Debunking pop psychology’s greatest myths

Debunking pop psychology’s greatest myths

Robert DeNiro’s ex-CIA character in Meet the Parents probably wouldn’t enjoy Professor John Ruscio’s book. Television execs and some educational theorists might also have a problem or two with it. But for psychology students, or anyone else interested in distinguishing between fact and fiction, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology has something to it.

Ruscio, an associate professor in the College’s Department of Psychology, collaborated with a team of experienced psychology educators on the book. Designed as both a tool for introductory psychology courses and an eye-opener for the recreational reader, 50 Great Myths challenges readers to rethink the mental mythology perpetuated in movies, TV, and the Internet.

Ruscio’s contribution to the book included debunking the fictitious representation of the polygraph, also known as the lie detector, as a reliable indicator of the truth. “What you see in Meet the Parents and some other sources, it isn’t even reasonably accurate,” he said. “You can’t tell based on the response to one question whether somebody’s lying or not.” The things the polygraph measures— perspiration, heartbeat, respiration rate—indicate anxiety, not guilt. On a polygraph, the nervous person might easily appear to be the guilty person, while a cool, unflinching serial killer could pass the test with flying colors.

“The research suggests something like 40 [to] 50 percent of people will give false-positive responses. In other words, they will look dishonest just because they’re anxious about being accused of something,” Ruscio explained. “Innocent people often fail the polygraph.”

Yet Americans’ idea of the polygraph as an efficient lie detector persists, even while a more sophisticated alternative, the “guilty knowledge test” (GKT), is growing in popularity overseas. Why? Ruscio thinks prosecutors and police, who developed the polygraph standard, are worried. “It’s sort of a turf battle. They don’t want to admit that there might be something better than what they’re doing, which is understandable, but regrettable,” Ruscio said.

That’s just one of his favorites. The book also challenges the perceptions that students’ individual learning styles should be emphasized, that memory is accurate, and that “blowing off steam” is healthy (see below—research says such actions often makes things worse). All of these widely held beliefs, according to the authors, are seriously flawed. They are also great examples of how research and “common knowledge” aren’t always compatible.

Ruscio, who has taught at TCNJ since 2006, said this critical sensibility is important to any scientific or analytical field, psychology included. Pop-culture myths and blaring falsities just happen to make great teaching examples.

“We enjoy telling these kinds of stories as an example to lead into the principles,” he said. “[If] I put up on the board, ‘Correlation does not imply causation,’ well, everybody knows that. That’s boring. And you can say that as many times as you want, but until you really sink your teeth into concrete examples of that and see how badly wrong you can go if you don’t think that and you don’t internalize it, it doesn’t work so well.”

Whether the matter in question is the efficacy of the minimum wage—which Ruscio informs students in his First Seminar Program class, The Price of Everything, actually hurts poor people—or the believability of the lie-detector on Fox’s The Moment of Truth, the professor’s answers signify the critical attitude that he and his colleagues try to instill in students.

“[That attitude] really infuses everyone of my classes,” he said. “I think it’s just the general way that we approach topics. What’s the logic of the theory? What’s the quality of the evidence? Just looking at not what do we believe is true, but why do we believe it’s true?”

Five common myths of pop psychology (and why they aren’t true)

Myth # 1: “It’s better to express anger than to hold it in.”

Reality: “More than 40 years of research reveals that expressing anger directly toward another person or indirectly (such as toward an object) actually turns up the heat on aggression,” the authors write. Expressing anger can be effective when it is paired with problem-solving to address the source of the anger, they say, but people wrongly confuse “catharsis” with anger diminishing on its own as time passes.

Myth #2: “Human memory works like a tape recorder or video camera, and accurately records the events we’ve experienced.”

Reality: Many psychologists agree that memory is “reconstructive,” rather than “reproductive”—that is, memories are imperfect combinations of accurate and inaccurate ideas about what happened in the past. Studies have shown that memories can change substantially over time and can even be convincingly seeded in the minds of others (à la Inception, minus Leonardo DiCaprio and the adventure). “These studies demolish the popular belief that our memories are etched into an indelible mental record,” the authors say.

Myth #3: “Hypnosis is a unique “trance” state that differs in kind from wakefulness.”

Reality: Hypnotized people are wide awake, research shows, and won’t act out of character, for example, by hurting others. “Research shows that hypnotized people can resist and even oppose hypnotic suggestions,” they say, so movie fans need not fear the hypnotized triggermen at the center of movies like The Manchurian Candidate.

Myth #4: “Opposites attract: We are most attracted to people who differ from us.”

Reality: Despite all the films, books, TV shows, Web sites, and “relationship experts” telling us that people in love function like magnets—negatives drawn to positives, introverts to extroverts, swans to slobs, etc.—dozens of studies suggest that opposites do not attract. Instead, it seems that people who are attracted to one another are likely to be like-minded in terms of overall personality, conscientiousness, and worldview.

Myth #5: “People with schizophrenia have multiple personalities.”

Reality: Psychiatrists have a much more straightforward name for the disorder of multiple personalities: Multiple Personality Disorder, more recently referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Schizophrenia, which is commonly confused with DID, is characterized by a damaging “splitting” of the functions of emotion and thinking, not the development of alternate personalities. It is thought that a Swiss psychiatrist confused writers in the early 20th century when he coined the term “schizophrenia,” which means “split mind.”

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