Sunday, February 28, 2010

Psychological Illiteracy

True or False:
  1. Some people are right-brained, others are left-brained
  2. When dying, people pass through a universal series of psychological stages.
  3. Individuals commonly repress the memories of traumatic experiences.
  4. Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles.
  5. Individuals can learn information, like new languages while asleep.
  6. A positive attitude can stave off cancer.
  7. It’s better to express anger to others than to hold it in.
  8. Most children who were sexually abused in childhood develop severe emotional disturbances in adulthood.
  9. Adult children of alcoholics display a distinct profile of symptoms.
  10. Criminal profiling is helpful in solving crimes.
  11. Abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for alcoholics.
Everybody is a psychologist. That is, if we define a psychologist as someone who is interested in human behavior, emotions, and thoughts. We, as humans, are continually talking about one another. We are interested in why people act the way they do. We want to know why we do the things that are not good for us and why we don’t do the things that are good for us.

Psychology is everywhere. It is talked about in all forms of media such as talk shows, movies, newspapers and news magazines. Friends talk about their psychologists, bookstores have entire sections devoted to the topic and it is splashed all over the Internet. A Google search for the word psychology returns more than ninety-four million hits.

Yet, as psychologist Keith Stanovich points out in his book, How to Think Straight About Psychology, the most important aspects of psychology are invisible to the public.

Few people are aware that the majority of the books they see in the "psychology" section of many book stores are written by individuals with absolutely no standing in the psychological community. Few are aware that many of the people to whom television applies the label "psychologist" would not be considered so by the American Psychological Association or the American Psychological Society.
Like a lot of scientific research, new knowledge in psychology can take a lot of time and effort. The public is generally aware of new psychological knowledge only when something exciting is reported by the mass media. Even then, the news may be based on unreplicated research, poor research, or an inaccurate description of the actual research.

The general belief is that if research was done by a psychologist and reported by a reputable media source, then it must be true. This perception can set up the public to be quite gullible. Dr. Stanovich lists a half dozen well-accepted claims routinely seen in the media that have been proven false by psychology: "astrology, psychic surgery, speed reading, biorhythms, subliminal weight loss, and psychic detectives." His book is meant not only for psychology students but also for the general public. It is a book that helps us all learn how to evaluate the abundance of psychology claims swirling around our real and virtual worlds.

Much of the public is confused between scientific psychology and popular psychology. Popular psychology (good or bad) emphasizes facts about human behavior; real psychology emphasizes a way of thinking about human behavior. Most (but not all) psychologists are trained to think critically about claims made by the public, so-called mental health experts, and even their own colleagues. Psychology no longer accepts claims merely because an expert said it is so. What is the evidence? This is the question psychologists are trained to ask in order to weed out the wheat from the chaff.

What about the non-psychologist who is not trained to tell the difference between psychology and pseudo-psychology? If one looks hard enough, there are several excellent resources for the lay person to help discover what really is and what really is not legitimate even though there may sometimes be an overlap between scientific psychology and popular psychology.

Often popular psychology has the backing of enormous amounts of money so that advertising can overrule critical thinking. A good example is what has been called the Mozart Effect. Simply put, this idea claims that if you play classical music to your baby, you can help your baby become smarter as she or he grows up. Richard Coff, founder and director of the Suzuki Music Academy has this to say about the Mozart Effect:
The buzzword, Mozart Effect, has been bandied about by popular print and broadcast media. It is featured in parenting, education, and music oriented publications, and in the mainstream general press. While it has renewed interest in classical music education and focused much deserved attention on the general field of childhood development, the phrase (and the popular notion of its meaning) has been used to sell music lessons, music products of all kinds, including Mozart Makes You Smarter product lines, and frankly, some music education snake-oil.
You can now check out claims for the Mozart Effect for yourself with a great new book that has just become available. Psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein have wirtten 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology in an attempt to look at psychological misconceptions. Even though the title says they examine 50 popular myths, they actually look at 300 "psychomythologies."

The beauty of this book is that the authors do not glibly dismiss outrageous claims. They carefully and thoughtfully look at the research regarding the myth in question rather than just giving their own opinions. For example, when they examine the claim that "there’s recently been a massive epidemic of infantile autism," they take six pages to investigate this claim and reveal the flaws and misconceptions about it.

As helpful as this book would be if the contents only dealt with looking at claims, the authors also teach us how to do this on our own. Some of you ask why myth-busting is so important. Three very important reasons are given for why the time and effort is important. Psychomyths can be harmful, cause indirect damage, and interfere with our critical thinking.

The reader also gets a mini-course in detecting false claims with ten tools called the Mythbusting Kit. Some of you may remember that Carl Sagan coined the phrase Baloney Detection Kit in his book, The Demon Haunted World. This idea is becoming more popular. Our friend, Google, gives us twenty thousand hits for the phrase "baloney detection kit."

As if this were not enough, the book’s postscript includes two more useful features. The first one, that I found truly enjoyable, was to take the book’s premise and turn it around 180 degrees. Three pages are devoted to "Ten Psychological Findings that Are Difficult to Believe, but True." Did you know that psychologists have taught pigeons to tell the difference between the music of Bach and that of Stravinsky? Yup, difficult to believe, but true. I know some people who can't do this.

This section is followed by a listing of twenty-two websites that are devoted to educating us for dealing with the ongoing onslaught of our society’s psychomythologies. And that’s not all. The reference section includes the books and research articles this book is based on. Although tracking this additional information down may seem tedious for some, reputable references are at the heart of mythbusting. These primary sources are all but absent in Internet articles, books, and news articles that promote common myths.

The fourteen pages in the index help to make this book a valuable resource for future reference when you need to check out specific claims. It’s like having your very own copy of the Snopes version for evaluating psychological myths and urban legends.

Maybe you want to know the answers to the eleven true-false statements at the beginning of this article. Here’s the condensed version. Get the book to get the full version. All eleven statements are false.
Gilovich, T. (1993). How we know what isn't so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. Washing, D.C.: Free Press.

Hines, T. (2003). Pseudoscience and the paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Kida, T. (2006). Don't believe everything you think: The 6 basic mistakes we make in thinking. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Lawson, T. (2006). Scientific perspectives on pseudoscience and the paranormal. New York: Prentice Hall.
Lilenfeld, S., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J. & Beyerstein, B. (2010). 59 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Randi, J. (1982). Flim-flam! Psychics, ESP, unicorns, and other delusions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sagan, C. (1997). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Shermer, M. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York: Holt.

Stanovich, K. E. (1998). How to think straight about psychology (9th edition). New York: Addison-Wesley.

Vyse, S. (2000). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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