Aug. 26, 2009
Busting Psychology Myths
If you believe that opposites attract, that most people use only 10 percent of their brains, and that handwriting can reveal your personality, then you need to check out Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld's latest book, "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior."
"Bursting bubbles can be painful," says Lilienfeld, professor of psychology, who co-authored the book with three other psychologists. "But we hope that puncturing some of these myths can lead people to better life decisions, and a more realistic appraisal of themselves."
The book is aimed at both lay readers and students, says Lilienfeld, who teaches an undergraduate course called "Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology."
"A lot of my students refuse to believe that 'opposites attract' is largely a myth," he says. "But the research is clear that, not only are we attracted to people who are similar to ourselves, but these similarities are a greater predictor of marital stability."
Folk wisdom and so-called commonsense too often trump science in our society, Lilienfeld says. "There is this idea that we can understand the world, including our own minds, by gut instinct – that if something seems intuitively right, it must be right. To embrace a scientific approach is to be humble, but that's not a popular message in American society, which rewards certainty."
A few of the other myths debunked in the book include:
- Subliminal messages can persuade people to purchase products
- Playing Mozart to infants boosts their intelligence
- Hypnosis is useful for retrieving memories of forgotten events
- The defining feature of dyslexia is reversing letters
- Researchers have demonstrated that dreams possess symbolic meaning
- Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems
"Some of these are completely false, while others are gross exaggerations of a kernel of truth," Lilienfeld says. "I want people to focus on the remarkable things about psychology that are true, and not the myths."
"50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," published this month by Wiley-Blackwell, was co-authored by Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry Beverstein.