi:10.1177/0011000005285875. ISSN 0011-0000. 
  19. ^ Meehl, P.E. (1957). "When Shall We Use Our Heads Instead of the Formula". Journal of Counseling Psychology. 4. 
  20. ^ Meehl, P.E. (1986). "Causes and Effects of My Disturbing Little Book". Journal of Personality Assessment. 50 (3): 370–375. 
  21. ^ a b Dawes, R.M.; Faust, D.; Meehl, P.E. (1989). "Clinical versus Actuarial Prediction". Science. 243: 1668–1674. doi:10.1126/science.2648573. 
  22. ^ Meehl, Paul E. (1962). "Schizotaxia, schizotypy, schizophrenia". American Psychologist. 17 (12): 827–838. doi:10.1037/h0041029. ISSN 0003-066X. 
  23. ^ "Taxometrics using Coherent Cut Kinetics | Paul E. Meehl". Retrieved 2018-02-15. 
  24. ^ a b Meehl, P.E. (1973). Psychodiagnosis: Selected papers. Minneapolis (MN): University of Minnesota Press, p. 225-302.
  25. ^ 1920-2003., Meehl, Paul E. (Paul Everett), (2006). A Paul Meehl reader : essays on the practice of scientific psychology. Waller, Niels G. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 1134812140. OCLC 853240687. 
  26. ^ 1920-2003., Meehl, Paul E. (Paul Everett), (1973). Psychodiagnosis : selected papers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816606854. OCLC 234368210. 
  27. ^ Meehl, Paul E. (2000-03-01). "The dynamics of "structured" personality tests". Journal of Clinical Psychology. 56 (3): 367–373. doi:10.1002/(sici)1097-4679(200003);2-u. ISSN 1097-4679. 

External links[edit]