Thursday, 3 November 2011

Jon Sutton: Pride before a fall

This tale predates my formal interest in academic psychology. That began one fateful afternoon in the sixth-form library, when I spotted a psychology textbook on the desk of a girl I very much wanted to talk to. I approached with the immortal and completely untrue line, "You do psychology, don’t you? I was thinking of taking it at university." (Gross, it was. The textbook, I mean.)

That was the moment Psychology snuck up on me, gave me a voice and whispered in my ear "You’re mine now!" But I see now that I had been at its mercy for years. I certainly was one snowy evening circa 1982, as I waited for a lift to Cub Scouts.

We were outside Dunstan’s house, woggles straightened, caps neatly perched on our innocent heads. Then someone said: "I dare you to chuck a snowball at that car".

Now I know it’s hard to believe, but I didn’t used to be the socially confident, key influencer of today. No, really. In fact, foreshadowing my later research into bullying as a group process, I was prone to going along with anything that kept me off the bottom of the pile.

But I was no mug. Again suggesting some kind of strange quantum echo of my future research interest in mentalising and theory of mind ability, I realised that I only needed to make the assembled group think that I intended to hit the car. "Aim really high," I thought, "they’ll never know". I did just that, and said "nah, missed!" as I turned to accept the plaudits for my chutzpah.

The car screeched to a halt. The driver got out, and lurched menacingly towards us. I noticed that his glasses were hanging off, and a river of slush slid down his furious face.

"Who threw that?", he bellowed. It became clear that his sunroof had been open (why?!), and that I had scored a direct hit.

Having got me into this mess, psychology at least had the decency to help me out. Display rules of emotion took over … I cowered, whimpered and generally made it clear that despite my apparent attack I was in fact no threat to anyone. Thankfully his Violence Inhibition Mechanism (Blair, 1995) kicked in and I was spared, to toddle off to Cubs and learn how to "be prepared" next time.

So my psychology was my salvation, but – as so often – it was my downfall too. I’m keeping score.

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Dr Jon Sutton is Editor of The Psychologist and a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Find him on Twitter @psychmag and @jonmsutton

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1 comment:

  1. This made me laugh! I've had many conversations with my kids, who demonstrated similar psychological savvy.

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