My Abnormal Mission: Orphan Puppies, Ted E. Ruxpin and the Will Ferrell Approach

Posted April 7, 2015

By Michael Steger

Twitter: @MichaelFSteger

I teach abnormal psychology, and rarely does a day go by that I am not thankful for that fact. This is one of those classes that so often seems to do the work for me. Let’s look at some of the advantages to teaching abnormal psychology:

  • Students have some idea what the course is about;
  • Students already think it’s pretty interesting;
  • Students are almost helpless to stop themselves from making personal connections with the course material;
  • Students have been fed a relentless diet of misinformation and histrionic blithering about this course that borders on the satanic and slanderous.

You see what happened there? I snuck in some counterintuitive info there. Such moves are the bread-and-butter of psychology classes. If you teach social psych you get to show people how they are incapable of independently forming the simplest of thoughts or attitudes. If you teach perception you get to show people that they do not perceive reality so much as concoct it. If you teach abnormal psychology, your big counterintuitive is that people come to class loaded up with misconceptions that range from the daft to the dangerous.

In fact, my personal view is that my most important job is to give students the information and critical thinking tools they need to demystify and de-stigmatize psychological disorders. The symptoms, age ranges, incidence, and even the number of disorders floating around us changes over time, but people’s wariness and potent emotional reaction to the human experiences labeled “abnormal” seems to stay the same.

One of the startling things I realized as I first prepared to teach this course was just how erratic and herky-jerky society’s approach to disorders has been. A fairly frightening number of policies toward the rights and treatment of people with disorders have been decided by juries or angry constituents rather than experts, or even people who have taken the time to become informed. I want those juries and email writers to be stocked with as many rationally-equipped people as possible!

I think there are three teaching approaches . . .

The Orphan Puppy Approach

 The first I’ll call the Orphan Puppy approach. The Orphan Puppy approach draws its name from TV commercials about abandoned and unwanted pets that pile up like snowdrifts until Sarah McLaughlin’s pleas to adopt them are heard. This approach uses pure pathos in an effort to emotionally sway us. I am a huge fan of empathy and compassion and think both are intrinsic to being a good person and citizen. I want my students to have empathy for what it is like to have a disorder but people become inured to suffering (and piano music) if they're overdone.

The Ted E. Ruxpin Approach

The second approach is the Professor Ted E. Ruxpin approach. The Professor Ted E. Ruxpin draws its name from the 1980s toy that robotically recited stories to perplexed or terrified children, kind of as if Aesop and Dr. Seuss had been born and raised in a Chuck E. Cheese. This approach uses an untiring litany of facts and figures to help people understand the scope and nature of disorders. I am a huge fan of facts and figures—without them we might as well still be performing exorcisms and seeing if suspected witches weigh as much as ducks. But the only way abnormal psychology can be a bad course to teach is through burying its elemental interestingness under a torrent of boring jibber-jabber.

The Will Ferrell Approach

This leads me to the conclusion that the best way to convey the agony, difficulty, social cost, and importance of abnormal psychology is through the third approach which I’m calling the Will Ferrell approach. Will Ferrell movies mostly are supposed to be funny, and I would assert that abnormal psychology classes are supposed to be a little bit funny, too. I mean, this class starts with “black bile” and “wandering uteruses” on its way to Froot Loop fetishes, clown phobias, and schizophrenia. You may be thinking that schizophrenia is not funny at all. But, in the end, it is exactly as funny as everything else. The ancient idea that a woman’s uterus would wander into her eyeball trying to find semen, rendering her blind, is funny not because ancient Greeks were so idiotic but because we modern people are similarly convinced that we are right. Froot Loop fetishes and clown phobias might seem funny because they are “weird” but they are actually funny because they are so familiar. In both cases, we can help students see that both sexual desire and fear are universal, varying from one person to the next only in degree, and sometimes target. Schizophrenia is not funny at all, except that with a little effort you can also show students that all of the symptoms we tend to think of as “bizarre” happen to everyone from time to time (and if you’re in my class, they happen to YOU in week 14). Ever feel confused? Ever think you heard someone call your name but they actually said “Starbucks”? Ever have your attention lag and miss something important? Sure, just like people with schizophrenia sometimes do. So the issue is not how “we” are different from “them,” it’s how all of us are working along the same continuum of human psychological experience. It’s a matter of degree. Occasionally mishearing your name, like occasionally feeling drained of motivation or joy, is a bit of a bummer. Frequently having auditory hallucinations or feeling hollowed out of all zest and motivation is harrowing.

The Will Ferrell approach strives for the best moments of the actors’ movies. My favorite aspect of Will Ferrell movies is how familiar he seems. Whether he’s dousing spaghetti with syrup (one of the four food groups according to the family-friendly movie Elf), awkwardly trying to get Snoop Dogg to go streaking (as in the raunchy Old School), or simply trying to stay alive and relevant (hmm, as in all the rest of his movies), he looks like us, and kind of acts like us, but more so. There is a human quality to his characters, as there is in the best comedic characters. We laugh because we can see ourselves doing the same thing, just maybe. We laugh because the plight is recognizable, the pain resonates, because we join with the comedian rather than exile him or her as a freak. Every semester, that is my goal, to invite my students to see themselves along a continuum of experience that links us all to people with psychological disorders.

Perhaps too often, psychology accidentally reinforces the idea that there is the right way and the wrong way. . . the right people and the wrong people. In abnormal psychology, and in every course, we can use humor as a gentle invitation to find the absurdity, surprise, and common connection in even the most difficult of our shared experiences. So, next time you are trying to entice your students to connect with the material you are presenting, think like Will Ferrell. Is there a movie or YouTube clip that shows a regular Joe or Jane fumbling with the issue, or baring all of the vulnerability and absurdity we all would feel in a similar situation? Is there a story you can share from your own life that shows your own vulnerability, and how you are able to integrate vulnerability into an authentic, richly textured life? Give it a whirl and share it. Because it is not about whether we are better or worse than other people, but instead is about how we are similar to them, it does not matter whether we get a roar of laugher or silence. We’ve all been there. But I think they’ll laugh.

[Michael F. Steger, PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University. His research seeks to understand well-being, health, and most centrally, what makes life meaningful for people.]