Winter 2010: Of Note

Portrait of Scott Lilienfeld with Rorschach blot

Scott Lilienfeld

Bryan Meltz

Psyche!

A professor takes on common psychology misconceptions—and some may surprise you

By Paige P. Parvin 96G

Do you believe your dreams have symbolic meaning? That venting anger is healthy? That your first instinct on a multiple-choice test is always the best? That a positive outlook can help heal cancer?

If so, you’re not alone. Well over half the respondents in a U.S. News & World Report survey answered yes to these questions. Yet each of these widely held notions is largely untrue.

That’s part of the reason why psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld and three colleagues from other universities conceived Fifty Great Myths of Popular Psychology, a collection of anecdotal theories, familiar assumptions, and half-truths systematically examined under the bright light of modern psychological study.

“This really came out of our teaching,” Lilienfeld says. “We would talk with undergraduate and even graduate students and realize how many misconceptions people have about psychology. We decided there was a real need for a book like this, that would educate both people in the general public and students.”

Common sources of psychomythology—a term coined in the book—include biased research, the general desire for easy answers and quick fixes, and basic word of mouth, according to Lilienfeld. Many psychology myths begin with a kernel of truth that is puffed up into a twisted exaggeration.

The idea that people are either left-brained or right-brained, for example, has some validity—there are those who are clearly oriented toward math and science and those who are drawn to creative expression—but all of us use both halves of our brains almost all of the time, and it is our personal choices and external circumstances that push us in one direction or the other.

Similarly, the belief that “women are from Venus and men are from Mars” is a sweeping exaggeration of what are really minor differences between the genders.

“Men and women do differ in their communication styles—it’s not like there is no difference at all—but the idea that it’s like they’re from different planets is just not supported by research,” Lilienfeld says. “The differences between groups are almost always smaller than the differences within groups, which is a powerful argument against stereotyping.”

Even as he sips coffee from a mug adorned with Freud’s face, Lilienfeld acknowledges that Fifty Great Myths debunks some Freudian classics. One is the idea that effective psychotherapy requires patients to mine their childhood memories and process traumatic experiences. In fact, Lilienfeld suggests, we’re better off focusing on positive changes in the present—and the future.

Some of the book’s mythbusting is sure to be controversial. For instance, the authors challenge the common claim that there has been a dramatic increase in autism in recent decades, a position that may anger parents of children diagnosed with the disorder.

“There’s an increase in autism diagnoses, that’s not controversial,” Lilienfeld says. “The question is, is there a big epidemic going on? The evidence for that is very weak. What people forget is that the diagnostic criteria have changed over time. When I went to grad school, that diagnosis was reserved for children with really severe impairments in communication and bonding. Now it’s been expanded. The same is true for ADHD and childhood bipolar disorder.”

Lilienfeld and coauthors Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late Barry Beyerstein surveyed nearly forty psychology professors at universities around the country to come up with a list of two hundred of the most common myths, which they eventually whittled down to fifty. The book’s core audience is psychology students—Lilienfeld plans to begin teaching from it next year—but he also hopes it can help set some things straight for the lay public.

“You can go to a bookstore like Barnes and Noble and see rows and rows of psych books,” says Lilienfeld, “but there is precious little that allows the average person to filter out what’s good from what’s bad.”

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