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Things We Know That Are Not So


Peter Lamal

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.2, March / April 2010

Conversations with people of varying backgrounds often provide many examples of the widespread and strongly held misunderstandings regarding psychology. For example, most people know that:

  1. Students learn best when teaching methods are matched to their learning styles.
  2. Persons diagnosed as schizophrenic have multiple personalities.
  3. Clinicians’ expert judgment and intuition constitute the best method for making clinical psychology decisions.

But what “most people know” is false, as Lilienfeld and colleagues demonstrate for these three myths and the forty-seven others they address in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology.

Why should we care, however, if there is widespread belief in myths about our behavior? The authors provide three reasons why we should care: Psychological myths can be harmful. For example, jurors may erroneously convict a defendant on the basis of confidently presented (but inaccurate) eyewitness testimony because the jurors believe mistakenly that memory operates like a videotape. Psychological myths can also cause indirect damage due to opportunity cost, for example by ignoring effective treatments in favor of ineffective ones. Lastly, acceptance of psychological myths can seriously hinder our critical thinking in other areas, such as genetic engineering, global warming, and crime prevention due to a “spill over” effect.

The authors describe ten causes of psychological myths after noting that all of us, including scientists, are prone to these sources of error. But scientists have also adopted a set of rules and procedures—the scientific method—designed to minimize their likelihood of committing conceptual errors that cause belief in myths. The ten causes of myths, awareness of which constitutes a “mythbusting kit,” are:

  1. Word-of-mouth
  2. Desire for easy answers and quick fixes
  3. Selective perception and memory
  4. Inferring causation from correlation
  5. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning
  6. Exposure to a biased sample
  7. Reasoning by representativeness
  8. Misleading film and media portrayals
  9. Exaggeration of a kernel of truth
  10. Terminological confusion

These causes are not listed in order of importance. They are all brought to life in the following eleven chapters that illustrate and discuss the various topics (e.g., consciousness, personality, emotion, and motivation) about which there are myriad myths. At the end of each chapter many more myths contrasted with the truth are listed. For example, the myth is that “most psychotherapists use empirically supported theories,” but the fact is that “surveys suggest that only a marked minority of therapists use empirically supported therapies for anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, and other conditions.”

A postscript describes “Ten Psycho­logical Findings that Are Difficult to Believe, but True.” One example: “Pa­tients who’ve experienced strokes in their brain’s left frontal lobes, which result in severe language loss, are better at detecting lies than are people without brain damage.” An appendix lists two pages of Web sites dealing with psychomythology, followed by sixty-three pages listing the articles and books the authors have cited.

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology is written in an engaging style and is valuable for both professionals and the general public. I highly recommend it. Readers may also be interested in what might be considered a companion volume, Lili­enfeld, Lynn, and Lohr’s Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.

Peter Lamal

Peter Lamal is emeritus professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina– Charlotte and a fellow of the division of behavior analysis of the American Psychological Association.