Much of what you know about psychology may be a lie. From the wildly whispered “we only use 10% of our brains” to the ever-popular “opposites attract,” we’re putting these pop psychology myths to the test.
What is Pop Psychology?
Popular psychology, often called “pop” psychology, encompasses a range of psychological concepts and practices that have become widely recognized through various media, such as books, television shows, and online content. This term typically refers to psychological methods and ideologies that have gained popularity among the general public, often focusing on personal emotions, contemporary cultural trends, and self-improvement strategies.
While these approaches are prevalent and appealing to those seeking to enhance their mental health, it’s important to note that they may not always be rooted in scientific research or evidence-based practices. Also, pop psychology is frequently linked to the promise of rapid solutions, offering seemingly simple answers to complex personal challenges.
Prominent figures like Dr. Phil McGraw and Oprah Winfrey, who endorse pop psychology methods, have significantly influenced its widespread acceptance and growth.
4 Fun Facts About Pop Psychology
- Birth of Buzzwords: Pop psychology emerged as TV and radio brought psychological jargon into living rooms, turning complex theories into everyday conversation starters.
- Psychology’s Prime Time Players: Dr. Phil and Frasier Crane turned therapy sessions into entertainment, blending psychological insights with humor and drama and painting a picture of psychology more about charisma than credentials.
- Personality in Pop Culture: The Myers-Briggs test, akin to psychological astrology, offers a fun mirror to our personalities despite lacking the scientific rigor of its more scholarly cousins. If you’re looking for a personality test backed by science, we recommend The Big 5 (OCEAN) Personality Test.
- Debunking the Brain Myth: The persistent “10% brain usage” myth, famously debunked by neuroscientists like Barry Beyerstein, is a testament to pop psychology’s enduring allure and its penchant for oversimplification.
14 Pop Psychology Myths You’ll Be Surprised to Know
Get ready to have those “aha” moments as we shine a light on the myths you thought you knew. It’s time for a myth-busting session that’s as enlightening as entertaining.
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—if it was that easy to boost your mood, we could all be happy daily. But, just like smiling can’t solve our problems, it can’t take away the unhappiness from experiencing negative events.
Another problem with this myth is that it promotes the idea that we should always be happy, which can make people feel worse or lead to toxic positivity. As the science1https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/ shows, a fake smile isn’t enough to make people feel better.
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 shifting from a relatively neutral state to a positive one. The key to this is doing a real smile, not a fake one:
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 can make you feel worse. Research1https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/ shows that suppressing feelings raises your stress level and can cause you to dwell on the negative emotions for longer than if you accept your emotions in the moment and let go.
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? We got you covered:
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Power Posing Increases Your Confidence Hormones
The Myth: In one of the most popular TED talks, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy shared her research on power posing. In other words, 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 researchers2http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2016/01/amy_cuddy_s_power_pose_research_is_the_latest_example_of_scientific_overreach.html replicated Amy Cuddy’s study using five times as many participants and could not find any indication that her results were valid. It’s suspected that Cuddy and her fellow researchers either made an error in the study or 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 psychology research indicates power posing has the biological effect Cuddy claims it has.
Subconscious Beliefs Control Your Life
The Myth: A popular notion in self-help and motivational circles is that subconscious beliefs dictate your life’s outcomes. This human behavior concept suggests that if you harbor negative beliefs deep within, they will manifest in your everyday life as failures or setbacks. Conversely, positive beliefs will lead to success and happiness.
The idea is that by changing these deep-seated beliefs, you can fundamentally alter your life’s trajectory.
The Science: While it’s true that our beliefs can influence our actions and perceptions, the notion that they have complete control over our lives is misleading. In fact, our behavior and success are affected by many factors, including environment, genetics, opportunities, and conscious decision-making. The concept of a singular subconscious belief shaping our destiny doesn’t account for the external factors that play a significant role in our lives.
Professor Ben Newell3https://www.unsw.edu.au/news/2023/06/were-in-control-new-research-dismantles-power-of-unconscious states, “The evidence that our decision-making is strongly influenced by information completely outside of our awareness is not supported by the science.”
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 to us because they are more interesting and will create a balanced relationship.
The Science: An abundance of research4http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media/myths/myth_27.cfm shows that the opposite is true; we are drawn to potential partners similar to us. Not only that, but similarity is also an indicator of long-term relationship success because similar people typically agree on more things and share the same communication preferences.
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 to5http://www.aiga.org/why-you-cant-brainstorm-creative-ideas the American Institute of Graphic Arts (and a bunch of other research institutions), group brainstorming sessions have three characteristics that limit creativity:
- Anchoring: This cognitive bias causes us to struggle to consider other options once we’ve “anchored” on one we like. Groups often hear a good idea at the beginning of their session and fail to come up with more and potentially better ideas after it.
- 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.
- Pressure: Having to come up with good ideas on the spot while surrounded by coworkers they may want to impress can put incredible pressure on some people, limiting their ability to think creatively.
Instead of team brainstorming, give people the opportunity to talk individually or in small groups to come up with as many creative ideas as possible, then have them share their ideas with the team for feedback.
Intuition is Always Right
The Myth: A common belief is that your intuition or “gut feeling” guides you to the correct decision. According to this myth, your subconscious mind picks up on cues and information that your conscious mind may miss, meaning that an instinctive reaction is more trustworthy than a reasoned, analytical one.
It’s comforting, suggesting we always know what’s best for ourselves.
The Science: Research6https://www.jstor.org/stable/25767206 in psychology and cognitive science has shown that intuition can be prone to various biases and errors. For example, the availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples from a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method, or decision. This means our gut feelings can often be influenced more by what’s most recently or frequently in our thoughts rather than what’s logically correct or most relevant.
Also, intuition can be particularly unreliable in areas where the individual needs more expertise. Real background knowledge or experience is necessary for gut feelings to be more accurate than guesses and can lead to significant mistakes. In contrast, in areas where the person has a lot of experience, intuition can be much more reliable due to the vast amount of relevant knowledge they can unconsciously draw upon.
Bonus: Interested in understanding how intuition works and when to trust it? Here is a great resource: 8 Powerful Ways to Tap Into Your Intuition (That Work!)
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: Research7https://www.fastcompany.com/3032351/why-venting-about-work-actually-makes-you-angrier 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 longer.
Instead of venting, express your anger more flexibly, 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.
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 our personality traits, or 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. Research8https://www.livescience.com/39373-left-brain-right-brain-myth.html shows that everyone uses both sides of their brains equally because, though most abilities are based in other regions of the brain, they can be carried out by the connections formed between different parts.
Based on an individual’s lifestyle, certain brain sections can become stronger because the brain has adapted to being under the same conditions for a prolonged period. However, that happens with individual parts, not half of the brain.
Subliminal Messages Can Control Your Behavior
The Myth: A pervasive myth is that subliminal messages—signals below our threshold of conscious awareness—can influence our decisions and control our actions in significant ways. According to this belief, everything from advertising to self-help tapes can manipulate our desires and behaviors without us even knowing it.
The Science: A notable study9https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103105001496 in this realm is the 2006 Lipton Ice brand preference experiment. This research took the idea of subliminal messaging further by priming subjects’ choice between two drink brands and their feeling of thirst. Karremans and his team found that priming only works when the prime is goal-relevant. In other words, the subliminal messages about Lipton Ice increased participants’ choice of that drink only if they were already thirsty.
This indicates that subliminal cues can nudge us in one direction or another, but they’re not the puppet masters of our minds that myth makes them out to be.
Furthermore, the brain’s complexity and the conscious mind’s role in decision-making mean it’s incredibly difficult to bypass one’s awareness and directly influence behavior meaningfully, especially in the long term.
Listening to Classical Music Makes Babies Smarter
The Myth: A funny (but widely believed) myth is that playing classical music to infants, often called the “Mozart Effect,” can boost their intelligence. Many parents, hoping to give their children an early cognitive boost, have turned their homes into mini concert halls filled with the sounds of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
The Science: The original study10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1281386/#:~:text=In%201993%20Rauscher%20et%20al.&text=made%20the%20surprising%20claim%20that,lower%20blood%20pressure%20or%20silence. that sparked the Mozart Effect craze focused on college students, not babies, and found that listening to a Mozart sonata briefly enhanced spatial-temporal reasoning skills. However, subsequent research failed to replicate these findings consistently and suggested that any cognitive boosts were short-term and not specific to classical music.
It’s not Mozart but the improved mood and arousal from enjoying music that temporarily enhances performance on specific tasks.
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 other 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 article11http://www.apa.org/research/action/difference.aspx 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 by one’s gender role, men and women communicate very similarly.
Most People Undergo a Midlife Crisis
The Myth: If you live in the United States, you know this one. People hit their forties and suddenly either realize their life isn’t how they always wanted it to be or become terrified that their younger years are over. Next, they’re buying fun cars and motorcycles, making dramatic career changes, dyeing their hair, getting divorced, or making other impulsive changes to cope with aging.
The Science: In reality, researchers12https://www.npr.org/2016/03/14/469813659/forget-the-red-sports-car-the-midlife-crisis-is-a-myth 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 stereotypical midlife crisis things, but we don’t lose ourselves in the process.
Our 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, except for 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 study13http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug03/personality.aspx 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 our personalities fully mature in adulthood.
The Average Person Only Uses 10 Percent of Their Brain Capacity
The Myth: This myth began14https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_percent_of_the_brain_myth in the mid-to-late 1800s when scientists compared a child prodigy’s learning abilities and accomplishments 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 used about 10 percent of the brain’s full capacity.
The myth remains popular because people use it to argue that people are failing to use all of their brain power by not pushing themselves to their intellectual limits and reaching their full potential.
The Science: Modern research15https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-people-only-use-10-percent-of-their-brains/ shows that we use 100 percent of our brains throughout the day. The key here is that it is throughout the day, only some at a time. 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 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.
Why Do We Fall For Myths?
Our brains are hardwired to seek patterns and make sense of the world, often leading us to form beliefs based on limited or misunderstood information. While useful for quick decision-making and survival, this tendency makes us susceptible to believing in myths, especially in popular psychology.
Here are some specific reasons:
- Cognitive Biases: Cognitive biases are thinking errors that affect our decisions and judgments. One such bias is the confirmation bias, where we tend to favor information that confirms our beliefs and disregard evidence that contradicts them. For example, we might think that all dogs are evil, and when we see a friendly dog, we might brush it off and say it’s an exception. When a psychological myth aligns with our intuitive understanding of the world, we’re more likely to accept it without scrutiny.
- Emotional Appeal and Comfort: Many psychological myths offer comfort in uncertain times. The idea that we can significantly improve our lives by following simple tips or unlocking hidden brain powers is immensely appealing. These myths often provide a sense of control and hope, making them emotionally comforting even if they lack scientific backing.
- Social and Cultural Influence: We’re social creatures, and the beliefs of those around us significantly influence our own. When myths become widespread, they develop legitimacy through social proof (like the Mandela Effect). If everyone believes something, it feels riskier to question or reject it. Cultural narratives and popular media representations reinforce these myths, presenting them as accepted wisdom.
- The Role of Authority Figures: When respected self-help gurus or charismatic figures endorse a myth, it gains credibility. People are more likely to believe something if an expert, celebrity, or authority figure they trust supports it. This reliance on authority can override critical thinking, especially in complex fields like psychology, where the average person might need more in-depth knowledge.
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect: This cognitive bias is where people with limited knowledge or competence in a domain overestimate their understanding. In the context of psychological myths, individuals who know a little about psychology might be confident in their ability to discern truth from myth, leading them to accept and spread misconceptions.
Pop Psychology History
Pop psychology started in the 17th century with thinkers like Descartes and Locke, who pondered ideas about how human nature works.
Fast forward to Freud, his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” hit the shelves and gained huge success. Suddenly, everyone was into psychology, looking to sprinkle a bit of Freudian insight into their daily lives.
The 1960s rolled around, and with them came a pop psychology renaissance. Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom” became a hit, tying post-WWII fascination with Eastern philosophy and the quest for personal liberation into a neat, controversial package. It was a game-changer and a book that tied influences from the East and the West.
Then came the 1970s, with a flood of more books coming in. Books like Thomas Harris’s “I’m OK – You’re OK” became the go-to guides for understanding the self and Society, and John Gray’s “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” launched, becoming the self-help bible for understanding the opposite sex, paving the way for more self-help books to come.
Not All Myths Are As They Seem
Phew! Now that we’re done, we’ve uncovered the truth behind some of the most pervasive misconceptions in pop psychology.
Here’s a quick recap:
- Myth vs. Reality: We’ve debunked popular myths, from the oversimplified effects of smiling on happiness to the exaggerated powers of subliminal messaging.
- Cognitive Biases: Understanding how our brains are wired helps explain why we’re prone to believing in these myths.
- The Importance of Science: Empirical evidence and scientific research are crucial in distinguishing fact from fiction.
- The Influence of Culture and Media: Our beliefs are often shaped by the society and media we consume, highlighting the need for critical thinking.
- Personal Empowerment: Knowledge is power. By educating ourselves, we can make better-informed decisions about our mental health and well-being.
Now that you’re armed with the facts continue your journey of understanding the human mind by reading our related article: How to Control Your Mind: 20 Science-Backed Strategies
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