Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Myths That Control Us

Sandra Parshall

Why do some myths about human behavior persist, even though we can see the evidence that they aren’t true? Why do we try so hard to fit our feelings and actions into rigid patterns dictated by authors of pop psychology books?

Novelists play their (our) part in perpetuating certain myths about human behavior. We know that everybody does this, or believes that – we know because that’s what we’ve always been told, and all the pop psychology books say so. We write our characters to conform with popular beliefs. We make them behave in ways that might, in fact, be unrealistic. If readers all believe the myths, they’ll accept what we’ve written. If we write characters who behave the way people really do, those characters might be dismissed as unconvincing.

What’s going on here? Why do we want to believe, for example, that letting go and “blowing off steam” is the best way to get rid of our anger? Hasn’t anyone noticed that the more we indulge negative feelings, the more negative we feel? Anger feeds on itself, and the more it’s expressed, the stronger and nastier it becomes. Besides, losing your temper and screaming at another person is likely to make the object of your rage pretty mad too. So why do we write characters who feel calm and relieved after they break something or throw something against a wall or tell somebody off?

It’s puzzling and frustrating. Maybe we should pay more attention to books like 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Nature. The four psychology professors who authored this enlightening book are up against the roughly 3,500 self-help titles, a lot of them based on false premises, that are published in the U.S. every year. In 50 Great
Myths they challenge the beliefs that all people experience a midlife crisis, that subliminal messages can persuade us to buy products, that adolescents inevitably go through emotional turmoil, and that everyone experiences the same stages of grief. They also point out the fallacies in common beliefs about memory, romance, happiness, and lie detector tests.

The authors – Scott O. Lillenfield, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein – pulled out half a dozen popular myths to focus on in an article for the March/April issue of Scientific American Mind magazine, and heading the list was “Myth #1: Blowing Our Tops Defuses Anger.” More than 40 years of research has shown again and again that the more people express anger, the more
aggressive they become. Thirty-five studies have concluded that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior in everyday social situations.

The 50 Great Myths authors also found little proof to support the popular conviction that a positive attitude can cure cancer. It might improve the patient’s quality of life, and so might a support group, but no evidence exists that either will prolong life or bring about a cure. Yet as many as 94 percent of cancer survivors attribute their recovery to positive thinking.

What about those supposedly universal stages of grief that everyone looks for and writers use as templates for their grieving characters’ actions? Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born psychiatrist, popularized the concept in the 1960s, and it has taken root with amazing tenacity. As we all know, first comes denial, then anger, then bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Doctors and nurses expect us to follow these steps. We expect it of ourselves and others. But guess what? People are not all alike. If someone you love deeply dies and you accept the loss without getting angry and depressed first, that doesn’t make you heartless or abnormal. You’re just reacting in your own way. But you may be judged harshly for it. A fictional character is also expected to conform to popular misconceptions.

In writing and in personal relationships, it’s wise to keep individual differences in mind when we feel ourselves drawn to any common belief about how people should feel and act. But the unfortunate truth is that we’re taking a risk anytime we stray from popular myths about human behavior.


Paul Lamb said...

The myths of psychological and emotional behavior give people a script for their lives. Many (most) people have traded in a big chunk of their mental lives for convenience. It's why things like advertising and religion work: they tell us what to think, what to do, whom to love, whom to hate. The last thing such people want is for someone to draw back the curtain and show them that their beloved scripts are false. Then they'd have to think for themselves, which is hard work.

Sandy Cody said...

Great post. I think many (I won't say most) people are looking for an easy answer, a comfortable spot to be in an uncomfortable situation. I also think it's a myth that everyone is taken in by these myths. We allow them to exist rather than challenge someone else's belief - both a good and bad thing - respect for another's belief being good and allowing untruths to stand as true being bad.

Theresa de Valence said...

Nice Post, Sandy.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sorry, Sandy, I'm not with you on this. I think the statements of the so-called pop psychology myths are themselves misconceptions of the therapeutic principles that good mental health approaches share with good self-help. For example, discharging rather than trying to suppress anger can be helpful--but NOT when it's expressed to the person one is angry with. Tell your therapist. Beat a pillow. Write in your journal. Don't pretend you don't have feelings--but don't express them in inappropriate and provocative ways.

Sandra Parshall said...

When you're beating a pillow or writing in a journal because you're angry at a person, are you really expressing that anger? You're not mad at the pillow -- and writing down your feelings is almost passive. As long as the other person is unaware of how you feel, I don't think you've expressed your feelings in a meaningful way. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it's better just to let things go, and while you're beating the pillow or writing you have a chance to calm down so you can let go. Confrontation may only make matters worse.

I agree with the authors of the 50 Myths book on a number of points. (All four are psychologists who teach at universities and they used the results of hundreds of studies and experiments to support their conclusions.)For example, I have seen for myself that not everyone goes through those stages of grief. And I know of quite a few positive thinkers who remained optimistic about recovery right up to the day they died. A positive attitude does improve quality of life, though, and can make coping with illness easier.

BTW -- this will be of special interest to you, Liz -- the authors also say it's not true that all alcoholics have to stay away from alcohol permanently. They say there's good evidence that *some* (not all) alcoholics are able to drink socially without sliding back into binge behavior.

Diane said...

I have never read a 'self-help' book in my 63 years and never will. Ditto the diet crazes. I've always thought of the first as 'pop psychology' with no basis in fact. The second, pop health, and ditto. Blowing your stack helps no one, yourself included (or that wall that someone just busted). Look at kids today. They think it's alright to terrorize/hurt another so they feel good. I suspect Mommy & Daddy read too many of those books. As for the pop health issue, they are taking the taste out of everything. What ever happened to moderation - in both psychological and nutritional behavior?

lil Gluckstern said...

Sorry, but I am with Liz on this. I've met too many passive aggressive people whose behavior is cold, and heartless because they are unable to acknowledge their anger. There are ways to express one's anger without doing damage, and the danger of people advising just to let it go is a myth in and of itself. It adds to the guilt of having a feeling that is pretty basic. To quote a fellow psychologist, we need to learn to work with our feelings, not to deny them. Then they won't run us...

Julia Buckley said...

At school we're reading THE STRANGER, the premise of which is that we all lie, all the time, not just to others but to ourselves, and because the main character won't lie about who he is or how he feels, he is hated.

The book attacks many myths to which we as a society would like to cling. You've got me interested, Sandy--I might have to check out this book.

Kaye George said...

I'll have to agree on the stages of grief. I've found myself wondering and worrying about people who don't hit all the stages. But they're fine! No matter what aspect of a human being, physical, mental, emotional, every single one of us is different. There may be some templates, but people don't fit into pigeon holes, in my experience.

Thanks for a thoughtful post, Sandy.