University of the Free State: The science behind making history’s most illustrious figures

Anyone can become famous today with enough social media exposure, but then there are individuals who have transcended any regular level of ‘fame’ and have become celebrated icons. These people’s names are usually synonymous with the area in which they gained prominence.

In his inaugural lecture titled Dissecting the eminent personality from a psychobiographical approach, Prof Paul Fouché, Lecturer of Applied Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of the Free State (UFS), aimed to unpack the overarching markers such as traits, features and life events which contribute to attaining a level of greatness. “Eminent personalities are viewed as famous, distinguished, illustrious, and sometimes controversial people who had a profound impact on society,” Prof Fouché said.

His research interest lies in an interdisciplinary research area combining both history and psychology to create the niche research field of psychobiography.

Scoping research identified markers for attaining greatness

People do not just become great, there are emerging patterns or markers that psychobiographers look at when dissecting eminent personalities, Prof Fouché said. “These markers are not definite; they still need to be tested further.” He referred to scoping research by Prof Dean Simonton – an expert in the fields of Intelligence, Excellence, Genes and Genius – which identified emerging patterns and markers that correspond to the psychological patterns of excellence.

Genetics is one of the emerging patterns dissected as a marker of excellence. “Genius seems to be clustered within certain family lines,” Prof Fouché said. “Inheriting creative genius from a parent provides you with a head start to achieve extraordinary achievements.” The famous Bach musical family is a prime example of inherited talent being passed on from parent to child. However, as Prof Fouché noted, these high-quality genes “require environmental stimulation such as quality education and experienced mentorship”. The other key emerging patterns include but are not limited to extreme sleeping patterns, grit and passion, and either type A or type B personality types.

Defining eminent personalities

Prof Fouché says greatness and eminence are relative and subjective because of our differing viewpoints, which is why it is important to define these two terms to make them more scientific. “What psychobiographers did worldwide was to define eminent personalities who are viewed as distinguished, illustrious, famous, and at times even controversial,” he said. These individuals also had a profound impact on their immediate environments and on creating change in the world.

Psychobiographical studies and research class eminent personalities into three broad categories: “These categories are, however, not closed systems. Some great individuals can be found in more than one category,” Prof Fouché said. The three categories are the Explorers, the Leaders and the Visionaries.

Explorers – including people such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin and Mark Zuckerberg, who are innovators with new ideas – are driven by curiosity. Leaders are those who are driven by a desire for power and/or the empowerment of their society. Historical political figures such as Steve Biko, the current Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Jan Smuts are classed in this category. “A common marker of those in the Leader category is that they tend to challenge the status quo,” Prof Fouché said. The last category is the Visionaries – people who are dreamers and storytellers. This includes people like poet Ingrid Jonker, author Roald Dahl and entertainment visionary Walt Disney. Also included in this category are performers such as John Lennon and Brenda Fassie.

A leading voice in psychobiography

Prof Fouché is a C-rated National Research Foundation scholar and is a registered psychologist who lectures in the applied master’s progamme. He is widely published, with over 60 academic papers. His extensive research in psychobiography has led to the UFS being one of the leading universities in the area of psychobiography in the Global South.

As noted by Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation, inaugural lectures are the pinnacle of academic achievement for any lecturing professor. “It is the official induction to full professorship,” she said.

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