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12 Most Pervasive Pop Psychology Myths

January 24th, 2011


By Kitty Holman

Pop psychology and the real science it shamelessly parodies have almost nothing in common. Thanks to the self-help vomit spewed forth from the capped teeth of overpolished, dead-eyed social mercenaries, the tenets of actual psychology and actual disorders needing actual medical attention go obscured — if not outright inverted. Unfortunately, far more than only 12 myths perpetuated by pop culture frauds backstroking through the pools of money afforded them by the cult of personality exist out there. It's going to take decades to undo the serious damage they've caused millions of disordered individuals, assuming it can even be reversed in the first place. Education, above all else, makes for the only effective method for dismantling their intense stranglehold on society. Read up on research for a look into how psychology and mental illness actually operate, and the critical danger inherent in believing unfounded rumors and misconceptions.

  1. Just thinking positive thoughts will make the depression all go away: Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is certainly a memorable, popular song, but many pseudo-psychologists most unfortunately take it so far the put lives at risk. For the tens (if not hundreds) of millions of depression-afflicted individuals worldwide, "simply" thinking positive isn't exactly going to completely reset their brain chemistry, emotional and/or physical trauma or other trigger. Depending on the origin and severity of the illness (and depression is an illness, not the product of listening to too much Dashboard Confessional), treatment options include cognitive and behavior therapy and/or a strict regimen of medications. Perpetuating such a dangerous myth accomplishes absolutely nothing, and serves only to further marginalize the mentally ill in society and trivialize their suffering. It discourages them from seeking the advice of medical professionals, who actually possess the training and skill sets needed to genuinely help the depressed. Patients nursing suicidal thoughts or behaviors especially need the intervention of a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. Smiling more isn't exactly going to prevent them from blending up a cerebral daiquiri using a 12-gauge.

    Trying to cure clinical depression with happy thoughts is like trying to cure cancer with pony rides.

  2. Opposites attract: In fiction, juxtaposing opposite individuals establishes compelling conflict that moves characters and plots forward with relative ease. In real life, it can result in interpersonal disasters of Hindenburgian proportions. As this Scientific American podcast points out, when it comes to sexual attraction, people feel much more passionate with partners who agree with them on at least 6 out of 10 issues. Long-term relationships stem from being able to share hobbies and ideas, not verbally kicking one another down metaphorical flights of stairs over whether or not the weekend should be spent synchronized swimming or tandem biking. Men and women alike prefer forging close bonds with partners on similar (if not the same) wavelengths regarding religion, education, politics, financial habits and plenty more, with physical attraction only playing a role in the (very) short term. Situations such as speed dating typically lead to future exes rather than future spouses, as emphasis lay more in hooking up with the particularly toothsome — not those with whom one can necessarily strike up an engaging conversation about the collapse of the American hegemony or how mainstream readers typically miss the satirical elements of Jane Austen novels.

  3. The full moon leads to erratic behavior in humans: The moon effects the Earth's tides, gives NASA another reason to exist and fuels creativity in horror and science-fiction writers, but that's pretty much the extent of its non-religious uses. Plenty of scientific studies have entirely negated the myth that lunar phases directly impacts human behavior patterns. Some professionals, especially those in law enforcement and the medical sector, continue to believe that the full moon leads to an upswing in criminal behavior and traumas. While their work may prove particularly busy during one of the twelve full moons of the year, there is a rather easy psychological explanation. Humanity, after all, tends to follow a little pattern known as the "self-fulfilling prophecy." So the next time Babysitter catches Junior trying to shove Baby in the toaster as Luna hangs outside in all her silvery glory, he doesn't exactly have an acceptable explanation to give anymore.

  4. Schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder are the same thing: The mass media, paragon of flawless research that it is, continues to use diagnoses of schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) as interchangeable. As with many psychiatric disorders, the two do share some overlap in symptoms. Individuals with DID can harbor personalities that display psychotic tendencies or experience the same auditory and visual hallucinations as schizophrenics, but that does not inherently mean they qualify for a diagnosis. Schizophrenics, on the other hand, may display delusional behaviors — but they rarely (if ever) involve more than one "persons" sharing the same body. As with the earlier depression example, the fact that such a myth continues to permeate popular culture places patients in even more danger. Their families, employers and peers may not understand exactly what's going on, impeding treatment and causing emotional rifts by acting as if the disorders are one in the same.

  5. Humanity only uses 10% of its potential brain power: Self-help opportunists absolutely adore spouting off the idea that people only use 10% of their brain meats, wringing money out of suckers who want to learn the secret of becoming special and beautiful snowflakes with intellects rivaling Nikola Tesla. Meanwhile, in the world of real science, no compelling research exists to prove this statement's veracity. Experts disagree about the specific origins of the myth, though they do largely agree that a mis-attributed quote or concept by Albert Einstein, William James, Pierre Flourens, Karl Lashley or a similar scholar is probably to blame. Dr. Eric H. Chudler at University of Washington points out that damage to every part of the organ still leads to cognitive, neurological or behavioral issue. If humans only used 10% of their brains, then the number of devastating cranial traumas would be far, far lower than reality reveals. Regardless of what those pop psychology, feel-good hacks like to say, humans actually use around 100% of their brains. Yes, even those who throw good money at so-called "motivational" speakers.

  6. A direct correlation exists between personality and handwriting: Just about the only thing psychologists concede to graphologists — the fancy, science-y sounding term for handwriting analysts — is that one can occasionally glean gender just by looking at a few written words. Things like personality tics, appropriate marital or long-term partner or professional future, not so much. Graphology only boasts between a 60% and 70% success rate when it comes to guessing gender, and everything from there on out is around 50% or less. In most respects, handwriting analysis isn't any different from the techniques used in palm reading or pretty much everything John Edward does. It's broad guesswork, with customers filling in their own details. Absolutely no scientific research supports graphology as a valid means of understanding the nuances of one's personality. Anyone really wanting to know about what goes on upstairs is better off working with a legitimate mental health professional.

  7. Anorexics and bulimics only care about being pretty: The myriad myths surrounding the eating disorders, including the oft-overlooked binge-eating disorder (currently classified under "eating disorder not otherwise specified, though this could very well change with the 2012 release of the DSM-V), fill numerous debunking articles alone. One of the most tragic and pervasive, however, frequently stereotype victims as only caring about their looks. By painting them as superficial, pathetic creatures obsessed with their bodies, society marginalizes their very real suffering and precludes many people from feeling any real empathy or sympathy. It also discourages the disordered to come forward with friends and family and seek out the psychological help they truly need to heal. The realities of eating disorders are as varied as the peoples (not only women!) suffering from them. Depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder frequently exist as co-morbid with anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS, and the latter three sometimes crop up as coping mechanisms for the former. Certainly a far different origin than simply wanting to look like a supermodel. Even then, those who cite such a motivation (it happens, it just isn't the only reason) have plenty of other severe psychological issues lurking beneath the surface, but there's still no legitimate excuse for dismissing them or slapping an insulting "shallow" label on the very deep pain.

  8. Expressing anger is healthy: Pop psychologists want their victims to get all the anger out. Go all Oscar de la Hoya on big, soft pillows, they say. Scream like a godforsaken banshee, they say. VENT, VENT, VENT, they say. "Ha!" says real science. Many people fear that suppressing their anger or frustration will eventually turn them into fleshy little Vesuviuses, but legitimate psychological research assures them that reality is the exact opposite. Aggressive solutions to anger only lead to heightened aggressive behavior. Such things program the mind to react even more violently in times of stress and frustration than it otherwise would. Instead, the healthiest route towards assuaging volatile emotions is engaging in more gentle, calming stimuli. Watching light, funny movies or reading their literary equivalents both make for a great start, and are probably the most common anger-mitigating methods. Getting a massage, talking it out, taking a walk and soaking in a lovely hot bath all work marvelously as well. Experiment with a more personalized regime and witness firsthand the huge difference a bit of softness makes.

  9. Therapists only help you because you pay them good money: Every industry has its greedy, selfish and disinterested workers. Nobody demonizes the entire accounting industry because of the legal missteps by Arthur Andersen, yet the whole psychological profession suffers setbacks when controversies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment crop up. As Dr. John M. Grohol points out, the mental health profession doesn't pay nearly as much as most people think. The vast majority of counselors, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses go into caring for the mentally ill for the exact same reasons anyone else goes into any other medical field. They want to help others live out the happiest, healthiest existence possible. Some even volunteer at suicide hotlines and schools, or offer completely free, confidential services for students and others who may not be able to afford them. If one therapist doesn't work out, every major city and most suburbs host a slew of other options that very well might — though patients must always keep in mind that they themselves will have to put forth the majority of the effort. Counselors, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists only act as guides rather than definitive cure-alls. They're basically Yoda, and the patients are Luke Skywalker. Any professionals touting their ability to make it all go away with a few bits of advice are best avoided.

    Slick self-help "gurus" absolutely adore trashing the mental health industry for reasons one can probably very easily assume.

  10. Psychiatry and psychology are fully interchangeable disciplines: Like schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder, psychiatry and psychology are often considered pretty much the same thing. Though overlap exists, there are some notable differences in how both fields approach and treat mental illnesses. Probably the easiest way to tell the two disciplines apart is the knowledge that psychologists cannot prescribe medications, while psychiatrists can. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who attended medical school, psychologists are not. In spite of dealing with the same diagnoses, psychologists are more likely to approach patients with tests and cognitive or behavioral therapy. Their MD counterparts, obviously, tend to prescribe pills and medical procedures when appropriate. As one can probably assume, debates do rage over which approach is superior. In reality, though, different therapies heal different patients in different ways. Medication may work for one instance of depression, but inspire suicidal thoughts in another. Behavioral therapy may quell panic attacks in one case, but inflate them in another. Individuals serious about seeking help may have to shop around a few times before deciding whether or not psychology or psychiatry meets their needs best. Before embarking on a treatment regimen, however, they should note that many psychologists and psychiatrists work together. The former sometimes refers patients to the latter when they personally feel as if medication is the only valid solution, though this won't always be the case.

  11. Healthy self-esteem means healthy productivity: Clinical depression is not an extended bout with "the blues" any more than bolstered self-esteem leads inexorably to an improved existence. Again, real psychological studies hack away at the carefully-constructed veneer of toothy, toupéed suits. Studies prove that absolutely no correlation exists between productivity in school or the workplace and heightened levels of self-regard. Any connection they noted was tenuous at best. Individuals with a largely poor self-image were still entirely capable of earning good grades and succeeding in the business world, and their confident counterparts were just as likely to falter or fail. While more severe cases of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can sometimes (not always!) cause disruptions in productivity, the whole "self-esteem" thing holds little impact over most people. In fact, some studies showed that artificially-inflated self-image frequently led to individuals considering themselves more entitled than others — many of them went so far as to think themselves above such common courtesies as not manipulating or marginalizing their peers!

  12. Classical music doesn't make babies any smarter: Music and music education both boast a few academic benefits, but queuing up Bach while breastfeeding isn't going to add a few points to Junior's intelligence quotient. Even the woman whose research led to the myth, Dr. Frances Rauscher, doesn't believe such things. What pop psychology dubs the "Mozart Effect" is, in reality, little more than a misinterpretation of her initial findings while with the University of California, Irvine. The study in question discovered a link between piano lessons and reasoning skills. Absolutely none of the research involved had anything to do with prenatal or postnatal babies or the simple act of listening to classical music. All it took was one reader misinterpreting the research to launch one incredibly pervasive myth. On the positive side, though, it at least got more people to start listening to and hopefully appreciating classical music.