Alejandro Serrano Saunders2020/11/08

Worldwide Fictional Travel #2 (USA) - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

How can we travel to other places without leaving our homes? Worldwide Fictional Travel is an escape I use to learn about the world, by reading books of fiction based in different locations; stories told from all corners of the globe. I built this map from Google Maps to mark all the physical locations where each of these books were located in. The goal? To learn about the world through empathy, and perhaps to read one from every country.


It seems like an odd statement to lead with off the bat, but my biggest takeaway from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is nicely summarized by a Daniel Kahneman quote. “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it”. I'll come back later to explain exactly why I think this.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is based in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, based on Hannibal, Missouri, in the USA.

Tom Sawyer, a young boy living a carefree life in an 1840's small town by the Mississippi, is always scheming to break free from the routine constraints of school and work. Facilitated by his quick wits, Tom manages to influence and inspire other kids to either join him on his escapades or become an unknowing victim of their unfolding.

It's with these very quick wits that Tom exploits core biases and shortcomings in human cognition, shared by all of his peers, kids and adults alike. Mark Twain opens the book by saying that he wishes the book would help adults remember what it was like to be a child. After reading the book and reflecting on it a little, I came away with this thought; that on a cognitive level, children and adults are really not too dissimilar from one another.

For some reason, we draw hard lines between both of these developmental stages of our lives. We believe that the process of "maturation" somehow has rewired our brains to work in a more sophisticated and complete manner once we reach adulthood. On a neurological level, perhaps. But is the same true on a cognitive level? This book made reflect on two things about the minds of children and adults. I'll explain them both within the context of Tom Sawyer's adventures as well as psychological research.

Firstly, children and adults alike seem to be plagued by the same cognitive biases, heuristic errors and shortcomings to our thinking. As an example, the previously mentioned Daniel Kahneman quote nicely puts into words how the mind tends to want whatever it is not currently thinking about, whatever it is not free to think about. Mark Twain makes this apparent in Tom Sawyer's world and the best example of this comes when Tom is forced to paint a fence white by his Aunt Polly. Tom is reluctant to do the work and daydreams of going fishing instead. His friends come by and observe him doing this work. When they start talking, however, Tom claims to be having the time of his life. He says that painting is great fun, while also drawing attention to the exclusivity of the task, as Aunt Polly trusted him and no one else to do it. The observing children ask Tom to let them try it, but Tom strategically resists just enough so that other children are dead set on taking over the task. So much so, they start to trade their own treasures and belongings to Tom in order to be trusted with a paintbrush. Tom employs this reverse psychology trick to take away a freedom the children cared very little about, the ability to work. Once they became aware of their missing freedom, they wanted to do nothing more than to exercise that freedom.

Within social psychology, this is called "reactance". We are cognitively wired to protect our own freedoms, and as a result, we are willing to cling to those freedoms if they are threatened. This is what can lead us to reverse our behaviours as a means of reversing the threat.

As adults, we can fall prey to the same thinking without even noticing it. Have you ever watched a YouTube video whose thumbnail told you not to watch it? Have you noticed yourself becoming defensive over a romantic partner when they start getting attention from someone else at a party?

In truth, there are many cognitive biases which children and adults are unwittingly equally vulnerable to. This is in spite of the belief that we have differently functioning brains; an inescapable tenet of evolutionary biology. I put this chart together to show just some of the cognitive biases committed by characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I believe adults similarly commit on a daily basis.

Cognitive Bias Defenition In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer In The Everyday Life of An Adult
Agent Detection The inclination to presume the purposeful intervention of a sentient or intelligent agent. Tom commonly chants charms and incantations to solve problems with magic. He buries a marble and says “What hasn’t come here, come! What’s here, stay here!” beliveing that all his other lost marbles would congregate in the same burial spot.

Players on the opposing sides of sports teams often pray to the same God in search for support for their team to win.
Belief Bias An effect where someone's evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by the believability of the conclusion. Tom and Huck believe Injun Joe's ghost is protecting hidden treasure in the cave where Joe died, because if ghosts could haunt, they would haunt secret treasure.
Citizens of a country fear foreigners from countries which have a history of terrorist attacks in their country. Not all foreigners will commit terrorist attacks, but the fear of them doing so leads to a fear of all such foreigners.
Contrast Effect The enhancement or reduction of a certain stimulus' perception when compared with a recently observed, contrasting object. Huckleberry Finn refuses to sell a tick to Tom. Tom then proposes that he'll trade him a new tooth for it, which Huck then chooses to trade for only once he sees it in person.
Whenever a newer and more updated version of a product come out to the market, prices and perceptions of value of the previous version drop significantly, despite the technology staying the same.
Functional Fixedness Limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.
Tom asks Becky Thatcher if she likes rats, which she disgustedly says no to. Then Tom asks if she likes to tie rope to the tails of dead rats and swing them around her head, which she is less aversive to. Seeing a toy car and thinking of how that toy car can be used by a child to drive around a play mat. Neglecting the potential role the toy car can have as a spaceship, a talking entitiy, a transformed version of another toy, a bulldozer, etc.
Gender Bias A widely held set of implicit biases that discriminate against a gender. For example, the assumption that women are less suited to jobs requiring high intellectual ability. Tom thinks that if his gang were to capture and kidnap men for ransom, they would have to kill them because they would act hostile. However, if they were to capture and kidnap women for ransom, they can't kill them because after a few days they would be lovely and fall in love with them. When hiring between a man and a woman for a job traditionally held by men (such as construction work), picking the man under the assumption that the woman probably wouldn't have the same grit, experience or endurance.
Hot-Hand Fallacy The belief that a person who has experienced success with a random event has a greater chance of further success in additional attempts.
After being stuck in a cave for days on end and almsot dying, Tom and Becky find an escape and survive. Two weeks later, Tom remembers that there is treasure in the cave and decides to go back in with Huck, thinking that he won't run into the same risks as last time.
When gambling in a casino, an 18+ gambler may bet again after losing many games over the entire night, but winning a few in the most recent moments.

In fact, there is an incredible number of cognitive biases out there which have been studied. For a list of just some of them, follow this link. It was humbling to me to just scroll through the list, gaining insight into all the things we may overlook and not think twice about. It makes you question how much of our daily personal inferences of the world around us are accurate and truly real, though that's a question for another time.

Secondly, I also think it is important to recognise the ability children have for thinking in novel (and often innovative) ways, which adults have lost the ability to do. In the above chart, I give the example of functional fixedness, defined by the limits a person has to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. For example, using a mug as a stand to prop up a mobile phone, as opposed to using it to drink out of. Children of the age of 5 have demonstrated superior abilities at coming up with many uses for a single object, an ability which their analytical and problem-solving adult counterparts pale in comparison to.

In his writing, I think Mark Twain does a phenomenal job of helping us empathise with what it was once like to be (and think like a child). I think he did this so well in fact, that I can't help "feeling childish" after reading it, realising that I am not really to different from Tom, Huck, Becky and all the other characters in the book. It's a humbling feeling, however, one which I am very pleased with.

Having spent three years a legal adult, I think the main problem with societal expectations of adulthood is this; we assume that our brains are fully developed and our thinking is clearer than that of deluded children. Research suggests that the former assumption isn't the case, and Mark Twain helps us see that the latter isn't either. I think that by becoming aware of all the cognitive biases which are commonly shown explicitly in children through speech and dialogue, we exercise a form of intra-personal empathy that helps us recognise them within ourselves. It's dangerous to stubbornly live the life of an adult who believes they have developed past these silly shortcomings to thought. However, like most things akin to the human experience, there are more similarities between us, regardless of age, than there are differences.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is available for purchase on Amazon.

This Google Map marks all the locations of the fictional books that were read as part of this series. If you have any recommendations for new books to read, please send me your recommendations!