Do You Fall For Psychology’s Biggest Myths? Here Are 10 Ways To Know

Do You Fall For Psychology’s Biggest Myths? Here Are 10 Ways To Know

From folklore and old wives tales to proverbs and superstitions, there are various parts of our lives where the line between fact and fiction becomes blurry. Often, these trivias and sayings have little to no truth or benefit to them, yet remain widely prevalent and believed. Psychology, too, falls victim to this blurred line.

Misconceptions about the mind, its workings and human behavior often crop up in popular culture, media portrayals and even in conversation with well-intentioned but misinformed individuals. However, research reveals how crucial it is to distinguish between what is empirically supported and what is merely a product of psychological mythology—and has provided a way for us to measure the depth of our misconceptions.

How Does Psychological Mythology Spread?

Psychological myths—misconceptions surrounding the human mind and behavior—are thought to be spread from various sources. However, according to research from the journal Psychological Learning and Teaching, exposure to inaccurate information in the media, oversimplified teachings in textbooks and personal experience seem to contribute most significantly to their prevalence.

In their review of research, the authors noted that even those studying psychology fall prey to psychological misconceptions. These scholars credited their misassumptions to a variety of sources; however, a significant portion attributed their misconceptions to media (20%), personal experiences (19%), reading (16%) and classroom instruction (15%). Astonishingly, a substantial portion (38%) directly linked their misconceptions to psychology courses or instructors.

The authors also regard cognitive biases—such as confirmatory bias, illusory correlations, post-hoc reasoning and inference of causation from correlation—to play a role in belief of psychological mythology. It’s also argued that these misconceptions stem from a core set of explanatory concepts—dubbed “folk psychology”—that people often use to understand, predict and influence behavior.

Where Does Psychological Mythology Originate?

Just as the prevalence and spread of psychological mythology is thought to stem from various sources, the same applies to the origin of these misconceptions.

According to the aforementioned authors, the origin of these myths are broadly categorized into two groups:

  1. Firstly, there are factual misconceptions, which arise from encountering incorrect or incomplete information in the media, classrooms or everyday environments. Certain myths like “Some people are left-brained, while others are right-brained” and “Humans can only use 10% of their brains” often stem from external sources rather than personal experiences.
  2. Secondly, there are ontological misconceptions, reflecting naive or commonsense theories about thought, feelings and behavior. Take, for instance, the emission theory of vision—the bizarre belief that people see by emitting rays from their eyes that reflect off objects. This misconception, found to be embraced by both young children and college students, traces its origins back to ancient Greece and continues to influence cultural practices worldwide.

While certainly influenced by social context, these misconceptions may spring from a collection of ontological assumptions, explanatory concepts and causal mechanisms that collectively form intuitive theories about psychology—which drastically differ from modern theory and research.

How To Measure Your Belief In Psychological Mythology

Perplexed by the origin and prevalence of psychological mythology, research from the journal of Teaching of Psychology developed a questionnaire that measures the extent of individuals’ misinformed beliefs. To test how far into the trap of misconception a person has fallen, users rate their level of agreement to various psychological myths. Consider these these 10 common myths, taken from a broader set of myths identified by the researchers:

  1. People predominantly use either the left-side or the right-side of their brain.
  2. People only use 10% of their brain’s total processing capability.
  3. The vast majority of autistic individuals possess savant abilities (i.e., one or more isolated pockets of remarkable intellectual ability).
  4. A person’s handwriting is a valid and reliable indicator of their personality traits.
  5. Thinking positive thoughts reduces the development of cancer.
  6. A defining characteristic of a person with schizophrenia is that they have multiple personalities.
  7. A majority of people experience a midlife crisis between the ages of 40 and 60.
  8. Memory works like a tape recorder or video camera, accurately recording the events we experience.
  9. Playing classical music (e.g., Mozart) to infants and children produces long-lasting increases in their intelligence.
  10. Children raised in gay or lesbian families almost always grow up gay or lesbian themselves.

According to research from Current Directions in Psychological Science, the implications of psychological misconceptions extend far beyond being slightly misinformed. The concerning reality is that these myths can have a major impact on the ways that we interact with, regard and understand those around us—as well as on how we understand the human mind.

These erroneous beliefs not only create barriers within the field of psychology, but also present immense challenges for individuals in many other spheres of society. Laypersons, policymakers, journalists, attorneys, as well as all others that rely on psychological information in everyday life, are all susceptible to the pitfalls of mythological belief. Even more so, the authors explain how these misconceptions can have tangible real-world consequences—ones that can cause irrevocable damage.

Consider the impact on a courtroom, where jurors—influenced by the misconception that memory functions like a flawless video recorder—may uncritically accept dubious eyewitness testimony, leading to an unjust outcome. In these kinds of scenarios, actions based on misinformation could lead to lost friendship, smeared reputations, and even ruined futures.

Making mistakes is a part of being human. We forget to fact-check, we accept information at face value and we naively trust any and all authority figures to guide us. Yet, in the same way we carry the weight of knowledge, we also bear the burden of misinformation. Because of this, education requires not only the pursuit of knowledge, but also the courage to discard what no longer serves us. To truly serve others and to better ourselves, we must embrace the process of unlearning. It’s a humbling journey, but one that leads is guaranteed to bring us closer to clarity.

Want to test yourself against the full list of psychological myths? Make use of the complete test here: Psychological Misconception Questionnaire

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