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Developmental Psychology: Franz Kafka and Social Learning Essay

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Updated: May 12th, 2021


This course has covered the basics of developmental psychology exhaustively and was convincing in showing that this science and the concepts that it employs are not detached from reality in the slightest. Developmental psychology is highly applicable and may be put to good use by specialists striving to enhance a person’s development. The way in which an individual navigates through different stages of life is unique and influenced by many contributing factors, be it their ethnic, social, or economic.

Normally, in practice, medical practitioners or social workers focus on the future of their patients or client and hence, consider effective interventions, and decide on the course of action. However, for this assignment, the development of an individual will be analyzed in retrospect. This paper provides a brief biography of Franz Kafka and describes the three most essential stages of the writer’s life. In the analysis, the theory of social learning is applied.

Biographical Overview of Franz Kafka’s Life

Franz Kafka lived a relatively short life of forty years. The future writer was born in Prague, 13th July 1883, in a Jewish family. Thus, his ethnic background was rather complex: the family belonged to the German culture but could not maintain any contact with the German community in Prague since they lived in the Ghetto. Not only the social exclusion gave rise to the crippling feeling of loneliness in young Franz Kafka but also his family’s indifference to his struggles (Duttlinger, 2013). From the very childhood, the writer was frail, sensitive, and vulnerable to external irritants which, however, did not inhibit him from being a diligent and responsible student. He entered higher education at the age of 18, shifted his major from chemistry to law, and graduated in 1906.

It was no earlier than after the graduation that Kafka commenced his “double” life. In 1908, he was offered a decent position at the Institute of Insurance for Accidents at Work (Stach, 2013). In his free time, Kafka showed utmost dedication to literature, and now, one may say that as an author, he was reasonably prolific – he left forty complete prose texts on top of many diary entries. His professional and artistic life soon put a tremendous strain on his already weak health – the young man started displaying the early symptoms of tuberculosis in the university. Kafka’s new passions and responsibilities caused insomnia and asthenia and pushed him to the brink of depression.

By 1912, Franz Kafka’s mental health had rapidly deteriorated. In a letter to his friend, the writer, who was only 29 at that time, confessed that he was feeling suicidal. Admissions to a clinic in Riva del Garda renowned for successful treatment of neuro-asthenic disorders in 1909 and 1913 barely helped his case (Duttlinger, 2013). A few years later, Kafka’s depression spiraled out of control, making him feel desperate and self-destructive. In 1917, tuberculosis became evident, and one may say that the writer was sentenced to an early death.

Kafka’s scarce love life was an accurate reflection of his nature. On the one hand, his reclusiveness helped him remain genuinely free so that he could devote himself to meticulous self-reflection and pursue his artistic goals. On the other hand, deprived of parental love and affection, Kafka sought to escape his loneliness in adult life in a series of brief romantic liaisons with women and sexual contacts with prostitutes.

One of the obstacles to building a meaningful relationship was the writer’s sexual repression that deeply frustrated him (Stach, 2013). The most important women in his life were Felice Bauer, Julie Wohryzeck, Milena Jesenska, and Dora Diamant. Kafka never committed to either of them: his relationship with Bauer was limited to correspondence, and he left Wohryzeck only after a few months. Diamant had the potential to become his life partner: the couple even started to live together in 1923 in Berlin.

Unfortunately, Kafka’s short-lived domestic bliss was disrupted with a sudden aggravation of his condition. In 1924, he was admitted to the Clinic of Professor Hajek in Vienna (Duttlinger, 2013). However, his stay there was not of any help, for soon, tuberculosis entered the writer’s larynx. Kafka was hastily transferred to a small Sanatorium in Kierling where Professor Hoffman took care of him. Since the aetiological treatment of the Koch bacteria was not an option at that time, the writer was prescribed palliative care. Alcohol and cocaine injected into his laryngeal nerve relieved tantalizing symptoms such as violent crises of whooping cough but barely helped the condition. After a few months at the sanatorium, on the 3rd of June, 1924, Franz Kafka died.

Franz Kafka and the Social Learning Theory

Kafka’s life, artistry, and legacy remain of great importance to modern psychology. Unlike the literature field, the field of developmental psychology broadens the scope of research beyond his writing and examines his life and struggles. What makes it easier to investigate the psychological phenomena in Kafka’s life is the extensive body of documented self-reflection and soul-searching – his letters and diaries. It is true that the writer’s life was not particularly eventful, and the majority of defining events took place in his psyche. Thus, the entries of Kafka’s diaries will be the primary source for this analysis within the discourse of the social learning theory.

The social learning theory was introduced by Albert Bandura in 1977. In his work, the researcher extended the preexisting concepts of behaviorism with its classical conditioning and operant conditioning. While Bandura did not oppose behaviorists on their ideas, he put forward an essential hypothesis that there was an inevitable process of mediating between stimuli and responses. This particularity might be explained by the complexity of human nature where a linear relationship between an exogenous irritant and reaction may not always be the case (Rosenthal & Zimmerman, 2014). Thus, humans operate a varying degree of autonomy and even given persistent social conditioning since birth, they are capable of breaking the mold and making changes.

Observational Learning

It is now established that children observe people around them and imitate the behavior of those who they deem to be their role models. It is possible to trace Kafka’s observational learning and acting and outline the reasons for the active reproduction. First, a child is more likely to adopt the behaviors of people that he or she perceives as similar to them. In Kafka’s case, his first and most crucial milieu was his family, which despite certain emotional estrangement, made the most significant contribution to his formative years.

Kafka’s father was an extraordinarily authoritarian and disciplined man, and even though the boy did not have quite the prerequisites to be a leader, he strived for his father’s diligence and commitment to work (Stach, 2013). Second, social learning is more effective when a child can receive and interpret feedback, be it negative or positive. Hermann Kafka, Franz’s father, never held back from blunt criticism of his son’s decisions. One may assume that early on, Kafka realized that compliance with his father’s views and orders would help him not widen the gap between them any further.


As any other individual, in his social learning, Kafka moved through three stages: attention, retention, and reproduction. From his diaries, it is clear that he copied the behaviors of both his father and his mother. In his childhood years, the writer paid attention to the way his mother Julie interacted with Hermann. The woman was shy, quiet, and humble whereas the father was in full control of the household. Hermann Kafka forbade any noise or hassle in the apartment due to his heart condition that could aggravate in case the man would worry more than usual.

Franz Kafka complied, and as he later wrote in the famous “Letter to His Father,” he would always hide in his room with his books and friends (2013). Young Franz chose a strict diet, fasted, and exercised to the point where some of the modern researchers consider his patterns to be disordered and even corresponding to the contemporary notion of anorexia nervosa (Sernec & Brecelj, 2017). He desperately wanted to look stronger in his father’s eyes and be as strong as his father.

It is crucial to note the effectiveness of his father’s negative reinforcement. In “Letter to His Father,” Kafka describes how he was thirsty one night and annoyed his father with pleas to bring him water. Like many children, he was more moody and playful than serious. However, his behavior enraged Hermann Kafka, and the father did not think twice before dragging the son outside and shutting the door (Kafka, 2013). Undoubtedly, such occurrences affirmed the importance of being timid around the household.

Professional Life

The writer did not become a merchant like his father by which he strayed from what Hermann Kafka “scripted” for him. Young Franz observed how much anxiety the work in sales brought his father and decided to avoid that field. However, he yielded to his father’s pressure to have a “real” profession and worked as a lawyer until his last hospitalization and death. Thus, Franz Kafka’s professional choices were primarily motivated by his father’s convictions.

Even though Kafka barely had any passion for law, he displayed genuine engagement and involvement in the workplace, thus, aligning his behavior with what the field prescribed. The institution for which he was working examined work accidents and developed measures for their prevention. Some of the company’s solutions and inventions were controversial and did not get any positive acceptance in the industries to which they were supposed to apply (Stach, 2013). Nevertheless, Kafka reproduced what every other employee was doing and supported the introduction of new policies with his well-written essays and public speeches.


Hermann Kafka was aware of his son’s artistic leanings but did not approve of them as he was convinced that Franz needed a “real career.” Nevertheless, Kafka persevered and wrote piece after piece, even at the expense of his health. One may contend that his art did not derive from what he adopted through social learning. After all, in his family, he never had an appropriate role model – a person whose occupation could be seen as artistic. Thus, Kafka defied the social norms which were imposed onto him by his environment.

Indisputably, Kafka could not change the circumstances in which he was put even though he dedicated a considerable amount of time to trips and traveling. In his stories, he created a parallel world only inhabited by him and the characters of his creation. Only through art could he isolate himself from the harsh reality of the outside world and liberate himself. The writer never received any public recognition: very few of his works were published in his lifetime. The published pieces attracted scant attention which would be classic negative reinforcement. Yet, Kafka did not stop creating till his very last days. This fact proves Bandura’s hypothesis that an individual is capable of breaking the cycle of social learning and making authentic decisions.


It was exciting to apply the social learning theory to examine the life of one of the most renowned authors. Franz Kafka was extraordinarily talented but led a miserable life. One may speculate that he was born into an environment that did not foster his faculties, which manifested themselves early on. Even though Franz and Hermann Kafkas had vastly different personalities, the son tried his best to please his father and follow his example. In his childhood and professional life, one sees Franz’s compliance and even submission, for those behaviors were observed and externally motivated. However, the writing appeared to be Kafka’s emotional outlet which granted him the freedom to be his true self.


Duttlinger, C. (2013). The Cambridge introduction to Franz Kafka. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Kafka, F. (2013). Letters to friends, family, and editors. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Rosenthal, T. L., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2014). Social learning and condition. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Sernec, K., & Brecelj, S. (2017). Male anorexia as an eating disorder: Similarities and differences with anorexia nervosa in women. In V. Preedy & V. Patel (Eds.), Handbook of famine, starvation, and nutrient deprivation (pp. 1-19). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Stach, R. (2013). Kafka: The decisive years (Vol. 2). (S. Frisch, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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