Armchair Psychology

    Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

    Hello, reader. I'd like to speak to you about something. Would you like to sit down? Good.

    Now, this trope isn't about pointing fingers. I don't want to blame anyone, I'd just like to talk. Do you think that's something we can do? Good.

    I feel sad when writers have characters use I statements as part of an attempt to look peaceful or defensive, and I think I'd be happier if people realized this is only a passive-aggressive technique, as it makes the speaker look defensive and trying to reach an agreement, when, in fact, he's not letting in on his demands.

    I'm sorry, but I believe that having a character described as honest using terms like "In my experience", "I believe" and "I'm sorry" does not, in my experience, make him any more sympathetic. Nor do I believe that contemptuous pity—which is, truth to be told, disdain thinly disguised as sympathy—is synonymous with genuine compassion. In addition, I believe that people who hold opinions and/or make lifestyle choices that differ from your own are perfectly happy with them—and, as such, I believe they do not even remotely desire your disdain. Oh, I'm sorry—I meant to say "pity".

    By now, I'm sure you realize this trope is related to Spock Speak, as both tropes use a character's unnatural speech patterns as a way to show their behavioral peculiarities. But, the difference is, while Spock Speak implies a lack of familiarity with the language or the subject, Armchair Psychology implies a careful attempt to gain trust, or to avoid offending or lying to someone, isn't that right?

    You know what's interesting? This trope is very wide in its use. It's employed by psychiatrists and politicians, as they want to show they are being honest and non-confrontational, but it also found its way to the tongues of people who reject these philosophies, like Church of Happyology "Auditors" or new-age pantheists, because they see modern culture (or mainstream culture) as valuing too much conflict and dishonesty, so they'll try to avoid it.

    I have noticed that it gets used a lot more in fiction when the writers want to make the characters sound like they, the characters, are trying to sound nice, but that you, the reader are supposed to be creeped out by it. In fact, if you look at my examples—and wouldn't that be fun? -- you'll find more of that than anything else.

    I think it would be a good idea to compare this with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, Spock Speak and passive-aggressiveness in general.

    I want to give some examples of these type of speech. Do you think you can help me? Good.

    Examples of Armchair Psychology include:

    Comic Books

    • In Watchmen, Rorschach's cheery, idealistic prison psychiatrist, Malcolm Long, talks like this, almost to the point of parody. This makes the impact of Rorschach's Hannibal Lectures on him all the more dramatic.

    Fan Works

    • Brian Adams in the fan-fic series Adventures of the nWo B-Team constantly talked this way, peppered with Scientologist terms.


    • HAL, the computer (!) in 2001: A Space Odyssey, mainly because he's pretty much in charge of the whole ship.
    • Nome King in Return to Oz enough to leave even the characters unsettled.
    • What's happening? Bill from Office Space is gonna need you to get to get those TPS cover sheets on his desk by four, mm'kay? Didn't you get the memo? If you could just go ahead and do that, it'd be great. Yeaaaaaaaah.
    • In Total Recall, when on Mars, Dr. Edgemar tries to talk the hero into believing that this is all a dream.
    • GERTY in the movie Moon. By using this sort of talk, the viewer is left to wonder as to whether he's duplicitous or actually compassionate and caring.


    • Parodied in C. S. Lewis' allegory, The Pilgrims Regress. The hero is imprisoned by a giant representing misapplied Freudian psychology, whose gaze makes the outsides of people invisible so that their organs can be seen. The giant's allies, meanwhile, use armchair psychology as a bludgeon to wear down the prisoners. Paraphrased to de-allegorize: "How do you answer an argument that Work of Art X is really pornographic?" "Either 'You only say that because you have a dirty mind," or 'You only say that because you're a religious fanatic.'" "How do you answer an argument based on the premise that 2+2=4?" "You only say that because you're a mathematician."
    • Professor Umbridge does this in Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix. It starts off as just comically obnoxious that she talks to kids up to the age of seventeen as if they're toddlers, but quickly becomes infuriating once she starts to use it as a rhetorical weapon to prevent anyone from penetrating the Ministry's bubble of disinformation. And there's An Aesop in there, people. Constant vigilance!

    Live Action TV

    • The religious polyamorous family on Big Love tend to speak like that, as they try to avoid being taken by feelings of distrust and jealousy.
    • As well as the Scientologist on Nip Tuck, as they feel dishonesty is a way to repress their feelings.
      • So they adjust their speech in order to hide them, instead, you mean? Honestly!
    • In The Office, Phyllis once tried this on her abrasive co-worker Angela. Angela responded by talking to her as if she was a two-year-old.
    • In Seinfeld, Elaine's rabbi friend speaks most of the time like that, in his public access show.
    • The Empath on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Counselor Troi, often spoke this way, whether using her powers or not.
    • In Everybody Loves Raymond, this practically defines Marie Barone's relationship with her sons and anyone they may be romantically involved with. In contrast, how she interacts with her husband is far more direct and open (though not always exactly pleasant).
    • Reality TV example (Truth in Television?): "Ziggy" from the eighth UK Big Brother series spoke like this. Many thought this was a persona he developed to win approval in the house. Nope, turns out he actually IS that annoying.
    • In one episode of House, Cameron starts speaking this way in an attempt to defuse the team's usual conflict with House. She stops when House sees straight through it and mocks her.
    • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow insists that the group do this when they find out that Buffy didn't tell them that Angel was alive - "Giles, no-one's doing the I statements!".
    • In Angel, a psychologist (with magic) hypnotises Angel and the entire LAPD into speaking entirely like this.
    • Delores Herbig from Dead Like Me.

    Delores (every time she introduced herself): "As in HER-BIG BROWN EYES!" [spoken like a Kindergarten teacher]

    • Arnold Judas Rimmer speaks in that manner after Polymorph has drained away his anger (series III, episode 3): "Thank you very much. Erm, moving on a step - and I hope no one thinks that I'm setting myself up as a self-elected chairperson... just see me as a facilitator - erm, Kryten, what's your view? Don't be shy".
    • In Boy Meets World's Very Special Episode about Shawn being enticed by a cult, its leader speaks like this. He manages to provoke Alan Matthews into hitting him and, slightly more shockingly, Mr. Feeny into swearing.
    • An episode of Malcolm in the Middle deals with Lois learning a bit of armchair psychology (the "repeat what patient said" technique, mostly) to improve her relationship with her sons. It hilariously backfires when Malcolm gets annoyed at her repeating everything, thinking she's just mocking them.
    • Mister Rogers tended to speak like this. This kind of speech is justified, because his target audience was small children, and his intent was to get them to behave more considerately and reflectively.

    Newspaper Comics

    • In Garfield, Jon often speaks to Garfield like this. Which probably explains Garfield's penchant for grabbing Jon by his shirtfront, smacking him around, etc.

    Video Games

    • Dr. Breen uses this, but this is used to show he's a lying, traitorous asshole.
    • Dr. K auffman in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Until the end.
      • Depending on your game play, he may change his methods near the end, sometimes practically bullying his patient into reason... and it works better.
    • Dr Hartman from Alan Wake uses this when trying to convince the titular character that he's delusional.

    Web Comics

    Western Animation

    • In an episode of Home Movies, Brendon goes with his father and soon-to-be stepmother to an awful relationship counselor. One of his suggestions was to replace "should" with "I feel that it would be in your best interest", which just gave everyone something new to fight about ("You said 'should'!"). Nothing else he did was any better, especially placing most of the blame on eight-year-old Brendon, and eventually they all angrily stormed out of his office never to return.
      • On the other hand, ranting about the shrink made them all feel a lot less tense, so just maybe...
    • In the My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic episode Lesson Zero, Twilight Sparkle, thinking she stumbled upon a friendship problem, attempts this (even adjusting her appearance accordingly) to determine Rainbow Dash's (nonexistant) issues with Applejack.

    Real Life

    • Morgan Freeman. Why do you think he's so sought after as a narrator?
    • Doctors (psychologists, psychiatrists and MDs included) are taught to repeat back to their patients what they said, i.e., "So you feel annoyed when x happens" or "you feel saddest x" as a way to make sure they are getting all the information correct.
      • The Eliza chatbot talks the same way, having been originally designed to simulate a therapist (plus, "So why do you think [repeats last statement]" is easy to program).
      • This is primarily Rogerian Psychotherapy. Which, when applied properly, shows the patient that they are being heard and understood. It is also supposed to make the patient think about what they are saying in order to better understand themselves. Though it is a very simple technique, it takes a lot of practice, when done poorly it is extremely frustrating for the patient.
        • This technique (also called "reflective listening"), again, when used correctly, in addition to making them feel heard and understood, can also help patients formulate feelings into words. It sounds simple, and has the potential to come off as condescending (again, only if done poorly), but when a patient says "my mother interrupts me all the time," they may be genuinely surprised, upon the counselor's reflection, to discover that that actually makes them angry.
        • This is a part of good manners in Japan (maybe also Korea?). All those people in anime who repeat things other people say aren't idiots, they're just being polite.
      • Partly inherited from Freudian psychoanalysis, it's also about confirming a person emotions as acceptable : by acknowledging and wording a patient's feelings, you should help him realize those feelings are acceptable.
    • Also a technique used by lawyers. Any lawyer worth their salt already knows exactly what you're going to say (or at least roughly what you're going to say) in court. The easiest way to make sure what they want is put onto the record is to use this kind of questioning and language. It also helps that when your witness isn't agreeing with you (i.e., lying) it's the easiest way for a lawyer to highlight what is being said, so they can pick it apart easier.
      • Seems like a good way to get an "Objection, leading the witness" to me.
      • It's permissible to repeat what the witness said back to them to give them a chance to rephrase their statement or to use it as the foundation for the next question. And during cross examination, when this tactic is most likely to be used to encourage someone to change their answer, leading questions are permitted and in fact generally recommended.