I finished John Green’s Paper Towns a while ago. For the most part it was very good. One part though, annoys me a lot: Green stereotypes psychologists as people who analyze everything anyone does and speak in psychology jargon.
Let me be clear: This stereotype is false for the vast majority of psychologists.
In case you are not aware, the main protagonist in Paper Towns is named Quentin. Quentin’s parents are clinical psychologists. That is, they are therapists. And it seems Quentin cannot have an interaction with his parents without a blanketed generalization wrapped around it.
This is a direct quote from Paper Towns, page 106: [For some context: A pair of family friends just left Quentin’s house]
My dad put his arm around me. “Those are some very troubling dynamics, eh, bud?”
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and I’m going on for my Master’s (to an eventual Ph.D). Never in my life have I witnessed conflict, turned to the person next to me and said ‘Those are some very troubling dynamics, eh?’ I’ve never heard any of my psych professors speak that way outside of defining those type of terms during lecture. That is not how psychologists talk. I’d argue that’s probably not how any one talks. Psychologists are everyday people who use the same words as everyone else.
We psychologists do not use phrases like “severe narcissistic injury” in everyday conversation, as Quentin’s dad does on page 106. Not only does it sound pretentious to most, but no one knows what it means. I certainly wouldn’t if I hadn’t taken classes in counseling. Also, pop culture’s meaning of the word “narcissistic” and the psychological definition are two different things. I’m not convinced Quentin’s dad is using the word as a clinician would, to be honest.
On page 198 Quentin’s mother says to Quentin:
“…you start to see them…as people. They’re just people, who deserve to be cared for. Varying degrees of sick, varying degrees of neurotic, varying degrees of self-actualized.”
First, few people know what self-actualization is outside of a psychology class. Like “narcissistic”, the professional definition of “neurotic” is different than the popular definition. Second, NO ONE TALKS LIKE THAT. Psychologists don’t analyze our neighbors and friends in that way. If I saw two people arguing I might wonder what is wrong either a) out of curiosity or b) because I care for one or both of them and don’t want them to be hurting. I don’t take it as an opportunity to look at them as if they are a client. I don’t see someone in the grocery store and say, “Oh, this woman is clearly not sufficiently self-actualized because she brought her husband along.”
Which leads me to another point: Psychologists do not go around looking for people to analyze. Every time the parents’ discussion turns to someone, they start musing about what is going on with him or her from a clinical perspective. People aren’t properly self-actualized, or they suffer from a narcissistic injury or they’re neurotic or have troubling dynamics. The thing is, even when musing with fellow psychology alumni in private, we don’t use words like that.
And we don’t analyze our friends. We don’t analyze our friends out of respect for them and their privacy. If they want to tell us something, they will when they want to. It’s not our job to go searching for what is happening with them. If you get the opportunity to gain a better understanding of human behavior, you are not supposed to use it for a personal gain or prove that you are correct and that you can successfully predict people’s behavior. Psychological knowledge can give you power: the power to manipulate, to harm, to help. Psychology students are always taught to recognize the power they have and be responsible with it. The main purpose of psychology is to help people. If your analysis is not helping people or you were not asked for input, then you stay out of it. Not everything is your business.
Good psychologists would know all this. They would put it into practice everyday. And if Quentin’s parents are good psychologists, like Green would lead us to believe, they wouldn’t be analyzing their neighbors. That isn’t their job.
You know who does use that type of language? Those who want to prove they are smarter than you. I see it all the time with Intro to Psychology students. They take one psych class, think they are all-powerful, and try to use “counter-transference” in everyday conversation, and often times get it wrong. Or, there are the amateur psychologist who think they have something to prove. Someone truly good at their job knows they’re good and doesn’t need to prove it.
Green tries to paint Quentin’s parents as kind, wholesome people, but when I read their conversations I was put off by it. It sounded to me like they were trying to show that they are so insightful with their analyses (look at what big words I can use!) and that clashed with the image of them being all-around good people. It also made the story all the less believable for me because I know that’s not how psychologists talk to each other, let alone other people.
Maybe the conversations were supposed to be funny. Maybe using psychological jargon is the only way Green thought we could understand the idea that Quentin’s parents really are therapists. And good ones at that. (As if Quentin telling the reader wasn’t enough…?) Using technical language doesn’t make you a good psychologist though. There is so much more to it than that. Whatever the reason, the parental interaction part of the book was hurtful. It was hurtful because it perpetuates this stereotype of psychologists reading into everything you say and do. And we don’t. I have spent four years surrounded by psychologists and I promise you, the large majority of psychologists don’t do it.
You may be wondering: Why is this important? Why is she spending all this time ranting about it?
Here’s why: once people learn you are a psychologist or psychology major, many of them don’t want to hang out with you. They believe the stereotype and want to stay away in fear of having their mind read.
This has happened to me with complete strangers. I was on a train, traveling to see my sister, and I was waiting in line next to this elderly woman. She made a joke about the long line and then we got to small talking. She soon learned I was a college student and, naturally, asked what I was studying. When I told her psychology she was said something to the effect of “Ohhh, we gotta watch out for you then.” Then she chuckled. Like that was the most original joke in the world. I smiled, as I always do when someone says that, but inwardly I was rolling my eyes. Now, I can never have a natural conversation with her again, because she’ll always think I will read her mind. This may not be true of her, but it always feels that way. I always feel the need to explain myself. And you know what? On the return trip, nearly the same exact conversation occurred with a man I happened to be sharing a table with.
I overheard a conversation in class one day between two students discussing which major would be the best to date. One guy said psych majors would be the worst to date because they would just read into everything you do and it would be annoying. Plus, they would always win all the arguments because they could just pick your brain and know just what to say and that would be annoying, too. (A female psychology student piped up in our defense before I did but that’s a different post.) Regardless of whether anyone would actually date these boys, it just goes to show how strong the stereotype is. It influences the behavior of people.
These generalizations are the stuff psychologists have to live with everyday. It is not everyone who believes the stereotype. But there are enough to make it annoying. Like all generalizations, these beliefs are only combated by a relationship with a member of the group in question. Ironically, no one who believes the stereotype will want to be friends with a psychologist because they don’t want their mind read. BUT PSYCHOLOGISTS ARE NOT MIND READERS. And we all don’t talk like the characters in John Green’s book.
Unfortunately for psychologists, this book is now being made into a movie. This will make it even more popular. Now more people will take the opportunity to read these inaccurate conversations. It is a work of fiction and so maybe people will take it as such. However, I suspect that some readers, especially younger ones, will take the book as a legitimate account of what living with a psychologist looks like. It’s not an accurate description though. And now all of us psychologists have to deal with the reinforced stereotype that Paper Towns provides its readers.
Okay, end of rant. I could go on but I’ll just end it here. If you want to hear more of my thoughts on this, feel free to comment and let me know. For now I shall bid you goodnight (or morning or afternoon) and remember kids: Be nice to your friendly neighborhood psychologist.