How to Find Secret Messages in Familiar Stories with Perspective Taking

A simple trick for interpreting ancient myths, modern poetry, and behavioral science

Perspective taking, the act of perceiving a situation from another point of view, is empathy’s cognitive sibling. Like a telescope that peers into another reality, the capacity to understand and feel what others are experiencing exposes buried meaning in what we communicate. While empathy is an affective process refined through experience and practice, perspective taking can be refined with heuristics (quick rules of thumb for decision-making). This essay explores how a simple heuristic borrowed from Shakespeare can open our mind and change what we thought we knew. We will reconsider the greek myth of Oedipus, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and a seminal paper in prospect theory.

Most people know Oedipus as a myth about the subconscious desire for a man to kill his father and marry his mother. Likewise, The Road Not Taken is one of the most well-known poems in America and is generally understood to be a celebration of self-expression and unconventional choices. I was surprised when I first learned that the myth and the poem are about something else. If you want to understand human beings and their stories, then it is important to recognize that not everyone says what they mean or means what they say. We will see how that works out in prospect theory. Sometimes, communication gets complicated by the unconscious and sometimes artists embed multiple levels of meaning. There is a technique for recognizing unreliable narratives and uncovering the more likely interpretations. I call this technique the “the lady doth protest” heuristic, which comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Queen Gertrude’s criticizes Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play.

The Lady Doth Protest Heuristic

That line - “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” - originally refers to the Player Queen from the Murder of Gonzago and her flowery declarations of fidelity to her dying husband. What Hamlet’s mom, Queen Gertrude, means when she exclaimed that “the lady doth protest too much” is that excessive speech and absolute vows on a partner’s deathbed belie buried meanings. 

Let us put ourselves in the Player Queen’s shoes for a moment. If she really loves the Player King, she would simply say so. Maybe she would reminisce on old times. Instead, she goes on and on about how she will never remarry and how her trust and hope will turn to despair. What she really means is revealed by what she does not say and what she repeats too frequently. Queen Gertrude can so easily empathize with the Player Queen because Queen Gertrude has been through the experience of losing her own husband, the former king. Queen Gertrude’s critique that “the lady doth protest” is rooted in empathy and perspective taking. She recognized an inconsistency between what was being said so emphatically and the reality of the situation. This heuristic can be applied far wider than Hamlet’s play-within-a-play. The new perspectives that emerge might surprise you.

Oedipus Rex: A Different Kind of Unconscious Desire 

The unconscious desire Oedipus was considered by Sigmund Freud to be the driving force in Hamlet. In Freud’s book, Interpretation of Dreams, he describes Oedipus as follows: “His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.” Freud may be projecting a bit with his Oedipus Complex, methinks. There is a different kind of unconscious force lurking within the myth of Oedipus.

Before we get into what is really going on, let me briefly recap the story of Oedipus Rex. The story has been re-told in part many times, and the most popular version of the story is Sophocles play, Oedipus Rex, which he wrote in the 5th century BCE. The play starts out with Oedipus as king confronting an epidemic in Thebes. For simplicity sake, I’ll recap the story in chronological order of Oedipus’ life rather than the order in which we learn things in the play. 

It all begins with the Oracle at Delphi telling King Laius of Thebes that any son he has will kill him and marry his wife. Of course, his wife gives birth to a son. In an attempt to sidestep fate, they leave their son in the mountains to die from exposure to the elements. As fate would have it, a shepherd happens to be walking by, spots Oedipus, brings him to the neighboring city of Corinth where the local king and queen adopt him. 

When Oedipus reaches adulthood, he travels to the Oracle at Delphi and learns of his wretched fate. Without knowing that he was adopted or who his biological parents are, he runs away in hopes of protecting his parents. As he is running away, he gets into an altercation at a crossroads and kills a man. This happens to be his biological father, King Laius. With half of the prophecy unknowingly fulfilled, Oedipus heads towards Thebes and solves the Sphinx’s riddle, which saves Thebes and earns Oedipus deep admiration and respect with the community. In light of Oedipus’ valor and the recent vacancy of the throne, he is asked to become king. He becomes king and marries the current queen whom he does not realize is his biological mother. Now, the prophecy is complete, and Oedipus rules Thebes. 

Some time later, there is an epidemic in Thebes and lots of people die. Today, we might suggest lots of hand washing, social distancing, self-isolation, and and if we had enough supply, proper use of N95 respirator masks. In ancient times, there was little understanding of microbiology or epidemiology. Instead, the ancients understood epidemics as acts of the gods. Returning to the myth, the Oracle at Delphi is approached for wisdom and advice. The oracle explains that Thebes is harboring something shameful and sinful and that the epidemic will continue until King Laius’ murderer is brought to justice. Naturally, Oedipus vows to bring the murderer to justice. Long story, short: the people of Thebes discover Oedipus killed the former king. When Oedipus realizes who is biological parents are, he gauges his eyes out, his wife/biological mother commits suicide, and he is cast out of Thebes. 

At first glance, Freud seems right about Oedipus representing some kind of latent human tendency towards parricide and incest. But, Sophocles’ play tells the story in a different order. The order matters here. First, King Oedipus is confronted with an epidemic in Thebes. Then, this whole story unravels where we, the audience, discover Oedipus to be the shameful abhorrence responsible for society’s woes. Ultimately, Oedipus is banished, and Thebes is restored to peace and health. In light of modern science, we know that as ghastly as parricide and incest are, they have nothing to do with epidemics. Likewise, banishing a single person will not end an epidemic outbreak, so there is something that does not add up. It is possible that myths are not supposed to add up, but imagine for a moment, that there is some sort of logic to them. Something mysterious is driving the narrative of the epidemic, its explanation, and its resolution.

If we suppose that Oedipus was a real king who started as an outsider, experienced a meteoric rise to power and social status, and was subsequently confronted with a real epidemic, then the indictment of Oedipus as the sole cause of an epidemic caused by him unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother feels both absurd and familiar. This story feels familiar because it is a classic case of scapegoating, which is the primary unconscious narrative of Oedipus Rex. If you’re curious about digging deeper, this interpretation draws from an essay by René Girard titled Generative Scapegoating in the book Origins of Violence. When we start to understand how a rapid rise of an outsider can engender extreme jealousy, we start to see how scapegoating can manifest. Moreover, when we consider where oral tradition, myths, and stories come from, we remember that history can only be written by those who survive. We need to take the storyteller’s perspective into account. If the storyteller is the persecutor of unconscious scapegoating, then we would expect that the story portrays the victim as obviously guilty. And, it does so to the extreme. The double allegation of parricide and incest feels like a classic instance of “the lady doth protest.” If Oedipus really caused the epidemic, why not describe him as symptomatic with a fever or cough. The nature of stories by unconscious persecutors is that they do not directly address scapegoating nor are they trying to hide scapegoating because they are unaware of it. With a bit of perspective, we sense this story’s unconscious core. Oedipus is primarily a story about post-hoc rationalization justifying unconscious scapegoating.

Constant Changing Crossroads

The theme of finding one’s destiny at a crossroads is timeless, and it pops up again in The Road Not Taken. I share the poem below with a couple phrases highlighted for ease of reference.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Without emphasizing these phrases, it is easy to skim the poetic language, arrive at the end of the poem, and feel a deep resonance with the value of pioneering and non-conformity. But, there is really so much more. The poem is about two roads leading off in different directions that otherwise appear the same. The roads are repeatedly described as interchangeable: “as just as fair,” “really about the same,” and “equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” The second to last line, “I took the one less traveled by” seems incongruous with the rest of the poem.  At the end, we are left curious as to why a choice between equals is no longer cast as such and deep meaning could follow such an inconsistency. Looking back at that triple repetition of similarity, there is certainly some Gertrudian perspective taking to be had.

Let us put ourselves in the shoes of the poem’s narrator. The poem is narrated in the past tense until the first line of the last stanza: “I shall be telling this with a sigh.” The story is being told now, but the narrator knows something about the nature of narratives: they want to be justified. The narrator’s current self knows she made a decision among equals, but she also realizes that her future self will unconsciously rationalize and retell the choice as a pioneering decision that determined everything. Hence, a sigh at the inevitability of time and the subtle unconscious forces of our minds. Despite simple appearances, The Road Not Taken is filled with complexities.

The Framing of Decisions and Psychology of Choice

The way we frame questions can engage our subconscious and encourage opposite decisions for equivalent contexts. This example from behavioral science ties together nicely with both the current 2020 coronavirus epidemic and the Oedipus myth with respect to utilitarian approaches to dealing with an epidemic. In a 1981 experiment directed towards a wide range of participants including physicians and university faculty, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky asked people to consider the following:

“Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows.”

Then, they randomly assigned respondents to one of two problems: 

Problem 1: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?

Problem 2: If Program C is adopted 400 people will die. If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?

If you look closely, these two problems are nearly identical apart from whether they are framed as lives saved or deaths. The results show that participants responded quite differently to the two problems. People were more risk averse when the problem was framed with gains (choosing to save the sure 200) and more risk taking when the problem was framed with losses (not choosing the sure death of 400). What is powerful about this example is how it offers empirical evidence for how easy it is for outside forces to affect our perspective and decision making process. As a motivating example of prospect theory, framing questions quickly becomes an ethical matter.

Now, you might be wondering, where does the “lady doth protest” heuristic come into play here? Both problems contain repetitions, which might tip participants to the need for perspective taking. For example in problem one, if there is a ⅓ probability that 600 people will be saved, then we should already know there is a ⅔ probability they will not be. 

Beyond tipping participants to the need for perspective taking, there may be some meta-perspective taking here. By meta-perspective taking, I mean perspective taking on perspective taking. The researchers are trying to be as explicit as possible, but they are measuring decision making, which they assume encompasses both explicit (reasoning) and implicit (intuition) processes. Probabilities are a little annoying and lots of people do not like to think about them. Should we interpret these results to mean that the participants are using their intuition and intuition is easily manipulatable? Maybe, there is another heuristic at play here. In order to study the variety of perspectives on what might be going on, we do more experiments to explore if the responses are relatively similar if we replace 200 and 400 with 300 and ⅓ and ⅔ with ½? Likewise, what if we make the probabilities difficult to calculate but such that risk aversion in the gain framing is sub-optimal (or likewise risk taking in the loss framing is sub-optimal)? Or better yet, what if the same respondents saw both questions? Would they change their answer seeing the second question framed differently? If they are exposed to this idea once, does it inoculate them against inconsistencies in the future? Some of these questions have been explored, and these questions get at to what degree some experiment-induced bias is at play and how this might generalize to the real world. While this is a well worn area of research, there are plenty of open questions. For example, an understanding of when people are aware of opportunities to frame and when they are vulnerable to framed questions could helps to guide business, ethics, laws, and more.

That’s a wrap

From Sophocles to Kahneman and Tversky with Shakespeare and Frost in between, the take-away here is that perspective taking can sometimes be wrapped into a neat heuristic. Who would not want a chance to better communicate, further understand what each other mean, and more deeply examine why we make the decisions that we make?

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