6 Bullshit Facts About Psychology That Everyone Believes

#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.

#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.

#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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