Magazine article USA TODAY

Tell Me a Story

Magazine article USA TODAY

Tell Me a Story

Article excerpt

EXPLAINING PROJECTIVE psychological tests to Psychology 101 students is a little tricky. It requires that they not only have learned the minimum about Sigmund Freud from the previous chapters, but are able to apply the idea of the unconscious and defense mechanisms to new material. The Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT, is something that most of them never again will encounter, but it is significant enough to make the intro psych textbooks.

The TAT is a complex evaluation tool, requiring specialized training and a graduate education. The essence of TAT is that the client is shown a series of pictures that are relatively neutral scenes from human life and asked to make up a story about each picture. A series of made-up stories about novel stimuli yields a wealth of data about the person's unconscious conflicts, biases, scripts, and schema about life. That is the essence for undergrads.

The thing of it is, as I explain it, it is not just in psychology. When your best friend passes along some juicy piece of gossip, she--or he, to be fair--is telling you far more about herself than about whomever she is gossiping. She is telling you what she thinks is important, or interesting, and, perhaps worse, she is communicating quite clearly what she thinks of you. This tidbit, after all, is what she is holding out as a ticket to your attention and a means to connect with you. Flattering, eh?

The students who are following the discussion often look uncomfortable at this point, and the moment serves as a litmus test to see who really is paying attention. Your best friend thinks that someone else's misfortune or scurrilous behavior is of ultimate interest to you. That seems a good reason to feel a little uncomfortable. Perhaps, though, you have chosen a higher quality of friend than some of us and have not had someone insult you this way--or, you are not alarmed whatsoever at the notion that your BFF believes that salacious gossip is the key to your happiness.

The stories we tell do tell our listeners, or readers, all about us. Biblical parables relate to believers important facts about the person who told the stories. What the Grimms' Fairy Tales communicated about the adult world to children of the time cannot be very comforting, but it probably served some purpose in terms of social control. Politicians' staffs craft stories meant to evoke our emotions and lead us to believe we know about the person who wants our vote of confidence. The notion of people-watching and making up stories about the strangers going by, as in Simon and Garfunkel's "America," probably is as old as humanity. The stories, of course, tell all about the observer and nothing much about the observed. The news cycle offers endless examples. One is the recent commotion over Chick-fil-A founder Bob Cathy opining that he believes in the traditional definition of marriage. Those who happen to agree with him, or at least in his right to express a personal opinion with malice towards none, were labeled as hateful. So, if someone disagrees with you, he or she is hateful? Does that tell me about the person with a different opinion, or about you? Someone harbors hate. Go check the mirror.

In the world of psychological research and treatment, it is not just psychologists administering projective tests who examine the stories clients tell. …

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