10 Sources of Psychological Myths

I'm always on the look out for reading that can help students develop their abilities to think critically. Recently I found this great book by Lillienfeld at al (2010) that gives a whirlwind tour of a wide range of myths in areas that include cognition, ageing, memory, consciousness, personality and behaviour.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2011). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. John Wiley & Sons.[google books]

In the introduction there's a section on how these myths are perpetuated and here I include a synopsis of the author's 10 sources of error. To read it in full I'd encourage you to get a copy of the book and look at this overview section in full before you read around the 50 myths themselves.

1) Word of Mouth

The fact that we’ve heard a claim repeated again and again doesn't make it any more correct than it actually is. Repetition does however increase the likelihood that we might believe it.

2) Desire for easy answers and quick fixes

If something sounds to good to be true it probably is (Sagan, 1995)

3) Selective perception and memory

The mistaken assumption that we see the world precisely is called naive realism (Ross & Ward, 1996). We're vulnerable to myths but naive realism also makes it hard for us to realise that we are vulnerable. See also Illusory correlation (Chapman & Chapman, 1967).

Example: Autism and vaccination

4) Inferring causation from correlation

When two variables are correlated we shouldn't necessarily assume a direct causal relationship

5) Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc reasoning

“After this,therefore because of this”...Similar to the difference between causation and correlation, just because one thing occurs first, it doesn't mean that it had to be the cause of the phenomenon that follows it.

6) Exposure to a biased sample

The opinions and judgements of an individual will be partly based on their previous experiences. If you spend the majority of your time working with a particular population (eg police, lawyers, prison officers) you may be more likely to make erroneous judgements based on this. Similarly, if the news we are exposed to in the media only includes groups of people when they are "newsworthy" our opinions of the rest of that community will be influenced accordingly.

eg Mental illness and violence, Islam and terrorism, Catholic priests and child abuse

7) Reasoning by Representativeness

The Representativeness Heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) allows us to evaluate the similarity between two things on the basis of their superficial resemblance to each other. This can often be a good thing but sometimes leads us astray.

8) MIsleading films and media portrayals

Many psychological phenomenon are often portrayed inaccurately in the media.

Eg Electro-convulsive therapy, autism and high performance skills

9) Exaggeration of a kernel of truth

Some psychological myths aren't entirely false but are exaggerations of the truth.

eg Opposites attract, We only use 10% of our brains.

10) Terminological confusion

Some psychological terms have been misinterpreted and simplified once they come into the realm of the general population and media. As an example, schizophrenia doesn't mean that people have two personalities although the term itself literally means “split minds”. Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, originally used the term to refer to a splitting of mental function for example, the fact that thoughts might not correspond to feelings. See also Hypnosis and sleep.


The 50 myths themselves are all very readable and beyond the myths themselves should help students better understand the complexities of science, the importance of good communication and how to improve that most illusive of academic skills; critical analysis. Examples of some of the myths include: The more people present at an emergency the greater chance someone will intervene; if you're unsure when taking a test, its best to go with your initial hunch; the fact that a trait is heritable means that we cant change it, and many more.

For another overview of selected cognitive biases and thoughts on how they can both be of great use to us and a hindrance see this by Andrew Abraham, Cognitive Bias - As Bad As Our Biases Would Have Us Believe?

Original Post date: 02-Oct-2016