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More about myth – and relating it back to psychology a bit

This is to do with psychology, and with the Schools of Thought course, I promise – eventually. Just trust me and keep reading.

Zoe Williams, writing in The Guardian* about Theresa May’s ‘strategic cat fib’, goes on to talk about other powerful non-truths:

“However, Cameron used exactly that tactic, in his not-very-famous “health and safety” speech of December 2009: “I think we’d all concede that something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade. When children are made to wear goggles by their headteacher to play conkers … When village fetes are cancelled because residents can’t face jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops … ”
Now these examples were untrue, of course, but the interesting bit is that they were the very examples that the Health and Safety Executive’s website ( had given in illustration of the stupid, untrue things that people say about them. Cameron wasn’t just perpetuating myths as part of a melange of things he didn’t like, some of which may or may not have been true. He was actively, one has to assume knowingly, disseminating untruths because his version of the underlying truth – that an overweening state is against common sense and ruins all our fun – was best served by vivid illustration, and fantasy is nothing if not vivid.”

The crucial phrase there is the one I’ve highlighted: knowingly, disseminating untruths because his version of the underlying truth….was best served by vivid illustration. That’s what myths are about, and for. The ‘saved by the cat’ myth (still a myth, even though I heard on the radio this morning that Conservative Central Office have claimed to find a case where a real criminal really was saved from deportation because he had a cat, really – honest [later update: that story vanished quickly – maybe because that one wasn’t true, either] ) is a powerful myth because it expresses what Theresa May, and many other people, think is an underlying truth:  ‘article 8 of the Human Rights Act has driven a coach and horses through our immigration law’ (quote from Williams again). The ‘Health & Safety’ myths ( also express some people’s genuine concern that fun stuff is being disallowed because it’s (maybe, a bit) dangerous, or that workers are being given a legal basis for avoiding dangerous working conditions, and that will damage profits.
[Just for the record, I don’t agree with either of those concerns, but I can still see the real issue behind the myth]

OK, what’s that got to do with psychology? As you’ll see in the lecture, Little Albert was not straightforwardly fear-conditioned, with classic generalisation effects; Milgram didn’t show that everyone obeys inhumane commands mindlessly, and his demonstration doesn’t have much to do with massacres like My Lai or the death squads in Poland in WWII, still less with Rwanda; Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment didn’t show that personality is subsumed by role, and can’t be used simplistically (ie in a foolishly over-simplified way) to explain what happened at Abu Ghraib.

But…why did your teachers (and some of the textbooks) tell you all those lies, then? Because they express underlying truths (and, probably, because they suppress other, less welcome truths – as the ‘human rights’ and ‘health and safety’ myths also do).
People can learn fears by association; generalisation is a feature of classical conditioning (and probably most kinds of learning), and has been shown in lots of studies – just not (at least not simply) in the Little Albert case.
People will treat others inhumanely because the system or authority requires it, and will say ‘it’s not my fault; I’m just applying the rules’. The Tuskegee Experiment (, or, indeed, decisions made about asylum seekers (the people formerly known as refugees) both fit the Milgram scheme quite well, I think.
(Some) People will misbehave and bully and abuse those in their power if the situation allows it, and if there’s tacit approval from those in power for doing that. Dominant, charismatic, abusive individuals can lead others to follow their example (this was a feature of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and of Abu Ghraib, though it isn’t part of the dominant myth).

So – the standard, misleading, accounts of Little Albert, Milgram, and the Stanford Prison Experiment do contain basic truths – but we should recognise that they’re just the stories we tell (and they’re good stories: any decent myth has to be a good story) to the uninitiated to get them to understand the deeper truths of psychology. Now, as undergraduates, you’re moving from the role of A-level uninitiated worshippers to certified (by the BPS) members of the theocracy, and you are being allowed to see the truths behind these myths. Some of you will go on to teach psychology, and maybe perpetuate these myths – for the good of your students, of course.

…and what are the uncomfortable truths which these myths hide, as I mentioned above? With Little Albert, I think it’s recognition that there could be different kinds of causes for neurotic fears, maybe even psychodynamic ones (you’ll hear, later in the course, about conflict between these kinds of explanations. That was a big deal when the ‘behaviourist or Freudian?’ debate was significant. Nowadays, we just know it’s a matter of flawed thinking, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will sort people out OK). I think there’s also a deeper hidden truth: mad or neurotic behaviour causes enormous amounts of damage and misery, and we don’t really know how understand it, or how to deal with it. This is like the problem of death, and the religious responses to that.
And Milgram and the SPE? The hidden truth behind applying these to real-life abuse and atrocity is racism (as, pretty obviously, in the Tuskegee Experiment). Not a feature in the original studies, but very often a feature (and maybe THE feature) of the cases we try to explain by referring back to these studies/myths.

*you’ll have guessed by now that I hardly read anything else


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