15 Psychology "Facts" We've Been Getting Wrong Our Whole Lives
Brains are weird; we’ve known that since the first caveman tried to impress a girl with the Stone Age version of an acoustic rendition of “Wonderwall.” We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out those little balls of electric meat, but we have to do that with our own stupid balls of electric meat, so sometimes we get it way, way wrong.
Stanford Prison Experiment
Its authors claim that the Stanford prison experiment basically proves that power corrupts, but there’s evidence that its subjects knew what they wanted and intentionally played up their roles of prisoner or guard or even were coached to do so. One participant straight-up admitted to putting on a performance.
Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect
The murder of Kitty Genovese, purportedly witnessed by 38 apathetic neighbors, inspired the theory that people won’t help someone if they assume someone else will do it, but in reality, only about six people witnessed any part of the attack, and no one saw it in its entirety, so it wasn’t clear how serious it was. Two people did call the police, and the rest had fairly good reasons not to, such as the lack of an easy-to-remember emergency services phone number and being gay at a time when New York police frowned upon that.
Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who survived being impaled through the head by a three-foot iron, inspired scientists to study the correlation between parts of the brain and personality after he supposedly transformed from mild-mannered to a raging alcoholic following the accident, but contemporary reports suggest no such change. Whatever struggles he did have are better explained by, you know, being suddenly and permanently disfigured.
The Marshmallow Test
The famous “marshmallow test” supposedly proved that children’s ability to resist a treat on the promise of even more treats was associated with success later in life, but it turns out that both are better predicted by how rich their parents are.
It’s long been believed that oldest siblings are the most mature and responsible, middle children are needy attention seekers, and babies are, well, babies, but a recent study of more than 1,000 people revealed no correlation between birth order and personality.
The idea that forcing a smile will make you actually feel happy goes back to Charles Darwin, but an analysis of 50 years’ worth of data showed that it only works about 7% of the time.
Likewise, people like Oprah extol the confidence-boosting powers of striking a Superman pose, but almost every study of power posing only compared it to slouching in on yourself, not neutral poses, so it’s just as likely that the hunching was the problem. When power posing is compared to neutral poses, it’s actually the latter that makes people feel more dominant, but it doesn’t really matter because those feelings of dominance didn’t correlate with better performance.
You might have heard that, in an effect called “priming,” people who are prompted to think about money become greedier or walk slower when they think about aging, but those studies have been notoriously difficult to replicate. One study found that the only way to get those results was, ironically, to tell those observing the participants what to expect.
The 10,000-Hour Rule
Malcolm Gladwell is famous for popularizing the notion that anyone can master any skill with 10,000 hours of practice, but that number is based on averages for top-level performers. That means some of them practiced less and some of them practiced way more, so there’s no magical number. It turns out that practice only accounts for about 12% of skill mastery and there are plenty of people who will just always suck at stuff.
There’s no evidence that early childhood exposure to classical music makes children any smarter than listening to Dr. Dre. The study that led to that myth didn’t even involve babies, and at least Dre will teach them important lessons about G thangs.
According to the ego depletion theory, resisting temptation requires so much energy that it makes you dumber, but in 2016, a “massive effort to reproduce” the results found no link between giving in to base urges and cognition. You’ll just have to find another excuse.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a neat little infographic that illustrates how higher-level needs such as intellectual and spiritual fulfillment can’t be adequately addressed until lower-level ones like food and housing security have been satisfied, but more recent research shows little support for the order of the hierarchy or any hierarchy at all. There’s also the obvious fact that poor people make art.
Left Brain/Right Brain Personalities
No, you’re not “right-brained” (that is, more dependent on the right side of your brain) because you write bad poetry or “left-brained” because statistics turn you on. Everyone uses their whole brain equally. Well, maybe not Kanye.
We Only Use 10% of Our Brains
Speaking of whole brains, the idea that we only use 10% of our skull meats was probably made up by the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. There are no extraneous brain parts just bumming around in there, but the myth is so pervasive that one Brazilian survey from this century found that half of people still believe it. There was even that terrible Scarlett Johansson movie.
The Milgram Experiment
The Milgram experiment -- in which subjects were instructed by an authoritative figure to deliver what they were told were painful electric shocks to an actor, sometimes apparently fatally -- was touted as the final word in what made those Nazis “just follow orders,” but Milgram was pretty selective about his data. Contrary to his claim that two-thirds of people killed an innocent stranger because a guy in a lab coat told them to, 56% refused at some point before that, and those that pressed on had a pretty good idea that the whole thing was fake. If anything, it just proved that a lot of people are trolls.
Top image: Ahtziri Lagarde/Unsplash