In this book, you’ll encounter 50 myths that are commonplace in the world of popular psychology. These myths span much of the broad landscape of modern psychology: brain functioning, perception, development, memory, intelligence, learning, altered states of consciousness, emotion, interpersonal behavior, personality, mental illness, the courtroom, and psychotherapy. You’ll learn about the psychological and societal origins of each myth, discover how each myth has shaped society’s popular thinking about human behavior, and find out what scientific research has to say about each myth. At the end of each chapter, we’ll provide you with a list of additional psychological myths to explore in each domain. In the book’s postscript, we’ll offer a list of fascinating findings that may appear to be fictional, but that are actually factual, to remind you that genuine psychology is often even more remarkable—and difficult to believe—than psychomythology.
Debunking myths comes with its share of risks (Chew, 2004; Landau & Bavaria, 2003). Psychologist Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues (Schwarz, Sanna, Skurnik, & Yoon, 2007; Skurnik, Yoon, Park, & Schwarz, 2005) showed that correcting a misconception, such as “The side effects of a flu vaccine are often worse than the flu itself,” can sometimes backfire by leading people to be more likely to believe this misconception later. That’s because people often remember the statement itself but not its “negation tag”—that is, the little yellow sticky note in our heads that says “that claim is wrong.” Schwarz’s work reminds us that merely memorizing a list of misconceptions isn’t enough: It’s crucial to understand the reasons underlying each misconception. His work also suggests that it’s essential for us to understand not merely what’s false, but also what’s true. Linking up a misconception with the truth is the best means of debunking that misconception (Schwarz et al., 2007). That’s why we’ll spend a few pages explaining not only why each of these 50 myths is wrong, but also how each of these 50 myths imparts an underlying truth about psychology.
Fortunately, there’s at least some reason to be optimistic. Research shows that psychology students’ acceptance of psychological miscon ceptions, like “people use only 10% of their brain’s capacity,” declines with the total number of psychology classes they’ve taken (Standing & Huber, 2003). This same study also showed that acceptance of these misconceptions is lower among psychology majors than non-majors. Although such research is only correlational—we’ve already learned that correlation doesn’t always mean causation—it gives us at least a glimmer of hope that education can reduce people’s beliefs in psychomythology. What’s more, recent controlled research suggests that explicitly refuting psychological misconceptions in introductory psychology lectures or readings can lead to large—up to 53.7%—decreases in the levels of these misconceptions (Kowalski & Taylor, in press).
If we’ve succeeded in our mission, you should emerge from this book not only with a higher “Psychology IQ,” but also a better understand ing of how to distinguish fact from fiction in popular psychology. Per haps most important, you should emerge with the critical thinking tools needed to better evaluate psychological claims in everyday life.
As the paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould (1996) pointed out, “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question” (p. 57). In this book, we’ll encourage you to never accept psychological stories on faith alone, and to always scrutinize and question the psychological stories you think you know best.
So without further ado, let’s enter the surprising and often fascinating world of psychomythology.