Are you a Believer of Psychological Myths?
If I were to tell you:
- People only use ten percent of their brainpower,
- Most people experience a midlife crisis in their 40’s or 50’s,
- Memory works like a tape recorder, accurately recording events we experienced,
- The defining feature of dyslexia is reversing letters,
- Only deeply depressed people commit suicide, and
- It is better to express anger to others than it is to hold onto it.
Would you believe me? I sure hope not. These are just a few of the many common psychological myths often taken as truth. Sadly, the majority of our population would argue these to be true. Why do we believe such myths?
It has nothing to do with how smart you are; in fact, many people in my industry often promote such myths. Intelligence does not make us immune to psychological myths. George Kelly dubbed the term “Armchair psychology,” which is where people want to understand why friends, family, or acquaintances are the way they are, or behave certain ways. Since psychology is part of our everyday lives, this need to understand makes sense. Unfortunately, most people rely on faith alone instead of scientific thinking skills to assess whether something is a psychological falsehood or not. According to Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein (2010), our brains are designed to understand the world, not to understand itself.
If you want to be immune to the many common psychological myths out there, then you can not rely on intuition alone. The psychological falsehoods can be harmful in our legal systems, family systems, schools, relationships, work, parenting, and much more. If knowledge is power then power up my friends!
Lilienfeld, et al., (2010) discuss several areas that can trap us into believing these psychological falsehoods. Let’s dig into a few. One area is word of mouth. Just because we hear something over and over again does not mean it is true. Familiarity can lead us to accept something as truth just because we have heard it several times. Hearing is not believing, yet studies show if we hear something ten or more times, we see it as truth.
Another example is our desire for a quick fix or easy answers: pop psychology and advertising prey on our desires for rapid behavior change. Our yearnings for rapid weight loss, optimal performance academically and physically, positive relationships, or a slew of other quick-fix promises create us to want to believe what we are being sold. The truth is that behavior change takes time and work. If it is too good to be true, more than likely it is.
Next, let’s discuss selective perception and memory. The phrase our perception is our reality holds true in this case. We all see through distortions and experiences that are muddled with biases or expectations. This leads us to the perfect cocktail of interpreting the world through our preexisting beliefs or cognitive biases. People often focus on areas that support their beliefs rather than challenge their opinions, which leads to illusory correlation. This phenomenon occurs when people associate events where research indicates otherwise.
Equally important is the area of inferring causation from correlation. The authors of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, give a perfect example surrounding physical abuse to explain correlation does not explain causation. There have been numerous studies indicating that if a person was physically abused in childhood that the likelihood they will be aggressive in adulthood is increased. However, there is a third variable, such as genetics, which was not factored into most of the studies. If there is a third factor there can be numerous others.
Another example where we can get trapped into believing psychological myths are, exposure to a biased sample. A very personal example of a biased sample, I see often is surrounding mainstream media and people with disabilities (PWD). Movies, the socials, and other forms of media portray PWD who do every day ordinary things such as work, or sports, as inspiring or heroic. As if PWD must be devasted because they are differently-abled. Sadly, this type of skewed media portrays PWD as victims; whereas, most PWD see themselves as typical people living a normal everyday life.
The aforementioned are just a few examples of how we can trick ourselves into believing things to be true, which are not. Although our intuitions can be helpful, the armchair psychologist of the world must rely on rigorous research methods when dealing with the psychology of things. Now back to the research surrounding some of these myths:
- Myth – People only use ten percent of their brainpower. Fact – Research shows that even the simplest of tasks can require the use of our entire brain.
- Myth – Most people experience a midlife crisis in their 40’s or 50’s. Fact -Research shows that most people in this age group express feelings of being in more control and have a greater sense of well-being.
- Myth -Memory works like a tape recorder accurately recording events we experienced. Fact-Research shows our memories can often be untrustworthy. Our memories of specific events can wither over time and become distorted. We often reconstruct our past to fit our schematic expectations.
- Myth -The defining feature of dyslexia is reversing letters. Fact – Dyslexia is a learning disability where people have difficulty processing written language despite having an overall higher intellectual ability.
- Myth – Only deeply depressed people commit suicide. Fact – Although, people with major depressive disorder have an increased risk of suicide. Research teaches us that only 13 to 41 percent of people who commit suicide would not meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression. Often, other factors or mental disorders play a role. Hopelessness plays a higher role than the depression itself with regard to suicide.
- Myth – It’s better to express anger to others than it is to hold onto it. Fact – Research indicates expressing anger directly or indirectly at another increases aggression rather than letting it go. Although we get a cathartic feeling immediately after expressing anger, the only time this is helpful is when it is accompanied by problem-solving the source of the anger.
But do not take my word for it, do your research 🙂
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Lilienfeld, Scott O.. (2010) 50 great myths of popular psychology :shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior Chichester, West Sussex ; Wiley-Blackwell,