Psychology For Dummies
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What makes a good psychological movie or show? A good psychological film or show makes the viewer feel, act, and think like a psychologist. It’s a lens (literally and figuratively) that affords you the gaze of the psychologist. Could good psychological films and shows really just be another form of data collection and analysis, even research, or even therapy?

That sounds so dry and analytical doesn’t it? But we all know a good movie or show can be therapeutic. They can be investigatory explorations and qualitative looks into and from a psychological perspective and viewpoint. They don’t necessarily have to have a psychological theme or be about psychologists. They can represent the “acts” of a psychologist in all they ways “they” are: researchers, therapists, consultants, people with things to say about things that they see people do, feel, and think.

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We get to “be” psychologists for 90 minutes or 10 episodes as we analyze the characters and the story from the viewpoint of our own minds and the minds of the creators. They may depict a person suffering or experiencing a mental disorder. They may show what it’s like to receive or give psychological treatment. They may just take us so deep into the experiences of the characters that we can’t help but feel like we are seeing into their minds.

Of course, if you got 10 psychologists in a room, you’d probably get 100 different movies or shows that would qualify. These 10 are good; watch them.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released in 1975 and based on Ken Kesey’s book of the same name. The film, directed by Milos Forman, stars Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy, a man who is involuntary committed to a mental hospital.

This movie is poignant because it raises the question of whether Nicholson’s character is really mentally ill. The film is a commentary on the mental health system during the time period within which the movie is set and how the system was used as a means of social control. Is Nicholson’s character mentally ill, or is he just a pain in the neck who has a problem with authority? There’s no doubt that Jack stands out and bucks the system every chance he gets, but does that make him sick? Maybe he just has a real zest for life.

Excellent acting, social commentary, and existential angst. Who gets to decide what’s real and what illness is? Maybe it’s the one’s with the keys to the cell? Definitely check this one out.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange, based on the book by Anthony Burgess and directed by Stanley Kubrick, was made in 1971 and stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, a young troublemaker and delinquent. McDowell and his gang of three friends engage in various crimes and shenanigans, such as fighting, vandalism, skipping school, and the like. One night, they steal a car and go for a joy ride. They commit a horrific home invasion, raping a woman and brutally beating her husband. McDowell gets caught.

This is where the psychologically interesting part begins. McDowell is put through a rigorous behavior modification program that utilizes a technique called aversion training. After learning takes place, every time McDowell’s character is exposed to violence, he becomes violently ill. Therefore, he is compelled to avoid engaging in violence in order to avoid getting sick.

The film seems to pose a number of questions: Do we really want to resort to such tactics in reforming our criminals? Are we doing more harm than good? Is the level of violence in a society a function of a collective aversion to it or more a matter of the strong preying on the weak?

This move made my list because of its macabre nature and its use of behaviorism, not to mention the social commentary on violence in society.

Ordinary People

Ordinary People (1980), directed by Robert Redford and starring Timothy Hutton, Jud Hirsch, Donald Sutherland, and Mary Tyler Moore, is about a teenage boy recovering from depression and a suicide attempt following a boating accident that took his older brother’s life. This is an excellent story about how complex grief and depression can be and yet how much can be accomplished by taking things slowly and making them simple.

The acting is superb. The depiction of a mental disorder is excellent. But the emotion, the pain, the sadness — these elements are what put this film on my list. Doing therapy with real people and real pain and real loss is heartbreaking sometimes, and this movie will break your heart, but perhaps open it up as well.

Girl, Interrupted

In Girl, Interrupted, a 1999 film directed by James Mangold, Winona Ryder plays a depressed and suicidal young woman who’s admitted to a mental hospital. She’s reluctant about being there and resists many of the efforts by the staff to help her “get better.” The movie contrasts the characters’ lives and afflictions as a way to demonstrate that middle-class suburban angst is small potatoes when compared to other more “serious” illnesses. At the same time, the film doesn’t minimize Ryder’s difficulties, but instead it appears to place them in perspective. Developing a new perspective is a turning point for Ryder’s character; her life is simply being interrupted. She won’t let her life end in the institution due to a failure to deal with her problems.

I think the moral of the story is that Ryder’s character was fortunate to have made it out alive, merely taking a detour into mental illness instead of permanent residence. It’s a very personal story. It’s a story about hope and the harsh reality of some people’s lives.

The Silence of the Lambs

This is the movie that made everyone want to go out, join the FBI, and become a profiler. Directed by Jonathan Demme, this 1991 film stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in a psychological thriller that gets you inside the mind of a serial killer. Foster’s character, Clarise Starling, is an FBI agent who must deal with a famous psychiatrist/serial killer named Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins. The movie centers on their interactions and the psychological games they play with each other in order to get what they both want. Hopkins plays doctor with Foster’s psyche, and Foster asks Hopkins to look inside and use his self-knowledge to help her catch a serial killer.

The movie’s strength is not so much in its portrayal of a mentally ill psychiatrist, but in its insight to how the human mind works and how we become who we are. The tragedy of Foster’s childhood makes being a profiler her destiny. The serial killer’s (Buffalo Bill) quest for transformation into his true self drives his horrendous murders. The real anomaly is Hopkins’s character. He seems to represent both the good and the bad aspects of the human psyche. He helps Foster, both as consultant and as healer, but he also demonstrates depravity and demonic insanity through acts of murder. It’s as if he is both the giver and the taker of life. His powerful knowledge of the human mind easily turns into a tool for murder. Hannibal Lecter represents what a lot of us fear — that those we trust to help us can also hurt us.

If Hannibal Lector interests you, then you’ll love the television series Hannibal (2013–2015) starring Will Dancy as Will Grant, Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lector, and Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford. It’s a great show that’s dark, twisted, stylized, and maybe better than Silence of the Lambs. Check it out!


Sally Field stars in this classic 1976 made-for-TV movie, directed by Daniel Petrie, about multiple personality disorder (nowadays known as Dissociate Identity Disorder). Field, playing Sybil, is a reclusive young woman who appears to be shy and quiet, but under the surface a chaotic tangle of personalities swirls out of control. She ends up in the care of a doctor who begins to treat her for multiple personality disorder.

The scenes in which Field and her doctor are in therapy together are very dramatic and disturbing. They’re intense! Sally Field’s performance is super powerful. It’s actually pretty hard to watch someone act so strangely. It gets a ten on the “Hair on the Back of My Neck Standing Up” scale. It gives me the willies! As Sybil switches back and forth between personalities, the therapist begins to gain some insight as to how Field’s character could have become so ill.

Field’s character was horribly sexually and physically abused as a child. The film presents the professionally popular idea that MPD is the result of the personality splitting off from itself in order to defend the core personality from the reality of the abuse. It does a good job of respecting this notion and stays a true course, not yielding to the temptation to get too “Hollywood.”

The strength of Sybil rests on three pillars: Sally Field’s acting, the emotional intensity of the therapy scenes, and the portrayal of deeply wounded woman.

The Matrix

The Matrix (1999), directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss is an apocalyptic film in which a “master computer” has taken over the world and the minds of all humans and created an alternative reality. Humans are kept alive in a farm of sorts, where the energy from human bodies keeps the technology powered.

The master computer has taken over the minds of all humans by linking them into a virtual reality “matrix” in order to sustain their minds and mental functioning after finding out that without the matrix-derived mass delusion the human body would die, thus eliminating its power source. However, a group of people have managed to “break free” from the matrix and “come back” to reality, waking up to a world in which most humans are fuel and the master computer hunts them down.

Are you surprised to see this movie on this list? Some critics and viewers consider The Matrix to be a good “action” film, and some say it is quite mediocre. But this movie explores the concepts of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine intelligence, consciousness, and human-machine/human-technology relationships. The matrix itself is suggestive of the Internet and how it is often mistaken for reality. Are people becoming disembodied minds in this Internet age? Is this a form of mental slavery in which human minds and desires are subject to manipulation by more powerful, massive, and complex intelligences such as corporate marketers and spin masters?

The Matrix is thought-provoking and taps into some very contemporary and complex areas of psychological study and research.

Black Mirror

Black Mirror (2013–2019) is a multi-episode show with free-standing episodes, each telling a strange, sometimes dark, and definitely thought-provoking tale of humanity’s complicated relationship with technology. One episode tells the story of a man who finds out about his wife’s infidelity by reviewing her “memory” program implanted in her eye and brain. Another one is about two women who fall in love in a simulated world created by a “brain storage” facility of sorts for people who have died. Yet another episode shows how the world of “likes” and social media posts and profiles can go haywire. This show, like The Matrix, takes current issues around technology, blows them up, puts them on steroids, and forces us to look at them. This sounds like a form of Flooding Therapy, or a good therapist confronting you with your issues. You know, like a black mirror!

True Detective (Seasons 1 and Season 3)

True Detective Season 1 (2014) stars Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart. This show, like some others on the list, is about murder, but it made the list for so much more. The torment of Rust Cohle is palpable. You can feel it, and you empathize with his drive and his anger. He is a “savant” of sorts, being able to “feel” things and draw conclusions that make him an excellent detective. He is wild, unruly, unorthodox, but not dangerous, and somehow you feel reassured and safe with him. Marty Hart, on the other hand, seems very orthodox, nor particularly invested at first, a serial adulterer who seems to be just waiting to retire. He’s not particularly likable at first. But when these two get together, they fuel each other. They don’t match, but they’re on a mission.

Season 3 (2019) does not disappoint either. Starring Mahershala Ali as Detective Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff as Roland West, it's another story of partners working together, not particularly liking each other, but driving each other. Wayne Hayes is full of regret about a crime he could never solve and walked away from years earlier. He’s haunted by ghosts and suffering from mid-state dementia. The show is filmed in an interesting way as well, cross-cutting across different time periods and keeping the viewer disoriented. The detectives are complicated people (like all of us) trying to solve a complicated crime. They’re looking to redeem themselves for past mistakes. Who isn’t?

You might be wondering about Season 2. Well, it wasn’t horrible but nowhere near as good as 1 and 3. Each season is independent from each other, so my advice would be to watch Season 2 if you’re in a show hole.


No list of great psychological movies would be complete without Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. Anthony Perkins stars as a depraved psychopath with a strange delusion that involves dressing up like his mother. Perkins’s character appears to suffer from a “split” personality in which part of his personality is his mother. How weird is that? The “psycho” in Psycho only kills one person in the entire movie, small potatoes by today’s standards, but Hitchcock’s use of suspense and surprise are superb.

Psycho introduced the American public to the idea of a psychopathic killer, a man with a warped mind. On the outside, Perkins’s character is meek and socially awkward, a boy in a man’s body. The suggestion is that underneath that calm exterior is a deranged killer waiting for his opportunity. But the key psychological component in Psycho is Perkins’s twisted relationship with his mother. He is the quintessential “momma’s boy,” unable to go out into the world on his own and enjoy the pleasures that he fantasizes about. Classic!

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Adam Cash is a clinical psychologist who has practiced in a variety of settings including forensic institutions and outpatient clinics. He has taught Psychology at both the community college and university levels. He is currently in private practice specializing in psychological assessment, child psychology, and neurodevelopmental disorders.

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