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15 Great Psychology Quotes and What Makes Them Great

Discover words of psychological wisdom from Einstein to Milgram.

Key points

  • Quotations can offer insight into understanding ourselves and how to achieve our goals.
  • Psychological wisdom can come from a great variety of expected and unexpected sources.
  • Insightful psychology quotes include comments from Emily Dickinson, Noam Chomsky, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Quotations can provide us with insight into understanding ourselves, inspiration for how to achieve greater personal fulfillment, and pointers for achieving our goals. Famous psychologists tend to provide famous quotes, but psychologists don't have a corner on the market when it comes to providing wisdom and inspiration.

I hope you agree that these 15 quotes are an excellent, if not eclectic, collection of sources of wisdom, inspiration, and good old practical advice!

1. "We know what we are but not what we may be." — Ophelia in Hamlet

Shakespeare provides us with this inspirational quote. What may we be? We could be anything. We know our identity now but we could become whatever we want to be.

The interesting feature of this quote is that Ophelia provides these encouraging words in a lengthy speech preceding her decision to end her life over the despair she experienced as a result of what she perceives as Hamlet's unjust condemnation of her (the "get thee to a nunnery" speech). The line that begins this memorable quote is: "They say the owl was a baker's daughter..." The context in which the quote occurs provides a certain irony, but on its own, the idea that there are no limits to our potential are wonderful words to live by.

2. "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 things that do not work." — Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

This inventive genius provides us with perspective on the ways in which our efforts may not seem to provide results. Persistence in the face of disappointment is the key to success. Reframing failure in terms of efforts that "do not work" can help keep you going until you find a solution that does.

3. "The brain is wider than the sky." — Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Writing well before brain science discovered that our nervous systems have the potential to make trillions of synaptic connections, Dickinson talked about the power of human imagination. In our minds, we can travel anywhere in the universe or beyond. Each of our brains can explore anything and expand to our maximum potential through our thoughts alone.

4. "Great spirits have often overcome violent opposition from mediocre minds." — Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Following up on Dickinson's observations about the brain's potential, it seems appropriate to talk about Albert Einstein. His brain did prove to be wider than the sky, as he reinvented the way that we conceptualize space and time.

As an aside, Einstein's brain, which inadvertently landed on a shelf in Wichita, Kansas, was found to have several unusual features once it was scientifically studied. Einstein had a larger than average parietal lobe, which may have provided the neurological machinery to help him create his revolutionary ideas about space. In any case, Einstein's quote reminds us to keep true to our vision even if we encounter resistance.

5. "We are so made, that we can only derive intense enjoyment from a contrast and only very little from a state of things." — Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

It's about time we had a quote from a psychologist, I guess. This gem by Freud provides insight into the human desire for novelty. Sameness is boring, change keeps us alive, according to Freud. Although we tend to think of Freud as the champion of our biological motives, with this quote, we can count him now as an advocate for intrinsic motives as well.

6. "I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have." — Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

If you didn't know that Lincoln authored this quote, you might think that another Abraham — namely Abraham Maslow — was its author. According to Maslow's self-actualization theory, we strive to achieve our inner potential which may or may not result in success. The "light we have" is our unique ability to become the best we can be.

7. "Don't become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin." — Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Nobel-prize winning physiologist Pavlov was certainly someone who penetrated the mysteries of behavior and this quote captures the essence of the scientific method. Whether or not you're a scientist, looking beneath the surface is excellent advice. Understand the "mysteries" going on around you, can help you keep your brain and mind in top condition.

8. "The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind." — William James (1842-1910)

Before you saw the name of the quote's author, you may have guessed that it was uttered by Harvard professor Timothy Leary. However, the psychedelic movement of the 1960s was foreshadowed by the explorations of William James, the "nitrous oxide philosopher." What makes this a great quote is not its advocacy for mind-altering drugs, in my opinion, but that we can alter our lives by altering the way we interpret the events in our lives. For more on this topic, we turn next to Hamlet.

9. "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." — Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Hamlet has the distinction of being the Shakespearian role with the largest number of lines. His lines, like those of the play in general, are among the most quoted and quotable from a psychological point of view.

I find this to be a great quote because of its relevance to cognitive theories of coping. Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus, authors of Stress, Appraisal, and Coping, defined stress as the result of an appraisal that the threat of a challenge outweighs your perception of your ability to manage the threat. This definition is now the cornerstone of cognitive stress theories. You can translate this quote into your life as suggesting that if you change your thoughts about a potentially threatening situation, you can also lower your stress.

10. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." — Noam Chomsky (1928- )

Is this a sentence, you ask? In Chomsky's framework, yes it is. Chomsky pointed out that a sentence can be syntactically correct but semantically meaningless. To translate this quote into your daily life, remember that if you're not careful in your choice of language, you can also produce semantically meaningless sentences that have consequences other than what you intended such as the infamous "Stupid Sports Quotes."

11. "Education survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten." B.F. Skinner (1904-1990)

The authors of great quotes often have dual interests. Like Pavlov and James, B.F. Skinner dabbled in areas outside of his own discipline. Skinner developed a philosophy of education that he expressed in his book "Walden Two."

According to Skinner, you can build a society entirely on the basis of positive reinforcement. In this quote about education, Skinner expresses the sentiment that resonates with all teachers. We can teach you the specifics of our subject matter, but we hope, on a larger scale, to inspire you to seek continued enlightenment: a love of learning for the sake of learning.

12. "There is in every child at every stage a new miracle of vigorous unfolding." — Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Erikson's observations about human development paved the way for psychologists to think about life-span development at a time when the considered wisdom emphasized childhood as the only real time for growth and change.

Taking the standard psychodynamic perspective and translating it into a biopsychosocial framework spurred research and theory on such topics as identity and generativity. The "miracle" of "vigorous unfolding" provides a metaphor that we now understand as the potential for continued evolution of personality over time. We aren't complete by the time we are 5 or 12 years old. We can continue to evolve throughout life as we encounter new experiences and stimuli for greater understanding of ourselves and others.

13. "Much learning does not teach understanding." — Heraclitus (544-483 B.C.)

If you're familiar with Sternberg's theory of "practical intelligence," Goleman's "emotional intelligence," or Gardner's "multiple intelligences" concepts, you can resonate with this idea that standard tests of IQ don't necessarily capture our ability to succeed in life through the exercise of other ways of knowing. We have many ways of understanding and knowing about the world, and Heraclitus's idea that the ability to do well in school is not the sole measure of intelligence is now commonly regarded as an important adjunct to standard ways of thinking about our intellectual faculties.

14. "The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority." — Stanley Milgram (1933-1984)

If anyone could talk about the importance of maintaining an internal compass of social responsibility, it was Stanley Milgram. By showing that ordinary people could commit acts of cruelty toward others, Milgram helped to pave the way for social psychologists to demonstrate the need for individuals to resist pressure to conformity by adhering to their own principles of standing up for the principles we feel to be right.

15. "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." — Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Overcoming artificial boundaries that create divisions between arbitrarily defined in-groups and out-groups can only occur if we gain an appreciation for the common humanity shared by people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We will "perish together as fools" if we cannot avoid the traps of self-destructiveness caused by the divisiveness that we create on the basis of race, gender, religion, age, and other socially defined categories.

These 15 quotes encompass a wide range of human behavior from intelligence to personal growth through life. I hope they've provided you with a sense that psychological wisdom can come from a great variety of expected, and unexpected, sources.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011

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