'A Christmas Carol' Rings True: Ebenezer Scrooge's Transformation Mirrors Real-Life Epiphanies, Psychologists Say

on December 19 2012 5:11 PM
scroogevisitor
John Leech's 1843 illustration of Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present. Wikimedia Commons/John Leech

Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation from curmudgeon to Christmas cheerleader might seem contrived to modern readers, but Charles Dickens' characterization actually reflects real life-changing events, according to two Brigham Young University researchers.

BYU psychology professor Sam Hardy and graduate student Jon Skalski interviewed 14 people who professed to having a sudden, life-changing experience. Their study is forthcoming in the January volume of The Humanistic Psychologist.

Scrooge, for those who aren't familiar with "A Christmas Carol" (or its many movie adaptations, including one with the Muppets and a modernized version with Bill Murray), is introduced as a rich but friendless man. His business partner Jacob Marley is dead, and his fiance left him many years previous.

“Like our participants, Scrooge was suffering,” Skalski said in a statement on Tuesday. “There was disintegration. There was a world that was ripe for change because of suffering going on.”

In "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge --- who initially says 'bah humbug' to Christmas Cheer -- has an epiphany after a visitation from Marley's ghost, and with subsequent visits from the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

The subjects interviewed by Skalski and Hardy didn't have any ghostly visitations, but their real-life breakthroughs came from dire places. One businessman, referred to in the study as Kevin, suffered an identity crisis when his professional ventures collapsed.

But according to the study, Kevin said his business failure was the best thing that could have happened to him.

“My life is so much more rewarding than it once was. You can’t put a price tag on certain … events that I maybe missed before – certain events, and a marriage, and a family, birthdays, you know? Certain things that are just really fun to be a part of are more meaningful, and it is happiness – the kind that lasts,” Kevin says in the study. “I know these truths have been around forever. But for me they’re new.”

Stories like Charles Dickens' tale of the reformed Scrooge, or that of George Bailey hitting rock bottom in “It's a Wonderful Life,” have a certain resonance, the researchers say.

“Those stories are stuck within our culture,” Skalski said. “We all know deep down inside that human beings can and do change in profound and significant ways.”

This isn't the first study to put Dickens' Christmas classic under the proverbial microscope. In a 2002 paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, four psychologists studied what they called the “Scrooge effect” – whether being reminded of one's mortality increases a person's charitable instincts.

In the first of two experiments, researchers interviewed people either in front of a funeral home or several blocks away from a funeral home about their attitudes toward two charities they thought were important. People interviewed in front of a funeral home tended to be more favorable towards the charities they thought were important.

In the second experiment, the researchers found that people would give more money to a charity supporting an American cause if they were made aware of their mortality.

Another study says that Scrooge's tale highlights the often-missed problem of depression in the elderly. A paper from Russell Chesney, a pediatrician at the University of Tennessee's Health Science Center, hypothesizes that the frail Tiny Tim likely suffered from some combination of tuberculosis and rickets. To help the Cratchit family, Scrooge might include some cod liver oil, according to the paper.

“The combination of rickets and TB represent a crippling condition that could be reversed by improved vitamin D status,” Chesney wrote.

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