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ATD Blog

Stories: bad for your mental health?


Fri Apr 21 2006


The pairing of frustration and resolution is at the heart of, well, probably everything to do with life and growth.

But if you look at two example, frustration/resolution in passive stories and frustration/resolution in simulations, you can see why, as I mulled earlier, that stories might be the new white bread, making us feel smarter by tricking us, rather than actually increasing our capacity, leaving us just bloated instead.


In creating a passive story, it is fairly easy to set up a good frustration/resolution pairing.

  • Shark attacks swimmer.

  • Physically attractive ex-girlfriend/boyfriend re-emerges after 10 years with a dark secret.

  • The instructions for a better life/how to avoid a major problem are to follow.

In all of these, whether it be a novel, a movie, or the evening news, we just have to sit back and consume more, and we will get the resolution. Mmmmm. It feels so satisfying, for a few moments. But we are instantly hungry again, and the right masters of the medium will once again tantalize us with another frustration/resolution pairing (or have three or four recursive pairing going on at once, so while we are told the resolution of a more specific paring, we still have the bigger one to resolve).

In an educational simulation, much like a computer game, and of course in learning to ride a bike, swim, speak a foreign language, close a big deal, make a customer happy, or build something, that frustration-resolution can not be closed by passively consuming more. The frustration can only (and not even all of the time) be resolved by actively doing something.

Passive stories are thought to be crowning achievements of our civilization: books, movies, magazine, and most of our school system. We all have intense, positive relationships with at least a few examples of each.

But like white bread and refined sugar, they may just be tricking our minds into addiction, actually reducing our ability to act, not increasing it. And maybe, just maybe, the manifest destiny of our profession is to help people overcome this addiction, not feed it.


(By the way, just because computer games involve active frusteration-resolution, doesn't mean they are not a) self-referential and b) addictive. They hint at solutions, rather than represent them).

(And yes, we have all read books or seen movies that have shaped our lives.)

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