A Tale of Two Systems: What Can Behavioral Science Learn From Literature?

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 Hamlet: Act I, Scene V

Behavioral scientists take pride in the interdisciplinary nature of our research, yet we rarely draw on accounts of human nature generated outside of the social sciences. Just like Horatio, we could benefit from taking Hamlet’s advice to look beyond our usual frame of reference.

In particular, we think behavioral scientists should be interested in literature. After all, authors and social scientists pursue similar questions: fiction is fundamentally concerned with how humans think, perceive, and act. They approach these questions very differently, but both camps prize closely observing humans and proposing explanations for what they see. As a pair of recovering literature majors, we think authors can offer valuable insights into cognition and behavior—and we want to show you the highlights.

Even if you are skeptical about that claim, there are other reasons to be interested. Through the ages, great works of literature have profoundly shaped societies’ understanding of greed and grief, anger, altruism, joy and jealousy. We can’t ignore the influence art has had on how we perceive our own thought and actions. And, at the very least, literature can offer compelling examples of concepts from behavioral science, opening up a broader range of references for how cognitive biases can lead us astray.

Authors and social scientists pursue similar questions…They approach these questions very differently, but both camps prize closely observing humans and proposing explanations for what they see.

Our objective in this two-part series is to illuminate what classic texts can teach us as behavioral scientists. In many cases we will give specific examples of how cognitive biases play out in fiction. But we wanted to start by looking at how literature is closely bound up with one particular concept treated by behavioral science: framing.

Framing is the process of selecting and highlighting some aspects or features of a situation at the expense of others. Framing is integral to art in at least two ways. First, one of the crucial tasks of an artist is choosing what to include or exclude. Oscar Wilde calls this “that subtle tact of omission” and “delicate instinct of selection by which the artist realizes life for us, and gives to it a momentary perfection.”

There’s a great example of the importance of framing in a famous poem by W. H. Auden. The poem discusses a painting called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The painting shows a coastal scene of everyday activities—someone ploughing a field, another herding sheep. And, in the corner, you can just see some “white legs disappearing into the green water.” This is Icarus hitting the sea after flying too close to the sun and falling from the sky. One of the central myths of Western civilization is playing out, but, in the painting, no one notices—the event is at the corner of the frame. The farmers are the focus.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel/Wikimedia Commons

Although Auden doesn’t put it quite like this, for him the painting shows the power of framing. Even the most momentous events can be made marginal if you put them in the margin and instead focus on the mundane things that were happening at the same time—“someone else eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” As he says, “even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner”.

Art shows the power of focusing attention on certain people, events, and perspectives. Choices ensure some stories are told at the expense of others (ignoring the enormous issue of which works are remembered or not). Since not everything can be presented, an artist’s true skill is in selecting the elements that are most profound and evocative. This focus makes those elements important, even if they are not “objectively” so. For example, readers of The Odyssey are often heartbroken at how the hero’s faithful dog, Argos, after waiting for 20 years for his master to return, dies the instant he sees him home safe. At the same time, those same readers will generally not have given a second thought to the thousands of casualties of the war Odysseus is returning from. There is a parallel here to the work of Paul Slovic on psychic numbing: people respond strongly to stories about individuals in distress but find it difficult to care about suffering on a large scale (since it seems more abstract).

We are not saying that this selective attention is wrong. In fact, literature seems to show us that it’s necessary to survive. As George Eliot puts it in Middlemarch, “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Instead, the takeaway is that literature vividly shows the power of directing attention, just as behavioral science proposes.

This brings us to the second important aspect of art and framing: how do we interpret something that our attention has been attracted to? Many behavioral science studies have shown that we can interpret and respond very differently to the “same” information, depending on how it is presented. This reframing happens quite a lot in fiction as well. For example, multiple narrators may give different perspectives on the same events (often a crime).

It is not so much what you see, but how you see it, that concerns Kafka.” Which makes him sound rather like a behavioral scientist.

One of the most memorable examples of how framing changes our interpretation of events occurs in Shakespeare’s Othello. Here, Iago manipulates Othello into viewing his wife Desdemona’s activities as suspicious and adulterous. In particular, Othello wants to see evidence of her betrayal: he demands “ocular proof.” But he can only see what he expects to see, given the way that Iago has framed the situation. That means that meaningless events—the appearance of his wife’s handkerchief in someone else’s possession—signal meaningful things, in this case Desdemona’s infidelity.

The interesting thing is that many of the actions here are identical to what happens in Shakespeare’s comedies: items are given to the wrong person, people spy on each other, misunderstandings abound. They just are perceived very differently. In fact, this point may lead you to conclude that genres themselves are all about framing. Pretty much all events could be either tragedy or comedy, just depending on how they are framed.

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis/Amazon

You see this quite clearly when the boundaries get blurred, as in the writings of Franz Kafka. In Kafka’s most famous story, “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa wakes up to find that he has been transformed into an enormous insect. This is obviously horrific, and indeed the story is not really a happy one. At the same time, at certain points the events seem farcical or even funny. Gregor wakes up trapped on his back, with his legs waving helplessly in the air and the duvet balancing on his stomach. He seems less concerned about being an insect than about how he’s going to have to “hurry like mad” to catch his train to get work, while fretting about the weather. One critic comments on this description: “pathos and comedy together point towards a subdued black humor. It is not so much what you see, but how you see it, that concerns Kafka.” Which makes him sound rather like a behavioral scientist.

The next article in this series focuses on nineteenth century authors in England and the United States. We would love to hear your examples from other countries, cultures, and time periods—contact us at michael.hallsworth@bi.team.