"I am by nature a perfectionist, and I seem to have trouble allowing anything to go through in a half-perfect condition. So if I made any mistake, it was in working too hard and in doing too much of it with my own hands."
— Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes is one of the strangest and most extraordinary personalities of the XX century.
Those, who know at least some facts from his biography could not help being impressed by his achievements and impressive turns of his precious (in many meanings of this word) life.
Many researchers spent a considerable amount of time trying to solve the mysteries that surrounded Howard Hughes’ destiny. Regarding personality studies, he was a real boon for the psychological researchers. Even Dr. Raymond Fowler, then President of the American Psychological Association and chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Alabama, made a psychological study of Howard Hughes after his death in 1976. The findings, though sometimes controversial are undoubted of great importance and interest for those, who believe in the interrelation of the personality and forces that influence its development. In psychology, personality means a collection of emotional, thought and behavioral patterns unique to a person.
It is widely known that Howard Hughes was a pioneering aviator, engineer, industrialist and film producer (“Hell’s Angels” and “The Outlaw”). He is famous for setting multiple world air-speed records, building the Hughes H-1 Racer and H-4 Hercules airplanes. He was also acknowledged to be a playboy and one of the wealthiest people in the world, and those who knew him witness Hughes often behaved eccentrically, which in fact had weighty reasons to take place.
According to the evidence of those, who knew Howard Hughes personally, in real life, his three-lifetime goals were to become the world’s best golfer, the world’s most famous director, and the world’s foremost aviator. Adler would call it striving for perfection. Such exaggerated claims actually were stated for a good reason. Despite various failures and misfortunes, Hughes actually had made a name in both the aviation and the cinematography and was actually a good golfer. At multiple points in his life, Howard Hughes owned an international airline, two regional airlines, an aircraft company, a major motion picture studio, mining properties, a tool company, a medical research institute, gambling casinos and hotels in Las Vegas, and an impressing amount of real estate. Hughes spent a then-unheard-of $3.8 million of his own money to make Hell’s Angels, which he wrote and directed and which became a smash hit, then he later fortified his success by “Scarface” and “Outlaw.”
But it is now Hughes’ success in any sphere that is of great interest for the psychological researchers.
It is his change through the life that gradually worsens his mental condition, turning him from an ambitious young man into a disturbed person who suffered obsessive-compulsive disorder and became a recluse by the end of his life.
It is generally believed that many people’s difficulties begin with childhood experiences (e.g., abuse, neglect, sickness, parent’s sicknesses or death, parental psychological problems, divorce, poverty, immigration, etc.).
Freud assumed that who we are as adults are determined by early childhood experiences. Freud also believed that there were five «Psychosexual» stages of development and that the events in the past could influence the present such as when a person develops an obsession during one of these five stages (e.g., Howard’s obsession with germs). Hughes’ fears had causes rooted deep in his childhood.
Two basic things shaped Howard Hughes’ lifetime neurosis. First, Hughes was an only child, loved by his parents and his mother had a rather peculiar eccentricity: she tried to protect her son from all possible germs and took great care of his safety. Later in life, Hughes developed an almost obsessive fear of germs and other parasites. His paranoia about germs became so extreme that toward the end of his life Howard Hughes did not leave his rooms. This fact has numerous witnesses from his surrounding. And from their evidence, one may conclude that in addition to all mentioned above, Hughes was an introvert, who did not make friends easily. According to Fowler’s research, when sent to boarding school, Howard became increasingly unhappy, so he asked his parents to buy him a horse, and as a result, he spent more time with the animal than with boys of the same age. Hughes’ later seclusion only aggravated the innate introversion and high neuroticism (two of the three traits used in Hans Eysenck’s model to describe human personality). Now that we have numerous evidence that Howard Hughes was an introvert and who later in his life suffered obsessive-compulsive disorder, we actually have a real-life support of Hans Eysenck’s findings. Eysenck studied carefully the interaction of the two dimensions mentioned above and found that people with phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder tended to be quite introverted, while those who suffer from conversion disorders (e.g., hysterical paralysis) or dissociative disorders (e.g., amnesia) were, in general, more extroverted.
According to Eysenck, highly neuroticism people over-respond to fearful stimuli and have certain patterns of reaction to such external irritants. Introverts learn to avoid the situations that cause panic very quickly and very thoroughly or they develop particular behaviors that hold off their fear – e.g., checking things many times over or, say, washing their hands over and over again.
If you have seen “The Aviator” movie, that was dedicated to Howard Hughes and depicted colorfully numerous psychological problems he had suffered from, you will instantly know why I mention this Eysenck’s finding here. The movie paid special attention to this very peculiarity: Hughes washed his hands intensely and sometimes even violently. And although historians do not fully agree with the opinion on the causes of this reaction, I believe the biographical scenes fully illustrate how personality and human behavior are influenced and even shaped by various external stimuli.
The second thing that influenced Howard Hughes’ personality problems was his rather early orphaning – he was not even 19 when he lost both parents within 2 years.
All the eccentricities with overcautious behavior (e.g., touching no object directly, only with the use of a handkerchief) were mostly caused by the two main reasons mentioned above. Hughes claimed he wanted to live longer than his parents so he needed such precautions as seclusion, retention from shaking hands with others, etc. In fact, he feared germs so much that it actually ruined his life and shaded his achievements.
Being an ambitious introvert, Hughes found it challenging to elude public life and make world records at the same time. His constant hunger for the highest ranks and free love for piloting and aviation, made his suffer seriously many times. During his testing flights, he crashed several times.
One of the accidents, a test flight of XF-11, was near-fatal and caused dramatic injuries to his body (some specialists believe the brain was also damaged – Hughes developed a strange habit of repeating himself).
In 1944, when Howard Hughes lived in Beverly Hills, he spent most of his time sitting naked in a white leather chair where he thought he could be free of germs. It was after he survived several crashes where others had died. Witnesses that worked for him at that time (mostly doctors and consultants) claimed he stayed in the room and he watched movies endlessly. His obsessive-compulsive disorder prospered dramatically. Here we can take a look at a theory that is quite different from what Freud suggested constructed a personality. Behaviorists explain personality regarding reactions to external stimuli, and one can not but agree that, to some extent, the environment we live in and the situations we have to dace shape our personality. The Stimulus-Response – Consequence analysis of behavior could be useful in analyzing Hughes’ reactions and changes after drastic accidents he had survived.
Of course, the retrospective analysis is always a complex undertaking, because the data often lacks consistency, reliability, and verifiability. Rumours and tales can hardly be a trustworthy source of information for research and analysis. Nevertheless, one should not ignore the fact that life events (both positive and negative) and other external stimuli influence the personality to some extent and pay a lot of attention to such causes.
I believe Howard Hughes was a prominent man who, despite numerous obstacles and unfavorable conditions, managed to succeed and reach the heights he wanted to achieve. His outstanding life, career, ambitions, and personality are worth studying, understanding and respect.
Engler, B. (2006) Personality Theories. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Kassin, S. (2003). Psychology. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Eysenck, H., & Eysenck, S. (2006, February 28). The Biological Basis of Personality. Transaction Publishers.
Personality psychology. (2006, October 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 16, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Personality_psychology&oldid=81502507
Greenstein, Albert (1999). Howard Hughes. Retrieved October 16, 2006, from Historical Society of Southern California Web Site: http://www.socalhistory.org/Socalhistory.org%20_mainfolder/Biographies/Hughes_Howard/Howard_hughes.htm
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