At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

Cinema can have a powerful influence on how we perceive the world around us. When it comes to psychology, however, Hollywood often takes creative liberties that lead to misconceptions and stereotypes. From exaggerated symptoms to romanticized portrayals of mental illness, some movies get it spectacularly wrong.

While these films might make for a good watch, they can inadvertently prompt viewers to take on a skewed view of psychology and mental health. By taking the time to learn the truths that inspire fiction, you can quickly discover that entertainment doesn’t always align with reality.

“Girl, Interrupted” is a film adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, which recounts her experience of being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and her stay in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s. While the film touches on important themes of mental health and self-discovery, it also misrepresents what BPD is like and how treatment works, creating a romanticized and somewhat misleading view of the condition.

“Girl, Interrupted” places its focus on the more dramatic, attention-grabbing aspects of BPD—impulsivity and sexual promiscuity—without truly exploring the broader range of symptoms that often accompany the disorder. In reality, research on BPD shows the disorder to be characterized by far more than what “Girl, Interrupted” suggests, such as the following:

However, the movie glosses over these less-attractive symptoms, choosing instead to highlight moments that are “sexy” and exciting for audiences. These kinds of representations can create a skewed understanding of the disorder and its complexities.

Moreover, “Girl, Interrupted” suggests miraculous recoveries are possible in a relatively short amount of time. By the end of the film, Susanna Kaysen appears calm, composed, and in control of her emotions. However, true recovery from BPD—which involves a long-term commitment to therapy, medication, and consistent self-care—often takes years, and only then will symptoms gradually lessen.

For most people with BPD, however, complete remission is rare. By suggesting that recovery is quick and straightforward, the film risks giving audiences false hope or a simplistic view of the disorder, ignoring the real-life struggles and ongoing efforts many individuals with BPD face in their recovery process.

“A Beautiful Mind” is a highly acclaimed film based on the life of John Nash, a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although the movie is a compelling narrative and a beautifully crafted story, the film centers on Nash’s hallucinations and delusions as a significant aspect of his schizophrenia. While hallucinations are often part of the condition, not everyone with schizophrenia experiences them to the same extent, or even at all.

The film’s portrayal of Nash’s vivid and intense hallucinations creates a brilliant dramatic effect, but it fails to represent the full spectrum of schizophrenia symptoms. In reality, research on schizophrenia shows the primary struggles are often disorganized thinking, diminished emotional expression, and cognitive challenges—rather than extreme hallucinations or delusions alone.

Furthermore, cognitive neuroscientists criticize “A Beautiful Mind” for romanticizing the notion of “overcoming” mental illness through sheer willpower. Despite being an engaging and compassionate film, it reinforces several enduring myths about severe mental illness. The film links genius with madness, which suggests that Nash’s brilliance is somehow connected to his schizophrenia, and discounts his hard work and dedication. It also embellishes the healing power of romantic love by overemphasizing the role his relationship with his wife plays in his recovery.

While these themes make for a captivating story, they oversimplify the complexities of mental illness and can give a false impression of the real-life challenges faced by those with schizophrenia. While the film does address some of the harsh realities of psychiatric treatment, it largely overlooks the grueling and sometimes brutal aspects of mental health care during Nash’s era. By presenting a relatively sanitized view of schizophrenia and its treatment, the film can give a skewed perception of what it takes to manage the condition and the long-term impact it can have on individuals and their families.

“Rain Man” is a groundbreaking film that significantly contributed to raising awareness about autism and reducing the stigma surrounding it. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant, the film brought attention to the challenges faced by individuals with autism and their families.

The film’s portrayal of a man with autism, who also had exceptional mathematical abilities and other savant skills, created a stereotype that has since been associated with the disorder. This exaggerated depiction of savant abilities has led to various unrealistic expectations about individuals with autism, reinforcing the notion that they all possess these rare skills.

While savant syndrome is indeed a rare condition in which a person with developmental disabilities demonstrates extraordinary abilities in specific areas—such as mathematics or music—research shows it is far from common among those with autism. Savant syndrome isn’t exclusive to autism, either, and has been observed in various individuals with different developmental disabilities. Given this context, “Rain Man” contributed to a narrow view of what it means to be on the autism spectrum, as well as what it means to be a savant.

Despite its brilliance, the film inadvertently reinforced a mistaken dichotomy, and encouraged viewers to believe individuals with autism fall into one of two categories: either extraordinary savants or “low-functioning” and completely socially inept—both of which perpetuate harmful and insensitive stereotypes regarding those on the autism spectrum.

In reality, a vast majority of people with autism do not fall under either of these labels, and lead fulfilling and meaningful lives, careers, and relationships—as do those who fall within the stereotyped categories. Sadly, portrayals like those in “Rain Man” can overshadow the diversity of abilities and behaviors that have long been observed and exhibited by those on the autism spectrum.

Mark Travers, Ph.D., is an American psychologist with degrees from Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder.

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At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

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