Mr. Carlin, RIP
At the end of August, the actor Jack Riley passed away. His death occasioned a phone call to me from a newspaper reporter who was inspired by Mr. Riley’s passing to do a story on portrayal of group therapy in the movies and television, because perhaps Mr. Riley’s most notable role was as Elliott Carlin, the chronically downcast member of Bob Hartley’s therapeutic group on The Bob Newhart Show. (For those of you with children of a certain age, Mr. Riley was also the voice of Tommy’s dad on Rugrats.) I declined to speak with the reporter because I had no idea what I would say, and I don’t know if the article has been produced, though an internet search of “group therapy Jack Riley” and the name of the newspaper with which the reporter is affiliated turns up nothing. But it did get me thinking about the question of how group processes are represented in visual storytelling.
One of the most famous depictions of a group in action is the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men, in which a 12-person jury debates the innocence of a young man from a low-income background who has been accused of murdering his father. At the outset, 11 men feel he is guilty and want to convict right away, and one feels the case should be deliberated. The movie documents how the men eventually reach a unanimous not-guilty verdict, and brings in stereotyping, ostracism, and memory retrieval processes. While a riveting movie, the group process it depicts—a lone minority producing unanimous conversion—is just not supported with research. Rather, the research shows that most “unanimous” groups are truly not unanimous, but rather are a 2/3-majority, with the minority simply capitulating. Thus, a real group in this situation would likely have reached a guilty verdict immediately after that first vote. Admittedly, this would make for a short and boring movie. Interestingly, legal analysis of the movie has shown that the jurors rely almost entirely on inadmissible speculation, which gives it a second procedural flaw.
Then there is The Experiment, a 2010 film that depicts a prison experiment in the manner of Phil Zimbardo’s study. Here, though, the researchers ultimately decide to let the experiment run. Violence, homicide, and insanity ensue, and the scientists try but fail to intervene. Recognizing the entertainment value of this storyline, it is still the case that the narrative does the science a disservice. We in fact have a good idea of what happens when experiments like these are completed. In 2006, Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam ran an entire prison study in the basement of the BBC building. They found the prisoners to be the troublesome group, becoming rowdy and uncontrollable, while the guards largely shrank from their assigned roles. I acknowledge that I may sound curmudgeonly here, but in the wake of the movie I had undergraduates approach me wondering how long it would take a non-experimental group to devolve into violence, so my concerns are at least somewhat valid.
At the other end of the spectrum is the 2003 movie Manic, about a therapy group in a juvenile ward and the therapist who leads it. An apparently under-the-radar movie despite having some well-known actors, I did not discover it until a couple of years ago. The director, Jordan Melamed, wanted to portray the group therapy setting as realistically as he could, with an emphasis on how challenging it is for the therapist. As such, he and one of his lead actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, spent time with therapists and therapy groups to learn how sessions are conducted, and the actor who plays the therapist, Don Cheadle, is the son of a psychologist.
There are web sites at which you can search for movies that have psychological principles as a theme, and these engines turned up a surprisingly large number of movies that apparently incorporate concepts from our discipline. Psychmovies, a website maintained by Brooke Cannon of Marywood University, is a major repository. In browsing Dr. Cannon’s extensive catalog (for example, she identifies 68 films for which treatment is a primary theme), one wonders how many of these filmmakers employed an expert consultant to advise on the fidelity of what was being portrayed.
Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma and the current president of the American Chemical Society, famously volunteered to be the science consultant on Breaking Bad to ensure that the processes used by Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were as chemically accurate as possible. Would most viewers recognize that aluminum mercury is indeed an effective reducing agent for methylamine? Probably not. Does the accuracy matter? Absolutely. This is another area of outreach that, in my view, is worth pursuing.