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50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology:

Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior

Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein

Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Every once in a while it is necessary to recheck current scientific knowledge for completeness, not only to fill in gaps in understanding or to examine the latest breaking discoveries within the context of what has already been found, but also for accuracy. The reflexive acceptance of myths as truths leads to erroneous reasoning and erroneous conclusions, spilling over into other fields and skewing our worldview. A significant part of the problem is the lack of critical evaluation of the confident-sounding "conventional wisdom". Challenging conventional wisdom usually leads to political or social isolation. Galileo Galilei's run-in with the Catholic Church comes to mind; and not even death and status as a former priest protected Copernicus from Church condemnation. (Outside of science, whole-hearted acceptance of conventional wisdom can lead to calamity. (33))

In science, there are many claims and half-truths that are cleverly disguised as facts. Few laymen have the time, resources or skills needed to evaluate the validity of these claims. In the age of mass communication and the Internet, the array of claims and half-truths is never-ending. Discerning the truth in a clinical specialty like psychiatry is even more difficult for the layman. Not only is there the technical aspect of the field, but an aura of mystery surrounds it. Lilienfeld et al., all of whom are professors of psychology, do a great service not only by compiling fascinating myths, but by taking the time to uncover the origin of each myth and explaining why they are indeed myths, all without the excessive use of psychology-related jargon. The authors, fully aware that even psychology professors and their students are prone to these myths, do not attempt to lecture down to the nonspecialist. Since readers may not be technically-minded and (real, nonmythical) science tends to make sterile reading, the authors infuse occasional humor into the text.

There are 50 main myths (and many lesser myths) discussed that are widely taken for granted as true by the public. The myths are grouped into general categories (e.g., consciousness, emotion, personality). A few of the myths on brain functioning covered in this book, such as the "infallibility" of memory, the brain's "unlimited potential" for learning and the alleged psychological benefits of raising self-esteem, have been described elsewhere as "illusions". (34) The reader will also note, via the numerous surveys in the book, that there are large discrepancies between what the public believes is true and what psychologists have demonstrated to be true.

Observations of what motivates one's self and others form the basis of psychological beliefs. Based on our rudimentary "theories," we predict how we and others would respond in various situations. Being able to forecast behavior lessens the jolt of unexpected events and gives a sense of assurance in interpersonal relationships. "Psychomythology" stems however, from reliance on intuition, limited and biased sampling and the tendency to overweight outliers. The authors include myths that span the cradle-to-grave lifecycle.

It is all parents' wish to have their children grow up to be productive adults, financially as well as in terms of offspring. So, it is understandable that parents will take advantage of any opportunity that will give their children an edge over their peers. However, the various schemes designed to "improve intelligence" in infants with "enrichment" and with matching "teaching styles with learning styles" in school-aged children suffer from a lack of hard evidence that demonstrates marked increase in IQ and, most importantly, a persistent increase (Myths #6, 18). The lack of clear guidelines as to how enrichment is to be used (one hour per day? 12 hours per day?) is lacking as well. The authors mention (though only in passing) the importance of IQ in school performance and also the utility of measured IQ (e.g., via testing) as a predictor of educational and occupational success. However, in place of a standardized, unbiased method to assess cognitive ability for secondary school students and as a part of the application package to selective colleges, there is a drive to emphasize "life experiences" and other opaque "measures" of success.

The myths of adolescence and middle-age as tumultuous periods of life are also shown to be untrue (Myths #7, 8). In fact, in the U.S. most teenagers do not experience psychological turmoil and a small percentage of the "middle-aged" (10-26%) report having a midlife crisis, depending on the definition. Furthermore, studies suggest that adolescent "turmoil" and the "midlife crisis" are more prevalent in western than in non-westernized countries. The authors could not state why this was so and if there was a sex difference in prevalence. Males are usually more often reported as having a midlife crisis than females--this may also be the case in countries that are becoming increasingly westernized (monogamous?). (35)

In terms of the later years, the popular images of the elderly are merely that--images not based on fact (Myth #9). Depression, memory loss and the inability to learn novel skills are not inevitable results of aging. Finally, there appears to be no support in the "universal" 5-stages of dying (Myth #10). The stages start at "denial" and end with "acceptance". However, the psychiatrist who devised this scale did not base it on a wide cross-section of patients or on objective observations. A 5-stage scale does, however, take the unpredictability out of dying. As mentioned earlier, the need for certainty in part underlies the basis of psychological myths found through the human lifecycle.

The authors deal only somewhat fairly with myths related to intelligence (group differences are due to "test bias") and the heritability of abilities (Myths #15, #32). Although the authors deny that IQ tests are biased, they suggest that the cause of group differences in IQ is "environmental". (36) The authors later acknowledge the high heritability of intelligence, but do not mention that group differences could also be genetic in origin. The authors are apparently not ready to make this leap, but other psychologists already have. (37) Furthermore, the significant heritability of IQ suggests that environmentally-based schemes to improve it will be difficult at best.

One myth that seems to get a lot of underserved attention in books these days is the alleged link between autism and vaccines (Myth #41). (38) The numerous U.S. and overseas studies that involved thousands of children, vaccinated and unvaccinated, with and without a mercury-based preservative, that were unable to demonstrate a vaccination-induced "epidemic" of autism are airily dismissed by anti-vaccine groups. (39) The recent settlement between the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and Hannah Poling will be eagerly grasped by groups and distraught parents of autistic children as proof that vaccines cause autism--despite the statement within the settlement written by the U.S. government stating that Miss Poling's autism could have been due to a preexisting mitochondrial dysfunction aggravated by vaccination. (40) In the case of this enduring myth, a number of Lilienfeld et al.'s "sources of error" are flagrantly violated. These include such hallmarks of psychomythology as unsubstantiated post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, "causation from correlation," and "desire for easy answers". Unfortunately, for patients and their families, much valuable time and effort will be squandered reiterating that vaccinations do not cause autism, when time and effort should be focused on serious research.

The most useful section of the book, broadly applicable to everyone and useful beyond psychology, is the Introduction. In it, the authors explain "mythbusting": why we should care at all that myths rather than truths guide current thinking, the 10 "sources of error" that flag psychomyths, and suggested ways to avoid being trapped by them. For good measure, mythbusting is also summarized at the end of the book. Each section ends with "Sources and suggested readings" for those who are more curious.

The book goes beyond being an easy-to-read guidebook about psychology. The authors repeatedly take the media to task for their ignorance, either willful or unintentional, on psychological issues. It is fairly obvious that the news media have a crucial role in informing and educating the public and the entertainment media have crucial social roles, as well, in shaping culture and to an extent to educate. However, the media repeatedly propagate misinformation and set limits on what is acceptable for discussion and what is "politically incorrect." As examples, the authors point to the numerous films and TV shows that demonstrate the absolute utility of "criminal profilers" and "lie detectors," the "dangers" of the mentally ill (and that it is politically incorrect to stigmatize them by labeling them as such), complete memory loss or "generalized amnesia" as common and, the highly grating confusion of dissociative identity disorder ("split personality") with schizophrenia. The authors could have also mentioned that psychologists have reported substantial, quantifiable differences between the races in abilities, including intelligence. One would never know they exist based on how members of different races are portrayed in films or on TV newscasts.

The authors had a bonus, but hidden, 51st Myth, that "Freudian psychology works." Many of the myths in the book sprang from psychoanalytic "theory" formulated by Sigmund Freud. For example, "subliminal messaging" works by tapping into our unconscious "sexual urges"; traumatic childhood episodes reside in the mind as "repressed memories," which cause "hysteria" and "neurosis"; and hypnosis can be used to uncover repressed memories and cure us of psychopathologies, and so on. The authors point to the absolute dearth of clinical evidence supporting the Freudian psychopathology. Indeed, psychologist Hans Eysenck suggests that psychoanalysis is a half-baked collection of "spurious orthodoxies," at worst a "pseudo-scientific doctrine" that has done harm to both patients and therapists. (41) So as long as the popularity of Freudian psychoanalysis endures, Myth #51 will persist. Challenging "conventional wisdom" with data and engaging in more critical reasoning are first steps in breaking free of this last myth.

(33) Concerning the recent housing "bubble" and its collapse, conventional wisdom saw none:; "The Historic Record on the Bubble," Nov. 18, 2008, The Wall Street Journal On-Line -bubble/. However, contemporaneous housing data suggested otherwise (Nov. 27, 2005):

(34) For example: C.F. Chabris & D. Simons, 2010, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Crown.

(35) Miller and Kanazawa (2007) suggest that decreased female fitness at middle age affects a woman's middle-aged husband's psychology. Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire--Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do. Pedigree Trade.

(36) Herrnstein and Murray's (1994) analysis of "test bias" is a little more detailed; The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Free Press. Also: A.R. Jensen, 1980, Bias in Mental Testing. Free Press.

(37) "Mainstream Science on Intelligence," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13, 1994.

(38) Also discussed in M. Specter, 2009, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress. Penguin. Reviewed in Mankind Quarterly, vol. 50, p. 261.

(39) For a current non-mythical review of autism: J.R. Hughes, 2009, Epilepsy & Behavior, vol. 16.

(40) Again, even bright people fall prey to myths--Miss Poling's father is a neurologist and her mother is an attorney. autism611234.html?cxtype=ynews_rss

(41) H.J. Eysenck, 1990, The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire. Scott- Townsend.
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Author:Hama, Aldric
Publication:The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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