I like books about science and critical thinking. This book is a treat because it describes many popular myths about psychology.
A popular belief is that most psychology is just common sense. It is thought that our gut intuitions, first impressions, and common sense are the best ways to arrive at fundamental truths about the world. Many scientists and science writers have cautioned against relying too heavily on common sense when evaluating scientific claims, including those in psychology. Although snap judgments and intuition can be helpful in some cases, they can also be inaccurate. Ultimately, we need to be open to the possibility that our gut hunches may be incorrect and be willing to examine scientific evidence to evaluate claims accurately.
Myths and misconceptions
Psychological myths and misconceptions can lead to people making incorrect decisions or taking inappropriate actions, resulting in adverse consequences. Even if the myths themselves are harmless, people may miss out on opportunities for more effective treatments if they invest in false interventions. Also, acceptance of psychological myths can impede critical thinking in other areas, leading to poor decision-making on important issues such as climate change or crime prevention.
Sources of psychological myths and misconceptions
- often repeated word-of-mouth;
- our reliance on intuition rather than careful analysis of evidence;
- selective media reporting;
- misunderstanding of correlation and causation;
- disregard for the base rate (the prevalence of a particular behavior or condition in the general population);
- inaccurate perception of randomness;
- hindsight bias;
- belief perseverance in the face of contradictory evidence, due to a variety of cognitive and emotional factors.
The Great Fourfold Table of Life
(picture by Martin Setiabudhi)
This is a tool that can help understand how people create patterns and false associations between different events. The A cell of the table is a "hit", a striking co-occurrence, the B cell is a "miss", the absence of a striking co-occurrence. People tend to attend more to the A cell, leading to an illusory correlation, where they perceive a relationship between two statistically unrelated events.
Next to the example of psychiatric hospital admissions at full moon, another examples are discussed, like linking infantile autism to exposure to mercury-based vaccines.
Be clear about your terms
Terminological confusion leads to mistaken inferences, e.g. schizophrenia has led many people to believe incorrectly that people with the condition possess more than one personality, and hypnosis has led people to assume that it is a sleep-like state.
The type of claims described
The book debunks 50 myths that are commonplace in the world of popular psychology and offers a list of additional psychological myths to explore in each domain. Myths are described about the brain, perception, development, aging, memory, intelligence and learning, consciousness, interpersonal behavior, personality, mental illness, psychology and the law, and psychological treatment. Debunking myths comes with its share of risks, but it is essential to understand the reasons underlying each misconception. The book aims to explain not only what is wrong with each myth but also how it came about and why it persists.
The book covers many popular beliefs, including that people only use 10% of their brain power, that playing Mozart's music to infants boosts their intelligence, and that all people who confess to a crime are guilty of it. The book also debunks myths about Alzheimer's disease and about memory in general, such as the belief that the memory of everything we've experienced is stored permanently in our brains, and that some people have true photographic memories.
Psychology and cancer
One of the most interesting myths discussed is the myth that a positive attitude can stave off cancer. Some popular sources suggest that positive attitudes and emotions are necessary for battling cancer, and that psychological factors can cause or cure the disease. Scientific evidence shows that there is no direct link between patients' attitudes and emotions and the development or progression of cancer. In fact, this myth may be harmful because it places undue pressure on cancer patients to maintain a positive attitude, and it may lead them to feel responsible for causing their own cancer. The belief that positive attitudes can help fight off cancer is popular because it appeals to people's sense of hope, but it is not supported by scientific evidence. People who attribute their good outcomes to a positive attitude may be falling prey to post hoc reasoning. Although a positive attitude may not cure or stave off cancer, it can help in coping with the disease. People with cancer can take comfort in the fact that their attitudes are not to blame for their illness and can still take measures to relieve their physical and emotional burdens through quality medical and psychological care, connecting with friends and family, and finding meaning and purpose in their lives.
Some counterintuitive facts
In the final pages of the book, the authors present a list of ten psychological findings that are difficult to believe but true. These findings, which are based on research, are counterintuitive, and may be dismissed as myths because they violate common sense. They include the fact that our brains contain about three million miles of neural connections, patients with severe language loss are better at detecting lies, and people with extreme forms of amnesia can remember events unconsciously. The authors suggest that genuine psychological knowledge, which fulfills our need for wonder and is supported by science, is a powerful antidote to psychological myths. Also covered are the influence of environmental factors on cognitive ability, the placebo effect on physical pain, and the effects of priming on behavior. The authors conclude by encouraging readers to remain open to surprising and unconventional findings in psychology.