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Book Review

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology

Myth #1: Most of us use only about 10% of our brains. Psychologist William James may be inadvertently responsible for this widespread myth. James said he doubted the average person achieved more than about 10% of their intellectual potential—not the same thing as using about 10% of our brains. Several decades later, Lowell Thomas helped to popularize this mistaken notion when he wrote in the preface to Dale Carnegie’s best-selling How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) that James said we only use 10% of our brains.

Apparently, a third of psychology majors believe this myth.  Even 6% of neuroscientists apparently believe it, too.

Alas, it isn’t true. Modern brain imaging technologies such as electroencephalograms (EEGs), positron emission tomography (PET) scanners, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines  have revealed that “…even simple tasks generally require contributions of processing areas spread throughout virtually the whole brain.”

Myth #16: If you’re unsure of your answer when taking a multiple- choice test, it’s best to stick with your initial hunch. Various surveys reveal that the vast majority (68-100%) of college students believe it. They are in good company, because almost two-thirds of their professors believe it, too.

The truth? “More than 60 studies lead to essentially the same verdict: When students change answers on multiple-choice tests (typically as judged by their erasures or cross-outs of earlier answers), they’re more likely to change from a wrong to a right answer than from a right to a wrong answer.” Students should not be reluctant to change their answers, if they have a good reason to suspect their initial answer is wrong.

Myth #42: Psychiatric hospital admissions and crimes Increase during full moons. We’ve all heard this one. Humans have believed for centuries that the moon affects our behavior. A 1995 study in New Orleans revealed that up to 81% of mental health professionals believed in this “lunar effect.” More recently, a study in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania revealed that 69% of surgical nurses associate full moons with increases in patient admissions.

However, more than 100 published studies have found no such connections. “In 1985, psychologists James Rotton and Ivan Kelly reviewed all of the available research evidence on the lunar effect. Using meta-analytic techniques, they found no evidence that the full moon was related to much of anything—murders, other crimes, suicides, psychiatric problems, psychiatric hospital admissions, or calls to crisis centers.”

One team of investigators did reveal that traffic accidents were more common during full moon nights than other nights. Rotton and Kelly discovered that during the period of this particular study, full moons fell more often on weekends—when there is more traffic and more drinking—than on weekdays.

This book is as unlikely to dispel these 50 popular myths as is unlikely to dispel popular urban legends. Nevertheless, it is an informative and interesting read. This would be an ideal book to have in offices where people have to spend some time waiting for appointments. The only down side is that, as engaging as this book is, it is likely to get pinched.