Review: “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology”

Mario Sikora
Jun 22, 2012


     The talk we were listening to had become sort of a game. The speaker was giving a presentation on… well, I’m still not sure what exactly the point was… but it was like a reading from a catalog of pseudoscience and pop psychology babble. Half-way through the talk the guy sitting next to me and I started making predictions about what else the speaker would weave into the talk.
     “We’re only moments away from ‘quantum consciousness’ and the observer effect,” I said.
     “And crop circles,” he said.
     “Star children and the Pleiades,” I wagered. We took to murmuring “check” when the speaker hit a pseudoscience talking point.
     Check. Check. Check.
     I feared we were becoming a distraction and it took iron will to stifle our guffaws when the speaker showed a blurry photo that he claimed was the sun
protecting the earth from an alien invasion by zapping the flying saucer with a solar flare.
     We moved to the back of the room and continued to observe the hit parade of woo.

    Dispelling pseudoscience and pop-psych myths is akin to trying to hold back the ocean with a bucket, but I was recently reminded of an excellent resource for clear thinking about the way the mind doesn’t work: “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior,”by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein.
   Lilienfeld et al explore a wide variety of topics, with chapters covering topics that range from brain lateralization myths, ESP, and the idea that we only use 10% of our brain to the Mozart effect, memory repression, and out-of-body experiences. Their research is thorough (the reference section runs to over 60 pages) and they describe the roots of many of the myths, patiently explaining how the chain of assumptions went awry as the kernels of fact eventually gave rise to misguided assertions.
    The authors do not dismiss the whole self-help industry, acknowledging that there is some good work out there in the popular psychology field, but also supplying the reader with some tools for discriminating between the wheat and the chaff. They reference George Kelly’s assertion that we are all armchair psychologists and point out that many of these myths seem to make common sense. However, they often explain that pesky facts often undermine our intuitions, and it is helpful to employ the tools of science to verify (or disconfirm) our beliefs. Science, they write, is “uncommon sense” and truth is often counterintuitive.
   The introduction provides a handy “Mythbusting Kit” that identifies ten common sources of error, such as our tendency to trust word-of-mouth anecdotes, selective perception and memory, confusing causation with correlation, and exposure to biased samples, and gives advice for overcoming those errors.
   In a postscript entitled “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction,” the authors provide an entertaining list of difficult-to-believe facts regarding the effects of strokes in the left frontal lobe (victims often become very effective lie detectors), synesthesia (where people experience cross-modal sensations–colors as sounds, for example), and what handshakes reveal about personality. It all makes for fascinating reading.
   “50 Great Myths” is a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone who wants to better understand how the mind truly works.

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