The Irishness of Psychology (and Psychology of Irishness)

It's St. Patrick's Day. Let's psychologize it.

Posted Mar 17, 2016

Quentin Rey/Stocksnap
Source: Quentin Rey/Stocksnap

Top of the morning to you!* 

It's St. Patrick's Day and the world (apparently) is keen to celebrate what it means to be Irish. Of course, in many ways, psychology is an Irish science. All four of William James’s grandparents were Irish-born. William Sealy Gossett invented the t-test while working for the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. Philosopher William Molyneux introduced famously profound questions about consciousness and experience that influence cognitive science to this day, such as what would happen if a congenitally blind person was suddenly able to see. William King helped to reposition humanity within evolution when he identified (and named) Neanderthal Man as a distinct species, thereby highlighting the evolved nature of human behavior. Lots of people called William, basically. Oh, and Freud was said to have reconsidered the merits of psychoanalysis itself when he realized that it didn’t work on the ever-rebellious Irish (although this story is probably apocryphal). 

This last point raises the question of the psychology of Irishness. Might being Irish make one psychologically distinct? As you may know, Ireland is an island (albeit one comprising two jurisdictions, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). There are many reasons to believe that island-dwelling shapes character in unique ways. 

Researchers in France’s Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive have recently found that island-dwelling birds develop less colorful plumage than birds living on primary land masses. Elephants on Borneo have evolved to be pygmy versions of elephants seen elsewhere, while some island-based rat populations have evolved into super-sized giant rats.

These effects result from the unique selective pressures that apply to evolution in island habitats. Species often have less competition for resources or they may be separated from rival animals that would have predated them on the mainland. (Island birds might need less flamboyance in order to attract a mate, while rodents can become big and cumbersome without having to run away from predators). Generally smaller populations can also lead to less genetic diversity.

Culturally and economically, islands have historically had to develop ways of doing things that allowed for greater travel times, social isolation, limits on importation, and restrictions on migration. Of course, many islands have provided their inhabitants with unique ecologies and resources, as well as protection from, say, contagion during disease epidemics.

Whether or not we Irish have developed peculiarities of living that can be attributed to our island origins is hard to say. In reality, our alleged-gifts-of-the-gab, musical heritage, hair color, cuisine, many idiosyncrasies and occasional bouts of flamboyance probably owe much more to extensive cultural mixing and centuries of influence by outsiders than to any inherent geo-bound factors.

The Irish psyche may be a reality, or just another example of national exceptionalism. Either way, plenty for psychology – that most Irish of sciences – to think about.


(*Nobody in Ireland ever actually says this.)

(**But we do say this.)