5 Psychology 'Facts' You Believe (That Are Myths)
Psychology is a fluid field, which is another way of saying that the rules are constantly changing because it's a fat bunch of educated guesswork. (Did you know that homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder until the late 1980s?)
Add a bunch of politicians, movies, drug companies, and well-meaning armchair "experts" to the mix, and it's no surprise that the average person's understanding of the field is full of misconceptions, junk logic, and comically flawed stereotypes that persist to this day. For example ...
Myth: Depression Is Just Brain Chemicals Making You Hate Your Otherwise Normal Life
Sometimes, in the course of trying to debunk one old harmful myth, we just replace it with another. For example, society spent thousands of years treating clinical depression with advice that ranged from "Just lighten up, you pussy!" to "Have another beer!" Recently, we've gotten a much better understanding of chemical imbalances in the brain and have found lots of medications that alleviate them to varying degrees. But, there is no good idea that can't be taken to a stupid extreme. So, these days, any mention of depression is met with, "You just have a chemical imbalance! Go see your doctor for pills!"
The unspoken implication is that depressed people are looking at their normal, happy life and seeing a distorted gray haze instead. You know, like in that cartoon they show on TV:
You would be depressed, too, if you woke up one day and
realized you were a poorly drawn circle.
Well, here's the deal with depression: Nobody knows what the deal is with depression. Those drugs they advertise on TV barely work better than placebos, but, strangely, placebos work pretty well. So do weird alternative treatments or exercise -- it varies from patient to patient. How does that make sense if it's just an issue of balancing brain juices?
It's because it is not that simple. For one thing, if you look at the causes and risk factors for depression, alongside the biological stuff (neurotransmitters, hormones), you see things like "the death of a loved one," "being homosexual in an environment that isn't supportive," and "chronic pain." In other words, sometimes people are depressed because their lives are depressing. If you have a friend who can't get off the sofa because he lost his job and girlfriend in the same week, you're not going to make him feel better by telling him it's all just wonky brain chemistry. As one psychiatrist puts it, "One patient lost a husband to cancer, and medication may take the edge off of some of those emotions, but the process she requires is to work through the elements of grief. There's not a pill for that."
"I barely even remember what's-his-face anymore!"
In fact, numerous studies suggest that depressed people are not only completely connected with reality, they're actually more up to date than most. Depressed folks are consistently more realistic when it comes to predicting future events and have a better sense of the passage of time than nondepressed people. It turns out, the inherent pessimism that comes with the condition results in an unusually level-headed and rational view of both themselves and the world around them. Psychologists call this depressive realism, and it is exactly as depressing as it sounds.
And no, we're not fucking saying that depression is good because it makes you smarter. Things aren't going to get better if you're staring blankly at your bedroom ceiling for 16 hours out of the day, contemplating the tragedies of modern life. We're saying treatment doesn't start and stop with a magical pill that's going to somehow make you OK with the fact that your best friend has a brain tumor and your landlord is threatening eviction. Those counseling sessions are intended to help you figure out how to cope with -- and actually solve -- your problems. Treatment advice includes things such as getting out of the house and making friends -- real-world things you actually have to do. If anything, the drugs are there to give you enough energy to get up and do that stuff. But, finding a blend of treatments that actually work for you can take months or years or the rest of your life. It's still largely a mystery.
"'Warning: May Cause Suicidal Thoughts' ... That can't be right."
Myth: The Rorschach Test Is A Trusted Diagnosis Tool
You've seen the Rorschach test in half of the movie or TV scenes intended to demonstrate just how nuts the crazy character is. The psychiatrist shows a series of cards with ink blots ...
"I see that dude from Watchmen ... The blue one."
... healthy people see a butterfly, crazy people see a pair of crucified puppies, and everyone does their best not to laugh at the winged penis the ink blot clearly resembles. The notorious "show pictures of stains to people and figure out their every mental ailment" test is a powerful visual and a handy, all-purpose diagnostic tool that seems almost too good to be true.
The original version of the Rorschach inkblot test was conceived in 1921 by Swiss psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach, who may have based it on Klecksography, a parlor game that featured inkblot pictures. Herman started tinkering, and after some trouble (for instance, he had to rework his test from 15 to 10 cards because of the printing costs), he created the first version of his test: a series of crude blot cards that would trick schizophrenics into misidentifying obvious figures due to their predisposition to see freaky shit hidden within the mundane -- kind of like staring at a Magic Eye in a world of perpetual screaming.
Anyone else see a reptilian Gerald Ford in a sundress?
There was just one small catch: Rorschach had specifically designed the test to detect typical schizophrenic symptoms, which consist of a fairly narrow variety of defective thinking or hallucinatory confusion. However, when his colleagues saw his method, every psych worker got, uh, psyched and started throwing more and more refined versions of Rorschach's cards at every type of mental illness. This turned out to be the medical equivalent of pooping in the sink -- while technically in the same general area, it was by no means the correct procedure.
The first strike against the Rorschach test came in the late 1960s. A psychologist named John Exner compared the five most used scoring systems for the inkblots and discovered that they had given wildly different scores to the same person. The methodology was so flawed that essentially all the tests ever performed in the last four decades were scientifically useless. Exner did soon introduce his own, refined version of the test, but even this Rorschach system boasts a ridiculously high positive-error rate (roughly 50 percent of the subjects will be slapped with a "distorted thinking" label) and is considered by many to be a relic that's only used out of convenience and habit.
Pictured: legit scientific method, or the above the butt
selection wall at your local tattoo parlor?
Also, there's this: The Rorschach test is only reliable if the patient isn't able to study the cards in advance ... which they have been since 1983, thanks to William Poundstone's book Big Secrets and, later, a little thing called Wikipedia. The cards -- along with their most common interpretations -- have been available to practically anyone for at least as long as the Space Jam webpage has been around, which essentially pisses all over the last remaining tatters of the test's credibility.
Myth: Hypnotism Is Just A Goofy Stage Trick
We hope you realize by this stage in your life that hypnotism as it's portrayed in TV shows/cartoons is, in fact, silly bullshit ("When you awake, you will think you are ... A CHICKEN! HA! Look at him go, ladies and gentlemen!"). But, believe it or not, hypnotism is actually a legitimate psychiatric treatment method. You just need to basically forget every single Jafar's scepter pop culture interpretation of the practice you've ever seen.
Nobody is using it to brainwash folks, induce strangers in the audience to shit in their pants, or to kill Conan the Barbarian's mother (though we still reserve the right to believe that James Earl Jones is a powerful sorcerer). Instead, it's a tried-and-true treatment method where certified psychiatrists induce hyperalertness, a superenhanced kind of relaxed concentration, in a strictly therapeutic capacity.
Not pictured: a certified psychiatrist.
Here's how real hypnotism works: When a patient is placed into a fully conscious and mindful state, they can better visualize their memories or other issues and try to get a grip on trauma, anxiety, shame, or other ailments. The uses range from battling substance abuse issues and obesity to treating PTSD and even combating irritable bowel syndrome. Yes, hypnotism can be used to treat bad poops.
Western medicine has regarded hypnotism with interest since at least 1846, when surgeon James Esdaile, after his time in India, reported it could be used as a surprisingly effective anesthetic tool. Further studies on surgical patients have consistently claimed that hypnosis can alleviate anxiety to a massive degree, to the point where the patient, indeed, needs a vastly reduced amount of actual anesthetic (although, few doctors would recommend that you try to go through surgery using nothing but a mental image of lying in a dew speckled meadow).
"OK, for this next part, think of a basket full of newborn puppies. Trust me."
Myth: Birth Order Dictates Personality Traits And Intelligence
Quick: Picture a person who's the eldest child in the family. Chances are, you're seeing an industrious, possibly a little bossy, achiever type -- someone used to keeping their siblings in check. Likewise, you would probably imagine a middle child as a peace-making moderator type and the youngest as a spoiled little rebel, drowning in parental indulgence like Jaden Smith. Don't feel bad -- the "personality traits dictated by birth order" stereotype is a super common one, all the more because many professionals support it. And why wouldn't they? It makes perfect sense.
So, of course, it's complete and utter bullshit.
The theory was first introduced in 1920 by one of the leading psychotherapists of the era, Alfred Adler. He theorized that the arrival of a second or third child would inevitably leave an impression on an eldest child, who would feel usurped or replaced. The only problem was, Ol' A.A. never bothered to actually test his hypothesis and back it up with any evidence.
"Do you want to maybe just say this worked and be done with it? I wanna get lunch."
In the 1970s, psychologist Robert Zajonc took that idea and ran with it, until he came up with confluence theory -- the idea that the results of school tests could be predicted by how many firstborns, second-borns, and so forth were taking the test, suggesting that the children's IQs differed according to their birth order. Of course, modern thinkers know this is nonsense, citing Mufasa and the clearly more intelligent Uncle Scar from the respected scientific journal The Lion King as evidence. But, at the time, people accepted Zajonc's interpretation.
Finally, in 1989, demographer Judith Blake performed an extensive analysis of birth rank and test scores to find a pattern that would confirm Zajonc's ideas. She found that whatever correlation there was between the students' birth orders and test scores could easily be attributed to family-background factors. More recently, two separate studies performed in both Germany and the U.S. in 2015 showed that the supposed intelligence gap between the oldest child and their siblings is mathematically insignificant. As for personality traits (and flaws)? Although some researchers have found correlations between an outgoing, independent personality and growing up with few or no siblings, birth order definitely doesn't dictate those, either. That honor goes to a little something called genes -- and how often your parents forget your birthday.
"They remembered the dog's. It's the same day."
Myth: Mental Disorders Form Inside Your Brain -- Nobody Can Give You One
Half of what sucks about a mental disorder is that you suffer it alone -- it sets up camp inside your skull, and the vast majority of the people you pass on the street will have no idea you even have it. But, that's also the only good thing we can say about mental illness -- can you even imagine a world in which your brain problems were actually contagious? Well, they totally are, and we don't just mean "hanging around a depressed person will bring you down, too."
Imagine a group of people gathering together in higher and higher concentrations, until they suddenly choose to mingle with a different, previously isolated community -- say, the popular kids in a 1980s high school movie suddenly deciding to socialize with the nerds. Soon, the nerds find themselves exposed to the various, previously unfamiliar insecurities and issues of the cool group. Before you know it, someone gets infected, and suddenly, Mean Girls is a documentary.
Now, imagine this happening on a city-wide and even global scale. Actually, you don't need to imagine it, because it's actually happening.
Except for that part. That's not going to happen.
Science doesn't completely understand why it happens, but the brain-hopping tendencies of mental disorders can apparently be blamed on the fact that most of us live in cities now: Urban dwellers have far more brain malfunctions (up to and including schizophrenia) than their rural counterparts. Some of the most likely explanations are the increased loneliness, stress, and cognitive load of city life; excess dopamine, thanks to the constant stimulation (excessive levels of dopamine in the brain can be indicative of schizophrenia); or even the aircraft noise generally associated with larger cities. Some studies seem to suggest that the rise in urban area autism and schizophrenia may be linked to unchecked exhaust and pollutants.
Dubbed the "Bluehouse Effect," by us, right now.
Or, maybe it's all of those things. What we do know is that rubbing elbows with your fellow humans in a dense urban environment is a breeding ground for the crazies. In some particularly stressful situations, depression symptoms can actually spread in a similar manner to the common cold, transmission via close personal contact with those already suffering from similar issues. Human brains are wired to be social, so it's not that weird that our malfunctions can spread invisibly from one person to the next. Much of what you call your "mind" is just the sum of your interactions with the outside world. And if the world is nuts, well ...
You then decide you'll just stay home, at which point you find out that social isolation is one of the main symptoms/causes of depression, and your doctor will tell you to get out and meet people. So, we guess ... just make sure those people are all in perfect mental health first? Hey, make them take a Rorschach test!
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