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34 What Is Psychological Criticism?

psychological literature definition

One of the key principles of psychological criticism is the idea that literature can be used to explore and understand the human psyche, including unconscious and repressed desires and fears. For example, psychoanalytic criticism might explore how the characters in a work of literature are shaped by their early childhood experiences or their relationships with their parents.

Psychological criticism can be applied to any genre of literature, from poetry to novels to plays, and can be used to analyze a wide range of literary works, from classic literature to contemporary bestsellers. It is often used in conjunction with other critical approaches, such as feminist or postcolonial criticism, to explore the ways in which psychological factors intersect with social and cultural factors in the creation and interpretation of literary works.

Learning Objectives

  • Deliberate on what approach best suits particular texts and purposes (CLO 1.4)
  • Using a literary theory, choose appropriate elements of literature (formal, content, or context) to focus on in support of an interpretation (CLO 2.3)
  • Be exposed to a variety of critical strategies through literary theory lenses, such as formalism/New Criticism, reader-response, structuralism, deconstruction, historical and cultural approaches (New Historicism, postcolonial, Marxism), psychological approaches, feminism, and queer theory. (CLO 4.2)
  • Learn to make effective choices about applying critical strategies to texts that demonstrate awareness of the strategy’s assumptions and expectations, the text’s literary maneuvers, and the stance one takes in literary interpretation (CLO 4.4)
  • Be exposed to the diversity of human experience, thought, politics, and conditions through the application of critical theory (CLO 6.4)

Excerpts from Psychological Criticism Scholarship

I have a confession to make that is likely rooted in my unconscious (or perhaps I am repressing something): I don’t much care for Sigmund Freud. But his psychoanalytic approach underpins psychological criticism in literary studies, so it’s important to be aware of psychoanalytic concepts and how they can be used in literary analysis. We will read a few examples of psychological criticism below, starting with a primary text, a theoretical explanation of psychoanalytic theory, Freud’s “First Lecture” (1920). In this reading, Freud gives a broad outline of the two main tenets of his theories: 1) that our behaviors are often indicators of psychic processes that are unconscious; and 2) that sexual impulses are at the root of mental disorders as well as cultural achievements. In the second and third readings, I share two example of literary criticism, one written by a medical doctor in 1910 that use Freud’s Oedipus complex theories to explicate William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and the second, a modern example of psychological theory applied to the same play. To appreciate how influential Freud’s theories have been on the study of  Hamlet , try a simple JSTOR search with “Freud” and “Hamlet” as your key terms. When I tried this in October 2023, the search yielded 7,420 results.

From “First Lecture” in  A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud (1920)

With two of its assertions, psychoanalysis offends the whole world and draws aversion upon itself. One of these assertions offends an intellectual prejudice, the other an aesthetic-moral one. Let us not think too lightly of these prejudices; they are powerful things, remnants of useful, even necessary, developments of mankind. They are retained through powerful affects, and the battle against them is a hard one. The first of these displeasing assertions of psychoanalysis is this, that the psychic processes are in themselves unconscious, and that those which are conscious are merely isolated acts and parts of the total psychic life. Recollect that we are, on the contrary, accustomed to identify the psychic with the conscious. Consciousness actually means for us the distinguishing characteristic of the psychic life, and psychology is the science of the content of consciousness. Indeed, so obvious does this identification seem to us that we consider its slightest contradiction obvious nonsense, and yet psychoanalysis cannot avoid raising this contradiction; it cannot accept the identity of the conscious with the psychic. Its definition of the psychic affirms that they are processes of the nature of feeling, thinking, willing; and it must assert that there is such a thing as unconscious thinking and unconscious willing. But with this assertion psychoanalysis has alienated, to start with, the sympathy of all friends of sober science, and has laid itself open to the suspicion of being a fantastic mystery study which would build in darkness and fish in murky waters. You, however, ladies and gentlemen, naturally cannot as yet understand what justification I have for stigmatizing as a prejudice so abstract a phrase as this one, that “the psychic is consciousness.” You cannot know what evaluation can have led to the denial of the unconscious, if such a thing really exists, and what advantage may have resulted from this denial. It sounds like a mere argument over words whether one shall say that the psychic coincides with the conscious or whether one shall extend it beyond that, and yet I can assure you that by the acceptance of unconscious processes you have paved the way for a decisively new orientation in the world and in science. Just as little can you guess how intimate a connection this initial boldness of psychoanalysis has with the one which follows. The next assertion which psychoanalysis proclaims as one of its discoveries, affirms that those instinctive impulses which one can only call sexual in the narrower as well as in the wider sense, play an uncommonly large role in the causation of nervous and mental diseases, and that those impulses are a causation which has never been adequately appreciated. Nay, indeed, psychoanalysis claims that these same sexual impulses have made contributions whose value cannot be overestimated to the highest cultural, artistic and social achievements of the human mind. According to my experience, the aversion to this conclusion of psychoanalysis is the most significant source of the opposition which it encounters. Would you like to know how we explain this fact? We believe that civilization was forged by the driving force of vital necessity, at the cost of instinct-satisfaction, and that the process is to a large extent constantly repeated anew, since each individual who newly enters the human community repeats the sacrifices of his instinct-satisfaction for the sake of the common good. Among the instinctive forces thus utilized, the sexual impulses play a significant role. They are thereby sublimated, i.e., they are diverted from their sexual goals and directed to ends socially higher and no longer sexual. But this result is unstable. The sexual instincts are poorly tamed. Each individual who wishes to ally himself with the achievements of civilization is exposed to the danger of having his sexual instincts rebel against this sublimation. Society can conceive of no more serious menace to its civilization than would arise through the satisfying of the sexual instincts by their redirection toward their original goals. Society, therefore, does not relish being reminded of this ticklish spot in its origin; it has no interest in having the strength of the sexual instincts recognized and the meaning of the sexual life to the individual clearly delineated. On the contrary, society has taken the course of diverting attention from this whole field. This is the reason why society will not tolerate the above-mentioned results of psychoanalytic research, and would prefer to brand it as aesthetically offensive and morally objectionable or dangerous. Since, however, one cannot attack an ostensibly objective result of scientific inquiry with such objections, the criticism must be translated to an intellectual level if it is to be voiced. But it is a predisposition of human nature to consider an unpleasant idea untrue, and then it is easy to find arguments against it. Society thus brands what is unpleasant as untrue, denying the conclusions of psychoanalysis with logical and pertinent arguments. These arguments originate from affective sources, however, and society holds to these prejudices against all attempts at refutation.

Excerpts from “The Œdipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive” by Ernest Jones (1910)

The particular problem of Hamlet, with which this paper is concerned, is intimately related to some of the most frequently recurring problems that are presented in the course of psycho-analysis [sic], and it has thus seemed possible to secure a new point of view from which an answer might be offered to questions that have baffled attempts made along less technical routes. Some of the most competent literary authorities have freely acknowledged the inadequacy of all the solutions of the problem that have up to the present been offered, and from a psychological point of view this inadequacy is still more evident. The aim of the present paper is to expound an hypothesis which Freud some nine years ago suggested in one of the footnotes to his Traumdeutung ,·so far as I am aware it has not been critically discussed since its publication. Before attempting this it will be necessary to make a few general remarks about the nature of the problem and the previous solutions that have been offered. The problem presented by the tragedy of Hamlet is one of peculiar interest in at least two respects. In the first place the play is almost universally considered to be the chief masterpiece of one of the greatest minds the world has known. It probably expresses the core of Shakspere’s [sic] philosophy and outlook on life as no other work of his does, and so far excels all his other writings that many competent critics would place it on an entirely separate level from them. It may be expected, therefore, that anything which will give us the key to the inner meaning of the play will necessarily give us the clue to much of the deeper workings of Shakspere’s mind. In the second place the intrinsic interest of the play is exceedingly great. The central mystery in it, namely the cause of Hamlet’s hesitancy in seeking to obtain revenge for the murder of his father, has well been called the Sphinx of modern Literature. It has given rise to a regiment of hypotheses, and to a large library of critical and controversial literature; this is mainly German and for the most part has grown up in the past fifty years. No review of the literature will here be attempted…. The most important hypotheses that have been put forward are sub-varieties of three main points of view. The first of these sees the difficulty in the performance of the task in Hamlet’s temperament, which is not suited to effective action of any kind; the second sees it in the nature of the task, which is such as to be almost impossible of performance by any one; and the third in some special feature in the nature of the task which renders it peculiarly difficult or repugnant to Hamlet…. No disconnected and meaningless drama could have produced the effects on its audiences that Hamlet has continuously done for the past three centuries. The underlying meaning of the drama may be totally obscure, but that there is one, and one which touches on problems of vital interest to the human heart, is empirically demonstrated by the uniform success with which the drama appeals to the most diverse audiences. To hold the contrary is to deny all the canons of dramatic art accepted since the time of Aristotle. Hamlet as a masterpiece stands or falls by these canons. We are compelled then to take the position that there is some cause for Hamlet’s vacillation which has not yet been fathomed. If this lies neither in his incapacity for action in general, nor in the inordinate difficulty of the task in question, then it must of necessity lie in the third possibility, namely in some special feature of the task that renders it repugnant to him. This conclusion, that Hamlet at heart does not want to carry out the task, seems so obvious that it is hard to see how any critical reader of the play could avoid making it…. It may be asked: why has the poet not put in a clearer light the mental trend we are trying to discover? Strange as it may appear, the answer is the same as in the case of Hamlet himself, namely, he could not, because he was unaware of its nature. We shall later deal with this matter in connection with the relation of the poet to the play. But, if the motive of the play is so obscure, to what can we attribute its powerful effect on the audience? This can only be because the hero’s conflict finds its echo in a similar inner conflict in the mind of the hearer, and the more intense is this already present conflict the greater is the effect of the drama. Again, the hearer himself does not know the inner cause of the conflict in his mind, but experiences only the outer manifestations of it. We thus reach the apparent paradox that the hero, the poet, and the audience are all profoundly moved by feelings due to a conflict of the source of which they are unaware [emphasis added]. The extensive experience of the psycho-analytic researches carried out by Freud and his school during the past twenty years has amply demonstrated that certain kinds of mental processes shew a greater tendency to be “repressed” ( verdrangt ) than others. In other words, it is harder for a person to own to himself the existence in his mind of some mental trends than it is of others. In order to gain a correct perspective it is therefore desirable briefly to enquire into the relative frequency with which various sets of mental processes are “repressed.” One might in this connection venture the generalisation that those processes are most likely to be “repressed” by the individual which are most disapproved of by the particular circle of society to whose influence he bas chiefly been subjected. Biologically stated, this law would run: ”That which is inacceptable to the herd becomes inacceptable to the individual unit,” it being understood that the term herd is intended in the sense of the particular circle above defined, which is by no means necessarily the community at large. It is for this reason that moral, social, ethical or religious influences are hardly ever ”repressed,” for as the individual originally received them from his herd, they can never come into conflict with the dicta of the latter. This merely says that a man cannot be ashamed of that which he respects; the apparent exceptions to this need not here be explained. The contrary is equally true, namely that mental trends “repressed” by the individual are those least acceptable to his herd; they are, therefore, those which are, curiously enough, distinguished as “natural” instincts, as contrasted with secondarily acquired mental trends. It only remains to add the obvious corollary that, as the herd unquestionably selects from the “natural” instincts the sexual ones on which to lay its heaviest ban, so is it the various psycho-sexual trends that most often are “repressed” by the individual. We have here an explanation of the clinical experience that the more intense and the more obscure is a given case of deep mental conflict the more certainly will it be found, on adequate analysis, to centre about a sexual problem. On the surface, of course, this does not appear so, for, by means of various psychological defensive mechanisms, the depression, doubt, and other manifestations of the conflict are transferred on to more acceptable subjects, such as the problems of immortality, future of the world, salvation of the soul, and so on. Bearing these considerations in mind, let us return to Hamlet. It should now be evident that the conflict hypotheses above mentioned, which see Hamlet’s “natural” instinct for revenge inhibited by an unconscious misgiving of a highly ethical kind, are based on ignorance of what actually happens in real life, for misgivings of this kind are in fact readily accessible to introspection. Hamlet’s self-study would speedily have made him conscious of any such ethical misgivings, and although he might subsequently have ignored them, it would almost certainly have been by the aid of a process of rationalization which would have enabled him to deceive himself into believing that such misgivings were really ill founded; he would in any case have remained conscious of the nature of them. We must therefore invert these hypotheses, and realise that the positive striving for revenge was to him the moral and social one, and that the suppressed negative striving against revenge arose in some hidden source connected with his more personal, “natural” instincts. The former striving has already been considered, and indeed is manifest in every speech in which Hamlet debates the matter; the second is, from its nature, more obscure and has next to be investigated. This is perhaps most easily done by inquiring more intently into Hamlet’s precise attitude towards the object of his vengeance, Claudius, and towards the crimes that have to be avenged. These are two, Claudius’ incest with the Queen, and his murder of his brother. It is of great importance to note the fundamental difference in Hamlet’s attitude towards these two crimes. Intellectually of course he abhors both, but there can be no question as to which arouses in him the deeper loathing. Whereas the murder of his father evokes in him indignation, and a plain recognition of his obvious duty to avenge it, his mother’s guilty conduct awakes in him the intensest horror. Now, in trying to define Hamlet’s attitude towards his uncle we have to guard against assuming offhand that this is a simple one of mere execration, for there is a possibility of complexity arising in the following way: The uncle has not merely committed each crime, he has committed both crimes, a distinction of considerable importance, for the combination of crimes allows the admittance of a new factor, produced by the possible inter-relation of the two, which prevents the result from being simply one of summation. In addition it has to be borne in mind that the perpetrator of the crimes is a relative, and an exceedingly near relative. The possible inter-relation of the crimes, and the fact that the author of them is an actual member of the family on which they were perpetrated, gives scope for a confusion in their influence on Hamlet’s mind that may be the cause of the very obscurity we are seeking to clarify.

Introduction to “Ophelia’s Desire” by James Marino (2017)

Every great theory is founded on a problem it cannot solve. For psychoanalytic criticism, that problem is Ophelia. Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal reading of Hamlet , mutually constitutive with his reading of Oedipus Rex , initiates the project of Freudian literary interpretation.1 But that reading must, by its most basic logic, displace Ophelia and render her an anomaly. If the Queen is Hamlet’s primary erotic object, why does he have another love interest? Why such a specific and unusual love interest? The answer that Freud and his disciples offer is that Hamlet’s expressions of love or rage toward Ophelia are displace-ments of his cathexis on the queen. That argument is tautological—one might as easily say that Hamlet displaces his cathected frustration with Ophelia onto the Queen—and requires that some evidence from the text be ignored—“No, good mother,” Hamlet tells the Queen, “here’s metal more attractive”—but the idea of the Queen as Hamlet’s primary affective object remains a standard orthodoxy, common even in feminist Freudians’ readings of Hamlet . Janet Adelman’s Suffocating Mothers , for example, takes the mother-son dyad as central, while Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard highlight the symbolic condensation of Ophelia with the Queen. The argument for Ophelia as substitute object may reach its apotheosis in Jacques Lacan’s famous essay on Hamlet, which begins with “that piece of bait named Ophelia” only to use her as an example of Hamlet’s estrangement from his own desire. Margreta de Grazia’s “Hamlet” without Hamlet has illuminated how the romantic tradition of Hamlet criticism, from which Freud’s own Hamlet criticism derives, focuses on Hamlet’s psychology at the expense of the play’s other characters, who are reduced to figures in the Prince’s individual psychomachia. While psychoanalytic reading objectifies all of Hamlet ’s supporting characters, Ophelia is not even allowed to be an object in her own right. Insistently demoted to a secondary or surrogate object, Ophelia becomes mysteriously super-fluous, like a symptom unconnected from its cause. Ophelia is the foundational problem, the nagging flaw in psychoanalytic criticism’s cornerstone. The play becomes very different if Ophelia is decoupled from the Queen and read as an independent and structurally central character, as a primary object of desire, and even as a desiring subject in her own right. I do not mean to describe the character as a real person, with a fully human psychology; Ophelia is a fiction, constructed from intersecting and contradicting generic expectations. But in those generic terms Ophelia is startlingly unusual, indeed unique, in ways that psychoanalytic criticism has been reluctant to recognize. If stage characters become individuated to the extent that they deviate from established convention, acting against type, then Ophelia is one of William Shakespeare’s most richly individual heroines. And if Shakespeare creates the illusion of interiority, or invites his audience to collaborate in that illusion, by withholding easy explanations of motive, Ophelia’s inner life is rich with mystery. Attention to the elements of Ophelia’s character that psychoanalytic readings resist or repress illuminates the deeper fantasies shaping psychoanalytic discourse. The literary dreams underpinning psychoanalysis are neither simply to be debunked nor to be reconstituted, but to be analyzed. If, as the debates over psychoanalysis over the last three decades have shown, much of Freudian thinking is not science, then it is fantasy; and fantasy, as Freud himself teaches, rewards strict attention. Ophelia, rightly attended, may tell us something about Hamlet, and about Hamlet, that critics have not always wished to know. To see Ophelia clearly would also make it clear how closely Hamlet resembles her and how faithfully his tragic arc follows hers.

Beyond Freud: Applying Psychological Theories to Literary Texts

Fortunately, we are not limited to Freud when we engage in psychological criticism. We can choose any psychological theory. Here are just a few you might consider:

  • Carl Jung’s archetypes: humans have a collective unconscious that includes universal archetypes such as the shadow, the persona, and the anima/us.
  • B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism: all behaviors are learned through conditioning.
  • Jacques Lacan’s conception of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic.
  • Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development: describes the effects of social development across a person’s lifespan.
  • Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development: explains how people develop moral reasoning.
  • Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: people’s basic needs need to be met before they can pursue more advanced emotional and intellectual needs.
  • Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ s five stages of grief: a framework for understanding loss.
  • Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth Bancroft Clark’s work on internalized racism.
  • Derald Wing Sue and David Sue’s work with Indigenous spiritual frameworks and mental health.

It’s important to differentiate this type of criticism from looking at “mental health” or considering how the poem affects our emotions. When we are exploring how a poem makes us feel, this is subjective reader response, not psychological criticism. Psychological criticism involves analyzing a literary work through the lens of a psychological theory, exploring characters’ motivations, behaviors, and the author’s psychological influences. Here are a few approaches you might take to apply psychological criticism to a text:

  • Understand Psychological Theories: Familiarize yourself with the basics of key psychological theories, such as Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes, or cognitive psychology. This knowledge provides a foundation for interpreting characters and their actions. It’s best to choose one particular theory to use in your analysis.
  • Author’s Background: Research the author’s life and background. Explore how their personal experiences, relationships, and psychological state might have influenced the creation of characters or the overall themes of the text. Also consider what unconscious desires or fears might be present in the text. How can the text serve as a window to the author’s mind? The fictional novel  Hamnet  by Maggie O’Farrell uses the text of  Hamlet  along with the few facts that are known about Shakespeare’s life to consider how the play could be read as an expression of the author’s grief at losing is 11-year-old son.
  • Character Analysis: Examine characters’ personalities, motivations, and conflicts. Consider how their experiences, desires, and fears influence their actions within the narrative. Look for signs of psychological trauma, defense mechanisms, or unconscious desires. You can see an example of this in the two literary articles above, where the authors consider Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s motivations and conflicts.
  • Symbolism and Imagery: Analyze symbols and imagery in the text. Understand how these elements may represent psychological concepts or emotions. For example, a recurring symbol might represent a character’s repressed desires or fears.
  • Themes and Motifs: Identify recurring themes and motifs. Explore how these elements reflect psychological concepts or theories. For instance, a theme of isolation might be analyzed in terms of its impact on characters’ mental states. An example of a motif in Hamlet would be the recurring ghost.
  • Archetypal Analysis: Jungian analysis is one of my personal favorite approaches to take to texts. You can apply archetypal psychology to identify universal symbols or patterns in characters. Carl Jung’s archetypes , such as the persona, shadow, or anima/animus, can provide insights into the deeper layers of character development.
  • Psychological Trajectories: Trace the psychological development of characters throughout the narrative. Identify key moments or events that shape their personalities and behaviors. Consider how these trajectories contribute to the overall psychological impact of the text.
  • Psychoanalytic Concepts: If relevant, apply psychoanalytic concepts such as id, ego, and superego . Explore how characters navigate internal conflicts or succumb to unconscious desires. Freudian analysis can uncover hidden motivations and tensions.

Because psychological criticism involves interpretation, there may be multiple valid perspectives on a single text. When using this critical method, I recommend focusing on a single psychological approach (e.g. choose Freud or Jung; don’t try to do both).

Let’s practice with Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” using Freud’s psychoanalytic theories as our psychological approach. Read the poem first, then use the questions below to guide your interpretation of the poem.

A Narrow Fellow in the Grass* (1865)


Manuscript of "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" from the Morgan Library

A narrow fellow in the grass Occasionally rides: You may have met him, —did you not, His notice suddenis.

The grass divides as with a comb, A spotted shaft is seen; And then it closes at your feet And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre. A floor too cool for corn. Yet when a child, and barefoot, I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash Unbraiding in the Sun.— When, stooping to secure it, It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature’s people I know, and they know me; I feel for them a transport Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow, Attended or alone, Without a tighter breathing, And zero at the bone.

*I’ve used the “corrected” version published in 1865. Here is a link to the transcribed version from the original manuscript.

Here are a few questions to consider as you apply Freudian psychoanalysis to the poem.

  • Imagery and Motifs: This poem is one of just 10 Emily Dickinson poems published during her lifetime. The editor chose a different title for the poem: “The Snake” .  How does adding this title change the reader’s experience with the poem? Which words in the poem seem odd in the context of this title? In a Freudian reading of the poem, what would the snake (if it is a snake) represent?
  • Repression and Symbolism: How might the “narrow Fellow in the Grass” symbolize repressed desires or memories in the speaker’s subconscious? What elements in the poem suggest a hidden, perhaps uncomfortable, aspect of the speaker’s psyche?
  • Penis Envy: In Freudian theory, penis envy refers to a girl’s desire for male genitalia. How does this concept apply to the poem? Dickinson’s handwritten version of the poem says “boy” instead of “child” in line 11. How does this change impact how we read the poem?
  • Unconscious Fears and Anxiety (Zero at the Bone): The closing lines mention a “tighter Breathing” and feeling “Zero at the Bone.” How can Freud’s ideas about the unconscious and anxiety be applied here? What might the encounter with the Fellow reveal about the speaker’s hidden fears or anxieties, and how does it impact the speaker on a deep, unconscious level?
  • Punctuation:  The manuscript versions of this poem do not use normal punctuation conventions. Instead, the author uses a dash. How does this change our reading of the poem? What does her use of dashes imply about her psychological state?

As with New Historicism, you’ll need to do some research and cite a source for the psychological theory you apply. Introduce the psychological theory, then use it to analyze the poem. Make sure to support your analysis with specific textual evidence from the poem. Use line numbers to refer to specific parts of the text.

You’ll want to come up with a thesis statement that you can support with the evidence you’ve found.

Freudian Analysis Thesis Statement: In Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” the encounter with a snake serves as a symbolic manifestation of repressed desires, unconscious fears, and penis envy, offering a Freudian exploration of the complex interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind.

How would this thesis statement be different if you had chosen a different approach–for example, Erik Erikson’s theory of child development? How does this analysis differ from a New Criticism approach? Do you think that a Freudian approach is useful in helping readers to appreciate this poem?

The Limitations of Psychological Criticism

While psychological criticism provides valuable insights into the human psyche and enriches our understanding of literary works, it also has its limitations. Here are a few:

  • Subjectivity: Psychological interpretations often rely on subjective analysis, as different readers may perceive and interpret psychological elements in a text differently. The lack of objective criteria can make it challenging to establish a universally accepted interpretation. However, using an established psychological theory can help to address this concern.
  • Authorial Intent: Inferring an author’s psychological state or intentions based on their work can be speculative. Without direct evidence from the author about their psychological motivations, interpretations may be subjective and open to debate.
  • Overemphasis on Individual Psychology: Psychological criticism may focus heavily on individual psychology and neglect broader social, cultural, or historical contexts that also influence literature. This narrow focus may oversimplify the complexity of human experience.
  • Stereotyping Characters: Applying psychological theories to characters may lead to oversimplified or stereotypical portrayals. Characters might be reduced to representing specific psychological concepts, overlooking their multifaceted nature. Consider the scholarly readings above and how Ophelia has traditionally been read as an accessory to Hamlet rather than as a fully developed character in her own right.
  • Neglect of Formal Elements: Psychological criticism may sometimes neglect formal elements of a text, such as structure, style, and language, in favor of exploring psychological aspects. This oversight can limit a comprehensive understanding of the literary work.
  • Inconsistency in Psychoanalytic Theories: Different psychoanalytic theories exist, and scholars may apply competing frameworks, leading to inconsistent interpretations. For example, a Freudian interpretation may differ significantly from a Jungian analysis.
  • Exclusion of Reader Response: While psychological criticism often explores the author’s psyche, it may not give sufficient attention to the diverse psychological responses of readers. The reader’s own psychology and experiences contribute to the meaning derived from a text. In formal literary criticism, as we noted above, this type of approach is considered to be subjective reader response, but it might be an interesting area of inquiry that is traditionally excluded from psychological criticism approaches.
  • Neglect of Positive Aspects: Psychological criticism may sometimes focus too much on negative or pathological aspects of characters, overlooking positive psychological dimensions and the potential for growth and redemption within the narrative (we care a lot more about what’s  wrong with Hamlet than what’s right with him).

Acknowledging these limitations helps balance the use of psychological criticism with other literary approaches, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of a literary work.

Psychological Criticism Scholars

There is considerable overlap in psychological criticism scholarship. With this type of approach, some psychologists/psychiatrists use literary texts to demonstrate or explicate psychological theories, while some literary scholars use psychological theories to interpret works. Here are a few better-known literary scholars who practice this type of criticism:

  • Sigmund Freud, who used Greek literature to develop his theories about the psyche
  • Carl Jung, whose ideas of the archetypes are fascinating
  • Alfred Adler, a student of Freud’s who particularly focused on literature and psychoanalysis
  • Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst whose ideas of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic provide interesting insights into literary texts.

Further Reading

  • Adler, Alfred.  The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler . Ed. Heinz and Rowena R. Ansbacher. New York: Anchor Books, 1978. Print.
  • Çakırtaş, Önder, ed.  Literature and Psychology: Writing, Trauma and the Self . Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018.
  • Eagleton, Terry. “Psychoanalysis.”  Literary Theory: An Introduction . Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. 151-193. Print
  • Freud. Sigmund.  The Ego and the Id.  https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Freud_SE_Ego_Id_complete.pdf  Accessed 31 Oct. 2023. – A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Project Gutenberg eBook #38219.  https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/38219/pg38219.txt – The Interpretation of Dreams . 1900. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Freud/Dreams/dreams.pdf
  • Hart, F. Elizabeth (Faith Elizabeth). “The Epistemology of Cognitive Literary Studies.”  Philosophy and Literature , vol. 25 no. 2, 2001, p. 314-334.  Project MUSE ,  https://doi.org/10.1353/phl.2001.0031 .
  • Ingarden, Roman, and John Fizer. “Psychologism and Psychology in Literary Scholarship.” New Literary History , vol. 5, no. 2, 1974, pp. 213–23. JSTOR , https://doi.org/10.2307/468392. Accessed 26 Oct. 2023.
  • Jones, Ernest. “The Œdipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive.” The American Journal of Psychology , vol. 21, no. 1, 1910, pp. 72–113. JSTOR , https://doi.org/10.2307/1412950 . Accessed 26 Oct. 2023.
  • Knapp, John V. “New Psychologies in Literary Criticism.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies , vol. 7, no. 2, 2006, pp. 102–21. JSTOR , http://www.jstor.org/stable/41209945 . Accessed 31 Oct. 2023.
  • Marino, James J. “Ophelia’s Desire.” ELH , vol. 84, no. 4, 2017, pp. 817–39. JSTOR , https://www.jstor.org/stable/26797511 . Accessed 26 Oct. 2023.
  • Willburn, David. “Reading After Freud.”  Contemporary Literary Theory.  Ed. G. Douglas Atkins and Laura Morrow. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989. 158-179.
  • Shupe, Donald R. “Representation versus Detection as a Model for Psychological Criticism.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism , vol. 34, no. 4, 1976, pp. 431–40. JSTOR , https://doi.org/10.2307/430577 . Accessed 31 Oct. 2023.
  • Zizek, Slavoj.  How to Read Lacan.  New York: Norton, 2007.

Critical Worlds Copyright © 2024 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Psychological realism is a literary genre that came to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a highly character-driven genre of fiction writing, as it focuses on the motivations and internal thoughts of characters.

A writer of psychological realism seeks to not only show what the characters do but also explain why they take such actions. There's often a larger theme in psychological realist novels, with the author expressing an opinion on a societal or political issue through the choices of his or her characters.

However, psychological realism should not be confused with psychoanalytic writing or surrealism, two other modes of artistic expression that flourished in the 20th century and focused on psychology in unique ways.

Dostoevsky and Psychological Realism

An excellent example of psychological realism (although the author himself didn’t necessarily agree with the classification) is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s " Crime and Punishment ."

This 1867 novel (first published as a series of stories in a literary journal in 1866) centers on Russian student Rodion Raskolnikov and his plan to murder an unethical pawnbroker. The novel spends a great deal of time focusing on his self-recrimination and attempts to rationalize his crime.

Throughout the novel, we meet other characters who are engaged in distasteful and illegal acts motivated by their desperate financial situations: Raskolnikov's sister plans to marry a man who can secure her family's future, and his friend Sonya prostitutes herself because she is penniless.

In understanding the characters' motivations, the reader gains a better understanding of Dostoevsky's overarching theme: the conditions of poverty.

American Psychological Realism: Henry James

American novelist Henry James also used psychological realism to great effect in his novels. James explored family relationships, romantic desires, and small-scale power struggles through this lens, often in painstaking detail.

Unlike Charles Dickens ' realist novels (which tend to level direct criticisms at social injustices) or Gustave Flaubert 's realist compositions (which are made up of lavish, finely-ordered descriptions of varied people, places, and objects), James' works of psychological realism focused largely on the inner lives of prosperous characters.

His most famous novels—including "The Portrait of a Lady," "The Turn of the Screw," and "The Ambassadors"—portray characters who lack self-awareness but often have unfulfilled yearnings.

Other Examples of Psychological Realism

James' emphasis on psychology in his novels influenced some of the most important writers of the modernist era, including Edith Wharton and T.S. Eliot.

Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, offered an insider's view of upper-middle-class society. The novel's title is ironic since the main characters, Newland, Ellen, and May, operate in circles that are anything but innocent. Their society has strict rules about what is and isn't proper, despite what its inhabitants want.

As in "Crime and Punishment," the inner struggles of Wharton's characters are explored to explain their actions. At the same time, the novel paints an unflattering picture of their world.

Eliot's best-known work, the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," also falls into the category of psychological realism, although it also could be classified as surrealist or romantic as well. It's an example of "stream of consciousness" writing, as the narrator describes his frustration with missed opportunities and lost love.

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Related overviews.

Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) founder of psychoanalysis

Sophocles (496—406 bc)


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psychoanalytic criticism

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A form of literary interpretation that employs the terms of psychoanalysis (the unconscious, repression, the Oedipus complex, etc.) in order to illuminate aspects of literature in its connection with conflicting psychological states. The beginnings of this modern tradition are found in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which provides a method of interpreting apparently unimportant details of narratives as ‘displacements’ of repressed wishes or anxieties. Freud often acknowledged his debts to the poets, and his theory of the Oedipus complex is itself a sort of commentary upon Sophocles' drama. Ambitious interpretations of literary works as symptoms betraying the authors' neuroses are found in ‘psychobiographies’ of writers, such as Marie Bonaparte's Edgar Poe (1933), which diagnoses sadistic necrophilia as the problem underlying Poe's tales. A more sophisticated study in this vein is E. Wilson's The Wound and the Bow (1941). As Trilling and others have objected, this approach risks reducing art to pathology.

More profitable are analyses of fictional characters, beginning with Freud's own suggestions about Prince Hamlet, later developed by his British disciple Ernest Jones: Hamlet feels unable to kill his uncle because Claudius's crimes embody his own repressed incestuous and patricidal wishes, in a perfect illustration of the Oedipus complex. A comparable exercise is Wilson's essay ‘The Ambiguity of Henry James’ (1934), which interprets the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw as imaginary projections of the governess's repressed sexual desires. A third possible object of analysis, after the author and the fictional protagonist, is the readership. Here the question is why certain kinds of story have such a powerful appeal to us, and numerous answers have been given in Freudian terms, usually focusing on the overcoming of fears (as in Gothic fiction) or the resolution of conflicting desires (as in comedy and romance).

Although Freud's writings are the most influential, some interpretations employ the concepts of heretical psychoanalysts, notably Adler, Jung, and Klein. Since the 1970s, the theories of Jacques Lacan (1901–81) have inspired a new school of psychoanalytic critics who illustrate the laws of ‘desire’ through a focus upon the language of literary texts. The advent of post‐structuralism has tended to cast doubt upon the authority of the psychoanalytic critic who claims to unveil a true ‘latent’ meaning behind the disguises of a text's ‘manifest’ contents. The subtler forms of psychoanalytic criticism make allowance for ambiguous and contradictory significances, rather than merely discovering hidden sexual symbolism in literary works.

From:   psychoanalytic criticism   in  The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature »

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What is a Literature Review?

The scholarly conversation.

A literature review provides an overview of previous research on a topic that critically evaluates, classifies, and compares what has already been published on a particular topic. It allows the author to synthesize and place into context the research and scholarly literature relevant to the topic. It helps map the different approaches to a given question and reveals patterns. It forms the foundation for the author’s subsequent research and justifies the significance of the new investigation.

A literature review can be a short introductory section of a research article or a report or policy paper that focuses on recent research. Or, in the case of dissertations, theses, and review articles, it can be an extensive review of all relevant research.

  • The format is usually a bibliographic essay; sources are briefly cited within the body of the essay, with full bibliographic citations at the end.
  • The introduction should define the topic and set the context for the literature review. It will include the author's perspective or point of view on the topic, how they have defined the scope of the topic (including what's not included), and how the review will be organized. It can point out overall trends, conflicts in methodology or conclusions, and gaps in the research.
  • In the body of the review, the author should organize the research into major topics and subtopics. These groupings may be by subject, (e.g., globalization of clothing manufacturing), type of research (e.g., case studies), methodology (e.g., qualitative), genre, chronology, or other common characteristics. Within these groups, the author can then discuss the merits of each article and analyze and compare the importance of each article to similar ones.
  • The conclusion will summarize the main findings, make clear how this review of the literature supports (or not) the research to follow, and may point the direction for further research.
  • The list of references will include full citations for all of the items mentioned in the literature review.

Key Questions for a Literature Review

A literature review should try to answer questions such as

  • Who are the key researchers on this topic?
  • What has been the focus of the research efforts so far and what is the current status?
  • How have certain studies built on prior studies? Where are the connections? Are there new interpretations of the research?
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  • Which areas have been identified as needing further research? Have any pathways been suggested?
  • How will your topic uniquely contribute to this body of knowledge?
  • Which methodologies have researchers used and which appear to be the most productive?
  • What sources of information or data were identified that might be useful to you?
  • How does your particular topic fit into the larger context of what has already been done?
  • How has the research that has already been done help frame your current investigation ?

Examples of Literature Reviews

Example of a literature review at the beginning of an article: Forbes, C. C., Blanchard, C. M., Mummery, W. K., & Courneya, K. S. (2015, March). Prevalence and correlates of strength exercise among breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer survivors . Oncology Nursing Forum, 42(2), 118+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.sonoma.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?p=HRCA&sw=w&u=sonomacsu&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA422059606&asid=27e45873fddc413ac1bebbc129f7649c Example of a comprehensive review of the literature: Wilson, J. L. (2016). An exploration of bullying behaviours in nursing: a review of the literature.   British Journal Of Nursing ,  25 (6), 303-306. For additional examples, see:

Galvan, J., Galvan, M., & ProQuest. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (Seventh ed.). [Electronic book]

Pan, M., & Lopez, M. (2008). Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Pub. [ Q180.55.E9 P36 2008]

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The  Evidence Matrix  can help you  organize your research  before writing your lit review.  Use it to  identify patterns  and commonalities in the articles you have found--similar methodologies ?  common  theoretical frameworks ? It helps you make sure that all your major concepts covered. It also helps you see how your research fits into the context  of the overall topic.

  • Evidence Matrix Special thanks to Dr. Cindy Stearns, SSU Sociology Dept, for permission to use this Matrix as an example.
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psychological literature definition

What Is Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism?

Psychoanalytic literary criticism is a way of analyzing and interpreting literary works that relies on psychoanalytic theory . Psychoanalytic theory was developed by Sigmund Freud to explain the workings of the human mind. In this field of literary criticism, the major concepts of psychoanalytic theory, such as the idea of an unconscious and conscious mind, the divisions of the id, ego, and superego, and the Oedipus complex, are applied to literature to gain a deeper understanding of that work.

The idea of a conscious and an unconscious mind is one of the most important tools in psychoanalytic literary criticism. Freud theorized that people have a conscious part of the mind, where thinking takes place and where they are aware of their thoughts. He also proposed the idea of an unconscious part of the mind, where desires and drives exist that people are not aware of, but that affect them and sometimes cause psychological problems.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is influential in the field of psychoanalytic literary criticism.

Freud would often analyze dreams, which he believed were windows into the working of the unconscious mind. He believed dreams had obvious, or manifest, content that masked the latent, or unconscious, desires and drives. He used symbolism and dream analysis to discover the latent content of the dream.

One technique in psychoanalytic literary criticism is to treat a work of literature as though it is a dream. The goal of this technique is to understand the unconscious symbols and desires through interpretation of the more obvious content. This type of literary criticism uses symbolism and other forms of analysis to get at the latent content of a work of literature.

Psychoanalytic literary criticism aims to analyze and interpret literary works that focus on psychoanalytic theory.

Childhood experiences are extremely influential and, to a large degree, shape a person’s psyche, according to Freud. In his theory of the Oedipus complex, a child begins life by being very attached to the mother figure. The child begins to be jealous of the attention the mother gives to the father, which leads to repressed anger toward the father and a desire to possess the mother. Psychoanalytic literary criticism may use this theory of development as a way to understand the repressed content of literature.

Childhood experiences are extremely influential and, to a large degree, shape a person’s psyche, according to Freud.

Freud believed the experiences of childhood lead to the development of three divisions in the mind: the ego, the id, and the superego. The ego is the conscious part of the brain , the part a person is aware of. The id is the unconscious or repressed desires a person has, including the desires caused by the Oedipus complex. The superego is the conscience, the judge and jury in a person’s mind. Psychoanalytic literary criticism looks for the influences of all three parts of the mind in literature.

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Discussion Comments

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@indigomoth - The problem is that we can look for common motifs in an author's work all we want, but there is no proof as to what those motifs mean. They might adore their own mother and think that the worst thing that could happen was for her to be hurt, so they write that into their stories to add drama.

Or maybe they were inspired by a story they read in childhood where the mother was hurt and it has become a necessary part of their storytelling ever since.

Not to mention that most of Freud's theories have been discredited by now, so I'd be very hesitant to take any psychoanalytic literary theory based on his work seriously.

@clintflint - I don't really like the idea of too much psychoanalysis with literary criticism to be honest. I'm more interested in the intentions of a great author and how they were trying to manipulate the reader, rather than how they were unconsciously putting their own issues into a book.

But, in some ways, it's the only method we have to get close to historical authors. And you do have to wonder if, when an author continually writes bad endings for motherly characters, they might have had an issue with their own mother.

I've always wondered how much of the critical interpretation of novels is actually an exercise in imagination on behalf of the critic. I mean, I can't imagine that most authors go through their book assigning meaning to every little detail. Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat, or in Freudian terms, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I suppose this kind of psychoanalytical criticism at least acknowledges that some of the symbolism is unconscious, rather than overt.

I know that some people enjoy this kind of thing but it just makes me think of high school English and the way that it basically ruined many of the classics for me with over-analysis.

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Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is influential in the field of psychoanalytic literary criticism.

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychological Literacy

Introduction, what is psychological literacy.

  • Global Citizen
  • Giving Psychology Away
  • PL as the Outcome of Psychology Education: Making the Case
  • National/International Perspectives on PL as an Outcome of Psychology Education
  • Programmatic Approaches to PL as an Educational Outcome
  • Scientific Literacy Teaching Strategies
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Psychological Literacy by Sue Morris , Kimberley Norris , Jacquelyn Cranney LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0291

Until 2010, the phrase “psychological literacy” (PL) was used sparsely and in a variety of ways, including to refer to (a) a student’s grasp of the major concepts of the different topic areas of psychology, (b) a call to action for psychologists to contribute to increased psychological knowledge and skills in the population, or (c) a nation’s general capacity to apply psychological principles in everyday life. In 2010, PL was defined in terms of the intended outcome of undergraduate (UG) psychology education, delineating nine capabilities, broadly categorized as discipline knowledge and its application, critical thinking and research skills, and the valuing of ethical behavior and of diversity. A call to action to educate “psychologically literate citizens” was also made. Several studies have evaluated the impact of educational interventions in relation to those capabilities. A more recent and general conceptualization of PL appears to revert to some of the earlier understandings, being defined as the capacity to use psychology to achieve personal, professional, and societal goals. The broad aim of this bibliography is to identify existing and topical themes from the literature on PL. A significant proportion of the literature has a focus on psychology education. Nevertheless, there is some diversity in the themes identified. Note that there are many papers that make mention “in passing” of the modern conceptualization of PL. Although these are indicative of the general acceptance of the concept, these were deemed to be less central to the reader’s understanding of this topic. How were the themes identified? A literature search was conducted with standard databases, then additional literature was independently identified (e.g., through the examination of reference listings). In terms of what was selected for consideration, specific criteria were applied (e.g., English language only, no conference abstracts). During this process, themes emerged, and a coauthor consensus was iteratively reached regarding (a) the major existing and topical themes and their relevance, and (b) exemplars for each. Each of the sections covers one of the themes identified, except where sections are organized by subthemes.

Early conceptualizations of psychological literacy (PL) include that of Boneau 1990 in terms of subject matter only, whereas the redefinition of McGovern, et al. 2010 in terms of graduate capabilities also includes skills and attitudes that the authors argue are necessary for the 21st century. This latter paper integrates disciplinary and transdisciplinary “state of the nation” higher education reports within the United States, Europe, and Australia, and the issues and arguments are still relevant. Beins, et al. 2011 suggests that further work on PL should involve “establishing what psychological literacy is and the standards that identify psychological literacy; obtaining buy-in from stakeholders; developing meaningful assessments that measure psychological literacy; offering curriculum resources known to promote psychological literacy; providing professional development opportunities so that educators can put these literacy efforts into practice; and fostering a spirit of reform within the discipline” (p. 11). The broader description of PL in McGovern, et al. 2010 as having the ability to “apply psychological principles to personal, social and organizational issues in work, relationships and the broader community” (p. 11) is reflected in the more global conceptualization of PL found in Cranney and Dunn 2011a and Cranney and Dunn 2011b . Cranney and Morris 2011 couches PL within a developmental ecosystem, and points to the different domains in which PL is apparent (self, local, global). Karandashev 2011 provides an interesting cultural challenge to these definitions. Cranney, et al. 2012 defines PL as “the general capacity to adaptively and intentionally apply psychology to meet personal, professional and societal needs” (p. iii). Newstead 2015 provides a constructive critical analysis of the term, pointing to the need for improved conceptualization and measurement (see Measuring PL ). Murdoch 2016 defines PL as the “ethical application of psychological knowledge and skills” (p. 189). Cranney and Morris 2021 (cited under PL as a Pedagogical Philosophy ) proposes a 2 x 2 matrix with two dimensions: possession (or not) of foundational/theoretical knowledge underlying an evidence-base strategy, and the use (or not) of that strategy. In summary, there appear to be two current approaches to defining and operationalizing PL: (a) as a set of capabilities—knowledge, skills, and attitudes–that students should acquire during their psychology education, and (b) as a general capacity to intentionally apply psychology to achieve personal, professional, and societal goals. Regarding the former, although there is some consensus regarding what constitutes the set of capabilities, further development is required. Regarding the latter, practical implications, challenges, and opportunities require further exploration. Psychological Literacy is a website that includes a reference listing and other resources.

Beins, B., E. Landrum, and D. Posey. 2011. Specialized critical thinking: Scientific and psychological literacies . Presidential Task Force on Psychological Literacy White Paper. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

These authors posit a hierarchy whereby PL is part of scientific literacy, which in turn is part of critical thinking, all of which are “not natural to most people” (p. 2). On the basis of a review of other literacies, the authors usefully specify a series of steps forward, from “establishing what psychological literacy is” to “fostering a spirit of reform within the discipline” (p. 11).

Boneau, C. A. 1990. Psychological literacy: A first approximation. American Psychologist 45.7: 891–900.

DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.45.7.891

C. Alan Boneau is, to the best of our knowledge, the first English-language scholar to coin the phrase “psychological literacy.” The author’s focus is on discipline knowledge (i.e., subject matter, including methodology and statistics), that he argues should be general knowledge within the psychological community, including psychology students. Using psychology subfield textbook author surveys, he defined, in each of ten subfields of psychology, the hundred most important facts and concepts.

Cranney, J., L. Botwood, and S. Morris. 2012. National standards for psychological literacy and global citizenship: Outcomes of undergraduate psychology education . Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales.

Final peer-reviewed report of ALTC/OLT National Teaching Fellowship. The authors report the outcomes of this stakeholder-centered fellowship as (a) a greater focus on “the operationalization, adoption and implementation of psychological literacy” (p. iv), (b) promotion of PL as the primary outcome of UG education, and (c) global citizenship as a desirable transdisciplinary graduate capability. These outcomes are reinforced in recommendations, which also include increased emphasis on career development learning, cultural responsivity, capstone experiences, and alternative professional psychology-relevant career options.

Cranney, J., and D. S. Dunn. 2011a. Psychological literacy and the psychologically literate citizen: New frontiers for a global discipline. In The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives . Edited by J. Cranney and D. S. Dunn, 3–12. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.003.0014

These authors provide in-depth analyses of the concepts of “literacy,” “psychological literacy,” “citizen,” “global citizen,” and “psychologically literate citizen.” They define PL as “psychological knowledge that is used adaptively” (p. 8), and argue that PL “implies a relatively well integrated and functional set of schemas that across individuals may show some variability in expression, but in terms of central tendency, can be recognized and assessed as ‘psychological literacy’” (p. 8).

Cranney, J., and D. S. Dunn, eds. 2011b. The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives . New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.001.0001

Written by fifty authors from eight nations, the twenty-three chapters are grouped under: Introduction, Curriculum Perspectives, Global Perspectives, Integrative Perspectives. Authors all make reference to McGovern, et al. 2010 , and so a major (but not exclusive) focus is PL as the core outcome of UG psychology education. To date, it is the core reference on PL. Many, but not all, chapters are featured in this bibliography.

Cranney, J., and S. Morris. 2011. Adaptive cognition and psychological literacy. In The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives . Edited by J. Cranney and D. S. Dunn, 251–268. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.003.0063

These authors couch PL in terms of “adaptive cognition,” defined as “global ways of thinking (and subsequently, behaving) that are beneficial to one’s (and others’) survival and wellbeing” (p. 251). The approach draws on developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, cultural psychology, and human ecology. The authors illustrate different domains of application with PL (self and immediate others, local communities, global perspectives).

Karandashev, V. 2011. Psychological literacy goals in psychology teaching in Russian education. In The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives . Edited by J. Cranney and D. S. Dunn, 206–219. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.003.0055

Karandashev states that in Russian scholarship a decade prior to McGovern, et al. 2010 , “psychological literacy” was defined as a “knowing and understanding of psychological knowledge” (p. 207), whereas the concept “individual psychological culture of behavior” (p. 207) is more akin to McGovern et al.’s broader definition. Karandashev indicates that in Russian psychology education, the acquisition of these competencies is considered more important for those not proceeding to careers in professional and academic psychology.

McGovern, T. V., L. A. Corey, J. Cranney, et al. 2010. Psychologically literate citizens. In Undergraduate education in psychology: Blueprint for the discipline’s future . Edited by D. Halpern, 9–27. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

DOI: 10.1037/12063-001

The authors redefine PL as encapsulating nine graduate capabilities that UG psychology major students should acquire, including discipline knowledge and its application to personal, professional, and societal contexts; developing scientific, critical, and creative ways of thinking; and behaving in an ethical and diversity-respectful manner. The authors highlight the necessity for all psychology educators to reexamine their pedagogical orientation in terms of taking into account our graduates’ global future.

Murdoch, D. D. 2016. Psychological literacy: Proceed with caution, construction ahead. Psychology Research and Behavior Management 9:189–199.

DOI: 10.2147/PRBM.S88646

Murdoch’s constructive critical analysis places emphasis on the “ethical application of psychology knowledge and skills” (p. 189), and identifies gaps/barriers/cautions regarding the operationalization, measurement and development of PL, including (a) the need to identify what is uniquely psychological in the context of generic capabilities (his analysis offers a useful solution), (b) the need to develop reliable and valid measures of PL, and (c) ethical challenges.

Newstead, S. E. 2015. Psychological literacy and “the emperor’s new clothes.” Psychology Teaching Review 21.2: 3–12.

Newstead categorizes definitions of PL into “knowledge literacy” (that every psychology graduate should have acquired), “skills literacy” (recent emphasis on generic “personal” graduate skills, which some may acquire), and “cultural literacy” (new aspirational generic graduate capabilities underlying “global citizenship”). He argues that these three literacies are hierarchically interrelated. He calls for greater conceptual clarity, identifies gaps in the literature and in teaching and assessment practice, and suggests ways forward.

Psychological Literacy .

This website presents an introduction to the concept of PL, as well as other concepts such as “global citizenship.” There is a list of citations that includes the phrase “psychological literacy,” as well as compendia of teaching and assessment resources.

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Towards a Transversal Definition of Psychological Resilience: A Literature Review

Antonella sisto.

1 Clinical Psychological Service, Campus Bio-Medico University Hospital, 00128 Rome, Italy; [email protected] (A.S.); [email protected] (F.V.)

Flavia Vicinanza

Laura leondina campanozzi.

2 Institute of Philosophy of Scientific and Technological Practice, Campus Bio-Medico University, 00128 Rome, Italy; [email protected]

Giovanna Ricci

3 School of Law, Medico-Legal Section, University of Camerino, 62032 Camerino (Macerata), Italy; [email protected]

Daniela Tartaglini

4 Department of Professional Health Care Services, Campus Bio-Medico University Hospital, 00128 Rome, Italy; [email protected]

Vittoradolfo Tambone

Background and objectives : This paper addresses psychological resilience, a multidisciplinary theoretical construct with important practical implications for health sciences. Although many definitions have been proposed in several contexts, an essential understanding of the concept is still lacking up to now. This negatively affects comparisons among research results and makes objective measurement difficult. The aim of this review is to identify shared elements in defining the construct of resilience across the literature examined in order to move toward a conceptual unification of the term. Materials and methods : A literature review was performed using the electronic databases ‘PubMed’ and ‘PsycINFO’. Scientific studies written in English between 2002 and May 2019 were included according to the following key terms: ‘Psychological’, ‘resilience’, and ‘definition’. Results: The review identifies five macro-categories that summarize what has been reported in the recent literature concerning the resilience phenomenon. They serve as a preliminary and necessary step toward a conceptual clarification of the construct. Conclusions: We propose a definition of psychological resilience as the ability to maintain the persistence of one’s orientation towards existential purposes. It constitutes a transversal attitude that can be understood as the ability to overcome the difficulties experienced in the different areas of one’s life with perseverance, as well as good awareness of oneself and one’s own internal coherence by activating a personal growth project. The conceptual clarification proposed will contribute to improving the accuracy of research on this topic by suggesting future paths of investigation aimed at deeply exploring the issues surrounding the promotion of resilience resources.

1. Introduction

1.1. resilience: historical and cultural development of the concept.

Over the years, much attention has been directed at the nature of resilience and how to best assess it. An extensive literature highlights the historical and cultural evolution of the concept, which assumed different shades of meaning over time.

The early studies on resilience focused on understanding why only some individuals can react to adversity in a positive way by transforming them into opportunities for growth and new adaptation [ 1 ]. Living with a condition of adversity typically encompasses negative life circumstances that are known to be statistically associated with adjustment difficulties [ 2 ]. Furthermore, the concept of adversity can be identified as the state of suffering and discomfort aroused by a difficulty, misfortune, or potentially traumatic event [ 3 ]. After the Second World War, researchers began to investigate how people overcome traumatic events which can cause psychological distress. Issues concerning the possibility of transforming a destabilizing event into a personal search engine, the ability to integrate lights and shadows, resources and vulnerability, or suffering and courage started to become primary subjects of research aimed at providing a better understanding of the processes of resilience.

In particular, case studies of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other forms of pathologies which have been diagnosed as results of traumatic events experienced in war, provided descriptions of individual characteristics of war veterans, highlighting at the same time that a significant number of subjects were able to effectively process the traumatic events experienced [ 4 ]. Later, research involving the analysis of risk and protective factors for mental health began to focus on the context of developmental psychology with the aim of exploring the different life trajectories of those subjects that had experienced trauma. This has led to the idea that resilience is much more than the ability to continue developing one’s skills despite adversity or to resist trauma by protecting oneself from the influence of external circumstances. It expresses the ability to react positively despite difficulties, turning them into opportunities for growth. Therefore, psychological resilience refers to a dynamic process that takes shape as a change allowing one to find a new balance and to evolve positively [ 2 ]. During this process of change, the individual develops new skills and a renewed feeling of personal efficacy and self-enhancement. This circular mechanism helps to implement the resilience process and its whole development. Thus, the change in an allostatic process is something necessary in order to adapt to changes produced by the environment [ 5 ].

In their resilience model, Richardson et al. [ 6 , 7 ] attempt to integrate two perspectives by considering them both as genetically determined traits and as processes. According to the authors, we all have an innate propensity for resilience, which can allow us to face difficulties and the breakdown of a pre-existing balance. The paradigm of destabilization of an individual’s life paradigm provides the opportunity for an in-depth self-reflection upon him- or herself and for a redefinition of the self. From the experience of insight and the search for one’s own inner resources comes the identification and reinforcement of the resiliency features. Consequently, the subject will enable strategies aimed at facing the adverse condition and rebuilding their own balance.

This model assumes the circularity of the influence of the self and the environment insofar as resilience is at the same time part of the adaptation process and of its outcome. Rutter, drawing upon studies on children born to schizophrenic mothers and showing that many of them had no abnormal behavior as adults [ 8 ], proposed an early definition of resilience as a ‘positive’ response of a subject to stress and adverse conditions. Here, ‘positive’ means the absence of psychopathological consequences (i.e., conduct disorders, affective, etc.). This study was preceded by a longitudinal study by Werner and Smith [ 9 ], which lasted 30 years and was conducted on a sample of 698 children born in Kauai (Hawaii). These subjects had been enrolled in the study because they had been exposed to different risk factors (difficult birth, poverty, families with problems with alcoholism, mental illness, aggression, etc.) that could have influenced their development towards the onset of mental illness. The survey allowed the authors to monitor the evolution of the sample’s emotional and relational adaptability over time. Despite the presence of multiple risk factors and the development of severe symptoms of psychopathological maladjustment in many of these children, the study showed that 28% of subjects achieved a good level of adaptation, becoming competent and self-confident adults with a satisfactory level of affective and social functionality. Building on these data, Werner defined resilience as the consolidation of the subject’s skills in adverse situations.

With Werner’s pioneering works, a fundamental change began to take place in research on resilience. It consisted of a shift from the analysis of risk and discomfort factors to the study of protective factors. Specifically, attempts were made to identify what characterizes resilient subjects and what factors enable the activation of positive processes when critical or emotionally painful life conditions are encountered. The results of these first investigations showed the presence of subjects who were defined as ‘resilient’ because they presented satisfactory or positive evolutionary results despite an unfavorable condition [ 10 ]. This evidence gave the concept of resilience an important visibility in the development of the salutogenic perspective [ 11 ] to the extent that it is used as a wide-ranging construct from a heuristic point of view for understanding normal health processes. In particular, Antonovsky argued that stress is an unavoidable phenomenon. However, a significant percentage of individuals can find their own balance and can grow and maintain a state of well-being despite adversities. For this reason, the author underlined the importance of orienting research towards the elements that allow this development and are at the origin of health (salutogenetic factors).

The debate continued between those who theorize resilience as a stable trait of personality [ 12 , 13 ] and those who define it as a dynamic process that varies in relation to contexts [ 14 , 15 ].

More recently, those who consider resilience in terms of a trait, in line with the ‘ego resiliency’ perspective [ 16 ], argue that personality characteristics are the main protective factors against stressors.

The authors who define resilience in terms of process [ 17 , 18 ] consider it a resource on which the success of the transaction between the individual and his context depends. According to this approach, protective and risk factors act simultaneously and dynamically, and the effect is the result of their interaction.

Therefore, being resilient means building and reconstructing one’s life path by restoring a new balance and producing a change in oneself [ 19 ].

1.2. The Complexity of the Resilience Phenomenon

The broad and articulated research carried out on resilience has highlighted the versatility of the construct and made the attempt to reach a shared definition of the concept more complex.

Over the years, many definitions of the term ‘resilience’ have been proposed to describe the construct. Although differing in their theoretical references and in the factors highlighted, they share a common vision of resilience as a complex phenomenon and the identification of numerous interacting variables. To date, the literature agrees that there are two necessary and adequate conditions for identifying the dynamics of the resilience process: Exposure to a significant risk and positive evolution in terms of psychosocial well-being despite the threat to which one is subjected [ 20 ]. A ‘significant risk’ refers to any element of a situation that is perceived as lacking a reachable solution and that can lead to a dysfunctional adaptation and to a condition of psychological distress [ 21 , 22 ]. In this perspective, resilient individuals would be able to rework their individual existence thanks to a ‘positive evolution’ of their life project despite the surrounding conditions. They develop the ability to integrate suffering and psychic vulnerability with personal, family, relational, and existential resources, managing to expand them according to their own needs. Though there seems to be a common ground in the work of research focusing on the process of psychological resilience, the concept is used in many ways depending in part on the area of application, with several implications from a theoretical and practical point of view. Consequently, these discrepancies hinder a shared definition of the construct and limit comparisons among research results, making objective measurement difficult. Thus, the importance of moving towards a conceptual unification of the term becomes evident.

Based on this premise, we engaged in a literature review of definitions of the term ‘psychological resilience’ aimed at identifying shared elements in defining the construct across the works examined. Findings were used for proposing a broad definition of psychological resilience that considers the various theoretical and multidisciplinary backgrounds associated with it and the different areas of application. This conceptual unification could be a useful starting point for future research focused on identifying effective training strategies to promote and support resilience resources and thus the personal well-being.

2. Materials and Methods

A literature review of the term ‘psychological resilience’ was performed by using the electronic databases ‘PubMed’ and ‘PsycINFO’. Scientific articles published between 2002 and May 2019 were reviewed according to the following key terms: ‘psychological’, ‘resilience’, and ‘definition’. The initial search in PubMed using the keywords ‘psychological’ and ‘resilience’ produced 7553 results. Subsequently an additional filter was added, the keyword ‘definition’, in order to focus exclusively on the articles that consider definitions of psychological resilience. This filter significantly reduced the number of publications to 82. These studies were further filtered by applying the following exclusion criteria.

Articles not written in English and those that did not contain a definition of the resilience after the full text screening were removed. In the end, 58 articles were selected through this process for the identification and analysis of the definitions, highlighting recurrent elements and specific characteristics.

The same search with the same filters was repeated in the PsycINFO online database. As a result, 22 articles were singled out, as shown in Figure 1 .

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is medicina-55-00745-g001.jpg

PRISMA checklist showing process of articles selection for inclusion in the literature review.

The search ultimately produced 126 definitions of psychological resilience developed by 109 work groups, and each of them has been catalogued by content and authors. Data were independently reviewed by two authors, and then compared and discussed to reach a consensus. After analyzing these results, five macro-categories were identified by taking into account the specific elements of each definition.

The five macro-areas identified summarize what has been reported in the literature in recent years concerning description of the resilience phenomenon. They serve as a preliminary and necessary step to identifying the transversal elements that can comprise a broad definition of ‘psychological resilience’. Each macro-category focuses on a specific feature of the resilience construct, helping to highlight its complex nature and its several implications in the various interacting contexts. Below is an overview of the key aspects of the following five macro-categories:

  • Ability to recover
  • Type of functioning that characterizes the individual
  • Capacity to bounce back
  • Dynamic process evolving over time

Positive adaptation to life conditions.

3.1. Ability to Recover

Many authors focused on what makes people capable of dealing with the adversities of life, traumas, and stressors, trying to understand why some manage to recover after having experienced tragic events or particularly significant losses. In this regard, resilience has been defined as the ability to recover despite adverse conditions, looking ahead through a dynamic process of adaptation supported by a deeper knowledge of oneself and influenced by personal characteristics, family, and social resources (see Table 1 ).

Ability to recover.

3.2. Type of Functioning That Characterizes the Individual

Resilience is described in the literature as a peculiar response of the individual identified through the use of their personal characteristics to face difficult conditions. Since it is assumed that serious adversities destabilize most people, resilient functioning in such situations is considered extraordinary. It manifests itself in adaptive attitudes and behaviors that allow one to remain psychologically healthy—or even foresee personal growth—after exposure to stressful life events. The capacity for positive adaptation is given by specific personal attitudes and qualities promoting balance in the face of change (see Table 2 ).

Type of functioning that characterizes the individual.

3.3. Capacity to Bounce Back

Many authors define psychological resilience as the ability to recover at the same time as the development of one’s resources and potential in the face of difficulties or stressful events. Understood in this way, the resilience construct is configured as an attitude to adopt effective negotiation strategies that allow one to confront adversity and to bounce back from the negative experience by promoting a process of personal growth (see Table 3 ).

Capacity to bounce back.

3.4. Dynamic Process Evolving Over Time

In the literature, it also emerges that coping with situations perceived as adverse or changeable occurs through a dynamic process of adaptation, influenced by personal characteristics, family, and social resources. Resilience should therefore be understood not only as a personal attribute that can lead to success, but also as a dynamic interaction associated with adaptability and a positive history of functioning after adversities (see Table 4 ).

Dynamic process evolving over time.

3.5. Positive Adaptation to Life Conditions

Resilience is also referred to as the ability to deal with stress conditions. The processes of psychological resilience have to do with the cognitive evaluation carried out by the subject, which regulates the possibility of finding effective forms of adaptation. The thought processes, the emotional and behavioral responses through which resilient subjects build their personal vision of reality, give rise to decisions and behaviors that allow them to adapt to stressful or adverse conditions (see Table 5 ).

4. Discussion

Our literature review shows that psychological resilience is described in different ways. This discrepancy in terminology can hinder a shared definition of the construct, which limits comparisons among the research results and makes objective measurement difficult. Based on our analysis of the literature, we identified five macro-categories which, on the one hand, summarize the recurring elements in the definition of resilience across the works examined; on the other, they highlight the multidimensionality of the construct.

Over the years, several authors described resilience as ‘ability to recover’ . However, this expression has been understood in various ways. Specifically, some authors define resilience in terms of ability to recover from trauma, stress, or deprivation; others understand it as the ability to remain well despite the difficulties or to recover completely and quickly. The recovery is also intended as a return to a state of balance, as a posttraumatic growth ability, or as learning of useful skills for overcoming future risks. Additional authors describe resilience in terms of recovery by using protective barriers to stress. In summary, the ability of recovery represents the tendency of the individual to maintain their own internal balance despite the experience of traumatic events or stressful conditions. Moreover, the capacity for resilience indicates the ability to deal positively with traumatic events and to reorganize in the face of difficulties.

We found that resilience was also described in literature as a ‘ Type of functioning that characterizes the individual’. The resilience functioning was intended as an ability both to maintain good levels of psychological and physical health and to return to a state of balance despite adversities. In this context, a reference to resilient qualities emerges in terms of individual features or personality traits such as robustness and resourcefulness, with some authors affirming that these qualities are innate and influenced by the external environmental only in a limited way. The functional adaptation to adverse conditions can be facilitated or hindered by the interaction between internal protective and risk factors. In this regard, literature has recently turned towards a concept of resilience understood as a complex phenomenon in which several factors come into play, including innate personality traits, personal purposes, and the external and psychosocial context. By exploring the protective factors that enable the implementation of resilient behaviors, we can identify the following categories: Cognitive flexibility, positive affect and optimism, humor, acceptance, active coping, religion or spirituality, altruism, social support, role models, exercise, capacity to recover from negative events, and stress inoculation. In summary, what determines resilience are the personal qualities identified as protective factors despite stressful or traumatic events.

A third group of definitions, albeit small, refers to resilience as ‘ capacity to bounce back’ . Although this description of resilience seems to be like that of the ability of adaptation, we believe that it deserves to be included in another category as it emphasizes a particular response mode, namely referring to some specific characteristics. Thus, resilience as capacity to bounce back outlines the ability to persist and grow when faced with stressors, to cope despite adversity, and to bounce from negative experience. Resilience refers to having good outcomes despite adversity and risk, and could be described in terms of preserving the same level of outcome or rebounding back to that level after an initial setback. More specifically, resilience as ‘bouncing back’ could involve either rebounding after adversity or affectively adapting to adversity.

The resilience construct over the years has also been identified as a ‘ dynamic process evolving over time ’. Specifically, dynamic process here means firstly the interaction between internal and external protective factors that act to modify the personal effects of an adverse event. Secondly, it refers to the interaction between personal characteristics, biological processes, and family and social resources that can promote or hinder resilient processes. Within this macro-category, it is possible to identify several shades of meaning of the term resilience. Some authors define it as a vital motivational force of the individual that foresees an attitude of continuous struggle and an inclination not to surrender before difficulties, or as a force that can fluctuate over time and push the person to grow through the adversities or interruptions of their life trajectory. Others emphasize the ability to promote developmental processes and identify resilience with a dynamic mental state that can adapt to changing circumstances. Resilience is also defined as a process through which individuals survive or even grow in the face of adversity. It involves both a set of qualities or internal traits, such hardiness or high self-efficacy, and external factors, such as social support, that promote coping skills.

Given the great attention paid by the literature to the meaning of resilience as a capacity for adaptation, we decided to include this definition in a specific category, namely ‘ positive adaptation to life condition’. In describing resilience in these terms, authors emphasize different aspects of the phenomenon. Some describe it as the ability to promote positive adaptation despite exposure to adverse, stressful, or traumatic conditions. Others define it as an adaptive attitude and behavior that allows one to remain psychologically healthy, or even to thrive until a post-traumatic growth after being exposed to stressful events. Thus conceived, resilience implies that emotional resources are used to adapt to adversity; therefore, it can also be described as the process that links resources (adaptive capacities) to results (adaptation).

Other authors focus attention on the duration of the phenomenon. In particular, some describe resilience as a temporary phenomenon, subject to fluctuations based on life circumstances and the stage of development; for others it represents a stable trajectory of operation over time.

The analysis of the literature shows that the term resilience does not have a single meaning and takes on different nuances depending on the perspective from which it is analyzed. In the field of resilience studies, there is a heated debate among scholars, in particular between those who consider resilience as a trait of personality that is fixed and stable over time and therefore measurable (‘type of functioning that characterizes the individual’) and those who do not consider it a personality trait but rather as ‘dynamic process evolving over time’, which refers to the interaction between protective factors and risk factors. Specifically, the effects of protective factors such as ‘type of functioning’ are detectable only in the presence of the stressful events, and their role is to modify the response despite adversity. The ‘dynamic process’ is instead described as the interaction of a constellation of variables that allow the reduction of the impact with the risk conditions and thus effectively dealing with the adverse condition. In the ‘recovery category’, it is also possible to identify the attitude toward a gradual return to an initial state—staying well and maintaining an effective functioning—despite the destabilization caused by an adverse event that has a significant impact on the person. Therefore, it is understood as a return to an initial state of balance. The ‘capacity to bounce back’ instead emphasizes the possibility of a personal growth despite difficulties, changes, or traumatic events rather than a return to an initial state of mind. Literally, ‘bounce back’ means rebound and change of direction. It refers to the tendency to be persevering and not to give up, assuming an attitude of openness to change.

We consider the fifth category, ‘positive adaptation to life conditions’ , as transversal to the other four that we have identified because the concept of effective adaptation to life events is implicit in each of them. Nevertheless, we have established it as a different category from the others since many definitions in the literature focus on the concept of positive adaptation to define resilience. As can be seen by comparing the tables, the category that identifies resilience as ‘positive adaptation’ includes many definitions.

Summarizing all the categories, the processes of psychological resilience make it possible to face events by maintaining and enhancing one’s resources to the point of producing personal strengthening and a positive reorganization of one’s biographical history. Therefore, the use of resilient attitudes makes it possible to construct and rebuild one’s life path, to re-establish a new balance by producing change in oneself and reacting positively in the face of difficulties, transforming them into opportunities for growth.

From the study that we conducted, it was interesting to observe the multidimensionality of the resilience construct, which has been described in the literature from different points of view, in some cases with common characteristics. The revision of the definitions of resilience has allowed us to better clarify this term and to propose a broader definition characterized by the elements that we have supposed as being more indicative of the resilient attitude.

According to the results of our study, resilience should be considered as a ‘competence’ present in each individual or organization, thanks to which it is possible not to succumb to adverse events, but to react and to reach, or to return, to a state of equilibrium.

The importance of the work we carried out thus lies in having observed that resilience resources are considered as ‘skills’ that should be present and functional both on an individual level, for example in professional practice or in social relations, and in organizations.

Moreover, being a dynamic process, resilience can be implemented in order to promote a continuous growth of the person and the environment.

Getting to know more about the resilience construct also makes it feasible to structure training pathways focused on resilient human qualities as tools aimed at fostering an attitude of openness to change.

Regarding the clinical setting, the analysis of the resilience construct we carried out through the review is also a useful starting point with reference to the identification of models of psychological intervention aimed at enhancing individual resources and abilities in order to support the attitude of facing adverse situations while maintaining an adaptive functioning.

However, it is necessary to underline that this study has some limitations that we hope to fill in a future research. More specifically, a limitation refers to the methodology of selection of the articles to be analyzed. The use of the keyword ‘definition’ inserted in both of the accessed search engines has excluded some studies which could be useful to further widen the analysis of the resilience construct. Moreover, extending the study to other databases, as well as considering scientific articles written before 2002, would allow us to obtain a greater number of works and to identify probable further definitions of the term resilience. Finally, the review focused on resilience as a psychological construct, thereby excluding the possibility of accounting for nuances of the term other than the personal one that was investigated.

5. Conclusions

The analysis of the literature has made it possible to identify multiple definitions of psychological resilience. As proposed in our discussion of the results, the concept of resilience can be defined by focusing attention on different contents that describe it in a different way. Based on the previously discussed results, we propose our own definition of psychological resilience that takes into account the transversal elements found in the definitions we analyzed in order to proceed towards ‘a conceptual unification’ of the term.

According to the literature search that we carried out, it can be affirmed that psychological resilience is the ability to adapt positively to life conditions . It is a dynamic process evolving over time that implies a type of adaptive functioning that specifically allows us to face difficulties by recovering an initial balance or bouncing back as an opportunity for growth.

We believe that resilience is the ability to maintain one’s orientation towards existential purposes despite enduring adversities and stressful events. It foresees an attitude of persistence before the obstacle and openness to change. This concept can be understood as the ability to deal with the difficulties experienced in the different areas of one’s life with perseverance, maintaining a good awareness of oneself and one’s own internal and parallel coherence by activating a personal growth project. This persevering attitude makes it possible to activate one’s own resources to recover after having experienced adverse conditions, re-establishing the state of personal balance. In our definition, the term ‘purpose’ refers to long-term objectives and the overall objective regarding existence in its complexity. The latter varies from individual to individual according to their life commitments (vocational, affective, social, professional, etc.). Broadly speaking, through the acts of resilience related to partial ends, the individual becomes more and more persistent in the orientation towards their personal fulfillment. Our attempt at conceptual clarification of the term resilience, in also highlighting that specific skills and individual characteristics are necessary for a good maintaining of one’s own orientation towards existential purposes, will be a useful starting point for further research aimed at deeply exploring resilience resources and at identifying effective training strategies to support them.

Author Contributions

Study design, review, and original draft preparation, A.S. and F.V.; writing and editing the final manuscript, L.L.C. and G.R.; supervision, D.T. and V.T.

This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Home » Language » English Language » Literature » What is Psychological Criticism in Literature

What is Psychological Criticism in Literature

In the field of literature, the term criticism refers to the analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of a literary text. In simple words, it examines what is good and bad about a work and why is it good or bad. A criticism also connects the content of a literary work to different concepts and theories presented by different critics. To read more about different literary theories and how to write a literary criticism, see 

How to Write a Literary Criticism

Psychological criticism in literature refers to the way in which the work of a particular writer is analyzed through a psychological lens. This approach psychologically analyses the author of the work or a character in his work. It helps the readers understand the motivations of the writer as well as the characters. In other words, this criticism helps us to understand why the writer writes the way he does, how have his biographical circumstances affect his writing and why do characters in the story behave in a particular way.

For example, suppose the protagonist in the story is a murderer; evaluating the psychological state, the past of the character might help the reader to understand why he became a murderer. This criticism approach can explore the writer’s motivations in selecting this subject and how his past has influenced his choice. For instance, being aware that the writer was a victim of a violent crime may cause the reader to interpret the story very differently.

What is Psychological Criticism in Literature

This psychological approach, which reflects the effect of psychology on both literature and literary criticism, was mainly influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Sigmund Freud put forward the theory that literary texts are a manifestation of the secret unconscious desires and anxieties of the author. Thus, evaluating the behavior of a character will help the reader to trace the childhood, family life, fixations, traumas, conflicts. However, these facts are not directly expressed in the work; they are often expressed indirectly in the form of dreams, symbols, and images. Therefore, this criticism may sometimes provide the readers clues to understand the symbols , actions, and settings that are otherwise difficult to understand. 

The psychological criticism is not concerned with the intentions of the author. Instead, it is more concerned with what writer never intended, i.e., what the writer has unconsciously included in the work.

Carl Jung explored the link between literature and a concept called ‘collective unconscious of the human race.’ This theory claims that all stories and symbols are based on models from mankind’s past. Jung was the first to link the concept archetype to literature.

However, extreme care has to be taken when using this criticism to evaluate a work because it can become reductive in nature. The person who analyses this work should be careful so as not to project any personal psychological issues onto the analysis. When researching the biographical history of the writer, the critic must be careful to avoid incorrect attributions.

  • Psychological criticism in literature is the psychological analysis of motivations of the author and his work.
  • This criticism is based on the theory that author’s physiological state is unconsciously reflected in different aspects of the work such as characters, symbols, setting, and language .

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Hasanthi is a seasoned content writer and editor with over 8 years of experience. Armed with a BA degree in English and a knack for digital marketing, she explores her passions for literature, history, culture, and food through her engaging and informative writing.

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  • What is a Psychological Thriller?: Definition, Origin, and Elements


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psychological literature definition

The vast realm of thriller books has given birth to numerous sub-genres, each with its own unique flavor. Among these, psychological thrillers stand out for their deep dives into the human mind, entwining the reader’s psyche with intricate plots and intense emotional play.

Defining a Psychological Thriller

A psychological thriller is a sub-genre of the thriller category, emphasizing the unstable emotional or psychological states of its characters. Rather than relying on physical challenges or external adversaries, the conflict is often internal, rooted in the mind.

Origin of Psychological Thrillers

The origins of psychological thrillers trace back to Gothic literature of the 18th century, where the human psyche was often a central theme. Over time, as psychology became a more defined and studied field, narratives began to explore deeper into characters’ minds. Books such as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson or the works of Edgar Allan Poe laid foundational stones, exploring dualities of the human mind and the dark recesses of one’s psyche.

Key Elements of a Psychological Thriller

The allure of psychological thrillers lies in their distinct features:

  • Complex Characters : Protagonists often grapple with their own psyche, battling internal demons, past traumas, or complex relationships.
  • Unreliable Narrators : The story may be told from the perspective of a character whose credibility is compromised, adding layers of uncertainty.
  • Mind Games : Expect twists, turns, and cerebral challenges that keep readers guessing until the very end.
  • Emotional Intensity : These stories dive deep into emotions, often making readers question their own perceptions and feelings.

Popular Psychological Thriller Authors

Many authors have masterfully contributed to the genre, with works that have left indelible marks:

  • Gillian Flynn with her groundbreaking “Gone Girl”.
  • Paula Hawkins and the mesmerizing narrative of “The Girl on the Train”.
  • Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane , a tale of haunting suspense and revelation.

Why Psychological Thrillers Resonate

These novels tap into our innate curiosity about the human mind and its complexities. By challenging our perceptions, beliefs, and emotions, psychological thrillers offer an immersive reading experience, pushing us to confront our own vulnerabilities.

Conclusion: The Timeless Allure of Psychological Thrillers

In a world filled with uncertainties and complexities, psychological thrillers act as mirrors, reflecting the depths of human emotions, vulnerabilities, and strengths. Their ability to resonate with readers, challenge perceptions, and evoke intense emotional reactions ensures their enduring popularity in the literary world.

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The brief introduction to organizational citizenship behaviors and counterproductive work behaviors: a literature review.

Qianqian Fan,

  • 1 Faculty of Business and Communications, INTI International University, Nilai, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia
  • 2 International Education College, Hebei Finance University, Baoding, China
  • 3 Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Quantity Surveying, INTI International University, Nilai, Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia

This paper presents a literature review on the topic of organizational performance. The study conceptualizes the overall performance of the organization as comprising of organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB) and counterproductive work behaviors (CWB). While there are numerous research studies on OCB, not many have focused on how OCB and CWB affect organizational performance simultaneously. The paper provides an explanation of the OCB and CWB concepts, followed by the primary research and focus of the study. The article presents a comprehensive framework for understanding the meanings of OCB and CWB, along with an internal hierarchy. This framework will serve as a beneficial resource for working managers, academics, and researchers, who seek to optimize economic productivity through improved understanding and management of OCB and CWB.


Employees play a direct or indirect role in numerous factors that affect the operational results of an organization, by “shaping the organizational, social, and psychological context that serves as the catalyst for task activities and processes.” This behavior is referred to by some scholars as Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB) or Counterproductive Work Behavior (CWB), both of which have been the subject of numerous psychological and management studies ( Shah et al., 2022 ). According to these scholars, OCB is associated with an ethical organizational working environment and corporate sustainability performance ( Fein et al., 2023 ). In contrast, CWB represents intentionally destructive conduct aimed at harming an organization’s legitimate interests ( Lee, 2020 ). In previous research, many scholars have explained employee behaviors using Blau’s (1964) social exchange theory and the theory of Person-Organization Fit (POF) ( Kristof-Brown et al., 2005 ). The former elucidates the interaction among attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors, interpreting employee behaviors as a two-way communication between the individual and the organization ( Yıldız et al., 2015 ). The latter serves as a predictor of certain positive behaviors (e.g., OCB) and negative behaviors (e.g., CWB). In studying constructive workplace behaviors, researchers have distinguished between OCB and CCB (Compulsory Citizenship Behaviors). They have also identified the differential effects of various antecedents, including equity sensitivity, Chinese tradition, and job stress ( Yildiz et al., 2023 ). In research on destructive deviant workplace behaviors, these behaviors have been labeled with various terms that share similar meanings, such as counterproductive workplace behaviors (CWB) ( Yıldız et al., 2015 ). Furthermore, Yıldız and Alpkan (2015) proposed a comprehensive model to analyze these destructive deviant workplace behaviors. They also introduced individual and organizational antecedents of negative behaviors, including POF, careerism, participative decision-making, and alienation. Current findings suggest that the more positive an employee’s perceptions are of OCB, the less likely they are to engage in negative behavior. Most recent research in this field supports these findings ( Hossein and Somayeh, 2018 ; Jiang et al., 2022 ; Fein et al., 2023 ). These behaviors are shaped by the intent and direction of targeted actions ( Neuhoff, 2020 ).

The definition of OCB and CWB

The concept of OCB was formally recognized by Organ (1988) , who introduced it as a variable that could enhance organizational effectiveness ( Yow, 2017 ). It should be noted that while there is a concept similar to OCB, its nature is distinct: Compulsory Citizenship Behaviors (CCBs). CCBs refer to involuntary extra-role behaviors that arise under external pressure, not from the individual’s genuine goodwill. According to existing literature, various positive organizational and managerial factors can positively influence OCB. However, these factors may inadvertently pressurize employees, compelling them to display what appears to be OCB, but is in fact imposed. Such behaviors are termed as CCBs ( Yildiz et al., 2023 ). In another study, Yildiz et al. (2022) examined the CCBs, anger, and moral disengagement levels of nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that when nurses are subjected to CCBs, they might harbor feelings of resentment toward the organization. This can drain employees’ positive energy and resources, and potentially compromise their moral decision-making mechanisms. In essence, imposing extra behaviors upon employees without their genuine willingness can be more detrimental than beneficial to organizations.

Another concept, akin to OCB and gaining traction in recent organizational behavior studies, is Constructive Deviant Workplace Behaviors (CDWB). While both are similar in that they exceed typical role expectations, OCB has a more passive nature, necessitating employees’ adherence to organizational and managerial norms and rules. In contrast, constructive deviance demands proactive actions from employees that may contravene norms. This suggests that employees exhibiting constructive deviance tend to be more risk-prone than their peers ( Yildiz et al., 2015 ).

The above comparison helps clarify the characteristics of OCB. According to existing literature, OCB has been defined from a variety of perspectives ( Suprapty Hidar et al., 2023 ). However, after reviewing these definitions, most scholars agree that OCB represents behaviors demonstrated by employees which, although not required for their current task or role, contribute to the organization’s operations and growth ( Al-Ahmadi and Mahran, 2021 ). Examples of OCB in the workplace may include assisting coworkers and initiating improvement measures. Consequently, understanding why employees engage in OCB is both necessary and insightful. Educators have positive perceptions of organizational citizenship, with behaviors including suggesting improvements for the university, voluntarily assisting new lecturers, and dedicating their personal time to enhance the performance of their students and the university ( Khalid et al., 2021 ; Bastian and Widodo, 2022 ).

On the other hand, CWB refers to actions that can be detrimental to an organization or its members. This type of behavior has garnered increasing attention from scholars and managers due to its potential negative impacts on businesses ( Reizer et al., 2020 ). Some scholars adopts the psychological contract theory to explain the relationship between workplace ostracism and employees’ CWB in the tourism industry of China, found that understanding the effects for employees who are working in a cultural context that attributes high value on relationships and implicit psychological contracts ( Li and Khattak, 2023 ). It is important to emphasize the defining characteristics of CWB: it is goal-oriented, as employees intentionally partake in harmful behavior ( Akbari et al., 2022 ). As such, the repercussions of this behavior can significantly affect a wide range of stakeholders, including employees, coworkers, customers, and others.

Reasons for research OCB and CWB

Why are scholars so interested in studying OCB and CWB? There are two primary reasons. First, both OCB and CWB fall under a broad definition of work performance that extends beyond assigned tasks ( Neale, 2019 ). When assessing an employee’s performance, managers take these behaviors into account. Second, both OCB and CWB influence individual and organizational effectiveness and productivity ( Susnienė et al., 2021 ). OCB is typically associated with positive outcomes such as improving coworker/managerial activities, efficient utilization of resources, employee retainment, while CWB is generally linked to negative outcomes like theft; destruction of property; sabotage; misuse of information, time and resources ( Shah et al., 2022 ). At present, much interest has recently been paid to employee extra-role work behaviors (i.e., OCB, CWB) that are outside the technical core (i.e., task performance) but “shape the organizational, social, and psychological context that catalyzes task activities and processes” ( Macias et al., 2023 ).

Some researchers have sought to more comprehensively explain the origins of OCB and its impact on organizational development. Some hypothesize that OCB leads to improved organizational performance and outcomes ( Romi et al., 2019 ). Numerous studies have tied perceptions of unfair treatment to CWB actions, such as Siswanti et al.'s (2020) study, which employed organizational fairness theory and leader-member exchange theory to elucidate the connection. Just like Fein et al. (2023) study, who found that both OCB and CWB can be consequent behaviors following perceptions of distributive organizational injustice perceived as inequity.

According to Liu et al. (2023) , employees’ turnover intention is positively related to their subsequent CWB, and permanent workers are less likely to engage in CWB compared to temporary workers because of the former’s higher organizational affective commitment. As Talaeipashiri (2016) stated, aggression may occur within the organization and could be targeted at certain individuals or the organization as a whole. Thus, we can conclude that organizational CWBs refer to actions directed at the organization itself, such as theft or use of violence, whereas interpersonal CWBs refer to actions directed at individuals within the organization, such as rudeness toward coworkers.

Impact on the organization

Due to the importance of employee performance, OCB is crucial to an organization. Previous research has shown that organizations benefit from employee contributions that go above and beyond the formal job requirements, also known as OCB ( Organ, 2018 ). Scholars strive to explain the positive effects of OCB from a broader research perspective ( Vagner et al., 2022 ). For instance, OCB presents commitments that reasonable in nature and when totaled after some time and people, may upgrade the execution by greasing up the building the mental texture of the association, decreasing erosion, and/or expanding productivity ( Guntuku et al., 2020 ). Furthermore, some scholar’s studies have highlighted the relationship between OCB and employee, they found that OCB has a significant and negative impact on intention to leave. When an employee has performed better OCB, it will lead to a lower intention to leave the organization ( Abror et al., 2020 ).

The majority of CWBs involve proactive actions that intentionally or voluntarily harm an organization and its stakeholders, such as clients, colleagues, and supervisors ( Liu et al., 2023 ). CWBs specifically include intentionally failing to perform work duties properly, engaging in workplace deviance, or engaging in behaviors that violate organizational policies and procedures ( Mert, 2023 ). The most critical aspect of CWB is that they must be intentional and purposeful, not accidental ( Kraak et al., 2023 ). Thus, when a worker chooses and engages in such harmful behavior, they do so with a conscious intent.

Actually, CWB are generally assimilated to “arbitrary behaviors performed by employees that overshadow the accepted norms of the organization and might then inflict pernicious shocks on the body of the organization and lead to extensive economic and psychological losses” ( Akbari et al., 2022 ). It can be seen as a mechanism for employees to engage in deliberate behavior to restore perceived fairness in their transactions with the organization (“I am not paid enough, so I will work less”). According to researcher’s study, CWB is prevalent in the workplace and is regarded as one of the most pressing challenges encountering current organizations, costing them billions annually ( Macias et al., 2023 ).

Behavioral manifestations of OCB

OCBs are defined as “individual behavior that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system and promotes the effective functioning of the organization as a whole” ( Organ, 1988 ; Fein et al., 2023 ). A multitude of strategic Human Resource Management issues—such as talent management, employee engagement, organizational climate, organizational effectiveness, turnover intentions, and organizational commitment—are intricately connected with human behavior-related psychological issues ( Ren et al., 2023 ). Among all of these antecedents HRM practices play the most vital and challenging role in enhancing employees OCB ( Sultana and Johari, 2023 ). As a result, organizations are keen to maintain industrial harmony through the identification of sociable behavioral skills, underscoring the practical relevance of this research.

Simultaneously, the growing interest in the study of OCB indicates that even positive behaviors can lead to negative outcomes. Several studies suggest that organizational citizenship behavior can be time-consuming ( Reizer et al., 2020 ), potentially distracting workers from their core tasks and leading to employee burnout ( Klotz et al., 2018 ). Specifically, some researchers have proposed that attachment acts as a personality regulator in the relationship between OCB and Work-Family Facilitation (WFF) ( Reizer et al., 2020 ). Numerous studies show that attachment orientation can illuminate how individuals connect with others and foster healthy interpersonal relationships ( Gazder and Stanton, 2023 ). These orientations, which consider fundamental personality tendencies, provide a theoretical foundation and a set of empirically validated data in the social and personality domains, and personality traits have a significant impact on direct and indirect organizational citizenship behaviors for the environment ( Szostek, 2021 ).

In general, OCB is a crucial factor for organizational development ( Somech and Ohayon, 2019 ), contributing to the creation of a psychosocial work environment that supports the organization’s core activities ( Organ and Ryan, 1995 ). Regarding the direction and typology of OCB, several models have been developed since the construct’s inception ( Turner and Connelly, 2021 ).

In Organ’s (1988) research, he identified five different types of behavior to exemplify organizational citizenship behavior: altruism, conscientiousness, sportsmanship, courtesy, and civic virtue ( Atatsi et al., 2021 ).

Altruism entails discretionary assistance provided to peers or colleagues concerning job-related tasks, such as helping newcomers and freely dedicating time to others. While typically directed at individuals, it enhances group efficiency by improving individual performance ( Dipaola and Hoy, 2005 ). In essence, altruism is “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare” ( Ma et al., 2018 ).


Conscientiousness alludes to behavior that surpasses the minimal expected levels, like efficient time use and exceeding base expectations, thereby enhancing both personal and group efficiency ( DiPaola and Hoy, 2005 ). Notably, conscientiousness is among the Big Five personality traits, epitomizing diligence and self-discipline. It has been identified as a consistent predictor of academic achievement ( Icekson et al., 2020 ). Additionally, Abbas and Raja (2019) found conscientiousness to be the most influential predictor of problem-solving coping in response to stressors.


Sportsmanship is an individual’s capacity to endure suboptimal situations without complaints ( Lan, 2018 ), such as refraining from unnecessary grievances, thereby enhancing productive organizational time ( Dipaola and Hoy, 2005 ). Despite its importance, sportsmanship has garnered limited attention in academic literature. Organ’s definition appears narrower than the broader implications of the term. For instance, “good sports” not only tolerate inconveniences but also maintain positivity despite setbacks, do not take offense easily, sacrifice personal interests for collective good, and handle rejection gracefully ( Podsakoff et al., 2000 ). Puspitasari et al. (2023) suggest that sportsmanship enables teachers to tolerate imperfect organizational conditions without dissent. High sportsmanship fosters a positive climate, promoting collaboration and creating a harmonious work environment.

Courtesy is characterized as polite and thoughtful actions toward colleagues. Employees exhibiting courtesy consciously evade causing issues for others, thereby reducing managerial burdens and amplifying organizational performance ( Faajir et al., 2021 ). Such behavior is proactive, preventing issues rather than addressing existing problems ( Magdalena, 2014 ). Examples include giving advance notices and reminders, which helps avert issues and ensures productive time utilization ( Dipaola and Hoy, 2005 ). In essence, courtesy fosters positive relations among peers, crafting a conducive and amiable work setting ( Oamen, 2023 ).

Civic virtue

Civic virtue encompasses behaviors emphasizing participation in overarching organizational issues, like committee work and voluntary attendance at events, bolstering the organization’s interests ( Dipaola and Hoy, 2005 ). Robbins and Judge (2015) equate civic virtue with responsible behavior, which includes following organizational changes, suggesting improvements, and safeguarding organizational resources. Civic virtue implies that organizations empower employees to enhance their work quality ( Puspitasari et al., 2023 ). Broadly, it signifies an employee’s inclination to represent and elevate their organization’s image positively ( Oamen, 2023 ).

Contemporary literature explores other distinctions within OCB, although many of these dimensions are still applicable. In the early 1990s, researchers began differentiating between Organizational Citizenship Behavior—Individual (OCBI) and Organizational Citizenship Behavior—Organizational (OCBO) ( Smith et al., 1983 ). OCBIs involve helping behaviors directed toward other individuals (e.g., assisting a sick coworker), while OCBOs encompass actions directed at the entire organization, such as participating in a voluntary company fundraiser. Proponents of this perspective argue that OCBI and OCBO are distinct variables with unique antecedents and motivators and that they are associated with job satisfaction in different ways ( El-Kassar et al., 2021 ; Rahman and Karim, 2022 ).

Behavioral manifestations of CWB

The means and likelihood of employee retaliation-based behaviors as reactions to poor leadership and management have been noted extensively as behavioral manifestations of Counterproductive Work Behaviors (CWB) ( Fein et al., 2023 ). Individual CWBs refer to actions directed against individuals within the organization, while organizational CWBs refer to actions against the organization as a whole. The study of deviant workplace behavior by Robinson and Bennett (1995) provides evidence for this interpretation.

Several researchers have examined the connections between CWB and occupational stressors. Some researcher found that perceived increases in workload were positively related to increased exhaustion after work, psychosomatic symptoms, and to spillover effects at home, even after controlling for negative affect ( Rodríguez, 2019 ). The same as Lenz et al. (2023) study, whose research suggests that when exposed to stressors, individuals take longer breaks, or work slower than necessary (i.e., show CWB) as a strategy to avoid further resource loss. The work stress/mood/CWB model developed by Fox et al. (2001) suggests that CWB is an instinctive emotional response to workplace stressors. According to Spector and Jex (1998) , workplace stressors are understood to pose threats to health and to lead to negative emotional responses such as anger and anxiety. Furthermore, some scholars argue that job insecurity is associated with CWB behavior. Many organizations face restructuring and downsizing, especially in today’s uncertain and volatile economic climate, which can heighten employee anxiety and stress ( Pu et al., 2023 ).

Here is a comprehensive explanation of the five components of CWB. Mistreatment of others is considered individual counterproductive behavior (CWB), whereas deviant behavior, destructive behavior, withdrawal behavior, and theft are classified as organizational counterproductive behaviors (CWB).

Abuse against others

Abuse against others within an organization involves an individual’s behavior that is harmful to their coworkers ( Bal, 2021 ). These behaviors can inflict physical harm, such as humiliation, contempt, insulting remarks, or intimidation, or psychological harm, such as neglect and hindering effective work. Simultaneously, it should be stressed that since direct and overt physical violence is rare within organizations, many researchers focus on non-violent behaviors. The concept of abuse in this context is closely related to notions of incivility, emotional abuse, workplace bullying, and psychological siege, as outlined in the relevant literature. In other words, within the context and scope of CWB research, the study focuses on individuals who engage in these actions ( To and Huang, 2022 ).

Production deviance

The component of production deviance includes behaviors such as not deliberately and properly performing the tasks in the job description of the employee, making mistakes, performing poorly, slowing down and obeying the instructions ( Bal, 2021 ). A summation of items reflecting “interpersonal and organizational deviance” should indicate the participation levels of each form of deviance ( Fleming et al., 2022 ). Early work in CWB focused on what was characterized as employee deviance, falling into categories of product deviance, property deviance, political divisions, and personal aggression; while deviance has been characterized as “violating behaviors,” which are those that benefit self, those that benefit the organization in an unethical manner, or destruction to exact revenge ( Allen, 2023 ).

Sabotage involves the intentional and deliberate destruction (such as arson or property damage) or damage of organizational assets (like equipment) by employees in an effort to reduce productivity ( Spector et al., 2006 ; Kim and Jo, 2022 ). This vandalism can be traced back to the machine destruction during the workers’ movement following the Industrial Revolution, and can be seen as an extension or derivation of that act. In some studies, destructive behavior is interpreted from a broader perspective and is considered as negative behaviors based on employees’ personal interests, such as damaging organizational functions, disrupting or altering organizational order, creating and spreading negative rumors within the organization, slowing production, or harming customers and employees ( Skarlicki et al., 2008 ; Szostek, 2022 ). Several factors contributing to the emergence of destructive behavior include anger or hostility, responses to unfairness, the desire for personal gain, resistance to organizational change, and the need for approval from coworkers ( Wiseman and Stillwell, 2022 ).

Withdrawal includes reduce the working time below the minimum necessary to achieve the goals (for example, extending breaks, unjustified dismissals). Different from other forms of CWB, the employees engaged in withdrawal were characterized by a lower level of emotional exhaustion ( Szostek et al., 2020 ). Withdrawal is behavior where an employee attempts to avoid a situation rather than harming the organization and its members thus, this type of behavior is used as a passive way to influence the organization by withholding effort usually used to produce for the organization. At the same time, looking at the description of production deviance there is a noticeable similarity between the categories, but as previously stated, withdrawal is more passive in that it involves withdrawing effort systematically ( Van der Westhuizen, 2019 ).

Employees commit theft with the intention to harm organizations or individuals ( Sackett et al., 2006 ). It is a form of instrumental aggression (mainly toward the organization) motivated by the will to: obtain approval, help colleagues, equalize conditions and protect oneself in case of harmful actions of superiors ( Szostek, 2022 ). Many employees may view theft from the organization as non-aggressive due to financial needs, dissatisfaction with the job, or a sense of being treated unfairly ( Bal, 2021 ). In these instances, employees do not intend to use or sell the stolen items but aim to harm the organization’s economic interests.

The influencing factors of OCB and CWB

An individual’s inherent and immutable personality has a more stable and lasting impact on OCB/CWB ( Aspan et al., 2019 ). Previous research has elaborated on why intrinsic motivation theory can influence employees’ propensity to engage in civic behavior. Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal factor of employee self-satisfaction ( Runge et al., 2020 ; Schattke and Marion-Jetten, 2022 ). Since OCBs are less likely to be formally rewarded than prescribed work behaviors, they are most likely to be driven by internal incentive channels ( Dermawan and Handayani, 2019 ; Ren et al., 2022 ).

Personality traits can influence how individuals perceive and respond to diverse motivations ( Clark, 2010 ; Reizer et al., 2020 ). According to Neale’s (2019) study, the findings suggest that that the intentionality behind job crafting behaviors is predicted differentially by individual needs as well as personality traits (the dark triad and conscientiousness). Bright job crafting is more associated with engagement in OCBs while dark job crafting is more associated with engagement in CWBs. Related research demonstrates that organizational commitment is the most influential factor affecting OCB. High organizational commitment is related to high OCB and employee performance, low absence rates, and fewer delays ( Nurjanah et al., 2020 ).

Furthermore, it is believed that organizational commitment is positively related to perceived organizational support. When employees feel respected and supported for their roles, organizational commitment increases ( Lambert et al., 2017 ). This bond can be strengthened in numerous ways. Leadership has a significant effect on the perception of organizational support ( Wang et al., 2021 ). Specifically, Delegach et al. (2017) found that transformational leadership is positively associated with organizational commitment, whereas transactional leadership is positively associated with commitments to safety and the organization’s mission. Given the strong emphasis on transformational leadership practices in encouraging OCBs, these findings are intriguing. It’s possible that organizational commitment may increase if transactional leaders are better equipped to instill organizational values in employees.

Some scholars believe that job autonomy may have positive effects on organizational performance. Job autonomy is defined as the extent to which the job offers employees the freedom to make choices about what, when, and how they perform their work. Greater job autonomy reduces limitations from other job factors and improves individuals’ job performance ( Matteson et al., 2021 ). These contradictory findings and a contingency perspective suggest that the relationships between job autonomy, OCB, and organizational performance may depend on organizational circumstances ( Park, 2018 ).

From the comprehensive literature review, we observe various research perspectives and conclusions on deviant behaviors. In studying constructive and destructive deviant workplace behaviors, scholars have refined a general classification of workplace deviance. Using precise definitions of terms, they have analyzed antecedent factors, constructed various models or frameworks, and proposed feasible measures. This literature review aids in further summarizing the relevant content concerning OCB and CWB.

In this paper, previous scholars’ conclusions shed light on the propositions. In general, this paper provides a succinct overview of previous research on deviant behaviors, with a particular focus on OCB and CWB as well as their various aspects. It discusses personality, organizational commitment and job autonomy, three concepts intrinsically related to OCB/CWB, and how they function. This section underscores the impact that CWB and OCB have on organizational performance. Each aspect of CWB and OCB is also detailed within this study for relevance. The literature review offered above allows us to envision an optimal portrayal of organizational performance, and this theoretical framework can be beneficial in terms of practitioners and researchers. Within organizations, employees should exert additional effort and be open to adopting new work methods, while leaders should provide comprehensive support, effectively implement employees’ suggestions, set high standards, and commit more resources and energy to work-related matters rather than traditional management and rigid control. Given sufficient trust, employees are more likely to engage in cooperative behaviors, such as assisting coworkers and performing actions that benefit the group. Consequently, the costs associated with hiring, selecting, and integrating new coworkers should be reduced. Although this is not an empirical paper, the compilation of previous research findings constitutes a significant contribution to guiding managerial actions in organizations. This paper can serve as a guide for organizations seeking to improve their employees’ organizational performance and curtail the occurrence of negative behaviors.

The limitations of this paper are manifold. While the primary focus was on OCB and CWB, the intricate relationships among OCB, CWB, and deviant workplace behaviors were not fully explored. Moreover, the study centered on just three determinants: personality, organizational commitment, and job autonomy, assessing their influence on OCB/CWB. Future studies might consider a broader range of individual, task, and organizational antecedents and delve into potential indirect effects, such as moderator impacts, on OCB and CWB. Furthermore, this research did not narrow down to specific industries or professions, suggesting that subsequent research, when tailored to distinct sectors or job roles, might yield recommendations with heightened relevance and applicability.

Author contributions

All authors listed have made a substantial, direct, and intellectual contribution to the work and approved it for publication.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords: organizational performance, organizational citizenship behavior, counterproductive work behavior, economic productivity, influencing factors

Citation: Fan Q, Wider W and Chan CK (2023) The brief introduction to organizational citizenship behaviors and counterproductive work behaviors: a literature review. Front. Psychol . 14:1181930. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1181930

Received: 08 March 2023; Accepted: 29 August 2023; Published: 13 September 2023.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2023 Fan, Wider and Chan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Walton Wider, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


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    Fact-checked What Is Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism? Psychoanalytic literary criticism explores the deep-seated desires, fears, and motives within literature, drawing from Freudian theories to unlock subconscious themes in texts. It reveals characters' psychological complexities and authors' hidden intentions.

  13. Psychological Realism Definition and Examples

    Psychological Realism Definition. Psychological realism is a genre of writing that focuses on why a character takes a certain action.. Unlike some novels that depict actions for the sake of the reader's entertainment or to simply forward the plot, in these stories, authors delve into why a character did what they did and make that the focus of the story.

  14. (PDF) Psychology of Literature and Literature in Psychology

    The first one deals with the psychological study of the writer as an individual and the type or types and laws present in literary works, in the second, psychology as a perspective for the ...

  15. (PDF) Psychology in Literature

    The basic plot points in English Literature are often rooted in the author's understanding of the human mind, when later scholars systematically studied the mind, there are set patterns that tend...

  16. Psychological Literacy

    Until 2010, the phrase "psychological literacy" (PL) was used sparsely and in a variety of ways, including to refer to (a) a student's grasp of the major concepts of the different topic areas of psychology, (b) a call to action for psychologists to contribute to increased psychological knowledge and skills in the population, or (c) a nation's ge...

  17. Towards a Transversal Definition of Psychological Resilience: A

    Findings were used for proposing a broad definition of psychological resilience that considers the various theoretical and multidisciplinary backgrounds associated with it and the different areas of application. ... Resilience is defined in the positive psychology literature as the human capacity to persist, bounce back, and flourish when faced ...

  18. psychological literature collocation

    Examples of psychological literature in a sentence, how to use it. 17 examples: Such a nomothetic assessment is what we most often find in the psychological literature and…

  19. What is Psychological Criticism in Literature

    Psychological criticism in literature is the psychological analysis of motivations of the author and his work. This criticism is based on the theory that author's physiological state is unconsciously reflected in different aspects of the work such as characters, symbols, setting, and language. Image Courtesy:

  20. What is a Psychological Thriller?: Definition, Origin, and Elements

    The origins of psychological thrillers trace back to Gothic literature of the 18th century, where the human psyche was often a central theme. Over time, as psychology became a more defined and studied field, narratives began to explore deeper into characters' minds. Books such as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson or the ...

  21. The Contribution of Psychological Theories in Literary Criticism

    Abstract. Dealing with human behavior in almost all aspects of human endeavor, psychological theories have made their contributions into different fields of studies. Literature study is not an exception. Literary criticism, for instance, is conspicuously based on psychological theories. Acquaintance with these theories in the literary criticism ...

  22. Concepts

    Cranney and Dunn (2011; see Literature) simply defined psychological literacy as the capacity to intentionally apply psychological science to achieve personal, professional and societal goals. But of course, it is not that simple. For example, how does one balance personal, professional and societal goals?

  23. Psychological Wellbeing: A systematic Literature Review

    Abstract. Psychological well-being is a multifaceted and multi-dimensional construct that encompasses an individual's overall happiness, satisfaction with life, and mental and emotional health. It ...

  24. Frontiers

    Some scholars adopts the psychological contract theory to explain the relationship between workplace ostracism and employees' CWB in the tourism industry of China, ... Despite its importance, sportsmanship has garnered limited attention in academic literature. Organ's definition appears narrower than the broader implications of the term.