What you think you know may be wrong.

Real psychology and the psychology you see in the media—in books, on television, and in movies—aren't always the same thing. In fact, sometimes they're totally different.

Interestingly, many if not most of the myths and misconceptions we see over and over are simply due to a lack of knowledge on the writers' parts. In other words, thinking the media they have seen is accurate, writers incorporate (actually inaccurate) psychology into their writing, inadvertently perpetuating misconceptions, one writer to the next, like urban legends.

But as psychotherapy and psychotropic prescriptions have become more common, the average person's knowledge of psychology has gone up. Suddenly all those little misconceptions are big, glaring inaccuracies that have the potential to stop the reader or viewer cold.

As a writer, it behooves you to double check what you think you know about psychology. For example, did you know that:

  • Not all therapists are interested in your childhood. Some even think that if you insist on talking about your childhood, you're avoiding the issue in the present.
  • People with psychological disorders are not, in general, more likely to be violent than other people. A lot of people assume mental illness is a great predictor of violence, when in fact factors like a history of violence, male gender, and youth are much better predictors. Also remember that there are lots of different types of disorders, and most people who have disorders don't hurt anyone.
  • Serial killers are almost never psychotic, so that "psychotic killer" you were using as a villain is probably actually psychopathic. (See my PT post on this topic here.)
  • It takes more than a little strange behavior to get yourself committed to a psychiatric ward against your will. In almost all cases, you need to be a danger to yourself or others in some way.
  • During modern electroconvulsive ("electroshock") therapy, the patient doesn't convulse and shake. Instead, he's given a muscle relaxant that prevents such movement, as well as general anesthesia because it can be scary not to be able to move! The whole procedure only takes a few minutes, and people who are learning to administer it are often surprised by how anti-climactic it is compared to all the TV and movie depictions!
  • Psychological problems aren't usually obvious to the casual observer. Cinematic depictions are often lurid, with odd camera angles, jarring music, and emphasis on how people with these types of problems are different from everyone else. Characters may speak strangely, look disheveled, or act in childlike ways. None of these things are typical of most people with a disorder.
  • The terms "psychiatrist" and "psychologist" are not interchangeable. A psychiatrist is a medical professional who specializes in psychological treatment and medications. Just like a cardiologist, a dermatologist, or a pediatrician, a psychiatrist went to medical school to get an MD, and can therefore prescribe meds. A psychologist, by contrast, went to graduate school to study psychology, and in most cases is awarded a PhD or PsyD. In most US states, psychologists cannot prescribe medications. Those few who can have additional schooling.

Want more information about common misconceptions and getting your own psych right? Get a copy of Dr. Kaufman's book, The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.  More information is available on the book's website.

© Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD • Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today

About the Author

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., was an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology. She passed away from a brain aneurysm in 2016.

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