Psyching Myself Out­

Is it possible to think scientifically and creatively at once? Can you be both a psychologist and a writer?

When you look at the world as a psychologist, you see it as a set of phenomena that can be subjected to scientific inquiry: identified, tested and either verified or discarded. When you look at the world as a writer, you see it as a set of phenomena to be captured, contemplated, transformed and set down for others to recognize and absorb.

Although it’s often presented as a dichotomy (the apparent subjectivity of the writer versus the seeming objectivity of the psychologist), it need not be. In fact, as I realized when I left the world of psychology behind to become that horror of all horrors (to an academic psychologist) — someone who wrote for a general audience — that neat separation is not just unwarranted; it’s destructive.

“A writer must be as objective as a chemist,” Anton Chekhov wrote in 1887. “He must abandon the subjective line; he must know that dung heaps play a very reasonable part in a landscape.”

Chekhov’s chemist is a naturalist — someone who sees reality for what it is, rather than what it should be. In that sense, the starting point of the psychologist and the writer is the same: a curiosity that leads you to observe life in all its dimensions. Only in writing, you have the flexibility to explore the implications of your observations without the immediate necessity of experimental design.

Depending on whom you ask, Sigmund Freud was either a pioneer who made much of modern psychology possible or a villain who was wholly misguided. The same mind advanced the field in unanticipated ways (Freud was decades ahead, for instance, when it came to defense mechanisms) and pushed it in a direction that seems, at best, simplistic (his insistence on sexuality as the cause of everything led to a number of therapies with little empirical grounding that are still in use to this day). How is that possible?

At the turn of the century, psychology was a field quite unlike what it is now. The theoretical musings of William James were the norm (a wry commenter once noted that William James was the writer, and his brother Henry, the psychologist). Psychologists could theorize without the immediate need for quantification, although in James’s case he did establish one of the first psychological laboratories in the United States. Freud was a breed of psychologist that hardly exists anymore: someone who saw the world as both writer and psychologist, and for whom there was no conflict between the two. That boundary melding allowed him to posit the existence of cognitive mechanisms that wouldn’t be empirically proved for decades, but it also led him astray in problematic, ultimately hurtful ways.

Freud got it brilliantly right and brilliantly wrong. The rightness is as good a justification as any of the benefits, the necessity even, of knowing how to look through the eyes of a writer. The wrongness is part of the reason that the distinction between writing and experimental psychology has grown far more rigid than it was a century ago.

When I was working on my new book, I discovered a pervasive set of folk theories about liars. Most were not as extreme as the profile of a poisoner from a 900 B.C. Vedic papyrus I chanced upon — “He does not answer questions, or gives evasive answers; he speaks nonsense, rubs the great toe along the ground, and shivers; his face is discolored; he rubs the roots of his hair with his fingers” — but they did include a number of strands that will be familiar to any aficionado of the police procedural.

When an international team of researchers asked some 2,300 people in 58 countries to respond to a single question — “How can you tell when people are lying?” — one sign stood out: In two-thirds of responses, people listed gaze aversion. A liar doesn’t look you in the eye. Twenty-eight percent reported that liars seemed nervous, a quarter reported incoherence, and another quarter that liars exhibited certain little giveaway motions.

It just so happens that the common wisdom is false — and we need psychologists in order to make that determination. What researchers who study ways of detecting deception, like Leanne ten Brinke, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, will tell you is that the signs people associate with liars often have little empirical evidence to support them. Therein lies the psychologist’s distinct role and her necessity. As a writer, you look in order to describe, but you remain free to use that description however you see fit. As a psychologist, you look to describe, yes, but also to verify.

Without verification, we can’t always trust what we see — or rather, what we think we see. Whether we’re psychologists or writers (or anything else), our eyes are never the impartial eyes of Chekhov’s chemist. Our expectations, our wants and shoulds, get in the way. Take, once again, lying. Why do we think we know how liars behave? Liars should divert their eyes. They should feel ashamed and guilty and show the signs of discomfort that such feelings engender. And because they should, we think they do.

The desire for the world to be what it ought to be and not what it is permeates experimental psychology as much as writing, though. There’s experimental bias and the problem known in the field as “demand characteristics” — when researchers end up finding what they want to find by cuing participants to act a certain way. It’s also visible when psychologists choose to study one thing rather than another, dismiss evidence that doesn’t mesh with their worldview while embracing that which does. The subjectivity we tend to associate with the writerly way of looking may simply be more visible in that realm rather than exclusive to it.

In 1932, when he was in his 70s, Freud gave a series of lectures on psychoanalysis. In his final talk, “A Philosophy of Life,” he focused on clarifying an important caveat to his research: His followers should not be confused by the seemingly internal, and thus possibly subjective, nature of his work. “There is no other source of knowledge of the universe but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations,” he said.

Intuition and inspiration, he went on, “can safely be counted as illusions, as fulfillments of wishes.” They are not to be relied on as evidence of any sort. “Science takes account of the fact that the mind of man creates such demands and is ready to trace their source, but it has not the slightest ground for thinking them justified.” Freud may have looked as a writer, but as a psychologist he had learned to distrust what he saw.

That is what both the psychologist and the writer should strive for: a self-knowledge that allows you to look in order to discover, without agenda, without preconception, without knowing or caring if what you’re seeing is wrong or right in your scheme of the world. It’s harder than it sounds. For one thing, you have to possess the self-knowledge that will allow you to admit when you’re wrong.

Even with the best intentions, objectivity can prove a difficult companion. I left psychology behind because I found its structural demands overly hampering. I couldn’t just pursue interesting lines of inquiry; I had to devise a set of experiments, see how feasible they were, both technically and financially, consider how they would reflect on my career. That meant that most new inquiries never happened — in a sense, it meant that objectivity was more an ideal than a reality. Each study was selected for a reason other than intrinsic interest.

I became a writer to pursue that intrinsic interest. But I do so having never quite left the thinking of the psychologist behind: I still design studies in my head, think through implications, attempt to apply an experimental rigor to even the most creative of my writing. Perhaps it’s the combination that brings me closer to my ideal of observation. Isolation precludes objectivity. It’s in the merging not simply of ways of seeing but also of modes of thought that a truly whole perception of reality may eventually emerge. Or at least that way we can realize its ultimate impossibility — and that’s not nothing, either.

Adapted from nytimes

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-Jack Westin

13 Comments


  1. APOV: That writers have more flexibility ++ vs. +/- psychologists follow guidelines that are verified through experiments.

    Overall, psychologists and writers are should not be separated into their own realms.

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  2. A formally trained psychologist turned writer muses on these two fields. Although traditionally seen as opposites, the author suggests there is much more of an overlap than initially meets the eye. Writers and psychologists both attempt to see the world as it is, their methods are different however. Some of the greatest men in psychology’s history were actually great writers. Freud and James for example theorized endlessly on how they saw the world, despite having no evidence to back it up. Writers and psychologists can both fall victim to biases, but the biases in psychology are perhaps better hidden. In the end, the author chose to pursue writing because the structure imposed on psychological research became too strict.

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  3. 1) Separating psyc + writing = bad.
    2) Freud = right + wrong
    3) Experiment = subjective too

    Reply

  4. psych and writer (au) + separation = not good

    writers = flexible, subjective
    psych = objective, verification’s

    Reply

  5. psychology and writing should not be treated dichotomously and should both be approached objectively

    Reply

  6. Psychologist and writer should not be separated, separation = destruction. Freud – good example (see world as psychologist and writer).

    Reply

  7. separation not necessary, verify necessary + preconceptions = bad

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  8. MIP: seperation = unwarranted + destructive (AU); objectivity = difficulty (AU); be like writer + psychologist (CW, AU); both = ideal observation (AU)

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  9. MIP: psychology/writing boundary blurs, both can be subj./obj. + Freud = good ex. of this; tone =neutral

    Reply

  10. MIP: 1) writing is objective; 2) psych can be subjective.

    Reply

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