Below I have excerpted the sections that I think are of particular relevance to paranormal researchers, who should be thinking about things like this each and every time they interview someone, or offer an opinion or conclusion as to some aspect of the paranormal based on eyewitness testimony.
Top Ten Myths of Popular Psychology
Virtually every day, the news media, television shows, films, and Internet bombard us with claims regarding a host of psychological topics: psychics, out of body experiences, recovered memories, and lie detection, to name a few. Even a casual stroll through our neighborhood bookstore reveals dozens of self-help, relationship, recovery, and addiction books that serve up generous portions of advice for steering our paths along life’s rocky road. Yet many popular psychology sources are rife with misconceptions. Indeed, in today’s fast-paced world of information overload, misinformation about psychology is at least as widespread as accurate information. Self-help gurus, television talk show hosts, and self-proclaimed mental health experts routinely dispense psychological advice that is a bewildering mix of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. Without a dependable tour guide for sorting out psychological myth from reality, we’re at risk for becoming lost in a jungle of “psychomythology.”
In our new book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior, we examine in depth 50 widespread myths in popular psychology (along with approximately 250 other myths and “mini-myths”), present research evidence demonstrating that these beliefs are fictional, explore their ramifications in popular culture and everyday life, and trace their psychological and sociological origins. Here, pace David Letterman, we present (in no particular order) our own candidates for the top 10 myths of popular psychology.
Myth #1: We Only Use 10% of our Brains
Whenever those of us who study the brain venture outside the Ivory Tower to give public lectures, one of the questions we’re most likely to encounter is, “Is it true that we only use 10% of our brains?” The look of disappointment that usually follows when we respond, “Sorry, I’m afraid not,” suggests that the 10% myth is one of those hopeful truisms that refuses to die because it would be so nice if it were true. In one study, when asked “About what percentage of their potential brain power do you think most people use?,” a third of psychology majors answered 10%. Remarkably, one survey revealed that even 6% of neuroscientists agreed with this claim! The pop psychology industry has played a big role in keeping this myth alive. For example, in his book, How to be Twice as Smart, Scott Witt wrote that “If you’re like most people, you’re using only ten percent of your brainpower.”
There are several reasons to doubt that 90% of our brains lie silent. At a mere 2–3% of our body weight, our brain consumes over 20% of the oxygen we breathe. It’s implausible that evolution would have permitted the squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ. Moreover, losing far less than 90% of the brain to accident or disease almost always has catastrophic consequences. Likewise, electrical stimulation of sites in the brain during neurosurgery has failed to uncover any “silent areas.”
How did the 10% myth get started? One clue leads back about a century to psychologist William James, who once wrote that he doubted that average persons achieve more than about 10% of their intellectual potential. Although James talked in terms of underdeveloped potential, a slew of positive thinking gurus transformed “10% of our capacity” into “10% of our brain.” In addition, in calling a huge percentage of the human brain “silent cortex,” early investigators may have fostered the mistaken impression that what scientists now call “association cortex” — which is vitally important for language and abstract thinking — had no function. In a similar vein, early researchers’ admissions that they didn’t know what 90% of the brain did probably fueled the myth that it does nothing. Finally, although one frequently hears claims that Albert Einstein once explained his own brilliance by reference to 10% myth, there’s no evidence that he ever uttered such a statement.
Myth #4: Human Memory Works like a Video Camera
Despite the sometimes all-too-obvious failings of everyday memory, surveys show that many people believe that their memories operate very much like videotape recorders. About 36% of us believe that our brains preserve perfect records of everything we’ve experienced. In one survey of undergraduates, 27% agreed that memory operates like a tape recorder. Even most psychotherapists agree that memories are fixed more or less permanently in the mind.
It’s true that we often recall extremely emotional events, sometimes called flashbulb memories because they seem to have a photographic quality. Nevertheless, research shows that even these memories wither over time and are prone to distortions. Consider an example from Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch’s study of memories regarding the disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger. A student at Emory University provided the first description 24 hours after the disaster, and the second account two and a half years later.
Description 1. “I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about [it]. I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got all the details from that.”
Description 2. “When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with my roommate and we were watching TV. It came on a news flash and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents.”
Clearly, there are striking discrepancies between the two memories. Neisser and Harsch found that about one-third of students’ reports contained large differences across the two time points. Similarly, Heike Schmolck and colleagues compared participants’ ability to recall the 1995 acquittal of former football star O. J. Simpson 3 days after the verdict, and after many months. After 32 months, 40% of the memory reports contained “major distortions.”
Today, there’s broad consensus among psychologists that memory isn’t reproductive — it doesn’t duplicate precisely what we’ve experienced — but reconstructive. What we recall is often a blurry mixture of accurate and inaccurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs and hunches. Indeed, researchers have created memories of events that never happened. In the “shopping mall study,” Elizabeth Loftus created a false memory in Chris, a 14-year-old boy. Loftus instructed Chris’s older brother to present Chris with a false story of being lost in a shopping mall at age 5, and she instructed Chris to write down everything he remembered. Initially, Chris reported very little about the false event, but over a two week period, he constructed a detailed memory of it. A flood of similar studies followed, showing that in 18-37% of participants, researchers can implant false memories of such events as serious animal attacks, knocking over a punchbowl at a wedding, getting one’s fingers caught in a mousetrap as a child, witnessing a demonic possession, and riding in a hot air balloon with one’s family.
Myth #5: Hypnosis is a Unique “Trance” State Differing in Kind from Wakefulness
Popular movies and books portray the hypnotic trance state as so powerful that otherwise normal people will commit an assassination (The Manchurian Candidate); commit suicide (The Garden Murders); perceive only a person’s internal beauty (Shallow Hal); and (our favorite) fall victim to brainwashing by alien preachers who use messages embedded in sermons (Invasion of the Space Preachers). Survey data show that public opinion resonates with these media portrayals: 77% of college students endorsed the statement that “hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, quite different from normal waking consciousness,” and 44% agreed that “A deeply hypnotized person is robot-like and goes along automatically with whatever the hypnotist suggests.”
But research shows that hypnotized people can resist and even oppose hypnotic suggestions, and won’t do things that are out of character, like harming people they dislike. In addition, hypnosis bears no more than a superficial resemblance to sleep: Brain wave studies reveal that hypnotized people are wide awake. What’s more, individuals can be just as responsive to suggestions administered while they’re exercising on a stationary bicycle as they are following suggestions for sleep and relaxation. In the laboratory, we can reproduce all of the phenomena that laypersons associate with hypnosis (such as hallucinations and insensitivity to pain) using suggestions alone, with no mention of hypnosis. Evidence of a distinct trance unique to hypnosis would require physiological markers of subjects’ responses to suggestions to enter a trance. Yet no consistent evidence of this sort has emerged.
Hypnosis appears to be only one procedure among many for increasing people’s responses to suggestions.
Myth #6: The Polygraph Test is an Accurate Means of Detecting Lies
Have you ever told a lie? If you answered “no,” you’re lying. College students admit to lying in about one in every three social interactions and people in the community about one in every five interactions. Not surprisingly, investigators have long sought out foolproof means of detecting falsehoods. In the 1920s, psychologist William Moulton Marston invented the first polygraph or so-called “lie detector” test, which measured systolic blood pressure to detect deception. He later created one of the first female cartoon superheroes, Wonder Woman, who could compel villains to tell the truth by ensnaring them in a magic lasso. For Marston, the polygraph was the equivalent of Wonder Woman’s lasso: an infallible detector of the truth.
A polygraph machine plots physiological activity — such as skin conductance, blood pressure, and respiration — on a continuously running chart. Contrary to the impression conveyed in such movies as Meet the Parents, the machine isn’t a quick fix for telling whether someone is lying, although the public’s desire for such a fix almost surely contributes to the polygraph’s popularity. In one survey of introductory psychology students, 45% believed that the polygraph “can accurately identify attempts to deceive.” Yet interpreting a polygraph chart is notoriously difficult.
For starters, there are large differences among people in their levels of physiological activity. An honest examinee who tends to sweat a lot might mistakenly appear deceptive, whereas a deceptive examinee who tends to sweat very little might mistakenly appear truthful. Moreover, as David Lykken noted, there’s no evidence for a Pinocchio response, such as an emotional or physiological reaction uniquely indicative of deception. If a polygraph chart shows more physiological activity when the examinee responds to questions about a crime than to irrelevant questions, at most this difference tells us that the examinee was more nervous at those moments. Yet this difference could be due to actual guilt, indignation or shock at being unjustly accused, or the realization that one’s responses to questions about the crime could lead to being fired, fined, or imprisoned. Thus, polygraph tests suffer from a high rate of “false positives” — innocent people whom the test deems guilty. As a consequence, the “lie detector” test is misnamed: It’s really an arousal detector. Conversely, some individuals who are guilty may not experience anxiety when telling lies. For example, psychopaths are notoriously immune to fear and may be able to “beat” the test in high pressure situations, although the research evidence for this possibility is mixed.
Were he still alive, William Moulton Marston might be disappointed to learn that researchers have yet to develop the psychological equivalent of Wonder Woman’s magic lasso. For at least the foreseeable future, the promise of a perfect lie detector remains the stuff of comic book fantasy...
About the authors
Dr. Scott O. Lilienfeld is a Professor of Psychology at Emory University, editor-in-chief of the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, and past president of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology. His principal areas of interest include personality disorders, psychiatric classification, evidence-based practice in clinical psychology, and science and pseudoscience.
Dr. Steven Jay Lynn is a Professor of Psychology at Binghamton University (SUNY), the director of the Psychological Clinic and the Center for Evidence-Based Therapy, and a diplomate in clinical and forensic psychology (ABPP). He is the author of more than 270 books, chapters, and articles on science versus pseudoscience, hypnosis, memory, dissociation, and psychological trauma.
Dr. John Ruscio is an Associate Professor of Psychology at The College of New Jersey. His interests include quantitative methods for social and behavioral science research and characteristics distinguishing science from pseudoscience.
Dr. Barry L. Beyerstein was Professor of Psychology in Simon Fraser University, and an internationally recognized expert on myths about brain functioning. Dr. Bernstein passed away in 2007.