14 Widely-Believed Pop Psychology Beliefs That Are Total Myths

Why do so many unscientific, unverifiable, and sometimes flat-out disproven pop psychology beliefs enter the cultural consciousness and then stay there, firmly attached for what seems like infinity? According to psychologists Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein, authors of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, a lot of the worst pop psychology beliefs begin when a psychological study is misinterpreted or taken out of its specific context. From there, inaccurate pop psychological myths are bought and sold in the form of self-help books and groups, or become part of the delightful misadventures of Hollywood narratives. And once they make it to Hollywood, false pop psychology beliefs are here to stay. We love them. We cherish them. We hold onto them even in the face of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. This list documents the most absurd pop psychology beliefs that persist into the present day. It’s time to educate yourself!

  • Exposing Babies To Classical Music Makes Them Smarter

    Exposing Babies To Classical Music Makes Them Smarter
    Photo: Look Who's Talking Now / TriStar Pictures

    The "Mozart Effect" is the name given to the idea that listening to classical music enhances intelligence. The concept comes out of a 1993 study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Irvine. It suggested that, immediately after listening to a Mozart piano sonata, college students demonstrated an improvement in spatial reasoning (folding and cutting paper). This study, combined with a correlation (not a causation) between musical ability and IQ, gave birth to the entire Mozart Effect industry and all the CDs, books, and classes that came with it.

    Later researchers tried to duplicate the initial study, but were unsuccessful in their attempts. They found, on the contrary, that pretty much anything that heightens awareness (like listening to Mozart or getting scared by a Stephen King novel) increases spatial reasoning directly after we encounter it because we have heightened awareness - and none of it produces long-term effects.

  • Some People Are Right-Brained, Others Are Left-Brained

    Some People Are Right-Brained, Others Are Left-Brained
    Photo: The Man with Two Brains / Warner Bros.

    Like a lot of so-called “findings” that get widespread notoriety, the idea that people are either right- or left-brain dominant has a small grain of truth to it. There is evidence to suggest that the different sides of the brain (AKA “hemispheres”) do perform different cognitive functions. And the different hemispheres of the brain are relatively “better” at different cognitive tasks than each other. (For example, the right hemisphere is better at dealing with general space, and the left hemisphere is better at understanding specific spaces.)

    However, the two hemispheres are connected through a complex network of neural pathways, and they work together to achieve things. So, the whole pop psychology industry built on training the “weak” side of your brain is BS due to the facts that: A) there’s no “direct evidence that different hemispheric utilization can be trained”; and, B) the premise of being “right” or “left” brained is faulty to begin with.

  • Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus

    Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus
    Photo: The Break-Up / Universal Pictures

    There’s a wildly persistent and popular myth that men and women express themselves in entirely different ways, which creates an interplanetary gap between them in terms of communication. However, a variety of studies produced in the early 2000s suggest that this isn’t the case at all—not only are measurable communication differences very small between the genders, but it’s also untenable to attach certain communication styles to biological sex differences. Gendered power differentials and differences in rearing girls and boys in terms of communication present alternative explanations.

  • Ulcers Are Directly Caused By Stress

    Ulcers Are Directly Caused By Stress
    Photo: Ferris Bueller's Day Off / Paramount Pictures

    In 1983, researchers Barry Marshall and Robin Warren undertook groundbreaking research on the causes of (a particular bacterial infection) and treatments for stomach ulcers, discrediting the idea that stomach ulcers were caused by particular emotions. They won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work in 2005.

    However, although the scientific community disproved the link between stress and stomach ulcers in the early ‘80s, the idea that the two are directly connected persists today. This belief actually dates back to Freud, a major proponent of the stress/ulcer connection. While there is some evidence to suggest that stress can indirectly contribute to ulcers (by encouraging behaviors that exacerbate them like drinking and not sleeping), the idea that stress single-handedly creates stomach ulcers was debunked decades ago.

  • Opposites Attract

    Actually, they don’t. In fact, psychologically, the opposite is the case: birds of a feather flock together. There’s a wealth of research supporting the idea that, in terms of both initial attraction and long-term relationship stability, people with liked-minded views, lifestyles, and interests have much higher rates of success than those who oppose one another across those fronts.

    The authors of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology offer three possible explanations for the longevity and popularity of the opposites attract myth:

    1. It makes a better Hollywood storyline than two people meeting, agreeing, and falling in love.
    2. People yearn for a partner who will “complete” them and fill in all of their “missing pieces.”
    3. Maybe there’s a tiny bit of truth to the idea since, if we agreed with our partners about absolutely everything, things would probably get pretty boring.
  • It’s Unhealthy Not To Express Our Anger

    Stress dolls, punching bags, “just letting it out” – there’s an entire therapeutic industry built on the belief that expressing anger is healthy, and to do otherwise is profoundly, well, unhealthy. In this school of thought, the idea is that expressing anger is a therapeutic form of catharsis, and, if you don’t manage your anger, you’ll eventually "explode" when you aren’t expecting it.

    The thing is, though, actual research suggests otherwise. In fact, the research actually suggests that we can become addicted to the rush that expressing our anger brings, such that we actually get angry more often because we like the feeling.