Myths about Psychology

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Myths about Psychology

Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths. (Karl Popper, British Philosophy in the mid-century, 1957)

The moment there is imagination, there is myth. (Camille Paglia, Sexual Personnae, 1990)

Misconceptions can be considered as ’beliefs that are held contrary to known evidence’. Myths and misconceptions concerning human behaviour can have extremely unpleasant consequences. For example, myths regarding mental health, victims of sexual abuse or sex differences in occupational potential have led to social stigma, isolation, unjustified criticism and discrimination.

An accurate understanding of psychology directly influences how we think, feel and behave towards others and ourselves, and as such, investigations concerning the prevalence of ’psycho-mythology’ are a crucial step towards improving psychological knowledge.

There is a long-standing academic interest in the misconceptions psychology students bring with them when they embark upon psychological education (e.g. the accuracy of eye-witness testimony; the validity of projective techniques; the ’dangerousness of schizophrenics’).

Lilienfeld, et al. (2010) utilized the reputational method throughout their book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. The book has 11 chapters each devoted to addressing common myths in a particular area of psychology. The 11 sections considered myths about: the brain and perception, development and aging, memory, intelligence and learning, consciousness, emotion and motivation, interpersonal behaviour, personality, mental illness, psychology and the law, and psychological treatment. In addition to the 50 main myths, Lilienfeld et al. present 250 other ’mythlets’ worth exploring. Against each, described as fiction, the authors provided the ’fact’ which was based on experimental and research evidence. Inevitably, some of the assertions that statements are a myth may be challenged, as indeed may be the concept of myth as opposed to truth. Nevertheless, at this stage it provides an excellent list of ’urban legends’, ’misconceptions’ and ’non-proven assertions’ to investigate.

The authors argued the 50 great myths of popular psychology were caused by four factors:

• Much information is spread by ’word-of-mouth’, with urban legends becoming widespread beliefs. So, we should be sceptical about believing information that ’everybody knows…’

• Media coverage is often misleading. The preference to report interesting stories can lead us to misjudge the frequency of sensational cases.

• Heuristics can lead us to come to incorrect conclusions. Aspects such as availability and representativeness heuristics (judging probability based on the information available) are useful shortcuts for quick decisions but cannot be relied upon.

• Finding two aspects are correlated does not mean that one causes the other.


All the statements are false.

Myths about the brain and perception

1 Most people use only 10 per cent of their brain power.

2 Some people are left-brained, others are right-brained.

3 Extrasensory Perception (ESP) is a well-established scientific phenomenon.

4 Visual perceptions are accompanied by tiny emissions from the eyes.

5 Subliminal messages can persuade people to purchase products.

Myths about development and aging

6 Playing Mozart’s music to infants boosts their intelligence.

7 Adolescence is inevitably a time of psychological turmoil.

8 Most people experience a midlife crisis in their 40s or early 50s.

9 Old age is typically associated with increased dissatisfaction and senility.

10 When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages.

Myths about memory

11 Human memory works like a tape recorder or video camera, and accurately records the events we’ve experienced.

12 Hypnosis is useful for retrieving memories of forgotten events.

13 Individuals commonly repress the memories of traumatic experiences.

14 Most people with amnesia forget all details of their earlier lives.

Myths about intelligence and learning

15 Intelligence (IQ) tests are biased against certain groups of people.

16 If you’re unsure of your answer when taking a test, it’s best to stick with your initial hunch.

17 The defining feature of dyslexia is reversing letters.

18 Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles.

Myths about consciousness

19 Hypnosis is a unique ’trance’ state that differs in kind from wakefulness.

20 Researchers have demonstrated that dreams possess symbolic meaning.

21 People can learn new information, like new languages, while asleep.

22 During ’out-of-body’ experiences, people’s consciousness leaves their bodies.

Myths about emotion and motivation

23 The polygraph (’lie detector’) test is an accurate means of detecting dishonesty.

24 Happiness is determined mostly by our external circumstances.

25 Ulcers are caused primarily or entirely by stress.

26 A positive attitude can stave off cancer.

Myths about interpersonal behaviour

27 Opposites attract: We are most romantically attracted to people who differ from us.

28 There’s safety in numbers: The more people present at an emergency, the greater the chance that someone will intervene.

29 Men and women communicate in completely different ways.

30 It’s better to express anger to others than hold it in.

Myths about personality

31 Raising children similarly leads to similarities in their adult personalities.

32 The fact that a trait is heritable means we can’t change it.

33 Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems.

34 Most people who were sexually abused in childhood develop severe personality disturbances in adulthood.

35 People’s responses to inkblots tell us a great deal about their personalities.

36 Our handwriting reveals our personality traits.

Myths about mental illness

37 Psychiatric labels cause harm by stigmatizing people.

38 Only deeply depressed people commit suicide.

39 People with schizophrenia have multiple personalities.

40 Adult children of alcoholics display a distinctive profile of symptoms.

41 There’s recently been a massive epidemic of infantile autism.

42 Psychiatric hospital admissions and crimes increase during full moons.

Myths about psychology and the law

43 Most mentally ill people are violent.

44 Criminal profiling is helpful in solving cases.

45 A large proportion of criminals successfully use the insanity defence.

46 All people who confess to a crime are guilty of it.

Myths about psychological treatment

47 Expert judgement and intuition are the best means of making clinical decisions.

48 Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics.

49 All effective psychotherapies force people to confront the ’root’ causes of their problems in childhood.

50 Electroconvulsive (’shock’) therapy is a physically dangerous and brutal treatment.


Furnham, A., & Hughes, D. (2014). Myths and Misconceptions in Popular Psychology: Comparing Psychology Students and the General Public. Teaching of Psychology, 41, 256—61.

Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., Ruscio, J. & Beterstein, B. (2010). 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.