Psychology is all around us. Youth and old age, forgetting and remember ing, sleeping and dreaming, love and hate, happiness and sadness, mental illness and
psychotherapy—for good, bad, and often both, this is the stuff of our daily lives. Virtually every day, the news media, television shows and films, and the Internet
bombard us with claims regarding a host of psychological topics—brain functioning, psychics, out-of-body experiences, recovered memories, polygraph testing,
romantic relation ships, parenting, child sexual abuse, mental disorders, real crime, and psychotherapy, to name merely a few. Even a casual stroll through our
neighborhood bookstore reveals at least dozens, and often hundreds, of self-help, relationship, recovery, and addiction books that serve up generous portions of
advice for steering our path along life’s rocky road. Of course, for those who prefer their psychological advice for free, there’s no end of it on the Web. In countless
ways, the popular psychology indus try shapes the landscape of the early 21st century world.
Yet to a surprising extent, much of what we believe to be true about psychology isn’t. Although scores of popular psychology sources are readily available in
bookstores and at our fingertips online, they’re rife with myths and misconceptions. Indeed, in today’s fast-paced world of information overload, misinformation
about psychology is at least as widespread as accurate information. Unfortunately, precious few books are available to assist us with the challenging task of
distinguishing fact from fiction in popular psychology. As a consequence, we often find ourselves at the mercy of self-help gurus, television talk show hosts, and
radio self-proclaimed mental health experts, many of whom dispense psychological advice that’s a confusing mix of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods.
Without a dependable tour guide for sorting out psychological myth from reality, we’re at risk for becoming lost in a jungle of misconceptions.
Many of the great myths of popular psychology not only mislead us about human nature, but can also lead us to make unwise decisions in our everyday lives.
Those of us who believe erroneously that people typically repress the memories of painful experiences (see Myth #13) may spend much of our lives in a fruitless
attempt to dredge up memories of childhood traumatic events that never happened; those of us who believe that happiness is determined mostly by our external
circumstances (see Myth #24) may focus exclusively outside rather than inside of ourselves to find the perfect “formula” for long-term satisfaction; and those of us
who believe erroneously that opposites attract in romantic relationships (see Myth #27) may spend years searching for a soulmate whose per sonalities and values
differ sharply from ours—only to discover too late that such “matches” seldom work well. Myths matter.
As science educator David Hammer (1996) noted, scientific miscon ceptions possess four major properties. They (1) are stable and often strongly held beliefs
about the world, (2) are contradicted by well-established evidence, (3) influence how people understand the world, and (4) must be corrected to achieve accurate
knowledge (Stover & Saunders, 2000). For our purposes, the last point is especially crucial. In our view, mythbusting should be an essential component of
psychology education, because deeply entrenched beliefs in psychological miscon ceptions can impede students’ understanding of human nature.
There are numerous dictionary definitions of the word “myth,” but the ones that best suit our purposes derive from the American Heritage Dictionary (2000): “a
popular [but false] belief or story that has become associated with a person, institution, or occurrence” or “a fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an
ideology.” Most of the myths we present in this book are widely held beliefs that blatantly contradict psychological research. Others are exaggerations or distortions
of claims that contain a kernel of truth. Either way, most of the myths we address in this book can seem so compelling because they fit into a broader view of human
nature that many people find plausible. For example, the false belief that we use only 10% of our brain power (see Myth #1) dovetails with the belief that many of
us haven’t fully realized our intellectual potential; and the false belief that low self-esteem is a major cause of maladjustment (see Myth #33) fits with the belief that
we can achieve just about anything if we believe in ourselves.
Many psychological myths are also understandable efforts to make sense out of our worlds. As German sociologist and philosopher of science Klaus Manhart
(2005) observed, throughout history myths have served a central function: attempting to explain the otherwise inexplicable. Indeed, many of the myths we discuss in
this book, like the belief that dreams have been shown to possess symbolic meaning (see Myth #20), are efforts to grapple with some of life’s perennial mysteries, in
this case the under lying significance of our nighttime mental worlds.
Our book is the first to survey the full landscape of modern popular psychology, and to place common psychological misconceptions under the microscope of
scientific evidence. By doing so, we hope to both dis pel prevalent but false beliefs and arm readers with accurate knowledge that they can use to make better real-
world decisions. Our tone is infor mal, engaging, and at times irreverent. We’ve made particular efforts to make our book accessible to beginning students and
laypersons, and we presume no formal knowledge of psychology. To do so, we’ve kept nontechnical language to a minimum. As a consequence, this book can be
enjoyed equally by specialists and nonspecialists alike.
We begin the book by surveying the vast world of popular psychology, the dangers posed by psychological myths, and 10 major sources of these myths. Then, in
the body of the book, we examine 50 widespread myths of popular psychology. For each myth, we discuss its prevalence in the general population, illustrative
examples from the wide world of popu lar psychology, its potential origins, and the research evidence bearing on it. Although one of our main goals is mythbusting,
we go well beyond merely debunking myths. For each myth, we also discuss what we know to be true regarding each topic, thereby imparting genuine psycholo
gical knowledge that readers can take with them and apply to their every day lives. Several of the 50 myths are accompanied by brief “Mythbusting: A Closer
Look” boxes that examine a closely allied myth. Each chapter concludes with a set of other myths to explore—250 in all—along with helpful suggested references
for tracking down these myths. Instructors in psychology classes may find many of these additional myths handy as presentation or term paper topics to assign to
their students. To drive home the point that psychological truth is often just as fascinating, if not more, than psychological myth, the book’s postscript features a
David Letterman-style “Top Ten List” of remarkable psychological findings that may seem like myths, but that are in fact true. Finally, the book con cludes with an
Appendix containing recommended Internet resources for exploring various psychological myths.
This book, we believe, will appeal to several audiences. Students in intro ductory psychology and research methods courses, as well as teachers of these courses,
will find the book to be of particular interest. Many students enter these courses with misconceptions concerning a host of psychological topics, so confronting these
misconceptions is often an essential step toward imparting accurate knowledge. Because we have organized the book around 11 domains traditionally covered in
intro ductory psychology courses, such as brain functioning and perception, memory, learning and intelligence, emotion and motivation, social psy chology,
personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy, this book can serve as either a freestanding textbook or a textbook supplement for these courses. Instructors who
use this book along with a standard introduc tory psychology textbook can easily assign some or all of the myths in each chapter in conjunction with the
accompanying chapter in their textbook.
Laypersons interested in learning more about psychology will find the book to be an invaluable and user-friendly resource, as well an enter taining compendium
of psychological knowledge. Practicing psychologists and other mental health professionals (such as psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, counselors, and social
workers), psychology educators, psycho logical researchers, psychology majors, and psychology graduate students should also find the book to be an enjoyable
read, not to mention a valuable reference source. Finally, we modestly believe that this book should be recommended (dare we say required?) reading for all journ
alists, writers, educators, and attorneys whose work touches on psycho logical topics. This book should prevent them from falling prey to precisely the kinds of
psychological misunderstandings against which we so vigorously caution our readers.
This project could never have come to fruition without the assistance of several talented and dedicated individuals. First and foremost, we sincerely thank our
editor at Wiley-Blackwell, Christine Cardone, about whom we cannot say enough good things. Chris has provided invalu able guidance throughout this project, and
we are deeply indebted to her for her support and encouragement. We consider ourselves remark ably fortunate to have worked with someone as competent, kind,
and patient as Chris. Second, we thank Sean O’Hagen for his gracious assistance with the Reference section and help with the aging myth, Alison Cole for help
with the midlife crisis myth, Otto Wahl for help with the schizophrenia myth, and Fern Pritikin Lynn, Ayelet Meron Ruscio, and Susan Himes for their useful
suggestions on miscellaneous myths. Third, we thank Constance Adler, Hannah Rolls and Annette Abel at Wiley-Blackwell for their editorial assistance and copy-