Psychology is a discipline that everyone considers themselves an expert in. We all have brains and so we all have first-hand experience in how they work and at least some curiosity as to their nature. While this interest in the mind is healthy and to be encouraged though, it does have one rather unwanted side effect: it has caused a huge amount of misinformation to be published on the web and spread by word of mouth. People will tell you facts about the brain that are slightly incorrect, uncertain or completely wrong and it can be hard to differentiate between the useful information and the junk. ‘Pop psychology’ is often a perfect example of this – books written with authority by individuals claiming to be ‘experts’, that are in fact based on nothing more than wild guesses and convenient ideas.
Here we will look at some of the most common myths found in pop psychology literature that you should stop quoting right now and that could be leading you down the wrong path.
The ‘Subconscious’ Mind
Okay so this one isn’t really a myth so much as a big misunderstanding. Basically the belief here is that we all have a ‘subconscious mind’ that operates under the surface and causes us to act in ways that we might not understand. Well you’re close, but actually there’s no such thing as a subconscious – it’s just ‘unconscious’. Freud, who invented the concept, simply described some thoughts as being unconscious, meaning we’re not aware of them. Things are either conscious or unconscious – there is no mysterious ‘subconscious’ sitting between those two points.
The Creative Left and Logical Right Side
Often you will hear people tell you with authority that you’re a ‘left brain’ type and ‘left brain/right brain’ quizzes are regularly found in lifestyle magazines. In reality though, no study has been able to find a distinction between someone who uses the left brain more or someone who uses the right brain more. We all use different parts of the brain at different times with no ‘preference’ for either.
And it’s also not strictly true that creativity resides in either of those brain areas. This concept is technically called ‘lateralization of brain function’ and while it is true that some functions of the brain take place more on one side than the other, we actually still need both sides of our brain for the majority of tasks. Then there’s the fact that you can’t really define ‘creativity’ as a separate function to maths or planning, and the fact that it’s actually possible to survive with only one half of your brain intact – which is ironically probably the only time you could be described as ‘left brained’…
We Only Use 10% of Our Brains
Hopefully everyone by now knows that this one is a complete fallacy, but just in case… there is no truth to this claim. We only use a small portion of our brain at any one time, but that does not mean that there is any great majority that sees no use at all – no area of the brain has been found that doesn’t get used at some point. That’s not to say we don’t have unlocked potential, but this ‘statistic’ is just plain wrong.
Teachers seem particularly sold on the idea that we all have different ‘learning styles’ and that we work best when the teaching allows us to operate within this modality. ‘Acoustic learners’ might learn best by listening, whereas visual learners might prefer mind maps and kinaesthetic learner might like getting their hands dirty.
That’s all good and well in theory, but unfortunately this idea (known as meshing hypothesis) is actually complete gump according to the empirical evidence. So you can put down that musical mind map right now and get back to just reading.
Visualise Something and it Will Happen
Many self-help books are practically built around this premise: if you visualise something strongly enough then it will become reality. This is due to your ‘tricking’ your brain into thinking that the scenario has already happened, causing you to act in-line with it and to enjoy a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result. In other words, you visualise yourself being a rock star, so you start to feel like one, so you start to act like one and thus you become one. Meanwhile all the obstacles that would otherwise have hindered you just magically ‘move out the way’ as your brain starts working out a plan to get you to that destination.
Well I hope you kept your Waterstones receipt – because studies have once again show this to be a complete myth. In fact, it has been shown countless times that people who spend all their time daydreaming about success are less likely to put their plans into action and thus become successful. Simply visualising what you want is not enough and it may actually be harmful to your cause.
You Should Express Your Anger
We all know that bottling things up is bad for us, right? And so it stands to reason that those pop-psychology books are right in telling us to express that rage by punching a punching bag, or just telling your colleagues honestly what you think of them, yes?
Well not according to research which has found that venting anger actually makes us feel worse in both the long and short term than trying to let it go and seek distraction. If someone wronged you then ranting and raving about it is only going to get you more worked up, so instead try breathing calmly and closing your eyes. You’ll feel much better. And yes, that does mean that ‘primal scream’ theory is misguided according to the evidence.
All Popular Psychology Is Useless
This last one is more of a myth about popular psychology than a myth from popular psychology, but it is still important to consider.
Having read this list, and perhaps other articles on pop psychology, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole institution is built on fluff and that we’d be better off without it. Could it be a case of a little knowledge being more damaging than none?
While it’s definitely a good thing to approach pop psychology with a healthy dose of scepticism, you shouldn’t assume that it is entirely without merit. Pop psychology is still most often based in real science and useful concepts, but doesn’t get bogged down by references and statistics like real psychology books. By making these topics more accessible to the masses, pop psychology tomes empower us and give us some basic insight to a fascinating topic. Often they’re inspiring, and sometimes they can include insightful and unique ideas. So don’t ignore them completely, just remember to approach them with caution, to check your facts and to seek out multiple view-points like any good scientist.