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50 Great Myths of Popular PsychologyReview - 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology
Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior
by Scott O Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, Barry L Beyerstein
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D,
Jun 22nd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 25)

Scott Lilienfeld and his team, including Lynn, have a history in delving into the dark myths of science, and pseudoscience in his books, a previous work doing just that (see my review of Science in Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology). They are back.  And this time, they begin to unpack myths that many, including most psychologists, believe and accept are fact, but there may indeed be no evidence for them.  Many, such as the idea that brain injuries produce profound sequelae, are easily recognized as false by most, but some, such as the idea that severe child abuse invariably causes lasting psychological damage, are only refuted by a careful collection of the evidence.

In any event, Lilienfeld and his crew continue their now tradition to challenging beliefs or understandings that are actually dubious at best.

There is a rich world of 'wisdom' in the public domain: spare the rod…, familiarity breeds…opposites attract, the full moon produces crazy behavior, Schizophrenia=split personality, it's better to express anger directly, we only use 10% of our brains, sexually abused kids grow up to be abusing adults, all false as far as the evidence goes, surprising some of us, perhaps not others.

The book begins by pointing out some of our perceptual distortions, the kind one sees from Escher, or the kind of error we might make from various biases, for example the availability of damaged clients we see who were abused leads us to accept that abuse leads to dysfunction or a cycle of violence, which it does not.  The fact that most people who drown do so after consuming ice cream for instance is a correlation between leisure activities and water, not confectionary and drowning.  In reality, all diets work, but are not part of our lifestyle, and so we get fat again when we return to usual habits; speed reading courses work, but at the expense of our comprehension, exceeding the 300 wpm we can scan with our eyeballs.  Mercury exposure, like ice cream consumption in drowning, precedes autism in autistic babies after inoculation, but of course it also precedes nothing in normal babies.  And of course, the appearance of shoes in European history is followed by the emergence of the first cases of Schizophrenia, leading even a researcher like Flensmark (2004) to conclude there was a link.  There are many other failures of human logic pointed out here.

Myth number one is the myth that people use only 10% of their brains, followed by the one that states that some of us are left, some right 'brained', that ESP is a proven phenomenon, that something emits from our eyes when we look, subliminal advertising works, these are the first of the many myths, some common, some not so common, that are explored.  Some very important ones are included in passing, such as the idea that areas of activation on brain scans mean that brain regions are becoming more active: in reality, it means that some brain regions are inhibiting other regions. Neanderthals actually had larger brains than we do, some people lose half their cortex in childhood and go on to function well, we lose 100 000 neurons a day, blind people develop superior senses in response to loss of sight, biofeedback is the best way to release tension, alcohol kills brain cells, we can detect alcohol on the breath, smoking marijuana for years leads to a loss of motivation, only some of these are true, can you tell which ones?  Read the book.

Chapter two is about myths of development and ageing.  Playing Mozart boosts infant's intelligence, adolescence is a time of turmoil, midlife crisis is common, the empty nest syndrome is dreadful, old age is associated with dissatisfaction and senility on the whole, older people usually have memory problems….which of these are false?  All are, actually.  For instance, over 85% of the elderly in the USA don't experience significant memory problems.  Death and dying are passed through in a typical Kibler-Ross way, right?  Wrong.  The first few minutes following birth are essential for effective mother-child bonding, right?  Wrong again. Okay, infants only bond effectively with their mothers, or father?  False, just as false as overweight children are just carrying puppy fat which will melt away as they age.

Many of the fondest myths are about memory, such as thinking there is a one to one correspondence with reality, like a videotape, and it's not just Loftus who showed these to be myths.  Chapter three covers these, such as dispelling the myths of hypnosis and recall, repression of memory, global amnesia, or that Ginkgo helps students' memory improve. Chapter four covers intelligence and learning. If you are unsure on a MCQ test, go with your first choice, right?  Read the book….okay, wrong. Dyslexia is mostly letter reversals, surely right?  Nah, easily wrong.  When teaching style is disparate from a student's learning style, this is bad for the student….surely correct?  Wrong actually.  You can be coached and improve your SAT scores dramatically, right? Wrong, maybe only 20pts. Brain size and IQ are correlated, this has to be a myth, but it isn't, and women are not worse drivers than men.  High levels of motivation will help solve a problem, right?  Actually, wrong again, this hinders creativity.

Chapter five covers myths of consciousness, such as dreams, hypnosis, out of body sensations.  Chapter six, emotions and motivation: Polygraphs, truth serum, happiness and external circumstances, ulcers and stress, positive emotions and cancer outcomes, and Chapter seven, myths about interpersonal behavior.  Opposites do not attract, there isn't safety in numbers (Kitty Genovese. Deletha Word revisited), Men are from Mars (?), it's better to express anger, all dealt with.

Personality myths are dealt with in Chapter eight, raising children together predicts personality, or birth order, or heritable traits can be changed, or can't they?  My personal favorite here is the strongly held belief amongst social workers and psychologists that low self esteem is a predictor or factor of some interpersonal pathology…..is it or isn't it?  Sexual abuse in childhood builds resilience, rather than resulting invariably in pathology….yes? Actually, yes.  The myth of childhood fragility runs counter to the scientific evidence, a problem for specialists resulting from the availability heuristic, namely that most of the patients we see have been abused, therefore……The fact is that most of those who do poorly, seek help, and over represent the cohort of those who were assaulted, and did not crack up later on in life and therefore, they don't seek help.  The same applies to those who present with concussion symptoms, despite no history at all of brain trauma. Inkblots and handwriting tell us a lot about personality, mostly about the personality of the person interpreting the evidence, and not much about the person.  And while they are at it, FBI profilers are really accurate in their prediction of the personality and life of the serial killer, surely? Actually, they are often wrong, and seldom do better than laypersons who try the same predictions. Look at the Beltway Sniper, predicted to be a single white man of a certain age…they were not were they? So does your handshake style correlate with your personality?  Yes, this one is true.

Chapter nine's myths about mental illness are perhaps the most compelling of the book. Labels are harmful, definitely……not.  Deeply depressed people are the ones who commit suicide, the one predicts the other, and nearly all those who carry suicide out, are depressed, this we know.  And we are wrong, hence the shock when most people do suicide…."I didn't know they were depressed": chances are, they were not at the time.  Many are suffering from panic disorder, social phobia, borderline personality disorder, gender identity disorder all play a role even in the absence of a mood disorder severe enough to predict risk. And most don't leave a note, and most do give warning of their intentions. Suicide rates are stable across Christmas holidays, and may even fall slightly.  Adolescents are at a greater risk of suicide than others….okay, I lie, its older men who are more likely.  Children of alcoholics have a distinct profile, yep,…..nope.  There has recently been an epidemic of Autism, definitely this we know, we read the papers, even President Obama mentioned this in December 2008. But the authors show how changes in diagnostic parameters, funding for school support, diagnostic substitution is a well known phenomenon. No, the full moon is not associated with higher intake into mental health units. PTSD didn't just emerge in Vietnam, or Shellshock in WWI:  It is mentioned in the Civil War.

Chapter ten looks at the courts and psychology.  Criminal profiling, despite the movies, is not that helpful at all. Criminals who use the insanity defense are seldom able to escape punishment. People who confess are often not guilty at all. Most psychopaths are not violent, and in fact, rehabilitation of criminals does work to help reduce recidivism.  Most pedophiles do not reoffend within 15 years of their first offence, or at least are not able to get away with it, so don't reoffend.  Boot camp for juveniles are unhelpful, all of these are truths, not myths, any more than a statement that there are addictive personalities, which is a myth. There are myths about psychological treatment though, in Chapter eleven. Abstinence is not necessary for successful outcomes in alcoholism, nor do people need to confront their neuroses in treatment, nor is ECT that violent or dangerous.

The book concludes with seemingly mythological statements about psychology that turn out to be true, or at least, true in the terms of scientific provability: Our brain connections placed end to end would reach the moon and back 12 times. Those with left frontal lobe strokes do better at lie detection. Pigeons can be taught to distinguish Picasso from Monet, and so on.  There are more people called Georgia in Georgia, Louis's in Louisiana, or Louisville, and so on.

So do people resemble their dogs, this is what we all wanted to know?  Well, to find out, read the book.

As with their other works, these authors manage to write well for ease of reading so many facts, and do so with their characteristic humor and cutting edge science.  There are a few cracks in their knowledge and arguments, but you have to be really nitpicking to find them and they are not important, and do not detract from what they are trying to do.

They are after all trying to make us psychologists more careful in how we divide evidence from common sense, science from popular opinion, and it's really important to do that as professionals.  The common phrase I have even heard in the courtroom setting, "everyone knows that…." or "everyone accepts that…" is important to challenge on the basis of facts, as their last book pointed out.  For instance, the idea that years of clinical experience is valuable in terms of accuracy is not borne out by research at all, and long held beliefs or untestable theories color the knowledge base of psychologists in many serious ways, and needs illumination.

This book is one such illumination, and vital reading for professionals and even laymen.

 

© 2010 Roy Sugarman

 

Roy Sugarman PhD, Director: Applied Neuroscience, Athletes' Performance


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