Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

Fighting Hidden Assumptions About Psychology in the Media

Our assumptions can mislead us.

Examine Your Assumptions sign
We need to stop and question what we think we know.

In my last post, What You Think You Know About  Psychology May Be Wrong, I noted how common misconceptions and inaccuracies about psychology are in the media.  In response, several people asked what we can do to find and address these misconceptions.

When I realized what a problem there was, I set out to help the creators of so much media information—writers—get their psych right with The Writer's Guide to Psychology. But helping writers get the facts straight isn't enough—we all need to be fighting these misconceptions.

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Let's talk a bit about why misconceptions are so insidious. 

Schemas are internal representations of the way the world works. They guide our behavior.  For example, when we go to most restaurants, our schemas tell us to wait to be seated (unless a sign says otherwise), that a waiter will take our orders and serve us (unless we're dealing with a buffet), and that we should pay (and tip!) when we're finished.

Schemas require us to make assumptions. We've all heard about why assumptions are a bad idea (i.e., they can make an ass of u and me), but we're preprogrammed, as it were, to make them. Using schemas and making assumptions saves us a lot of time and energy—each provides us with shortcuts to familiar situations.

Though schemas (and assumptions) can be adjusted when we get new or conflicting information, we have to realize the existing schema is flawed to make that adjustment.  To do that, we have to stop and question what we think we know.  We also have to question the "authoritative" sources from which we get our information, including journalists, newscasters, and bestselling authors.  

I want to emphasize that I don't believe that the mistakes writers make are intentional. Rather, they fall into the same trap we all do—they assume the "common knowledge" they're relying on is accurate, when sometimes it's not.

To uncover hidden assumptions, we need to put on our critical thinking caps and ask questions that make vague terms specific. We also need to make the implicit explicit.  We can do this by asking ourselves the questions like these:

  • What is the claim?
  • What is the author's purpose in presenting this information? (Is s/he making an argument of some kind that only holds up if the claim is true?)
  • What evidence is presented to support the claim?
  • Is there an alternative explanation?

Let's take a quote from the CBS News website as an example:

If Jared Loughner... turns out to be suffering from schizophrenia...why [didn't] the state...lock him in a mental ward BEFORE he went on a rampage?

There are multiple hidden assumptions here that we need to identify and question.  These include ideas like "people with schizophrenia are dangerous," "it's the state's job to lock up people with schizophrenia," and "locking up people with schizophrenia would have prevented Tucson."  Some questions we can (and should) ask when we see assumptions like this are:

  • What is schizophrenia?
  • Is there credible evidence that schizophrenia is associated with an increased risk of violence?
  • Is there anything else that could be blamed for the violence?

In fact, research suggests that schizophrenia alone is not associated with increased violence.  Schizophrenia—and mental illness in general, for that matter—are poor predictors of violence.  Better predictors are things like male gender, youth, a history of violence, poverty, and substance use.  Only after we account for all of those things does research tell us we should look to something like an unmedicated psychotic disorder (such as schizophrenia) for the cause of violence.

Therefore, the question CBS News is asking is one riddled with inaccurate assumptions. (And we didn't even get into the whole "locking up" issue.)  This is a great example of how the inaccurate assumptions themselves can be dangerous, because how can we make appropriate policy changes when we're looking at the wrong cause for a tragedy like Tucson?

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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