A Tale of Two Systems: 19th Century Behavioral Insights From Poe, Austen, and Dickens

“The grand points of human nature are the same today they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.”

- Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man, Chapter 14.

In our first article, about behavioral science and literature, we suggested three reasons why behavioral scientists should be interested in literature. First, both authors and social scientists pursue similar questions about how and why humans think and act as they do. Second, fiction has shaped the concepts that people and societies use to understand their own behavior. Third, literature can open up a wider range of examples that illustrate core behavioral science principles.

In this article, we focus mainly on the third point. We want to show how works of fiction precisely depict behaviors that we would now describe using concepts from behavioral science. In particular, we explore how some famous nineteenth-century authors in England and the United States illuminate what we now call confirmation bias, mental accounting, and the mere-exposure effect. If you’ve yet to read these works, be advised—the following contains a few spoilers.

Confirmation bias in “The Purloined Letter”

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story called “The Purloined Letter,” which later attracted attention for its psychological implications. The core plot is simple. A man steals a confidential letter and uses it to blackmail a woman. The police try to locate and retrieve the letter in the man’s lodgings, but they cannot find it. A senior police officer turns to C. Auguste Dupin, who is very likely the first example of what we now call a private detective (predating Sherlock Holmes by more than 40 years).

Dupin’s insight is that the letter was not hidden at all. In fact, it was right in the front of the police, displayed in a card rack in what Dupin calls a “hyper-obtrusive situation … full in the view of every visitor.” Anticipating the police’s assumption that he would use some elaborate hiding place, the blackmailer did the exact opposite. He hid it in plain sight.

The genre of detective fiction exemplifies how literature can play on the confirmation biases of readers…The skillful novelist will create or anticipate our assumptions so that we are shown the solution, but we do not see it.

The preconceptions of the police were so powerful that they were blind to what was right in front of them. This nicely illustrates one aspect of confirmation bias: we often ignore information that does not conform with our preexisting views. The blackmailer was able to anticipate these preconceptions and use them against the police. At the same time, Dupin was able to understand that “the daring, dashing, and discriminating ingenuity” of the blackmailer meant he had to seek out a new way of seeing the situation.

More broadly, the genre of detective fiction exemplifies how literature can play on the confirmation biases of readers. The readers of detective stories mirror the sleuths they read about: they try to interpret the information they are given in order to solve the puzzle. But the skillful novelist will create or anticipate our assumptions so that we are shown the solution, but we do not see it. (We are not going to offer an example here, to prevent major spoilers.) In fact, part of the crime author’s game can be to see how prominently they can present the truth without anyone noticing—perhaps even in the title of the book. In this way, “literature keeps its secret, but on the surface. ”

The mere-exposure effect in Mansfield Park

In Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, a wealthy young man called Henry Crawford arrives at Mansfield Park, the home of the Bertram family. At first he does not make a good impression on the two sisters that live there. But their perceptions change as they see him more:

[Henry] was not handsome: no, when they first saw him he was absolutely plain, black and plain; but still he was the gentleman, with a pleasing address. The second meeting proved him not so very plain: he was plain, to be sure, but then he had so much countenance, and his teeth were so good, and he was so well made, that one soon forgot he was plain; and after a third interview, after dining in company with him at the Parsonage, he was no longer allowed to be called so by anybody. He was, in fact, the most agreeable young man the sisters had ever known, and they were equally delighted with him.

This looks a lot like the mere-exposure effect: the tendency for people to like something more as they become more familiar with it. For example, a classic experiment varied whether participants were exposed to particular experimenters 1, 2, 5, or 10 times, apparently as part of a taste test. The results showed that participants rated the experimenters more favorably as their exposure to them increased—even if the flavor they were tasting was unpleasant.

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park/Penguin Random House

You may think that it’s understandable to like a person more over time, particularly if they are not immediately attractive. After all, time allows more aspects of someone’s personality to be revealed. But the way that Austen writes this passage seems to guard against this justification. She explicitly says that Henry’s manners and “pleasing address” were evident straight away; she also undermines the argument by putting clear contradictions next to each other (“proved him not so very plain: he was plain, to be sure …”).

More generally, the novel subtly suggests that the sisters are misguided. The heroine of the novel is the sisters’ shrewd and insightful cousin, Fanny Price. Austen writes wryly that she “still continued to think Mr. Crawford very plain, in spite of her two cousins having repeatedly proved the contrary.” Other characters point out that Henry is short and “ill-looking,” and, most importantly, the narrator says he has a bad nature: he is idle and vain, and “thoughtless and selfish from prosperity and bad example.” It seems that the mere-exposure effect could be leading the sisters toward a bad choice.

Mental accounting in Bleak House

Many people consider Bleak House (1853) to be the greatest novel Charles Dickens wrote. This is a massive, sprawling work, with many subplots. The main narrative deals with a fictional, long-running legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which concerns a vast disputed inheritance. Richard Carstone is one of the many characters who hopes to inherit a fortune through this case but who instead ends up consumed by it. Dickens shows him to be weak, irresponsible, and inconsistent—but it’s his attitude to money that is most interesting to us.

Attorney and client meet in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Halbot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons

Dickens puts it like this: “Richard had a carelessness in his character that quite perplexed me, principally because he mistook it, in such a very odd way, for prudence. It entered into all his calculations about money in a singular manner.”

The example he gives is of when Richard gave a loan of ten pounds to another character, which is then paid back to him. But Richard then thinks of this ten pounds as already spent. As Dickens writes, Richard talks “as if he had saved or realized” the ten pounds and made many “little acts of thoughtless expenditure which he justified by the recovery of his ten pounds”. The clearest case is when he wants to give five pounds to a brick-maker, and justifies it by saying:

“I made ten pounds […].”

“How was that?” said I.

“Why, I got rid of ten pounds which I was quite content to get rid of and never expected to see any more. You don’t deny that?”

“No,” said I.

“Very well! Then I came into possession of ten pounds—”

“The same ten pounds,” I hinted.

“That has nothing to do with it!” returned Richard. “I have got ten pounds more than I expected to have, and consequently I can afford to spend it without being particular.”

In exactly the same way, when he was persuaded out of the sacrifice of these five pounds by being convinced that it would do no good, he carried that sum to his credit and drew upon it.

“Let me see!” he would say. “I saved five pounds out of the brickmaker’s affair, so if I have a good rattle to London and back in a post-chaise and put that down at four pounds, I shall have saved one. And it’s a very good thing to save one, let me tell you: a penny saved is a penny got!”

Richard is doing something quite interesting here. Most obviously, he is using mental accounting. He has put the ten pounds into a mental account of “spent money,” and therefore is quick and careless about spending it. He does not think to move the money out of this account and save it instead.

There is also an element of the house-money effect, where people are more likely to take a gamble if they feel that they are risking money they have recently gained, rather than money they held previously. The only difference is that Richard has not actually gained anything: he has simply had previous spending returned to him.

The works of the past may even offer an “undiscovered country” of phenomena that we have yet to explore scientifically.

This means that a key driver of Richard’s behavior is clever framing. Richard frames the situation “as if he had saved” the money—when all he is doing is spending slightly less than he could have done, or less compared with a past expenditure. In his mind, his carelessness becomes prudence, and he feels good about his spending.

Not all heuristics lead to poor outcomes. But Richard’s approach to managing money does not work well for him. He dies deeply in debt.

We hope that these three examples give a taste of how behavioral science and literature can speak to each other. Our view is that fiction can give behavioral scientists a broader perspective on the issues they study, perhaps opening up new ways of expressing their findings or new avenues for future inquiry. The works of the past may even offer an “undiscovered country” of phenomena that we have yet to explore scientifically. We encourage you to start that journey.

Which genre or time period we should highlight next? Send your suggestions and ideas to michael.hallsworth@bi.team and we’ll consider them for the next article in the series.