I will argue that Proust’s picture of how we get into the minds of other’s is simulationist, thus following the account that I favour rather than the mainstream one.
The term in psychology for the way in which we predict and explain the behaviour of others is “Theory of Mind.” This is, I suggest, something of a placeholder, because it is in fact deeply unclear how we do this. Or even if we get it right. It certainly looks like we do, but that’s just because we confirm our results using the same method. (This is sometimes known as the “dipstick problem” in philosophy. I can’t tell whether my fuel gauge is accurate if I only look at the fuel gauge.)
There are two accounts of Theory of Mind in academic psychology. One is called Theory Theory. This is the claim that we have a theory of other people that we learn when young. This is the mainstream account. The other account, which I support, is called Simulation Theory:
Simulation Theory suggests that instead of using a theory of others, what we do when we predict and explain their behaviour is to simulate them. Metaphorically, we place ourselves in what we think is their position with the information and desires we thing they have, and then work out what we would do.
Anyone who has read Proust knows that he has an exceptionally deep and unusual set of insights into our psychology. His insights are not paralleled elsewhere in my view, with the possible exception of Henry James. For this reason, it is unsurprising to me that he also favours Simulation Theory. Moreover, Proust even seems to suggest the defence of Simulation Theory using cognitive biases which I have proposed.*
There are two key quotations I will use to back up this claim.** The character Swann is discussing “fellow-feeling,” and remarks to himself as below:
“he could not, in the last resort, answer for any but men whose natures were analogous to his own, as was, so far as the heart went, that of M. de Charlus. The mere thought of causing Swann so much distress would have been revolting to him. But with a man who was insensible, of another order of humanity, as was the Prince des Laumes, how was one to foresee the actions to which he might be led by the promptings of a different nature?”
This tells us that Swann has observed that it is easier for him to predict or explain the behaviour of others when those others are similar to him. In this particular case, Swann is wondering which of his friends might have sent him a distressing anonymous letter. Swann believes that Charlus is similar to Swann himself, that Swann himself would not have sent such a letter, and therefore Swann concludes that Charlus did not send the letter.
On the other hand, Swann believes that des Laumes is a very different individual, who is “insensible.” (I suspect that a more modern translation would use “insensitive” here.). Note that Swann, in a very simulationist vein, does not say “des Laumes is insensitive, so he might have sent the letter.” Instead, he says “des Laumes is insensitive, so I cannot tell what he would do.”
This is a very simulationist line. It says, in effect, that Swann is unable, he believes, to simulate des Laumes, because des Laumes is very different to Swann. Note this is not consistent with the mainstream Theory Theory view. There is no reason why Swann, an intelligent and perceptive man, could not have a good theory of insensitive behaviour. There is by contrast every reason why Swann could struggle to simulate insensitive behaviour, lacking as he does the experience “from the inside” of such behaviour.
A further simulationist view is suggested later; someone might be a genius:
“or, although a brilliant psychologist, [not believe] in the infidelity of a mistress or of a friend whose treachery persons far less gifted would have foreseen.”
This is a claim that people may be extremely intelligent and even special gifted in academic psychology but still make Theory of Mind errors in relation to other people not so gifted. Note how uncongenial this is to Theory Theory. Intelligent people who are brilliant psychologists should have an excellent theory of others and so be able to make very good predictions of their behaviour. Simulation Theory, by contrast, will predict exactly what Proust is describing here: brilliant, intelligent (highly moral?) individuals will fail to predict the behaviour of others who do not possess those characteristics. And similarly, more ordinary mortals will be able to simulate much better and thus predict much better when the person to be predicted is more like the person doing the predicting.
The major objection to Simulation Theory is that it does not account for surprising results in social psychology, such as the infamous Stanford prison experiment. Here, people behave amazingly harshly, for no apparent reason. This behaviour is not predicted by anyone. Theory Theorists claim that Simulation Theory cannot explain this, because we should just be able to simulate being a guard in a fake prison and then predict the harsh behaviour.
I provide a response to this objection on behalf of Simulation Theory. I suggest that what is missing from the simulation is a cognitive bias. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the bias in question I propose is Conformity Bias. Simply put, this is just our tendency to do what we are told. This bias is a lot stronger than we suppose, in comfortable repose.
It is gratifying to find Swann also gesturing in the direction of this Bias Mismatch Defence, as I call it. Swann further observes that he:
“knew quite well as a general truth, that human life is full of contrasts, but in the case of any one human being he imagined all that part of his or her life with which he was not familiar as being identical with the part with which he was.”
This, if Swann is accurate in his self-perception here, is a description of a systematic Theory of Mind error. It is a form of synecdoche, if you like. Swann takes the part of the person he knows and assumes that all of the rest of that person is the same.
I have suggested that one of the biases which can throw off our simulations is the Halo Effect. This means we know one thing about a person or item which has a certain positive or negative perceived value, and we then assume that all of the attributes of the person or item have the same value. For instance, someone who is a good speaker is probably also honest etc. There is of course no strong reason to think this, rationally speaking.
I have discussed the implications of the Halo Effect on predicting behaviour in financial markets previously:
In that case, I called the Bitcoin bubble just before it burst by employing the Halo Effect and positing that it was affecting the judgement of buyers. It is encouraging to see that Swann is also on the same page as me here!
Note that I do not claim to be a Proust expert or even have completed my reading yet! I do not therefore suggest that the above represents a radical new reading of the whole of Proust. I make only the modest claim that in this one paragraph, Proust describes a version of Theory of Mind which is more congenial to simulation than to theory. Since there are only these two developed candidate explanations of Theory of Mind, then that is already interesting. (There is also a hybrid account which employs both simulation and theory, but that is a mess in my view and there is no evidence of for any theory in the above quotation and therefore no evidence for a hybrid account.)
*”IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME – Complete 7 Book Collection (Modern Classics Series): The Masterpiece of 20th Century Literature (Swann’s Way, Within a Budding … The Sweet Cheat Gone & Time Regained)” by Marcel Proust, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Stephen Hudson).
**It might be argued that this view is not that favoured by Proust himself but by Swann, who is a character created by Swann. I will not pursue this sort of Plato/Socrates point, but merely observe that it is at the very least true that Proust considers the position worth discussing. Moreover, I think it is very clear that Swann is rather to be considered an intelligent, discerning individual, if perhaps somewhat afflicted by propensities for self-deception, and so the fact that this view is at least that of Swann is sufficient to make it interesting. (I am informed by someone who knows Proust better than me that I am likely to revise my view of Swann in a negative direction as my reading progresses.)