5 Bits of Pop Psychology That Make Absolutely No Sense
The fields of psychology and psychiatry are incredibly complex. It’s not too surprising, given that “understanding human thought and behavior” seems more like a question you’d take to some wise man on a mountaintop than something you’d choose as a major. Despite this, every day, people take to social media with information they scraped off a simplified infographic, convinced they can help people struggling with the mental issues that have plagued humans since the days of fig leaves, snakes and apples. That level of confidence might be its own phenomenon worth research.
A lot of the ideas and advice dispensed by TikTok psychologists is obviously flawed, if not outright disproved. It’s definitely not helped by the fact that reasonable, boring advice isn’t a recipe for racking up likes or mind-blown emojis compared to things that seem life-changing. You should look at most of these psychological miracle cures the way people look at miracle diets: If it was that easy, everybody would be ripped. The same way books that say “eat better and exercise” don’t hit the bestseller list, posts that say “make small consistent progress in your mental health and seek help if you need it” don’t hit the Discover page.
With that in mind, here are five of the most persistent flawed pop-psychology tips…
Smiling Makes You Happy
This one is the classic bugaboo of anybody with even a smidgen of clinical depression. Making it worse is that the person who tells you this is usually the most carefree person you’ve ever met. I understand not everyone is depressed, but especially today, if someone tells you that they’re depressed and you cock your head like a confused puppy, you probably need some of your serotonin removed. Suck some of that sweet happy juice out of your brain and inject it into mine, guy probably named Tanner.
The roots of what is called the “facial feedback theory” comes all the way from Charles Darwin in the 1800s, and although Darwin’s got a pretty solid track record, psychology from the 1800s does not. Since then, the experiment has been tough to replicate, with some findings confirming it and some findings invalidating it. If we’re going to be scientific about it, “sometimes” doesn’t really cut it.
Not only that, studies have found that if you’re not in a neutral state, but genuinely sad or angry, forcing a smile can make you feel worse. These studies also found that workers forced to smile all day were more likely to drink heavily after work. Those Trader Joe’s work parties must be absolute barn-burners.
Brainstorming Is More Creative
Brainstorming: the persistent idea that a bunch of brains in a room and a whiteboard can produce more creative ideas than any of those brains alone. Unfortunately, research has found that this can’t always be the case, and for reasons that people who’ve sat through these kind of sessions probably felt at the time. In particular, studies have found three specific psychological phenomena that suggest it’s not the perfect maelstrom of ideas you’d hope it would be.
First is anchoring, which is the tendency to lock onto the first good idea you have. This is one most people in a brainstorm probably recognize — once an idea pops up that everyone seems to be okay with, suddenly the rest of the meeting seems to drag like a snowplow on gravel. It’s compounded by number two, the phenomenon of groupthink. People online like to trot this word out to explain why their kid getting measles is actually good, but in a real sense, it’s that a group tends to calcify around certain paths and ideas, making it harder to introduce ones that veer in a different direction. Last is simple pressure, another one most of us can probably relate to: Some people will be much more reluctant to share ideas in even a purported “no judgment zone” setting, leaving the most confident and loudest participants to have an outsized role.
They do say that group feedback is still valuable, but it’s best implemented after people have done individual brainstorming, and arrived with mostly formed ideas.
You Only Use 10 Percent of Your Brain
This one is another absolute chestnut of bullshit. There are even entire (bad) movie plots based around Bradley Cooper turning into a borderline superhero by turning all the lights on upstairs. If you’re saying to yourself right now, “Well, it’s EXAGGERATED maybe, but—,” allow me to refer you to neuroscientist Sandra Aamott, who tells Discover Magazine, “There is absolutely no room for doubt about this.”
Over the course of the day, you are absolutely using the vast majority of your brain’s gross little wrinkles and gray matter. It just doesn’t work like a lamp, where it’s either all on or all off. You can think about it like the lights in your house — as you move around and do different tasks, you turn different ones on and off. But you’re not going to stand in your kitchen, look at a dark living room, a dark basement and a dark bathroom, and go, “Wow, I only use 10 percent of the lights in my house.”
The Power of Visualization
I’m sorry for The Secret lovers and vision-board crafters out there (on multiple levels), but the heavily touted “power of visualization” is not only a crock of bullshit, there’s evidence to support that it actually decreases your chance of success. That’s because when you visualize yourself having achieved whatever your goal du jour is, you get a tiny sniff of the accomplishment of having done it, which can reduce your drive.
Sitting on your couch imagining yourself playing Madison Square Garden, unfortunately, is not a mental tool, it’s just good old daydreaming. What’s a lot more helpful, and a lot less fun (hence its lack of popularity), is specifically visualizing all the work necessary to achieve that goal. Of course it’s not fun to imagine yourself practicing anatomy instead of hosting your gallery show, but if you were having fun, you wouldn’t be reading self-help books, would you?
OCD Means Being Neat
This one is as pervasive as it is infuriating. Odds are some type-A friend or acquaintance of yours has said something like, “I’m completely OCD about my workspace.” What they mean with this is, “It bothers me if my work space is messy.” Being completely OCD about your email inbox, in reality, might mean something more like, “If I do not tap each of my Funko Pops on the head precisely three times when I sit down to read my email, I have a pervasive fear something awful will happen to my family.”
As psychology professor Stephen Ilardi explains in the Washington Post, most OCD sufferers are “plagued by a cascade of unbidden, disturbing thoughts, often in the form of harrowing images that they may feel compelled to ward off with time-consuming rituals. It’s a serious mental illness that typically causes great distress and functional impairment.”
So, congratulations on having your bookcase ordered by the Dewey Decimal System, but I regret to inform you that you’re nothing more than a big nerd.