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Venturing out of Reductionism: Taking a Deeper Look Through John Lennon’s “Lucy”

December 3, 2013

By Tim Kasser (Knox College)

On the first day of my upper-level personality class, I pose a series of questions to my students.  I begin by asking how many of them have ever been in a psychology study; everyone raises their hands. I then ask a few of the students to describe the studies they were in; they typically tell me about such things as filling out surveys or pressing keys on a computer quickly or choosing between different options of potential mates, consumer goods, or goals.  I then ask those students to tell me what they believe the researchers have learned about them from their participation in the study.  After a pause, they usually reply with statements such as “I have moderate self-esteem” or “I am pretty bad at math problems” or “I like guys with broad shoulders.”  Finally, I ask what percentage of their whole personality the researcher has learned about from this one study.  That is, if they think about the totality of who they are, what percentage has been uncovered from that one study?  The modal answer is well below 1%.

I pose these questions to my students to begin a conversation about the philosophy of reductionism that drives most research in social and personality psychology.  I try to help them to see that the philosophy of reductionism holds that if researchers can understand each and every little piece of what makes up the phenomenon of interest (in this case, the person), then those pieces can be combined eventually so as to present a full understanding of the phenomenon.  At this point, many of my students, rightfully I think, begin to balk.  They say that while reductionism may provide a substantial understanding of pieces, understanding each piece is not the same as understanding the whole person, or how all of those pieces interact to “create” a person.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the current state of social and personality psychology will probably recognize that my students’ critique of our field is a fitting one.   While some marvelously integrative theories and tremendous lines of research have illuminated crucial features of the human being, far less success has been attained in putting it all together, in understanding how to understand a whole person in all his or her complexity, in understanding the seven-way interactions that probably account for people’s on-going behavior at any moment in their lives.  Perhaps it is not surprising that the field has accomplished so little in this particular regard, given how little financial support there is for such efforts, how rarely we teach our students how to make this grand attempt, and how rarely we engage in such efforts ourselves.

Having spent most of my professional life in the standard reductionistic paradigm, studying materialism, values, and other constructs, and writing articles of the type found in journals like JPSP and PSPB, I decided to de-prioritize this work for a few years and try my hand at deeply understanding why one person did one thing at one point in his life.  I chose to explore why John Lennon wrote the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in the winter of 1966/1967.   In doing so, I of course wanted to maintain a scientific approach to this question, relying on real data and good theorizing instead of anecdotes and hunches.  If we are to have a science of the individual, I believe it must be a science first and foremost.

I began my venture out of reductionism by first describing that which I was trying to understand:  Lennon’s song.  To this end, I adapted various established psychological techniques (such as linguistic analyses, scripting, and association analyses) in order to describe as fully as I could the song Lennon had created at this particular time in his life.  The data I collected from these methods suggested that Lennon’s song:  a) was stripped of emotion; b) was highly distanced from the present moment (rather than immersed in immediate experience); c) was organized around a narrative of long-standing importance to Lennon, namely his unsuccessful desire to be close to a powerful female figure; d) used words Lennon seemed to associate with themes of separation, love, sadness, being comforted, hiding one’s feelings, being insulted, jealousy, and death; and e) had musical characteristics Lennon seemed to associate with feeling depressed, being separated, and desiring connection.

I then studied the man Lennon was when he wrote the song.  I investigated the facts of his childhood and adolescence, and found that I needed to learn more about attachment theory and grief in order to understand his early life.  I read deeply about the year that preceded Lennon’s composition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and found that I needed to learn more about the effects of stress, of major life transitions, and, especially, of taking frequent doses of the drug LSD.  I also explored what I came to call the “activating event,” the moment that spurred the creation of this song.  In this case, that was when Lennon’s almost four-year-old son Julian came home from school with a picture he had made of his friend, Lucy, up in a diamond-filled sky.  So I needed to understand more about Lennon’s relationship with his son and his feelings about being a father.

Once I had brought all of this information to bear, I came to conclude that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, with its manifold characteristics, was created through a complex interaction of Lennon’s attachment style, the way he had (not) grieved over his mother’s death when he was a teen, the stresses he had recently been under, the manner in which LSD had weakened his defenses and allowed long-standing emotional concerns to begin to rise to the surface of his awareness (albeit in a highly disguised manner), and the way in which his own son reminded him of his own childhood.  I then set about testing some aspects of this hypothesis on songs Lennon wrote in the 3 years following his composition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

As I hope readers can see, the explanation I provided for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is not a simple one.  Multiple types of data-analytic approaches were necessary, numerous theories and research literatures had to be integrated, and, the best I can count, a five-way interaction was at work.

Having now completed the project, my reflections on my experience have left with me with a couple of questions for my field.  I wonder if any of us, despite our love of our pet theories and constructs, really and truly believes that anything crucial in our own lives can come close to being fully explained solely by the theory or construct(s) we prefer?  And I wonder if any of us truly believes that a discipline which is so dominated by a reductionistic approach and by uni-theoretical, uni-methodological scientific studies can ever provide a full explanation of what it means to be a person?

As a scientist, it seems to me these questions are worthy of further study.   And as Alan Elms (in Uncovering Lives, 1994, p. 16) said so wonderfully, perhaps “…it’s time for psychologists to sniff a rose or two, instead of merely measuring the mean attitudes of a thousand-person random sample toward red roses versus white.”

Author Information

kasserTim Kasser, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.  He is the author of many articles on values, consumer culture, and well-being.  His most recent book is Lucy in the Mind of Lennon (2013, Oxford University Press).


Elms, A. C. (1994). Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kasser, T. (2013). Lucy in the Mind of Lennon. New York: Oxford University Press.

Image Credit: Cover image, Lucy in the Mind of Lennon, Oxford University Press.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2014 9:42 am

    Loved the fact post, I am a firm believer of the adage “The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts”, yet get so microscopic all the time.You have put it so logically, and stated the obvious so wonderfully simply.Thanks again for helping me clean the cobwebs…

  2. December 7, 2013 12:47 pm

    Bravo, Professor Kasser, for your advocacy of non-reductionistic, personological research! This blog post describes a phenomenological conception of character that might be useful in guiding such research:

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