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Dissociative identity disorder

In psychiatry, dissociative identity disorder (DID) is the current name of the condition formerly listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as multiple personality disorder (MPD) and multiple personality syndrome. The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems continues to list it as Multiple Personality Disorder. Multiple Personality Disorder should not be confused with schizophrenia. more...

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Those who recognize dissociative identity disorder as a psychological condition believe that it is characterized by the use of dissociation as a primary defense mechanism. A chronic reliance on dissociation as a means of defending against stressors in the environment causes the individual to experience their psyche/identity as disconnected (from their senses, for example) or split into distinct parts.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists dissent from the manuals and regard the disorder as possibly iatrogenic or factitious. Some will accept it as a disorder, but prefer not to use terms like "defense mechanism", which they regard as an unscientific borrowing from Freudianism. See the article Defense mechanism for further discussion.

It is not clear what percentages of the psychological community accept, accept with reservations, or disagree with the previously noted positions.


This diagnosis is controversial. The main points of disagreement are:

  1. Whether MPD/DID is a real disorder, or just a fad.
  2. If it is real, is the appearance of multiple personalities real or delusional?
  3. If it is real, should it be defined in psychoanalytic terms?
  4. Whether it can be cured.
  5. Whether it should be cured.
  6. Who should primarily define the experience -- therapists, or those who believe that they are "multiple" (have multiple personalities)?
  7. Whether it is invariably a disorder or simply a way of being.

In rough terms, believers in DID or MPD argue that children who are stressed or abused (especially sexually abused), split into several independent personalities or ego states as a defense mechanism. How people with DID/MPD perceive their actions varies, but often only one personality (or "alter") can control the body at any given time. Sometimes alters are co-conscious and share all memories. Sometimes each alter reports remembering only the times when he/she/it controlled the body, and claims amnesia for all other periods. People diagnosed with DID may exhibit erratic alterations of personality and may claim to "lose time".

Skeptics claim that people who act as if they have MPD/DID have learned to exhibit the symptoms in return for social reinforcement, either from therapists, from others with DID, from society at large or from any combination thereof.

A third view is that it is normal to experience oneself as multiple and that "multiplicity" is not necessarily a disorder, so that it is possible to be multiple without having MPD or DID. Proponents of this view may generally hold the perhaps controversial belief that mental illness itself generally tends to be a culture-specific syndrome, and that many cultures throughout history have had different models for integrating alternative mentalities into their social fabric, for example, as shamans. Proponents of the "healthy multiple" position are common in online communities.


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Dissociative-type identity distrubances in undercover agents: Socio-cognitive factors behind false-identity appearances and reenactments
From Social Behavior and Personality, 1/1/02 by Girodo, Michel

The uncontrolled dissociative-type reappearance of a fabricated false identity in undercover agents was investigated in 48 federal police officers undergoing 3 weeks of undercover field exercises in two separate classes. Half of the officers received passive and covert identity dissimulation training as coverpersons and half received training in active identity dissimulation methods as operators. One class received hypnotic induction procedures to visualize an alter self and the second class was exposed to false-identity constructions under imagination conditions. Participants reported on the appearance of their false identity outside operational contexts and on the reenactment of a false identity in other police officers. Self-reported identity reappearances were more likely to be found among persons scoring higher on the Dissociative Experiences Scale and by persons who altered their physical appearance. Despite expectations to the contrary operators were not more likely than coverpersons to report uncontrolled reappearances of their false identity. Observer-reported false identity reenactments were correlated with self-reports of identity reappearances outside operational contexts. Coverpersons who were more frequently observed to reenact their undercover persona also reported the strongest tendency to reexperience their false-identity. The visualization of an undercover self through imagination exercises and the tendency to use these methods for dissimulations in the field was associated with greater false identity manifestations as reported by observers. Cognitive factors and possibly strain from status inconsistencies appear to underlie these identity disturbances.

Undercover work involves an investigative method where a government agent secretly looks for criminal activity or threats to national security by insinuating himself/herself into the lives of people intent on wrongdoing. The agent has to pretend to be someone else by falsifying his/her true identity and acting out a part designed to create trust and acceptance by the targeted persons. These dissimulations can be accompanied by noteworthy occupational maladjustment, psychiatric disturbances, and unusual personality changes.

In a study of occupational maladjustment in 271 federal undercover agents Girodo (1991 a), found links between agent wrongdoing and certain predisposing personality traits. A poorly disciplined Self-Image (Cattell, Eber, & Tatsuoaka, 1989) and high Disinhibition scores (Zuckerman, 1979) were related to misconduct and corruption. Elsewhere, Girodo (199 lb) used the Health Opinion Survey (HOS) (McMillan, 1957) to identify who might be in need of psychiatric assistance, and the SCL-90 (Derogatis, Lipman, & Covi, 1973) to pinpoint the type and severity of psychiatric symptoms these experienced. The combined traits of introversion and neuroticism (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975) explained the source of psychological distress and ill-health. With undercover agents of another federal organization, Girodo (1991c) found 8% of preoperational, 26% of active operational, and 17% of postoperational agents to be "at risk" of psychological disturbance. The severity and the shape of the symptomatic profiles formed by the "at risk" agents were almost identical to those of psychiatric out-patients.

Personality disturbances have also been described. Clifton James, who was enlisted by the British Secret Service in World War II to impersonate General Montgomery, wrote of the mental strain in rendering a false identity to the real world and of the uncontrolled re-appearance of the Monty personality after he sought to abandon the impersonation (James, 1954). Eisenberg, Dan, and Landau (1978) described "role confusion" and alterations in identity among secret agents of the Israeli Mossad. For example, the agent Eli Cohen, who assumed the role of an Arab merchant in infiltrating a group in Syria, seemingly became unsure of his true name and origins after a few years in the role.

Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents also recalled experiencing typical symptoms of work stress such as anxiety, loneliness, depression, and family disruptions. Many also reported that "identity strain arising from prolonged role playing" was particularly troublesome (U.S. Department of Justice, 1978). Farkas (1986), in a similar survey of undercover officers in Hawaii, found the same conventional symptoms including an incidence of 21 % of officers who also spoke of depersonalization such as often experiencing their self as "unreal" during their undercover assignments.

Identity disturbances emerging from undercover work have appeared in forensic contexts. In one (Labrecque, 1982), an FBI agent, undercover for two and a half years was arrested for shoplifting. At an interview with authorities he admitted to adopting his undercover persona in places that had nothing to do with his work and claimed to be unable to explain how these persona reappearances occurred. In a second case, a long-term undercover agent in the Criminal Investigations Division of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was caught illegully providing confidential information to a third party. The Internal Affairs Department officers who visited the agent were surprised at the sudden switch in his personality when their questions turned to the unlawful disclosures. As the agent protested against any complicity in the matter, the officers saw him straighten up, shift to a distinct foreign accent, and adopt a brassy and haughty demeanor - the same temperament he had cultivated as his undercover persona in Germany years earlier. In a third case, an FBI agent who had spent 15 years in various deep undercover roles was arrested for attempted murder (Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Bennett, 1997). Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) was entered in a diminished capacity defense. At the trial, the jury listened to six hours of recorded conversation between a crazed "Ed" - the agent's alter personality, who, it was claimed, had taken over his behavior - and the local police as they negotiated a resolution of a hostage situation Bennett had created.


Clinically, DID is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of a person's behavior (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). The medical model sees the appearance of alter personalities as a psychic defense against memories of childhood trauma and abuse. Spanos' (1996) socio-cognitive approach to DID, however, emphasizes factors that make the etiology and diagnosis of the disorder part of a socially constructed phenomenon. Arguing that DID is not a genuine psychiatric disorder but a set of beliefs about mental disorders, Spanos, Weekes and Bertrand (1985) demonstrated that implicit suggestions of what to experience during hypnosis could lead subjects to report a hidden personality.

Role-playing has been used extensively as an independent variable manipulation in numerous attitude change studies (e. g., Janis & King, 1954; Sarbin, 1954; Sarup, 1981). Indeed, encouraging specific role enactments is considered to be an effective method for inducing psychotherapeutic change by some clinicians. Moreno's (1946) therapeutic use of role-play (termed psychodrama) emphasizes spontaneity and creativity in role-play. Similarly, Kelly's (1955) Fixed Role Therapy uses role-play as a way of restructuring perceptions and creating new constructs about oneself and others. Yardley-Matwiejczuk (1997) uses the term engagement to represent the extent to which a person incorporates external objects, events, and real others into the role-play act. Armed with new self-descriptions the client is enjoined to act according to new roles in the everyday world.

In this study we explore the role of certain social and cognitive factors in producing alterations in self and identity among undercover agents. Undercover training groups (Girodo, 1997) allow for a naturally occurring distinction between the behaviorally proactive, improvising and organismically involved false-identity enactments of operators, and the more passive, quiescent, and less deviant presentations of civilian personas by coverpersons who shadow them. It was expected that operators, because of their greater organismic involvement in enacting a more distinctive false identity, would be more inclined to report outof-context reappearances of their false identity, compared with coverpersons.

A second variable of interest concerned the influence of hypnosis and implicit suggestions of depersonalization for the creation and enactment of a false identity. Would the use of hypnosis as part of dissimulation training, in contrast to imaginal rehearsals making no allusions to depersonalization, lead to a behaviorally and phenomenologically different false identity and a greater likelihood of experiencing out-of-context pseudoidentity reenactments?

A third variable of interest concerned individual differences in the tendency to dissociate. It was reasoned that to the extent that false identity reenactments reflect dissociative processes, such reappearances should be greater among persons predisposed to different degrees of normal dissociative-type episodes. It would also be expected that subjective and behavioral pseudoidentity reenactments enhanced by hypnosis would be stronger among undercover agents.

We sought to gather data on subjective identity reappearances where an actor "beholds" the false identity appear in himself or herself, and a more objective false identity reenactment as viewed by an observer who reports seeing a display of an alter identity.



Subjects were 48 police officers from a federal law enforcement agency with no prior undercover experience. Two classes of 24 police officers were enrolled in a 3-week operational undercover field-training course. The two classes were held 4 months apart. Each class consisted of 12 operators and 12 coverpersons.

Operators were 17 men and 7 women who ranged in age from 26 to 41 years (M = 31.6) and who had served in the police force for 4 to 15 years (M = 8.5). An Undercover Assessment Center Approach served as the basis for the selection and screening of operators. Psychometric tests, a semistructured interview and role-playing exercises assessed the suitability of candidates on the criteria of (a) emotional stability and stress-coping ability, (b) low risk for corruption and misconduct, and (c) ability to dissimulate and enact a false identity. (See Girodo [1997] for a complete description).

Coverpersons were 20 men and 4 women with an age range of 28 to 38 years (M = 36.2) and 7 to 11 years (M = 9.0) of police service. Selection was based on (a) prior experience in investigation and supervision, (b) strong interest in undercover investigations, and (c) scores on the E scale of the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16 PF) (Catell, Eber, & Tatsuoka, 1970) which eliminated persons with very high dominance traits, and, as with operator selection criteria, screened out persons with high neuroticism (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975) traits.

Participants agreed to provide information about themselves and others after being told of the purpose of the study, the role they were to play in providing questionnaire information over the following three weeks, and the confidential nature of their participation.


Eight weeks before commencement of the course, subjects were advised to modify their appearance to conceal characteristics of their true identities. They were asked to prepare several sets of clothing to accommodate various settings.

Pretraining measures aimed at assessing the extent of preparation undertaken in regard to the adopting of a false identity prior to arriving on the course were obtained the first day. Participants also completed a 28-item Dissociative Experience Scale. This was followed by a 4-hour dissimulation skills session. In the evening one class received 1.5 hours of identity dissimulation after having undergone a hypnotic induction. The second class received the same training presented as an imagination and guided-imagery exercise. Rather than introduce the hypnosis vs. imagination manipulation within a class, the first class of 12 operators and 12 coverpersons received the hypnosis manipulation while the second class, held four months later, involving 12 operators and 12 coverpersons, received the imagination manipulation.

Field training began on the third evening and continued for 15 nights between 2100 and 0200 hours. This training had participants progress through misrepresentation exercises of increasing difficulty involving persons suspected of criminal activity. The exercises simulated real undercover work, including the stress (fatigue and physical threats) and the supervision from coverpersons typical of undercover assignments. At the end of the field training, and on the 17th training day, participants completed a posttraining self- and other evaluation questionnaire regarding their undercover experiences.

Hypnosis vs. Imagination Training

Hypnosis participants were subjected to a 20-minute hypnotic-induction procedure incorporating relaxation, trance and sleep suggestions. They were instructed to "transform" themselves into another person when prompted by a self-triggered personal signal. Participants were told to willfully appropriate a new persona and to experience a new undercover self by "becoming" that person on cue. They were asked to "call up" the persona to use during field exercises.

The imagination class received a 1.5 hour cognitive-dissimulation training session using guided imagery rather than hypnotic induction. They were guided in the same manner during the dissimulation training session except that no mention was made of hypnosis or trance. They were told to use their imagination in creating a new persona for dissimulation. During the session they practised imagery and visualization techniques aimed at "painting" a new identity for themselves. Neither group was assigned a new identity.

Operator vs. Coverperson Training

Tasks common to operators and coverpesons were that both were required to assume and maintain a false identity in the field. They were exposed to identical settings, and were assigned tasks of similar stress levels - operators had to interact with criminals, coverpersons had to ensure operator safety during these meetings. Both were provided with verbal and nonverbal techniques for developing, presenting and defending a cover story if required.

Operator and coverperson training and tasks differed in three ways: 1. operators dissimulated to gather evidence by instigating suspected criminals to divulge information, while coverpersons dissimulated to portray a civilian identity to blend with the environment, and to defend this enactment if challenged; 2. operators actively sought or generated opportunities to interact with targets, while coverpersons were instructed to interact with targets only if approached or when an unplanned event required interaction; 3. operators actively enacted their persona to convince targets of their legitimacy as marginal criminals, while coverpersons passively displayed a false identity only to conceal their police identity and appear in a civic role.


All measures, other than requests for nominal data, involved responding to questions using a formatted 100-point scale. These were anchored with appropriate bipolar descriptors (e.g., not at all - very much so, a little bit - quite a bit, or strongly disagree - strongly agree.)

Pretraining preparations, expectations, and dissociative experiences

Bipolar questions were asked about the extent of physical-appearance changes made prior to arriving on the course, the amount of thought given to how they would conceal their true identity, and their level of nervousness about the field exercises. Pretraining mental rehearsals were probed by completing the following: "While travelling to this course I imagined I would run into a civilian (on the plane, train, or elsewhere) who would then ask me about who I was and what I did for a living, and I mentally rehearsed coming across with:" (i) a cover story, (ii) another persona, and (iii) a persuasive conversation (Not at all - Very much so, for each category.)

The Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) (Bernstein & Putnam, 1986) was completed on the first day. This 28-item scale measures dissociative-type experiences in normal and clinical populations by assessing the frequency of disturbances in identity, memory, awareness, cognition and emotion. The DES has good test-retest reliability, internal consistency, discriminant validity, construct validity and criterion-reference validity (Carlson & Putnam, 1993). Responses were on a 100-point scale indicating the percentage of time the specified phenomenon had been personally experienced.


False identity re-appearances Two measures of false identity reappearances out of operational contexts were developed. Pilot work on various question formats inquiring into dissociative phenomena revealed a marked reluctance by trainees to admit to psychopathology arising from undercover work. Thus, experienced undercover operators helped format the following self- reported identity reappearance situation: "I have been elsewhere (in the hotel or in the city) and not in an undercover capacity, and my undercover persona has just come out without my calling upon it." Answers were provided on a 100 point scale anchored It has never happened at one end to It has happened on the other.

Field exercises paired operators and coverpersons in dyads or small groups. Each coverperson was asked to provide reports of any observed false identity reappearances in operators, and operators were asked to do the same for coverpersons. It was reasoned that the degree to which the false identity had a tendency to reappear outside undercover settings would be related to the number of observers who had occasion to witness such an occurrence. The request for information about their colleagues was as follows:

"Think about two types of operators (coverpersons) we see on the course sometimes. Each shows a distinct attitude and habit when it comes to his/her undercover persona. The first type has a tendency to see him/herself in and out of the undercover role and to present his/her undercover persona outside of an operational context. The second type tends to see his/her persona more in black and white terms and turn it on suddenly only in an operational context. Both styles are OK, they just represent different approaches to cultivating a persona.

Among the coverpersons (operators) you observed on this course, can you list (up to three people) who would fall into the first category, and then list (up to three people) in the second category? Please write in the spaces below."

The number of (times) observers indicated a name in the first category served as the measure of observer-reported false identity reappearances for that person. False identity presentation: content and method Two questions were asked about the extent to which the false identity was fabricated in training "Differed from their police self in the office" (A little bit - Quite a bit.), and "If my spouse (or someone who knows me well) could see me in my undercover persona, they would: `See an old me they've seen before' - `Brand new me'."

Participants reported on "When in an undercover capacity, how different from your usual characteristics are your: (i) walking habits, (ii) vocal aspects of your speech (accent, rhythm, style), (iii) facial expressions, (iv) clothes you wear, (v) overall mannerisms, and (vi) emotional expressions." (Not much - Quite a bit).

Finally, the method used to dissimulate an identity was probed by asking, " In psyching yourself or expressing your undercover persona during the evening exercises, to what extent did your mental state resemble the self-hypnosis (imagination) you experienced 2 weeks ago?" (Not at all - Quite a bit.)


Operators - in contrast with coverpersons - reported fabricating an undercover identity they saw as newer (M = 61.34 vs. 41.33; t (46) = 2.57, p


Eighteen participants (38%) indicated it never happened to them that their false identity reappeared in a nonoperational context without their having called upon it. Twenty participants (40%) would not deny its occurrence and selected from 10 to 50 on the 100-point scale, while ten participants (21%) reported that a false identity reappearance did happen to them to some degree or another (selecting between 51 and 100 on the scale.)

A 2x 2 analysis of variance (ANOVA) on self-reported false identity reappearances showed that neither the job (operator vs. coverperson) nor the cognitive training (hypnosis vs. imagination) produced significant differences on this measure, (job, F (1,44) = 1.20, ns; training, F (1,44) = .45, ns).

DES scores were positively related to false identity reappearances r(46 = .56, p

When participants were recast into two groups on the basis of a median split of their self-reported identity re-appearance high-reappearance participants said they had made significantly more changes to their physical appearance (hair length and color, facial hair, scars, body jewelry) prior to arriving on the course (M = 56.1) than did low-reappearance participants (M = 35.2), t(46) = 2.10, p

A stepwise multiple regression predicting self-reported reappearance scores with the DES, job, training, changes in physical appearance, similarity between training and actual dissimulation experience data as independent variables showed that DES scores, F(1,44) = 11.29, p


Thirty-one of the 48 participants (66%) were identified as having been seen enacting their false identity outside an operational context. Ten participants were identified by one colleague, 11 by two colleagues, 5 by three colleagues, and 5 others by four or more coworkers. A 2 (Job) x 2 (Training) ANOVA on these observer scores showed that imagination trained participants (M = 2.08) were identified significantly more often than were those receiving hypnosis training (M = .87), F(1,44) = 8.39, p

Are persons who reported a greater tendency to have their identities reappear also identified more frequently as having reenacted their false identity out of contexts? For coverpersons, self-reported and observer-reported re-appearances were significantly correlated, r(23) = .51, p

Since the 17 participants who were not observed reenacting their false identity may represent a different population, observer reported reappearances were recast into two groups. One group was composed of 10 participants who had been named only once and a second group was made up of 21 participants who had been named two or more times. A 2 (Job) X 2 (Reenactors) ANOVA yielded a main effect for Reenactors, F(1,27) = 5.30, p

High observed reenactors differed from low observed reenactors in four ways: 1. the degree to which their physical appearance was altered (M = 52.00 vs. 26.10; t (46) = 2.25, p

Finally, coworkers were more likely to identify an identity reenactment in a person if that person had received imagination training, M = 2.13 compared with hypnosis training, M = .85; t(46) = 2.80, p


The manifest tools of a fabricated identity, such as: 1. the distinctiveness in walking, speech patterns, facial expressions, clothing worn or emotional expressions, and 2. the goal directedness and engagement behind the overt thespian efforts of operators - these elements were not implicated in an undercover officer's subsequent out-of-context false identity reappearance or its observed reenactment. Making changes to one's physical appearance seemed to bring about greater self-reported identity reappearances. This might be understood as arising from the fact that the physical changes accompanied the person both in and out of undercover settings and that this facilitated an identity response generalization.

Hypnosis and explicit suggestions to use dissociative methods did not influence self-reported identity reappearances over and above imagination training. Although postmanipulation inquiries pointed to the credibility of both techniques it was imagination training that led to the greater use of the technique in the field, and to more out-of-context observed reenactments of the participants' false identity.

Three cognitive factors were linked to self-reported identity reappearances: 1. the extent of the officer's prior dissociative experiences; 2.the use of guided-fantasy techniques to prepare for false-identity dissimulations in the field, and 3. A fantasized event prior to the course. What did undercover officers, while travelling to the city where the training was to take place, actually fantasize about with an imaginary person? It was not a rehearsal of a cover story or of a persuasive communication that distinguished the high from the low observed reenactors, it was the rehearsal of a persona or identity. This fantasized act - one that preceded the training course - foretold the false-identity reenactments colleagues were to report observing three weeks later. These factors clearly involve imaginary events. That these self-reports were also linked to observer reports of false-identity reenactments indicates that dissociative-type experiences can be both private and public phenomena.

Coverpersons (not operators) who were frequently seen to have reenacted their false identity out of context also themselves reported particularly strong tendencies to reexperience their undercover identity. If we accept that it is from these police officers that we obtain the strongest evidence for dissociative-like experiences arising, then what might it be about their work that enables these unsolicited identity appearances? A coverperson's fabricated false identity is less personally distinct than that of an operator. It is, nevertheless, a covert self that is developed and reified as a separate identity. Unlike an operator's false identity, which tends to be more freely expressed, a coverperson's false identity requires containment rather than obvious expression. Conceivably, an internal contest between an eagerness to fully enact the false identity and pressure for restraint and to remain unobtrusive is accompanied by a certain tension, and the subsequent reappearance and display of the false identity in a nonundercover context may be a safe way of expressing this tension.

Cognitive strain arising from competing statuses is not new to social psychology and has been advanced to explain behavioral problems in operators upon return to their regular police duties (Girodo, 1984). Role strain is observed when a person has achieved a high status - such as by safeguarding the wellbeing of the operator - but is ascribed a low status by virtue of the "secondary" position they assume in an undercover operation. Inconsistency in these statuses creates role strain, and this is reduced by having a fitting audience of peers visibly witness what was achieved so that in consequence a higher status might be ascribed the coverperson role.

This kind of identity reenactment, compelled by status inconsistency, may be described by actors in similar terms. James (1954), for example, in finding himself inappropriately aping Montgomery after his assignment was over, describes the uncontrolled appearance of the Monty personality and how others close to him witnessed the dissociative-type emanations even after he was to stop.

There was no doubt that I had changed in some curious way and cultivated a genuine feeling of superiority. Since shedding my General's uniform I had tried to get rid of this, but more than once while staying with Terrence I had seen a peculiar look on his face and I had realized that I slipped back into the Monty role .... you can't become a great personality as I have done and then suddenly reverse the process at a moment's notice (p. 159).

In conclusion, predispositions to dissociative experiences, private mental rehearsals of having a false persona, leading to a fabricated identity that experiences some constraint from being expressed openly - these appear to make it more likely that an alter identity will surface in an undercover agent.


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Yardley-Matwiejczuk, K. M. (1997). Identity play: Theory and practice. Sage: London. Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, N.J. Erlbaum.


University of Ottawa, Canada

Michel Girodo, Trevor Deck, and Melanie Morrison, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Appreciation is due to anonymous reviewers.

Please address correspondence and reprint requests to Michel Girodo, School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, KIN 6N5. Phone: (613)-562-5800/ext. 4290; Fax: (613)-562-5150; Email:

Copyright Society for Personality Research, Incorporated 2002
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