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Do you know yourself better than anyone? Is unconditional praise a good thing? Julie Beun examines some theories of popular psychology.
Trust a woman's intuition. Opposites attract. You know yourself best. Repeated so often they must be true, those tidbits of psychological insight are as familiar to us as our own names. But it turns out that when it comes to pop psychology theories, many of them are not true, says Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Georgia's Emory University and co-author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology (Wiley, $120). "We love these ideas, we think they're valid truths," he says. "We live in a very psychological society... People do think they know more than they do about psychology. Because it's so familiar, we make the mistake of thinking we understand it. Some of the things we believe are innocuous, some are not." Here are some of the biggest pop psychology myths busted.
'Venting anger is good for you'
It may feel good to yell out your frustration, but it isn't all that healthy. While you shouldn't suppress your anger, neither is it helpful to chuck a tanty, says Lilienfeld. "There is some good evidence that when one is angry, merely punching something can make people angrier. It's scary for others and for the person losing their temper."
Rather, he says, find ways to deal with anger constructively. "If the other person is totally in the wrong, you have to confront them. Or maybe you're overreacting or it's a bit of both. That's a different approach from pop psychology that tells us to hit a wall or a pillow or yell.
'We use 10 per cent of our brains'
"I'm sure we all feel that way sometimes," says Lilienfeld, "but it's clearly false. We use all of our brain all of the time and it's confirmed by brain-imaging studies."
So where did the myth originate? According to Lilienfeld, early neurologists discovered what they called the 'silent cortex', which helps create associations between events, memories and feelings. Yet, because people with some types of brain injuries continue to function albeit with limits, he says we've come to believe that we only use 10 per cent of our brain, and the so-called silent cortex was actually 90 per cent of the brain that was unused.
'Bullies have small egos'
It may be comforting to believe that your bullying boss really suffers from
a small ego, among other things, but the opposite is often true. "Some bullies do have small egos, but for many, their self-esteem is too high. One reason they lash out aggressively is that they're just sadistic. Often, bullies don't like being criticised. We know that if people with high, unstable or brittle self-esteem are challenged or receive an ego threat, they'll lash out," he says. "If they even perceive that you've inflicted a deep wound, they figure the only way to remedy that is to respond in kind."
'People go crazy at the full moon'
Lilienfeld names this as his favourite pop psychology myth, mostly because it "gets more hate mail than anything". While people are convinced it's true, "40 or 50 studies have looked at this issue, relating crime to a full moon and the evidence is unsupportive".
So what is happening?
A little something called the 'confirmation bias'. Lilienfield says we tend to look for evidence that is consistent with what we want to believe, but when an event occurs that doesn't support our beliefs, we come up with an explanation.
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