Monday, 20 July 2015

50 Great Myths of of Popular Psychology

Reading 50 Great Myths of of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconception about Human Behaviour, I came away with the feeling that the authors were a tad smug and unaware of the exact grinding banality of the human condition in the precise circumstances of Really Existing Capitalism of this exact time, despite the copious references to papers in journals nobody knew existed. In the end, I had to review their stance on each one of the 50 myths. I agreed with most of them. Here’s the list in their order.

(Abbreviations: V = Verdit; YAMT = Yet Another Movie Trope)

1. Most people only use 10% of their brain power. V: utter twaddle.

2. Some people are left-brained, some people are right-brained. V: utter twaddle

3. ESP is a well-established scientific phenomenon. Me: Was there anyone who believed this?

4. Visual perceptions are accompanies by emissions from the eyes. Me: Jeez, things are really bad in the USA.

5. Subliminal messages can persuade people to buy things. V: urban myth

6. Playing Mozart’s music to infants helps them develop. V: sheer marketing

7. Adolescence is invariably a time of psychological turmoil. Verdict: YAMT. Most kids are well-adjusted and love Mom and Dad.

8. Most people experience a mid-life crisis in their 40’s or 50’s. V: YAMT. (*)

9. Old age is typically associated with senility and crankiness. V: YAMT 10. When dying, you will pass through Anger-Denial-Bargaining-Depresson-Acceptance. V: No, you won’t.

11. Human memory works like a movie camera and forgets nothing. V: YAMT. Me: did anyone believe this?

12. Hypnosis can bring back memories. V: No, it can’t.

13. We repress the memory of traumatic events. V: YAMT. We remember that shit just fine.

14. People with amnesia forget the details of their previous life. V: YAMT. In fact, amnesiacs have trouble forming new memories, not recalling old ones.

15. IQ tests are biased against certain groups. V: No, but I get you want to dispute that.

16. If you don’t know the answer, stick with your first hunch. V: Not really.

17. Dyslexia is about switching letters. V: YAMT. It’s not actually clear why some people have problems processing written words.

18. Teaching styles should be matched to learning styles. V: utter twaddle.

19. Hypnosis is an unique state different from being awake. V: YAMT. Nope.

20. Dreams have symbolic meaning. V: Not systematically.

21. You can learn in your sleep. V: In your dreams.

22. There are “out of body” experiences. V: No, but there are times when your senses get real scrambled.

23. The polygraph is reliable. Me: is there anyone left alive who believes this?

24: Happiness is mostly determined by our external circumstances. V: Keep your hand on your wallet. It isn’t (*)

25. Ulcers are cause almost entirely by stress. V: Ah heliobactor pylori! Stress plays a role, but it’s not clear what.

26. A positive attitude can stave off cancer. V: No, it can’t.

27: Opposites attract. V: YAMT. No, they don’t (*)

28. The more people at an emergency, the more will help. V: famously, no. But someone will.

29. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. V: No. (*)

30. It’s better to express anger than hold it in. V: No. 31: Raising children similarly makes them similar adults. V: A little, but not much.

32: We can’t change heritable traits. V: Yes we can. But no-one said it would be easy.

33. Low self-esteem is the cause of psychological problems. V: No, it isn’t.

34. Sexually abused children develop severe personality problems as adults. V: YAMT. No, they don’t. (*)

35. The Rorschach inkblot test works. V: No. Me: Shouldn’t people be disbarred for using this?

36: Graphology works. V: No.

37. Psychiatric labels stigmatises people. V: Only if you’re an a-hole.

38. Only depressed people commit suicide. V: Nope. They commit suicide when they start to get better and realise how messed-up they are.

39. People with schizophrenia have multiple personalities. V: YAMT. These are two different things.

40. Adult Children of Alcoholics display a distinctive profile of symptoms. V: No. This is the Barnum effect. (*)

41. There’s been a recent epidemic of infant autism. V: No there hasn’t (*)

42. Psychiatric admissions increase at the full moon. V: No they don’t.

43. Most mentally ill people are violent. V: YAMT. No more so than ordinary people.

44. Criminal profiling helps solve cases. V: It helps profilers make money.

45. The insanity defence really works. V: Not very well.

46. Anyone who confesses to a crime is guilty of it. V: No. False confessions are common.

47. Expert judgement and intuition are the best ways of making decisions. V: No. (*)

48. Abstinence is the only realistic treatment for alcoholics. V: No (*)

49. Effective psychotherapy forces people to confront some episode in their childhood. V: YAMT. No. Me: Wait. There’s “effective psychotherapy”?

50. ECT is brutal and ineffective. V: not if used sensibly.

The only issue I have with 41 is that they don’t mention that in the USA, doctors often diagnose Autism because that way the parents get funding that they wouldn’t get if the doctor diagnosed Asperger’s. So there’s an epidemic of diagnoses caused by the healthcare system. I have serious issues with...

8. Mid-life crisis: the authors are right to say that this isn’t well-defined, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real, for some people. If there is a man over 60 out there who didn’t at least once have a sustained doubt about the value of the life he was leading… he’s either terminally self-satisfied, utterly lacks self-awareness or is lying. Otherwise, “mid-life crisis” is what happens to a man who wakes up one morning and realises that he’s still in shape, but his wife has turned into a shapeless lump.

24. I quote the authors: “…our life circumstances can…affect our happiness in the short run, much of our happiness in the long run is…independent of what happens to us…[it] is a function of what we make of our lives.” How convenient for Wal-Mart that their staff wouldn’t be any happier they were paid enough not to need to claim welfare benefits plus a couple of extra bucks an hour. Capitalism turns everything to its advantage.

29. The authors do say there are slight differences in male and female communication styles, but not so much that you’d notice. The studies they quote are measuring all the wrong things. Type A communication is managerial and supervisory: it’s done to persuade and influence. Type B communication is used to convey facts, suggestions and instructions. Male managers often communicate in a Type A manner, and women at work sometimes communicate in a Type B manner. For all sorts of reasons, women need to persuade and influence more than men, and that’s why you immediately knew that “Type A” really meant “feminine”.

34. The author’s argument is two-fold. First, they say that therapists have a distorted view of the world, so they don’t see the people who were abused as children and turned out okay (the authors don’t tell us where to find those adults). Second they quote Rind’s paper which showed that there was only a weak correlation between self-reported childhood sexual abuse and eighteen fairly severe psycho-pathologies. Coming from a conflict-ridden home was a much better predictor of these pathologies. I would have preferred that this one was presented as “It takes something as harsh as sexual abuse to induce adult psycho-pathologies”. To which the answer seems to be: “No. Mummy and daddy throwing things at each other all the time, and having arguments and taking it out on the children, will work even better.”

40. Read the ACoA “Laundry List”. This bears no resemblance to the psycho-babble questions the authors quote from the studies. Wotiz and others diluted the List to the point where it does get a bit Barnum. Read the original List carefully. Ordinary people, for instance, are not “frightened” of angry people. “Frightened” speaks to a paralysis and loss of control that ordinary people don’t usually experience. And ordinary people are not “addicted” to excitement. And as for confusing love and pity and tending to "love" people they can "pity" and “rescue”, that is the exact opposite of the behaviour of ordinary people. However, two siblings may turn out differently despite the common background. But almost no-one from the fabled “good enough” home ever ticks many items on the Laundry List.

47. The authors cite studies where rule-based diagnoses do as well as the experts. What they miss is that rules work where they work and don’t otherwise. And the best AI systems don’t use "rules” but replicate an expert learning process. As for “intuition”, psychology isn’t one of the areas where expertise become behavioural, so they would never experience “just knowing”.

48. The keyword is “only”. Abstinence works for a minority of alcoholics. For the others, anything else is better than waking up with another hangover in a part of town they’ve never seen before. Some of those others can handle controlled drinking. Some of them can’t. You want to be sure you’re not going to wake up again, three hundred miles from home wearing lipstick and a dress? Quit. Full time.

Most of the myths are pop-culture nonsense. Much smaller, but very valuable, are discussions on myths about clinical and medical techniques. Some of the myths are not myths at all, but moments that don’t happen to everybody, and it’s those I took taken exception to. Polygraphs are always random, mid-life crises happen to a certain kind of man.

I think there’s a reason the authors made this mistake, and it’s pretty much at the heart of psychology. Psychiatrists deal with the serious cases needing unpleasant drugs with nasty side-effects; therapists, 12-Step and self-help groups deal with dysfunctional people, and have varying degrees of success. This leaves psychologists studying regular folk. Regular folk are largely untroubled by everyday insults and inconvenience, recover with appropriate speed from the serious upsets and tragedies, and most of all, regular folk keep what little inner life they have to themselves and also from themselves. People lie "all the time" when they answer those psychologist’s quizzes, and it takes a lot of questions to reveal this cheating: the latest MMPI tests for nine different kinds of ‘cheating’ and takes about fifty or so dedicated questions to do so, as well as duplicating many others to test for consistency. Asking people to describe and assess themselves is no way to discover what they are feeling or what is happening in their lives. (Unless it’s a study about the many delusions of regular people, which the Kahneman crowd do so well.) As a profession, psychologists seem to be here to tell us that a) whatever it is, we will get over it, b) therapy, drugs and chanting won’t get us through it any faster, c) it will have no lasting effects. This is a nice message, and it may be what emerges from enough studies of self-satisfied regular people with almost zero self-awareness (ah! accountants! how I envy them their smug self-satisfaction), but it’s not what the taxpayer needs.

What the taxpayer needs is some advice for coping and dealing when life hits hard and they are down on resilience. It’s not enough to say “Lost your job? Well, our studies say that you’re overdoing it. Most people said that they eventually overcame the shock of losing their jobs and made happy new lives for themselves earning half of what they were for working twice as many hours for an insecure bully of a supervisor. Because happiness is all in the mind, not the external world.” I’m exaggerating slightly, but read this book, and you will find out just how slightly.

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