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Some Unwritten Laws of Psychology

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 38 - March 1999

The heavy psychology textbooks on my shelves contain some well-known laws: the law of effect, the Weber-Fechner law, the principle of just noticeable difference, etc. But here we will focus on those more obscure axioms that have not yet been inscribed in the scholarly literature.

For starters, take the obvious but unspoken rule that was pointed out to me by an industrious colleague many years ago, one of those pioneering researchers in the scientific arcade of laboratory behaviourism.

One day he bluntly stated to me what he had learned in thirty years of psychobiological studies: humans are dumber than rats!

If you put a rat in a maze, and place some cheese at the end of a left turn, the rat will invariably turn left at the fork in the road once he has had time to learn the appropriate behaviour. Now, believe it or not, human beings are less apt to turn in the path of reward; no, on the contrary, these so-called "higher evolutionary creatures" will often turn right to seek the cheese even though past experience has proven to them that the cheese is to be found at the left side of the puzzle. Inexplicably, their constant missing of the cheese is a variable not to be found among the rat population tested.

A woman who is beaten once a month by her alcoholic husband continues to search for the "cheese" in the wrong place: she is convinced, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that one day soon he will quit drinking and mend his ways, and become the wonderful, kind family man that she knows in her heart he shall surely be.

A man who is a compulsive gambler continues to seek his fortune at the "empty" side of the maze, despite past experience. He surely has enough proof that gambling does not pay. But he never seems to learn that in his case, the cheese is on the other side, to avoid the casino. No matter that he has lost his car, and house, and finally his job and family, he just "knows" intuitively that one day Lady Fortuna will shine on him on the wrong side of the maze of life.

The second unwritten principle is more obscure but no less enlightening. It comes from my old friend Adam Margoshes, a brilliant autodidact who died 30 years ago. Adam was a writer who owned a bookstore in New York and was widely published in The Village Voice, at the time an avant-garde voice in Greenwich Village. At the age of 40 he decided to study psychology and unfortunately was struck down by an illness at the beginning of a creative spurt of energy.

Let me then call this next law Adam's Rule, if I may, since it comes from a story he liked to tell about his days in the military during World War II. The basic idea is that the person who can get the job is often the less qualified applicant. He spoke of an uneducated country boy in his platoon who was a whiz at fixing things. If any mechanical gadget needed repair, he was the one the others turned to for help. One day a notice was posted that the Army needed radio repairmen and asked soldiers to apply for a 6-month training program.

This young lad for all his mechanical genius was not accepted by the school because he did very poorly in the written entrance exam.

Another soldier among the troop was selected and returned six months later after completing the training. However, he was hopeless at fixing radios! So whenever a radio needed to be fixed, nobody went to the "certified" repairman for help, but instead turned to "Mr Fix-it" who had no formal education.

This pattern is seen again and again in different settings. I have taught at many universities where the best teachers - the people who were most passionately interested in their work and the students - were consistently denied a regular appointment. While others, who were the worst lecturers and had little interest in either the subject matter or the students, went on to get tenure and a long career in the academic world. One of my former colleagues was able to fix a career job at university by marrying the daughter of a top administrator, while more qualified people were sacked after one or two years.

In the field of psychotherapy, it is often the best practitioners who lack the formal education and certification by diploma, while the people who amass these "papers" and ease into clinical appointments are mere time-servers without talent or interest in their patients.

The next general law was suggested by a prodigious worker in the field of experimental psychology whom I met at various conferences in the USA. He was known for his extensive number of publications in the learned journals. Once I asked him for his secret of how he was able to be published so often. "Very simple," he replied. " If one journal doesn't take your article, just send it to another one. Somewhere there is a journal that will accept it!"

So this rule has been labelled by me "Stone's Law", since its active inventor was named Dr Stone. I have tried to apply this in my endeavours in the psychological field and have usually found it to be true. The fact is that the more articles are written, the more new journals proliferate to accommodate authors. It must be a nightmare for librarians but it is a fact that the number of academic periodicals is expanding rapidly. Thus, Stone's law is both accurate and a self-perpetuating cause of its own true value.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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