Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jan 14, 2019

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

black and white sketch of orphans eating quickly while a burly man stands over a big black pot, while holding a ladle upright.

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.

Read more from Part 2 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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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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