Numerous psychological theories exist to explain human behavior and thought patterns. The psychological theories learned in class are applicable in real life situations, as well as in films. A notable film with a wealth of psychological theories applications is “Good Will Hunting”, released in 1997. The movie is about Will, a 20-year-old young man, working as a janitor in a university and possesses excellent mathematical skills. The film portrays to the audience Will’s life and transformation from an abrasive youth with childhood traumas and antisocial personality disorder, to a more caring and focused individual. The major theories applicable in this film include Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial personality development and Ainsworth’s attachment theory.
In analyzing the movie “Good Will Hunting”, utilizing Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is the best approach to understanding the character Will, and his behavior throughout the film. Erikson’s theory posits that the human personality develops according to the epigenetic principle, which means that the personality development occurs in a predetermined fashion, where the different stages build upon each other for a healthy personality. As a psychologist belonging to the humanist school of thought, Erikson believed that human beings have different needs and desires and this is what people should study. Based on Erikson’s theory, Will appears to be in the intimacy vs. isolation stage in psychosocial development.
According to Erikson, this stage occurs between 18 and 40 years, where the person cultivates the virtue of love. In this stage, the individual begins to share themselves with others who are not family members intimately. Will is 20 years old, and he develops a relationship with Skylar, a girl he meets while out at a bar having drinks with his friends. This relationship is a clear representation of the intimacy vs. isolation personality development stage that Erikson asserts. Erikson further adds that avoiding commitment lead to isolation and this is a form of antisocial behavior. Will vividly demonstrates antisocial behavior throughout the film, which leads him to lie to Skylar that he is an orphan and refuses to move to California with her, and subsequently ends the relationship. This refusal is a form of antisocial behavior, which is an element of antisocial personality disorder. A person is said to have antisocial personality disorder when they exhibit behavior in which they lack regard for other people’s feelings and rights as they act aggressively towards them (p.375). By lying to Skylar and ending the relationship with her, Will is isolating himself and lacks the virtue of love, which is harming his social relationships with other people.
Will also appears to be fluctuating over the different stages of personality development. For instance, sometimes he exhibits the characteristics of the first psychosocial stage, which is the trust vs. mistrust stage. He seems unable to trust anyone, including Lambeau, the professor, his psychologists, and Skylar. Erikson explains that the mistrust is as a result of inconsistency in care provided to the child. During his court hearing after he assaults his childhood bully in the street, the judge notes that Will has had an inconsistent source of care given that he has been to several foster homes and ejected for physical abuse, found on minute 20 in the film (Sant, 1997). The lack of consistency in the care as a child leads to the development of mistrust, and feelings of rejection. This lack of consistency in care worsens his personality development because the rejection and bullying morph into the antisocial personality disorder that he exhibits throughout the film. While Erikson’s theory makes perfect sense in explaining Will’s behavior, it has a significant limitation; in that, it ignores the aspect of culture and its influence on human personality and the socialization process.
Ainsworth theory of attachment is another useful theory to apply when analyzing this film. According to Ainsworth, an infant’s attachment to the maternal caregiver depends on the relationship with the mother and the mother’s sensitivity towards the child. She developed this theory after conducting the Strange Situation experiment that revealed how an infant responded to the mother and a stranger when they left the room. The three levels of attachment are secure attachment, resistant attachment, and avoidant attachment. From the movie, Will has not formed a secure attachment with his caregivers. He shows insecure attachment where he does not seek to contact with the attachment figures, in this case, Sean the therapist, and Lambeau, the professor. For instance, during one of his sessions as seen in minute 31, Will starts to show interest in Sean’s office by telling him, “I like what you have done with this place.” Sean responds, “Well do you like books?” (Sant, 1997) Will immediately changes his demeanor to antisocial behavior because he starts to reach for cigarettes from his pocket, ignoring Sean. This disrespectful behavior is a mechanism to avoid contact with the caregiver in this case because with a tumultuous childhood moving to different foster cares, Will failed to develop secure attachments with his caregivers.
With his insecure attachment levels, Will is likely to sabotage his social and intimate relationships. Interestingly, his relationship with his friends remains intact, because he forms a secure attachment with them. They share similar interests and interact using profane language, and this helps them understand each other. Unless Will undergoes therapy to solve his childhood struggles and make peace with them, he is unable to form secure attachments, and this inhibits his personality development and contributes to antisocial personality disorder.
A defense mechanism is a subconscious psychological tactic, where the human mind seeks to reduce anxiety that arises from harmful or unappealing stimuli. Projection is an example of a defense mechanism, where the individual displaces their unwanted feelings onto another person. Will projects his frustrations to his childhood bully, the first psychologist, Lambeau, Sean, and Skylar. Another defense mechanism visible in the film is identification where the individual handles their emotional conflict by attributing their feelings to another person. For instance, in the movie, Chuckie joins Will in fighting his bullies, which is a way of transferring his affections to another person. Lastly, Will uses repression as a defense mechanism, which entails pushing away negative feelings or other people as a way to handle the negativity. In this case, Will ends the relationship with Skylar, instead of facing his problems.
I think the movie does not adequately portray what a psychologist should do when providing therapy to a patient. For instance, in minute 25, when Will suggests that the therapist is gay and wants to make a move on him, the psychologist becomes agitated by these remarks and quits providing his services to Will (Sant, 1997). He labels him as a lunatic. In such situations, a therapist should be patient, avoid transference, and carefully help the client process his thoughts and words, to establish a pattern. The behavior that the psychologist portrays goes against counseling principles.
Will is a troubled youth, experiencing his intimacy vs. isolation stage in personality development. He also seems to be suffering from antisocial personality disorder for he has no regard for the feelings and rights of others through his abrasive and sometimes abusive behavior. From the film, it is clear that growing up in different foster homes, being ejected from them and experiencing child abuse are the reasons he lacks secure attachments to people and for his antisocial behavior. Undergoing therapy, which takes time to take effect, is a sure way to treat his antisocial personality disorder and fix his personal and social relationships with people. The movie ends with him going to California to look for Skylar, which shows that the talk therapy was effective.