Psychology Myths


1) Opposites attract

     According to one study (McCutcheon, 1991), over three-quarters of undergraduates believe this statement to be true, and this assumption continues to show up in TV shows and movies.  However, there is almost no research to support such an assertion.  In fact, there are many studies showing the opposite: similarity and attraction are closely linked, especially for platonic attraction (e.g., Byrne, 1961; Singh, 1973; Newcomb, 1961; Montoya, Horton & Kirchner, 2008).  Experimental research shows that there is a positive linear relationship between attitudes similarity and attraction (e.g., Byrne, 1961); for example, if people have twice as many attitudes in common they will tend to like each other twice as much (e.g., gun control, capital punishment, religion, etc.).  Furthermore, an even stronger effect is that we tend to dislike people who are dissimilar to us (e.g., Lundy, Barker, & Glenn, 2013).  Think of how unlikely it would be for married couples or best friends to occur in the following combinations: a fundamentalist and an atheist, a Tea Party member and an extreme liberal, an anti-intellectual and a passionate philosopher.  As it relates to marriage outcomes, Smith, Becker, Byrne, and Przybyla (1993) called the ‘opposites attract’ notion a “toxic belief”.


2) Lie detector tests are accurate

     The error rate found for these tests would not be tolerated in most areas of society but they still persist, and often go unquestioned.  Some estimates suggest error rates as high as 40%, with the most common error being the labeling of innocent people as guilty (Lykken, 1998).  People want to believe there is a quick fix for lie detection but no such test yet exists, nor is it likely to happen in the forseeable future.  Even the name is misleading; it should really be called an “arousal-detector test”.  The problem with such a test that measures several physiological indicators of arousal is that there can be many different causes of arousal, with guilt about lying being only one of them.  Unfortunately, these tests remain popular among the military and the government, as well as in movies and TV shows.  Many Americans still believe they are ‘reliable’ and ‘useful’ for detecting deception (Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2010).     


3) ESP has been shown to be exist

     By various estimates, 40-70% of Americans believe in some form of Extrasensory Perception (e.g., Shermer, 1997).  However, there is no reliable scientific evidence for any form of paranormal ability.  Psychologist and former magician, James Randi, once put up thousands of dollars of his own money and offered it to anyone who could demonstrate psychic ability in a scientific setting.  Since that time, the pot of money for such a demonstration has grown substantially, but no one has ever successfully won the money.  Think about it this way: if someone could predict the future (precognition), he or she would not need petty cash from unsuspecting people, but could make a mint in sports bets or lotteries.  Over 150 years of paranormal research has failed to find any consistently strong evidence for such abilities in people (Gilovich, 1991).  One possible cause of the belief that there are is something greater than ourselves is that we tend to underestimate how common coincidences are and attribute such surprising events to paranormal sources.  However, the scientific bar should be set pretty high for something that likely would defy the known laws of space, time and matter (Lilienfeld et al., 2010).


4) People use only 10% of their brain

     Many people have heard or even used this phrase. The idea that people only use a small portion of their brain leaving a lot of untapped potential is a common theme in recent movies such as Lucy (2014) and Limitless (2011). In general terms, letting 90% of one’s brain go to waste would be a pretty inefficient biological strategy and would surely be selected against across generations. Today scientists measure oxygen and glucose consumption of brain tissue using imaging technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET). Scientists observe that all areas of healthy brains are active all the time, even while people sleep or are in a coma. However, depending on the task a person engages in, some areas of the brain become more active than others. Further evidence from neuropsychological studies show that there is no area of the brain that can be damaged in adults without some measurable loss of function.


5) People often repress traumatic childhood memories

     In the late 1890s, Sigmund Freud suggested the existence of a psychological mechanism that actively suppresses traumatic experiences to protect against the potentially damaging consequences of the memory. He further theorized that such repressed memories (e.g., childhood trauma) could cause emotional and behavioral disturbances in adulthood and even be recovered through techniques in psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. Today the overwhelming scientific evidence shows that traumatic events are remembered by both patients suffering from psychological disorders and healthy individuals (Brewin, 2007). Researchers have shown that patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over-remember details of traumatic events, although they very often distort traumatic memories (Brewin, 2007). The world-renowned memory researcher Dr. Elizabeth Loftus summarizes research on this topic in her 1994 book titled The Myth of Repressed Memory. Dr. Loftus reports that almost without exception clinical cases of suspected repressed memories don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. Instead, Dr. Loftus has demonstrated in a number of controlled experiments that false memories, which a psychotherapist might interpret as repressed memories, can be induced in people with the very same therapy techniques used to recover suspected repressed memories. Freud’s idea of repressed memories continues to be used as a theme in literature, cinema, and television, which helps perpetuate the myth. Recent studies show that, although belief in repressed memory has decreased substantially among practicing clinical psychologists since the 1990s, the myth is still held by many undergraduate students (Patihis et al., 2014).


6) Students benefit from teachers catering to different learning styles

     Many people believe that they have a preferred learning style or one that is optimal for them. One person might believe that he or she is a visual learner and that he or she learns best when information is presented in graphs and pictures. Another person might hold the belief that he or she is an auditory learner and is best served by learning approaches that present information verbally. The fact is that there is no empirical evidence that supports the concept that people have a preferred or optimal learning style (Pashler et al., 2009). The problem is that unsupported beliefs about learning styles often leads people to narrow their learning strategies and approaches to fit the misconception. However, this is a potentially damaging since evidence from scientific experiments have shown that learning is accomplished best when we ‘go wide’ and try to engage as many of our senses and abilities as possible (Gardner, 2006).   


7) It is best to stick to your initial intuition on multiple choice questions

     When taking multiple choice exams, most test takers believe it is best to stick to your initial response, instead of second-guessing yourself and changing to a new answer (Ballance, 1977).  However, research demonstrates that this strategy is false and often leads to lower test scores.  In fact, when taking a multiple choice exam, someone who changes their answer is much more likely to change their answer from an incorrect answer to a correct answer, than they are from correct to incorrect (e.g., Copeland, 1972; Crocker & Benson, 1980; Johnston, 1975; Schwarz, McMorris, & DeMers, 1991). Relying on the false belief that it is always better to stick to your initial judgment is known as the first instinct fallacy (Kruger, Wirtz, & Miller, 2005).  When someone gets a question wrong on an examination, that individual often experiences frustration and self-abasement, especially if the question was answered correctly initially, but later changed to an incorrect answer.  The presence of negative emotions during an experience enhances the memory of that experience (Kensinger, 2007).  Therefore, because people are more likely to remember episodes where they changed an answer and ultimately got that answer wrong, they are likely to believe that those experiences occur more frequently, when in fact, the opposite is true (Gilovich, Medvec, & Chen, 1995).


8) People who have psychological disorders are more prone to violence.

     The myth that people who have psychological disorders are violent is perpetuated in several areas of our society. In movies and television, it is rare to see a character with a psychological disorder who is not also portrayed as being violent. In fact, research shows that about 72% of characters with psychological disorders on television are portrayed as being violent, whereas only 45% of characters without such disorders display violence (Levine, 2001). Individuals with schizophrenia or psychotic disorders are often portrayed as especially dangerous perpetrators of random acts of violence toward strangers. These myths carry over to news media and our national conversation about gun violence, which tend to prominently connect gun violence, and especially mass shootings, to mental illness. A common suggestion is that keeping guns away from people with psychological disorders is the most effective way to prevent gun violence. Even police officers tend to view potential encounters with mentally ill people as highly dangerous (Ruiz & Miller, 2004). In reality, people with psychological disorders engage in violent criminal activity at similar rates to people without psychological disorders. Recent research shows that only 4% of overall violent crimes in the United States can be attributed to individuals with psychological disorders (Friedman, 2014). Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides (Knoll & Annas, 2015). Studies have found that while people who have psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia have a slightly higher rate of homicides compared to the general population, the incidence is still extremely uncommon – you are 15x more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by someone with a psychotic illness (Knoll & Annas, 2015).

Why then does this myth persist? In our general daily lives, it pays well to be able to process information quickly so our brains have developed shortcuts – “heuristics” – that can help us make simple decisions easily without getting overwhelmed by the mountains of information at our fingertips. This process has given the human mind the tendency to pay the most attention to information that is vivid, negative, and easily accessible in our memories – and paying the least attention to information that is more factual, logical, rational, and based on statistics. When we think of news reports, what information is the most vivid, negative, and easily accessible? That’s right – terrifying stories about an innocent person who was murdered on the street by an untreated schizophrenia patient, or gripping stories of school shootings perpetrated by a psychologically disturbed lone wolf. Our minds can easily hold these vivid stories and make us believe in an easy solution to a complex problem: “If we could treat mental illness more effectively, our national problem with violence would disappear”. It is much more difficult to grapple with the wide variety of factors that statistics and research show are the root causes of our violent culture. 


9) Negative reinforcement means using punishment to change behavior

      Operant conditioning is a learning process where consequences determine the likelihood of future, similar behavior (Grison & Gazzaniga, 2017). To understand the components of operant conditioning, we need to first decide what we want the behavioral outcome to be—this will tell us if we’re dealing with reinforcement or punishment, two critical terms for operant conditioning. If we want to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again, we’re talking about reinforcement. If we want to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again, we’re talking about punishment.

Next, we think about how we will make those desired changes. If you add something, you’re talking about positive. If you take something away, this is negative. Note that these terms aren’t used in a punitive way—they’re only to denote the addition or subtraction of something.

So what, then, is negative reinforcement? Start with the behavior change—reinforcement. This word tells us that we want to increase the frequency of a behavior. Negative means that we will take something away—combine the terms and you’ll see that we’re taking something away to encourage behavior. Perhaps you did so well on your chores that your parents take away chore duty for a day—this is negative reinforcement. Another example would be the removal of a quiz for performing well on a homework assignment.


Recommended Reading:

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

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