Some of our misconceptions are formed in school but most of us see the world through television, movies, newspapers, magazines and books. That's a problem because of the phenomenon some psychiatrists call the "Werther Effect"

Werther was the hero of a novel written by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe more than two hundred years ago. The book winds up with a passage in which Werther dresses in boots, a blue coat and a yellow vest, sits at his desk with an open book, and shoots himself.

In the next few years so many young men dressed themselves as Werther and sat at a desk with an open book to shoot themselves that the book was banned in several countries.

In April of 1994 singer Kurt Cobain shot himself. For the rest of the year a surprising number of teen-age suicides played Cobain tapes as they killed themselves, and some left notes naming Cobain.

In May of 1998 one fan killed herself and two others tried to at the funeral of Japanese rock star Hideto Matsumoto, a few days after Matsumoto hung himself with a towel.

Psychiatrists know that one suicide in a mental hospital is liable to be followed by others, and more than 20 years ago American sociologist David Phillips found that the same pattern holds in the outside world.

At the time the U.S. suicide rate averaged 1,200 to 1,700 every month, depending on the time of year and other factors. Phillips found an average increase of nearly 60 in the month after any suicide reported on the front page of either the New York Times or the New York Daily News.

Some suicides have more impact than others. In 1962 the death of Marilyn Monroe apparently triggered nearly 200 suicides in the next month.

Human beings are herd animals and we like to do the things our leaders do. That's one of the reasons advertisers pay small fortunes to sports celebrities, rock stars and other media-created "leaders" to "endorse" their products.

I know that a hockey player is no better judge of hair shampoo than I, and that he may not even use the shampoo he recommends. Personally I can't imagine anyone buying shampoo on a hockey player's say-so, but I know that hard-headed people who measure their results pay big bucks for the hockey player's endorsement.

I use that shampoo because it just happened to catch my eye at the drug store. It's pretty good.

We learn by watching others and, sometimes, by imitating them. A baby watches its parents and as it develops the ability it imitates their movements, their speech patterns and ultimately their relationships.

As we grow up we learn from our peers and authority figures, but the peers and the authority figures of millions of North Americans are the heroes and heroines of TV soap operas and sitcoms. Millions more identify with or take their cues from pop singers or fictional characters in books.

And most of the models are deliberately abnormal. They have to be, to stand out in a competitive marketplace.

Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sang about love and lived relatively normal public lives. Rock groups like Dismember, Pungent Stink and Verbal Abuse do not. Sherlock Holmes used his brain to solve cases in which something was stolen, and perhaps one person was killed or threatened. Today's fictional detectives are more likely to use machine guns to fight off baddies who plan wholesale slaughter.

And it will get worse, because life imitates art. Movies set standards for real-life bad guys to aspire to, and when real life catches up with movie villains the movie villains become even more extreme to maintain the shock value of films.

We all know that the films and the characters are fictional but one of the most common failings of memory is what psychologists call "source amnesia", when we remember something but are not quite sure where or how we learned it. One common example is the face that's familiar, but you don't know where you know it from.

Psychologist Daniel Schacter of Harvard University says all our memories, whether we remember the source or not, are subject to what he calls "leakage". When we recall a scene or an event we may include details from a different scene or event.

And we may remember some events that never happened at all. In her book {The Myth of Repressed Memory} psychologist Elizabeth Loftus proves that most of us can confuse fiction with fact.

One who did was French psychologist Jean Piaget, a world leader in developmental psychology. As quoted by Loftus, Piaget recalls a clear memory of the time his nurse fought off a man who tried to kidnap him. Piaget was five years old at the time.

When he was 15 the nurse admitted that the story had been a fabrication, made up to impress Piaget's parents. In fact Piaget remembered only the nurse telling his parents about the supposed incident, and his parents relating it as an anecdote, but for years he thought he remembered a real event.

In several public speeches former U.S. president Ronald Reagan cited an act of heroism in which a U.S. Navy pilot won the Congressional Medal of Honor. The incident he referred to was part of a movie, but Reagan remembered it as real life.

Loftus also cites the results of a an incident in February 24, 1984, in which a sniper shot at children in a school playground in Los Angeles. Later, when psychologists from UCLA interviewed the children, several of them had clear "memories" of things they could not possibly have seen.

Some of the most detailed first-hand recollections of the event were among children who had not been at school that day. The children really did remember, but the memories were false.

Loftus once challenged her students at the University of Washington to implant false memories in friends and relatives. About one-quarter of the implants were successful.

Student Jim Coan convinced his 14-year old brother Chris that when Chris was five years old he had been lost in a shopping mall in Tacoma. It never happened, but with little effort Jim was able to give Chris a memory that Chris could not identify as false.

Once the source of a memory is forgotten we find it hard to distinguish between our memory of an actual event and that of an event we have only heard about. We can even accept fictional events as real.

Because of that millions of North Americans live in a world in which the warped beliefs, attitudes and behavior of the characters in fiction represent a slice of real life.

Millions think human love is the kind of warped sadomasochistic circus portrayed by romance novels and millions more -- including some working policemen -- think "real" policemen behave like the psycho-neurotics of movies like {Lethal Weapon, Die Hard} and even, God help us, the {Police Academy} series.

An un-armed man was shot by police in Toronto last year because the policemen who thought he was a drug dealer were play-acting roles as movie cops when they tried to arrest him.

The man was unarmed and he made no attempt to escape or resist but during the arrest an undercover policeman chose to break his car window by hitting it with a pistol.

Other policemen who were pumped up for a gunfight heard the glass break, thought the suspect was resisting, and riddled him with bullets.

There was no need to break the car window but policemen in movies and TV break things, and the Toronto cop thought he should too. The other policemen were ready for a shootout because they have all seen it happen, many times, in movies and on TV.

But the problem of entertainment goes beyond sex and violence. All fiction is suspect.

Some school-teachers tell us that fiction teaches us about the real world. That's wrong. A fiction writer may pretend to model real life but in fact he makes his characters fit a pre-ordained plot. Even within the needs of the plot, writers have to make their characters and the world behave in ways that will please an audience already shaped by misconceptions and sated by excess.

They must also cater to the preconceptions of their audience and the stereotypes of the day. In the American south in the 1920's or South Africa in the 1960's a story or play that portrayed even one Negro as noble or intelligent would not have been accepted by the general public.

Today's fiction reflects different stereotypes but they are still stereotypes. That's a problem because modern TV, movies and even books portray the world with such clarity and simplicity that most fiction is more vivid than real life.

Because of that many of us pay more attention to the antics of fictional characters on movies and TV screens than we do to real people in the real world, and the lessons we learn from fiction may carry more weight than the lessons we learn from real people.

Thanks to the wonders of modern media, many of us have a distorted view of the world. If we grow up with movies and TV, we may also have trouble communicating with others.

Psychologists tell us that about 70% of social communication is through body language, and most of the rest is through tone of voice. Words carry less than 10% of the message.

We learn to read non-verbal cues from our peers but when we get a significant portion of our human inter-action from television, we learn wrong.

When Joe Virile looks into Jane Fertile's eyes and tells her he loves her, he's lying. In fact he may hate her, and in any case he is following a script.

But to millions of budding Jane Fertile's his love is real, and they watch every nuance of body language and facial expression. Joe is faking but he is setting the standard by which real-life lovers will be judged, and if they don't fake it they may not be believed.

If Joe Virile is a good enough actor he may try to mimic the body language of true love, but there's very little chance that he will get it right. He will do better as an actor, in fact, if he mimics a parody of the real body language -- because a parody will have more impact in the fictional setting.

That's a real problem because most children will probably see more intense human inter-action in the thirty hours or so of television they watch every week than they will in real life, and they pay more attention to TV than they do to real life.

That creates another danger, because some modern entertainment is blatant propaganda. People who follow TV serials all know about the brave woman pioneer doctor of the old west and the half-witted men in her life, about the heroic warrior princess who battles against evil men, and other unreal caricatures. When the CBC made a pseudo-historical movie about the development of the Avro Arrow fighter plane the producers chose to make a non-existent woman engineer one of the driving forces behind the project. The reason shows in the credits, where we see that a feminist propaganda group helped finance the film.

Propagandists may say that they adjust our perception of the world for our own good, but they define my good by their standards -- and all I know for sure is that their standards do not include a high regard for the truth.

Televised propaganda is a serious danger to our society because TV represents the world, to many of us. When we sit with people to watch TV we are there to watch TV, not to sit with people. If we read a book rather than talk to friends, we choose the characters in the book as our friends.

If I live in the real world I will model my behavior and expectations on the real world, and I may eventually learn to deal with the real world. If I live in a world of fiction I will learn from fiction, and I will learn only to deal with the world of fiction.

If the people I meet have been exposed to the same fiction or the same propaganda as I have it might work out all right, in some cases at least. If I model my behavior on one fictional character, perhaps they will model theirs on another.

But what if real human reactions creep into the interchange? If I am too wrapped up in fictional emotions and reactions, will I be able to deal with the real thing? Or will I feel so uncomfortable with the real world that when one of my fictional heroes commits suicide, I may think about following his lead?

Perhaps not, but there is evidence that one common characteristic of people who can't make it in school or in life is an inability to read body language. If they had spent more time with real life, and less with fiction, they might do better.

Thanks to the power of modern media and the skill of modern writers and actors a significant part of our population has a warped view of the world, and millions of people are not able to communicate effectively with one another.


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