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Sunday 1 May 2011

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology - a book review

Psychology, being a soft science, gets a lot rough press. We live in a time where the self-help industry and the modern day followers of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis have brought the study of how we think into disrepute. Thanks to the Oprah Winfrey Show, any quack seems to be able to give us advice on how our mind operates whilst everyone seems to have their own take on psychology, based on what they’ve seen, heard or experienced. However, psychology and its myriad of different disciplines is a science that deserves respect. There is a massive body of evidence taken from robust and decades long studies based on the hard neuroscience available and in accordance with the scientific model. Behavioural science has helped improve the way we teach and understand one another, and improve all sorts of rehabilitation. There is a thick and definite line that separates peer-reviewed and tested academic psychology and psychiatry from psychomythology. This book’s single purpose is to explain this to psychology students and the general public.

One would think that your average psychology student need not be concerned with psychomythology anymore than a chemistry student is concerned with alchemy or an astronomer with astrology. However, one would be mistaken, as this book regularly shows survey results that reveal psychology students are just as convinced by misconceptions about psychology as the average person. The trouble is myths about psychology are a mixture of information that seems intuitive and is probably a by-product of our evolution. Indeed the study of psychomythology is virtually its own discipline and there is a lot we can learn from our common logical fallacies. Furthermore, as the authors are keen to point out, there are no absolutes in science and a number of these myths contain a kernel of truth. It seems reasonable that a psychology student first became interested in their chosen subject because of certain myths and fallacies.

With this mind, the authors have approached the book as a serious text book that could be read as part of a course. In their introduction the authors also express their desire to make it readily accessible to the lay person, but I am not convinced this has been entirely successful. Although the content is based entirely on solid research and written by four eminent experts in their field it is not overly-scholarly. However, the structure is surprisingly academic, including the annoying and cumbersome in-text Harvard Referencing System. This is not improved by the lack of a single voice in the slightly dry narrative. Such problems are an unfortunate by-product of collaborative efforts. I wrote about it to a lesser extent in the otherwise excellent book on cognitive psychology, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Anderson.

Nevertheless, the book is still an essential aid or reference book for anyone who has an interest in psychology and a fantastic starting point. As a reference book I think few people won’t be caught by at least one of the reported myths. The aforementioned 50 myths are divided up into eleven sections, focusing on one particular area of psychomythology. Each of these sections also provides an extra list of proven myths that require further investigation, 250 in total. The postscript then provides a detailed list of 10 incredible counter-intuitive truths about psychology.

If your recent reading in popular psychology has included books written by respected psychologists like Richard Wiseman and Carol Tavris or even journalists like Kathryn Schulz, Steve Salerno and Dan Gardener, as mine has been, then you won’t find anything in here that contradicts their research and conclusions. However, you might find that there is a great deal more to psychology in both depth and variety than you thought. The first section, “Brain Power”, debunks such myths as the idea that you only 10% of your brain, that some people are left brained and other right brained, Extra-Sensory Perception and the persistent nonsense about the power of subliminal messages. Thanks to Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis many of us have an ingrained belief that what happens to us in childhood has a profound effect on our adult lives. Much of this is debunked in the second section entitled “From the Womb to the Tomb”, as a lot firmly held beliefs about aging, including adolescence and old age. Parents with pre-pubescent offspring might be happy to learn that teenage angst is not as common or normal as we think and it’s virtually unheard of in some other developed cultures, such as Japan, and we all might be relieved to know that increased dissatisfaction and senility does inevitably await us in old age.

Along with Freud, the popular media is also regularly referenced as a source for our misinformation about psychology. The third section, which deals with memory, shows just how potent and dangerous this influence has played. The section reveals the huge fallibility of memory and our ability to remember details – an area studied in detail in the two cognitive psychology books I read last year “Being Wrong” and “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Hypnosis, a subject visited again in the fifth section, is looked at in the debunking of one of the most harmful pieces of psychomythology, the mistaken belief that repressed memories can be retrieved. This was part of the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch-hunt that saw hundreds of innocent parents convicted of paedophilia. The section also debunks the common movie and soap opera plot where most amnesiacs forget all details of their previous life and also debunks the rather silly, but equally common cure that the details return with a bump to the head. Interestingly, the film “Memento”, which features an individual suffering from short-term memory loss, is given the rare credit of being quite accurate about this sort of amnesiac’s symptoms.

The fourth section is of particular interest to me, as it discusses myths about learning. It covers the exaggerated claim that I.Q. tests are biased against certain types of people. It looks at the popular myth that the defining feature of dyslexia is reversing letters. And it also explodes a few myths, often pushed by teachers no less, regarding certain techniques for taking tests and teaching styles.

“Altered States” is a section that deals generally with psychological myths that moves into the paranormal and supernatural. “Out of Body” experiences are explained in scientific terms, as is the evidence regarding the meaning of dreams – they don’t contain symbolic messages – and the idea that new information can be learned whilst one sleeps.

The sixth section shows the extreme fallibility of the Polygraph as a “lie detector” and proves that there is a lot in the idea that money or possessions do not buy happiness. The ulcer stress connection myth takes us on a brief detour into biology as does the myth regarding the positive/negative attitude connection with cancer. This particular section is useful for exposing a lot of the self-help industry nonsense.

For those searching for love and possibly investing in specific dating agencies or websites the chapter in the seventh section revealing that opposites rarely attract might be of some interest. My fellow self protection coaches and students might be interested in reading the evidence and research that debunks the idea that there is safety in numbers – the more people present the less chance anyone will help you in a violent situation. Back to relationships and “Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus” industry is debunked to its roots with the fact that men and women share overwhelmingly more similarities than differences. This section finishes with the facts regarding the myth that venting or expressing anger is better than holding it in and should be taken note by all those in the self-help and motivational industry that like to bang on about catharsis!

The eighth and ninth sections contain the largest number of chapters, containing six each. “Know Thyself” reveals both how much of an influence genes have on our personalities and also how much we can do about it by being aware of the genetic factor. We are plagued by the mistaken idea that low self-esteem is a major contributing factor to psychological problems. Research shows that a disproportionate number of recreational killers have an inflated sense of self-esteem. Children are also far more resilient than we give them credit. The Freudian derived notion that what happens to us childhood has a profound effect on our personalities as adults is a huge exaggeration. The infamous Rorschach inkblot test and Graphology – the pseudoscience that a person’s personality can be revealed by the handwriting, as debunked over five decades before in Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies” – are also put under the investigative spotlight.

“Sad, Mad and Bad” takes a look mental illness psychomythology. The authors see how the claims that psychiatric labels cause harm by stigmatizing people – a rather bizarre idea when you consider the label is only given in confidence within a mental institution. Contrary to popular belief, depression is not an overwhelming factor that leads to a person committing suicide. The authors take note of the way schizophrenia has become widely accepted in popular culture, in our language and through the media has been confused with multiple personality disorder. I am always happy to see the autism epidemic, which is often connected with all the rubbish about vaccinations and conspiracy theories, is squarely sat on its parent-panicking backside. I also note with amusement that this section also includes the evidence regarding hospital admissions and crime increases on a full moon. I read this book not long after we experienced the “super-moon” effect, where the internet and the radio buzzed with anecdotes regarding the bizarre effects a full moon has on people and how on March 19th 2011 the closeness of the moon – the closest it has been to the Earth in almost two decades – was going to result in catastrophes. We move into statistics in this particular chapter and also the way human beings tend to “count the hits” when it comes to remembering incidents that back-up their beliefs.

“Disorder in Court” reveal the huge problem with police investigating techniques, previously discussed in “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”, where interviewers believe that innocent people would never admit to committing a crime, the fact that insanity is not a medical term and is rarely successful as a defence in court, and as if to upset all the CSI fans and people like me, who enjoy psychological thrillers, it also downplays the success rate of criminal profilers.

“Skills and Pills” contains quite a lot of controversy, but not without the hard evidence and research. I am talking in particular about the myth that abstinence is the best way to combat alcoholism, as prescribed by Alcoholics’ Annoymous. Steve Salerno’s “SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless” and Penn and Teller’s “B.S.” took no prisoners in their review of the AA movement, so I was ready for what I think will be shocking to many people – that a good proportion of alcoholics can recover through moderate use and abstinence isn’t the only answer. There is also the truth about electro-shock treatment. Thanks to films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” most of us think of electro-shock treatment as a brutal, archaic and torturous practice that has no place in modern psychiatric treatment. The truth is much more different and I put my hand up to feeling quite stupid about what I thought about the treatment today.

My conclusion is that “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology” is a must-read book for anyone who is remotely interested in psychology – from self protection instructors to business coaches to psychology students to fans of crime fiction. Its single flaw is that it is not perhaps as accessible to the general public as it was intended and resembles a text-book. However, it is a solid book of facts and a very enlightening read.

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