Would You Rather Be a RICK or a JERRY? – The Psychology of Rick and Morty – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Science of Rick and Morty as we ponder the question: Does being smart make you MISERABLE? And is it better to be a Rick or a Jerry? In this episode, our resident psychology expert, Helen, dives into research studies and more to understand our relationship with intelligence and depression. Join us as we explore!
Written & Narrated by: Helen Floersh
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura & Jacob Salamon
Motion Graphics by: Beto Ruiz
Select Music by: LAZERHAWK (https://lazerhawk.bandcamp.com/)
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon
Would You Rather Be a RICK or a JERRY? – The Psychology of Rick and Morty – Wisecrack Edition
Hey guys, Helen again. So I know we’ve talked about Rick and Morty a lot. But while Jared’s been lamenting the lack of meaning in our asshole universe, I thought it was time to give science a chance to shine light on everyone’s favorite negligent grandpa and his talented, career-savvy son-in-law. “I give you your new slogan.”
Specifically, I wanted to see what psychology had to say about a problem we’ve all been asking ourselves: Is Rick destined to be miserable because of his intelligence? And if so, is it better to be a Jerry? If you ask 19th century author Fyodor Dostoevsky, he would probably say no. As he famously puts it in The Idiot: “It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool’s paradise.” Dostoevsky’s statement seems quite apt in describing the dynamic between Jerry and Rick. Rick’s despondency is driven by his knowledge that nothing matters, while a “fool’s paradise” might as well just be Jerryboree the Shymaliens simulation. “MMM human music … I like it,” Pluto or the Titanic.
So, is Dostoevsky right? We’ll break it down in this Wisecrack edition on the Psychology of Rick and Morty: Can being smart make you miserable? For being the smartest man in the universe, Rick’s surprisingly relatable. As creator Dan Harmon puts it: “When you’re standing in line at that bank sometimes, you always feel like, none of these people understand what a hurry I’m in, how much crap I have to do today, what I’m up against. We’ve all been Rick.” And as much as it sucks to admit, a lot of us can also probably identify with his self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. “Why do you keep doing this to us!?!? I dunno Morty. Maybe I hate myself. Maybe I think I deserve to die. I dunno.”
Rick is practically omnipotent, with the power to invent, transform and destroy his way into getting whatever he wants. Yet despite all that power, he’s miserable. On the other hand, there’s Jerry, who’s a little bit dumb and a lot a bit discombobulated. Jerry operates best when he doesn’t have to think too much because when he does, he generally makes things worse. “Hi, honey, so, here’s the thing-these guys-they want to completely remove my penis and use it as an alien’s heart, and we just need you to sign off on it.” “WHAT!?!” “Uh-oh, maybe we have a problem here after all guys. Yikes.”
But even when he’s down in the deepest of dumps, he doesn’t seem to suffer to the same degree that Rick does. Jerry may not have street smarts or be able to hold down a job, but he’s also not hitting the bottle or questioning his place in the universe. And his bar for happiness seems… low. So is it better to be a Rick or a Jerry? First, let’s look at Rick. His inner turmoil leaks out in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways, like his famous catchphrase “Morty, do you know what wubblubbdubdub means?” “That’s just Rick’s stupid nonsense catchphrase.” “It’s not nonsense at all. In my people’s tongue it means I am in great pain, please help me,” and, obviously, that way-too-real suicide attempt in season 2. But is it because he’s smart?
The stereotype of the tortured genius is so deeply woven into pop culture that we should wonder whether it’s overblown Hollywood BS. The roster of famous folks from history who’ve suffered from crushing depression and the attention given to the brilliance-madness link by the media almost makes it seem like depression is a prerequisite to success. But there are obviously plenty of brilliant people who didn’t suffer from mental illness or were otherwise “normal.” They just aren’t as sensational to write listicles about as, say, a guy who fell in love with a pigeon. So is it true? Does being a genius or even just purty smart make you destined for misery?
Well, maybe. One study [Dr Ruth Karpinski, 2017] asked 3,700 Mensa members – or people who are so proud of their IQ scores that they joined an organization to brag about it – if they were currently dealing with mental illness. More than a third said they were depressed. To put that in context, that’s 5x the national average. If you rounded up 100 Mensa members and 100 regular people, about 6 to 7 of those regular people would probably be depressed, while more than 30 of the Mensa members would be. A few caveats: the Mensa members were asked to self-report on their own well-being here. Of those who reported feeling depressed, roughly 10 percent didn’t have a doctor tell them that they actually had depression. As anyone who spends way too much time Googling symptoms knows, the art of self-diagnosis is far from perfect. Plus, are these Mensans representative of all smart people? Probably not.
Still, there might be a biological basis for why highly intelligent people are prone to depression. Karpinski, who ran the Mensa study, asserted that people with IQs of 130-plus have “hyper brains” – that is, they can comprehend the world’s problems, uncertainties and possibilities more easily than people with non-hyper-brains. The whole hyper brain idea was based on the work of psychiatrist Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski, who noticed his exceptionally smart patients had a tendency to overly contemplate everything, especially the bad stuff. At times, they also seemed to experience deeper depression compared to the intellectually average. These traits were part of a group of characteristics that he called “overexcitability.”
He didn’t see it as a bad thing – instead, he thought it was predictive of the potential for being able to achieve the most ideal version of oneself. In 1972 he wrote: “One who manifests several forms of overexcitability sees reality in a different, stronger and more excitable manner.” [Psychoneurosis is not an illness], Dabrowski said that overexcitabilities come in five flavors: excessive energy or nervousness, deep appreciation for things like art or music, being extremely curious or having an active mind, having a vivid imagination, and finally, extreme and complex emotional experiences. Rick is a textbook example of all of these things.
He’s still slaying aliens on the reg at 70 years old, freestyles award-winning tracks on a whim, “You gotta get schwifty. You gotta get schwifty in here,” ok, maybe that’s not “appreciation,” but still can be just a tiiiny bit overanalytical is capable of thinking up and inventing entire worlds. “A dad makes a toilet look like R2D2 and breaks the front page of Reddit, but I’m charles manson because I gave you your own world instead of an iPad.” And has seriously complicated feelings for his family. “What is your problem?” “Oh, I had all my problems removed my entitlement, my narcissism, my crippling loneliness, my irrational attachments. They must be somewhere. They ain’t over here, bro.”
While it hasn’t been tested scientifically, some psychologists believe that people who think this way are more prone to what’s called existential depression. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Feelings of hopelessness that come from wondering whether life is ultimately meaningless. Dr. James Webb, a psychologist who studies gifted kids, notes that while existential depression can happen to anybody following a crisis, it’s more likely to happen spontaneously to people whose intelligence is above-average. Rick never comes out and says he’s crushed beneath the weight of a futile existence, but he certainly comes close. “Am I evil?” “Worse. You’re smart. When you know nothing matters, the universe is yours. And I’ve never met a universe that was into it. The universe is basically an animal. It grazes on the ordinary. It creates infinite idiots just to eat them, not unlike your friend Timmy.” “Tommy.” “Yeah, it hardly matters now, sweetie. You know, smart people get a chance to climb on top, take reality for a ride, but it’ll never stop trying to throw you. And, eventually, it will. There’s no other way off.”
On top of that, he’s bored senseless. Virtually nothing in our own mundane world impresses him, but his intellectual prowess and imagination enable him to find temporary reprieve from boredom by way of his portal gun- aided adventures. Oh, and alcohol. Contrast this with Jerry. Jerry possesses none of the traits psychologists associated with hyper brain, unless you count getting super stoked about rare coins, “There’s little R2-D2s where the George Washington’s should be,” dumb mobile games, or the Titanic. So does that mean he’s inherently happier?
But before we get there, real-life Helen here for a second. I wanna take a second to talk about this video’s sponsor, Betterhelp- an online counseling service. For those of you who saw our Bo Burnham video, you know Jared gave em a whirl and dug it. Knowing I, like many people, might be able to benefit from talking to someone on a regular basis, he suggested I give them a try too. So I did. Stick around til the end of the video to hear more about my experience. In the meantime, go to http://Betterhelp.com/wisecrack1 to learn more…now back to Jerry.
Ok, so does Jerry’s Jerriness mean he’s happier? Nope. But – it’s complicated. While some studies may suggest that being smart makes you more likely to be depressed, others suggest that intelligence gives you the ability to be able to unlock a lot of amazing doors in life that will make you healthier, and sometimes happier. Specifically: money. As pretty much all of the studies on IQ and depression point out, being smarter is associated with greater wealth and, therefore, better health. Though sometimes it gets hard to distinguish what causes what — among the zillions of criticisms of IQ tests is that kids who come from well-off families are more likely to be tested in the first place.
That being said, the relationship between achievement, money and intelligence throws a wrench in the idea that genius equals misery: in some studies, having a higher IQ has actually been associated with greater happiness. One study by researchers from the UK looked at more than 6800 people and found that IQ was positively correlated with self-reported happiness. Genius has long been associated with eccentricity and few geniuses, fictional or otherwise, can live up to the eccentricity of Rick Sanchez. It’s safe to say Rick has a tendency to, uh, overwhelm people with his intensity.
Some researchers have said this is a hallmark of people with high IQs. But these eccentricities may freak out the normal-minded people around them, leaving them socially isolated. Trying to roll with the normies requires minimizing that intensity, which can lead to a so-called “crisis of self,” where conformity makes people feel lost and confused about who they really are. One could argue that Rick’s in a perpetual crisis of self. On Earth he’s forever an oddball, and while that doesn’t seem to concern him too much. “Belch.” It does mean he has to compromise his nature for the sake of his relationship with his family, like when he finally shows up to therapy. “I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining and cleaning is…it’s not an adventure.”
Yet just because Jerry isn’t an eccentric genius doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own problems fitting in. He’s seriously lacking in social skills, “Jerry, get a job, Jerry don’t network at an alien wedding,” survival skills, “I’m not proud to share this, but the truth is I just kept crawling and it kept working,” …or skills of any kind, really. He’s most successful in a career where he doesn’t even know what he does, “I tell ya, the Galactic Federation taking over Earth — best thing that’s ever happened to this family. I just got my sixth promotion this week, and I still don’t know what I do,” and is otherwise so utterly incompetent that he has to beg his kids for money, “Oh God, dad please don’t.” “I just need a few hundred dollars to get through the month. I’ve got a some interviews coming up. Something’s gonna come through. I can feel it.”
Ultimately, as Rick points out after the Whirly Dirly fiasco, the only reason Jerry’s able to get by is because everyone feels sorry for him. “You act like prey, but you’re a predator! You use pity to lure in your victims! That’s how you survive! I survive because I know everything. That snakes survives because children wander off, and you survive because people think, “Oh, this poor piece of [bleep]. He never gets a break. I can’t stand the deafening silent wails of his wilting soul. I guess I’ll hire him or marry him.”
Rick gets his way by intimidating people, while Jerry relies on their mercy. So, let’s recap: Some research suggests that the “hyper brains” of highly intelligent people makes them more prone to depression, mainly because they see the world in a different way and are more intense than your average homo sapien, which is kind of a turnoff to the average Joes. But at the same time, the fact that they can leverage their smarts for high-paying jobs that enable them to avoid the stresses of poverty and afford better healthcare means that as a group, they’re more likely to be happier overall. To our original question: Is it really better to know the worst and be unhappy than to be happy in a fool’s paradise; to be a Rick rather than a Jerry?
Research says…well, that’s a f***ing subjective-ass question, and frankly, psychology doesn’t have a concrete answer. THANKS PSYCHOLOGY. But the limited evidence that IS out there suggests that while you might be less likely to suffer from existential depression as a Jerry, you’re more likely to live a better life overall as a Rick. But which would you rather be, Wisecrack? Drop us a line in the comments below and thanks for watching!
Alright guys thanks for sticking around. So this video is sponsored by the online counseling service, Betterhelp. We’ve talked about them before, and they wound up sponsoring this video too. BetterHelp takes an inventory of what you’re looking for in therapy and matches you with a licensed counselor within 24 hours. I’m a full-time journalist who freelances for companies like Wisecrack on the side, so it’s really hard for me to commit to a set time for therapy every week. My BetterHelp therapist was extremely patient and understanding about my crazy schedule. She was also really accessible and responsive. One of the best parts about BetterHelp is that you don’t HAVE to talk to your therapist over video conferencing if you don’t want to. Counselors are also available over the phone, messaging and live chat. You can talk to them from your garage or bed or just WHEREVER – and it’s all completely confidential. We all KNOW we should make mental health a priority, but getting over the stigma or just finding the time can be super challenging. So if you’ve been thinking about talking to a therapist, consider checking out BetterHelp at betterhelp.com/wisecrack1 or click the link in the description below.