For Real, Stop Learning About Human Psychology on Facebook (Part One)

If you've read this blog for any substantial length of time, you'll know that I love psychology enough to hold a shiny degree in it (followed by an actual, honest-to-god full-time job in it), and I absolutely fucking hate it when my field of choice gets reduced to a series of glib 'fun facts' that haven't been considered true since Freud was still prescribing cocaine as a cure for opiate addiction.

For real, he killed his best friend with it. Look it up.

And since it's hard enough for psychology majors to be taken seriously without our entire field of study being reduced to a series of semi-fictional email forwards, you can imagine my immense, crushing disappointment when several of my Facebook friends littered my page with one massive dump of half-true psych facts and hilariously untrue fictions. Like, c'mon, they even superimposed them over stock photos to look legit. Since there's no greater force known to man than 20-something-year-old Nerd Rage, I am dedicating the next few posts to untangling the scientifically-backed probably-truth from the definite lies. Links will be provided throughout the post, but they'll be really hard to see, because I'm a hell of a lot better at writing than designing websites. 


Let's get started, shall we?


FALSE. As much as every fifteen-year-old would like to believe they've found true, everlasting love with the gangly bag of hormones they met half an hour ago, the sensation of falling in love with another human being and then continuing to mostly not want them dead for months or years at a time is a bit more complicated than that. Scientists obviously can't pin down the exact amount of time that it takes for you to decide that this particular human is the one whose bullshit you would like to put up with forever, but the general consensus is that it's at least sometime after three months, and the process of bonding with someone continues throughout your lifetime.


The only thing I can think of that would have spawned this fabricated piece of garbage is the 'fall in love with just 36 questions' phenomenon that made the rounds of the internet last year, but if two people can answer thirty-six intensely personal questions about their innermost thoughts and feelings in under four minutes, they were either raised in sensory deprivation chambers, or one of them is a microwaved radish masquerading as a human.


AND? Some people get more confident when they're happy, and they're blindsided when bad shit happens because they think they're completely fucking invincible. Some people are afraid all the time for no reason. Some people support Donald Trump because they're actually afraid of brown people, and some people support him because the shrieking gnome that lives in their head tells them they have to. This is presented like it's a shocking scientific fact, but it's as meaningless as pointing out that some people like bananas and others don't. We're all different, and we do things for different reasons. Whoop dee doo.


TRUE. But while it's true that there's substantial overlap in the brain structures that handle physical and emotional pain, that doesn't mean that the pain of having your crush ignore your text messages is literally the same as the pain of being beaten to death with a stapler. The reality is, your brain only has so much space to work with, and so parts of it are required to multitask. Your thalamus is a little brain structure that deals with both your sense of taste and your sleep-wake cycle, but that doesn't mean that sucking on a breathmint is psychologically equivalent to lapsing into a coma. This little factoid just means there's a part of your brain that lights up if you're in distress, and other parts of your brain figure out what kind of distress you're in.

But on the upside, you can totally use over-the-counter painkillers to dull emotional pain.


TRUE. But if you check out the actual study, there are some pretty serious caveats on this one. As in, this has only been proven to be true in the insanely specific circumstance of eyewitnesses being asked to recall videos of car accidents in the presence of people they had varying levels of rapport with. What the study found was that people are better at remembering things they saw or heard if they close their eyes, especially when they are questioned by someone they feel comfortable with. If they're questioned by a complete stranger, some people feel so uncomfortable closing their eyes that recall actually suffers.

So if you're looking for a shortcut to help you get ahead on your next test, closing your eyes isn't going to do it, because this trick works with episodic memory and tests draw on semantic memory. Unless you're taking a class on car accidents, I guess.


KINDA? The science of why we choose the things we do is still in relatively early stages, but half the time, we seem to be picking our favourites based on a combination of the phase of the moon and what we had for breakfast. There's no adaptive advantage to picking Nicki Minaj over Adele, especially now that headphones have been invented and local people won't know to pelt you with fruit everywhere you go for your shitty, shitty preferences, you tasteless cretin. So yeah, your favourite song might be "Numb" because only Linkin Park understand what it's like to walk alone through the hellscape of Mrs. Tremblay's 7th grade Social Studies class, but your favourite song might also be "Rock Lobster", because fuck you, you don't need a reason to love 'Rock Lobster'.

On top of that, it's hard to pin down what a person's favourite song even is. One week, you can't stop singing that catchy song on the radio, and then you hear it one too many times and it drives you to burn down an orphanage. You might not think "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Don't Stop Believing" are your favourite songs, but the moment they come on, you're going to belt out the words like you've got a porn mustache and pants made of plastic. Come on, people, the song "Hey Mickey" was the top song in the world for a whole week of 1982. No one has an emotional connection to "Hey Mickey". No one.


This one is actually TRUE, and you can thank your shitty, shitty brain for it. Turns out, the only thing our brains love more than achieving arbitrary goals is thinking that they've achieved arbitrary goals, without actually having to do any of that gross 'hard work' stuff. See, to your brain, declaring that you're going to do something is pretty much the same as actually doing it; telling friends and random terrified strangers that you're going to be the world's fastest goat milker someday gives you that same sweet, sweet rush as actually getting your hands on some slippery goat udders. And the more you do it, the worse it gets - your brain start thinking 'shit, I've told so many people that I'm going to be an Olympic gymnast, it must have already happened by now'. And as everyone knows, there's no reason to keep working toward a goal when basking in reflected glory is so much more fun. 

This does not mean, however, that all human achievement can only take place in a soundproof basement with the door barred. For some goals, like losing weight, having social support can significantly improve your chances of success. Just don't tell anyone at Weight Watchers that you plan to lose weight, I guess.


TRUE. Who would have thought that people who spend all their spare time harassing complete strangers on the internet for fun would turn out to be dicks? Weird.


Not only FALSE, but dangerous. If you slept badly, you slept badly, and you're going to have the slowed reaction times to prove it. By all means, work yourself into a peppy frenzy of well-rested mojo at the office, but for the love of god, don't get behind the wheel of a car on two hours of sleep. 


FALSER than your grandmother's teeth. Lying is like 9/10ths of having a crush. Remember that time you let them tell you all about their favourite movies and pretended that you hadn't looked that shit up on Facebook weeks ago? Remember that time you told them that you totally share their love for Pearl Jam, but can't list your favourite songs by them because they're all just so good? Remember when you told them that you've definitely never killed a man with your bare hands and thrown his body into a ravine? 

If it weren't for lies, no one would ever get together and the species would die out. 

For real, though, the ability to deceive other humans is so crucial to our species that people who cannot do it get slapped with a pretty serious diagnosis because it actually prevents them from functioning in society. So go lie to your crush. It's healthy. 


This one is actually TRUE, to the surprise of no one who has traveled. As a species, we suck furry donkey balls at knowing what will make us happy. So, naturally, we default to 'stuff'. Stuff will make us happy, right? That's got to be what we're hard-wired for. Our caveman ancestors dedicated their entire lives to accumulating piles of sharp rocks and animal parts; they didn't dream of backpacking across Europe. So today, we tell ourselves that if we can just get that video game/pair of shoes/16-inch rubber horse dildo we've been pining for, our lives will be infinitely better and we'll be happy forever and ever and ever. 

But then you actually get the thing. And in the long run, you're no happier than you used to be.

See, when you were still desperately wishing for those Captain America footie pajamas, they were the only thing you thought about. All day long, you were obsessing over how cool they would be and how much you would wear them. Then when you finally got them, you weren't actually wearing them all day long. You wear them to bed once or twice a week, but your boss won't let you wear them to work, and your spouse threatens to divorce you every time you wear them out to dinner. That adds up to a large portion of your day that's no longer spent obsessing about Captain America pajamas. Over time, you start wondering if maybe you shouldn't have bought the Iron Man pajamas with light-up reactor core instead, and then that medically improbable toenail talon you refuse to clip pokes a hole in the toe, and pretty soon those Earth-shattering pajamas are just another set of crumpled sleepwear in your drawer. 

Experiences, on the other hand, don't wear out. That memory of the time you pantsed your brother at his own wedding brings you just as much joy now as it did twelve years ago, and it'll keep on bringing you joy until someone's carving "He was kind of a dick at weddings" onto your tombstone. Plus, we aren't nearly as compelled to compare our experiences to others, because fuck you, that time I flooded an entire university residence at 1 o'clock in the morning was hilarious, and none of your other stories compare. 



Hold onto your butts, because I'll be back with more indignant ranting about psychology next week. Be there. 


3 comments

  1. "You have to be wrong. I've fallen in love with someone within THREE seconds, and despite my innate ability to glaze over the legitimacy of empirical methods and resort to hilariously fallible anecdotal evidence, I believe I'm right." - everyone else, probably.

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    Replies
    1. Who am I to stand in the way of the true love of two total strangers who know literally nothing about each other?

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  2. I look forward to more myth busting! Hating aphorisms, I find glib falsities even more egregious. "Live every day like it's your last" drives me nuts, for example, but I did appreciate hearing another piece of advice: "Go to bed happy."

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