Posted on April 6, 2023 in Technology

Wearing out Therapy Language For Funny Internet Points

Basics of Psychology

Ah, the internet – a wondrous place where ‘fun facts’ can spread like a wildfire, only for a professional to reply and reveal the fact wasn’t showing the whole picture (if it wasn’t downright false). This was always a problem, but one that places like TikTok and Instagram made much worse; algorithms like exciting new things, so until the next creator making the correction is drawing enough attention to warrant their video showing up in a fan of the first sharer’s feed, those exciting new facts go unchecked. Ironically, this behavior is exploiting algorithms tailored to get you psychologically addicted to the hosting platform. Like a parasite on a parasite.

TikTok creators like the now-unpopular OnlyJayus seemed to reign supreme with their lightning-fast delivery of psychological ‘facts’ describing body language and turns of phrase as absolute tells instead of general guides, and then these creators were pushed off the throne by other creators with degrees in their field clarifying that no trick is absolute and you can’t “cheat code” yourself into a good, long lasting friendship or relationship – at least not forever. This phenomenon reoccurs constantly (see: food “experts” selling food only for people with SafeServ training to chime in, “professional” hairdressers giving tips on box dye only for a salon owner to tell them their chemical choice can burn hair, etc.) but every time it does, it creates a bunch of pseudo-experts out of people who were watching the conflict in the comment sections of those videos.

However, pseudo-psychology seems to be spreading further than other niches, perhaps because everyone has a psyche even if not everyone cooks or dyes their hair, and as a result, terms and facts are getting tossed about like dog toys in a park full of terriers and torn apart on the way.

A Theoretical Degree

Understanding a technical term and applying it correctly are often two different skills. Look at the use of the term ‘gaslighting’ – the name describing the phenomenon comes from a movie in which an antagonist is raising and lowering the output of the gas lights in the house the protagonist is living in, and then denying anything has changed, insisting the protagonist is imagining things or losing their mind, forcing her to rely on him to describe the world to her. This is a very specific term: arguing is not gaslighting. Exaggerating or correcting a misconception is not necessarily gaslighting. Sarcasm, jokes about the nature of reality as a whole, and other things in that family are not automatically gaslighting. Having a poor memory is not gaslighting – a loved one with ADHD or dementia forgetting something they were told is distressing, but not gaslighting. In fact, lying itself is not always gaslighting. “Gaslighting” is a form of abuse, and it’s a pretty specific one, but pseudo-psychology experts on TikTok have taken the term and applied it to any interaction where one person’s perception doesn’t match up with what another person is telling them – while that is true for some of those interactions, it’s not true for every interaction where there’s a misunderstanding or a debate over a fact. Understanding the term and applying it correctly are two separate things.

Usually, the way language works, ambiguities are just added to the dictionary definition of the word once enough people use and understand it’s alternative definition. For example, ‘literally’ can mean literally as in totally serious, completely free of exaggeration, or it can mean literally as in an exaggeration. “That literally killed me!” is a valid way to use the word now because the used meaning morphed to include the exaggeration definition! However, when it comes to clinical terms, such ambiguity can make it difficult to have a real discussion about a behavior. “Gaslighting” as TikTok uses it doesn’t actually seem so bad – most people gaslight somebody else in their life every once in a while, right? The app can’t even agree what their new meaning is, because everyone posting about mental health without a license or degree in the subject seems to have understood and regurgitated it slightly wrong in different ways. Even people with degrees won’t necessarily recognize it as described because not everyone with a relevant degree goes into the branches of counseling where they might see it. And gaslighting is not the only term being watered down like this; to pseudo-experts, narcissism and normal boundaries might very well be one and the same thing, just from different perspectives.

Sometimes the advice given to handle such situations is literally awful! A while back, a content creator got roasted for giving advice to simply not let friends share their woes for fear of suffering ‘trauma dumping’. Yes, that is a real thing, but in a real interaction with real friends, that’s just not the way. But that’s great for people who don’t know how to help somebody through a tough situation! Why not just stop talking to them until they feel better on their own? That surely isn’t going to have any lasting repercussions!

Worse, we already know how this ends. OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, has already gone through this cycle! Popular culture conflated OCD with a desire for tidiness, and that’s not what OCD usually entails. OCD also covers compulsions for a bunch of behaviors, not just cleaning ones, as well as hyperfixations and intrusive thoughts. It’s a disorder because it affects the quality of life for the person who has it – it’s not something that can just be turned off when the cleaning becomes inconvenient (or damaging). Magical thinking (if I don’t sort these pencils right, something bad will happen to my family as punishment for being lazy) and catastrophizing (if I don’t turn on the light switch just right, it will start an electrical fire) aren’t quirky or funny or easy to understand by outsiders, so cleanliness is what media creators latched onto and what viewers remembered about characters who were written to have it.  

Real Expertise Can’t Get A Word In

In the beginning ages of the internet’s meme culture, fun facts about psychology were there, but they were bothering to pull from studies. The studies themselves are coming under fire (see the Replication Crisis for more information on it) but the person sharing was trying to share correctly by citing their sources.

As time progressed, people shared facts that other people had shared, and things started going off the rails. One could point to another content creator as a source, but people sharing these facts two or three steps down were learning that people didn’t click their sources or google it themselves to verify very often. For websites focused on making money, this new style of short, snappy, exciting bites of content are better, and corrections happen in small bites as well, relegated to retweets or comment sections. Black and white thinking, absolutist statements, trolling, bad faith memes, etc. are all exciting and engaging, even if the engagement is complaining or downvotes. Including a typo in a post talking about your product used to be an easy way to boost comment counts on Facebook or Instagram, which told algorithms that your post was exciting and engaging, which showed it to more people. Getting facts wrong now is the same – if you say something exciting but not quite right, and people correct you, then yay, you got more comments. If you say something exciting, and nobody can tell it’s incorrect, oh well, you’re still getting views because you said something exciting.

Sometimes they don’t even realize that that’s why they’re getting popular! Someone like OnlyJayus who was clearly googling ‘fun facts about psychology’ and ripping those fun facts straight from the top results probably isn’t deliberately going out of their way to misinform people, they’re just trying to pump out content fast, and whether or not it’s precisely right isn’t their problem – who goes to TikTok for real psychology facts, anyway? Operating to game the system in a world where people get sponsorships based on view counts is a natural result of a system designed to keep you coming back.

As for correcting the things that weren’t quite right? Psychology is not perceived with the same respect many other fields are. Issuing a correction saying “that’s too simple of a viewpoint” is sometimes met with “well, my experience says otherwise” and being right becomes a popularity contest instead of a debate using studies, because the studies themselves are partly the source of the disrespect.

The replication crisis the field is currently facing is ironically itself a result of funding going towards fun, flashy results that make headlines and draw attention to researchers, and hard questions about the nature of space or how parasites interact with disease or almost any ‘hard’ science doesn’t have to jump that hoop, they’re exciting by default because they’re a ‘hard’ science. This system rewards unreplicable studies, which get telephoned into straight misinformation by the time those studies reach headlines and meme pages. Stretching the truth earns recognition, which earns money, which allows researchers to continue their work. A null result, while also useful, will not see any of this. The field has suffered for this need for convenient results since it’s inception! Almost everything Freud said was later discovered to be wrong  – his conclusions were altered by the people who’d invested in him (he couldn’t afford to embarrass the families who had paid him), a pattern we’re seeing repeated now.

Wanting Wrong to Be Right

Another aspect of this is that human relationships are becoming increasingly hard to maintain. Studies (and these studies are replicated successfully) show that people are growing lonelier in general. They don’t want to waste time on people who are bad for them, but it’s difficult to sort ‘good’ from ‘bad’ without investing some time into it. Worse, if someone is fine but just not a compatible friend, how could you explain that to them? How does that even happen? Fun facts about psychology promise you that you’ll be able to tell an ‘energy vampire’ from a ‘good person’ if you just follow these cute tips, and often put the reader on a pedestal to discern who is and isn’t a ‘good person’. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? That you’d be able to tell someone wasn’t going to make you happy before you’re forced to learn it the hard way?

Psychology fun facts in particular are such a plague because they’re so uniquely appealing and difficult to ‘prove’ wrong or right. Experts trying to correct misinterpretations of studies are usually just trying to inject the missing nuance back into the psychology fun-fact-osphere, citing that studies don’t have the full picture and that nothing – nothing – will make someone a mind-reader.

Meanwhile, creators relying on the field of psychology for their fun facts are reluctant to tell followers that there is no miracle cure for the spaces left between people because that’s unpleasant, and content for consumption is generally consumed faster if it’s pleasant. Even the people doing the correcting are often indulging their viewers in schadenfreude, whether they mean to or not! Being on the ‘right side’  with the experts is a sign that the content they’re watching is better and higher-quality than what everyone else is watching.

TikTok and other big social media sites are caught in a loop of ‘say something inaccurate – have that something corrected by an expert – promise to do better – say something inaccurate’ that never gets enough momentum to actually break. Even if one day psychology factoids become unpopular for sharing, something else always takes its place: before it was pop psychology, it was astrology, and before that, palmistry, before that, phrenology. When viewers get wise and stop engaging with inaccurate content, the people making it just move on to the next thing that promises them a guide.