The Most Fun Way to Learn About Human Nature

New DVD sets and books offer intriguing psychology clues.

Posted Nov 01, 2013

Foyle's War Set 7
Life isn’t always about textbooks, even if you’re a student. When insights about human nature are reiterated in the form of television dramas or anedotes in popularly-written nonfiction books, learning can be more fun and memorable.

As I watched the DVDs and read the book below, my thoughts turned to the lessons that textbooks try so hard to impart.

Foyle’s War, Set 7 (3 complete episodes, 274 minutes on 3 discs, plus nearly two hours of bonus material). I’ve been an ardent fan of Foyle’s War since it began on PBS in 2003, and the latest long-awaited postwar incarnation is as enticing as ever. Star Michael Kitchen is very appealing, and I’m sure I’ve watched every one of his cinematic performances. His character is mentally sharp, restrained in the best English manner (never an extra word when a lip twitch will do), and always kind to subordinates and others in need of help. These are cerebral stories with enough action to keep things moving inexorably toward the finish. If there were a button to extend each show for another hour or two, I’d be among the many pushing it.

As always, Foyle’s War is a thrilling peek into another era, with numerous details that make it all seem very real. Surely, though, the deep character studies help draw viewers in. Foyle’s integrity is consistently tested, and he never lapses. His assistant Sam, played delightfully by Honeysuckle Weeks, is pulled this way and that by circumstance, but she stays honest and real. Not everyone does, of course, as these are Cold War spy stories. All the kudos in the word to writer/creator Anthony Horowitz (whose details about the show make fascinating reading). DVDs available at AcornOnline.

Line of Duty, Series 1 (5 episodes, 305 minutes on 2 discs, plus almost an hour of bonus material). I usually try to limit myself to an hour or two of television per night, but this series was so compelling that it tested that commitment. The series takes its time to build character, even while the plot moves forward propulsively. It tells a psychologically complex story about a highly regarded police officer (played by Lennie James) who makes a mistake (or two) that pulls him toward catastrophe. Viewers can see and feel for themselves what social psychologists mean when they say that circumstances profoundly affect character. We are fully drawn into the drama as we experience DCI Gates’ choices narrowing, even as he tries hard to do the right thing. Wonderfully scripted, plotted, and acted. Not for those super sensitive to disturbing images. Available at AcornOnline.


The Joy of Pain: Shadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature(Oxford University Press), by Richard H. Smith, Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky, uses popular culture (such as “The Simpsons”) to make his points. From reality shows and sports and politics, to how Hitler developed his intense anti-Semitism, Smith uses lengthy anecdotes to explore how envy and a sense of inferiority turn to a delight in the suffering of others.

We’re always comparing ourselves to others. When we see a hypocrite brought low, we feel better about ourselves. A number of social psychological lessons are brought to the fore, including the way we attribute bad actions to someone else’s character, but in our own case, we understand the role of environmental factors in our hard choices. In this social media-drenched age, some of Smith’s points might make you a better communicator. For instance, he says, “A touch of weakness and vulnerability goes a long way toward taking the edge off the negative effects of superiority.” (Novelists will recognize that advice re: writing characters that will not turn off readers by being too perfect.)

Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry

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