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Praise for 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology
“True knowledge is hard won, and this timely and remarkable book shows us that stamping out falsehoods is no easy task either. The book does it all: it debunks
all-too-common beliefs from the pseudoscientific fringe; it presents evidence against a variety of myths that seem like they ought to be true; it explains why people
fall prey to such falsehoods; and it ends with some tantalizing facts about mind and behavior that make it clear that the truth can be every bit as amazing as fiction.
These 50 myths won’t disappear with the publication of this book, but those who read it will enjoy being able to set others—many others—straight.”
Thomas Gilovich, Cornell University
“We have needed this compendium for some time. These factoids and popular (but fallacious) memes about psychology have been exposed in single publica tions,
but critiques of all of them have never been brought together in one place before. The myths chosen by these authors are indeed popular ones—the very ones that
psychology instructors encounter every day. The book is an incredible resource for both student and instructor. The critiques are accurate and well written. I’m sure
my copy will be dog-eared within six months.”
Keith E. Stanovich, author of How To Think Straight About Psychology and What Intelligence Tests Miss
“A much-needed mythbuster for consumers and students of psychology. This engaging book reminds us that applying science to everyday psychology is not only
enormously worthwhile, but fun.”
Carol Tavris, coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
“Because I only use 10% of my brain, I had to play Mozart music while read ing this book, and then be hypnotized to recover the memory of it because of early
childhood traumas that were repressed but occasionally leaked through out-of-body experiences and ESP. And if you believe any of the above you need to read this
book … twice if its mythbusting revelations cause you to repress the memory of it.”
Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of Why People Believe Weird Things
“Is it true that psychology is mostly common sense? For anyone who wonders, this amazing book—which effectively discounts 50 pop psychology myths and
briefly dismisses 250 more—provides convincing answers. And it does more: it offers fascinating examples of how science works and supports critical think ing.
For teachers, students, writers, and anyone who wants to think smarter, this classic-to-be will be a valuable resource and a great read.”
David G. Myers, Hope College, author of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils
“I find each and every chapter excellent and from a teaching point of view, bril liant. The way in which the history of the myths is presented up to the critical but
balanced discussion of each myth, is a great achievement. Scott Lilienfeld is well-known for his user-friendly writing style, but in this text he and his co authors
reach a new level. This leads to a book which will not only be easily understandable by undergraduate, and especially first year students, but also by the general
Dap Louw, University of the Free State
About the Authors
Scott O. Lilienfeld is a Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. Author of over 200 journal articles, chapters, and books, he is a recipient of the
1998 David Shakow Early Career Award for Distinguished Contributions to Clinical Psychology from Division 12 (Society for Clinical Psychology) of the
American Psychological Associ ation (APA). He is a past president of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology and a Fellow of the Association for
Psychological Science. He is editor of the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Lilienfeld’s principal areas of research are personality disorders, psychi
atric classification and diagnosis, pseudoscience in mental health, and the teaching of psychology.
Steven Jay Lynn is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Psy chological Clinic at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Dr. Lynn serves on
11 editorial boards, and he has 270 scholarly pub lications, including 16 books. He is past President of APA’s Division of Psychological Hypnosis, and he has been
the recipient of the Chan cellor’s Award of the State University of New York for Scholarship and Creative Activities. He is a fellow of the APA and the
Association for Psychological Science, and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. His major areas of research include hypnosis,
memory, fantasy, and dissociation.
John Ruscio is an Associate Professor of Psychology at The College of New Jersey. His scholarly interests include quantitative methods for psychological research
and the characteristics of pseudoscience that distinguish subjects within and beyond the fringes of psychological science. He has published more than 50 articles,
chapters, and books, including Critical Thinking in Psychology: Separating Sense from Nonsense; serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Abnormal
Psychology and Psychological Assessment; and is an associate editor at the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice.
The late Barry L. Beyerstein was Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University and chair of the British Columbia Skeptics Society. He was co-editor of The
Write Stuff (1992), Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and co-authored many art icles in the Skeptical Inquirer and professional
journals. Dr. Beyerstein was a member of the Advisory Board of the Drug Policy Foundation (Washington, DC) and a founding board member of the Canadian
Foundation for Drug Policy (Ottawa, Ontario).
This edition first published 2010
© 2010 Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
50 great myths of popular psychology : shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior / Scott O. Lilienfeld … [et al.].
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4051-3111-7 (hardcover : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-4051-3112-4 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Psychology—Popular works. 2. Human behavior. I.
Lilienfeld, Scott O., 1960– II. Title: Fifty great myths of popular psychology.
BF145.A15 2010
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Set in 10/12.5pt Sabon by Graphicraft Limited, Hong Kong Printed in Singapore
1 2010
“Science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths.”
Sir Karl Popper (1957)
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-
Fourth, we thank the following reviewers of drafts of the book pro spectus and various chapters, whose comments, suggestions, and constructive criticisms were
extraordinarily helpful to us in improving our early drafts. We are especially indebted to the following reviewers for their wise counsel: David R. Barkmeier,
Northeastern University; Barney Beins, Ithaca College; John Bickford, University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Stephen F. Davis, Morningside College; Sergio Della
Sala, University of Edin burgh; Dana Dunn, Moravian College; Brandon Gaudiano, Brown University; Eric Landrum, Boise State University; Dap Louw, Univer
sity of the Free State; Loreto Prieto, Iowa State University; Jeff Ricker, Scottsdale Community College; and the numerous instructors who took our initial survey.
We are honored to dedicate this book to the memory of our dear friend, colleague, and co-author Barry Beyerstein. Although his contribution to this volume was
cut short by his untimely death in 2007 at the age of 60, the manuscript bears the imprint of his keen mind and ability to communicate complex ideas to a wide
audience. We know Barry would be extremely proud of this volume, which embodies his mission of educat ing the public about the promise of scientific
psychology to increase our knowledge about what it means to be human, and about the pitfalls of pseudoscience. We fondly remember Barry Beyerstein’s passion
for life and compassion for others, and dedicate this book to him to commemor ate his enduring legacy to the popularization of scientific psychology.
As authors, we very much hope you enjoy reading the book as much as we enjoyed writing it. We welcome your feedback on the book, not to mention
suggestions for additional myths to discuss in future editions.
May the mythbusting begin!
The authors and publisher wish to thank the following for permission to use copyright material:
Figure I.1 Copyright 1983 from McCloskey, M. (1983). Naïve theories of motion. In Gentner, D. & Stevens, A. L. (Eds.), Mental Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, pp. 299–324. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a divi sion of Informa plc.
Figure I.2 “Turning the Tables” from Shepard, R. N. (1990). Mind sights. New York: W. H. Freeman, 48. Reproduced by permission of the author.
Figure I.4 Photos 12/Alamy.
Figure 1.1 Superman #37 Copyright 1945 DC Comics. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Figure 1.2 Reuters/Corbis.
Figure 5.1 George Silk/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
Figure 6.1 Photos 12/Alamy.
Figure 7.1 Reuters/Vincent West.
Genesis song lyrics “Misunderstanding” by Phillip David Charles Collins, copyright TK, by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation as agent for EMI April Music
Figure 8.1 Anastasi, Anne & Urbina, Susana (1997). Psychological testing (7th edition), Figure 15-1, p. 413. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
Electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
Figure 9.1 Courtesy of
Figure 10.1 Photofest.
Figure 11.1 Photofest.
Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright materials. The authors and publisher will gladly
receive any information enabling them to rectify any error or omission in subsequent editions.
The Wide World of Psychomythology
“Opposites attract.”
“Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
“Familiarity breeds contempt.”
“There’s safety in numbers.”
You’ve probably heard these four proverbs many times before. More over, like our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you probably hold them to be
self-evident. Our teachers and parents have assured us that these sayings are correct, and our intuitions and life experi ences confirm their wisdom.
Yet psychological research demonstrates that all four proverbs, as people commonly understand them, are mostly or entirely wrong. Opposites don’t attract in
romantic relationships; to the contrary, we tend to be most attracted to people who are similar to us in our per sonalities, attitudes, and values (see Myth #27).
Sparing the rod doesn’t necessarily spoil children; moreover, physical punishment often fails to produce positive effects on their behavior (see p. 97). Familiarity usu
ally breeds comfort, not contempt; we usually prefer things we’ve seen many times to things that are novel (see p. 133). Finally, there’s typic ally danger rather than
safety in numbers (see Myth #28); we’re more likely to be rescued in an emergency if only one bystander, rather than a large group of bystanders, is watching.
The Popular Psychology Industry
You’ve almost certainly “learned” a host of other “facts” from the popu lar psychology industry. This industry encompasses a sprawling network of sources of
everyday information about human behavior, including television shows, radio call-in programs, Hollywood movies, self-help books, newsstand magazines,
newspaper tabloids, and Internet sites. For example, the popular psychology industry tells us that:
we use only 10% of our brain power;
our memories work like videotapes or tape recorders;
if we’re angry, it’s better to express the anger directly than hold it in;
most sexually abused children grow up to become abusers themselves;
people with schizophrenia have “split” personalities;
people tend to act strangely during full moons.
Yet we’ll learn in this book that all six “facts” are actually fictions. Although the popular psychology industry can be an invaluable resource for information about
human behavior, it contains at least as much mis information as information (Stanovich, 2007; Uttal, 2003). We term this vast body of misinformation
psychomythology because it consists of mis conceptions, urban legends, and old wives’ tales regarding psychology. Surprisingly, few popular books devote more
than a handful of pages to debunking psychomythology. Nor do more than a handful of popular sources provide readers with scientific thinking tools for
distinguishing factual from fictional claims in popular psychology. As a consequence, many people—even students who graduate from college with majors in
psychology—know a fair amount about what’s true regarding human behavior, but not much about what’s false (Chew, 2004; Della Sala, 1999, 2007; Herculano-
Houzel, 2002; Lilienfeld, 2005b).
Before going much further, we should offer a few words of reassur ance. If you believed that all of the myths we presented were true, there’s no reason to feel
ashamed, because you’re in awfully good company. Surveys reveal that many or most people in the general population (Furnham, Callahan, & Rawles, 2003;
Wilson, Greene, & Loftus, 1986), as well as beginning psychology students (Brown, 1983; Chew, 2004; Gardner & Dalsing, 1986, Lamal, 1979; McCutcheon,
1991; Taylor & Kowalski, 2004; Vaughan, 1977), believe these and other psychological myths. Even some psychology professors believe them (Gardner & Hund,
If you’re still feeling a tad bit insecure about your “Psychology IQ,” you should know that the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.), who’s widely
regarded as one of the smartest human beings ever to walk the face of the earth, believed that emotions originate from the heart, not the brain, and that women are
less intelligent than men. He even believed that women have fewer teeth than men! Aristotle’s bloopers remind us that high intelligence offers no immunity against
belief in psychomythology. Indeed, a central theme of this book is that we can all fall prey to erroneous psychological claims unless we’re armed with accurate
knowledge. That’s as true today as it was in past centuries.
Indeed, for much of the 1800s, the psychological discipline of “phrenology” was all the rage throughout much of Europe and America (Greenblatt, 1995; Leahy
& Leahy, 1983). Phrenologists believed that extremely specific psychological capacities, like poetic ability, love of chil dren, appreciation of colors, and religiosity,
were localized to distinct brain regions, and that they could detect people’s personality traits by measuring the patterns of bumps on people’s skulls (they thought
incorrectly that enlarged brain areas create indentations on the skull). The range of psychological capacities supposedly pinpointed by phrenologists ranged from 27
to 43. Phrenology “parlors” allowing curious patrons to have their skulls and personalities measured sprouted up in many locations, giving rise to the still popular
phrase “having one’s head examined.” Yet phrenology turned out to be a striking example of psychomythology on a grand societal scale, as studies eventually
showed that damage to the brain areas identified by phrenologists hardly ever caused the psychological deficits they’d so confidently predicted. Although
phrenology— depicted on this book’s cover—is now dead, scores of other examples of psychomythology are alive and well.
In this book, we’ll help you to distinguish fact from fiction in popu lar psychology, and provide you with a set of mythbusting skills for evaluating psychological
claims scientifically. We’ll not only shatter widespread myths about popular psychology, but explain what’s been found to be true in each domain of knowledge.
We hope to persuade you that scientifically supported claims regarding human behavior are every bit as interesting as—and often even more surprising than—the
mistaken claims.
That’s not to say that we should dismiss everything the popular psy chology industry tells us. Many self-help books encourage us to take responsibility for our
mistakes rather than to blame others for them, offer a warm and nurturing environment for our children, eat in moderation and exercise regularly, and rely on friends
and other sources of social support when we’re feeling down. By and large, these are wise tidbits of advice, even if our grandmothers knew about them.
The problem is that the popular psychology industry often intersperses such advice with suggestions that fly in the face of scientific evidence (Stanovich, 2007;
Wade, 2008; Williams & Ceci, 1998). For example, some popular talk-show psychologists urge us to always “follow our heartin romantic relationships, even
though this advice can lead us to make poor interpersonal decisions (Wilson, 2003). The popular television psychologist, Dr. Phil McGraw (“Dr. Phil”), has
promoted the polygraph or so-called “lie detectortest on his television program as means of finding out which partner in a relationship is lying (Levenson, 2005).
Yet as we’ll learn later (see Myth #23), scientific research demonstrates that the polygraph test is anything but an infallible detector of the truth (Lykken, 1998;
Ruscio, 2005).
Armchair Psychology
Armchair Psychology
As personality theorist George Kelly (1955) pointed out, we’re all arm chair psychologists. We continually seek to understand what makes our friends, family
members, lovers, and strangers tick, and we strive to understand why they do what they do. Moreover, psychology is an inescapable part of our everyday lives.
Whether it’s our romantic relation ships, friendships, memory lapses, emotional outbursts, sleep problems, performance on tests, or adjustment difficulties,
psychology is all around us. The popular press bombards us on an almost daily basis with claims regarding brain development, parenting, education, sexuality,
intelligence testing, memory, crime, drug use, mental disorders, psychotherapy, and a bewildering array of other topics. In most cases we’re forced to accept these
claims on faith alone, because we haven’t acquired the scientific thinking skills to evaluate them. As neuroscience mythbuster Sergio Della Sala (1999) reminded us,
“believers’ books abound and they sell like hot cakes” (p. xiv).
That’s a shame, because although some popular psychology claims are well supported, scores of others aren’t (Furnham, 1996). Indeed, much of everyday
psychology consists of what psychologist Paul Meehl (1993) called “fireside inductions”: assumptions about behavior based solely on our intuitions. The history of
psychology teaches us one undeniable fact: Although our intuitions can be immensely useful for generating hypotheses to be tested using rigorous research
methods, they’re often woefully flawed as a means of determining whether these hypotheses are correct (Myers, 2002; Stanovich, 2007). To a large extent, that’s
probably because the human brain evolved to understand the world around it, not to understand itself, a dilemma that science writer Jacob Bronowski (1966) called
“reflexivity.” Making matters worse, we often cook up reasonable-sounding, but false, explanations for our behaviors after the fact (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). As a
consequence, we can per suade ourselves that we understand the causes of our behaviors even when we don’t.
Psychological Science and Common Sense
One reason we’re easily seduced by psychomythology is that it jibes with our common sense: our gut hunches, intuitions, and first impressions. Indeed, you may
have heard that most psychology is “just common sense” (Furnham, 1983; Houston, 1985; Murphy, 1990). Many prominent authorities agree, urging us to trust our
common sense when it comes to evaluating claims. Popular radio talk show host Dennis Prager is fond of informing his listeners that “There are two kinds of
studies in the world: those that confirm our common sense and those that are wrong.” Prager’s views regarding common sense are probably shared by many
members of the general public:
Use your common sense. Whenever you hear the words “studies show”— outside of the natural sciences—and you find that these studies show the opposite of
what common sense suggests, be very skeptical. I do not recall ever coming across a valid study that contravened common sense. (Prager, 2002, p. 1)
For centuries, many prominent philosophers, scientists, and science writers have urged us to trust our common sense (Furnham, 1996; Gendreau, Goggin, Cullen,
& Paparozzi, 2002). The 18th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid argued that we’re all born with common sense intuitions, and that these intuitions are the
best means of arriving at funda mental truths about the world. More recently, in a New York Times editorial, well-known science writer John Horgan (2005) called
for a return to common sense in the evaluation of scientific theories, including those in psychology. For Horgan, far too many theories in physics and other areas of
modern science contradict common sense, a trend he finds deeply worrisome. In addition, the last several years have witnessed a proliferation of popular and even
bestselling books that champion the power of intuition and snap judgments (Gigerenzer, 2007; Gladwell, 2005). Most of these books acknowledge the limitations of
common sense in evaluating the truth of scientific claims, but contend that psychologists have traditionally underestimated the accuracy of our hunches.
Yet as the French writer Voltaire (1764) pointed out, “Common sense is not so common.” Contrary to Dennis Prager, psychological studies that overturn our
common sense are sometimes right. Indeed, one of our primary goals in this book is to encourage you to mistrust your com mon sense when evaluating
psychological claims. As a general rule, you should consult research evidence, not your intuitions, when deciding whether a scientific claim is correct. Research
suggests that snap judgments are often helpful in sizing up people and in forecasting our likes and dislikes (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992; Lehrer, 2009; Wilson,
2004), but they can be wildly inaccurate when it comes to gauging the accuracy of psychological theories or assertions. We’ll soon see why.
As several science writers, including Lewis Wolpert (1992) and Alan Cromer (1993), have observed, science is uncommon sense. In other words, science
requires us to put aside our common sense when evaluating evid ence (Flagel & Gendreau, 2008; Gendreau et al., 2002). To understand science, including
psychological science, we must heed the advice of the great American humorist Mark Twain, namely, that we need to unlearn old habits of thinking at least as
much as learn new ones. In particular, we need to unlearn a tendency that comes naturally to all of us—the tendency to assume that our gut hunches are correct
(Beins, 2008).
Of course, not all popular psychology wisdom, sometimes called “folk psychology,” is wrong. Most people believe that happy employees get more work done on
the job than unhappy employees, and psychological research demonstrates that they’re right (Kluger & Tikochinsky, 2001). Yet time and time again, scientists—
including psychological scientists— have discovered that we can’t always trust our common sense (Cacioppo, 2004; Della Sala, 1999, 2007; Gendreau et al., 2002;
Osberg, 1991; Uttal, 2003). In part, that’s because our raw perceptions can deceive us.
For example, for many centuries, humans assumed not only that the earth is flat—after all, it sure seems flat when we’re walking on it—but that the sun revolves
around the earth. This latter “factin particular seemed obvious to virtually everyone. After all, each day the sun paints a huge arc across the sky while we remain
planted firmly on the ground. But in this case, observers’ eyes fooled them. As science historian Daniel Boorstin (1983) noted:
Nothing could be more obvious than that the earth is stable and unmov-ing, and that we are the center of the universe. Modern Western science takes its
beginning from the denial of this commonsense axiom Common sense, the foundation of everyday life, could no longer serve for the governance of the
world. (p. 294)
Figure I.1 A diagram from the study by Michael McCloskey (1983). What path will the ball take after exiting the spiral?
Source: McCloskey (1983).
Let’s consider another example. In Figure I.1, you’ll see a drawing from a study from the work of Michael McCloskey (1983), who asked college students to
predict the path of a ball that has just exited from an enclosed spiral. About half of the undergraduates predicted incorrectly that the ball would continue to travel in a
spiral path after exiting, as shown on the right side of the figure (in fact, the ball will travel in a straight path after exiting, as shown on the left side of the figure).
These students typic ally invoked commonsense notions like “momentum” when justifying their answers (for example, “The ball started traveling in a certain way,
so it will just keep going that way”). By doing so, they seemed almost to treat the ball as a person, much like a figure skater who starts spinning on the ice and keeps
on spinning. In this case, their intuitions betrayed them.
We can see another delightful example in Figure I.2, which displays “Shepard’s tables,” courtesy of cognitive psychologist Roger Shepard (1990). Take a careful
We can see another delightful example in Figure I.2, which displays “Shepard’s tables,” courtesy of cognitive psychologist Roger Shepard (1990). Take a careful
look at the two tables in this figure and ask your self which table top contains a larger surface area. The answer seems obvious at first glance.
Yet believe it or not, the surfaces of both tables are identical (if you don’t believe us, photocopy this page, cut out the figures, and super impose them on each
other). Just as we shouldn’t always trust our eyes, we shouldn’t always trust our intuitions. The bottom line: Seeing is believing, but seeing isn’t always believing
Shephard’s tables provide us with a powerful optical illusion—an image that tricks our visual system. In the remainder of this book, though, we’ll be crossing
paths with a variety of cognitive illusions—beliefs that trick our reasoning processes (Pohl, 2004). We can think of many or most psychological myths as cognitive
illusions, because like visual illusions they can fool us.
Figure I.2 Shepard’s tables. Are the two table tops the same or different?
Source: Shepard (1990).
Why Should We Care?
Why is it important to know about psychological myths? There are at least three reasons:
(1) Psychological myths can be harmful. For example, jurors who believe incorrectly that memory operates like a videotape may vote to convict a defendant on
the basis of confidently held, but inaccurate, eyewitness testimony (see Myth #11). In addition, parents who believe incorrectly that punishment is usually an
effective means of changing long-term behavior may spank their children whenever they misbehave, only to find that their children’s undesirable actions become
more frequent over time (see p. 97).
(2) Psychological myths can cause indirect damage. Even false beliefs that are themselves harmless can inflict significant indirect harm. Economists use the term
opportunity cost to refer to the fact that people who seek out ineffective treatments may forfeit the chance to obtain much-needed help. For example, people who
believe mistakenly that subliminal self-help tapes are an effective means of losing weight may invest a great deal of time, money, and effort on a useless
intervention (Moore, 1992; see Myth #5). They may also miss out on scientifically based weight loss programs that could prove beneficial.
(3) The acceptance of psychological myths can impede our critical think ing in other areas. As astronomer Carl Sagan (1995) noted, our failure to distinguish
myth from reality in one domain of scientific knowledge, such as psychology, can easily spill over to a failure to distinguish fact from fiction in other vitally
important areas of modern society. These domains include genetic engineering, stem cell research, global warming, pollution, crime prevention, school ing, day
care, and overpopulation, to name merely a few. As a consequence, we may find ourselves at the mercy of policy-makers who make unwise and even dangerous
decisions about science and technology. As Sir Francis Bacon reminded us, knowledge is power. Ignorance is powerlessness.
The 10 Sources of Psychological Myths: Your Mythbusting Kit
How do psychological myths and misconceptions arise?
We’ll try to persuade you that there are 10 major ways in which we can all be fooled by plausible-sounding, but false, psychological claims. Its essential to
understand that we’re all vulnerable to these 10 sources of error, and that we’re all fooled by them from time to time.
Learning to think scientifically requires us to become aware of these sources of error and learn to compensate for them. Good scientists are just as prone to these
sources of error as the average person (Mahoney & DeMonbreun, 1977). But good scientists have adopted a set of safeguards—called the scientific method—for
protecting themselves against them. The scientific method is a toolbox of skills designed to prevent scientists from fooling themselves. If you become aware of the 10
major sources of psychomythology, you’ll be far less likely to fall into the trap of accepting erroneous claims regarding human nature.
Pay careful attention to these 10 sources of error, because we’ll come back to them periodically throughout the book. In addition, you’ll be able to use these
sources of error to evaluate a host of folk psychology claims in your everyday life. Think of them as your lifelong “Mythbust-ing Kit.”
(1) Word-of-Mouth
Many incorrect folk psychology beliefs are spread across multiple generations by verbal communication. For example, because the phrase “opposites attractis
catchy and easily remembered, people tend to pass it on to others. Many urban legends work the same way. For example, you may have heard the story about
alligators living in the New York City sewer system or about the well-intentioned but foolish woman who placed her wet poodle in a microwave to dry it off, only
to have it explode. For many years, the first author of this book relayed a story he’d heard many times, namely the tale of a woman who purchased what she
believed was a pet Chihuahua, only to be informed weeks later by a veterinarian that it was actually a gigantic rat. Although these stories may make for juicy dinner
table conversation, they’re no truer than any of the psychological myths we’ll present in this book (Brunvand, 1999).
The fact that we’ve heard a claim repeated over and over again doesn’t make it correct. But it can lead us to accept this claim as correct even when it’s not,
because we can confuse a statements familiarity with its accuracy (Gigerenzer, 2007). Advertisers who tell us repeatedly that “Seven of eight dentists surveyed
recommended Brightshine Toothpaste above all over brands!” capitalize on this principle mercilessly. Furthermore, research shows that hearing one person express
an opinion (“Joe Smith is the best qualified person to be President!”) 10 times can lead us to assume that this opinion is as widely held as hearing 10 people express
this opinion once (Weaver, Garcia, Schwarz, & Miller, 2007). Hearing is often believing, especially when we hear a statement over and over again.
(2) Desire for Easy Answers and Quick Fixes
(2) Desire for Easy Answers and Quick Fixes
Let’s face it: Everyday life isn’t easy, even for the best adjusted of us. Many of us struggle to find ways to lose weight, get enough sleep, per form well on exams,
enjoy our jobs, and find a lifelong romantic partner. Its hardly a surprise that we glom on to techniques that offer foolproof promises of rapid and painless behavior
changes. For example, fad diets are immensely popular, even though research demonstrates that the sub stantial majority of people who go on them regain all of
their weight within just a few years (Brownell & Rodin, 1994). Equally popular are speed reading courses, many of which promise to increase people’s reading
speeds from a mere 100 or 200 words per minute to 10,000 or even 25,000 words per minute (Carroll, 2003). Yet researchers have found that none of these courses
boost people’s reading speeds with out decreasing their reading comprehension (Carver, 1987). What’s more, most of the reading speeds advertised by these
courses exceed the maximum reading speed of the human eyeball, which is about 300 words per minute (Carroll, 2003). A word to the wise: If something sounds
too good to be true, it probably is (Sagan, 1995).
(3) Selective Perception and Memory
As we’ve already discovered, we rarely if ever perceive reality exactly as it is. We see it through our own set of distorting lenses. These lenses are warped by our
biases and expectations, which lead us to interpret the world in accord with our preexisting beliefs. Yet most of us are blissfully unaware of how these beliefs
influence our perceptions. Psychologist Lee Ross and others have termed the mistaken assumption that we see the world precisely as it is naïve realism (Ross &
Ward, 1996). Naïve realism not only leaves us vulnerable to psychological myths, but renders us less capable of recognizing them as myths in the first place.
A striking example of selective perception and memory is our tendency to focus on “hits”—memorable co-occurrences—rather than on “misses—the absence
of memorable co-occurrences. To understand this point, take a look at Figure I.3, where you’ll see what we call “The Great Fourfold Table of Life.” Many
scenarios in everyday life can be arranged in a fourfold table like the one here. For example, lets investigate the question of whether full moons are associated with
more admissions to psychiatric hospitals, as emergency room physicians and nurses commonly claim (see Myth #42). To answer this question, we need to examine
all four cells of the Great Fourfold Table of Life: Cell A, which consists of instances when there’s a full moon and a psychiatric hospital admission, Cell B, which
consists of instances when there’s a full moon but no psychiatric hospital admission, Cell C, which consists of instances when there’s no full moon and a psychiatric
hospital admis sion, and Cell D, which consists of instances when there’s no full moon and no psychiatric hospital admission. Using all four cells allows you to
compute the correlation between full moons and the number of psychiatric hospital admissions; a correlation is a statistical measure of how closely these two
variables are associated (by the way, a variable is a fancy term for anything that varies, like height, hair color, IQ, or extraversion).
Figure I.3 The Great Fourfold Table of Life. In most cases, we attend too much to the A cell, which can result in illusory correlation.
Here’s the problem. In real life, we’re often remarkably poor at estimating correlations from the Great Fourfold Table of Life, because we generally pay too much
attention to certain cells and not enough to others. In particular, research demonstrates that we typically pay too much attention to the A cell, and not nearly enough
to the B cell (Gilovich, 1991). That’s understandable, because the A cell is usually more inter esting and memorable than the B cell. After all, when there’s a full
moon and a lot of people end up in a psychiatric hospital, it confirms our initial expectations, so we tend to notice it, remember it, and tell others about it. The A cell
is a “hit”—a striking co-occurrence. But when there’s a full moon and nobody ends up in a psychiatric hospital, we barely notice or remember this “nonevent.” Nor
are we likely to run excitedly to our friends and tell them, “Wow, there was a full moon tonight and guess what happened? Nothing!The B cell is a “miss”— the
absence of a striking co-occurrence.
Our tendency to remember our hits and forget our misses often leads to a remarkable phenomenon called illusory correlation, the mistaken perception that two
statistically unrelated events are actually related (Chapman & Chapman, 1967). The supposed relation between full moons and psychiatric hospital admissions is a
stunning example of an illusory correlation. Although many people are convinced that this correlation exists, research demonstrates that it doesn’t (Rotton & Kelly,
1985; see Myth #42). The belief in the full moon effect is a cognitive illusion.
Illusory correlations can lead us to “see” a variety of associations that aren’t there. For example, many people with arthritis insist that their joints hurt more in
rainy than in non-rainy weather. Yet studies demon strate that this association is a figment of their imaginations (Quick, 1999). Presumably, people with arthritis
attend too much to the A cell of the Great Fourfold Table of Life—instances when it rains and when their joints hurt—leading them to perceive a correlation that
doesn’t exist. Similarly, the early phrenologists “sawclose linkages between damage to specific brain areas and deficits in certain psychological abilities, but they
were wildly wrong.
Another probable example of illusory correlation is the perception that cases of infantile autism, a severe psychiatric disorder marked by severe language and
social deficits, are associated with prior exposure to mercury-based vaccines (see Myth #41). Numerous carefully conducted studies have found no association
whatsoever between the incidence of infantile autism and mercury vaccine exposure (Grinker, 2007; Institute of Medicine, 2004; Lilienfeld & Arkowitz, 2007),
although tens of thousands of parents of autistic children are convinced otherwise. In all probability, these parents are paying too much attention to the A cell of the
fourfold table. They can hardly be blamed for doing so given that they’re understandably trying to detect an event, such as a vaccination, that could explain their
children’s autism. Moreover, these parents may have been fooled by the fact that the initial appearance of autistic symptoms—often shortly after age 2—often
coincides with at the age when most children receive vaccinations.
(4) Inferring Causation from Correlation
Its tempting, but incorrect, to conclude that if two things co-occur statistically (that is, if two things are “correlated”) then they must be causally related to each
other. As psychologists like to say, correlation doesn’t mean causation. So, if variables A and B are correlated, there can be three major explanations for this
correlation: (a) A may cause B, (b) B may cause A, or (c) a third variable, C, may cause both A and B. This last scenario is known as the third variable problem,
because C is a third variable that may contribute to the association between variables A and C. The problem is that the researchers who conducted the study may
never have measured C; in fact, they may have never known about C’s existence.
Let’s take a concrete example. Numerous studies demonstrate that a history of physical abuse in childhood increases one’s odds of becom ing an aggressive
person in adulthood (Widom, 1989). Many investigators have interpreted this statistical association as implying that childhood physical abuse causes physical
aggression in later life; indeed, this inter pretation is called the “cycle of violence” hypothesis. In this case, the investigators are assuming that childhood physical
abuse (A) causes adult violence (B). Is this explanation necessarily right?
Of course, in this case B can’t cause A, because B occurred after A. A basic principle of logic is that causes must precede their effects. Yet we haven’t ruled out
the possibility that a third variable, C, explains both A and B. One potential third variable in this case is a genetic tendency toward aggressiveness. Perhaps most
parents who physically abuse their children harbor a genetic tendency toward aggressiveness, which they pass on to their children. Indeed, there’s good research
parents who physically abuse their children harbor a genetic tendency toward aggressiveness, which they pass on to their children. Indeed, there’s good research
evidence that aggressiveness is partly influenced by genes (Krueger, Hicks, & McGue, 2001). This genetic tendency (C) could result in a correlation between a
childhood physical abuse history (A) and later aggression in individuals with this history (B), even though A and B may be causally unrelated to each other (DiLalla
& Gottesman, 1991). Incidentally, there are other potential candidates for C in this case (can you think of any?).
The key point is that when two variables are correlated, we shouldn’t necessarily assume a direct causal relationship between them. Competing explanations are
(5) Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc Reasoning
“Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” means “after this, therefore because of this” in Latin. Many of us leap to the conclusion that because A precedes B, then A must cause
B. But many events that occur before other events don’t cause them. For example, the fact that virtually all serial killers ate cereal as children doesn’t mean that
eating cereal produces serial killers (or even “cereal killers”—we couldn’t resist the pun) in adulthood. Or the fact that some people become less depressed soon
after taking an herbal remedy doesn’t mean that the herbal remedy caused or even contributed to their improvement. These people might have become less
depressed even without the herbal remedy, or they might have sought out other effective interventions (like talking to a therapist or even to a supportive friend) at
about the same time. Or perhaps taking the herbal remedy inspired a sense of hope in them, resulting in what psychologists call a placebo effect: improvement
resulting from the mere expectation of improvement.
Even trained scientists can fall prey to post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning. In the journal Medical Hypotheses, Flensmark (2004) observed that the appearance
of shoes in the Western world about 1,000 years ago was soon followed by the first appearance of cases of schizo phrenia. From these findings, he proposed that
shoes play a role in triggering schizophrenia. But the appearance of shoes could have merely coincided with other changes, such as the growth of modernization or
an increase in stressful living conditions, which may have contributed more directly to the emergence of schizophrenia.
(6) Exposure to a Biased Sample
In the media and many aspects of daily life, we’re often exposed to a nonrandom—or what psychologists called a “biased”—sample of people from the general
population. For example, television programs portray approximately 75% of severely mentally ill individuals as violent (Wahl, 1997), although the actual rate of
violence among the severely mentally ill is considerably lower than that (Teplin, 1985; see Myth #43). Such skewed media coverage may fuel the erroneous
impression that most indi viduals with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (once called manic depres sion), and other serious mental illnesses are physically dangerous.
Psychotherapists may be especially prone to this error, because they spend most of their working lives with an unrepresentative group of indi viduals, namely,
people in psychological treatment. Here’s an example: Many psychotherapists believe it’s exceedingly difficult for people to quit smoking on their own. Yet
research demonstrates that many, if not most, smokers manage to stop without formal psychological treatment (Schachter, 1982). These psychotherapists are
probably falling prey to what statisticians Patricia and Jacob Cohen (1984) termed the clinician’s illusion—the tendency for practitioners to overestimate how
chronic (long standing) a psychological problem is because of their selective exposure to a chronic sample. That is, because clinicians who treat cigarette smokers
tend to see only those individuals who can’t stop smoking on their own—otherwise, these smokers presumably wouldn’t have sought out a clinician in the first
place—these clinicians tend to overestimate how difficult smokers find it to quit without treatment.
(7) Reasoning by Representativeness
We often evaluate the similarity between two things on the basis of their superficial resemblance to each other. Psychologists call this phenomenon the
representativeness heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974), because we use the extent to which two things are “represent ative” of each other to estimate how
similar they are. A “heuristic,” by the way, is a mental shortcut or rule of thumb.
Most of the time, the representativeness heuristic, like other heuristics, serves us well (Gigerenzer, 2007). If we’re walking down the street and see a masked man
running out of a bank with a gun, we’ll probably try to get out of the way as quickly as we can. That’s because this man is representative of—similar to—bank
robbers we’ve seen on television and in motion pictures. Of course, it’s possible that he’s just pulling a prank or that he’s an actor in a Hollywood action movie
being filmed there, but better safe than sorry. In this case, we relied on a mental shortcut, and we were probably smart to do so.
Yet we sometimes apply the representativeness heuristic when we shouldn’t. Not all things that resemble each other superficially are related to each other, so the
representativeness heuristic sometimes leads us astray (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1996). In this case, common sense is correct: We can’t always judge a book by its
cover. Indeed, many psychological myths probably arise from a misapplication of representativeness. For example, some graphologists (handwriting analysts) claim
that people whose handwriting contains many widely spaced letters possess strong needs for interpersonal distance, or that people who cross their “t”s and “f”s with
whip-like lines tend to be sadistic. In this case, graphologists are assuming that two things that superficially resemble each other, like widely spaced letters and a
need for interpersonal space, are statistically associated. Yet there’s not a shred of research support for these claims (Beyerstein & Beyerstein, 1992; see Myth #36).
Another example comes from human figure drawings, which many clinical psychologists use to detect respondents’ personality traits and psychological disorders
(Watkins, Campbell, Nieberding, & Hallmark, 1995). Human figure drawing tasks, like the ever popular Draw-A-Person Test, ask people to draw a person (or in
some cases, two persons of opposite sexes) in any way they wish. Some clinicians who use these tests claim that respondents who draw people with large eyes are
paranoid, that respondents who draw people with large heads are narcissistic (self-centered), and even that respondents who draw people with long ties are
excessively preoccupied with sex (a long tie is a favorite Freudian symbol for the male sexual organ). All these claims are based on a surface resemblance between
specific human figure drawing “signs” and specific psychological characteristics. Yet research offers no support for these supposed associations (Lilienfeld, Wood,
& Garb, 2000; Motta, Little, & Tobin, 1993).
(8) Misleading Film and Media Portrayals
Many psychological phenomena, especially mental illnesses and treatments for them, are frequently portrayed inaccurately in the entertainment and news media
(Beins, 2008). More often than not, the media depicts these phenomena as more sensational than they are. For example, some modern films picture
electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), known informally as “shock therapy,” as a physically brutal and even dangerous treatment (Walter & McDonald, 2004). In some
cases, as in the 1999 horror film, House on Haunted Hill, individuals who’re strapped to ECT machines in movies experience violent convulsions. Although its
true that that ECT was once somewhat dangerous, technological advances over the past few decades, such as the administration of a muscle relaxant, have rendered
it no more physically hazardous than anesthesia (Glass, 2001; see Myth #50). Moreover, patients who receive modern forms of ECT don’t experience observable
motor convulsions.
To take another example, most Hollywood films depict adults with autism as possessing highly specialized intellectual skills. In the 1988 Academy Award-
winning film, Rain Main, Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic adult with “savant syndrome.” This syndrome is charac terized by remarkable mental abilities, such
as “calendar calculation” (the ability to name the day of a week given any year and date), multiplication and division of extremely large numbers, and knowledge of
trivia, such as the batting averages of all active major league baseball players. Yet at most 10% of autistic adults are savants (Miller, 1999; see Myth #41) (Figure
(9) Exaggeration of a Kernel of Truth
Some psychological myths aren’t entirely false. Instead, they’re exaggera tions of claims that contain a kernel of truth. For example, it’s almost certainly true that
many of us don’t realize our full intellectual potential. Yet this fact doesn’t mean that most of us use only 10% of our brain power, as many people incorrectly
believe (Beyerstein, 1999; Della Sala, 1999; see Myth #1). In addition, it’s probably true that at least a few differences in interests and personality traits between
romantic partners can “spice up” a relationship. That’s because sharing your life with someone who agrees with you on everything can make your love life
harmonious, but hopelessly boring. Yet this fact doesn’t imply that opposites attract (see Myth #27). Still other myths involve an overstate ment of small differences.
For example, although men and women tend to differ slightly in their communication styles, some popular psy chologists, especially John Gray, have taken this
kernel of truth to an extreme, claiming that “men are from Mars” and “women are from Venus” (see Myth #29).
Figure I.4 Film portrayals of individuals with autistic disorder, like this Academy Award-winning portrayal by actor Dustin Hoffman (left) in the 1988 film Rain
Man, often imply that they possess remarkable intellectual capacities. Yet only about 10% of autistic individuals are savants.
Source: Photos 12/Alamy
(10) Terminological Confusion
Some psychological terms lend themselves to mistaken inferences. For example, the word “schizophrenia,” which Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler (1911) coined
in the early 20th century, literally means “split mind.” As a consequence, many people believe incorrectly that people with schizo phrenia possess more than one
personality (see Myth #39). Indeed, we’ll frequently hear the term “schizophrenic” in everyday language to refer to instances in which a person is of two different
minds about an issue (“I’m feeling very schizophrenic about my girlfriend; I’m attracted to her physically but bothered by her personality quirks”). It’s therefore
hardly surprising that many people confuse schizophrenia with an entirely dif ferent condition called “multiple personality disorder(known today as “dissociative
identity disorder”), which is supposedly characterized by the presence of more than one personality within the same individual (American Psychiatric Association,
2000). In fact, schizophrenics possess only one personality that’s been shattered. Indeed, Bleuler (1911) intended the term “schizophrenia” to refer to the fact that
individuals with this condition suffer from a splitting of mental functions, such as thinking and emotion, whereby their thoughts don’t correspond to their feelings.
Nevertheless, in the world of popular psychology, Bleuler’s original and more accurate meaning has largely been lost. The misleading stereotype of schizophrenics
as persons who act like two completely different people on different occasions has become ingrained in modern culture.
To take another example, the term “hypnosisderives from the Greek prefix “hypno,” which means sleep (indeed, some early hypnotists believed that hypnosis
was a form of sleep). This term may have led many people, including some psychologists, to assume that hypnosis is a sleep-like state. In films, hypnotists often
attempt to induce a hypnotic state by telling their clients that “You’re getting sleepy.” Yet in fact, hypnosis bears no physiological relationship to sleep, because
people who are hypnotized remain entirely awake and fully aware of their surroundings (Nash, 2001; see Myth #19).
The World of Psychomythology: What Lies Ahead
In this book, you’ll encounter 50 myths that are commonplace in the world of popular psychology. These myths span much of the broad landscape of modern
psychology: brain functioning, perception, development, memory, intelligence, learning, altered states of consciousness, emotion, interpersonal behavior,
personality, mental illness, the courtroom, and psychotherapy. You’ll learn about the psychological and societal origins of each myth, discover how each myth has
shaped society’s popular thinking about human behavior, and find out what scientific research has to say about each myth. At the end of each chapter, we’ll provide
you with a list of additional psychological myths to explore in each domain. In the book’s postscript, we’ll offer a list of fascinating findings that may appear to be
fictional, but that are actually factual, to remind you that genuine psychology is often even more remarkable—and difficult to believe—than psychomythology.
Debunking myths comes with its share of risks (Chew, 2004; Landau & Bavaria, 2003). Psychologist Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues (Schwarz, Sanna,
Skurnik, & Yoon, 2007; Skurnik, Yoon, Park, & Schwarz, 2005) showed that correcting a misconception, such as “The side effects of a flu vaccine are often worse
than the flu itself,” can sometimes backfire by leading people to be more likely to believe this misconception later. That’s because people often remember the
statement itself but not its “negation tag”—that is, the little yellow sticky note in our heads that says “that claim is wrong.” Schwarz’s work reminds us that merely
memorizing a list of misconceptions isn’t enough: Its crucial to understand the reasons underlying each misconception. His work also suggests that it’s essential for
us to understand not merely what’s false, but also what’s true. Linking up a misconception with the truth is the best means of debunking that misconception
(Schwarz et al., 2007). That’s why we’ll spend a few pages explaining not only why each of these 50 myths is wrong, but also how each of these 50 myths imparts
an underlying truth about psychology.
Fortunately, there’s at least some reason to be optimistic. Research shows that psychology students’ acceptance of psychological miscon ceptions, like “people
use only 10% of their brain’s capacity,” declines with the total number of psychology classes they’ve taken (Standing & Huber, 2003). This same study also
showed that acceptance of these misconceptions is lower among psychology majors than non-majors. Although such research is only correlational—we’ve already
learned that correlation doesn’t always mean causation—it gives us at least a glimmer of hope that education can reduce people’s beliefs in psychomythology.
What’s more, recent controlled research suggests that explicitly refuting psychological misconceptions in introductory psychology lectures or readings can lead to
large—up to 53.7%—decreases in the levels of these misconceptions (Kowalski & Taylor, in press).
If we’ve succeeded in our mission, you should emerge from this book not only with a higher “Psychology IQ,” but also a better understand ing of how to
distinguish fact from fiction in popular psychology. Per haps most important, you should emerge with the critical thinking tools needed to better evaluate
psychological claims in everyday life.
As the paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould (1996) pointed out, “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore
As the paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould (1996) pointed out, “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore
never scrutinize or question” (p. 57). In this book, we’ll encourage you to never accept psychological stories on faith alone, and to always scrutinize and question
the psychological stories you think you know best.
So without further ado, lets enter the surprising and often fascinating world of psychomythology.
Myths about the Brain and Perception
Myth #1 Most People Use Only 10% of Their Brain Power
Whenever those of us who study the brain venture out of the Ivory Tower to give public lectures or media interviews, one of the questions we’re most likely to
encounter is, “Is it true that we only use 10% of our brains?” The look of disappointment that usually follows when we respond, “Sorry, I’m afraid not,” strongly
suggests that the 10% myth is one of those hopeful truisms that refuses to die simply because it would be so darn nice if it were true (Della Sala, 1999; Della Sala &
Beyerstein, 2007). Indeed, this myth is widespread, even among psychology students and other well-educated people. In one study, when asked “About what
percentage of their potential brain power do you think most people use?,” a third of psychology majors answered 10% (Higbee & Clay, 1998, p. 471). Fifty-nine
percent of a sample of college-educated people in Brazil similarly believe that people use only 10% of their brains (Herculano-Houzel, 2002). Remarkably, that
same survey revealed that even 6% of neuroscientists agreed with this claim!
Surely, none of us would turn down a hefty hike in brain power if we could achieve it. Not surprisingly, marketers who thrive on the public’s fond hopes for a
self-improvement breakthrough continue to peddle a never-ending stream of dubious schemes and devices premised on the 10% myth. Always on the lookout for a
“feel-good” story, the media has played a big role in keeping this optimistic myth alive. A great deal of advertising copy for legitimate products continues to refer to
the 10% myth as fact, usually in the hopes of flattering potential customers who see themselves as having risen above their brain’s limitations. For example, in his
popular book, How to Be Twice as Smart, Scott Witt (1983) wrote that “If you’re like most people, you’re using only ten percent of your brainpower” (p. 4). In
1999, an airline tried to entice potential flyers by informing them that “It’s been said that we use only 10% of our brain capacity. If, however, you’re flying_____
(name of company deleted) Airlines, you’re using considerably more” (Chudler, 2006).
Yet an expert panel convened by the U.S. National Research Council concluded that (alas!), in this, as with other miraculous self-improvement claims, there’s no
good substitute for hard work when it comes to getting ahead in life (Beyerstein, 1999c; Druckman & Swets, 1988). This unwelcome news has done little to
discourage millions who comfort themselves with the belief that the shortcut to their unfulfilled dreams lies in the fact that they just haven’t quite caught up with the
secret for tapping their vast, allegedly unused cerebral reservoir (Beyerstein, 1999c). That desired promotion, stellar grade point average, or authorship of the next
bestselling novel is within your grasp, say the sellers of cerebral miracle remedies.
Even more questionable are the offerings of New Age entrepreneurs who propose to hone the psychic skills we allegedly all possess with obscure gizmos for the
brain. Self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller (1996) claimed that “In fact, most of us use only about 10 percent of our brains, if that.” Promoters like Geller imply that
psychic powers reside in the 90% of the brain that simple folk forced to subsist on the drudge-like 10% haven’t yet learned to use.
Why would a brain researcher doubt that 90% of the average brain lies silent? There are several reasons. First of all, our brain has been shaped by natural
selection. Brain tissue is expensive to grow and operate; at a mere 2–3% of our body weight, it consumes over 20% of the oxygen we breathe. Its implausible that
evolution would have permitted the squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ. Moreover, if having a
bigger brain contributes to the flexibility that promotes survival and reproduction—which are natural selection’s “bottom lines”—its hard to believe that any slight
increase in processing power wouldn’t be snapped up immediately by existing systems in the brain to enhance the bearer’s chances in the continuous struggle to
prosper and procreate.
Doubts about the 10% figure are also fueled by evidence from clinical neurology and neuropsychology, two disciplines that aim to understand and alleviate the
effects of brain damage. Losing far less than 90% of the brain to accident or disease almost always has catastrophic consequences. Look, for instance, at the much-
publicized controversy surrounding the nonconscious status and ultimate death of Terri Schiavo, the young Florida woman who lay in a persistent vegetative state
for 15 years (Quill, 2005). Oxygen deprivation following a cardiac arrest in 1990 had destroyed about 50% of her cerebrum, the upper part of the brain responsible
for conscious awareness. Modern brain science argues that “mind” equals brain function. Therefore, patients like Ms. Schiavo had permanently lost the capacity for
thoughts, perceptions, memories, and emotions that are the very essence of being human (Beyerstein, 1987). Although some claimed to see signs of consciousness
in Schiavo, most impartial experts found no evidence that any of her higher mental processes had been spared. If 90% of the brain is indeed unnecessary, this
shouldn’t have been the case.
Research also reveals that no area of the brain can be destroyed by strokes or head trauma without leaving patients with serious deficits in functioning (Kolb &
Whishaw, 2003; Sacks, 1985). Likewise, electrical stimulation of sites in the brain during neurosurgery has failed to uncover any “silent areas,” those in which the
person experiences no perception, emotion, or movement after neurosurgeons apply these tiny currents (neurosurgeons can accomplish this feat with conscious
patients under local anesthesia because the brain contains no pain receptors).
The last century has witnessed the advent of increasingly sophisticated technologies for snooping on the brain’s traffic (Rosenzweig, Breedlove, & Watson,
2005). With the aid of brain imaging techniques, such as electroencepholograms (EEGs), positron emission tomography (PET) scanners, and functional magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) machines, researchers have succeeded in localizing a vast number of psychological functions to specific brain areas. With nonhuman
animals, and occasionally with humans undergoing neurological treatment, researchers can insert recording probes into the brain. Despite this detailed mapping, no
quiet areas awaiting new assignments have emerged. In fact, even simple tasks generally require contributions of processing areas spread throughout virtually the
whole brain.
Two other firmly established principles of neuroscience create further problems for the 10% myth. Areas of the brain that are unused because of injuries or
disease tend to do one of two things. They either wither away, or “degenerate,” as neuroscientists put it, or they’re taken over by nearby areas that are on the
lookout for unused territory to colonize for their own purposes. Either way, perfectly good, unused brain tissue is unlikely to remain on the sidelines for long.
All told, evidence suggests that there’s no cerebral spare tire waiting to be mounted with a little help from the self-improvement industry. So, if the 10% myth is
so poorly supported, how did it get started? Attempts to track down this myth’s origins haven’t uncovered any smoking guns, but a few tantalizing clues have
materialized (Beyerstein, 1999c; Chudler, 2006; Geake, 2008). One stream leads back to pioneering American psychologist William James in the late 19th and early
20th centuries. In one of his writings for the general public, James said he doubted that average persons achieve more than about 10% of their intellectual potential.
James always talked in terms of underdeveloped potential, never relating it to a specific amount of the brain engaged. A slew of “positive thinking” gurus who
followed weren’t as careful, though, and “10% of our capacity” gradually morphed into “10% of our brain” (Beyerstein, 1999c). Undoubtedly, the biggest boost for
the self-help entrepreneurs came when journalist Lowell Thomas attributed the 10% brain claim to William James. Thomas did so in the 1936 preface to one of the
bestselling self-help books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The myth has never lost its steam since.
bestselling self-help books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The myth has never lost its steam since.
The popularity of the 10% myth probably also stems partly from authorsmisunderstandings of scientific papers by early brain researchers. In calling a huge
percentage of the human cerebral hemispheres “silent cortex,” early investigators may have fostered the mistaken impression that what scientists now call
“association cortex” had no function. As we now know, association cortex is vitally important for our language, abstract thinking, and performance of intricate
sensory-motor tasks. In a similar vein, early researchers’ admirably modest admissions that they didn’t know what 90% of the brain did probably contributed to the
myth that it does nothing. Another possible source of confusion may have been laypersons’ misunderstanding of the role of glial cells, brain cells that outnumber the
brain’s neurons (nerve cells) by a factor of about 10. Although neurons are the scene of the action with respect to thinking and other mental activities, glial cells
perform essential support functions for the neurons that do the heavy lifting, psychologically speaking. Finally, those who’ve searched for the origins of the 10%
myth frequently came across the claim that Albert Einstein once explained his own brilliance by reference to the myth. Nevertheless, a careful search by the helpful
staff at the Albert Einstein archive on our behalf yielded no record of any such statement on his part. More likely than not, the promoters of the 10% myth simply
seized on Einstein’s prestige to further their own endeavors (Beyerstein, 1999c).
The 10% myth has surely motivated many people to strive for greater creativity and productivity in their lives, which certainly isn’t a bad thing.
The comfort, encouragement, and hope that its generated almost surely help to explain its longevity. But, as Carl Sagan (1995) reminded us (see Introduction, p.
11), if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Myth #2 Some People Are Left-Brained, Others Are Right-Brained
The next time somebody tries to sell you a book or device for retraining your allegedly flabby right hemisphere, reach for your wallet. Then clasp it firmly to your
chest and run as fast as you can. Like some other myths in this book, the one you’re about to encounter has a grain of truth to it. Nevertheless, this grain can be a bit
hard to find amidst the mounds of misinformation that bury it.
Are some people left-brained and others right-brained? There’s good evidence that the two sides of the brain, called hemispheres, differ in their functions
(Springer & Deutsch, 1997). For example, different abilities are more affected by injuries to one side of the brain than the other, and brain imaging techniques
demonstrate that the hemispheres differ in their activity when people engage in various mental tasks. By far the most dramatic evidence for laterality of function
the superiority of one or the other hemisphere for performing certain tasks—comes from patients who’ve undergone a “split brain” operation. In this rarely
performed procedure, surgeons sever the nerve tracts connecting opposite points in the brain’s left and right hemispheres in a last-ditch attempt to control severe
epilepsy. The large pathway connecting these hemispheres, the main target of the split-brain operation, is the corpus callosum (“colossal body”).
Roger Sperry shared the Nobel Prize in 1981 for his landmark studies of split-brain patients, and a fascinating lot they are (Gazzaniga, 1998). Once they’d
recovered from surgery, they appeared deceptively normal in their everyday activities. But once Sperry tested them in the laboratory, it became apparent that the two
halves of their brains were working independently. Each side operated without awareness or knowledge of the other.
In Sperry’s laboratory tests, patients fixate their eyes at the center of a screen, on which the researcher briefly flashes words or pictures. With the eyes
immobilized, information flashed to the left of the fixation point goes to the right hemisphere and the opposite is true of information presented to the right of the
fixation point (thats because the optic pathways on each side of the visual field cross over to the other side). In more ordinary situations, this separation of
information doesn’t occur because patients constantly move their eyes about their surroundings. As a result, the input normally reaches both hemispheres eventually.
When it doesn’t, though, some decidedly peculiar things can happen.
The right hemisphere receives input from and controls the movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere does the same for the right. In almost all
right-handers, and most lefties as well, the primary areas for language reception and production are in the left hemisphere. Thus, if we restrict new information to the
right hemisphere, the left hemisphere—which is more verbal than the right—will be unable to tell us what the input was, and it may be perplexed to see the left hand
acting on the segregated knowledge, for reasons it can’t fathom.
For example, if the researcher shows the right hemisphere of a split-brain subject a photograph of a naked man, she may giggle. Yet when asked what she’s
giggling about, the subject (her left hemisphere, that is) won’t be able to say. Instead, she may cook up a plausible-sounding reason (“That photo reminds me of my
uncle George, who’s a really funny guy”). Split-brain subjects may even do something with their right hand, like assemble a group of blocks to fit a pattern, utterly
oblivious of the fact that their left hand is following a few seconds behind, undoing all the good work. This much is well established. The dispute concerns the
uniqueness of the kinds of tasks handled by the two hemispheres and how they go about it. In this regard, brain researchers have become more cautious in recent
years while many pop psychologists have run wild.
Using Sperry’s techniques, researchers have confirmed that the left and right hemispheres are relatively better at different mental activities. Note, however, that
we wrote relatively better. The two halves of the brain differ in how they process tasks rather than what they process (McCrone, 1999). Let’s take language, for
example. The left hemisphere is better at the specifics of speech, such as grammar and word generation, whereas the right hemisphere is better at the intonation and
emphases of speech (what’s known as “prosody”). Although the right hemisphere is better at nonlinguistic functions that involve complex visual and spatial
processes, the left hemisphere plays some role in these capacities if we give it the chance. The right brain is better at dealing with a general sense of space, whereas
corresponding areas in the left brain become active when the person locates objects in specific places. In many cases, it’s not that one hemisphere or the other can’t
perform a given task; it’s just that one of them can perform it faster and better than the other. So it tends to grab the assignment first.
Of course, ordinary people aren’t, as left-brain/right-brain aficionados suggest, just split-brain patients who haven’t gotten around to having their corpus
callosums snipped. In the normal brain, the side that’s first off the mark will call for help from across the way. As long as the left-right pathways are intact, the two
hemispheres share information extensively. Indeed, brain imaging research shows that the two hemispheres routinely communicate during most tasks (Mercer,
2010). After a split-brain operation, this cooperation isn’t possible, so the separated systems limp along as best they can.
Therefore, the ways in which the two sides of brain differ are far more limited than pop psychology’s “hemisphericity” entrepreneurs suggest (Aamodt & Wang,
2008; Corballis, 1999, 2007; Della Sala, 1999). On balance, the two hemispheres are much more similar than different in their functions (Geake, 2008). Modern
neuroscientists have never agreed with many New Age “hemisphere trainers,” who claim that the brain’s two halves house totally dissimilar minds that approach the
world in radically different ways, with one (the left) side an accountant and the other (the right) side a veritable Zen master. Robert Ornstein was among those to
promote the idea of using different ways to tap into our “creative” right brains versus our intellectual left brains in his 1997 book, The Right Mind: Making Sense of
the Hemispheres. Moreover, scores of educational and business programs de-emphasize getting the “rightanswers on tests in favor of harnessing creative ability.
Such programs as the Applied Creative Thinking Workshop have trained business managers to develop the untapped capacities of their right brains (Hermann,
1996). Furthermore, the enormously successful book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Edwards, 1980), which has sold over 2.5 million copies, encourages
readers to unleash their artistic abilities by suppressing their “analyticalleft hemispheres. Even cartoonists have jumped on the bandwagon; one shows a student
holding an exam emblazoned with a big “F” who tells his professor, “It’s not fair to flunk me for being a right-brain thinker.”
The urge on the part of pop psychologists to assign all mental abilities to unique left and right compartments probably owes more to politics, social values, and
commercial interests than to science. Its detractors have dubbed this extreme view “dichotomania” because of pop psychologists’ tendency to dichotomize the two
hemispheres’ functions (Corballis, 1999). The notion was embraced enthusiastically by New Age proponents of the 1970s and 1980s, largely because it offered a
rationale for world-views that were mystical and intuitive.
Pop psychologists further embellished genuine differences in how the hemispheres process information, proclaiming the allegedly cold and rational left
Pop psychologists further embellished genuine differences in how the hemispheres process information, proclaiming the allegedly cold and rational left
hemisphere “logical,” “linear,” “analytical,” and “masculine.” In contrast, they proclaimed the allegedly warm and fuzzy right hemisphere “holistic,” “intuitive,”
“artistic,” “spontaneous,” “creative,” and “feminine” (Basil, 1988; Zimmer, 2009). Arguing that modern society undervalues the right hemisphere’s touchy-feely
mode of approaching the world, dichotomizers touted fanciful schemes for boosting this hemisphere’s activity. Their books and seminars promised to free us of the
barriers to personal growth imposed by an inflexible school system that favors “left hemisphere thinking.”
Yet an expert panel, assembled by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, concluded that “… we have no direct evidence that differential hemispheric
utilization can be trained” (Druckman & Swets, 1988, p. 110). The panel concluded that behavioral training could probably enhance different styles of learning or
problem solving, but that such improvements were not due to differences in the two hemispheres’ functioning.
If the behavioral exercises promoted for right hemisphere calisthenics might yield a few benefits, we can’t say the same for the far-fetched “brain tuners” sold for
the same purposes (Beyerstein, 1985, 1999a). Numerous devices of this sort allegedly harmonize or synchronize the activity of the two hemispheres. One of the
most successful of these schemes was invented by a former public relations executive with no formal training in neuroscience. Like others of its ilk, the device
supposedly synchronizes brain waves across the hemispheres by means of feedback signals. Probably because of the placebo effect (see Introduction, p. 14), the
product found scores of satisfied customers. Yet even if the devices synchronized left-right brain waves, there’s no reason to believe that making the two
hemispheres resonate in this fashion would be good for us. In fact, if the brain is working optimally, this is probably exactly what you wouldn’t want it to do.
Optimal psychological performance usually requires differential activation rather than synchronization of the hemispheres (Beyerstein, 1999a).
The bottom line: Don’t be taken in by the claims of dichotomizers with a seminar to sell or marketers of hemispheric synchronization gizmos that sound too good
to be true. Current research on hemispheric differences, even by those responsible for discovering left–right specializations, focuses on showing how the normal
brain works in an integrated fashion (Corballis, 2007; Gazzaniga, 1998; McCrone, 1999).
Myth #3 Extrasensory Perception (ESP) Is a Well-Established Scientific Phenomenon
Having trouble with your love life? How about money problems? Call Miss Cleo’s Psychic Hotline for Free! The operators of Miss Cleo’s Psychic Hot Line
charged callers an astonishing $1 billion before a 2002 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required that they cancel $500 million in customer bills
and pay a $5 million fine (Miss Cleo’s psychic powers apparently failed to warn her of the FTC’s impending legal action). Nearly 6 million viewers of late-night
television commercials featuring the purported Jamaican soothsayer were moved to speak with her or one of her “trained psychicsby the promise of receiving 3
free minutes of revelations about their future. Callers had no reason to suspect that Miss Cleo had American parents, that she was born in Los Angeles, and that her
real name was Youree Dell Harris. Nor did they realize that their calls were being charged at the rate of $4.99 a minute from the outset, and that the goal of the
“psychic” on the other end of the line was to keep them talking as long as possible, thereby running up their phone bills.
Some readers skeptical of psychic abilities might assume that callers, who ended up paying an average of $60 for each call, were simply suckers. Yet this
judgment doesn’t consider the fact that belief in psychic abilities and extrasensory perception (ESP) is firmly entrenched in modern society. The millions of callers to
“Miss Cleo” were but a tiny fraction of the Americans who believe that ESP is a firmly established scientific fact. Coined in 1870 by Sir Richard Burton, the term
ESP has come to mean knowledge or perception without the use of any of the senses. According to the most recent Gallup poll on this topic (Moore, 2005), 41% of
the 1,002 U.S. adults surveyed believe in ESP, 31% in the existence of “telepathy/communication between minds without using traditional senses,” and 26% in
“clairvoyance/the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future.” Among 92 introductory psychology students, 73% said they believed that the
existence of ESP was well documented (Taylor & Kowalski, 2003).
The types of experiences assessed by these surveys are also known as paranormal, or psi-related experiences. Many parapsychologists (psychologists who study
the paranormal) also describe psychokinesisthe ability to influence physical objects or processes by the power of thought—as a paranormal ability. Nevertheless,
psychokinesis is typically excluded from ESP, which includes the three capacities of (1) telepathy (mind reading), (2) clairvoyance (knowing the existence of
hidden or far-away objects or people), and (3) precognition (predicting the future using paranormal means).
Believers in ESP aren’t limited to the general public. More than half of natural scientists polled (Wagner & Monnet, 1979) reported that they believed that ESP is
an established fact or a likely possibility. Starting in 1972, the U.S. government shelled out $20 million of taxpayer money to fund a program known as “Stargate”
to study the ability of “remote viewers” to acquire militarily useful information from distant, inaccessible places (using clairvoyance), such as a nuclear facility in the
then Soviet Union. Government agents gave remote viewers the geographical coordinates (longitude, latitude) of a specific person, place, or document, and these
viewers then wrote down, drew, or described whatever they could glean mentally about the target. The government discontinued the Stargate program in 1995,
apparently because it yielded no useful military information. Amidst the debate over whether the government was wasting taxpayer money on this project, a blue-
ribbon subcommittee of the U.S. National Research Council reviewed the world literature on ESP and concluded that the case for psychic powers was feeble
(Alcock, 1990; Druckman & Swets, 1988; Hyman, 1989). Still, the mere fact that such a program was established in the first place highlights the widespread
acceptance of ESP among educated people.
If the scientific support for ESP is so weak—and we’ll soon provide evidence for this verdict—why do so many people believe in it? From childhood, most of us
are bombarded by favorable and unskeptical media accounts of paranormal experiences. Such television shows as the X-Files, Medium, Fringe, and America’s
Psychic Challenge and, before that, Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits, have portrayed ESP as part of the fabric of everyday life. Movie plots encourage belief in a
wide range of paranormal powers, including clairvoyance (such as Minority Report, The Dead Zone, Stir of Echoes, The Butcher’s Wife, The Sixth Sense), telepathy
(such as Scanners, Dreamscape, The Sender, and Ghostbusters), and psychokinesis (such as Carrie and X-Men). Many popular self-help books (Hewitt, 1996;
Manning, 1999) declare that we all harbor latent psychic talents and tout simple techniques to liberate these powers and achieve ESP success. The Internet features
innumerable pitches for courses that promise to develop and enhance our psychic abilities. For example, an advertisement for the Silva Ultra Mind Seminar (2005)
tells participants that they’ll be paired up with other people, taught to harness their ESP following meditation, and given the skills to guess astonishing facts about
each other by means of paranormal powers.
Belief in the paranormal is bolstered by strong needs to believe in something greater than ourselves, a reality that lies beyond what the “senses can sense”
(Gilovich, 1991). But perhaps even more influential in spreading belief in ESP is the fact that our personal experiences occasionally seem so extraordinary that they
defy ordinary explanation. In one study (Greeley, 1987), 67% of 1,500 American adults claimed to have had personal experience with clairvoyance, precognition,
or psychokinesis.
The emotional impact of dramatic and unexpected coincidences is certainly one reason why so many people believe in ESP. Say you have a dream about your
friend, Jessica, from whom you haven’t heard in years, and Jessica calls the next morning. You might assume the coincidence is so incredible that it must be ESP.
Yet people tend to underestimate how often such events could occur by chance alone. If you find yourself in a group of 25 people, what are the odds that at least 2
of them share the same birthday? Most people are shocked to learn that the answer is over 50%. If we increased the size of the group to 35, the odds of at least 2
people sharing the same birthday rises to about 85% (Gilovich, 1991). We tend to underestimate how probable most coincidences are, and we may then attribute
false “psychic” significance to these events (Marks & Kammann, 1980).
As we noted in the Introduction (p. 11), selective perception and memory lead us to remember events that confirm our beliefs and ignore or forget events that
don’t (Presley, 1997). Accordingly, people who believe in ESP may be more likely to remember and attach special significance to occurrences that fall into the
category of the paranormal, even though they’re due merely to chance. Because the timing of Jessica’s call grabbed your attention, it stood out in your memory. So
category of the paranormal, even though they’re due merely to chance. Because the timing of Jessica’s call grabbed your attention, it stood out in your memory. So
if we asked you a few weeks later if you believed in ESP, her call could spring to mind as evidence for ESP.
In light of the seeming reality of ESP experiences, scientists have given them serious consideration since the late 19th century. Joseph Banks Rhine (1933) and
his wife Louisa jump-started the scientific study of ESP in the United States. They established a major program of research on ESP at Duke University in the 1930s
based on subjects’ trying to guess one of five standard symbols (star, triangle, squiggly line, plus sign, square) on cards—named “Zener cards” after one of Rhine’s
colleagues. Yet other scientists couldn’t replicate positive findings from Rhine and his colleagues’ Zener card studies. Nor could they replicate later research
involving the ability of people to transmit visual images to a dreaming person (Ullman, Krippner, & Vaughan, 1973). Skeptics dismissed rates of ESP responding
that exceeded chance as due to the unintentional “leakage” of subtle sensory cues, such as seeing the vague imprint of a Zener card symbol through a sealed
Studies using the Ganzfeld technique have received by far the most attention from the scientific community. The mental information detected by ESP, if it indeed
exists, is presumably an exceedingly weak signal. So this information is typically obscured by many irrelevant stimuli. According to the logic of the Ganzfeld
method, we need to create a uniform sensory field, the Ganzfeld (from the German word meaning “whole field”), to decrease the proportion of noise relative to
signal and allow the faint ESP signal to emerge (Lilienfeld, 1999).
To establish this uniform sensory field, ESP experimenters cover the eyes of relaxed subjects with ping-pong ball halves, and direct a floodlight containing a red
beam toward their eyes. Meanwhile, these researchers pump white noise into subjectsears through headphones to minimize extraneous sounds in the room. A
person in another room then attempts to mentally transmit pictures to subjects, who later rate the extent to which each of four pictures matches the mental imagery
they experienced during the session.
In 1994, Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton published a remarkable article on the Ganzfeld method in one of psychology’s most prestigious journals,
Psychological Bulletin. To analyze data collected previously by other investigators on this method, they used a statistical technique called meta-analysis, which
allows researchers to combine the results of many studies and treat them as though they were one large study. Bem and Honorton’s meta-analysis of 11 Ganzfeld
studies revealed that participants obtained overall target “hit rates of approximately 35%, thereby exceeding chance (25%: that’s 1 in 4 targets) performance.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman (1999) analyzed 30 recent Ganzfeld studies not reviewed by Bem and Honorton, and
reported that the size of Ganzfeld effects corresponded to essentially chance performance.
Lance Storm and Suitbert Ertel (2001) responded to Milton and Wiseman (1999) with another meta-analysis of 79 Ganzfeld studies, dating from 1974 to 1996,
and contended that their analysis supported the claim that the Ganzfeld procedure detected ESP. In the parting shot in this scientific ping-pong game (appropriate for
Ganzfeld research, we might add) of arguments and counterarguments, Milton and Wiseman (2001) countered that the studies that Storm and Ertel included in their
analysis suffered from serious methodological shortcomings, and had shown nothing of the kind. Its clear that the question of whether the Ganzfeld technique will
prove to be the replicable method long sought by parapsychologists is far from conclusively resolved (Lilienfeld, 1999). Still, the fact that psychologists have tried
unsuccessfully for over 150 years to demonstrate the existence of ESP is hardly encouraging (Gilovich, 1991).
Many scientists argue that the scientific “bar” necessary to accept the existence of ESP should be set very high. After all, the very existence of ESP would run
counter to most established physical laws related to space, time, and matter. A program of well-controlled research that yields consistent support for ESP across
independent laboratories will be needed to persuade the scientific community that paranormal abilities are real. Although we shouldn’t dismiss these abilities as
impossible or unworthy of further scientific consideration, we recommend holding off on making any major life decisions based on that call to the psychic hot line.
Myth #4 Visual Perceptions Are Accompanied by Tiny Emissions from the Eyes
Before reading on, take a look at the world around you. If you’re inside, fixate on an object, like a chair, pen, or coffee mug; if you’re outside, fixate on a tree, blade
of grass, or cloud. Keep staring at it.
Now answer this question: Is anything coming out of your eyes?
This question may strike you as decidedly odd. Yet surveys demonstrate that large proportions of adults believe that our visual perceptions are accompanied by
tiny emissions from our eyes (Winer, Cottrell, Gregg, Fournier, & Bica, 2002).
Indeed, when researchers show college students diagrams that depict rays, waves, or particles coming either into the eye or coming out of the eye and ask them to
pick the diagram that best describes visual perception, 41–67% select diagrams that show emissions emanating from the eye (Winer, Cottrell, Karefilaki, & Gregg,
1996). Even when researchers have shown college students cartoons of people’s faces staring at an object and asked them to draw arrows to portray their vision,
69% drew arrows that showed visual energies emerging from the eyes (Winer & Cottrell, 1996b). These findings aren’t an artifact of college students not
understanding the drawings, because even when researchers ask them— without any drawings—whether or not the eye emits rays or particles that enable it to see
objects, many, often 30% or more, say that it does (Winer et al., 1996).
As the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1929) noted, this belief begins early in life. Piaget even discussed the case of one child who believed that two
people’s looks can connect and “mix” when they meet each other. Consistent with Piaget’s observations, 57% of elementary school children say that something
comes out of the eye when people see (Cottrell & Winer, 1994; Winer & Cottrell, 1996a). This belief declines from the third to the eighth grade, but it remains
widespread (Winer & Cottrell, 1996a).
This “extramission theory” of vision dates back at least as far as Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 b.c.), who spoke of a “fire” that emanated from the eye during
vision, which “coalesces with the daylightand causes the sensation we call seeing” (Gross, 1999). Later, Greek mathematician Euclid (circa 300 b.c.) described
“rays proceeding from the eye” during vision. Although the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) rejected the extramission theory of vision, it remained
popular for many centuries.
Indeed, beliefs about the “evil eye” (mal ojo) inflicting psychological harm on others have long been widespread in many countries, especially Mexico and those
in the Mediterranean, Central America, and the Arab world (Bohigian, 1998; Gross, 1999; Machovec, 1976; Winer, Rader, & Cottrell, 2003). Both the Old and
New testaments of the Bible refer to the evil eye, and ancient Egyptians applied eye shadow to ward off its sinister influence. Throughout the ages, poets wrote of
the power of the eye to induce profound psychological effects, perhaps indirectly reflecting people’s extramission beliefs (Gross, 1999). For example, Shakespeare
penned that “A lover’s eye will gaze an eagle blind.” Even today, we speak of people giving us a “penetrating glance,” a “piercing stare,” or a “cutting look”
(Winer & Cottrell, 1996a). Because of the representativeness heuristic (see Introduction, p. 15), we may over-generalize from these metaphors to the literal belief
that the eye outputs energy. Interestingly, surveys suggest that 93% of college students have experienced the sense that they can “feel the stare of other people”
(Cottrell, Winer, & Smith, 1996).
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake (2003) even created a stir in the scientific community by conducting research purporting to show that many people can tell they’re
being stared at by people they can’t see, but a number of researchers have identified serious flaws in his studies, including the fact that Sheldrake’s subjects may
have subtly influenced people to stare back at them (Marks & Colwell, 2000; Shermer, 2005). More recently, psychiatrist Colin Ross claimed that he can harness
beams from his eyes to turn on a tone from a computer. Nevertheless, preliminary testing by a neurologist revealed that Ross’ eyeblinks created a brain wave artifact
that was inadvertently triggering the tone (False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 2008).
Psychologists still don’t understand why so many of us hold extramission beliefs, but they have a few tantalizing leads. First, popular culture, as exemplified by
Superman’s X-ray vision with its power to attack villains and slice through steel (Yang, 2007), may have contributed to some modern extramission beliefs, although
this influence of course can’t explain the origins of these beliefs in ancient culture (see Figure 1.1). Second, most of us have experienced “phosphenes,” perceptions
this influence of course can’t explain the origins of these beliefs in ancient culture (see Figure 1.1). Second, most of us have experienced “phosphenes,” perceptions
of light —often consisting of dots or patterns—created by excitation of the retina, the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye (Neher, 1990). Pressure phosphenes,
which we most often see after rubbing our eyes after awakening, are almost certainly the most common. Some writers have conjectured that phosphenes may
contribute to the belief that the eye emits tiny particles to detect objects (Gross, 1999). Third, the eyes of many animals that possess good night vision contain a
“tapetum lucidum,” a reflective layer behind or within the retina. Many of us have seen the gleaming light generated by this layer, sometimes called “eyeshine,” in
cats or raccoons at night (Ollivier et al., 2004). Some have suggested that this experience may foster the misimpression that the eyes generate emissions (Yang,
2007). Nevertheless, all three speculations, although intriguing, are just that—speculations—and none has been tested systematically. The reasons for extramission
beliefs remain poorly understood (Winer et al., 2003).
Can we modify extramission beliefs by education? At first blush, the answer appears to be “no.” Remarkably, exposure to lectures on sensation and perception in
introductory psychology courses seems to make no difference in the percentage of college students who endorse beliefs in extramission (Gregg, Winer, Cottrell,
Hedman, & Fournier, 2001; Winer et al., 2002). Nevertheless, there may be a “ray” of hope, if we can be forgiven for the pun. Research suggests that presenting
college students with “refutationalmessages, those designed not merely to explain how the eye works but how it doesn’t work, in this case that the eye doesn’t
emit rays or particles, leads to short-term reductions in extramission beliefs (Winer et al., 2002). Even here, though, these reductions aren’t especially long-lasting—
they’ve largely dissipated by 3 to 5 months—suggesting that a one-shot exposure to a refutational message may not do the trick. Repeated exposure may be needed.
In many respects, research on refutational messages mirrors the approach we’re adopted throughout this book: first debunking the fictions about the mind and
brain before unveiling the facts. As Mark Twain reminded us, learning often first requires unlearning.
Figure 1.1 Superman’s “X-ray vision” captures many people’s intuitive beliefs regarding visual emissions. Source: Superman #37.
Myth #5 Subliminal Messages Can Persuade People to Purchase Products
Many of us know that psychologists and advertisers can present sights and sounds so briefly or so faintly that we fail to perceive them. But can those feeble stimuli
influence our behavior in powerful ways? There’s a profitable industry that hopes you believe the answer is “yes.”
Some promoters push this kind of ultra-weak or “subliminal” messaging in the realm of advertising, whereas others have become leaders in the burgeoning self-
help movement. The Internet, New Age fairs and magazines, supermarket tabloids, late-night TV “infomercials,” and bookstores market subliminal audiotapes and
CDs that promise to make the purchaser healthy, wealthy, and wise. Among our personal favorites we include audiotapes that promise to enlarge women’s breasts,
relieve constipation, improve one’s sex life, or cure deafness (although the mechanism by which a deaf person could detect subliminal sounds remains truly
mysterious). Given the widespread promotion of subliminal persuasion in the popular psychology world, its hardly surprising that 59% of the psychology
undergraduates sampled by Larry Brown (1983), and 83% of those sampled by Annette Taylor and Patricia Kowalski (2003), said they believed it works.
Interestingly, there’s evidence that under tightly controlled laboratory conditions, psychologists can demonstrate short-lived and modest subliminal effects. In
these experiments, researchers flash priming words or pictures on a screen so briefly that observers are unaware of what the flashes contain. In psychological lingo,
priming stimuli increase the speed or accuracy with which we’ll identify a later stimulus. Experimenters then determine whether the meanings or emotional content
of the priming stimuli influences people’s responses to the task, like completing a word with missing letters or judging the emotion of a person in a photograph. For
instance, Nicholas Epley and his colleagues (Epley, Savitsky, & Kachelski, 1999) described an experiment in which researchers asked psychology graduate
students to generate ideas for research projects. The investigators then exposed the students to extremely brief flashes featuring either the smiling face of a familiar
colleague or the scowling face of their faculty supervisor. The students perceived the stimuli as nothing but flashes of light. Next, they rated the quality of the
research ideas they’d produced. Without knowing why, subjects exposed to the flash featuring the scowling face of their supervisor rated their own ideas less
favorably than those exposed to the smiling colleague’s face.
Investigators can similarly influence verbal behaviors, as when a shared theme in a series of subliminally flashed priming words increases the odds that a person
will choose a related word from a list of alternatives (Merikle, 1992). For example, if we present a subject with the word stem “gui_ _” and ask her to form a
complete word, “guide” and “guile” are both options. Research shows that we can boost the probability of subjects choosing “guide” by priming them subliminally
with words like “direct,” “lead,” and “escort,” whereas we can boost the probability of their choosing “guile” by priming them subliminally with words like
“deceit,” “treachery,” and “duplicity.”
“Subliminal” means “under the limen.” The limen, better known as the “sensory threshold,” is the narrow range in which a diminishing stimulus goes from being
just barely detectable to being just barely undetectable. If the stimulus happens to be a word or phrase, the first hurdle it must pass is the simple detection threshold.
That’s the point at which people first become dimly aware that the researcher has presented anything, even though they can’t identify what they saw or heard. The
researcher must present the stimulus for a longer interval and at a higher intensity to reach the next stage of awareness, the recognition threshold. At that point,
people can say precisely what they heard or saw. If a stimulus has so little energy, or is so thoroughly obscured by noise that it can’t trigger a physiological response
in the eye’s or ear’s receptors, it can’t affect anything the person thinks, feels, or does. Period. Messages that inhabit the gray zone between the detection and
recognition thresholds, or that we simply aren’t attending to, sometimes influence our emotions or behavior.
recognition thresholds, or that we simply aren’t attending to, sometimes influence our emotions or behavior.
The subliminal self-help industry hopes you’ll swallow the claim that your brain understands and acts on the complex meanings of phrases that are presented at
vanishingly weak levels or overshadowed by stronger stimuli. Moreover, they claim that these sneaky subliminal stimuli are especially effective because they worm
their way into your unconscious, where they can pull your strings like a hidden puppeteer. Should you be worried? Read on.
Modern psychology accepts that much of our mental processing goes on outside of our immediate awareness—that our brains work on many tasks at once
without monitoring them consciously (Kihlstrom, 1987; Lynn & Rhue, 1994). Nevertheless, this is a far cry from the kind of non-conscious processing envisioned
by pop psychology proponents of subliminal effects. Subliminal entrepreneurs are holdovers from the heyday of strict Freudian views of the unconscious, which
most scientific psychologists have long abandoned (Bowers, 1987). Like Freud, subliminal enthusiasts see the unconscious as the seat of primitive and largely
sexual urges that operate outside of our awareness to compel our choices.
Writer Vance Packard popularized this view of the unconscious in his 1957 smash bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard accepted uncritically the story of
marketing consultant James Vicary, who supposedly conducted a successful demonstration of subliminal advertising at a Fort Lee, New Jersey movie theatre.
Vicary claimed that during a movie, he repeated exposed cinema patrons to messages flashed on the screen for a mere 1/3,000 of a second, urging them to buy
popcorn and Coca-Cola. He proclaimed that although movie-goers were unaware of these commands, sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola skyrocketed during the six-
week duration of his “experiment.” Vicary’s findings achieved widespread popular acceptance, although he never submitted them to the scrutiny of a scientific
journal, nor has anyone been able to replicate them. After much criticism, Vicary finally admitted in 1962 that he’d made up the whole story in an effort to revive
his failing consulting business (Moore, 1992; Pratkanis, 1992).
Vicary’s confession failed to discourage even more far-fetched accusations that the advertisers were subliminally manipulating the unsuspecting public. In a series
of books with such titillating titles as Subliminal Seduction (1973), former psychology professor Wilson Brian Key claimed that advertisers were conspiring to
influence consumer choices by embedding blurred sexual images into magazine and TV renderings of ice cubes, plates of food, modelshair-dos, and even Ritz
crackers. Key gravely warned that even a single exposure to these camouflaged images could affect consumer choices weeks later. Although Key presented no real
evidence to back up his claims, public alarm led the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to look into his allegations. Although the FCC couldn’t find
any evidence that subliminal advertising worked, they declared it “contrary to the public interest” and warned licensed broadcasters to steer clear of it. Moreover, in
an attempt to soothe public jitters, several advertising trade associations imposed voluntary restrictions, asking their members to refrain from attempts to punch
below the liminal belt.
Although Vicary was an admitted fraud and Key never put his strange ideas to a proper test, some still believed that subliminal persuasion claims were worth
examining. So in 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) performed an unprecedented nationwide test. During a popular Sunday night TV program,
it informed viewers that the network was about to conduct a test of subliminal persuasion. The CBC then flashed subliminally the message “phone nowon the
screen 352 times throughout the show. Telephone company records indicated that phone usage didn’t increase, nor did local television stations report a big upsurge
in calls. Nevertheless, a few viewers, who may have known about Vicary’s alleged results, called in to say they felt hungrier and thirstier following the program.
The results of more carefully controlled tests of the ability of subliminal messages to influence consumer choices or voter attitudes were also overwhelmingly
negative (Eich & Hyman, 1991; Logie & Della Sala, 1999; Moore, 1992; Pratkanis, 1992). To this day, there’s no good evidence that subliminal messages can
affect purchasers’ decisions or voters’ choices, let alone yield perfect memories or larger breasts.
Perhaps most bizarre of all were claims that heavy metal rock bands, such as Judas Priest, were inserting backward recordings of Satanic messages in their music.
Alarmists claimed these messages encouraged suicidal behavior, although what conceivable purpose entertainers might have in killing off potential album buyers
remains unclear. Some even asserted that it was all a plot to subvert the morality of youthful music fans. Many would maintain that youth generally manage this feat
quite well without any special subliminal help, but no matter.
John Vokey and J. Don Read (1985) put the idea of subliminal backward messages to a controlled test. In one particularly amusing demonstration, they found
that participants with prudish leanings, given subtle suggestions as to what they were about to hear, were likely to perceive nonexistent pornographic material in
reverse-played Biblical passages. These results suggest that people who claim to hear Satanic messages embedded in commercial sound tracks are allowing their
overheated imaginations to read the lewd material into meaningless sound patterns. It’s all in the ear of the beholder.
Tests of self-help subliminal products have been equally discouraging. Anthony Greenwald and his colleagues (Greenwald, Spangenberg, Pratkanis, & Eskenazi,
1991) conducted a double-blind test of commercially marketed subliminal audiotapes that purport to enhance memory or self-esteem. They told half of the
participants they were getting the memory boosting tapes, the other half they were getting the self-esteem boosting tapes. Within each of these groups, half got the
tapes they were expecting and half got the tapes with the other message. Participants reported that they improved in ways consistent with whichever kind of tape
they believed they received. Those who received the self-esteem tapes, believing they were the memory boosters, were just as happy with their apparent memory
improvement as those who got the real McCoy, and vice versa. This curious finding led Greenwald and his colleagues to refer to this phenomenon as an illusory
placebo effect: People didn’t improve, but they thought they had.
Despite convincing debunking of the concept by the scientific community, subliminal advertisements still pop up occasionally. During the 2000 U.S. presidential
election, sharp-eyed Democrats spotted, in a Republican TV attack ad aimed at candidate Al Gore, an extremely brief flash of the word “RATS” superimposed on
Gore’s face (Berke, 2000). The ad’s creator claimed that the fact that the last four letters of the intended word “BUREACRATS” just happened to become detached
from this longer word was entirely accidental (see Figure 1.2). Nevertheless, advertising production experts said that given the advanced technology used to prepare
the ad, an unintentional insertion of this kind was unlikely.
Figure 1.2 Was the inclusion of the word (“RATS”), which appeared subliminally in this 2000 Republican campaign advertisement against Democratic candidate
Al Gore, intentional?
Source: Reuters/Corbis.
Perhaps the final word should go to a spokesperson for the industry that lives or dies by its ability to persuade people to buy things they may—or may not—need.
Bob Garfield (1994), a columnist for Advertising Age magazine, summed up many people’s views on the matter: “Subliminal advertising does not exist except in
the public consciousness, at least not in consumer advertising. Nobody bothers with it because it’s hard enough to impress people by hitting them upside the head
with [blatant] images.”
with [blatant] images.”
Chapter 1: Other Myths to Explore
Fiction Fact
We need a full brain to function effectively. Some people who’ve had one brain hemisphere surgically removed in childhood due to illness can function reasonably well in adulthood.
Modern humans have larger brains than Neanderthals. Neanderthals’ brains were probably slightly larger than ours.
Areas of activation on brain scans mean that brain regions are becoming more active. Areas of activation on brain scans sometimes mean that some brain regions are inhibiting other regions.
“Alpha consciousness” is associated with states of relaxation.
Theres no evidence that boosting the brain’s alpha waves increases relaxation; moreover, some people who aren’t relaxed, such as children with attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder, have high levels of alpha
Adult humans don’t grow new neurons. Relatively recent research points to the growth of new neurons in parts of the adult brain, especially the hippocampus.
As adults, we lose about 100,000 neurons each day. We do lose neurons each day, but the actual number is probably only about one tenth of that.
Blind people have especially well-developed senses of hearing and touch. Theres little evidence that the blind have superior abilities in other senses, including hearing, touch, or smell.
Blind people can detect obstacles at a distance by sensing heat and pressure on their foreheads. Theres no evidence for this claim.
A coma is a state of deep sleep. People in comas are not asleep.
We can “awaken” people from comas by playing their favorite songs. Theres no scientific evidence that people can be brought out of comas by presenting them with their favorite songs or other familiar stimuli.
Biofeedback is a uniquely effective means of reducing tension. Most studies indicate that biofeedback is no more effective than relaxation for reducing anxiety.
Humans have an invisible “body energy” that can cause psychological problems when blocked. Theres no scientific evidence for invisible energy fields in or around the human body.
Alcohol kills brain cells. Alcohol appears not to kill brain cells themselves, although it can damage neuronal “dendrites,” which are portals that bring messages into neurons.
Alcohol’s primary effect is stimulating the brain. Alcohol is primarily a depressant, and is typically a stimulant only at low doses.
Alcohol enhances sexual arousal. Alcohol tends to inhibit sexual arousal and performance, especially at high doses.
One can always detect alcohol on the breath. One can’t always detect alcohol on the breath.
Alcohol promotes sleep. Although alcohol typically results in falling asleep more quickly, it usually suppresses deep sleep, often producing awakenings later in the night.
Alcohol warms the body. Although drinking alcohol in cold temperatures can make us feel warmer, it actually results in a loss of body heat and therefore cools the body.
It’s easier to get drunk at high altitudes, such as while flying in an airplane. Studies show that higher altitudes don’t result in greater intoxication.
Impaired judgment after drinking occurs only after obvious signs of intoxication. Impaired judgment can occur well before drunkenness is apparent.
Drinking coffee is a good way to sober up after heavy drinking. Drinking coffee won’t help with a hangover; it just turns us into a “wide awake drunk.
A cold shower or exercise is a good way to sober up after heavy drinking. Same as above.
Switching among different types of alcohol is more likely to lead to drunkenness than stick-ing to
one type of alcohol.
The total amount, not the type, of alcohol predicts the risk of intoxication.
One can’t become an alcoholic by drinking beer only. Not true.
There’s good evidence that people who smoke marijuana for many years end up apathetic. The evidence foramotivational syndrome” is mixed, largely in part because heavy marijuana smokers frequently use other drugs.
Most people with brain injury look and act disabled. Most people with brain injury appear normal and act normally aside from subtle deficits on neuropsychological tests.
Following a head injury, the best prescription is rest. Following a head injury, the best prescription is a gradual return to activity.
A head injury can’t produce brain damage unless the person is knocked unconscious. Brain damage that’s detectable on neurological and neuropsychological tests can occur even with no loss of consciousness.
Prefrontal lobotomies (more popularly called “lobotomies”) turn people into human “vegetables.” Most people who’ve received lobotomies are far from “vegetables,” although they are typically apathetic.
Humans have five senses. Humans have several senses in addition to sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, including body position, temperature, and pain.
Most color-blind people see the world in black and white. Almost all color-blind people can see at least some colors; “monochromats,” who see the world in black and white, comprise only about 0.005% of the population.
Dogs see the world in black and white. Dogs have red–green color blindness, but can perceive a number of colors, including blue and yellow.
Reading in dim light can ruin our eyesight. Research offers no support for this claim.
The human tongue’s tastes can be described as a “map” of four tastes. Although some textbooks present a human “taste map,” this map is grossly oversimplified, because receptors for the four tastes are spread throughout most of the tongue.
Consuming ice cream of other cold substances too quick ly causes pain in our brains. Brain freeze is caused by a constriction of blood vessels in the roof of the mouth, followed by an expansion of these vessels, triggering pain.
Magnets, like those embedded in shoe insoles, can reduce pain. Controlled studies reveal that such magnets are useless for pain reduction.
Eating lots of turkey can make us tired.
Theres no evidence that turkey is any more sleep-inducing than other foods; but because we often eat turkey on major holidays when we eat a lot and drink alcohol—both of which contribute to fatigue—we may
mistakenly perceive a causal association.
Sources and Suggested Readings
To explore these and other myths about the brain and perception, see Aamodt and Wang (2008); Bausell (2007); Beyerstein (1990); Della Sala (1999, 2007); El-
Hai (2005); Herculano- Houzel (2002); Hines (2003); Juan (2006); Lilienfeld and Arkowitz (2008); Vreeman and Carroll (2007).
Myths about Development and Aging
Myth #6 Playing Mozart’s Music to Infants Boosts Their Intelligence
Few qualities—or quantities—are more prized in American society than intelligence and intel<