The Second Greatest Psychologist of All Time

Many fiction writers should be included on the list of great psychologists.

Posted Aug 26, 2014

One of the main reasons I switched my major in college from English literature to psychology was that I was worried about making a living. My concerns were probably more anthropological than psychological, as second-generation Americans tend to go into the professions. Our parents wanted to make a lot of money; our children tend to be more organized around self-expression. For whatever reason, though, I did not see a lot of alternatives for literature majors outside of academia, and academia required a lot of hard work that I was not suited for. I knew that with a degree in psychology, I could always work for a living if academia didn’t appeal to me or if I didn’t appeal to academia.

My interest in literature found no home in psychology as an undergraduate, and I did poorly in college. What I mean by a literary bent is a tendency to think in analogies, to treat stories as metaphors or fables and not as journalism, and to apply templates for understanding behavior derived from fiction rather than from experiments. In graduate school, in a clinical training program that emphasized treatment and assessment over research, I found professors and patients who responded well to my literary bent. I think that clinical psychology is more a branch of literature than medicine, and it’s still the anxiety about making a living that drives us to call ourselves a healthcare profession. I would rather have a physician who reads medical journals, but I would rather have a therapist who reads literature (and history and philosophy).

So, I was going to title this post, "The Greatest Psychologist of All Time," but I realized as I wrote it that I still think that title goes to B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s approach is the most humble, on a par with Chuang-Tzu or Buddha; the most scientific, on a par with Darwin; and the most interactive, on a par with Heisenberg and Bateson. His approach may perhaps be summarized by saying, directly analogous to Darwin’s insistence that a good theory must explain the descent of humans and not just the descent of birds, that an adequate psychological account must explain not only the lab rat but also the behavior of the psychologist who is running the experiment. This thoroughness is what the “radical” in Skinner’s radical behaviorism refers to.

Skinner, who was himself a literature major in college, said that literature is a window into the private functioning of individuals. We can get plenty of information about how people act in public by observing them; only the novelist can tell us what people do in private. Of course, psychoanalysts, lovers, and family members can also tell us something about how people act in semi-private. Individuals might do so, but with a few notable exceptions (like St. Augustine), they tend to perform rather than to report.

So on my list of great psychologists, I would put George Eliot, Shakespeare, and Leo Tolstoy near the top. I would literally prefer that my students read Middlemarch, the great tragedies, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina than any psychology book, even my own (except Skinner’s Science and Human Behavior). The Magic Years by Selma Fraiberg is a wonderful professional book about childhood and its passing, but Stephen King’s It and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are even better and they’re more fun to read. The list of important works on attachment theory is lengthy, and you ought to know it if you want to look credentialed, but if you really want to understand attachment, you won’t do any better than Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. There’s a terrific corpus of work available on family dynamics, but as glad as I am that I’ve read some of it, I’ve gotten even more mileage in my consultation and therapy work out of reading Junichuro Tanazaki’s The Makioka Sisters.

Skinner said, “We shouldn't teach great books; we should teach a love of reading. Knowing the contents of a few works of literature is a trivial achievement. Being inclined to go on reading is a great achievement.” A love of reading is not the be-all and end-all of great psychology, but it sure does help. It requires a relationship to people’s stories that is both interpretive and curious, and it broadens the perspective of the reader. It’s also a sign that private moments can bring great joy and deep thoughts. I hate it when people brag about how much they read almost as much as I hate it when parents or therapists are motivated primarily by showing off rather than by the effects on their children or patients. So it doesn’t have to be the list of recognized great books one reads; the important thing is the sense of discovery about other people’s private lives that the masks of social interaction confine to literary novels. Only (okay, mainly) in literature is the reporter interested in telling the truth about a person and not in how the person is coming across.