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Popular Psychology: 5 Top Myths

Updated on June 20, 2016
annerivendell profile image

Anne has a BSc in Applied Psychology and qualifications in counselling, CBT & mindfulness. She teaches mindfulness workshops and courses.


Popular Psychology Books

There are probably more self-help books out there than there are people to read them. Popular, or Pop Psychology is exactly what it says on the cover; popular.

But there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings perpetuated by these books in the name of psychology.

So, let’s start with the most common of them:

1. We only use 10% of our brain
2. The Mozart effect
3. Sleep Learning
4. There's safety in numbers
5. Eye-witness accounts are best
an fMRI showing the areas of the brain which are functioning.
an fMRI showing the areas of the brain which are functioning. | Source

1. We Only Use 10 percent of our Brain

This one is probably the most popular and common of the myths and it the first one to be debunked by college professors when lecturing to Freshman psychology students.

Even if the evidence of strokes, brain injury or other brain damage does not convince the doubters in the past, the modern day magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and Functioning MRI (FMRI) show us the truth.These machines “light up” the areas of the brain associated with various functions.

The fMRI can show this in real time, by providing the patient with video, sound and other stimuli while recording the areas of the brain that are functioning.

And there are usually several areas at one time functioning, and they are covering most regions of the brain. [1

mozart | Source

2. The Mozart Effect

This is a classic example of marketing companies finding a piece of research, misinterpreting it and using it for their own purposes.

I’m not saying the misinterpretation was deliberate, but it certainly was to their advantage.

Here’s the real story:

In 1993 an article appeared in the Nature journal reporting the results of a study on college students that showed that listening to just 10 minutes of Mozart music improved their performance on a spatial reasoning task. [2]

But there’s more…

It was found that the improvement was temporary (about 10 minutes) and that it was actually due to the emotional arousal related to the music. [3]

Better maybe to get a good night's sleep?
Better maybe to get a good night's sleep? | Source

3. Sleep learning

This one is kind of related to the Mozart Effect. Certainly an industry has been built up around it.

Type sleep learning into a search engine and you will get websites offering CDs and books designed to save you many waking hours by learning while you sleep. They may even quote studies that “prove” sleep learning actually works.[4]

Let's take a closer look:

But,if you take a closer look at some of the studies carried out in this area, and which purport to show positive results, you will find that the participants did not have their brainwaves monitored to ensure they were actually sleeping [5]

What was likely happening was that the recordings were not allowing them to go into a deep sleep and so they were frequently waking for a few minutes at a time and hearing them.

How much did they learn?

Just how much they learnt is also in question:

How often have you been listening to the radio or a CD, or even reading a book, and realized that you’d ‘zoned out’ and can’t remember anything you heard or read in the past five minutes?

How then could you learn something when you are not actively paying attention to it?

Learning requires focus and attention and we can’t do it while sleeping or even when we’re half asleep[6]

Busy street safer place to be?
Busy street safer place to be? | Source

4. Safety in Numbers

If you were about to be mugged, would you rather it happen in the middle of a crowded street, or in a partially deserted one with only a handful of people around?

Most people instinctively say the crowded street because with lots of people about, someone is bound to help, right? Wrong! There have been several prominent cases of people being mugged, beaten or left lying injured after being hit by a car in busy streets or in full view of several witnesses . [5] p.140)

Kitty Genovese

The most famous of these is the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was attacked several times and eventually stabbed to death over a period of about 20 minutes by a man in the car park of her apartment building.

There were reported to be 38 eyewitnesses from the surrounding apartments and yet no one came to her aid [7]

Would you run from a smoke filled room?

There have been several experiments carried out on unsuspecting participants in which people have pretended to fall from ladders, to pull a heavy filing cabinet down on their head, to collapse or just to begin weeping. Often, no one came to their aid.

In another experiment, the room in which the participants sat began to fill with smoke, yet they stayed where they were and did nothing.

Depends on the numbers

Interestingly, if the experiment took place with just one person, most of the time they did do something. If there were two, one or both would usually do something after an initial hesitation, but as the numbers increased, the action decreased.[8

Do we remember accurately what we see?
Do we remember accurately what we see? | Source

5. Eye witness accounts are best

While facing your monitor, right now, close your eyes and list every item and its location in the room.

Now take a look around. Chances are you missed a few items, or mis-located them?

How much less accurate do you think you would be in a strange room? And under stress?

"I saw him do it"

Every day, people go to court and swear that they saw someone or something that they did not see at all. They are not lying, in fact they are absolutely convinced that they are right.

But being sure does not make them right [9]

What happened?

Numerous experiments have been carried out in which a crime or an incident has been faked in front of people and they are then asked what happened.

Not only do the accounts vary from person to person, very often they vary with time from the same person.

The event they described minutes after it happened can often be quite different from their description of the same event weeks later.

Again, these people are not lying. They are giving an accurate account of what happened, from their memory.

Maybe stick to the experts

Many of the popular psychology myths are believable, else why would they be so popular?

But if you want to really learn about psychology, perhaps confine your reading to those written by psychologists. They're not all text books or lengthy and dry. And they will be accurate!


[1] Martin, G.N., (2006) Human Neuropsychology (2nd Ed), U.K. Pearson.

[2] Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611

[3] Thompson, W.F., Schellenberg, E.G., & Husain, G (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12, 248-251.

.[4] Aarons, L. (1976) Sleep-assisted instruction. Psychological Bulletin, 83, 1-40.

[5] Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B.L., 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Wiley-Blackwell.

[6] Eysenck, M.W. & Keane, M.T., Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook. NY Psychology Press.

[7] ] Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562.

[8] Hogg, M.A, & Vaughan, G.M., Social Psychology (6th Ed.) U.K. Pearson.

[9] Kassin, S. M., Ellsworth, P.C., & Smith, V.L. (1989). The “general acceptance” of psychological research on eyewitness testimony. American Psychologist, 8, 1089-1098


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    • annerivendell profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      I know, Sarita, it is difficult to understand. I'd like to think I'd be one of the 20% who do stop to help. There have been so many experiments carried out on this, they've even done them with children who are in distress (actors, of course) and the majority of people still walked by. It's stuff like this that gave me my interest in psychology. People can be very scary at times...thank you so much for your comment

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I remember seeing a documentary on the subject of safety in numbers, which showed actual footage of a man getting assaulted on a busy street. It took about ten minutes for someone to call an ambulance, and not one person stopped to see why a man was lying on the sidewalk covered in blood. In this instance, the beating took place in a "bad" neighborhood with a large homeless population, so perhaps many people thought it was a "bum" sleeping on the sidewalk? Either way, the man died before getting to the hospital. I'll never understand why things like this happen, even with the psychology behind it...

    • annerivendell profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you for your comment, jpcmc. You're right, and there are many more of them too, at least another couple of Hub's worth anyway!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      8 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      I know about these myths. And yes, many misinterpret them and even use them as marketing tools. Unfortunately many believe them.

    • annerivendell profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you for you comment Whowas. Many pop psychology books are helpful, but what you say is true, some are written by people who don't know anything about psychology. Some are well meaning, but others are just out out to make money from vulnerable people, sadly.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hi annierivendell,

      That is an interesting article. I think that people really do have to have their wits about them when reading all this self-help stuff. No doubt as you say, some of it may well be reliable but I suspect the larger part is rehashed and unsubstantiated rubbish - particularly in pop psych.

      Nice to see a reasonable exposure of these 'top five' myths and I'll wager there are many more!

      Thanks for the read. :)

    • annerivendell profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      @Netttlemere, yes, the behaviour of people in groups is a fascinating area of study.

      @Chris-sounds like an interesting story there?

      Thank you both for your comments.

    • ChrisMcDade8 profile image

      Christine McDade 

      8 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Very interesting. I can attest to the eyewitness portion of the article.

    • Nettlemere profile image


      8 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      I watched a program on TV where they did that smoke in the room experiment, although they biased it a bit by having the occupants of the room as actors who were told not to respond to the smoke and one unsuspecting individual put in with them who wasn't an actor, but followed the others example. The behaviour of people in groups really can be markedly different.


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