10 of the most widely believed myths in psychology
Our intuition about human thought and behaviour isn't always accurate.
29 July 2016
In a sense we’re all amateur psychologists – we’ve got our own first-hand experience at being human, and we’ve spent years observing how we and others behave in different situations. This intuition fuels a “folk psychology” that sometimes overlaps with findings from scientific psychology, but often does not. Some erroneous psychological intuitions are particularly widely believed among the public and are stubbornly persistent. This post is about 10 of these myths or misconceptions. It’s important to challenge these myths, not just to set the record straight, but also because their existence can contribute to stigma and stereotypes and to misinformed public policies in areas like education and policing.
1. We learn more effectively when taught via our preferred "learning style"
This is the idea that we each learn better when we’re taught via our own favoured modality, such as through visual materials, listening or doing. A recent survey of British teachers found that over 96 per cent believed in this principle. In fact, psychology research shows consistently that people do not learn better when taught via their preferred modality, and that instead the most effective modality for teaching usually varies according to the nature of the material under study. There are also issues around defining learning styles and how to measure them. Most published scales for measuring learning styles are unreliable (they produce different results on each testing), and they often fail to correlate with people’s actual learning performance.
2. Human memory is like a recording of what happened
The metaphor of memory as a recording is inappropriate because it implies an unrealistic level of accuracy and permanence. Our memories actually represent a distorted version of what happened, and they change over time. And yet a survey of nearly 2000 people from a few years ago found that 63 per cent believed “memory works like a video camera”. This misunderstanding fuels related misconceptions, for example around the trustworthiness of eye-witness testimony. For example, many judges and police believe that the more confident a witness is in their memory, the more accurate they are likely to be, even though psychology research shows that confidence and accuracy are not correlated or only weakly correlated.
3. Violent offenders usually have a diagnosis of mental illness
When people with mental health problems commit violent crimes, the media takes a disproportionate interest. No wonder that surveys show that most of the public believe that people with mental illness are inherently violent. In fact, as Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues explain in the 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, the evidence suggests that at least 90 per cent of people with mental illness do not commit violent acts, and the overwhelming majority of violent offenders are not mentally ill. Some patients with specific conditions (such as command-based hallucinations “telling them” to commit acts) are at increased risk, but actual acts of violence are rare. A telling meta-analysis from 2011 concluded that 35,000 high-risk patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia would need to be permanently watched or incarcerated to prevent one killing of a stranger by a patient.
4. Crowds turn people stupid and dangerous
After a mass emergency, it’s typical for reports to describe the crowd as “stampeding” in blind panic. There’s an implication that when we’re in a large group, we lose our senses and it’s everyone for themselves. This characterisation is refuted by psychology research on crowd behaviour that’s shown panic is rare and people frequently stop to help one another. Cooperation is particularly likely when people feel a shared sense of identity. Psychologist John Drury made this finding based partly on his interviews with people caught up in real-life emergencies, such as the overcrowding that occurred at a Fatboy Slim concert on Brighton beach in 2002. Drury and his colleagues argue this has implications for the handling by authorities of emergency situations: “Crowds in emergencies can be trusted to behave in more social ways than previously expected by some involved in emergency planning,” they wrote.
5. Autism is caused by "broken" mirror neurons (and numerous other autism myths)
Writing in 2011, the famous Californian neuroscientist VS. Ramachandran stated “the main cause of autism is a disturbed mirror neuron system”. Mirror neurons are cells that respond when we perform an action or see someone else perform that action. The “broken mirror” autism hypothesis is a catchy idea that attracts plenty of coverage and is frequently recycled by popular science writers (for example, writing in the Daily Mail, Rita Carer said “autistic people often lack empathy and have been found to show less mirror-neuron activity”). However, a review published in 2013 of 25 relevant studies found no evidence to support the hypotheses, and just this month another study provided yet more counter evidence. This is just one misconception about autism – others are that it is caused by vaccines and that everyone with autism has a rare gift.
6. Vision depends on signals emitted from the eyes
In reality, human vision depends on light rays hitting the retina at the back of the eye. Yet the ancient and wrong idea that it works the opposite way – with rays coming out of the eyes into the world – is still believed by many people, at least according to surveys conducted in the 1990s and 2000s. For example, roughly a third of university students were found to believe that something comes out of the eyes when we see things. Quite why this misconception remains so stubborn is unknown, but we can speculate that it is because, from a subjective perspective, things appear “out there” and also because of the widespread experience people have of “feeling” that they are being stared at. In fact, controlled experiments have shown that while many people clearly do think they’ve felt someone’s stare, they can’t actually detect whether someone is staring at their back or not.
7. The Stanford Prison Experiment shows how the wrong situation can turn anyone bad
One of the most infamous studies in psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971, involved student participants being allocated to the role of prisoner or guard, and it had to be aborted when the guards became abusive. Philip Zimbardo who led the study said it showed how certain situational dynamics can turn any of us bad, and this meme of “bad barrels” rather than “bad apples” has entered the public consciousness. Zimbardo even acted as an expert witness for the defence in the real-life trial of one of the abusive guards at Abu Ghraib. But the Stanford Experiment was highly flawed and has been misinterpreted. Later research, such as the BBC Prison Experiment, has shown how the same situation can lead to cooperative behaviour rather than tyranny, depending on whether and how different people identify with each other. Unfortunately, many modern psychology textbooks continue to spread a simplistic, uncritical account of the Stanford Experiment.
8. The overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence are committed by men
A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It’s easy to understand why – men are responsible for more violent crime overall, and being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as a more obvious threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that partner violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men. [Editor’s note: more background to this myth is available below including our choice of wording for the item subhead, and further academic references].
9. Neurolinguistic Programming is scientific
It’s true that a minority of psychologists are trained in neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and advocate its use, but it is a serious error to think that NLP is grounded in scientific findings in either psychology or neuroscience. In fact the system – which is usually marketed a way of achieving greater personal success – was developed by two self-help gurus in the 1970s who simply made up their own psychological principles after watching psychotherapists working with their clients. NLP is full of false claims that sound scientific-ish, such as that we each have a preferred “representational system” for thinking about the world, and that the best way to influence someone is to mirror their preferred system. A forensic trawl through all the claims made in NLP programmes found that the overwhelming majority are piffle. In many contexts, this may be harmless, but in 2013 a charity was called to book for offering NLP based therapy to traumatised war veterans.
10. Mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain
One survey in the US from a few years ago found that over 80 per cent of people believed that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, ask any psychiatrist or neurologist and if they’re honest they’ll tell you that no one knows what the “correct” balance of chemicals in the brain should be. Part of the support for the imbalance idea comes from the fact that anti-depressant medication alters levels of neurochemicals in the brain, but of course that doesn’t mean that a chemical imbalance causes the problems in the first place (any more than a headache is caused by a lack of paracetamol). The myth is actually endorsed by many people with mental health problems and by some mental health campaigners, partly because they believe it lends a medical legitimacy to conditions like depression and anxiety. However, research has shown that biological accounts of mental illness (including the chemical imbalance theory) can increase stigma, for example – by encouraging the idea that mental health problems are permanent.
The wording of the myth “The overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence are committed by men” is taken verbatim from the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott Lilienfeld et al. The same wording was also used in a subsequent survey of belief in popular psychology myths published by Adrian Furnham and David Hughes, published in the journal Teaching of Psychology.
The reason this is a myth is that crime statistics show that actually a considerable number of women are violent toward men in intimate relationships. Though these stats suggest men are more often violent toward women than vice versa, it is not the case that the “overwhelming majority” of such acts are committed by men. We cited some contemporary figures to illustrate this point, although readers may have different interpretations of what would constitute an “overwhelming majority” in weighing up these figures.
However, the evidence against the claim that “the overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence are committed by men” runs much deeper. Family conflict studies, that look at rates of domestic violence that are not necessarily recorded as crimes, find about equal rates of violence by men against women and by women against men: in fact sometimes the results suggest more domestic violence by women against men than vice versa. Writing in the late 1990s, the sociologist Murray Straus described the backlash against his and his colleagues’ “disturbing discovery” in the 1970s “that women physically assaulted partners in marital, cohabiting and dating relationships as often as men assaulted their partners”. He adds: “The finding caused me and my former colleague, Suzanne Steinmetz, to be excommunicated as feminists”.
Feminists and female victim advocates, understandably perhaps, fear that drawing attention to male victims undermines the seriousness of the problem of male abuse of women, and of female oppression more broadly. This heated controversy has persisted through the decades. In 2000 a seminal meta-analysis by Archer looked at all published data available on domestic violence at that time (including data from family conflict studies, crime surveys and police records) and concluded that “Women were slightly more likely (d = -.05) than men to use one or more act of physical aggression and to use such acts more frequently.”
Since then as more findings have emerged, the field has broadly divided into two camps – those who highlight the greater seriousness of male domestic violence toward women (for example, based on injuries being more serious and the motives being more controlling), and the other camp who highlight the largely unknown, among the public at least, and surprisingly widespread phenomenon of female domestic violence toward men. A recent paper in The Journal of Family Violence by researchers led by Nicole Johnson, tried to overcome this impasse by acknowledging that context is all important, and that in some domestic contexts men are more violent, whereas in others women are the more violent (and noting that many past studies have been influenced by the political leanings of their authors). But ultimately they urge the field to move beyond this argument of relative rates of abuse by the genders, to find out more about why domestic violence occurs and how to stop it in all its forms.