Purdue Profiles: Doug Samuel


Doug Samuel

Doug Samuel, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Combining his proclivity for education and his interest in people's behavior led Doug Samuel to his current position as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences.

An Indiana native, Samuel was thrilled to return to his home state after completing his doctoral and postdoctoral work at the University of Kentucky and Yale University. Now, in addition to teaching graduate courses, Samuel oversees the Adult Services Clinic, a branch of the Purdue Psychology Treatment and Research Clinics; is the principal investigator in the Samuel Assessment Methods for Personality and Psychopathology Lab; and is a mentor in the Department of Psychological Sciences’ research focused honors program.

What research do you conduct in the Samuel Assessment Methods for Personality and Psychopathology Lab?

My research is focused on how normal-range personality traits can be used to understand psychopathology and mental illness. There is a group of mental disorders called the personality disorders, which have traditionally been classified in terms of 10 separate categories. For example, one that people have often heard of is narcissistic personality disorder. We think about these things more dimensionally rather than as discrete categories. The guiding idea of our research is that everybody has personality traits, but when those personality traits become too extreme or too maladaptive, then you might have a mental disorder.

The primary model that we use is the Five-Factor Model, which is the predominant model of normal personality traits. It describes human personality in terms of five broad domains. One is neuroticism versus emotional stability, the next is extroversion versus introversion, the third is openness to experience, the fourth is agreeableness versus antagonism, and the last conscientiousness. 

We understand the personality disorders as being extreme manifestations of these same traits. We look at normal personality traits and how they map onto the personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. So for example, although it is generally beneficial to have higher levels of conscientiousness, so that you are more organized, hard-working, and precise, this can also become too extreme. Being too high on these traits can cause a person problems such as workaholism and perfectionism.

What ongoing research projects do you have?

I’m currently working on understanding how therapists can use the Five-Factor Model to help treat their clients. To do so, we have therapists and clients provide ratings of the client's personality, and what we end up finding is that therapists have a very different view of the client's personality disorder than the client does of his own. Our question becomes, do these dimensions of the Five-Factor Model help them agree any better? Once we answer that question, the next question is, to the extent that there's disagreement, who's right? In an ongoing study, we take a detailed assessment of the client from their perspective and the therapist's perspective and follow them over time to see how their functioning and personality might change. Our goal is to determine how we can best merge the strengths of each person’s perspective to come up with the best possible diagnosis.

What does the Adult Services Clinic provide for your students and the community?

At the Adult Services Clinic, we treat mostly later adolescence through adulthood, and we see a wide range of ages and diversity that reflect our community. We provide both a service to the community, in terms of providing relatively inexpensive services, and we also provide a service to our graduate students by letting them have hands-on training seeing clients. They typically see two to three clients at a given time, and we try to vary the age, gender, and types of problems they treat so they’re able to gain experience with diverse clients.

What’s the biggest misconception about personality disorders?

Particularly with personality disorders, there’s a perception and definition that they’re unchanging and so aren’t treatable. In a lot of ways, they’re seen as a life sentence. We know that personality disorders and traits are very stable over time, but what we’ve seen is that people really can improve.

There’s been some amazing advances with new treatments for some of these disorders. Being able to see the changes they can make in people's lives is very rewarding. It may not be changing who you are as a person, but it can change the way you interact with the world. Those changes can be huge. When you meet folks that have some of these problems, they would get rid of them in a heartbeat. My hope is that our research can begin to better understand and diagnose these problems and ultimately lead to more effective treatments for those individuals.

Writer: Kourtney Freiburger, 49-62993, kfreibu@purdue.edu 

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