Meaning Lab
#105: What can psychology tell us about meaning? (feat. Paul Bloom)

#105: What can psychology tell us about meaning? (feat. Paul Bloom)

Empirical evidence suggests people report some pursuits as more meaningful than others. Paul argues these pursuits are intrinsically meaningfully. I'm not convinced.

Recently, I’ve been workshopping an idea. Basically, I don’t believe there is such thing as an activity that is intrinsically meaningful.

Sure, there are activities which people consistently endorse as meaningful pursuits: having kids, productive careers, learning a language, that sort of thing. And while there is an empirical fact about what sort of activities members of our culture consider meaningful, this is not because these activities are meaningful in some fundamental way. Rather, what this empirical fact captures is that there is a limited set of readily available cultural stories about where meaning comes from. We tend to say that’s where we, personally, derive meaning from, because that’s the default story about meaning our culture prescribes. In fact, anything that can be construed as meaningful—if you tell the story right.

Most recently I argued this point in a piece called meaning is post-hoc, where my claim was that we can’t predict ahead of time what will be meaningful and what won’t. This is because stories are always told retrospectively—and meaning depends entirely on the stories we tell. In particular, I’m skeptical of the traditional psychological narrative about meaning (“here is the set of activities people tend to derive meaning from”) because whenever academics describe someone who is engaged in canonically meaningful activities, it sounds an awful lot like an abstract version of what a university professor does. I think that really underestimates the diversity of how people conceive of meaning and how devoted they are to finding it. Anthropology and sociology are full of examples along the lines of “Here’s some society that we think of as very different from elite western society and yet here they are spending all this time developing sophisticated theories about their place in the world.” One of my personal favorites is The Dignity of Working Men by Michèle Lamont. In short, I believe—at least at present—that there are no intrinsically meaningful activities because you can look back on any activity and come up with a way of construing it as meaningful.

In this conversation, I had the privilege of honing this idea against one of the sharpest minds in the field. Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Toronto, previously based at Yale. Between these institutions and his online course, he has taught introductory psychology to millions of bright young students. This course laid the foundation for his latest book, Psych: The Story of the Human Mind.

Paul has thought a lot about the problem of meaning, both in this book and in his previous book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. We approach the topic via entry points from his latest book (particularly Freud), and eventually I get around to pitching him my latest ideas. By no means do I immediately bring him around to my view. A lot of what we disagree on, I think, depends on what goes beyond the purview of psychology and what doesn’t. Sometimes it’s hard to know where the draw those lines.

A conversation with Paul is always enlightening, and at least from my own perspective I think this conversation strikes a nice balance between drawing out some of the highlights of Paul’s broad base of thinking with some of the problems I’ve most directly been grappling with in my own thought.


Paul’s latest book is Psych: The Story of the Human Mind. It’s available now.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. Full conversation available via the podcast.]

Your new book, Psych is adapted from your intro to psychology course. There’s a lot in there that will be familiar to students of the field, but something that I thought was both completely novel and completely brilliant was your theory about how to use the Stroop task to uncover spies, inspired by watching the TV show “the Americans.” Can you can you say a little bit about how that works?

Yeah, I’m very pleased about that. It’s probably my only contribution to espionage. So the idea of the Stroop task is about the involuntary nature of consciousness. You have to look at a bunch of colors, and then just say what color they are. So red, yellow, blue, green—that’s fine. Now the colors are in the shape of words. If the word is in the same color—yellow in yellow, red in red—that’s easy. But now you have the word red, but it’s in blue. So now you have to read this list of words (for example the word green but’s colored in yellow) and say the words when its meaning is at odds with the color its written in. The Stroop effect is that your knowledge of English makes this harder, as there’s an involuntary lag in your response while you’re processing the tension between what’s written and its meaning.

My idea was you take people who you believe are Russian spies (this is from the TV show “The Americans”). They deny being Russian, and say “We don’t know Russian at all,” in their perfect American accents. Yeah, okay, fine. And then you give them a version of the Stroop task: colored versions of Russian words. Now, I don’t speak any Russian. So if I was to read them, I’d go boom, red. Or boom, yellow. Whatever. But because they’re Russian, when the color is at odds with the color word in Russian, this should be hard for the Russian speakers. They can’t not read the words, and it slows them down. And then when you look at their slowing down time, you can figure out whether they’re spies.

That’s so good. I love that.

The whole book is worth it just for the espionage.

Going back to psychology more generally, I want to talk about Freud. Many people will have this vague sense that that Freud introduced or elaborated on the concept of the unconscious in the way that we think of it now. This is something you talk about in the book. Can you go into that—in terms of what you think people misunderstand or don’t know about what he did?

Yeah, so I think if you ask people name a psychologist, they named Jordan Peterson. But after that, they would name Sigmund Freud. One survey named Freud as the most popular psychologist ever. But within the field he is reviled.

You know, people come to universities, like University of Toronto, or Yale University, and ask “Where’s my course on Freud? I want to learn about Freud.” And there’s nothing like that. Sure, Freud is studied in universities, but he’s in the English Department. He’s in the humanities, maybe even philosophy. But he is considered an embarrassment in psychology.

And he’s considered an embarrassment in psychology, in large part, because just about everything he said is insane. It’s not even, like, false. It’s crazy ideas like the enormous formative power on every child’s life of walking in on his parents and seeing them having sex. That’s a big thing for Freud. Also, penis envy. The power of dreams to reveal the secrets of the mind. Incredible unconscious dynamics where the secrets of life spill out of these amazing fantastical stories about various mental illnesses. So, you know, I think that that a lot of psychologists shy away from him because he got so many things wrong.

But there are two reasons why I devote a chapter to him early on in my book. One is that he’s a figure of immense importance. In everyday life, you can’t understand what people say or what they think about the mind if you don’t know Freud. So it’s like an atheist—even an atheist has to read the Bible. An atheist has to know what people are talking about when they reference the Bible. And even if you think Freud is nonsense, other people believe in talking about people being repressed, or in anal-retentive personalities. They talk about the super ego, and it’s worth knowing what they mean.

So you might want to know Freud for his influence, but I think it’s more than that. I think Freud got some important things wrong. In fact, he got everything unimportant, specific thing wrong. But I also think Freud got some important things right. What he got right was the importance of the unconscious: the idea that so many of our beliefs and desires, so much of what motivates us to do what we do, go on under the surface. And this insight gets rediscovered again and again. It gets rediscovered by neuroscientists who talk about confabulation—where you jolt a patient in their head, and then they laugh because you jolted them. Then you ask “Why are you laughing?” and they believe it’s because you said something funny. They make up a story. This sort of post-hoc explanation also comes up for moral psychology, say when Jon Haidt talks about moral dumbfounding, where someone has a moral gut feeling that something is wrong, though they can’t tell you why. Now, all of that is indebted to Freud. Freud was the one who brought the unconscious to the field’s consciousness

I know there are people who say they have their life story, a life narrative. But I often wonder whether it gets really overstated.

I actually think there’s another aspect that’s important here. So most of what you talked about was in terms of Freud’s contribution to the content of psychology. He was the one who appreciated just how much work the unconscious was doing in our minds. But the second contribution—which I would argue was equally important—was one of methodology. This is the idea of interpretation. Basically, Freud pioneered the idea that if you made observations about the right kind of behavior—a dream, a slip of the tongue, that sort of thing—then you could essentially read that behavior in the same way you’d read a novel. Instead of using scientific experimentation to understand what it is, you use interpretative methods to figure out what it means. You can also map these two different methodological approaches onto CP Snow’s two cultures. Scientists experiment; Humanists interpret.

Freud was really the first one to take seriously the idea that we could learn something important about mind and behavior by applying interpretation. And in my reading, one of the great tragedies of 20th century psychology is that no one ever really found a way to make this work. Psychology became an exclusively experimental science. Which is good for rigor. But I think it dramatically overestimates the scope of what scientific studies can give insight to. Contemporary psychology is essentially Behaviorism 2.0—where what we’re doing looks a lot like what someone like BF Skinner was doing and almost nothing like what Freud was doing; we just try to do it without the philosophical baggage.

Personally, I think it’s led to dramatically impoverished theories of meaning. At any rate, this is why Freud today is more influential in literature and anthropology departments, because they’re the ones who are happy to draw on the kind of interpretative methods he employed—while the psychologists just sort of sit there and roll their eyes at him.

That’s interesting. I find what you’re saying to be pretty accurate. But what’s interesting is that you think it’s a bad thing—what happened. So a different way of viewing it is that you’re exactly right: the interpretive style of Freud went off to the literary scholars, and in a different way to journalists. So you know, journalists, they’re interviewing somebody, they are reporting on a scene—and they’re trying to explain what happened. And maybe they try to explain some different levels, one may be an overt attempt at explaining what people are thinking and so on. But there’s no experiment. There’s no data in any in any interesting sense. There’s nothing to be replicated. And I think a world without somebody to give this empirical perspective that can be replicated is a really impoverished world. A world without journalists be a really impoverished world, too.

But I guess I’m not as convinced as you that psychologists need to employ these tools. I’m not as convinced that what Freud was doing should be part of a scientific toolkit. Experiments are crucial because when it comes to our own observations and our own memory, no story is true. No good story happened the way somebody reported it.

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So let’s take some of the principles we’ve been talking about with meaning and stories and Freud, and examine some of your claims not only from your new book Psych, but also The Sweet Spot, on the pleasures of suffering in the search for meaning. One claim you consistently make is this idea that I think a lot of people would endorse: we humans are storytellers. It’s pretty uncontroversial that we care about stories. And these stories provide a fundamental structure for human life and society.

But I think what I take issue with is that it gives us a little bit too much credit. We’re storytellers, but not necessarily good ones. Everyone can connect with a good story, but not everyone can tell one. And I think this applies to the stories we tell about ourselves and our own life, as well—not just that not everyone can write a novel. When we look at the stories of our own life, we get stuck in the same plot devices, we rely on the same narrative tricks over and over again. And maybe we even suffer from a lack of imagination. So how does that square with your thinking?

I don’t remember everything I’ve said about storytelling in the past, so I’ll just take in from the banal claim that humans are natural storytellers. We live the lives of our stories: the stories tell us what matters and what doesn’t, and so on. And, of course, there’s a deep truth to this. If something significant happened to you, and I asked you about it, you tell it to me often, that’s a story and have a beginning, a middle and an end that is imposed upon you because you’re a good communicator—because that’s how you hold things in your mind. And I know there are people who say they have their life story, a life narrative. But I often wonder whether it gets really overstated.

So first thing, there are a lot of differences that people have in their everyday conscious experience. I’ve been reading more and more about this. Some people have powerful visual imagery, some people have not. Some people have a voice in their head. Others don’t, surprisingly. One other difference is life stories and narrative. And I think some people are natural storytellers. And I think this is probably common in highly literate environments. But I think some people aren’t. I forget the philosopher, but someone write an article saying: “My life isn’t a story. I don’t have a story about my life. I don’t have a narrative story about my life. It’s not a story of redemption. It’s not a story of I try, then I succeed or I reached a peak and I fell. It’s not. It’s not you know, Icarus. It’s not Achilles. It’s just no other story. It’s one damn thing after another.” And I think that sometimes we get the narrative that people are storytellers, because we put them in situation and badgered them to tell stories. And then they obligingly do. You know, suppose my day was just my day—it was “I did this” and “I did this other thing.” And then my wife says, “So how was your day?” Well, to be an obliging communicator, normal person, I gotta do better than that. I started off grey, and then this, and you’d tell a story. But the stories are products of social demands. They’re not there to start with. And I wonder all this stuff about stories and narratives—is this a little bit overblown?

Maybe. But perhaps we can get at stories by way of your theory of meaning. First off, you make it pretty clear that any claims you make on this front are pretty lightly held. And you’re not super committed to the assertion that psychology has its theories of meaning on lock. Fair enough.

But one thing you’re pretty clear on in The Sweet Spot is that some activities are more meaningful than others. The kind of simplest example you give is of one person who spends her days working on important projects and spending time with her family and another person who spends her days smoking weed and tweeting nonsense. You take this as a fairly airtight instance of someone who is engaged in meaningful activity versus someone who is not. Specifically, you cite philosophers who think that one has to consider their life in some explicit way, by examining it from a remove, as being wrong. In other words, some activities are more intrinsically meaningful than others. I don’t know if I believe that. Can you say a little bit about how you think about meaningfulness, starting from this sort of case?

What I’m trying to do here is unpack the intuitive notion of meaning that people possess. So I’m not sure of what meaning really is in a definitional sense, but I think we have a gut sense. And I certainly do believe that some activities are more meaningful than others.

There are really two things here: it’s worthwhile making a distinction between meaningful experiences and meaningful pursuits. So meaningful experiences, to be very brief, can be high intensity and can be something you didn’t work for. Being present at the birth of your child could be a meaningful experience. Even even if you weren’t the one who put much physical effort into it. Being mutilated, or being in a serious accident can be meaningful.

And so I’m more interested in meaningful pursuits. So why are some pursuits meaning to us and not not others? Why is climbing Mount Everest and going to war and raising children meaningful? But, you know, me walking around my desk 10 times, it’s not meaningful.

I think there’s a reason why some pursuits are thought of as meaningful in our society, like having children or going to war. I think for one thing, these are often the same things found meaningful in other societies, including preliterate societies. My understanding is that it’s not random. You’re not going to go somewhere and ask someone what’s the most meaningful thing they’ve ever done in their life, and they said, “I hopped on one foot for five minutes.” That’s not going to happen. It’s going to be big things. So I think this speaks to how to make something meaningful. It seems like this is a flat out empirical question.

For this, you’re making claims about people in general—you say that if you go to most Americans, and we figure out some way to ask the question, “Do you have a life story?” I don’t know. But it’s a different claim from “Can you think of one?” I’m skeptical of the idea that you are walking around with a story of your life that has certain story-like elements, such as a direction, a theme, or plot twists—you know, redemption and failure. People like Dan McAdams have done these studies and asked people about it. But I always worry about how much it’s the case that people walk into an experiment without a life story and then walk out of a full one. Sort of like therapy. You know, the therapist after year ten says, “I have recovered from you the full dynamic of your life, the story that made you you.” And whether it’s true or not, what more typically happened was they worked with the client to create it.

So to put your claim in an experiment, we find a good way of asking people: “Do you have a life story?” You predict that a large proportion of people would say yes, maybe 80% to 90%. I predict not as many. I predict 20% to 30%.

I also treat the question of meaning as very separate from the question of life-story, which I think is a bit different. I’m very careful in my books to say, I’m not gonna ask the question, “What’s the meaning of a life?” I don’t think lives have meaning. So I’m talking about meanings in terms of the meaning of a purposeful activity. So I thought you and I were talking about a different issue, and it was very, very interesting issue, which is do people sort of have a story of their life? And it seems to me that you went from a very strong and interesting claim—which is, yes, they do; most people are walking around with it—to a claim, which is maybe not boring, but is much weaker. Which is, if you ask people, they could come up with one. I don’t doubt that people aren’t dumb.


That’s a good distinction. And I do what to stick firmly with that stronger claim. I even want to go beyond what we’re talking about and say that there’s actually another additional thing that’s worth considering here: which is that I think the way that we tell the stories of our lives can be better or worse. Not necessarily in the sense of less or more accurate, but they can be more or less useful.

And so this is something that’s come up in own life recently, with one of my close personal relationships. Something, you know, ostensibly very negative happened to her. And one of the things we’ve been talking about is, What is the way you’re going to tell the story of how this happened? And I think this is very sympathetic to The Sweet Spot, about suffering and how it relates meaning overall. How are you going to tell the story of this? And I don’t think there’s one right answer; I think there’s a sort of pluralistic way to evaluate how good that story is. But I think we underestimate the extent to which we can alter the stories that we tell about ourselves, the way through which they’re flexible, the way in which we can say, well, you know, there actually was this turning point, and it may not have been reaching into a doughnut box, or you know, or whatever. But we can take any superficial contents, and with the right techniques—anything can be used to create a fundamentally better story and a more constructive one, one that has higher utility in your own life, and for understanding what you’re doing now have done in the past and try and do in the future. And I think that’s a very important aspect that has to do with the way we construct meaning via stories and all of that sort of stuff, which may not necessarily be the core of the studies that you’re citing, but it’s nonetheless very important for the psychological understanding of the way meaning works. Does that make any sense?

It’s interesting, I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, in some way, this is kind of what a lot of my books have been about this—this insight by Shakespeare, there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so—that you could you could take an experience and construed in different ways. And so I liked that idea. And I think the story is one tells about an event affects how you process it, how you remember it, what you take from it, and so on. But my book Sweet Spot is about chosen suffering, and I say chosen suffering is great. It’s part of meaningful pursuit as part of pleasure is part of all sorts of things. But I’m very careful to talk about unchosen suffering and say unchosen suffering is a different animal. Your house burns down, your child dies, you get a terrible illness, you get assaulted—that’s just bad stuff that happens to you. But someone might say, Look, you have power of how to construe it. And you could construe this event that would otherwise be terrible, as an opportunity for growth for transcendence. And there’s a language called Post Traumatic Growth, where it is good things transform into a story of redemption of recovery. And I will be crazy to doubt that would ever happen. But I don’t think you should expect that to happen.

I say a lot of unintuitive things in my in my books. But this isn’t one of those times: it’s very intuitive and obvious what’s going on here, which is bad stuff is often just bad stuff—and it’s bad for you best not to get into a car accident, best not to get cancer. I don’t think I’m the person who can tell cancer victims what to do. So if they want to try to transform their cancer into a good story, all the more power to them. But I would also never tell somebody who told their story like: I went and got cancer, and that sucked. And I got better. But I lost a year in my life and I still have health problems that cost me a lot of money. What a bad thing that happened to me? Yeah, it was. To me, that’s a pretty realistic story you got there. Do you disagree with any of that?


No, not right off the bat. I think people have a right to their to telling the story that the way they want to, which I think is in line with what you’re saying about the cancer survivor. And I don’t have any significant disputes with that. I do think that I would still say we underestimate our ability to rewrite those stories and the power of rewriting those stories. And so I wouldn’t say that’s, you know, my first thing that I’m going to is reply tweet to the cancer survivor who’s saying, “Hey, I survived cancer and it sucked. That’s my story.” That’s not that’s not the context in which I’m gonna bust out this insight. But I do maintain that the mechanism of meaning-making is very important because it opens up the space of possibilities of how we can tell a story, how flexible those are, and what that can do for us.

Maybe you’re right, but this seems like an empirical question. And it’s an important empirical question. There’s probably data on it already. If I told you about somebody who broke his arm, and then we were speculating as to whether the arm is going to be stronger than it would be six months later, we’d probably both shrug and say, “Hmm, I wonder what happens when these things happen? I bet there’s a study. I wonder what the doctors say?” That it’s not a matter of opinion. So I would say there’s two different questions. The question of what happens to a particular individual could be a novelist question, a journalist question. And it’ll be fascinating to what happens and how that works. But the question of whether or not having a child die—and what it does to you later on—seems to be the sort of thing that you take one thousand people whose children died and see how they are later on.

Final question, Paul: what are what are three books that have most influenced the way you think?

Flow by Csikszentmihalyi. I think I read it when I was in my 30s, and it talked about the satisfaction you have from being engaged in activities. It describes the lives of people in flow—jazz musicians, rock climbers, and so on—and it made me want to live a life of flow. And I have not lived a life of flow, but I’ve lived life with more flow than I would have had if I hadn’t read that book.

And then Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It was a really moving book for me about his Holocaust narrative about what it took to survive in the camps. And there by the way, just to give a concession to you, is that it’s a book with no empirical studies here. It is just his observations, his introspective analysis of what it was like to be himself, and his interpretation of the lives of others. But I think there’s something of real, real value there.

And I didn’t know what to do with the third book. I read a lot of novels. I think the novel that affected me the most when I was a kid were the kind of novels that kids tend to read. I read a lot of science fiction as a teenager, for example Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. And that sort of thing which involves, you know, scientists and engineers and explorers going out into space. And I think to some extent that sort of thing has shaped my moral view—so that, you know, no matter what he does, I’ll always retain a soft spot for Elon Musk for wanting to fly to the moon and stuff like that. I have this outsized respect for scientists and for courageous people. And so these books have shaped me in that way.

Those are great choices, Paul. Thanks for coming on the show.

Tons of fun! Have me back.

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This was my second interview with Paul Bloom. Paul was generous enough to be my second-ever podcast guest. Here’s the original interview:

Meaning Lab
#2: Paul Bloom on Picking the Perfect Title
Listen now (61 min) | This is Cognitive Revolution, my show about the personal side of the intellectual journey. Each week, I interview an eminent scientist, writer, or academic about the experiences that shaped their ideas. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts…
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Meaning Lab
Welcome to the Meaning Lab podcast. In each episode, I talk to a scientist, author, or artist about their approach to meaning-making — from language, to productivity, to writing, to travel. It's all fair game, as long as it gets us closer to understanding how we make sense of the world and our place in it.