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50 Great Myths Of Popular Psychology by Scott Lillenfeld

01/05/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

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50 Great Myths Of Popular Psychology by Scott Lillenfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein. pub: Wiley-Blackwell. 332 page indexed illustrated enlarged paperback. Price: GBP15.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4051-3112-4.

check out website: www.wiley.com

The sub-title of ‘50 Great Myths Of Popular Psychology’ is ‘Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behaviour’. Both of which are quite a mouthful but don’t let that deter you from reading this book. Indeed, this is the first book in a long time where I got enveloped by the twenty page introduction. Often with introductions, they come over as being add-ons to appease the publisher to explain what the book is about to the sometimes hapless reader and come over as being too dry. Here, the authors attack from the start and point out that a lot of things people, including some psychologists, believe just ain’t so. As with a lot of other subjects that we play with in Science Fiction, I always think it’s important to get known facts right than perpetuate something other authors have used without doing the necessary research. With SF, we’re used to adapting to new facts or we’d be stuck in a 1950s concept of only mainframe computers. You would think that psychology doesn’t really enter into our lives very much unless you have occasion to visit a psychologist but as this book points out, it affects our lives all the time.

The introduction points out that believing the wrong things about psychology turns it more into a placebo in that you think one thing is affecting you when it’s something entirely different is going on.



One thing that is apparent from the opening chapters of this book is how much of an industry is made from some of the most innocuous reports that deem it necessary for you to buy a variety of self-help books. This can range from playing Mozart to babies in the womb to improve their intelligence on a variety of subjects including adolescence to the mid-life crisis. The evidence says none of them are as portrayed by the media. All myth. A good reason in itself to buy and read this book than be taken in. I did find it amusing how parents wondering why their sprogs are confused at adolescence when they must have gone through a similar thing themselves while growing up.

For those of you wondering if ESP is covered, yep. I’ve never really gone along with the idea that it can be detected by laboratory statistics, mostly because thousands of tests with Zener Cards isn’t something you would do in real life and boredom must step in more anything valid is proven. The point they made about people dreaming about someone they haven’t seen for a while and up they pop on the phone or meeting them does neglect the fact they might not have remembered other dreams where that happened but it happens with that particular night. Coincidence possibly, just odd that so many appear to be capable of seeing such an event. They do recognise the fact that a lot of ESP influence does come from our genre although a lot this happens far more non-SF fans that to us, although whether this is because we tend to keep quiet about things we’ve experienced make us appear even more weird I’ll leave you to debate. The fact that people across all occupations and interest think ESP exists still leaves me open-minded on the subject as it can’t all be coincidence.

A lot is also said about subliminal advertising not being that effective although nothing is said about repetitive advertising where you can’t get a jingle or joke pattern out of your head. Considering psychologists are involved in advertising, I would have thought some clarity in explaining why adverts influence us so much might have been used to balance things out. More so when a lot of people think so called ‘experts’ saying something is true is often the persuading line. Then again, most people take people in white coats as being people in authority.

One thing that is apparent from the second chapter is how our genre portrays various people, like the older generation, as being doddery when in real life, they aren’t all stereotypical. I suspect that is largely why the upcoming generations are seeing themselves more able than before. If this applies to the elderly, it’s no wonder us SF fans are seen as weird when we mostly tend to be well-read and knowledgeable beyond our subject matter.

Two myths were side to side, yet the authors did not make a connection with is how we don’t remember things verbatim and, indeed, ‘invent’ details that never were there in the first place. This same thing also happens under hypnosis only then you have someone else pushing for memories that you probably never had in the first place. Just goes to show most humans are capable of being imaginative but only writers capable of exploiting it.

The more I read this book, the more obvious how things are propagated through the media. I knew polygraphs – lie detectors to you – weren’t that reliable but then neither are the so-called truth drugs as all they do is reduce your inhibitions. Likewise, all your ulcers aren’t caused by stress but by a virus and attitude might keep you mentally fit but doesn’t halt cancer. If anything, what is more frightening is the number of books that say otherwise which must surely contribute to a placebo effect. You are also more prone to have a marriage partner closer to your tastes than not although it doesn’t explain why SF fans rarely marry SF fans, probably not even members of the opposite sex, although I suspect sharing collections might be a problem as to whose to get rid of.

One thing that points out that this is clearly looking at many American tastes is how few will run to the rescue of someone in distress which is quite the reverse in the UK. It might be worth these authors exploring how these myths can vary across the world.

I loved the list of graphologies of how people use anything from bumps on your head to creases in your bellybutton to mean anything when I suspect in real life they were reading signs from the rest of the body’s appearance to profile the person being read as if by magic and were definitely using these as a crutch and/or distraction while they thought what else to say.

Chapter nine deals with all sorts of mental problems and if any, this one worries me the most in how mental patients can be stuck with a label for life. An experiment where normal people posed with mental problems to be locked up and then acted normally to be released weren’t, instead classed as ‘in remission’. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be people who need to be kept securely but when medical staff can’t tell the sane from the insane or disturbed, one has to ask who deserves to be locked up? The disclosure that you don’t have to be depressed to want to commit suicide, let alone leave suicide notes, should make all of you think twice.

One thing that became obvious from a lot of this book is how many aspects of psychology share in common with early forms of witchcraft, including fortune-telling. For a supposedly science, it fails to include a false-positive check. In chapter nine, a list of potential symptoms was so vague that it would fit anyone and doesn’t make a true validation that something is wrong with you.

Chapter ten points out the not all mentally ill patients, including psychopaths, are necessarily violent and this is exaggerated by the press. Likewise, the accuracy of criminal profiling and its lack of precision. Even more disturbing is the number of people who will come forward admitting to a crime which they couldn’t have committed. This is probably more prevalent Stateside than in the UK but does support a reason to hold information back from the press so any evidence admitted can be only something the real murderer might know. Speaking of American police procedure, I wasn’t aware of just how much latitude its officer have in getting confessions out of people which I found even more disturbing than the police shows that depict it.

Chapter eleven explores alcoholism and whether total abstinence doesn’t mean the odd drink won’t hurt you. I’m glad that’s not something I don’t have to try but I wish they’d examined addictive personalities here and any myths associated with it.

I should point out that at the end of each chapter there are an assortment of abridged myth disclosures that aren’t right. What you can and can’t do after hypnotism shows how much is really myth so don’t be taken in if I ask you for half your life’s savings. Positive or negative thinking doesn’t make any difference other than whatever works for you. If you’re going to brainstorm do it alone and not in a crowd. One myth I’m glad to see disproved is that children who were physically abused rarely if any time, don’t carry on such things themselves when they become parents. A lot of these side-note myth disclaimers could easier go on to form another book themselves. Chapter nine also has the largest number of these abridged notes and chapter ten’s points out that not eating sugary foods doesn’t have any marked effect on hyperactive children.

As you can tell from my reactions above I found this a very informative book and I’m only touching on particular things with my comments. If you’re a writer, this book should be read post-haste so you don’t keep repeating things you thought were true and obviously aren’t. For everyone else, the revelations should make you sit up and take heed of what not to be taken in by. If you’ve thought that psychology has a lot of mumbo-jumbo associated with it then reading this book will certainly affirm this and what to avoid. Maybe then, psychiatrists can concentrate on what is really causing your mental problems.

GF Willmetts

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