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Psychology is one of those subjects that everybody likes to think they know something about. We love to go around diagnosing our friends and co-workers, both to make sense of the world and to make ourselves feel like we're smarter than they are.

But like any science that makes its way into the pop culture, a lot of the "common sense" statements we hear every day are so wrong that they border on raving idiocy. Such as...

6
"If You Let Your Anger Out, You'll Feel Better!"

You always hear people talk about how "cathartic" an experience was and how much better they feel, or you'll hear them say things like, "If you keep your anger bottled up, one day you'll just snap!"

In fact the "about to go crazy because he can't express anger" character is a mainstay in television and movies (see that Simpsons episode where Ned Flanders finally loses it, and every movie where a renegade cop fires his gun into the air instead of unloading on the bad guy who just killed his wife).

Things like squeezing stress dolls, screaming into a pillow, hitting a punching bag and strangling a kitten are all practices that we've seen offered as healthy alternatives to walking up to the fish counter at Farm Fresh and drowning the clerk in the lobster tank.

A lot of actual therapies have been constructed around this idea, and they all basically encourage you to curb your anger by feeding a knuckle sandwich to a punching bag, to prevent you from doing the same to your boss. It makes sense, right? Why throw your wife against the refrigerator when the casserole she under-cooked will shatter to pieces in a much more literal, and satisfying way?

Why it is Bullshit:

Research says it doesn't work. Expressing your anger, even against inanimate objects, doesn't make you less angry at all. In fact, it actually makes you want to get pissed off. Imagine if Bruce Banner walked around all day looking for an excuse to hulk-out, but replace the embarrassing shredded pants with friends and loved ones who are legitimately terrified every time his favorite sports team loses.

See, we humans have these things called "habits." When we do something, and it makes us feel good, we want to do it again... and more often. This is why you don't see a lot of Buddhist monks throwing bricks through storefront windows on their path to enlightenment and Lifetime original movies spend more on broken casserole dishes than on acting. The rush of anger is addictive as hell, and letting yourself lash out as a means to control your anger is like drinking to control your urge to drink.

And that's bad news, considering there are lots of situations where you don't have an inanimate object to take it out on. If a person gets entrenched in the habit of beating the living shit out of an inanimate object every time they get upset, heads are going to roll if they can't excuse themselves from a meeting to go chokeslam the tank on the break room water cooler.

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5
"Just Believe in Yourself, and You'll Succeed!"

The "self-esteem" thing has been hammered into our brains for decades, based on the belief that high self-esteem types achieve more in school, make and keep more friends and, in general, function better as a member of society.

Pretty much every single high school movie is a huge proponent of this theory. The fat, dumpy pariah, tired of years of depressing abuse, digs deep down and discovers his/her own self-worth in time for the big dance/game/senior trip. Then the entire student body takes notice of this radical change and raises this loser up to the most popular kid in school (roll credits to a Green Day song).

Numerous training programs and self-help books take this idea and run with it; promising that building self-esteem is the key to overcoming obstacles and failure. Even elementary schools jumped on board and started giving self-esteem classes to kids, because as all Americans know, the key to happiness is constant rewards for little to no actual accomplishments.

Why it is Bullshit:

This seems to be one of those deals where they've confused correlation and causation. Rather than thinking, "Maybe kids with high self-esteem feel good about themselves because they get good grades in school and have lots of friends," they decided that it's the other way around, that they succeed because they have self-esteem. So they tried to teach people to feel good about themselves for no other reason than pure entitlement, figuring the actual reasons for feeling good about themselves would follow at some later date.

This results in some kids having too much self-esteem, a breed of human that scientists classify as "douchebag." [See Figure 1.1]


Figure 1.1

We're not kidding. Research shows kids who have an inflated sense of self-worth become aggressive when their sense of superiority is called into question, leading to a more damaging fall for little Billy when he realizes what a loser he is (whereas fat Ralph already knew himself to be a loser and is therefore immune to disappointment).

We're certainly not experts, but it would, you know, seem like the solution would be to teach the stuff that leads to success (like social and communication skills, better strategies at dealing with stress, etc.) and just let that lead naturally to success and thus self-esteem, rather than just bypassing all that and going right for the self-esteem part.

Mr. Miyagi didn't teach the Karate Kid to believe in himself. He taught him how to kick people in the fucking head.

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4
"Cult Members are Stupid, Gullible Sheep!"

Quick, go find an Internet article that mentions Scientology. Now check out the comments.

You will find almost universal agreement that anyone who participates in a cult (or, organized religion of any kind) is either weak, retarded or some kind of weaktarded combination of the two. We tend to associate cults with fanaticism, assuming that they are all made up of people that wear bed sheets and live in backwoods communes pissing in Dixie cups. Thanks to high profile, apocalyptic and/or suicide cults like the Branch Davidians and Heaven's Gate, we don't have much reason to think otherwise.

Why it is Bullshit:

Studies show cult members are just as intelligent, if not more so, than the general public. And around 95 percent of cult members are perfectly sane (when they join up, anyway), with no history at all of real psychological problems. They're not stupid, and they're not crazy.

Of course this only serves to make cults even scarier. How in the hell do these groups get people--who are every bit as sane and smart as your best friend--to join up?

OK, ask yourself this: Why do rebellious biker types all immediately go out and start dressing and talking exactly like other biker types?

Why did you do, well, every single thing you did in your teenage years?

As social animals we are hard-wired to want to belong to a group. It's a need as basic and real as hunger or sex. When we get cut off from our group--say we lose a job, or move to a new city, or break up with our girlfriend--we go a little crazy. Cults are very, very good at finding people in that exact moment of weakness, and saying exactly the right things. Those pamphlets that sound so corny and transparent to you, read like a glorious breath of fresh air to somebody caught in one of those rough spots.

So sure, when we're in our normal, stable state of affairs we like to imagine ourselves coolly shooting down all of the charismatic cult leader's stupid-ass claims with the power of pure critical thinking. But remember that the next time you're drunk dialing your ex-girlfriend in the middle of the night, or stalking her new boyfriend, sneaking into the parking lot where he works and pooping on the hood of his car.

If you can't remember ever doing something dumb and embarrassing because you were feeling lonely and rejected, well, either you're very young, or you were just too drunk at the time to retain the memory.

And once these people are in the cult they realize that, no, not all cult members wind up as part of some bizarre suicide ceremony. Most lead normal, successful lives.

And once they make friends with these normal, successful people, what are they going to do when they run into some smartass like the Internet commenters above, who talk about how only retarded sheeple believe that garbage? They stand up for the group, that's what.

It's not even about defending the beliefs at that point, it's about defending their friends. And mindlessly doing things because all our friends do them is pretty much 90 percent of what society is.


"Hey I'm heading down to the Crocs store, wanna come with?"

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3
"Be Careful! Advertisers Use Subliminal Messages to Make Us Do Things!"

This myth seems to re-emerge every decade or so in a different form. In the 80s it was "backward masking," supposed hidden (and Satanic!) messages in rock music, only audible when played backward, yet able to secretly influence the teenage brain when played normally.

But before that it was subliminal messaging, a technique whereby advertisers could allegedly flash a message on a screen so fast it wasn't consciously noticed, yet still able to trick your subconscious into doing or buying whatever the advertiser said.


Can you spot the subliminal ad in this episode of House?

These days you'll hear similar claims about "neuro-linguistic programming," which performers like magician Derren Brown claim allows them to control any subject by slipping certain command words into a sentence, unnoticed.

All of it amounts to the same thing: forms of communication that can magically bypass your conscious mind and manipulate your subconscious until you're nothing more than a helpless puppet.

Why it is Bullshit:

Not only do none of these particular methods work, as far as we know, no methods for subliminal messaging work. No, your brain can't pick up backward messages when played forward, and even when you intentionally play a track backwards, most of what you think you hear is a product of your own imagination.

The one study that claimed subliminal "flash frame" advertising worked (saying that rapidly flashing "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" on a movie theater screen lead to massive increases in the sales of both products) is now believed to have been based on falsified data, if it ever actually happened at all.


Turns out people just like eating popcorn at the movies.

As for neuro-linguistic programming, well, there's a reason why the main guy known for using it is a magician.

But this is common sense. If there really was a reliable method for distributing invisible and unheard messages that could turn the masses into robots, whoever mastered it first would utterly rule the world.

They wouldn't need a military to invade another country, they'd just have to get their broadcast heard by the population there, and they would be helpless to resist. The fact that every single government in the history of the planet has failed to invent a method for this, no matter how badly they wanted it, makes us pretty comfortable in calling it bullshit.

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2
"We'll Find Out if He's Lying! Give Him a Lie Detector Test!"

What do murder suspects, government job applicants and game show contestants all have in common? They can all wind up hooked up to a polygraph to see if they're telling the truth.

Polygraph (commonly called "lie detector") tests go back to the early 20th century, and have been used in law enforcement since the 1920s. Over the next 80 years the machines became sufficiently advanced that society allowed their use in game shows.

Remember The Moment of Truth? Where they hooked contestants up to a polygraph so that they could get caught in outrageous lies and humiliate themselves in front of millions of people for money (which really just describes every game show, ever)?

Even Maury Povich uses polygraph tests to "help" a bafflingly large number of couples determine whether one of them is cheating. And while it seems odd for guilty people who believe in the tests to agree to be tested, Maury isn't exactly known for having Nobel Laureates or members of Star Fleet as guests.

Why it is Bullshit:

The problem was always the "lie detector" nickname given to the devices. It implied that the machines somehow know the truth, and can sense falsehood in the air. Obviously they don't (as that would be, you know, magic). They instead simply measure a number of physical responses that may mean you're lying.

Now, studies do show that polygraph tests are slightly better than, say, marshmallows at determining a person's truthfulness, but they are far from completely accurate. In 2003 a huge study by the National Academy of Sciences found polygraphs do help detect lies at a rate a little better than flipping a coin does. But that's actually a bad thing; if your hit rate is just higher than chance, the sheer number of false positives render the effort worthless. For instance, when using the machines to screen employees (as federal agencies do in the U.S.) they found you'd be better off just rejecting the guys who have "shifty eyes."

The problem is there are a huge number of variables that can throw off the results, everything from the personality and physical condition of the person taking the test, to the technique of the guy asking the questions, to the way the results are scored, to countless tricks people have figured out that can throw the test off (Soviet spy Aldrich Ames beat the polygraph... twice).

That's why it's in some ways worse than flipping a coin. With the coin, you know it's random. With the polygraph, you get a false sense of security (after all, the guilty guy who beats a test is now less of a suspect than if he hadn't been tested at all).

Damn, you'd expect more from a machine when one of its inventors also created Wonder Woman. Or maybe not.

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1
"Carl is Such a Homophobe! I Bet He's Secretly Gay!"

If you watch any movie or television show that focuses on gay characters, particularly those made by Alan Ball, you're going to eventually see the "Hates Gays Because He's Secretly Gay" character (see American Beauty). It's such a pop culture archetype that in real life when you see some guy at the gym expressing disgust at the whole gay thing, you automatically assume he's got some pictures of well-oiled dudes under his bed. Or actual dudes.

And we do see it in real life; staunch conservative politicians wind up soliciting sex in public bathrooms and sending pornographic emails to underage male pages.


"Yes, we have a meeting with the Congressman."

Why it is Bullshit:

OK, we admit this is sometimes true. There was even a popular study done in 1996 with 64 male college students, 35 of whom were homophobes (according to a survey they filled out gauging their attitudes on the subject). The researchers hooked a meter to their dongs (seriously) and had them watch lots of porn (yes, this happened--here's the damned link).

It was found that the majority of the homophobes would get at least a semi-boner while watching gay porn (where only about a quarter of the non-homophobes got aroused).

You can see right away what's odd about the numbers. All-told, nearly half of their total test subjects got at least semi-hard watching the gay porn. So... half the male population is secretly gay? That seems fairly unlikely.


Statistically speaking, 110 percent of the men featured in this picture are gay.

So, what is it? That guys who volunteered for this test were simply more likely to lean that way? You do have to wonder how dedicated they were to the anti-gay cause if they agreed to have some wires plugged into their tackle box while they sat and watched a movie called Rear Admiral.

Or maybe this was just some very well-made gay porn. Or, maybe this whole thing is just ridiculously unscientific.

Ding! We think we have a winner!

Hell, the above study even notes that gay lust and anti-gay rage can both give you a boner. We've got a confusion boner right now!

The main problem is that nothing in science says that "homophobia" is even a thing. It's not listed among the actual phobias. It's more of a slang term that gets used in popular culture to describe a huge range of attitudes, from people who have strong moral objection to homosexuality due to religious beliefs or upbringing, to people who physically find homosexual sex disgusting, to people who brim with an inexplicable rage toward gays.

Combine them all and you find that about half of the population thinks homosexuality is morally wrong (with intolerance skewing higher among older respondents, obviously). There is just no scientific criteria for which of those people are suffering from "homophobia."

It sounds like we're splitting hairs, but it's a great example of the kind of problem people run into when they decide to play amateur psychologist and "diagnose" the people around them. Remember, the guy who's spouting a particularly venomous anti-gay diatribe may be covering up for his own confused homosexuality, and may deserve only your pity. But there's a very good chance that he's simply a dick.

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