COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Psychological myths
-Nathaniel Branden, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
There's a certain sense in which psychology has taken the place of religious faith for many in the western world. When people seek answers for the bad that we do, how we can deal with our faults, motivation for a better life, and deeper questions of meaning and purpose, psychologists and psychology are where modern westerners tend to turn.
Where previous cultures saw acts of evil as evidence of internal sin against an external code of righteousness, psychologists tend to explain this as the product of environment and upbringing, external pressures causing improper behavior.
Even many otherwise religious people have so embraced this system of understanding. Many mainstream churches every Sunday have content very similar to the latest psychological teachings and popular psychology with a few religious themes thrown in. Popular teachers and writers such as Rick Warren are less minister of the gospel than motivational speaker, with more in common with Dr Phil than Jesus Christ.
This perspective has become so pervasive that if a modern psychologist says something people tend to take them at their word, uncritically, because it sounds good and familiar. But are all the things we've been told over the years about psychology true? And are they even what psychologists themselves are teaching, or are they some distortion or misunderstanding?
It turns out quite a few of the things people believe are simply not supported by science or psychology at all. Here's just a handful:
SELF ESTEEM:This seems to be waning slightly, but for decades, the most critical cause of teachers and parents was the "self esteem" of young people. They had to feel good about themselves first, or they would always be crushed by low self esteem and never accomplish what they might. They'd feel bad, and always be held back.
This one can be traced back quite a ways, but the modern version seems to have really got going with Norman Vincent Peale's book The Power of Positive Thinking. This one kicked off the "if you just believe in yourself, you can do anything" that Disney movies have been promoting for decades. Its the message of countless movies, TV shows, books, and other media: you can do it!
For decades, psychologists claimed that nearly every neurosis and psychosis could be traced back to self esteem problems. People felt bad about themselves and lashed out in fury at the world. Its not Jimmy's fault, he just wasn't raised to love himself enough.
The world responded well to this, always eager to think better of themselves. Competitive games were banned. Prizes were offered for participation. Kids were praised for whatever they did, no matter how awful. Children were even allowed to be wrong in spelling and other basic educational areas to avoid damaging their self esteem with hurtful negative reinforcement.
A recent study has shown that to be just nonsense, and even damaging nonsense. In 2003, a research team examined all the voluminous data on the topic and found that there's virtually no connection between low self esteem and psychological damage or trauma. In the report “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness or Healthier Lifestyles?” they noted that self-esteem is minimally related to interpersonal success and not consistently related to either alcohol or drug abuse.
They pointed out that any connection between school performance and self esteem is probably the reverse of what educators expect: doing well in school results in higher self esteem and critical to changing modern perspectives on the topic is this quote: "low self-esteem is neither necessary nor sufficient for depression."
In fact, the opposite effect seems to be true when it comes to troubled kids and self esteem. Young people raised to think wonderfully of themselves no matter how they do and avoid anything that might draw that into question become troubled later in life. Research shows that such people tend to become aggressive and even violent when their superiority is drawn into question.
Which really is just common sense. If you teach kids that life can be hard and how to overcome it instead of making sure nothing bad happens to them and praising them even when they're awful, they will grow up feeling an appropriate level of joy over triumph and challenge when things go badly. If you give them participation trophies and never expose them to failure or sadness, they will have no skills or mindset to deal with those things when they inevitably take place.
SUBLIMINAL: For years subliminal advertising was considered a powerful trick to get people to do what someone wanted. Its even been banned everywhere because it was thought of as so evil and manipulative. Movie theaters used to experiment with it, flashing a single frame of an image of popcorn or a drink, to try to manipulate people into buying.
The theory is that it flashes by so fast your visual centers pick it up, but its too fast for your brain to process visually. All you get is the mental information without even realizing it. There are several problems with this theory, the main one being physiological. Your brain and eyes can only pick up and comprehend images at a certain speed, and if you pick them up, you pick them up wholly, not in parts. In other words, if something flashes by so fast you don't pick it up visually... you won't pick it up at all. The human eye can only pick up images about 1/10th of a second long. Some very gifted people can pick things up very slightly faster, but that's pretty much the limit. Subliminal images are fired past at much, much faster speeds, 1/3000 of a second or less. Your brain and eyes cannot even notice something that fast.
Where did all this come from? I'm glad you asked, I'll let someone else give the history:
Most of the companies flogging subliminal products cite the work of a market researcher - one James M. Vicary.
In 1957 he announced that he'd made a breakthrough in advertising.. ...namely subliminals
Vicary described the results of a six week experiment that he had done in a cooperative movie theater. He claimed that a projector was was manipulated to flash "drink coke", and "eat popcorn" on the screen for 1/3000th of a second every five seconds.
Vicary claimed that the result was that popcorn sales went up 57.5 percent over the six weeks; Cokes sales were up 18.1 percent.
In the following months, Vicary refused to release any of his data including the location of the theater where the tests were supposedly done. Other scientists tried to duplicate his work but could not produce anything similar to what he claimed.
When challenged to reproduce his findings Vicary agreed to conduct a publicly announced test on CBC stations. In January 1958, the subliminal message "telephone now" was flashed 352 times during a half-hour show.
The results showed no noticeable increase in telephone use during or after the program. However, the CBC received thousands of letters claiming inexplicable desires to get a can of beer, to go to the bathroom, and to change the channel.
Not one single caller correctly guessed what the subliminal message was.
It doesn't work. Your subconscious isn't any faster than your conscious mind, your eyes and brain cannot pick up images and concepts that swiftly. Its still attempted, of course. It just doesn't work.
RAGE AWAY: We're told this all the time. Better to let it out. Don't bottle up your anger, or you'll get ulcers, you'll become neurotic, you'll snap eventually. Squeeze that stress doll, punch that pillow, let it out or you'll eventually let it out on something else. That's what we're told, and its a very common theme in popular media.
The truth is, studies have shown it doesn't help at all. Not only does research show that it does not actually reduce the building stress inside you, it actually suggests that it makes matters worse. It seems that the release of violence and rage can actually be a rewarding experience, which leads people to want to become angry again and get the reward. So instead of keeping you from getting out of control, it might even contribute to you going berserk.
And if you create a habit of beating things up when you get mad, then that's what you'll do instead of actually dealing with the problem or handling the stress, out of habit rather than anything beneficial. The basic theory behind this is not wrong: you do need to deal with stress and anger. Its just hitting stuff and the rest doesn't help deal with it. All it does is release that adrenaline-fueled energy, and does nothing about the cause or your reaction to the cause.
OPPOSITES ATTRACT: This one we get pretty much every single movie and TV show that has ever been about romance. Its an appealing concept: if you're a dumpy unattractive sort, you want to believe you can score with that hot cheerleader or the quarterback. Every French romance ever put to film is about how someone ugly and old can score with an endless series of amazingly hot girls. Gerard Depardeiu was a romantic lead in dozens of these sort of films.
Its generally not true. In fact it is extremely rare that opposites do well together. The truth is, we do best with people we are similar to and get along well with. The things we agree on and share in common are the basis of what we are attracted by. A friend is simply someone who we've found we share a common interest with, and that relationship builds around that interest.
Research backs this up, showing that different types of personalities tend to prefer the same type of personality, which is really just common sense. Even in the "opposites attract" films they end up with a relationship built around finding things in common. Except French films, unless misery and feeling life is pointless counts.
AUTISM EPIDEMIC: If you have watched the Oprah Winfrey show or listened to any anti-vaccination advocate, you'll have gotten the impression that there are more and more kids with autism today and its a terrible trend we must fight.
In fact, the CDC numbers show that before 1990, the prevalence of autism in the United States was estimated at 1 in 2,500. By 2007, that rate was 1 in 150. Very recently new numbers were released, showing that new autism cases were: 1 in 68. That seems horrific, clearly something dreadful is happening to our children!
Well, like a lot of this kind of thing, it comes down to definition and statistics. Each time there was a big upswing in autism cases, they happened when the CDC redefined how autism is described. In other words, there weren't that many more new cases, they just changed how you define autism and more people fit the definition. Like "obesity" exploding in numbers, its not a case of more actual children with autism, but more being defined as autistic because the rules shifted.
LUNATICS: The full moon. Every cop will tell you, at least on the TV shows, that things get crazier during a full moon. More suicides, more murders, more violence, more thefts. Its just like people go crazy during the full moon. This is one of the most enduring and repeated ideas in modern drama and among actual cops, emergency room workers, etc.
Except, the data doesn't support this. Researchers in 1985 examined all the police records, admittance data in hospitals, and other evidence from around the United States to see if there was any validity at all to this claim. They looked at crimes, suicides, psychiatric problems, psychiatric hospital admissions, dog bites, calls to crisis centers, suicides, and psychiatric hospital admission.
No correlation or pattern emerged. There were some times when it was more, some times when it was less, and the overall pattern of full moons every 29 days showed things were no different than usual.
So why do cops and other emergency service workers swear that it takes place? Well, there's a trick our minds pull on us, a sort of flaw with how memories work. We "hang" memories on events and sensory input to help us recall them, and the full moon sets apart some days from other days. If a myth starts to build in momentum, then we come to expect that myth to take place, and remember the confirmation of that myth easier when there's something to hang it on. On days when there's not a full moon, there's nothing specific or memorable to make recalling those events easier.
To make matters worse, we tend to recall things that confirm our beliefs better than things that do not. When there's a big uptick in emergency room admissions on a full moon we take it as proof of our beliefs. When there's a lull, we tend to forget about it.
SHOCKING: Shock therapy seems ghastly and terrifying. It was one of the horrors depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that Jack Nicholson's character had to endure. And the very concept seems horrific: firing bolts of electricity into someone's brain on purpose?
The thing is... it appears that, if done properly, its not as awful as it sounds. In fact, according to the evidence, its actually been very helpful to a lot of people. Real Clear Science quotes from a book about psychological myths and explains:
"Nowadays, patients who receive ECT... first receive a general anesthetic, a muscle relaxant, and occasionally a substance to prevent salivation," Lilienfeld described. "Then, a physician places electrodes on the patient's head... and delivers an electric shock. This shock induces a seizure lasting 45 to 60 seconds, although the anesthetic... and muscle relaxant inhibit the patient's movements..."
There's no scientific consensus on why ECT works, but the majority of controlled studies show that -- for severe depression -- it does. Indeed, a 1999 study found that an overwhelming 91% of people who'd received ECT viewed it positively.
My guess is what they do now is a lot more controlled and less awful than, say, in 1968, but there's a reason that shock therapy has been in continuous use for decades, to this day.
CULTS: People presume that anyone who joins a cult is either weak, retarded, or insane. They're the pathetic detritus of society, the losers who are easily manipulated and worthless. Studies actually indicate that there's no higher level of insanity in cult membership than the general public, and that cult members are no more stupid than the general public.
There is, however, a powerful natural tendency in people to become very similar in groups. Remember high school, when everyone tended to dress and talk the same? Consider clubs and other groupings, even motorcycle gangs. There's nothing retarded, weak, or insane compelling them to dress in leather and have big beards. Its just being part of the group.
The main thing that sets cults apart is a charismatic leader that provides a family that people can belong to, tied to powerful psychological stress and manipulation, and isolation from anyone who questions or dissents from the official line. You can see this happen all the time in general society; its part of why the Common Knowledge series exists, because people are so easily manipulated into believing and accepting things which are just patently false.
If nobody questions or disagrees except those who are demonized and destroyed by your peers, it takes a pretty strong and perceptive person to even question that. Mindlessly going along with everyone else is how societies generally work, and powerful, immoral leaders take advantage of that for their own benefit and power.
Its just a good thing to consider: cults don't work all that differently outside a lunatic's compound than they do inside it. Its easy to get swept up by what everyone else says and believes, rather than cling to objective, absolute truth. Its easy to get swayed by a smooth talking charismatic figure.
HOMOPHOBE: One last one here. This one is a favorite of popular media, and its a pretty common insult. If someone is openly opposed to homosexual behavior, they are called "homophobic" and often that's followed with "secretly queer." Consider the awful movie American Beauty for a popular example. Its pretty much the pattern for Hollywood along with the hypocritical sexual creep prude and the evil businessman.
There's a lot of problems with this claim, the main one being there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever in any remotest sense for it. There's simply nothing at all which shows people who are more "homophobic" are more likely to be secretly homosexual. Zero. Yes, its appealing for homosexual activists to think its so, and it carries a sort of schadenfreude level justice for some to cling to, but there's nothing which supports the idea.
And, while we're on the subject: "homophobia" does not exist in a psychological sense. Its not listed in any phobias, its not even a psychological term. Its one of those wordfare terms that are used to attack people you disagree with when you don't have a logical, reasonable case to present. Its a name to yell at people.
Its not even defined anywhere to any precision. The closest you can really get is "a huge range of attitudes, from people who have strong moral objection to homosexuality due to religious beliefs or upbringing, to people who physically find homosexual sex disgusting, to people who brim with an inexplicable rage toward homosexuals."
Its just a brick to hit people with that tends to shut down and discussion; and when the word is examined more closely, its just ridiculous in the first place. Given that about half of the population or more (especially older people) find homosexual behavior to be objectionable at some level, its a pretty stupid term to throw around and has zero scientific or psychological validity.
There are a lot more of these myths out there, of course. Some I've covered before like the "we only use 10% of our brains" one, and others like "lie detectors are reliable" and "hypnotism can get you to do anything" are simply ridiculous. There's a book out detailing 50 of these psychological myths.
The thing is, like all religions, most people who adhere to the faith don't really know very much about it beyond the parts they find useful and appealing. And psychology fits the human need for religion while putting virtually no burden of required behavior on anyone. For most people, psychology is about being able to force people into categories and feel superior toward them.
When done right, it can be a valuable tool for analyzing and describing human behavior and patterns. When done wrong, you get nonsense like the above.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.