In a recent interview I asked Scott Lilienfeld, the author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, about the sources of psychology myths. Here’s what he has to say about where psychology myths come from:
The primary source is the huge, burgeoning pop psychology industry: self-help books, the internet, films, TV shows, magazines, and the like. But many of these myths also spring from the allure of our everyday experience; many of these myths seem persuasive because they accord with our common sense intuitions. But these intuitions are often erroneous. The public can defend themselves against shams by becoming armed with accurate knowledge.
Many other fields — not just psychology — are subject to myths disseminated by the media.
So what are some of the top sources of psychology myths? Here are the top three…
1. Word of Mouth (“They say”)
Many false beliefs are perpetuated across multiple generations by verbal communication (Lilienfeld et al., 2010). I am sure you have heard someone say, “They say” so and so. The “they say” phenomenon is ubiquitous. Never mind who they are or if the statement contains a shred of truth; if “they say” it often enough it will probably be accepted as fact. Research shows that an opinion expressed 10 times by the same person can be just as believable as an opinion expressed one time by 10 different people (Weaver et al., 2007). Statements repeated over and over often lead to increased believability, regardless of the element of truth.
2. Assuming Correlation Means Causation
Two things that co-occur statistically does not necessarily indicate a causal relationship. There are two major problems when attempting to infer causation from a simple correlation:
- Directionality problem: Before concluding that a correlation between variables A and B is due to changes in A causing changes in B, it is important to realize the direction of causation may be the opposite, thus, from B to A.
- Third-variable problem: The correlation in variables may occur because both variables are related to a third variable.
Here are the actual conditions necessary to infer causation (Kenny, 1979):
- Time precedence: For A to cause B, A must precede B. The cause must precede the effect.
- Relationship: The variables must correlate. To determine the relationship of two variables, it must be determined if the relationship could occur due to chance. Lay observers are often not good judges of the presence of relationships, thus, statistical methods are used to measure and test the existence and strength of relationships.
- Nonspuriousness (spuriousness meaning “not genuine”): The third and final condition for a causal relationship is nonspuriousness (Suppes, 1970). For a relationship between A and B to be nonspurious, there must not be a C that causes both A and B such that the relationship between A and B vanishes once C is controlled (Kenny, 1979. pp. 4-5).
3. The Need for Easy, Quick Fixes
We often seek ways to maximize weight loss, increase our bank accounts, increase reading speeds and change other things that will improve our lives (at least we think will improve our lives). We don’t seem to have time to engage in physically or mentally exhausting activities, thus we need quick fixes.
Naturally, humans are cognitive misers. We have a tendency to engage in thinking that is computationally inexpensive, which doesn’t require much energy or analytical thinking. At times this is advantageous, at other times it leads to irrational thinking and behavior. Research has found that fluency, the subjective experience of ease or difficulty associated with a mental task, plays a huge role in decision making.
Generally, information that is easy to process is preferred. This partly explains the popularity of mainstream magazines that are written on an elementary school level. Even though they are often unreliable sources of information, they are often referenced as reliable sources.
Additional Sources of Myths Include
Here are some additional common sources of psychology myths according to Lilienfeld:
- Selective perception
- After this therefore because of this “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc”
- Biased sample exposure
- Reasoning by representativeness
- Exaggeration of truth
- Terminology confusion
The list provided above is brief, and I am sure there are other sources of myths.
Have you encountered interesting examples of psychology myths?
Hale, J. (2010). Popular Psychology: Fact or Fiction. [online] http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/popular-psychology-fact-or-fiction.html. accessed February 9,2011.
Kenny, D. (1979). Correlation and Causality.
Lilienfeld, S., et al. (2010). 50 GREAT MYTHS OF POPULAR PSYCHOLOGY: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Weaver, K., et al. (2007). Inferring the popularity of an opinion from its familiarity: A repetitive voice can sound like a chorus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 821-833.
Photo by Ata Ur Rehman, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.