pop psychology

Much of what you know about psychology may be a lie. Over the last several decades, popular psychology has led to the rise of dozens of myths that have given people a false sense of understanding about how their brains operate and how to interpret the behaviors of those around them.

Here at the Science of People, my goal is to teach the true science that drives our thoughts and behaviors. So, I decided to conquer ten of the most popular psychology myths and explain the science behind why they are false.

#1: Smiling is the secret to happiness

The Myth:

In recent years, positive psychology has touted the idea that if you’re having a bad day, all you have to do is smile and you will almost instantaneously become happier. It’s a wonderful idea–after all, if it was that easy to boost your mood we all could be happy every day. But, just like smiling can’t solve our problems, it can’t take away the unhappiness that comes from experiencing negative events and believing that they may negatively affect your mental health.

Another problem with this myth is that it promotes the idea that we should be happy all the time, which actually can make people feel worse. As the science shows, a fake smile isn’t enough to make people feel better.

However, like most myths, there is a grain of truth to this one. If you’re just having an off day without any identifiable negative emotions such as feeling sad, angry, fearful, etc., then smiling can boost your mood. This is because you’re not attempting to force yourself to shift from one strong emotion to another. Instead, you’re choosing to shift from a relatively neutral state to a positive one. The key to this is doing a real smile, not a fake one:

fake happiness versus real happiness

Genuine happiness causes the muscles near the eye to activate, so if you only move your lips upward, your brain won’t receive the signal to be happy.

The Science:

If you are experiencing a negative emotion such as anger, sadness, grief, fear, etc., a fake smile to cover up your emotions will make you feel worse. Research shows that suppressing feelings raises your stress level and can cause you to dwell on the negative emotions for longer than if you accept and express your emotions in the moment. Obviously, certain contexts, such as professional environments or elsewhere in public, may not be appropriate places to express your emotions. In those cases, a fake smile may be necessary but, when you do so, internally validate your emotions so you don’t experience the negative effects of fully suppressing them.

Bonus: Want more on the science of facial expressions and emotions? Check out my book, Captivate

#2: Power posing increases your confidence hormones

The Myth:

In one of the most popular TED talks of all time, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy shared her research that power posing–standing or sitting with your body as expanded as possible (think Superwoman pose) lowers your stress hormones, increases your testosterone (the power hormone) levels and makes you look and feel more confident. Her study went viral and power posing became the thing to do before important meetings, interviews and presentations to ensure your success.

The Science:

In 2015, a group of researchers replicated Amy Cuddy’s study using five times as many participants and could not find any indication that her results are valid. It’s suspected that Cuddy and her fellow researchers either made an error in the study and/or they manipulated their data to yield a statistically significant result.

After hearing about Cuddy’s study, many people reported that power poses helped them feel more confident. Their feelings are likely the result of the placebo effect from listening to a well-educated person tell them power posing works. However, no supporting research indicates power posing has the biological effect Cuddy claims it has.

#3: Opposites attract and make better partners

The Myth:

It’s a myth that when dating, you’re likely to be attracted to people who are very different from you. A primary reason why this myth is so popular is that people believe the false logic that we are drawn to potential partners who have opposite traits than us because they are more interesting and will create a balanced relationship.

The Science:

An abundance of research shows that the opposite is true; we are drawn to potential partners who are similar to us. Not only that, but similarity is also an indicator of long-term relationship success because people who are similar typically agree on more things and share the same communication preferences.

#4: People are more creative when they brainstorm in groups

The Myth:

Today’s business world is more eager than ever to promote collaboration based on the popular belief that multiple heads are better than one. While it is true that we benefit from getting feedback and learning from one another, it’s a myth that groups can brainstorm more and better ideas than single individuals.

The Science:

According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (and a bunch of other research institutions), group brainstorming sessions have three characteristics that limit creativity:

  1. Anchoring: This is a cognitive bias that causes us to struggle to consider other options once we’ve “anchored” on one we like. Groups often hear a good idea in the beginning of their session and fail to come up with more, and potentially better ideas after it.
  2. Groupthink: Anchoring is strengthened by groupthink. Groupthink is when peer pressure (whether intentional or not) causes members of a group to think the same way, which prevents unique ideas from being heard or even spoken aloud.
  3. Pressure: Having to come up with good ideas on the spot while surrounded by coworkers whom they may want to impress can put incredible pressure on some people, which limits their ability to think creatively.

Instead of team brainstorming, give people the opportunity to talk individually or in small groups so they can come up with as many creative ideas as possible, then have them share their ideas with the team for feedback.

#5: Venting helps you overcome anger

The Myth:

As you learned in the happiness myth, suppressing emotions is harmful, but so is venting them. A lot of people mistakenly believe the fastest way to deal with anger is to yell, rant and otherwise let it all out.

The Science:

Research shows that venting has the opposite effect than that intended. Rather than calm you down, venting positively reinforces your anger, causing you to become more angry for a longer period of time. Instead of venting, express your anger in a more productive way, such as taking a brief break from the triggering situation, identifying the causes of your anger and seeing if you can fix any of them, or channel your anger into an activity such as exercise or art.

#6: You are left-brained or right-brained

The Myth:

You’ve probably heard a highly creative person proclaim they’re right-brained or an analytical person state they are left-brained. The idea that we have a dominant side of our brain that determines how artistic or logical we are is based on how each half of our brain controls different activities.

The Science:

The idea that people have different dominant sides of their brains is completely false. Research shows that everyone uses both sides of their brains equally because, though most abilities are based in different regions of the brain, they are able to be carried out by the connections formed between different parts. Based on an individual’s lifestyle, it is possible for certain sections of the brain to become stronger because the brain has adapted to being under the same conditions for a prolonged period of time. However, that happens with individual parts not and an entire half of the brain.

#7: Men and women have completely different communication styles

The Myth:

At some point, I’m sure you’ve heard a friend complain that they struggle to communicate with the opposite gender or to understand what the opposite gender is thinking. This myth is based on the belief that men and women are so different it is like they speak different languages.

The Science:

As our culture is becoming more accepting of people who don’t conform to gender roles, research is finding that men and women aren’t as psychologically different as we may think.

According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, people tend to communicate and behave according to the gender roles in their environment. When you remove the expectations to communicate in accordance with one’s gender role, men and women communicate very similarly.

#8: Most people undergo a midlife crisis

The Myth:

If you live in the United States, you definitely know this one. People hit their forties and suddenly either realize their life isn’t how they always wanted it to be and/or they become terrified that their younger years are over. Next thing you know, they’re buying fun cars and/or motorcycles, making dramatic career changes, dyeing their hair, getting divorced or making other impulsive changes to cope with aging.

The Science:

In reality, researchers estimate that only about ten percent of the population suffers a midlife crisis and the rest of us age through our forties and fifties without losing our rationality. Sure, we’ll undergo many challenges and may even do some of the stereotypical midlife crisis things, but we don’t lose ourselves in the process.

#9: Your personality stabilizes when you’re an adult

The Myth:

Many people believe that by the time you’re about twenty-five years old, your brain is fully developed and that with the exception of the effects of traumatic experiences, your adult personality stays relatively stable. Part of the appeal of this myth is that by twenty-five many people feel they should have a clear sense of direction and be progressing toward stable goals; we don’t like to think that, as humans, we are inherently unstable.

The Science:

A study took personality data from a whopping 132,515 people and found the following traits change over time:

  • People become more agreeable (willing to cooperate with others) as they age
  • Women become less neurotic (emotionally sensitive) as they age
  • Men and women become less open (eager and willing to try new experiences) as they age
  • Conscientiousness (work ethic and detail-orientation) increases with age.

These changes alter our desires and behaviors as we age and debunk the idea that in adulthood our personalities fully mature.

#10: The average person only uses 10 percent of their brain capacity

The Myth:

This myth began in the mid- to late 1800s when researchers compared the learning abilities and accomplishments of a child prodigy to the average person, who is far less intellectually stimulated. It was expanded upon in the 1900s when researchers who didn’t understand the functions of all the parts of the brain noticed that many parts of people’s brains appeared inactive, leading them to think that people only are using about 10 percent of the brain’s full capacity.

The myth remains popular because people use it to argue that by not pushing themselves to their intellectual limits and reaching their full potential, people are failing to use all of their brain power.  

The Science:

Modern research shows that throughout the day, we use 100 percent of our brains.  The key here is that it is throughout the course of the entire day, not all at once. Every part of our brain serves different functions. So, while the sections that control essential processes such as breathing and our senses are active non-stop, other parts that are responsible for activities such as the fear response, problem-solving, etc. only activate when necessary. Given this, some people’s lifestyles make their brains more active than others, but we all make use of all of our brain’s abilities.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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