Character  &  Context

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

Drwaing of Edgar Allen Powe with a raven, another author, with a  quill pen, and Shakespeare holding a skull

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 griefangeraltruismjoy 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.

Read more from Part 1 of this 2 part series at Behavioral Scientist.

Michael Hallsworth is managing director, North America at the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a social-purpose company that was created as the first government institution dedicated to applying behavioral sciences to policy. He is a co-author of the MINDSPACEreport.
Elspeth Kirkman is the Director of Health and Social Care, Childhood and Schools, Skills, and Local delivery at the Behavioural Insights Team. Prior to her current position she was based in New York where she established BIT’s North American office.


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