Misconceptions, urban legends, old wives’ tales… We are all armchair psychologists. We know everything there is to know about brain development, human sexuality, parenting, addiction, intelligence testing, crime, education, mental disorders, memory improvement, stress relief and bevy of other human interest topics…

The Popular Psychology has become a sort of  industry in itself.

In 2009, Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein assembled a compendium of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, then proceeded to dispel each and every one of them. Their book was a triumph of evidence and reason.

You’ve almost certainly “learned” a host of […] “facts” from the popular psychology industry. This industry encompasses a sprawling network of sources of everyday information about human behavior, including television shows, radio call-in programs, Hollywood movies, self-help books, newsstand magazines, newspaper tabloids and Internet sites. For example, the popular psychology industry tells us that:502

Psychomythology. All of the above. And below, too.

1. We Only Use 10 Percent Of Our Brain Power.a2

This I wanted to believe, hoping to bump up my brain usage by a few percentage points.

a1Oh if only it were true… If we found a way to unlock and unleash the remaining 90%, we could figure out the solution to that pesky problem at work, or become a math genius, or develop telekinetic powers!

But it’s not true. Metabolically speaking, the brain is an expensive tissue to maintain, hogging as much as 20% of our resting caloric expenditure, despite constituting a mere 2% of the average human’s body weight.

“It’s implausible that evolution would have permitted the squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ,” Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld wrote.

The myth likely stems back to American psychologist William James, who once espoused the idea that the average person rarely achieves more than 10% of their intellectual potential. Over the years, self-help gurus and hucksters looking to make a buck morphed that notion into the idea that 90% of our brain is dormant and locked away. They have the key, of course, and you can buy it for a pittance!

2. Subliminal Advertising Works.a2

It’s one of the great conspiracies of the television era: that advertisers and influencers are flashing subtle messages across our screens — sometimes lasting as little as 1/3000th of a second — and altering how we think and act, as well as what we buy.

Rest assured, however, these advertisements don’t work. Your unconscious mind is safe. In a great many carefully controlled laboratory trials, subliminal messages did not affect subjects’ consumer choices or voting preferences. When tested in the real world, subliminal messaging failed just as spectacularly. In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation informed its viewers that they were going to test a subliminal advertisement during a Sunday night show. They then flashed the words “phone now” 352 times throughout the program. Records from telephone companies were examined, with no upsurge in phone calls whatsoever.

The dearth of evidence for subliminal advertising hasn’t stopped influencers from trying it. In 2000, a Republican ad aimed at Vice President Al Gore briefly flashed the word “RATS.”

3. There’s An Autism Epidemic.dsm

Autism is a “disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior.”

Prior to the 1990s, the prevalence of autism in the United States was estimated at 1 in 2,500. In 2007, that rate was 1 in 150. In March, the CDC announced new, startling numbers: 1 in 68. What’s going on?

The meteoric rise in diagnoses has prompted many to cry “epidemic!” Fearful, they look for a reason, and often latch onto vaccines.

But vaccines are not the cause. The most likely explanation is far less frightening.

Over the past decades, the diagnostic criteria for autism have been significantly loosened. Each of the last three major revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM) has made it much easier for psychiatrists to diagnose the disorder. When a 2005 study conducted in England tracked autism cases between 1992 and 1998 using identical diagnostic criteria, the rates didn’t budge.

4. Shock Therapy Is A Brutal Treatment.

a2This I believed, you know, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…

When you think of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), what comes to mind? Do you picture a straight-jacketed individual being bound to a table against his will, electrodes attached to his skull, and then convulsing brutally on a table as electricity courses through his body?

According to surveys, most people view ECT as a barbaric relic of psychiatry’s medieval past. And while ECT may once have been a violent process, it hasn’t been like that for over five decades. Yes, it is still in use today.

“Nowadays, patients who receive ECT… first receive a general anesthetic, a muscle relaxant, and occasionally a substance to prevent salivation,” Lilienfeld described. “Then, a physician places electrodes on the patient’s head… and delivers an electric shock. This shock induces a seizure lasting 45 to 60 seconds, although the anesthetic… and muscle relaxant inhibit the patient’s movements…”

There’s no scientific consensus on why ECT works, but the majority of controlled studies show that — for severe depression — it does. Indeed, a 1999 study found that an overwhelming 91% of people who’d received ECT viewed it positively.

5. Opposites Attract.

This I believed… 

The union between two electrical charges, one positive and one negative, is the quintessential love story in physics. Opposites attract!

But the same cannot be said for a flaming liberal and a rabid conservative. Or an exercise aficionado and a professional sloth. People are not electrical charges.

Though Hollywood loves to perpetuate the idea that we are romantically attracted to people who differ from us, in practice, this is not the case.

“Indeed, dozens of studies demonstrate that people with similar personality traits are more likely to be attracted to each other than people with dissimilar personality traits,” Lilienfeld wrote. “The same rule applies to friendships.”

6. Lie Detector Tests Are Accurate.

Those who operate polygraph — “Lie Detector” — tests often boast that they are 99% accurate. The reality is that nobody, not even a machine, can accurately tell when somebody is lying.

Lie detector tests operate under the assumption that telltale physiological signs reveal when people aren’t telling the truth. Thus, polygraphs measure indicators like skin conductance, blood pressure, and respiration. When these signs spike out of the test-taker’s normal range in response to a question, the operator interprets that a lie has been told.

But such physiological reactions are not universal. Moreover, when one learns to control factors like perspiration and heart rate, one can easily pass a lie detector test.

7. Dreams Possess Symbolic Meaning.


Do you ever dream about hair-cutting, tooth loss, or beheading? You’re probably worried about castration, at least according to Sigmund Freud.

About 43% of Americans believe that dreams reflect unconscious desires. Over half agree that dreams can unveil hidden truths. Admittedly, dreaming mostly remains an enigma to science, but the act is almost certainly not a crystal ball of the unconscious mind.

Instead, the theory that has garnered the most scientific support goes a little something like this: Dreaming is the jumbled representation of our brain’s actions to assort and cobble together information and experience, like a file-sorting system. Thus, as Lilienfeld says, dream interpretation would be “haphazard at best.”

“Rather than relying on a dream dictionary to foretell the future or help you make life decisions, it would probably be wisest to weigh the pros and cons of differing courses of action carefully, and consult trusted friends and advisers.”

8. Our Memory Is Like A Recorder.


No, it isn’t. I knew this one, our memory is a Kluge of evolution.

About 36% of Americans believe that our brains perfectly preserve past experiences in the form of memories. This is decidedly not the case.

“Today, there’s broad consensus among psychologists that memory isn’t reproductive — it doesn’t duplicate precisely what we’ve experienced — but reconstructive. What we recall is often a blurry mixture of accurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs, needs, emotions, and hunches,” Lilienfeld wrote.

Our memory is glaringly fallible, and this is problematic, particularly in the courtroom. Eyewitness testimony has led to the false convictions of a great many innocent people.

9. Mozart Will Make Your Baby A Genius.

babyIn 1993, a study published in Nature found that college students who listened to a mere ten seconds of a Mozart sonata were endowed with augmented spatial reasoning skills. The news media ran wild with it. Lost in translation was the fact that the effects were fleeting. But it was too late. The “Mozart Effect” was born.

Since then, millions of copies of Mozart CDs marketed to boost intelligence have been sold. The state of Georgia even passed a bill to allow every newborn to receive a free cassette or CD of Mozart’s music.

More recent studies which attempted to replicate the original study have failed or found minuscule effects. They’ve also pointed to a much more likely explanation for the original findings: short-term arousal.

Anything that heightens alertness is likely to increase performance on mentally demanding tasks, but it’s unlikely to produce long-term effects on spatial ability or, for that matter, overall intelligence,” Lilienfeld explained. “So listening to Mozart’s music may not be needed to boost our performance; drinking a glass of lemonade or cup of coffee may do the trick.”

10. Left-Brained And Right-Brained.brain left right

Not only did I believe it until now, I virtually flaunted my “right-brainedness” and “left-brainlessness.”

Some people are left-brained and others are right-brained. Those that use their left hemisphere are more analytical and logical, while those that use their right hemisphere are more creative and artistic.

Except that’s not how the brain works.

Yes, certain regions of the brain are specialized and tailored to fulfill certain tasks, but the brain doesn’t handicap itself by predominantly using one side or the other — both hemispheres are used just about equally.

The left-brain/right-brain myth was rampant for decades and perpetuated by New Age thinkers, but the rise of functional MRI has granted us a firsthand look at brain activity. According to Scott Lilienfeld, It’s showing us just the opposite: The two hemispheres are much more similar than different in their functions.

*   *   *

In the Postscript to the book, authors included this quote from Carl Sagan:502

And in praise of the book:


Some of the material re-posted from the article in the Real Clear Science.


2 comments on “Psychomythology

  1. Enjoyed reading these ten myths and wish that everyone would read and BELIEVE them. I’m amazed and dismayed by the people who tell me that they aren’t going to vaccinate their babies, and these are often the same folks who declare that their memories are perfect. My favorite myth is the one about opposites attracting. How can people continue to believe that when evidence to the contrary is so strong? Great post!

  2. I have a friend who is adamant about often commenting on my posts but never living actual comments on the blog page. Here what he had to say, and I quote:

    “…another source of the risible ‘10% of our brain’ canard is that glial cells outnumber neurons about 10-1, hence we’re ‘only using 10%’ of the total brain mass. Where’s the gulag for bad conceptualization when we need it? see … BTW, the 10% myth is responsible for most of the idiocy in that awful film INCEPTION that for some reason people seemed to actually like.”

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