Monday, 22 November 2010

Research Bulletin: Victorian Authors as Intuitive Psychologists

Our view here at OnFiction has always been that psychologists and authors share a great deal in common. Both are concerned with elucidating human psychology, psychologists through systematic observation and experimentation, and authors through imagination and mental simulation of complex social situations. A recent study soon to be published in the Journal of Research in Personality may just be the first bit of quantitative evidence to support this assertion. John Johnson (Penn State), Joseph Carroll (Missouri—St. Louis), Jonathan Gottschall (Washington & Jefferson), and Daniel Kruger (Michigan) collaborated to examine the personality of characters in Victorian novels. A total of 519 scholars and students of Victorian literature were recruited to given their impressions of a character from a novel of that era, through an online survey. Characters were chosen from a list of around 2,000 characters from 200 canonical 19th century British novels. These characters were then rated on a number of characteristics, including trait personality, motivations, success in achieving goals, and mate preferences and strategies. What they found was that there was remarkably good agreement between raters on what these characters were like. To give you a taste of these ratings, Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch was rated as low in dominance, very high in constructive effort, about average in romance, and moderately high in nurturing tendencies. (The article describes many more of these fascinating examples.) In general, the associations between each of the traits measured seemed to concord well with modern psychological research. This implies that Victorian authors were not just intuitive psychologists, but relatively accurate ones. An interesting difference did emerge, however. Victorian writers appeared to emphasize the importance of agreeableness, a tendency to value social harmony amongst one’s peers. In doing so, these writers may have encouraged their readers (knowingly or not) to value cooperation and empathy. This study demonstrates an admirable blend of methodologies, taking an archival approach in selecting historical texts and marrying it with ratings by “peers” using an Internet survey. It also provides an encouraging example of how even the most difficult questions may be subject to an empirical test. As always, readers interested in reading a copy of the original article may contact me to receive a copy (e-mail in profile).

Johnson, J.A., Carroll, J., Gottschall, J., Kruger, D., Portrayal of Personality in Victorian Novels Reflects Modern Research Findings but Amplifies the Significance of Agreeableness, Journal of Research in Personality (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.11.011

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