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.