3 Psychology Lessons from Tolstoy

Wisdom and science both have profound strengths and weaknesses.

Posted Mar 04, 2019

I posted here about the wisdom to be found in literature. This goes double in light of the poor replicability of psychological experiments and the unlikelihood that the results of any particular study are true, which I blogged about here. Here are three profound examples from Tolstoy.

The fundamental attribution error, or as it was originally called by Jones & Nisbett, the actor-observer effect, refers to our tendency to attribute our own behavior to situations and the behavior of others to character. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote, “Everyone who knows to the minutest details the complexity of the conditions surrounding her cannot help imagining that the complexity of these conditions, and the difficulty of making them clear, is something exceptional and personal, peculiar to herself, and never supposes that others are surrounded by just as complicated an array of personal affairs as she is.”

Is there anything to be gained about the idea from reading Tolstoy rather than the dry definition I already gave? I think so. For one thing, the beauty of the language speaks to the heart and not just the head of the reader. For another, the evidence that supports the idea is going to last. Many of the studies conducted and cited by Jones & Nisbett have not been replicated, and many of them have minor outcomes bolstered by a large number of subjects to achieve statistical—but often not actual—significance. When you read Tolstoy’s idea in the context of recognizable humans behaving in the story with their inner lives exposed on the page, the lesson sinks in. I’m not saying there is no purpose at all in studying suicide, for example. I’m saying that I would rather have a student read Anna Karenina to understand suicidality than any particular study on the subject. Anna’s character is laid bare, but you understand her suicide situationally as Tolstoy walks you through it.

Much contemporary clinical and abnormal psychology is hampered by the seemingly unquenchable impulse to categorize. There are specializations in psychology for every year of childhood, every symptom, every diagnosis, and every form of misconduct. It is no longer fashionable to specialize in humans. Once you have been categorized, you are likely to see a specialist whose view of the problem is so embedded in the specialty that the treatment is likely to confirm rather than to challenge the assumptions that led to the problem. Perhaps the best example is the tendency of depressed people who see themselves as spiritless bags of chemicals to see specialists who treat them as spiritless bags of chemicals. Here’s what Tolstoy said about categorizing people in Resurrection. He also herein defines what is meant by psychological-mindedness, the ability to see oneself as a multiplicity of characters and not as a unified whole.

“One of the most popular superstitions consists in the belief that every man is endowed with definite qualities—that some men are kind, some wicked; some wise, some foolish; some energetic, some apathetic, and so forth. But people are not that way. We may say of a man that he is more likely to be kind than wicked; more likely wise than foolish; more likely energetic than apathetic, or the other way around. But it would not be right to say of one man that he is always kind or always wise, and of another that he is always wicked or foolish. And yet we continue so to categorize our fellow man. This is false. Human beings are like rivers—the water in all of them, and at every point, is the same, and each of them is narrow at one point and swift at others, wide at some points, calm at others, clear at some points, cold at others, muddy at some points, warm at others. And so it is with humankind. Each of us bears within him the potential for all human qualities, sometimes manifesting one quality, sometimes another, and often enough he does not seem himself at all, manifesting no change.”

(If you’re looking for brevity, I’m all for learning the intricacies of psychoanalytic theory, but a good place is to start is with Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I contradict myself … I contain multitudes.”)

Lastly, since I teach forensic as well as clinical psychology, here’s all you really need to know (again from Resurrection) about the criminal justice system to understand the harm it does in the name of protecting society from the very few utterly irredeemable offenders. Tolstoy didn’t need to run a Stanford Prison Experiment to understand this; instead, he kept his eyes open, his mind active, and his heart involved.

“Suppose a problem in psychology was set: What can be done to persuade the men of our time — Christians, humanitarians or, simply, kindhearted people — into committing the most abominable crimes with no feeling of guilt? There could be only one way: to do precisely what is being done now, namely, to make them governors, inspectors, officers, policemen, and so forth; which means, first, that they must be convinced of the existence of a kind of organization called ‘government service,’ allowing men to be treated like inanimate objects and banning thereby all human brotherly relations with them; and secondly, that the people entering this ‘government service’ must be so unified that the responsibility for their dealings with men would never fall on any one of them individually.”

I hope we can stop bifurcating information between folk wisdom and experimental outcomes. Both have profound weaknesses. History and philosophy offer us pattern recognition and broad strokes informed by critiques over time, and literature offers us a glimpse into the inner workings of people not otherwise available to us except in our most intimate relations. They can fail sometimes to check themselves for accuracy. Experiments offer us initial bits of evidence that are supposedly corrected over time for the influence of bias but, in the social sciences, often are not. In clinical work, the analogy might be to consider experiments that have been done on the type of problem one is facing and the type of treatment one is considering, but also recognizing that non-biological problems and treatments don’t really come in types.