5 Ridiculous Lies You Probably Believe About Psychology
After a semester of intro to psychology and a dozen BuzzFeed quizzes, you might think you've got a pretty good understanding of how the human psyche works. Unfortunately, you're probably basing that assumption on a science that's less "science" and more "a string of guesstimates cobbled together over the last hundred years or so." Not everything you learned from your high school psychology teacher/gym coach is rock-solid truth, guys.
So, despite what you've heard at parties or read in articles shared on Facebook ...
There Is No Raging Autism Epidemic
The entire premise of the anti-vaccine nutjobs is that all of a sudden lots of kids have autism, and there has to be a reason, goddamnit! "If it's not the vaccine thing, then is it, what, something in the water? The air? High fructose corn syrup? Video games? The gays?"
The video game gays?
Laugh at them all you want, but the fact that autism is suddenly everywhere is undeniable -- your parents and grandparents can tell you that they didn't go to school with a single autistic kid, while these days everyone has at least one friend on the spectrum, along with 50 percent of TV show detectives. It's no wonder sites throw around phrasing like "Autism: The Hidden Epidemic?" and "What if Autism Were Contagious?"
Not so fast, cowboy. What might look like an epidemic at first glance is actually people giving a name to something that's always existed. Researchers don't think that autism itself is on the rise; they think parents and doctors are smarter about what it looks like. Your grandma had autistic kids in her neighborhood, but she went to school in an era when they dismissed them as the victims of witch curses.
"We didn't give insulin to any kids with the devilbetes either."
We're barely exaggerating -- autism didn't even get a name until 1943, and for 20 years after that, the condition was interchanged with schizophrenia and totally blamed on bad parenting. As in, "Your child is 4 years old and hasn't learned to talk? You didn't hold him enough when he was a baby. Boom. Done. NEXT! Kid showing inappropriate reactions to social cues? Well, you clearly didn't spank him enough!"
It wasn't until 1980 that the main guide for mental illnesses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published the six-point criteria for diagnosing the condition (and none of them were about how crappy your mother was). Finally, kids who once would have been labeled mentally disabled despite high intelligence now had another possible diagnosis. We didn't even start throwing the phrase "autism spectrum" around until the mid-'90s -- meaning doctors on the cutting edge of psychiatry were just waking up to the fact that there's actually a wide range of symptoms of autism at around the same time kids were walking around with one overall strap hanging down and singing Color Me Badd.
Archimedes had his bathtub, Newton had his apple, autism doctors had 90210.
So, yeah, claiming that autism is new is like saying germs didn't exist until we invented the microscope.
People Do Not Grieve in Five Stages
When someone you love dies, you pummel through five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, or DABDA. You hear it come up in movies and on TV shows, people reference it in everyday life ("Don't mind him, he's still in denial") -- it's as predictable as the path of a chewed-up Dorito through your digestive tract.
And just like certain Doritos through your digestive tract, some rush through it faster than is humanly healthy.
So, in the same way you shouldn't expect to get that coveted elementary school diploma without tackling kindergarten through fifth grade, you're not going to get the "at peace with a loved one's death" diploma until you make it through those five inescapable stages -- fighting it just delays the "acceptance" stage we're all trying to get to.
The five stages are something one lone psychiatrist came up with in the 1960s for a book she was writing. There's no evidence for it; it's just something she thought she observed ... while watching people in a completely different situation.
It's like using advice from Housewivez Needz #69 to fix your marriage.
Here, ask yourself: Is there a stage that seems to be missing here? Well, how about the one where you yearn for the person to be alive again? As in, the emotion you actually feel the most after someone dies? Well, it's not there because the five stages weren't supposed to apply to people mourning the loss of others -- they are emotions the terminally ill express when facing their own deaths.
This all goes back to a hospital psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who interviewed dying patients at her hospital and noticed a pattern. Some of them were angry, others were in complete denial, still others were walking around in a Zen-like state of acceptance. While battling insomnia one night, Kubler-Ross gave labels to the death thoughts of her patients and wrote them up in her book on death, cheerfully titled On Death and Dying. Before long, psychiatrists and counselors were using DABDA to help grieving loved ones, a completely different population from who it was intended for.
"You already have cancer. Let your sister have the five steps thing. Don't be selfish."
In reality, mourning looks different for everyone (although a Yale study shows that most people accept the death of a loved one immediately -- understanding that someone is dead and gone forever is usually the very first emotion that we process, not the fifth). That's important to know, because if you're struggling through a death and you think there's a finish line or pot of gold after you hit certain checkpoints, you're going to be in for even more hurt down the line. Hell, if human beings progressed through every traumatic event in a neat checklist, what the hell would we need psychiatrists for? You could just print that shit in a manual and issue it to everyone at birth.
Giving Someone Power Doesn't Immediately Turn Them into a Sadist
It's one of the most famous experiments ever conducted, and if you've had a psychology class, you've heard about it: the Stanford prison experiment. In 1971, a Stanford psychology professor wanted to test his pet theory that people are essentially dicks, so he set up an experiment. Philip Zimbardo asked volunteer undergraduate students to play the parts of inmates and guards in a fake prison in the college basement. To the professor's horror, what started as a fun little project devolved into an Abu Ghraib shitstorm of abuse.
"I was going to add dog collars, but we were already over budget."
What was supposed to be a two-week experiment got shut down in six days when students went from regular kids at a university to torturers and victims. The guards withheld food from their prisoners, forced them to pee and poop in buckets, stripped them naked for punishment, and completely forgot that the people on the other side of the bars were going to be sharing cafeteria tables with them in a few weeks.
Naturally, Zimbardo and everyone who was unfortunate enough to see the de-evolution of humanity came to the same conclusion: Give any random person power over another, and he immediately turns into a sadistic douche.
Except for guard Chad Chadington, who required no prodding whatsoever.
There was one fatal flaw in the Stanford prison experiment: The guy in charge was stage directing the whole thing. Zimbardo didn't step back and watch the events unfold as an observer; he played the part of head guard, even going so far as using these totally scientifically unbiased instructions to his student guards: "In general, what all this should create in them is a sense of powerlessness. We have total power in the situation. They have none."
And remember, Zimbardo wasn't just the researcher/fake guard/sadistic mastermind of the experiment; he was a teacher, therefore an authority figure. There was pressure on students to please the researcher -- they were getting paid $15 a day for the experiment, and the department had clearly spent a lot of money building the fake prison. They were acting like sadistic guards because they wanted to please, not because their mock professional role emboldened them to do so. They knew what they were there to do. Oh, and a former San Quentin prisoner who served as a consultant on the experiment later admitted to feeding Zimbardo and his students suggestions on how to abuse their prisoners. So much for assuming decent, upstanding people spontaneously invented ways to be abusive.
"Remember, pee can be used as a punishment and a reward."
Also, you have to understand the context. This was the summer of 1971, a time of infamous clashes between protesters and authority figures (oddly enough, the riots in San Quentin and Attica prisons happened right after the experiment), including riots at Stanford that had to be broken up with tear-gas. When these students responded to a request to help a professor study the roles of authority figures and victims, they knew what point was being proven. It'd be like doing an experiment on gun control in the wake of several mass shootings.
Finally, despite Zimbardo's best efforts to smear all of humanity in one fell swoop, several of the student "guards" kept their moral compass intact and didn't abuse jack shit. Some even did favors for their inmates. The nice ones didn't get much attention in the subsequent reports because they didn't fit the professor's hypothesis that deep down we're all just waiting for permission to be assholes.
The "Mozart Effect" Doesn't Exist
What if there was a magic pill to make your unborn baby smarter? You'd take the pill, even if you weren't pregnant or were a man, because nobody wants a dumb baby. That's probably why, in the early '90s, parents began buying into the "Mozart effect," the scientifically proven fact that both unborn and after-born babies get smarter from listening to classical music. It makes sense -- while dumb people listen to rock (or worse, country), isn't it the high-class achievers who sit around listening to classical, sipping wine and adjusting their monocles?
"Listen to them assholes screwin' up that movement! 'Best of Chopin in the park' my ass!"
Thus, some states began distributing free classical-music CDs to parents of newborns. A prominent baby formula company packaged a free CD of classical music in their take-home bags given out to new parents at the hospital. So the millennials that are hitting college this fall should be pretty brilliant, huh?
Not only is the Mozart effect not a real thing, but it's an insane example of people misconstruing research to make it sound like what they want to hear.
"When listening, did you notice the theoretical increase in penis size?"
The original 1993 study by Francis Rauscher did indeed find that listening to Mozart had a mild impact on performing spatial-reasoning tasks. That effect lasted for about 10 minutes. That's it. And it was a tiny study of about 36 people, and none of them were even children. They were college students. But that didn't stop a New York Times music critic from writing a fun opinion piece claiming that Mozart was now the go-to guy for making your babies smarter. Before you knew it, another music critic created a whole brand of Mozart effect products for parents who wanted to give their children a head start in life.
And here's the kicker: Once the experts got around to scientifically testing the theory on a large scale, they found out Mozart was OK at boosting performances on tests, but the British pop band Blur was better.
People With Higher IQs Are Not Inherently Smarter Than Everyone Else
From the minute you learned what an intelligence quotient was, you probably wanted to take the test to find out where you land on the smarts spectrum. Forget SATs, grades, or how much you've actually succeeded in life: If you have a high IQ, you're a genius, and if you have a low IQ, you're a moron.
You hear that actress Sharon Stone has an IQ of 154 and you immediately have a different opinion of her. If they tell you your child has an IQ in double digits, you assume the child's destined for a life scrubbing toilets or starring in a reality show.
Most IQ tests assess "symbolic logic," which includes stuff like problem solving, imagining how pictures would look if rotated or manipulated, and short term memory. If that sounds like a tiny sliver of what makes up a person's intelligence and leaves out huge things like creativity, congratulations! You've passed the ultimate test of intelligence, which is figuring out that tests of intelligence are bullshit.
Neuroscientists will happily tell you that cognitive ability is way more complicated than solving self-contained problems and remembering things from a few questions before. You could be brilliant at logic problems but an idiot at verbal intelligence, which is a whole other piece of the smarts puzzle. You could have an off-the-charts memory capacity, like characters in Psych or Monk or No One in Real Life, but could be a 2-year-old when it comes to solving problems. Hell, the people in your life who you think of as geniuses might just be really well-spoken or charismatic. Or they might read a lot.
Although you should be able to spot the ones that read list-based comedy websites by a theoretical increase in penis size.
Either way, their IQ might not be anything special, because IQ only measures one thing: how good you are at taking an IQ test.
Oh, and here's the worst part: Where we think of IQ as being in the same category as eye color -- a natural talent passed along by good genes -- the reality is that even the skills that IQ tests do measure can be improved with everything from a good family life to a better education. Well, shit. If we can't use IQ as an excuse to look down on other people, why keep it around at all?
Maya is on Twitter, and you can follow her here. Please don't follow her in real life, though.
Related Reading: If you think lie detectors aren't bullshit, think again. And don't get too attached to your sense of sight, because what your brain ACTUALLY sees and what happens in the world are very different. Want to read about some psychology experiments that prove mankind is doomed? Click right here.