Fear not, Werner Herzog

In an interview in GQ, Werner Herzog worries:

I think psychology and self-reflection is one of the major catastrophes of the twentieth century. A major, major mistake. And it’s only one of the mistakes of the twentieth century, which makes me think that the twentieth century in its entirety was a mistake…

There’s something profoundly wrong—as wrong as the Spanish Inquisition was. The Spanish Inquisition had one goal, to eradicate all traces of Muslim faith on the soil of Spain, and hence you had to confess and proclaim the innermost deepest nature of your faith to the commission. And almost as a parallel event, explaining and scrutinizing the human soul, into all its niches and crooks and abysses and dark corners, is not doing good to humans. We have to have our dark corners and the unexplained. We will become uninhabitable in a way an apartment will become uninhabitable if you illuminate every single dark corner and under the table and wherever—you cannot live in a house like this anymore. And you cannot live with a person anymore—let’s say in a marriage or a deep friendship—if everything is illuminated, explained, and put out on the table. There is something profoundly wrong. It’s a mistake. It’s a fundamentally wrong approach toward human beings.

In a weird way, Herzog is paying a huge compliment to psychology. And an undeserved one.

The human mind isn’t like an apartment or a house. Science cannot turn on enough lights to illuminate the whole thing. (And self-reflection? Please.) Psychology is like turning on a flashlight in a cave. You’ll get a good look at what’s right in front of you, you’ll be able to slowly and stumblingly make your way around to see what else is there, and here and there you’ll catch vague glimpses of shadowy corners and tunnels running far past the reach of your light.

On one level, Herzog is repeating a somewhat tired anti-science trope that science takes the mystery and wonder out of the natural world. People who actually do science know better. (Okay, maybe this is a better link.) I’m not worried that psychology is going to explain away too much.

But I like what Herzog has to say about having to have our dark corners. And based on his lumping of psychology with self-reflection, I think what he’s really talking about is a sense of psychological privacy – freedom from the eyes of others, and not having to relentlessly examine yourself and make yourself an open book. And here maybe the science of psychology has something to learn.

I don’t think social psychology is explicitly anti-privacy. But there is a lot of research on the benefits of social connection, and much less on solitude; a lot of research on the benefits of accountability and self-control, less on the benefits of running wild with your impulses once in a while. Maybe it pops up here and there – in the creativity literature, for example. But psychology’s message about what happens when we retreat into our dark corners is mostly a message of unhappiness and danger. I don’t mean to say that the research on social support or self-control is all wrong. But maybe we should also be asking how, when, and why people benefit from quiet, from separation, from lack of restraint, from spending some time in the shadows rather than the light.

2 thoughts on “Fear not, Werner Herzog

  1. I don’t understand why it has to be an either-or sort of thing. Can’t someone be open and involved and make social connections and also have times where they honor their solitude and retreat to their dark corners? I think that’s really the fatal flaw here – too much of one thing or another and not enough emphasis on the balance. If one retreats entirely, then there is evidence it will lead to depression and/or other problems. If one wears his heart entirely on his sleeve, perhaps there are problems with that as well. It’s about balance – and there is definitely a great gap in the literature about what that balance is or should be. Although, I’m not sure there is a common answer to that question. It may be too dependent on individual differences.

    1. Cara, I agree with you. I think it’s likely to be conditional: on persons (for whom is privacy, solitude, letting go of restraint, etc most valuable); on situations (when is it better and when isn’t it); and on outcomes (good in this way, bad in that way). The last one especially is something that is rare in psychology. How often do you read a paper or see a talk where someone measures two adaptive outcomes, and shows that the same variable is positively associated with one but negatively associated with the other? It happens, but maybe not as often as it should. You see a lot more research where the take-home message is just “X is bad” or “X is good.”

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