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50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior Paperback – September 28, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1405131124 ISBN-10: 1405131128 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (September 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1405131128
  • ISBN-13: 978-1405131124
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology uses popular myths as a vehicle for helping students and laypersons to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
  • Uses common myths as a vehicle for exploring how to distinguish factual from fictional claims in popular psychology
  • Explores topics that readers will relate to, but often misunderstand, such as “opposites attract,”  “people use only 10% of their brains,” and handwriting reveals your personality
  • Provides a “mythbusting kit” for evaluating folk psychology claims in everyday life
  • Teaches essential critical thinking skills through detailed discussions of each myth
  • Includes over 200 additional psychological myths for readers to explore
    Contains an Appendix of useful Web Sites for examining psychological myths
  • Features a postscript of remarkable psychological findings that sound like myths but that are true
  • Engaging and accessible writing style that appeals to students and lay readers alike
Five Big Myths of Popular Psychology
Amazon-exclusive content from Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein, the authors of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology

Virtually every day, the news media, television shows, films, and Internet bombard us with claims regarding a host of psychological topics: psychics, out of body experiences, recovered memories, and lie detection, to name merely a few. Even a casual stroll through our neighborhood bookstore reveals dozens of self-help, relationship, recovery, and addiction books that serve up generous portions of advice for steering our paths along life’s rocky road. Yet many popular psychology sources are rife with misconceptions. Indeed, in today’s fast-paced world of information overload, misinformation about psychology is at least as widespread as accurate information. Self-help gurus, television talk show hosts, and self-proclaimed mental health experts routinely dispense psychological advice that’s a bewildering mix of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. Without a dependable tour guide for sorting out psychological myth from reality, we’re at risk for becoming lost in a jungle of “psychomythology.”

In our new book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Nature, we examine in depth 50 widespread myths in popular psychology (along with approximately 250 other myths and “mini-myths”), present research evidence demonstrating that these beliefs are fictional, explore their ramifications in popular culture and everyday life, and trace their psychological and sociological origins. Here, in David Letterman-like style, we present - in no particular order – our own candidates for five big myths of popular psychology.

Myth # 1: Most people use only 10% of their brain power
There are several reasons to doubt that 90% of our brains lie silent. At a mere 2-3% of our body weight, our brain consumes over 20% of the oxygen we breathe. It’s implausible that evolution would have permitted the squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ. Moreover, losing far less than 90% of the brain to accident or disease almost always has catastrophic consequences (Kolb & Whishaw, 2003).

How did the 10% myth get started? One clue leads back about a century to psychologist William James, who once wrote that he doubted that average persons achieve more than about 10% of their intellectual potential. Although James talked in terms of underdeveloped potential, a slew of positive thinking gurus transformed “10% of our capacity” into “10% of our brain” (Beyerstein, 1999).

Myth # 2: It’s better to express anger than to hold it in
If you’re like most people, you believe that releasing anger is healthier than bottling it up. In one survey, 66% of undergraduates agreed that expressing pent-up anger--sometimes called “catharsis”--is an effective means of reducing one’s risk for aggression (Brown, 1983).

Yet 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 (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999; Tavris, 1988). Research suggests that expressing anger is helpful only when it’s accompanied by constructive problem-solving designed to address the source of the anger (Littrell, 1998).

Why is this myth so popular? In all likelihood, people often mistakenly attribute the fact that they feel better after they express anger to catharsis, rather than to the fact that anger usually subsides on its own after awhile (Lohr, Olatunji, Baumeister, & Bushman, 2007).

Myth # 3: Low Self-Esteem is a Major Cause of Psychological Problems
Many popular psychologists have long maintained that low self-esteem is a prime culprit in generating unhealthy behaviors, including violence, depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. The self-esteem movement has found its way into mainstream educational practices. Some athletic leagues award trophies to all schoolchildren to avoid making losing competitors feel inferior (Sommers & Satel, 2005). Moreover, the Internet is chock full of educational products intended to boost children’s self-esteem.

But there’s a fly in the ointment: Research shows that low self esteem isn’t strongly associated with poor mental health. In a painstakingly - and probably painful! - review, Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (2003) canvassed over 15,000 studies linking self-esteem to just about every conceivable psychological variable. They found that self-esteem is minimally related to interpersonal success, and not consistently related to alcohol or drug abuse. Perhaps most surprising of all, they found that “low self-esteem is neither necessary nor sufficient for depression” (Baumeister et al., 2003, p. 6).

Myth # 4: Human memory works like a tape recorder or video camera, and accurately records the events we’ve experienced
Despite the sometimes all-too-obvious failings of everyday memory, surveys show that many people believe that their memories operate very much like tape recorders, video cameras, or DVDs. It’s true that we often recall extremely emotional events, sometimes called flashbulb memories because they seem to have a photographic quality (Brown & Kulik, 1977). Nevertheless, research shows that even these memories wither over time and are prone to distortions (Krackow, Lynn, & Payne, 2005-2006).

Today, there’s broad consensus among psychologists that memory isn’t reproductive—it doesn’t duplicate precisely what we’ve experienced—but reconstructive. What we recall is often a blurry mixture of accurate and inaccurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs and hunches. Rather than viewing our memory as a tape recorder, we can more aptly describe our memory as an ever-changing medium that highlights our ability to create fluid narratives of our experiences.

Myth # 5: Hypnosis is a unique “trance” state that differs in kind from wakefulness
Popular movies and books portray the hypnotic trance state as so powerful that otherwise normal people will commit an assassination (The Manchurian Candidate); commit suicide (The Garden Murders); perceive only a person’s internal beauty (Shallow Hal); and our favorite, fall victim to brainwashing by alien preachers who use messages embedded in sermons (Invasion of the Space Preachers).

But research shows that hypnotized people can resist and even oppose hypnotic suggestions (Lynn, Rhue, & Weekes, 1990; Nash, 2001), and won’t do things that are out of character, like harming people they dislike. In addition, hypnosis bears no more than a superficial resemblance to sleep: Brain wave studies reveal that hypnotized people are wide awake.

So there’s no reason to believe that hypnosis differs in kind from normal wakefulness. Instead, hypnosis appears to be only one procedure among many for increasing people’s responses to suggestions.

More information about each of these myths and a complete list of references are available in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology.


"Written in an accessible and entertaining style, the book examinesa wide range of myths from all areas of psychology. . .Accordingly, the book is a much-needed antidote to the avalanche ofmisinformation that masquerades as psychology and should berequired reading for anyone with a passing interest in psychologyor, for that matter, the human condition." (Department ofPsychology, 1 June 2011)

"Not only does the book illustrate just how often our intuitionsare wrong, it also shows us how - in comparison to the truth -uninteresting they are. Shallow judgments imply over-confidence,assumption and monotomy. Assuming that you know something prior togiving any consideration to where that knowledge comes from is amistake for many reasons but perhaps most of all because suchpresumption precludes surprise. To be surprised - shocked,provoked, scandalized - is a pleasure. . . 50 Great Myths ofPopular Psychology tells us that we need urgently to deal with ourtendency to judge books by their covers. And just maybe, ratherthan considering any idealistic appeal to our rationalism, weshould deal with this problem by considering an inversion similarto Kubrick's: for now at least, when it comes to presentingdiscoveries about the mind, we ought not to try in vain to changeour nature - our tendency towards prejudice - but instead dosomething simpler: tell better stories, and design better covers."(The Skeptic, 2011)

"As you can tell from my reactions above I found this a veryinformative book and I'm only touching on particular things with mycomments. If you're a writer, this book should be read post-hasteso you don't keep repeating things you thought were true andobviously aren't. For everyone else, the revelations should makeyou sit up and take heed of what not to be taken in by."(SFCrowsnest.co.uk, 1 May 2011)

"This would be an ideal book to have in offices where peoplehave to spend some time waiting for appointments." (EducationDigest, November 2010)

"This book would suit educators involved in study skills andcritical thinking courses who might be looking for some new angleswith which to update or spruce up their courses. It should beequally digestible to the A-level student and the first-yearundergraduate."  (PLATH, December 2010)

"I love 50 Great Myths and used it in my winter seminar. This should be on every psychologist's shelf." (Dartmouth AlumniMagazine, October 2010)

"This is a refreshing and fun look at many of the concepts thathave been accepted as fact by our popular culture." (Book EndBabes, September 01, 2010)

"At the end of each sub-section covering an individual myth is alist of anti-factoids about related matters and their factualantidotes. By this means a considerable range of topics iscovered." (Education Review, July 2010)

"Maybe we should pay more attention to books like 50 Great Mythsof Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions aboutHuman Nature. The four psychology professors who authored thisenlightening book are up against the roughly 3,500 self-helptitles, a lot of them based on false premises, that are publishedin the U.S. every year." (Poe'sDeadly Daughters, April2010)

"Scott Lilienfeld and his team ... have a history in delvinginto the dark myths of science, and pseudoscience ... .They areback. As with their other works, these authors manage to write wellfor ease of reading so many facts, and do so with theircharacteristic humor and cutting edge science. This book is[an] illumination, and vital reading for professionals and evenlaymen." (Metapsychology, June 2010)

"Who should read this book? Anyone interested in psychology andor the scientific method.  The book is written in an easy toread fashion, is well referenced and includes a wide array oftopics.  The book teaches the value of critical thinking, andtells us it's all right to question authority. In conclusion, 50Great Myths of Popular Psychology is a must read for psychologymajors, therapists and anyone who wishes to gain knowledge aboutthe diverse field of psychology.  I wish this book wasavailable when I was studying psychology in college." (Basil& Spice (Jamie Hale), May 2010)

"Popular psychology is a prolific source of myths. A new bookdoes an excellent job of mythbusting: 50 Great Myths of PopularPsychology. Some myths I had swallowed whole and the book'scarefully presented evidence made me change my mind. They cover 50myths in depth, explaining their origins, why people believe them,and what the published research has to say about the claims.Everything is meticulously documented with sources listed. Theauthors have done us a great service by compiling all thisinformation in a handy, accessible form, by showing how sciencetrumps common knowledge and common sense, and by teaching us how toquestion and think about what we hear. I highly recommend it."(Dr. Harriet Hall for Skeptic Magazine, February2010, and ScienceBasedMedicine.org, November2009)

"50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology is written in an engagingstyle and is valuable for both professionals and the generalpublic. I highly recommend it." (Skeptical Inquirer,February 2010)

"Delightful and important book ... .This is a fine tool forteaching critical thinking. 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology ismuch more than an entertaining put-down of popular misconceptions.Any psychologist can put [this book] to good use.Certainly teachers can use it as a supplement to aid in teachingcritical thinking and to suggest ideas for research on othermyths.We can give it to family members and friends who are curiousabout what psychology has to contribute and might themselves engagein some myth busting." (PsycCritiques, January 2010)

"If you are familiar with other books by the same authors, youknow that the writing style is incredibly engaging andeasy-to-read, making the book accessible to those with littleknowledge of psychology and well as those with considerableeducation in the field. While we certainly won't stop combatingclinical psychology myths here at PBB, it's always exciting to comeacross like-minded folks also providing valuable material!"(Psychotherapy Brown Bag, October 2009)

"50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology is a fascinating book, andwhile reading, I cheered the authors on. If you have questionedscience as some of us have, this book will reassure you that yourthinking was perfectly logical and correct. 50 Great Myths ofPopular Psychology clarifies things about which I have alwayswondered, but never challenged. Myths about aging, memory,learning, emotions and motivation, and mental illness are among thesubjects covered.  The reading is enlightening, refreshing andinteresting.You don't have to be a Ph.D, or even a student ofpsychology to enjoy this book.  It's is written in languageall can understand and the information is easily digested."(Basil & Spice, October 2009)

"Scott Lilienfeld and his coauthors explore the gulf betweenwhat millions of people say is so and the truth. Some of thesemyths are just plain fascinating." (US News and WorldReport, October 2009)


Customer Reviews

Well written, entertaining, informative.
E. Alpert
In this book, a myth is a false and misleading conclusion, which urban legend supports despite evidence to the contrary.
Edward M. Freeman
Highly recommended for anyone within the disciple of psychology or simply those with an interest in the topic.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

65 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Reader on October 3, 2009
Format: Paperback
After reading the editorial reviews on this book, I decided to purchase a copy. It is a treasure trove of examples of behavior and myths that we believe to be true - but are actually false. Written by psychologists and based on science, this book describes the most common myths that people hold about a variety of human experiences. For example, does handwriting reveal your personality? Does playing Mozart to infants boost their intelligence? Do opposites attract? Is the polygraph really an accurate means of detecting dishonesty? If you think the answer to any of these questions, is "yes," you need to read this book. I couldn't put it down as I went from myth to myth learning about the facts based on science versus the myths we have believed for decades. I agree with the reviewer who says that this is a much-needed mythbuster for consumers. Easy-to-read and fascinating facts! I couldn't put it down. Highly recommended, a must-have mythbuster!
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77 of 84 people found the following review helpful By Michael Jackson on December 6, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Let me start by saying that this book provides some useful and important information regarding common misconceptions about psychology. I have to admit I was astounded to learn that a significant proportion of college students believe that vision involves emissions from the eyes; and the widespread persistence of less amusing beliefs about the infallibility of eyewitness testimony, the magical powers of hypnosis or the polygraph, and the "dangerousness" of the mentally ill are indeed worrisome and, at times, alarming. The very importance of such issues, however, raises serious questions about how these misunderstandings can best be challenged. Given the complexity of psychological phenomena, the investments of those who traffic in misinformation, and the reluctance of many people to relinquish cherished beliefs, it is important that a book aimed at dispelling such misinformation be exceptionally clear and careful in detailing the actual state of our knowledge about psychology and the ways in which such knowledge needs to be gathered, interpreted and critiqued. Unfortunately Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein ultimately fail in this crucial task.

The mission of the book is unclear. It purports to debunk "myths" about psychology, by which the authors mean widespread misconceptions. When the authors examine simplistic credos and widespread misunderstandings they often make valuable contributions along this line. But they frequently stray from this educational project into a more polemical one. This latter and more polemical project involves looking at areas of genuine controversy in the field of psychology and attacking positions held by those with whom the authors disagree. Of course, Lilienfeld et al.
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50 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Brandon Schultz on November 30, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
There are two very impressive aspects of this book: 1) the types of "myths" that the authors tackle, and 2) the quality of their literature reviews. On the first point, I was excited to see the authors make strong evidence-based critiques of the Alcoholics Anonymous model of addictions treatment, the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse, the autism 'epidemic,' and others. It would have been easy to write another 'skeptics diary' of obvious psychomythology (e.g., phrenology, ESP, etc), but the authors really stick their necks out in some instances. On the second point, the authors' conclusions are well-supported by the research they cite. As a school psychologist, I was impressed to see a very thoughtful handling of the research on so-called 'learning styles,' for example. I've not seen a better handling of this topic in any book meant for mass consumption, and this section alone was worth the purchase. So overall, I would describe the book as a very well-written Psychology 101 Redux that debunks a lot of common misconceptions.

However, I would take issues with a few of the "Other Myths to Explore" at the end of the chapters, which could be easily misinterpreted. For example, on page 63 the authors claim that "children with extremely high IQs have much higher levels of creative accomplishment in adulthood than other children." While this is generally correct, it ignores research showing that 'extremely' high IQs do not predict the next Einsteins or Lincolns. In Lewis Terman's famous study, his high IQ group did very well into adulthood, but not up to Terman's predictions of greatness--in fact, most turned out to be very average adults. Such 'nuggets' at the end of the chapters are a little too concise, and this is why I give the book 4 stars rather than 5.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful By David K. Hogberg on October 12, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Although I have been long retired from teaching (psychology), Scott's book makes me wish to return to the classroom. There can never be too much urging to become or remain critical in one's thinking about the outlandish claims that've been made over the years about what psychology is not. I recommend 50 Great Myths to people who have read only little or a lot about what people do when they behave. DKH
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Format: Paperback
As a psychologist who has a clinical practice, I sometimes find it irritating when others assume that the work I do is just some form of common sense advice-giving. But then I see a book like this one, and I am reminded that the general public is filled with so-called "common sense" misconceptions about the entire field of psychology. Luckily, authors Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late Barry Beyerstein, all professors of psychology, have challenged some of these most commonly-held beliefs with solid, research-based evidence from a multitude of leading psychology journals and other seminal works in the field.

In their Introduction, the authors talk about "Psychological Science and Common Sense" and offer tools for myth-busting, including ten of the mostly likely reasons why myths develop. Here they discuss factors such as selective perception and memory, confusing correlation and causation, the influence of the media, and problems with terminology (it appears that some of the other reviewers may have skipped this section and/or would benefit from rereading this information). The main body of the book is divided into 11 chapters, each organized around a specific topic area--for example, "Myths about Memory," "Myths about Emotion and Feeling," "Myths about Psychological Treatment," etc. Each chapter contains 4-6 specific myths; about 4-6 pages is devoted to each individual myth. Finally, at the end of every chapter, the authors have listed "Other Myths to Explore." Here they simply provide statements of "Fact" and "Fiction" (anywhere from about 12 to 30) without any accompanying research backup.

In simply perusing the chapters prior to starting to read the book, I was happy to see that none of the myths came as a great surprise to me.
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