50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology Review

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“50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology” is a non-technical presentation of alleged misconceptions many people (I was going to say laypeople, but actually a fair number of people who arguably should know better) have about matters of psychology, the brain, human behavior, etc.  Fifty are discussed at length, with another few hundred dismissed in a sentence or so in lists at the end of the chapters.

For the most part, this is a useful, well reasoned, well written collection.

I do think at times, though, the authors are straining a bit to draw stronger contrasts between the fallacies and their corrections than are warranted.  They’ll trumpet the fact that some poll claimed 35% of people believe such-and-such, but even if we take that at face value, that means there are 65% that don’t believe it.  Some of the claims are quite vague and open to interpretation, so it’s further possible that what some of the 35% really believe isn’t even the fallacy the authors are assessing.

The refutation of some of the claims is shaky as well.  In some cases they can cite only one or some very small number of studies where the claim, or something like it, was tested and failed, for instance maybe one experiment in an introductory psych class.  A small amount of relevant evidence, granted, but hardly conclusive.

They also sometimes put a more literal or absolutist spin on a claim to make it more easily disprovable.  For instance they regard as a myth the notion that old people are “unable to acquire new skills or are befuddled by modern gadgets.”  (They cite a study of beginning psychology students wherein 21% affirmed that “older people have great difficulty learning new skills,” illustrating my earlier point that they have quite low standards for what constitutes a widely held belief.)

Against this “myth” they assert that “But many older people aren’t intimidated by computers, iPhones, and other ‘newfangled devices,’ and have the inclination and time to master and appreciate them.”

Well sure.  Because you’re using the weasel word “many.”  But does that really contradict the myth?  Only if the myth were the bizarrely extreme claim that no or very few old people ever are comfortable with new technology.  But surely a more reasonable interpretation of it would be that compared to the rest of the population, old people are disproportionately likely to be averse to or confused by new technology, which is quite consistent with “many” of them being technophiles, and thus not refuted by it.

They make a very similar point about how it’s a myth that old people don’t have sex or don’t have sexual desire.  Again, I don’t think the belief is really that zero old people have sex or want to.  I think it’s that sexual desire diminishes somewhat for the average person as they age, and that you don’t have sex as often in your 70s as you did in your 20s.  Nothing the authors cite succeeds in establishing that that’s a myth.

It’s interesting how frequently the authors cite the media and the entertainment industry’s role in spreading false beliefs and dubious attitudes.  We’re most used to hearing that case made when it comes to, say, racial stereotyping.  But the phenomenon does indeed affect many, many other areas of life.

If you think about it, how would any of these myths spread so widely if there weren’t lots of people with access to mass audiences repeating them?  There are countless such people and institutions with agendas other than the pursuit and dissemination of truth.  Generally they’re operating with commercial motives, such as selling newspapers and magazines by telling a good story that fits with what people want to read, or constructing self-help seminars, therapy, and books such that people will be most willing to fork over their money for them.

There really weren’t many surprises in the book, which was something of a surprise in itself.  There were a few things where maybe I leaned toward believing what they identify as a myth, but really very few where I clearly believed it and this book set me straight.

If anything I was struck by how many of these I’d already heard refuted one time or another in my life.

But anyway, let me toss out a few more specifics from the book, along with my reactions.  These are just a few examples that happened to get my attention that I made note of along the way.

* The authors claim that the evidence does not support the notion that old people are able to “hold on” for major events, like their 90th or 100th birthday, or the wedding of their grandchild, or the inauguration of a president.  They say that deaths are not more likely to occur just after rather than just before such events.  That’s one where I’d found the myth plausible and did assume there was probably some truth to it.

* They label as a myth the belief that a large percentage of the elderly live in nursing homes, when in fact “Only 7-8% of adults aged 75 or older live in nursing homes.”

Granted, that percentage is lower than I would have guessed, but I also think they’re being a little misleading here.  “Nursing home” is a technical term that can be distinguished from “assisted living facility” and other residences for old people who no longer live on their own.  Probably the people who believe this “myth” have in mind all the different flavors of “old folks homes” cumulatively, not just nursing homes in the narrow sense.  And that percentage is a lot higher than 7-8%, though it may still be less than people think.

* The authors claim that women are no better than men at inferring feelings from body language and tone of voice and such, that they’re really no more in tune with that stuff than men are.  That surprised me a little bit.  When I think about my male friends, actually they probably are at least as perceptive about emotions and at least as able to read people as women are, but I guess I’d always thought that they, and I, were unusual in that respect, that on average women really are at least a little more aware of the emotional side of human interaction.  Evidently not.

Then again, I’m not sure the authors are even consistent on this point.  On page 133, we find:

“Studies show that women are no better at guessing the feelings of others than are men.”

Then on page 146 comes:

“Are women much more perceptive of nonverbal cues than men?  Here, the answer is somewhat clearer, and it’s a qualified ‘yes.’”

OK, maybe those aren’t directly contradictory, but taken together they do leave me a little confused as to whether I’m supposed to believe women are (slightly) more attuned to the non-verbally expressed emotions of others or not.

* I remember being told as long ago as elementary school that suicide is most common during the holidays, and that always made perfect sense to me.  People who don’t have the Norman Rockwell family thing going at Christmas are brought face to face with how far their life falls short of the ideal, so I would think that’s a time of great sadness and disappointment for many people.

But no, according to the book it’s a myth.  Suicides are not more common around holidays.

* A few of these supposedly common myths I’ve never even heard of.  Like the notion that vision occurs by way of some sort of emissions from the eye that get information from an object and bounce back to you or something.  Really?  This is a widespread assumption?  I don’t remember ever encountering this idea.

* The authors label as a myth the admonition of old time fight trainers and athletic coaches that athletes should avoid sex while in training, on the grounds that after all, it burns so few calories that it surely can’t exhaust the athlete.

Um, no.  That’s completely missing the point.  Trainers aren’t making a biological claim about how many calories sex burns.  They’re making a psychological point about staying on edge, hungry, unsatisfied and maybe a little mean.

* The authors claim it is a myth that psychopaths don’t respond to treatment, that in fact they respond to treatment about as well as psychiatric patients suffering from other major mental illnesses.

Which is still not all that well, I suppose, but that point brought to mind Dave Cullen’s “Columbine” that I read last year.  As I recall, Cullen labeled Eric Harris as clearly a psychopath and Dylan Klebold as having psychopathic tendencies at least, and he expressed just this claim that psychopaths are beyond change, that they’re wired in a way that they’ll never be able to function morally and emotionally like non-psychopaths.

At least if this book is to be believed, Cullen is wrong.

* One of the claims from the book that surprised me, and actually one that I’m not quite ready to go along with, is that it’s a myth that people need less sleep as they get older.  In fact, they imply that older people need more sleep, to make up for the fact that they tend not to sleep as deeply and to wake up more during the night.

That sure doesn’t fit my experience.  I average probably at least an hour less sleep per night now than when I was younger.  It’s true that my energy is sometimes low, and that I’m especially apt to feel drowsy in the early afternoon before I get my second wind, but that’s the way I was as a young adult too, when I was sleeping a lot more.  I’ve always been in a daze a certain percentage of my waking hours.  (Far more so during the day than the night; I’m totally a night person.)  I don’t think I show evidence of being more sleep deprived today.

And it’s my impression from what little I’ve talked to people about this that others too tend to get by on less sleep as they get older.

* One of the places where I can take issue with the authors’ logic is in their attempted debunking of the notion that if you’re unsure of an answer on a test, you should go with your first instinct and not change your mind.

They explicitly note that the proponents of this theory specify that it only applies when you’re genuinely uncertain consciously, not when you suddenly remember the answer or otherwise realize you made a mistake.  Yet their evidence against it are studies of tests with erasure marks indicating an answer was changed.  They say the changes helped equally or more often than they hurt.

Ah, but that’s ignoring the point about why people changed those answers.  A certain percentage of them, one assumes, are instances where a person was on the wrong line of the answer sheet for one or more answers, realized it, and doubled back to erase those and get them back in sync with the questions.  Others are where the person did later remember the answer, perhaps in part through prompting from later questions, and went back and changed the answer sheet.

If you excluded those, which you really can’t given the nature of the studies, then I doubt it’s the case that changing your answer is as likely to help as hurt you.  Or at least these studies don’t establish that.

* Finally, possibly the most intriguing psychological claim in the book is that individuals tend to have a certain approximate level of happiness, and though life events can take them above or below that temporarily, they tend to pretty quickly revert to that same level.

So a kind of glum, morose person has probably always been that way and always will, and a cheerful, optimistic, contented person has probably always been that way and always will.  In both cases there can be exceptions above or below their usual moods for a few weeks or months after they win a million dollars in the lottery or their spouse is murdered, but then they settle back at their usual level.

Whatever good or bad happens to them, whatever circumstances they find themselves in, whatever successes and failures they experience, they don’t become permanently happier or unhappier, but typically find their way back to their norm.

I’m not sure what to think about that.  It’s sad in a way.  I want to think I can be happier, that people can be happier.  I want to believe that through maturity and greater wisdom, through placing oneself in healthier situations with healthy people, or even through some psychotherapy insight I suppose, people can be happier, more content, more at peace.

That’s what I want to believe, but what’s true?  I’m not sure.  It feels like I’ve had plenty of internal changes, that I haven’t remained at the same level my whole life.  But maybe it’s more that the components have changed.  I’m pretty certain my level of confidence, my temper, my hope for the future, my consciousness of stress, and various other things have differed noticeably at different stages of my life.  But when you combine all the factors, have I really been happier during some stages than others, leaving aside short term effects of key experiences?  I still want to say yes, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

In observing other people, I can bring to mind a few examples that at least to some degree seem to go against this claim, but then when I reflect on them I don’t know that I’m quite as confident.

If I really had to put forth my best case to refute this claim, I’d maybe go with a certain friend of mine.  Troubled to the point of being suicidal in college, still dissatisfied or unsettled to a significant degree for much of his adult life, since getting married (or I suppose since getting engaged), he’s seemed on a clearly higher level of happiness to me, and that’s been for several years now.

Maybe not.  Maybe deep inside his mood, his general level of happiness, is really about the same today as ten or twenty years ago, and I’m just reading the evidence incorrectly.

I’m really not sure what to think about this claim.  It seems to make so much of what we do in life pointless if it’s true.

Anyway, though there are numerous things with which I can quibble about the book, on the whole it is a consistently interesting, enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

More about this author: Philo Gabriel

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