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Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Situation Is in the Mindset of the Observer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Do we all experience the world in the same way? Is the same event actually the same event when viewed from the vantage point of each observer, each participant, each accidental onlooker? I’m not trying here to get at the more philosophical issues that one can raise, quite naturally, in response (is the red you see, for instance, the same red I see?). Rather, what I’m asking is, on a much broader, surface level: do you perceive as I perceive?

This very question is raised in the “Adventure of Copper Beeches,” when Watson and Holmes are aboard a train to the country. As they pass Aldershot, Watson glances out the window at the passing houses:

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.
But Holmes shook his head gravely.
“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

Holmes and Watson may indeed be looking at the same houses. But what they see is altogether different.

Our experiences color our perception of the world

When we enter a situation, we don’t just enter it cold. We don’t travel light. We bring along all of the baggage that we’ve accumulated in our life, every experience and thought and prior perception that has been stacked away, both knowingly and not, in that very mind attic that Holmes urges us to clean out with due vigilance. But clean or not, the attic is never empty.

While several theories strive to untangle what exactly it is that travels with us to any new setting, my personal favorite approach is CAPS: the Cognitive Affective Personality System model developed by psychologists Walter Mischel and Yuichi Shoda to explain why it is that Holmes sees crime where Watson sees freshness and beauty (granted, that may not have been their precise motivation in developing the theory).

The CAPS premise is relatively simple: different people respond differently in the same situation, and the same person responds differently in different situations. But in the variance, there is consistency, a so-called behavioral signature which identifies if-then contingencies for a specific person. So, to use Holmes and Watson as our guiding examples, we can start with the following statements. If Holmes sees houses in the country, then he reacts to them as to possible strongholds of crimes. If Watson sees the houses, then he reacts to them as to beautiful places of leisure.

But how do you determine what that signature is, or why it is that the same exact “if” can generate such different “thens” for people like Watson and Holmes? According to CAPS, so-called cognitive-affective units in the mind interact to determine how an individual selects, interprets, and generates situations. These units consist of five elements.

Encodings: How do we see ourselves, other people, and the external world? These questions will determine how a situation is encoded in the brain to begin with (Does Watson even notice the house? Does Holmes, without Watson’s prompting? We don’t actively encode everything around us; we will only encode that which is relevant to self- and other-perception – and how we encode it will in turn be influenced by those perceptions).

Expectancies and beliefs: What are our expectations about the world and our own functioning and effectiveness within in? Here, I mean stable, general beliefs, about how we think everything works broadly speaking. (Does Watson see the world as a generally good place, where he can actively assist? Does Holmes? Or does he see it as something altogether different? And, how does each view their role as “assistant”? Is it the same role for both?).

Affects: What are our feelings and emotions at any given point? Here, we are talking about more transient effects that differ from moment to moment. (In that train, is Watson feeling calm? Anxious? Tired? And what about Holmes? They will see, react, and interpret events differently depending on their current state).

Goals and values: What are the desirable (and not-so-desirable) outcomes that we hold in mind at any given point? What are our underlying goals and values for life? Here, we refer to both in-the-moment goals, that are more fleeting, and those stable values, ambitions, and aims that follow us from situation to situation. (What is Watson hoping to achieve, specifically in this current conversation, and more generally, out of his collaboration with Holmes and in his professional capacity? And Holmes? Are his goals and values equivalent to Watson’s?).

Competencies and self-regulatory plans: Finally, what are the potential behaviors we can perform and specific actions that we can take for influencing the outcome of a situation? Do we have a script or general strategy in mind for a given set of circumstances? (What will Watson do, in his mind, when he sees or visits a lovely country house? Are these the same actions that Holmes envisions when he pictures the same event?).

So, with these five components in mind, let’s go back to Holmes and Watson as they travel through Aldershot and answer the questions we have raised for them.

In general, I think it’s safe to suppose that Watson generally sees the world as a friendlier place than does Holmes. He often expresses genuine surprise at Holmes’s suspicions, awe at many of his darker deductions. Where Holmes easily sees sinister intent, Watson notices a beautiful and sympathetic face. Where Holmes brings to bear his encyclopedic knowledge of past crime, and at once applies the past to the present, Watson has no such store to call upon and must rely upon what he does know: medicine, the war, and his brief sojourn with the master detective. Add to that Holmes’s tendency, when on an active case and still seeking to piece together its details, to drift into the world of his own mind, closing himself off to external distractions that are irrelevant to the subject at hand, as compared to Watson, who is ever happy to note the beauty of a spring day and the appeal of rolling hills. And, think of their differing roles: all hopes rest on Holmes, and his job is always to prevent the worst; whereas Watson knows he is a sidekick, that the master detective will come through in the end. Of him, there is no expectation but to be there – and when he does venture out to the countryside, it is as likely as not to be as a physician, a guest, or a regular vacationer, not as a criminal investigator.

With these caveats in mind, the exchange between Holmes and Watson seems altogether logical. It seems reasonable that Watson, not Holmes, is the one to remark upon the houses, as his mind is more likely to wander over such details while Holmes’s focus is elsewhere. And, it follows naturally that when he does so, he adds his own happy spin to the view, whereas Holmes’s more sinister (and perhaps pragmatic) interpretation runs counter to that perception. After all, the master detective never takes the world for what it is at first glance. His experiences are not so accepting of surface beauty.

A situation is only as useful as it incorporates the underlying psychological situation

What’s true of Watson and Holmes in their brief exchange is equally true of every other person and every other circumstance. For, that is the main message, both of Conan Doyle and of psychological theory: a situation is never just a situation. Every situation is also a psychological situation, or a situation that is determined by the features that activate an individual’s mind in specific, predictable ways. What those features are will depend on the person, the moment, and the overall background. Without knowing those component parts, you have no way of knowing what something looks like to anyone but you – or of predicting how anyone but you (and perhaps even you, if you’ve never taken the time to think about the implications for your own mind) will react. But once you understand them, you will easily see why and how what’s beautiful to one set of eyes will appear criminal to another.

Photo credit: Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Violet Hunter, in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” By Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Previously in this series:

Don’t Just See, Observe: What Sherlock Holmes Can Teach Us About Mindful Decisions
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Paying Attention to What Isn’t There
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Cultivate What You Know to Optimize How You Decide
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Perspective Is Everything, Details Alone Are Nothing
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Imagination
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Confidence Is good; Overconfidence, Not So Much

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 1:10 pm 09/13/2011

    A theory is only as useful as it can tell what is from what can’t be.

    An effective theory with five unobserved parameters can be fitted to pretty much anything. I’ll bet if we imagine the universe as “mindful” CAPS can describe cosmology – any cosmology.

    Which is why I prefer my theories testable over “just so” story telling.

    Link to this
  2. 2. mkonnikova 1:22 pm 09/13/2011

    Torbjörn–that’s certainly a valid point, when one is describing prescriptive theories. CAPS isn’t meant to explain all behavior, but is a description of cognitive processing, which will help predict a behavioral outcome given what we know about a person’s behavioral signature. But more importantly, it helps get into the “black box” of the mind to begin to explain what the relevant inputs should be–something that few psychological approaches have broached.

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  3. 3. MarkHarrigan 11:35 am 09/15/2011

    Again – a nice enCAPSulation (whoops, sorry, bad pun).

    I think the CAPS model, along with other similar approaches is not meant to be an all encompassing theory (=explanation of the real world) but rather a useful self-diagnostic to alert us to our own cognitive biases and, by being so alert, have the tools to overcome them when needed.

    We don’t see the world as it is – we see the world as we are (or have become).

    Being aware of this lets us make a conscious choice to see it differently – if we have the will.

    Remember the scene in “Dead Poet’s Society” where the teacher asked the boys to get up from behind their desks and walk up and stand on the teacher’s desk to view the classroom from a different perspective? My take from that was that he was teaching the boys that you can accept your “given” viewpoint (that which you are predispoed to take based on circumstance/experience) or you can also “Choose” to look at something differently.

    If you do, who knows, you might just gain a useful insight.

    :)

    Link to this
  4. 4. mkonnikova 1:32 pm 09/16/2011

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Mark. “Dead Poet’s Society” is a great illustration.

    Link to this

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