Was Yoda’s Advice Any Good Psychologically?

By Kyle Hill | May 6, 2014 10:00 am

109502259_c702516eee_bSomething always bothered me about Star Wars. It wasn’t Lucas’ re-editing or the three prequels damned to sci-fi hell by angry nerds—I always thought Yoda made no sense. The little green guru was supposed to be profound and insightful but what emerged from his backwards speech struck me as banal. Yoda’s lines about fear and bravery sounded less like philosophy honed by 900 years and more like the vacuous pronouncements of a life coach. On top of all that, I wasn’t sure that Yoda’s advice was even helpful. Instructing Luke to never get angry, to never fear his enemies, seemed ignorant of human nature—perhaps even psychologically harmful. So I asked a psychologist to find out if Yoda’s advice was psychologically any good.

Dr. Nakia Gordon is a professor of psychology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her research focuses on how we use emotion to navigate our lives. In an email exchange, I sent Dr. Gordon a selection of Yoda’s most famous lines from all the Star Wars films. Her responses follow the bolded dialogue from the films. (Dr. Gordon’s answers were slightly edited for grammar and length.)

***

“Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!” 

“Humans are designed to ‘seek’. We have a connection between brain areas commonly known as the ‘reward system,’ which becomes active when rewards are in the environment. Some research suggests that this system promotes exploration. Exploration promotes finding new rewards and ways of doing things. You could argue that without the (anticipatory) excitement that is paired with adventure, we (as a species) would not advance.”

“Anger… fear… aggression. The dark side are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”

“Anger, fear and aggression in the right circumstances are indeed easy to evoke. But they aid in survival. Without them, we die. So they are not useless. I think if Yoda had said revenge or other nuanced emotions that rely on complex cognitions, then perhaps his advice is warranted. Rumination is almost always unhealthy (contributing to the maintenance of both depression and PTSD) and it seems to me you need to ruminate in order to plot revenge. You would also need to ruminate to maintain any anger associated with the situation. But that anger would presumably aid you in the confrontation.”

[Is the Dark Side stronger?] “No… no… no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

“This one is interesting. Basic emotions of which anger and fear are a part of can be evoked readily. The question is whether there are easily evoked positive emotions too. People’s list of basic emotions usually includes at least one positive emotion. But that positive one is not as easily defined. Sometimes it is enjoyment, sometimes it is joy, sometimes happiness. In theory, any basic emotion should be quickly and easily evoked, but a basic positive one is elusive for researchers. Perhaps the negative emotions are as seductive to researchers as they are to Jedis.

“Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.”

“I can’t see where fear leads to anger. Fear makes people withdraw, anger makes people attack. But like I mentioned earlier, a complex cognitive emotion like hate could lead to suffering in that one has to maintain high negative affect to hate which consumes mental and physical energy.”

***

Dr. Gordon, after surveying Yoda’s advice as a whole, also had some thoughts on the emotional state of the Jedi order generally:

The first thing I thought of when you sent this request was my interpretation of Yoda as asking Jedi not to feel any emotion (which would just be bad). You need emotions to make informed decisions, and more recently, research has demonstrated that people make more cooperative decisions when they made a choice quickly and emotionally, rather than thinking “rationally” about it.

To deny emotions such as anger or excitement is to deny human nature. Perhaps human nature is exactly what Jedis don’t want to have—humans (and their fictional alien analogs) bias and bumble decisions with emotion—but feeling is critical to proper psychological functioning. I wonder if young Anakin Skywalker, dark and brooding, would have joined the dark side in the first place if he had a better system for working through his emotions than what Yoda suggested (or slaughtering a bunch of Tusken Raiders). But the intensely mindful, reserved approach does has some benefits, as Dr. Gordon also explained:

Yoda often seems to be asking for the Jedi to be in the present. In the long-term, practicing something like “mindfulness meditation” does appear to have many beneficial health effects. Mindfulness would, in theory, keep Jedi from ruminating on anger.

Overall, Yoda’s advice is too varied to consider it all good or all bad. Instructing Jedis to suppress their emotions is pretty terrible advice from a psychological standpoint—like asking humans to be Vulcans, to use another sci-fi reference. On the other hand, encouraging mindfulness, composure, and the separation of fear and anger from hate and vengefulness is advice anyone could take to heart. After all, understanding begets compassion. Jedis may fear the Sith for what they do or who they are, but hating them because of it is a moral choice perhaps leading to the Dark Side.

I came into my discussion with Dr. Gordon thinking Yoda was full of it. Perhaps more like a Jedi, I should be.

“No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Technically, you cannot do anything without trying to do it first, Yoda.

Image Credit: Yoda by Benjamin Shockley

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • Scott Spencer

    Snore….an author who lacks wisdom and completely misses the point

    • CPK

      Agree

    • Rebecca Stratosphere

      This is a psychological analysis, not an interpretive analysis of the film. Missed the point of the article, you did.

      • George Quickbooks

        Psychological analysis of how humans instinctively react not how they SHOULD react. Yoda is trying to teach Luke to deny the animal pieces of himself and transcend his humanness to become something more than he is. The Author missed the point of the movie and the character.

  • Vobluda

    “I can’t see where fear leads to anger. Fear makes people withdraw, anger makes people attack.”

    Xenophobia anyone?
    Maybe fear doesn’t lead to anger, but to hate. And if you hate, you will get angry much easier…
    I don’t want to doubt real psychologist (or wait. I do! We have to doubt everyone and everything!), but many things she said doesn’t make sence to me.

    • HenryC

      Sense, but otherwise exactly.

  • http://www.nbierma.com nbierma

    I always thought this was intentional in order to make the actions of Luke (an otherwise unremarkable character) so dramatic and redemptive in the narrative. Yoda and Obi say that Darth/Anakin is unredeemable and talking with him is emotionally dangerous. Luke brashly ignores this advice, bets on the remaining humanity of his father, and in the end it pays off. Yoda’s advice was not meant to be seen as infallible, just the reigning wisdom Luke has to overcome to redeem his father.

  • Ellen K.

    Yes, fear can lead to anger. I’m actually surprised a psychologist would say it doesn’t. Evidence of living says it does. Not always, but there is often fear behind anger.

    • CPK

      I agree.

    • Ben

      Can is not the same as will you “can” turn fear into anger. However, fear doesn’t always turn into anger, sometimes fear turns into acceptance of ones failings and encourages them to become better than they were.

    • Fnordius

      This is true, and can be seen in modern discourse. If someone lives with fear, a desire builds to strike back at the cause of the fear. Long-term fear leads to resentment at the cause of the fear, and the person experiencing fear may then lash out.

  • Jason Hinchliffe

    Well I wasted 2 minutes reading this tripe, so I’ll waste 2 minutes refuting it. Yoda’s advice is all adaptations of Bushido. Try fighting at an extremely high level and then tell me his advice is bad.

    • HenryC

      Right, it is Zen.

  • Jim Nelson

    “No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” I quit smoking with this phrase as my PC wallpaper. You smoke. You don’t smoke. There is NO trying to quit. :) Worked for me.

  • CPK

    The problem with human nature, the media, and maybe even this psychologist is embracing those feelings. Society today says it is okay and that is why I see bad manners and society decaying as a whole. The advice of Yoda is pretty sound advice and one a Jedi would have to live by. { Fictional story and characters, but nevertheless true }.

  • John Warren Goerger

    Cool

  • John Warren Goerger

    Wise and Strong of this one is.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Yoda cribbed Ambassador Kosh, whom he predated “a long time ago.”

  • http://dailygrail.com/ Red Pill Junkie

    Maybe you should have asked a Buddhist monk, instead of a Western psychologist –just sayin’…

  • Adrian Quintero

    Don´t forget… it is JUST A MOVIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • palmvos

      in 2012 390,127 british citizens identified their religion as Jedi. also, the Bible, Koran, are just books according to some.

  • Rus Archer

    ha
    because psychologists agree about everything
    maybe find one who knows something about eastern philosophies

  • Bong The Ripper

    These quotes were out of context. Fear triggers fight or flight, fight for me evokes anger. I don’t flee. So fear leads me to anger. Besides, aren’t these all situational? With its context removed everything becomes pointless to its original design and even has the effect of altering the meaning. All in all, hard for me to even read.

  • moozh

    “No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” I always felt that phrase dealt with the mental state of accepting failure.

    The idea of “try” encompasses both success and failure as a possible result. I feel like Yoda was just trying to get a young Padawan to believe in himself and the power of the Force =)

    He had seen it done. Now he had to “Do” it himself. Not “try”.

  • Jamie Rainey

    stupid you are breed you should not

    • Steve Archer

      Lol troll

  • james

    I got dazed … didn’t get any points drived at clearly … or should I say there came by a paralysis in analysis in my mind reading this! … in short, “What’s the point?!”

  • Fundamentilist

    Seems to be a humanist perspective, however metaphorically seems to read like the writings of Peter or that a Pauline influence with regard to temperance, and a productive life. II peter 1:1 Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ:
    2 Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord,
    3 According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that [pertain] unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:
    4 Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
    5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
    6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
    7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
    8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make [you that ye shall] neither [be] barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins.
    10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall

  • Ross Pomeroy

    Cool article, Phil!

    I think Yoda’s worst advice came in Episode 3:

    Yoda:
    Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who
    transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not.
    Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.

    Anakin Skywalker:
    What must I do, Master Yoda?

    Yoda:
    Train yourself to let go… of everything you fear to lose.

    He’s basically urging Anakin to be a robot. That sort of advice is a recipe for Sith-making.

    • LibertarianTexan

      Detachment would have prevented Anakin from becoming a sith. So it was good advice.

  • gngott

    It’s been said that the Jedi were modeled on the Shaolin monks. It’d be interesting to apply Yoda’s teachings against Eastern or taoist philosophy. Any takers there?

  • HenryC

    Both the author and the psychologist miss the Zen nature of Yoda’s advice. You maintain yourself in the moment, practicing doing until it is done without even thinking. Dwelling on emotion prevents the instant reactions of one in the void. The emotion prevents the fastest and best response which should be drilled into your nervous system by practice.

  • Dryhtscipe

    Not seeing how fear leads to anger?

    Never watched Fox News, then.

  • Lian Berthold

    “No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try”
    He he, this is a deep thought … Yoda is clearly a follower of the newtonian doctrine (“Do. Or do not” – only one of it is true at any moment), as opposed to a quantic one (the try, which is a mixed result of possible success and possible failure, like a wave function). :)

  • Frank Acree

    Ok the first thing EVERYONE misses with Yoda’s advice is that it is from the perspective of the essential samurai mythology. The Jedi are for all intents and purposes samurai. And much of his advice makes perfect sense from that perspective. Take it out of its context and it is meaningless.

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It has been said that you should try to make a problem as simple as possible, but not simpler. Here, that problem is finding the real science behind pop culture. But Not Simpler is a place where you can ask the questions you thought were too nerdy for real answers. The physics of video games? Sure! The chemistry of dragon breath? Why not? When you can find the realities behind your favorite fiction, and seriously nerd-out in the process, everyone wins. Simple.

About Kyle Hill

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. His work has appeared in Wired, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Popular Science, Slate, and more. He is a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera America's science and technology show TechKnow and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Find his stream of nerdery on Twitter: @Sci_Phile Email him at sciencebasedlife [at] gmail [dot] com.

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