The “Russian-novel Problem”, coined by the psychologist David Premack, arises when so many events occur in the lives of two individuals over time, that it is impossible to know what caused what. The greater the number of interactions — all potentially connected in different ways — and the greater the span of time, the harder the Russian-novel Problem becomes.
That’s not all. There is also the additional complexity of individuals remembering events differently and acting according to their own subjective experience. Just think of Raskolnikov’s feverish mind in Crime and Punishment. Not only do we not know what caused what, we might not even know what is what!
So, a person may find themselves locked in endless cycles of resentful, tit for tat. They may retaliate and blame, sulk and suffer, forever pointing the finger at the other. All the while, the other party is feeling and behaving exactly the same way! And, it may even be that whole situation was born out of simple misunderstanding. Indeed, entire communities can get caught-up in these cycles, even leading to violence.
Beyond the Russian-novel problem
Breaking the cycle starts with recognising the complexity at play. That you may be caught-up in a situation where there is no clear distinction between victim and perpetrator. Where you may have caused as much hurt and suffering as you have received, regardless of who started ‘it’. Once the problem is noticed, it about finding it within yourself to let go of resentment or the need to ‘win’.
Sometimes, simply noticing what is at play can shake us into breaking the cycle because we realise its futility. At other times, we might have to dig deep to find the grace to simply walk away and thereby break an endless cycle of suffering. All this starts with noticing with real clarity how deep inside a Russian novel you might be!
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.