Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear? The problem of alternative explanations in psychobiography

J Pers Soc Psychol. 1981 Jun;40(6):1070-7. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.40.6.1070.


One of the tasks of personality psychology is to explain the behavior of individual human beings. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, cut off the lower half of his left ear and gave it to a prostitute. More than a dozen different explanations of his actions have been proposed. Is one of these explanations true, are all of them true, or, perhaps, are none of them true? And how can we know? This incident is examined in order to explore some of the problems in applying personality theories to the life of a single individual. A sequential procedure for generating and critically evaluating alternative explanatory conjectures is presented a a partial, although not a complete, solution to the problem of multiple interpretations.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Art / history*
  • Famous Persons*
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Netherlands
  • Paintings / history*
  • Self Mutilation / history*

Personal name as subject

  • V Van Gogh