Psychological Perspectives of Development (CORC 112): Case Study [55%, 2013]


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Case study overview
Essay introduction
Milgram and obedience
Erikson and identity
Levinson and life stages
Piaget and schemas
Freud and psychoanalysis
Skinner and operant conditioning


Samuel Vimes is the fifty-two-year-old Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Snuff. He joined the police force aged sixteen, rising to the highest rank through his detective prowess. Vimes had an impoverished upbringing; he was raised by his mother alone, his father having died in an accident before he was born. In order for her son to receive an education, Vimes’ mother worked tirelessly to pay for him to attend Mistress Slightly’s Dame School. His financial circumstances dramatically improved when he married Lady Sybil Ramkin, the richest woman in the city, elevating him into the nobility. Together they have a six-year-old son named Young Sam.

Vimes’ father is reputed to have been an alcoholic, and Vimes himself is a reformed heavy drinker. He has an insatiable appetite for his detective work, only taking a day off when he is too badly injured to perform his policing duties. However, his wife has insisted that the family take a two-week holiday to Ramkin Hall, the enormous country house that is officially Vimes’ property (Sybil having passed ownership of the property to Vimes when they married). Vimes is currently extremely agitated at the thought of having to leave his post for such a length of time.[^]


This essay will examine how Samuel Vimes has adjusted – and continues to adjust – to life’s changes and challenges from birth to the present day. The effects of early experiences on his development will be evaluated, with particular reference to the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson, alongside the stage-based theory formulated by Levinson et al. Stanley Milgram’s insightful investigation into the topic of obedience, together with the behaviourist principles of B. F. Skinner, will serve as the basis for a discussion of the effect of social influences on developing or modifying behaviour.[^]

Despite begging to be allowed to continue his police work unabated, Vimes’ only superior in terms of Ankh-Morporkian law, Lord Vetinari, orders that he return his badge for the duration of his holiday. Lord Vetinari sends Captain Carrot to collect Vimes’ badge and ensure that he takes some time off; Vimes reluctantly obeys, appearing to seal his badge in a brown envelope and dutifully setting off with his family to Ramkin House. Why does Vimes ignore his own wishes and comply with those of his legal superior?

One explanation, drawing on the terminology of Stanley Milgram, could be that Vimes sees Lord Vetinari as “a legitimate authority” (Gross, 2001:395). In seeking to explain why sixty-five per cent of ‘teacher’ participants would obey the experimenter’s command to steadily increase the electric shock ‘applied’ to a ‘learner’ in an adjacent room to a ‘fatal’ voltage level, Milgram proposed that the participants began to see themselves as merely agents of the experimenter’s authority. Participants shifted responsibility away from themselves and onto the experimenter – a move away from the autonomous state to the agentic state (Gross, 2001). The law-enforcing profession is structured around a hierarchy of power and authority, with Lord Vetinari at the top and Vimes his immediate subordinate. Thus, Vimes follows Lord Vetinari’s command owing to Vetinari’s position of seniority. Vimes puts aside his own ideas and beliefs and becomes an ‘agent’ of Vetinari’s will.

One of the subsequent variations on Milgram’s initial experiment involved the experimenter leaving the room and giving instructions to the participants via telephone. This variation explored the concept of remote authority. Milgram found that obedience decreased to 20.5 per cent, with participants often feigning the delivery of shocks and administering lower voltage shocks than they were commanded to. Participants found that in the experimenter’s “absence, it was easier to follow their conscience” (Gross, 2001:394). The reduced level of obedience in response to remote authority is exemplified by Vimes’ response to the absent Lord Vetinari- he hands Captain Carrot a sealed envelope that in fact contains an empty tin of snuff, rather than his police badge. Vimes’ obedience is therefore only partial: he agrees to go on holiday, but subtly refuses to hand in his badge – much like the participants who subtly refused to obey the remote experimenter.[^]

On arrival at Ramkin Hall, Vimes is faced with a welcoming committee standing expectantly in a guard of honour. Having lived over half his life in borderline poverty before being catapulted into the elite classes through marriage, Vimes is unsure of the protocol in these situations: how is he supposed to behave? He sees his childhood friend and nowadays his personal gentleman, Willikins, amidst the throng of wide-eyed faces, and is glad that he insisted on bringing him along: Willikins is one of the few people in the world that Vimes trusts. Deciding to shake hands and converse with the first member of the aforementioned guard of honour, he is jokingly reprimanded by his wife for addressing the gardener instead of simply walking up to the house. This is the first of several episodes which demonstrate Vimes’ lack of understanding of the noble classes’ norms and expectations, culminating in him walking around his estate trying to make sense of things with recourse to all his past and present ‘selves’:

“So, when Sir Samuel Vimes and Commander Vimes and His Grace the Duke of Ankh (not to mention Blackboard Monitor Vimes, a figure of note in dwarfish society) walked out after breakfast, they were all on their best behaviour.”
(Pratchett, 2012:39)

This uncertainty as to his role and identity, and his mistrust of everybody except his wife, son, and personal gentleman, is interesting from the perspective of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of stage-based development. According to Erikson, Vimes’ “basic mistrust” (Gross, 2001:545) stems from a lack of gratification during the oral stage of development. In the first year of his life, Vimes’ mother did not adequately satisfy his need to feel secure in the knowledge that food and comfort was available when he needed it; baby Vimes did not trust his mother to provide for him, causing him to become mistrustful and unable to attain the human virtue of ‘hope’ that successful resolution of this stage would lead to.

From the age of twelve to eighteen years old, Erikson believed that all individuals experienced a crisis in terms of stable identity on one hand and role confusion on the other. Successful resolution of this stage leads to the acquisition of ‘fidelity’. Furthermore,

“Erikson believed that a prerequisite for intimacy was the attainment of identity (the reconciliation of all our various roles into one enduring and stable personality[…])”
(Gross, 2001:544, emphasis added)

Vimes has been a policeman for thirty-six years and loves his job to the point of wishing he did not ever have to take a holiday; it is fair to say that his occupational identity is fixed and stable. Yet he still experiences a confusion of identity when confronted with social situations that differ so dramatically to those experienced during his upbringing. This highlights a flaw in Erikson’s theory, in that even though Vimes’ previously fixed identity is becoming less clear, he continues to worship his wife (suggesting he has successfully resolved the intimacy/isolation conflict during his twenties), allowing her to dictate several aspects of his life, not least his diet. If it was necessary to be absolutely certain of oneself in order to love another person completely, Vimes’ relationship with his wife would become increasingly strained – whereas he continues to love her with a fierce loyalty. Vimes’ current role confusion suggests that identity conflicts are not limited to the teenage years, and do not always negatively impact on an individual’s ability to form and maintain close relationships with others.

Erikson proposes that the stage after the resolution of the intimacy/isolation conflict concerns the opposing concepts of ‘generativity’ and ‘stagnation’, and occupies individuals from the late twenties up to the age of fifty. People who successfully resolve this stage acquire the virtue of ‘care’, which is expressed in terms of being concerned with the kind of world in which future generations will live, caring for others, and helping to make the world a better place (Gross, 2001). When Lady Sybil insists that Vimes should meet her friend Ariadne for tea, he finds himself discussing the meaning of life with Ariadne’s five daughters and is shocked to discover that they each intend to wait patiently for a gentleman to ask for their hand in marriage. Vimes gives them all a motivational speech about the financial and self-esteem benefits associated with finding a good job and living an independent lifestyle, and is delighted to discover eleven months later that these same girls have gone out into the world, formed new relationships, found suitable employment, and are much happier than when they were sitting meekly at their mother’s house waiting for life to happen to them. Vimes’ concern for these girls suggests he has successfully resolved the generativity/stagnation crisis and achieved the virtue of ‘care’ despite simultaneously struggling with his identity in new surroundings.[^]

Another stage theory that attempts to explain universal human development throughout life was formulated by Levinson (D.J.), Levinson (M.H.), Darrow, Klein, and McKee with the 1978 publication of The Seasons of a Man’s Life. According to Levinson et al., humans pass through four eras over the course of life (pre-adulthood, early adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood), with five-year-long transition periods occurring at ages seventeen (movement from childhood to early adulthood), twenty-eight (the ‘age 30 transition’), forty (‘mid-life transition’), fifty (‘age fifty transition’), and sixty (‘late adult transition’) (Gross, 2001).

Certain aspects of Levinson et al.’s theory are demonstrated in the current behaviour of Samuel Vimes. The theory postulates that during the mid-life transition (between the ages of forty and forty-five), individuals undertake a period “of soul-searching, questioning and assessing the real meaning of the life structure’s achievement.” (Gross, 2001:547) With no police work to occupy his time, Vimes goes for a stroll around his estate, deep in philosophical thought. He briefly visists the local tavern before chancing upon a countryside game of ‘crockett’ being played by two teams. Stopping to spectate, Vimes asks one of the participants about the nature of the game’s sporting laws. Vimes later explains the rules in great detail to his wife- demonstrating that he was on some level listening to the participant’s explanation- but while the man describes the game to him, Vimes’ thoughts are preoccupied with a deep consideration of the nature of the universe:

“[…]and gas filled the firmament and combusted and behold there was a new heaven[…], life crawled out of the sea, or possibly didn’t because it had been made by the gods[…]and lizards turned into birds, and worms turned into butterflies[…]and possibly a kind of monkey fell out of a tree and realized that life was better when you didn’t have to spend your time hanging on to something[…]”
(Pratchett, 2012:75)

Vimes’ preoccupation with the ultimate essence of ‘reality’ and questions of religion and evolutionary science exemplifies Levinson et al.’s notion that individuals will pass through an introspective, soul-searching stage during middle adulthood. Vimes feels that if he can solidify his beliefs about the ‘bigger picture’, he can properly evaluate his own role within the life structure that he has created.

Levinson et al. also suggested that an individual is most likely to assume a mentor role during the BOOM phase- “becoming one’s own man” (Gross, 2001:547)- that occurs between the ages of thirty-six and forty as the era of early adulthood draws to a close. Vimes assumes a mentor role for a young local policeman named Feeney Upshot when a goblin girl is killed on Vimes’ estate; ironically, Upshot is ordered by the local magistrates to arrest Vimes as he is a suspect in her death. Throughout the rest of his ‘holiday’, Vimes and Upshot work tirelessly to track down the man responsible for both killing the goblin girl and trafficking in goblins – a man named Stratford. Vimes enthusiastically fulfils his duties as a mentor for Upshot: he informs Feeney it’s vital to wear a uniform as a policeman; he demonstrates how a successful arrest should be made; he explains the workings of the bail procedure; he shows Feeney how to interact with help-seeking goblins; he speaks of the necessity of good night vision; he elaborates upon the benefits of taking copious notes at every stage of an investigation; he stresses the importance of ensuring that a suspect does not escape or fall ill under his watch; and he teaches Feeney a few tricks of the trade regarding the issue of making suspects ‘talk’.

All in all, Vimes exemplifies Levinson et al.’s proposal that with maturity comes the likelihood of adopting a mentoring role and undergoing a period of soul-searching. However, Vimes adopts his role as mentor at the age of fifty-two, not between the ages of thirty-six and forty as Levinson et al.’s theory would suggest. His period of introspection, assessing his beliefs and his position in the world, takes place aged fifty-two, not between the ages of forty and forty-five as Levinson et al. conceived. Environmental factors- the availability of a ‘protégé’ to mentor, the time and space in which to consider broader questions of life- appear to have a greater impact on an individual’s development than Levinson et al. believed. Craig’s (1992) view that developmental change in adulthood isn’t simply the result of chronology and biology, but is a response to changing personal, social and cultural forces is highlighted through Vimes’ ‘late’ passing through Levinson et al.’s developmental stages: Vimes’ social elevation through marriage has resulted in him having mentoring and philosophical opportunities later in life.[^]

During Vimes’ investigation into the atrocities that continue to befall the goblin community, his attitude towards the goblin species as a whole undergoes an enormous transformation. Jean Piaget used the term ‘schema’ to refer to “mental structures which organise past experiences and provide a way of understanding future experiences.” (Gross, 2001:491) Without having had any evidence presented to him to disprove the layman’s view on goblins, Vimes’ initial view on the goblin community is that,

“one goblin is more than sufficient at close quarters. There was the smell, to begin with, and not to end with either, because it appeared to permeate the world.”
(Pratchett, 2012:147-48)

As his policing business continues, however, Vimes acquires a more detailed knowledge and understanding of the goblin species: they are capable of learning human language if given a patient teacher; the goblin language contains hundreds of words for complex concepts for which the human language has no equivalent; goblins can learn to play the harp brilliantly and poignantly; and goblins are faster than the average human in mastering the art of keyboard typing. These facts cannot be assimilated into Vimes’ existing schema that goblins are simply stinky, stupid creatures. Using Piaget’s terminology, this new information puts Vimes into a state of ‘disequilibrium’, forcing him to change his existing schema and develop a new, more accurate schema (‘goblins are intelligent, but badly-treated, creatures’) into which the evidence of goblins’ diverse talents can be assimilated. Once Vimes’ schema for goblins has developed correctly, he returns to a state of ‘equilibrium’ (Buskist, Carlson, and Martin, 2004).[^]

Vimes’ choice of profession is interesting when analysed from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical perspective. Freud believed that the development of personality hinged on an individual’s experience at each one of five psychosexual stages: the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, the latency stage, and the genital stage (Buskist, Carlson, and Martin, 2004). During the phallic stage of development, Freud states that a boy will undergo the ‘Oedipus complex’. In order to allay his ‘fear of castration’ at the hands of his father, experienced because he thinks his father will punish him for wishing to “have his mother all to himself” (Gross, 2001:507), the boy

“represses (makes unconscious) his desire for his mother and his hostile feelings for his father, and identifies with his father[…] Through this identification with the aggressor, a boy acquires the superego and the male sex role.”
(Gross, 2001:507, my emphasis)

The ‘superego’ is the part of the mind structure concerned with the rules and regulations of society, and is necessary to keep the id’s demands for “immediate gratification” (Buskist, Carlson, and Martin, 2004:599) in check; the conflicting demands of the ‘id’ and the ‘superego’ are negotiated by the ‘ego’. Vimes never knew his father, therefore he didn’t undergo the Oedipus complex; his absolute dedication to the policing profession can be seen in terms of ‘the law’ – with all its prohibitions against inappropriate actions – serving as his superego.

When a goblin nicknamed Stinky interrupts Vimes’ mentoring of Upshot with a plea for justice, Vimes’ arm itches, while in his mind

“just for a moment there was a dripping cave in front of him, and no other thought except of terrible endless vengeance.”
(Pratchett, 2012:150)

This description is reminiscent of Freud’s 1933 conception of the id, as cited in Buskist et al. (2004:599), as “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality[…]a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations.” Vimes’ id desires to slaughter all those involved in mistreating the goblin community, while Vimes’ superego (the law) works to keep these unlawful urges repressed. The inner torment experienced during this id/superego conflict is not verbally or behaviourally expressed by Vimes; he continues to act and speak rationally towards Upshot and the goblin. However, the stress put upon Vimes’ ego in terms of mediating two powerful, opposing drives manifests itself in terms of an arm that won’t stop itching while the conflict is being resolved, “His arm itched. He tried to ignore it[…]” (Pratchett, 2012:150). Freud used the term ‘conversion’ to refer to a physical symptom resulting from a psychic conflict (Buskist et al., 2004).[^]

Upon entering a goblin cave for the first time, Upshot is astonished that Vimes can see perfectly. Vimes declares that it is a consequence of “all that night duty I’ve done” (Pratchett, 2012:172); this is a good illustration of Skinner’s principle of learning through operant conditioning (Gross, 2012:150). Having been put in charge of patrolling the dangerous streets of Ankh-Morpork at night, Vimes has learned to see in the ‘dark’ through both ‘negative reinforcement’ (the removal of the threat of an unseen street attack as a consequence of learning to see in the dark) and ‘positive reinforcement’ (being able to apprehend criminals at night as a consequence of being able to see their illicit activity). Vimes learned a lot on the street.[^]

In conclusion, this essay has examined how Commander Samuel Vimes has adjusted – and continues to adjust – to changes and challenges throughout life, with particular reference to Erik Erikson and Levinson et al.’s stage-based theories of development. The effects of early experiences on his development have been evaluated through a Freudian lens, whilst the effects of social influences on Vimes’ behaviour have been discussed with reference to Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning and Stanley Milgram’s research into obedience.1[^]

1 Happily, Vimes catches the criminal named Stratford (thus fulfilling his safety needs), and enjoys what Maslow would term a ‘peak experience’ whilst piloting a boat along the river near his estate at Snuff’s conclusion!


Buskist, W., Carlson, N.R., and Martin, G.N. (2004) Psychology (2nd edition). London: Pearson Education Limited.

Craig, G.J. (1992) Human Development (6th edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gross, R. (2001) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour (4th edition). London: Hodder and Stoughton Educational.

Pratchett, T. (2012) Snuff. London: Transworld Publishers.


Case Study ~ 208

Essay (not including student number or page numbers) ~ 2650

Quotations used in essay ~ 350

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Forty-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, learning programming languages, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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