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“Psychology’s Zombie Ideas”

Hey, psychologists! Don’t get mad at me about the above title. I took it from a post at Macmillan Learning by David Myers, who’s a psychology professor and textbook writer. Myers presents some “mind-eating, refuse-to-die ideas” that are present in everyday psychology but are contradicted by research:

1. People often repress painful experiences, which years later may later reappear as recovered memories or disguised emotions. (In reality, we remember traumas all too well, often as unwanted flashbacks.)

2. In realms from sports to stock picking, it pays to go with the person who’s had the hot hand. . . .

3. Parental nurture shapes our abilities, personality, and sexual orientation. (The greatest and most oft-replicated surprise of psychological science is the minimal contribution of siblings’ “shared environment.”)

4. Immigrants are crime-prone. (Contrary to what President Donald Trump has alleged, and contrary to people’s greater fear of immigrants in regions where few immigrants live, immigrants do not have greater-than-average arrest and incarceration rates.)

5. Big round numbers: The brain has 100 billion neurons. 10 percent of people are gay. We use only 10 percent of our brain. 10,000 daily steps make for health. 10,000 practice hours make an expert. (Psychological science tells us to distrust such big round numbers.)

6. Psychology’s three most misunderstood concepts are that: “Negative reinforcement” refers to punishment. “Heritability” means how much of a person’s traits are attributable to genes. “Short-term memory” refers to your inability to remember what you experienced yesterday or last week, as opposed to long ago. (These zombie ideas are all false, as I explain here.)

7. Seasonal affective disorder causes more people to get depressed in winter, especially in cloudy places, and in northern latitudes. (This is still an open debate, but massive new data suggest to me that it just isn’t so.)

8. To raise healthy children, protect them from stress and other risks. (Actually, children are antifragile. Much as their immune systems develop protective antibodies from being challenged, children’s emotional resilience builds from experiencing normal stresses.)

9. Teaching should align with individual students’ “learning styles.” (Do students learn best when teaching builds on their responding to, say, auditory versus visual input? Nice-sounding idea, but researchers—here and here—continue to find little support for it.)

10. Well-intentioned therapies change lives. (Often yes, but sometimes no—as illustrated by the repeated failures of some therapy zombies: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, D.A.R.E. Drug Abuse Prevention, Scared Straight crime prevention, Conversion Therapy for sexual reorientation, permanent weight-loss training programs.)

Of the above list, one is wrong (#2; see here), one is not psychology (#4), two seem too vague to have any real empirical content (#8 and #9), and for one, I’m not sure many people really hold the “zombie belief” in question (#10). But the other five seem reasonable. And, no joke, 5 out of 10 ain’t bad. If I gave a list of 10 recommendations, I’d be happy if some outsider felt that 5 of them made sense.

So, overall, I like Myers’s post. It’s commonsensical, relevant to everyday life, and connects theory with evidence—all good things that I aspire to in my own teaching. Based on this post, I bet he writes good textbooks.

Just one thing . . .

There’s one thing that bugs me, though: The zombie psychology ideas that Myers mention all seem to fall outside of current mainstream psychology. I guess that some of these ideas such as the effect of parental nurture or learning styles used to be popular in academic psychology, but no longer.

Here are some zombie psychology ideas that Myers didn’t mention:

11. Extreme evolutionary psychology: The claim that women are three times more likely to wear red or pink during certain times of the month, the claim that single women were 20 percentage points more likely to vote for Barack Obama during certain times of the month, the claim that beautiful parents are more likely to have girl babies, and lots more along those lines. These debunked claims all fit within a naive gender-essentialism that is popular within evolutionary psychology and in some segments of the public.

12. Claims that trivial things have large and consistent effects on people’s personal lives: The idea that disaster responses are much different for hurricanes with boy or girl names. The idea that all sorts of behaviors are different if your age ends in a 9. There are all these superficially plausible ideas but they are not borne out by the data.

13. Claims that trivial things have large and consistent effects on people’s political decisions: The claims that votes are determined by shark attacks, college football games, and subliminal smiley faces.

14. Embodied cognition, Sadness may impair color perception, Visual contrast polarizes moral judgment, etc etc etc.

OK, you get the idea. We could keep going and going. Just pick up an issue of Psychological Science or PNAS from a few years ago.

It’s good for a psychology textbook writer to point out misconceptions in psychology. Here’s how Myers ends his post:

When subjected to skeptical scrutiny, crazy-sounding ideas do sometimes find support. . . . But more often, as I suggest in Psychology 13th Edition (with Nathan DeWall), “science becomes society’s garbage collector, sending crazy-sounding ideas to the waste heap atop previous claims of perpetual motion machines, miracle cancer cures, and out-of-body travels. To sift reality from fantasy and fact from fiction therefore requires a scientific attitude: being skeptical but not cynical, open-minded but not gullible.”

That’s all fine. But watch out. Sometimes the call is coming from inside the house. Or, to be more specific, sometimes science (as manifested in the Association for Psychological Science, the National Academy of Sciences, etc.) is not “society’s garbage collector,” it’s society’s garbage creator, and it’s the institution that gives garbage a high value.

I’m not saying that psychology is worse than other fields. I’m just saying that if a psychologist is going to write about bad zombie ideas in psychology, it would make sense for him to include some that remain popular with high-status researchers within psychology itself.

60 Comments

  1. Anon says:

    I think I can summarize a more succinct way to summarize zombie ideas 12-14: social psychology.

  2. gec says:

    While I would also quibble with his list, I think it’s important to note that Myers’ perspective is one of teaching freshman undergrads, who from my experience really do hold a lot of the 10 beliefs Myers lists. So in that sense, he’s not talking so much about the “academic [social] psychology establishment” as he is the “pop-culture received psychology”. As you point out, we could come up with a long list of zombie ideas in the PNAS/Psych Science “establishment”. But even though some of that junk has been used to drive public policy (e.g., “nudges”), I don’t see many freshman undergrads who have absorbed that stuff (yet?).

    This also got me thinking about mistaken pop-culture received “wisdom” about statistics. I couldn’t come up with a pithy list, but instead a sort of attitude that I also see as common among undergrads and others without stats experience:

    1. Statistics is “all about the numbers”. All you need to do is collect data and the scales will fall from your eyes, revealing the brilliant light of truth shining from your tables, graphs, and tests.

    As this blog does an excellent job of pointing out, learning from data requires a lot. Among other things, it requires understanding how data were collected, what is really being measured, how to represent those processes in a model that represents meaningful relationships between quantities, and finally how to connect the model back to constructs of interest.

    But I think the public-facing impression of statistics as a push-button truth machine is largely coming from “inside the house” as well, particularly with the proliferation of “data science” programs and media coverage of clueless applications of machine learning (like the “gaydar” work also discussed on this blog).

  3. Steve says:

    How is # 3 a coherent claim. He writes that it is a misconception that parental nurture shapes our abilities, etc., and he seems to think that this is refuted by studies showing how little is contributed by siblings’ shared environment. Do psychologists actually believe that siblings share the same parenting environment? Does anyone know a parent who treats and parented each of their children in the same way? This is one where I think psychologists are ignoring interactions. As far as #6, I don’t think anyone outside of psychology would misunderstand heritability if it were for psychologists.

    • Joshua says:

      Steve –

      > How is # 3 a coherent claim. He writes that it is a misconception that parental nurture shapes our abilities, etc.,

      Yeah, I”m with you there. If the nature/nurture argument has been definitively settled, then it comes as news to me. And I notice that unlike most of the other items, Andrew has no hyperlinks for that one.

      > Do psychologists actually believe that siblings share the same parenting environment?

      And yeah, a bit problem with the arguments that claim that nature has won in a knockout is the weakness of twin studies and sibling studies in the sense of controlling for environment.

      I will also note that #’s 8 and 9 are also dubious:

      > To raise healthy children, protect them from stress and other risks. (Actually, children are antifragile. Much as their immune systems develop protective antibodies from being challenged, children’s emotional resilience builds from experiencing normal stresses.)

      Obviously, this is misleading or just an overstatement so as to be provocative – as the effect of stress is a matter of degree. There is a ton of convincing (to me, anyway and I have a hard time believing not to any reasonable person) literature that too much stress for children has a cascade of negative effects over their lifetime.

      > 9. Teaching should align with individual students’ “learning styles.” (Do students learn best when teaching builds on their responding to, say, auditory versus visual input? Nice-sounding idea, but researchers—here and here—continue to find little support for it.)

      There is evidence that people wrongly assume that limiting teaching to one particular “learning style” is the way to go – but that doesn’t mean that teaching shouldn’t aline with learning styles in any sense.

      • jim says:

        “that doesn’t mean that teaching shouldn’t aline with learning styles in any sense.”

        Is there some classification somewhere of “learning styles” published somewhere?

        If you want to classify a rock, first you get a thin-section and do a point count on the mineral assemblage under the microscope; then you send a sample off to the lab and get the major element geochem in weight-percent oxide and the trace element geochem (weight in ppt to ppb). You use one classification system with the mineral assemblages; a different one for the major element wt%; and yet a different one for trace elements; and goodness if you’re doing crustal evolution you’ll need Nd isotopes too.

        So how do you measure “learning style”?

        • Joshua says:

          jim –

          > Is there some classification somewhere of “learning styles” published somewhere?

          Call them learning preferences if you prefer. Anyone who has taught even a single student anything knows that some students feel more comfortable and familiar with certain modes of instruction. Often, if not always, a students comfort level with a mode of instruction is associated with their motivation to learnz and their confidence level. Both mkricsrkonand confidence can be associated with the success in the educational objective.

          As with anything educational – it’s complicated. Many factors are involved. People tend to simplify the dynamics involved in ways that are counterproductive.

          • Joe says:

            I sure that some students find a certain method works better for them than with others, but I’m less certain it would be consistent across all tasks, which I think the learning styles (or at least the strong version of it) would hold. Do you think someone could really prefer, say, auditory imput over visual or kinesthetic no matter what it was they were trying to learn?

            • Joshua says:

              Joe –

              > I sure that some students find a certain method works better for them than with others, but I’m less certain it would be consistent across all tasks,…

              I agree. I also think that ] you get a greater return, sometimes, when you challenge students with methods that make them somewhat uncomfortable. I’m a big believer in creating a kind of cognitive dissonance in students to help them realize that they don’t know what they thought they knew and to create a “need to know” what the actual answer is. But it’s a balancing act. As you point to – I would think that the casual mechanism between method and outcomes is complicated and often context-specific. Perhaps in more familiar domains you get better results by challenging students and in domains where they feel less secure you work more within modalities with which they feel more comfortable.

              > Do you think someone could really prefer, say, auditory imput over visual or kinesthetic no matter what it was they were trying to learn?

              No – and that is one aspect suggested by the findings that I agree with. While there might be some general truths to the notion of “learning styles” people can draw related, broad inferences that are not supported. But also, I think that teachers can often intuit aspects of this dynamic that are very difficult to test empirically.

      • somebody says:

        > nature/nurture

        To be completely fair, nurture =/= parenting. Schools are nurture, countries are nurture, your township is nurture, the news environment, whether or not iPhones and personal computers had been invented when you were a child, all non-genetic “nurture”. So the claim that “parents are not that important” is much less expansive than the obviously untrue “skills are 100% nature”.

        That said, I’m pretty skeptical of even the restricted claim. In its strongest form, it’s obviously untrue. If my parent beats me in the head every day as a child, all my measurable skills will drop to zero once I’m dead. So the actual causal claim here is too vague to be seriously evaluated.

  4. Matt says:

    I don’t see how learning styles (#9) is vague or lacks empirical content. First, ask students whether they learn best when the material is presented in a verbal or visual or some other format. Then randomly assign the students to receive instruction in different formats and give them tests to see what they’ve learned. If the test results are better when the student’s preferred learning style matches the type of instruction he or she received, that’s evidence in favor of learning styles. See here for more.

    • Michael J says:

      I’m not sure how good the assumption is that students’ (especially young ones) responses to what works best is what actually works best for them. There probably is some correlation but you can also argue that kids will pick whatever is easiest for them and that that is inversely correlated with effectiveness. I don’t know if I would buy that but hey it’s something you would need to consider.

      Also, there’s a lot of vagueness as to what verbal learning or visual learning or whatever means. Does visual learning meaning watching a video? Or does it mean the teacher just includes more graphs than text in their lectures? That’s important because clearly the two methods are not equivalent.

    • Joshua says:

      Matt –

      > I don’t see how learning styles (#9) is vague or lacks empirical content.

      See my comment above. The recent research on misconceptions about learning styles is interesting – but as worded, the idea that aligning teaching to learnings styles is a “zombie” idea is overstated.

      It seems to me that this list is meant to be provocative in a way that might catch students’ interest…but as a serious discussion of the concepts that are listed it seems like poor science.

    • jim says:

      The idea that people have some fixed learning style is flat-out bunk. Just like anything else, if you practice a particular learning style you’ll get better at it. Rather than be trained by students on how to teach, teachers should be training students how to learn.

      • Joshua says:

        jim –

        > Rather than be trained by students on how to teach, teachers should be training students how to learn.

        “Training students how to learn,” IMO, is an oversimplification of the sort that you are criticizing when you categorize the notion of learning styles in an extreme fashion to declare it “bunk.”

        There can be much about learning styles that is useful short of saying that people have a single fixed learning style. And “training students’ how to learn is probably not some generic process. Learning takes place differently in different domains and often doesn’t generalize. It also takes place in different contexts, which makes “training them how to learn” a rather flat-out bunk”-ish kind of idea.

        • jim says:

          “training students’ how to learn is probably not some generic process. “

          Lots of professions have generic training processes. Someone develops a set of “best practices” for given situations, then the professionals repeatedly perform the best-practice actions so they become the automatic response to a given situation. Processing and understanding information can be done the same way.

          • Curious says:

            Which is great for the “given situations” and not so great for anything unusual.

          • Joshua says:

            jim –

            > Lots of professions have generic training processes.

            Thinking about it more, maybe I was too dismissive.

            There is a long history of people working from a belief that you can train people in some kind of generic thinking process and then have it generalize. For example, for many years educators thought that through teaching Latin students would learn to be logical in other domains.

            I do think that if you’re careful about explicitly working on how learning processes translates from one domain to another, you can have some luck – but that’s not quite the same thing. But I”m also a big believer in meta-cognition as an instructive goal, where you discuss strategies learners can bring to “executive” functions in their learning process. I don’t think of that as “training” them how to learn, but exposing them to strategies they can apply to become more empowered in their own learning process. But maybe that’s what you were referring to – and if so then I actually do agree with you. But even there, it’s fairly debatable from an evidence standpoint. There’s also things like finding ways to enhance attributes like “grit” in students. Again, maybe that’s what you were thinking about?

          • Joshua says:

            Sorry – part of that got edited out – where I was trying to say that there is little evidence to support the teaching Latin to teach thinking type of paradigm (that critical thinking is a generslizable skill) – and I assumed that’s the kind of idea you were referring to.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          This discussion brings to mind a memory from many years ago, when I was a Freshman at The University of Michigan. Students were required to take two semesters of Composition their Freshman year. But there was also a policy that if you got an A or a “starred” B in your first semester of Freshman Comp, you would be “passed out of” the second semester. A friend a year ahead of me told me that he was sure I would not have to take the second semester of Freshman Comp — because I was taking Freshman Honors Calculus, and students taking that course always “passed out of” the second semester of Freshman Comp (which indeed was the case for me). His theory seemed to suggest that there was some “overlap” in learning between the two subjects. It does make sense to me — both classes required thinking and writings skills. I wonder if anyone has ever studied things like this. (Yes, I know this brings up cans of worms: GI, etc.)

    • Joe says:

      I’m having a bit of trouble seeing the relationship between your response here and the article you linked to. The methodology you described for testing the theory is indeed there, but the article goes on to say that hardly any articles emply such an approach. Indeed, the article says that there’s no evidence at all for learning styles, so I would have thought this supports #9. What’s your understanding of it?

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Matt said,
      “randomly assign the students to receive instruction in different formats and give them tests to see what they’ve learned. If the test results are better when the student’s preferred learning style matches the type of instruction he or she received, that’s evidence in favor of learning styles.”

      There may be a confounding factor here: The tests. I wouldn’t be surprised if some tests get different results from students with different preferred learning styles.

  5. Steve says:

    Gec writes “this got me thinking mistaken pop-culture received wisdom about statistics.”
    Here is an attempt at your pithy list:

    1. Science should be data driven. No, data needs theory and theory needs data.
    2. The law of large numbers always applies There is always an average and the average always means something about a individual in that population. No, sometimes the numbers needed are too large to make an estimate meaningful. Often the average tells me nothing about most individuals.
    3. Everything can be measured, just create a test and assign numbers to the results. No. Measurement is hard, really hard.
    4. Correlation is evidence of causation. No. Sometimes it is not even evidence of correlation. (That’s from Andrew).

  6. Navigator says:

    I wouldn’t lump all Psychology sub-fields into one p-hacking-prone, no-replication zone.

    Areas, like visual perception and attention are a pretty hard science using Psychophysical measurements, yet they belong to Psychology. People working in those fields are much above the rest of the Psychologists, when it comes to Math and Stats.

    I’m not so sure it would be so easy to find too many nonsensical examples as listed above in Irvin Rock’s or Michael Posner’s work.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Navigator said:
      “Areas, like visual perception and attention are a pretty hard science using Psychophysical measurements, yet they belong to Psychology. People working in those fields are much above the rest of the Psychologists, when it comes to Math and Stats.”

      The statement, “People working in those fields are much above the rest of the Psychologists, when it comes to Math and Stats.” can have more than one interpretation — it can mean “They use more Math and Stats”, or might mean “Their use of Math and Stats is higher quality” (e.g., “They are more careful in choosing math or stats methods that are appropriate to the context”, or “They have a better understanding of the limitations of the math and stats methods they use”, or …)

      • gec says:

        As someone who works in those areas of “hard” psychology (i.e., “boring” psychology), my impressions are these:

        1) A lot more work is put into developing experimental designs and measures that get at the constructs we are interested in.
        2) Statistical methods are more thoughtfully applied and are appropriately “tuned” to the design.
        3) More important (in my opinion), most theories are accompanied by mathematical/computational models that make it easier to pin down causal relations and derive predictions.

        As a result, I agree with Nav that this makes it easier to slay many “zombie” ideas in many areas of perception and memory research. Moreover, there ends up being many clear practical applications in areas like ergonomics/human factors as well as psychometrics.

        But I also see lots of people who may be technically sophisticated but have little understanding of how their models relate to reality. This leads to ill-designed experiments, unlicensed conclusions, and endless tinkering with models to the point that they are bloated and useless.

        As a result, there are still zombies to slay, they are just of a different form. One example: “Visual short-term memory has capacity for 3-4 items.” But this conclusion is derived almost exclusively from a single model applied to a single paradigm. So while an “item” and “capacity” and “short-term” may be well-defined within that scope, it’s mostly meaningless outside that scope. E.g., what if the display is longer/shorter or dynamic? Does someone’s arm count as an “item”, or is the whole body the “item”, etc.?

        We see these same kinds of problems in physics too; just read Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog for some good examples.

        My point is that while technical sophistication is great, it is not enough.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          gec said,

          “But I also see lots of people who may be technically sophisticated but have little understanding of how their models relate to reality. This leads to ill-designed experiments, unlicensed conclusions, and endless tinkering with models to the point that they are bloated and useless.

          … My point is that while technical sophistication is great, it is not enough.”

          Agreed.

  7. Dzhaughn says:

    I think you’re overstating about his #2 being wrong.

    Have you found away to make the ideas in Miller’s paper pay? In cash money? If you send me a meeeeelion dollars I’ll take this back. Ok, $100.

    • Andrew says:

      Dzhaughn:

      Red Auerbach believed in the hot hand and he did pretty good for himself.

      • H says:

        Turing believed in ESP and he did pretty good himself.

        Note: not simply his research. As i understand it, using Bayes to identify areas with enemy targets from photographs using ESP like analyst perception as the prior. Maybe you know the story better..?

        • Andrew says:

          H:

          Turing’s belief in ESP was essentially irrelevant to his professional work, no? Or maybe it led him down some blind alleys, sure. In contrast, Auerbach’s belief in the hot hand was directly related to coaching.

          I’m sure that lots of sports coaches have made money off the hot hand in the sense that they went with the player with the hot hand and that won them some games. Other times, I’m sure that lots of coaches have lost money by following the hot hand inappropriately. It could happen. I think that, in expectation, an understanding of the moderate hot hand effect can make someone a better coach, and I also think that, in expectation, a belief that there is no hot hand at all could make someone a worse coach. Overestimating the magnitude of the hot hand effect could make someone a worse coach too. It’s complicated.

          I think David Myers in his post is correct that “the combination of our pattern-seeking mind and the unexpected streakiness of random data guarantees that we will perceive hot hands even amid random outcomes,” but this doesn’t say much about the advantages or disadvantages of going with the hot hand when outcomes are not random.

          • Steve says:

            Turing did not believe in ESP. He like many educated people at that time believe there was substantial evidence for ESP. You can find concessions like that in Russell’s writing. I have never bothered to track back what evidence Russell or Turing were referring to, but there were lots of mentalist in the earlier20th century England who trick allot of sophisticated people.

            • Andrew says:

              Steve:

              Turing wrote:

              I assume that the reader is familiar with the idea of extra-sensory perception, and the meaning of the four items of it, viz. telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psycho-kinesis. These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.

              I think if you say the evidence for something is “overwhelming,” you’re believing in it. “Substantial” evidence is one thing. “Overwhelming” is another.

              I’m not saying this was a character flaw on Turing’s part; it was just a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s easy for people to misinterpret evidence, or to take third-party claims at face value.

            • somebody says:

              > He like many educated people at that time believe there was substantial evidence for ESP.

              To be precise, he said the evidence was “overwhelming”.

              > there were lots of mentalist in the earlier20th century England who trick allot of sophisticated people.

              So you’re saying that he was tricked. If he was tricked, then he must have believed in it, because if he didn’t believe in it, then he was never tricked.

              What exactly is the distinction between “Turing believed in ESP” and “Turing believed that the evidence of ESP was overwhelming and was tricked by a mentalist”? You’ve just used a lot of words to say nothing. Do you not like the idea that Turing was wrong about something? It’s okay, your heroes can be wrong. We’re not blaming him for being wrong or calling him stupid or anything like that. He believed in ESP, Newton believed in alchemy, I believe in free markets.

              • Curious says:

                Without having Turing’s own words to explain what he meant, I would posit that his beliefs were in the results of well controlled experiments and that the data as presented were the product of these. If this is true, he likely felt well controlled experiments produced knowledge of causality and he could not simultaneously hold his belief in the scientific method and disbelieve the product of such method.

              • Andrew says:

                Curious:

                Sure, but that just means he was fooled, just like Conan Doyle believed in fairies because he couldn’t consider the possibility that those photos were faked. Why was Turing so sure that the experiments occurred as described?

              • Curious says:

                Andrew:

                That’s a great question. Even more interesting is that the example he uses of someone exercising telepathy compared to a random number generator could easily have occurred by chance. Why would someone with his knowledge of probability choose such an example? Sloppiness? Carelessness? He seemed neither of those. Perhaps it’s as simple as many of the research examples given on this blog, that it was a bit of careerism mixed with expedience in that he wanted to quickly dismiss a challenge that he believed was being taken more seriously than it ought.

          • H says:

            I don’t know about “professional”

            Using ESP to inform the prior in identifying the enemy in war in photographs with the purpose of deploying properly scarce resources, and with considerable success? Seems more convincing than a basketball coach running particular plays when he already had Bill Russell on the court, to me at least. I don’t find either particularly convincing evidence.

            But hey if we’re going with evidence-free, unsubstantiated beliefs we’re looking at the wrong thing in the hot hand. Look for the cold hand, which I claim dies exist on the basis of having felt it (evidence free almost?).

            The player who just got a few shots hasn’t been afflicted with the cold hand. The players who haven’t shot much, maybe they have, who knows? Waste some shots to find out they are? That data is expensive to collect!

            Counter-argument: Greg Norman on any Sunday with a white hot hand and a big lead. Maybe luck. Maybe the pressure gave him cold-hand-itis? I like making fun of Greg but i can’t do nearly as good a job of it as he does himself – but i think he might even be serious.

            Maybe the hot hand is such a small effect that its worth is being fun to discuss rather than as a way of selecting sporting tactics and making bets?

            I somehow doubt this is the last of it we’ll see here.

      • Dzhaughn says:

        Your most generous payment has been received, most impressive. I retract my comment.

  8. Myth #1 is whole can of worms: there’s the pop psych version of psychoanalysis’s trauma theory; there’s Freud own repression theory, which does not reduce solely to the popular notion of ‘traumatic experiences’; there’s the issue of which traumatic memories can be subject to some sort of repression or, at least, some sort of retrieval inhibition; there’s also the whole issue of false memories implanted by therapists by suggestion…

    Talking from my experience as a psychotherapist (and supposing I am not merely suggesting memories to my patients, which is hard to dismiss!), there are patients who remeber their traumatic experiences very clearly (specially if they occurred in adulthood), talking in detail about them in the first sessions; but it’s not uncommon (albeit certainly much less frequent than movies might make you think) to patients not remember things clearly (specially for early childhood memories). Sometimes it’s just a hunch that something went wrong; sometimes memories appear after many sessions of therapy, usually not in ‘Oh, I remembered something which I repressed’ way, more in ‘Oh, I was thinking about we talked last session and I remembered that…’ Sure, if this is classical freudian repression is up to debate, but there seems to be at least some inhibition in talking about the contents or details of traumatic events.

    From my experience alone, if we were to average over patients, most certainly do not have problems remembering traumatic experiences; but it’s hard to completely dismiss those patients that have partial amnesia or seems to have many inhibitions recalling certain events or details about them. Maybe the myth is that it happens ‘often’.

    • Steve says:

      +1 agreed. I was run over by a car when I was 8. My memory of the day before and after are distinct to this day, but the moments immediately before and after the accident, I can’t remember and could not remember even on that day despite the fact that I never lost consciousness. So, whatever is happening it is more complex than the mind blocks traumatic memories or trauma enhances memory.

  9. Andrew, when you write, “OK, you get the idea. We could keep going and going. Just pick up an issue of Psychological Science or PNAS from a few years ago,” are you implying that things have improved somewhat since then? If so, that’s heartening.

  10. jrkrideau says:

    Not particularly on topic but why to hate S. Freud.
    https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/9-things-you-probably-didn-t-know-about-sigmund-freud/

    The author, Julia Shaw has been doing some interesting work on false memories.

    • Andrew says:

      Jkrideau:

      I clicked through and took a look. I’m no Freud expert, but some of those items didn’t make so much sense to me. We’re supposed to hate Freud because he was a drug addict? I’d feel bad for the guy, but I don’t think that’s a reason to hate someone. What next, should we hate Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, etc., for being alcoholics. And hating him because he didn’t get a Nobel Prize? Wha…? Hating him for collecting archeological statues? Jeez . . . it’s hardly Freud’s fault that baseball cards hadn’t been invented yet!

      • jrkrideau says:

        It really is not supposed to make a lot of sense in the psych field. It is mere just a rant about Freud becausue of his blasted repressed memory idea that has managed to wreak lives and send people te prison during the satanic cults hysteria back in the 1980s & 90s.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think another common myth is the belief in intelligence and it’s measures. This belief is most ubiquitous in the field of psychology though.

    >8. …children are antifragile…immune systems…antibodies from being challenged…emotional resilience

    The best environment for kids to grow up is a war zone. It’s challenging and demanding and developing their immune system. They will never suffer from stress after that.

    9. Teaching should align with individual students’ “learning styles.”

    This should depend on the context and perspective we are considering. The perspective of the learner? Then it is selfevident

    • Anonymous says:

      self-evident that the learner might profit from a specialized environment that matches her interests.

      • Peter Erwin says:

        self-evident that the learner might profit from a specialized environment that matches her interests.

        The “might” in your statement covers a lot of uncertainty. And some things that are “self-evident” turn out not to be true. (It’s self-evidence the Earth doesn’t rotate — we’d feel it! — and self-evident that the Sun and the Moon and the planets and stars all move around the Earth. It turns out the Earth does rotate, and while the Moon does indeed move around the Earth, the other celestial objects do not.) That’s one of the reasons we have science.

    • Peter Erwin says:

      >8. …children are antifragile…immune systems…antibodies from being challenged…emotional resilience

      The best environment for kids to grow up is a war zone. It’s challenging and demanding and developing their immune system. They will never suffer from stress after that.

      That’s a pretty silly straw-man response, isn’t it? The argument for immune systems is not “Expose children to smallpox and bubonic plague and cholera every day, and they’ll be great!”, it’s “exposure to modest amounts of uncleanliness may result in healthier immune systems than a completely sterile environment”.

  12. H says:

    >it would make sense for him to include some that remain popular with high-status researchers within psychology itself.

    For some values of “make sense”

    For those values that are career and stress focused this will likely make it harder to get papers published. Gatekeeping exists, you know this on your own field as a “subjective, unsound beysian” Many of the academics in you own field field you call out will retaliate. Constant murmurings with smiles of “yes, but s/he’s…” Affect perceptions and you have to be super star status to shrug that kind of thing off.

    Much easier to make cruel fun of the silliness from outside the field. Which I guess Andrew just did, with a smile and just a very little bit of condescension.

    And why it is important that Andrew and others continue to do so, ‘they’ have no power.

    How long ago did Feynman give his “cargo cult science” address about this kind of thing which he later identified psychology as the worst offender? Are things actually better now? Do you think? Genuine improvement?

    • Andrew says:

      H:

      I guess “cruel fun” is in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t think it’s cruel to publicly disagree with bad research. Here’s what I wrote in the above post:

      Here are some zombie psychology ideas that Myers didn’t mention:

      11. Extreme evolutionary psychology: The claim that women are three times more likely to wear red or pink during certain times of the month, the claim that single women were 20 percentage points more likely to vote for Barack Obama during certain times of the month, the claim that beautiful parents are more likely to have girl babies, and lots more along those lines. These debunked claims all fit within a naive gender-essentialism that is popular within evolutionary psychology and in some segments of the public.

      12. Claims that trivial things have large and consistent effects on people’s personal lives: The idea that disaster responses are much different for hurricanes with boy or girl names. The idea that all sorts of behaviors are different if your age ends in a 9. There are all these superficially plausible ideas but they are not borne out by the data.

      13. Claims that trivial things have large and consistent effects on people’s political decisions: The claims that votes are determined by shark attacks, college football games, and subliminal smiley faces.

      14. Embodied cognition, Sadness may impair color perception, Visual contrast polarizes moral judgment, etc etc etc.

      OK, you get the idea. We could keep going and going. Just pick up an issue of Psychological Science or PNAS from a few years ago.

      I don’t see anything “cruel” here, nor am I making fun of anyone. I’m playing it straight here. You can have a storyline that I’m cruel or making fun of people or whatever, but that’s just a storyline. It doesn’t match what I’m actually doing.

      • H says:

        Eye if the beholder: “We could keep going and going. Just pick up an issue of Psychological Science or PNAS from a few years ago. “

        I laughed. It’s cruel. It’s deserved. Did you really not intend it that way? I’m struggling to find an interpretation of your views about the volume of terrible research in the field, those publications and by extension those who edit and publish in them that isn’t making some kind of fun given that turn of phrase.

        To be clear, I’d agree it should be something one does sparingly. I’m not suggesting for a second that you’ve gone all “Zomg I found a typo in X’s paper X is teh suxor!” But there are times it is completely deserved to decline to take total garbage seriously and marvel at the sheer extent and depth of it. Deeply embarrassing to have it pointed out to anyone involved, as it should be. IF you work in psychology research and you’re a bit junior you probably have to shut the hell up or find it’s career limiting and that’s probably a much more interesting discussion…

  13. Peter Erwin says:

    There’s one thing that bugs me, though: The zombie psychology ideas that Myers mention all seem to fall outside of current mainstream psychology.

    That’s kind of the point, though, isn’t it? Myers references Paul Krugman’s book Arguing with Zombies, which (I gather from a quick skim of the Introduction) has more to do with economic/social-policy ideas (e.g., “universal health coverage is impossible”) held and promoted by groups such as the Republican Party rather than by mainstream economists.

    • Andrew says:

      Peter:

      That seems like a problem, to only criticizing outside ideas and not criticize inside ideas, especially in a field like psychology where many prominent inside ideas have such issues, and especially since psychology is an academic field that uses its leading research organization to spread lies about outsiders and insiders who dare to be critical of them.

      I’m not saying that academic political science is so perfect, but I don’t think it is organized so much with the goal of self-promotion and squashing dissent.

      Regarding Krugman: I have not seen his Arguing with Zombies book, but if it really only criticizes ideas by outsiders, without touching ideas that are promoted by the mainstream of the economics profession, then, yes, I’d be critical of it in the same way as I was critical of Myers’s article.

      As I said in my above post, I thought Myers’s article had lots of good stuff; I just think it had this big hole because it was not critically examining things within his field.

      • Peter Erwin says:

        OK, but you seem to want “zombie ideas” to mean “wrong ideas everywhere [within the scope of some nominal field], no matter where they are held or by whom or how popular they are or how long they’ve been around”, whereas I think Krugman and Myers seem to want it to mean something more like “ideas largely long since discredited within the profession, but persistently popular outside”. And then you’re arguing that people shouldn’t talk about the first, but only about the second.

        Having said that — I have actually seen discussions of the “zombie idea” concept entirely within a profession — e.g., this post about zombie ideas in ecology, which mentions things like “the intermediate disturbance hypothesis” and “r/K selection”, which I suspect are pretty much completely unknown outside ecology (I certainly have never heard of them).

        In the comments to that post, the author (Jeremy Fox) provides a nice summary of what he thinks zombie ideas (in ecology) are like: “One characteristic of many zombie ideas in ecology is that they’re in the textbooks, widely taught to undergrads, and vaguely remembered and believed by researchers who don’t work on the topic, but are widely (not universally) disbelieved by researchers working on the topic.” But note the last bit: “widely (not universally) disbelieved by researchers working on the topic” — this is in partial contrast to your “things people in the field believe, but wise outsiders like me can see are just wrong”.

        • Andrew says:

          Peter:

          No, I don’t want “zombie ideas to mean wrong ideas everywhere [within the scope of some nominal field], no matter where they are held or by whom or how popular they are or how long they’ve been around.”

          I’m working with Erwin’s definition, taken from Krugman: “‘zombie ideas’—repeatedly refuted ideas that refuse to die. . . . zombie ideas that survive to continue eating people’s brains.” Erwin continues, “Does everyday psychology have a similar army of mind-eating, refuse-to-die ideas? Here are some candidates, and the research-based findings that tell a different story . . .”

          My point is that Erwin does not consider some prominent “mind-eating, refuse-to-die ideas” that continue to flourish within academic psychology.

        • Kyle C says:

          Krugman also writes of cockroach ideas: ones that everyone seems to agree are dead and gone, but periodically, oops, there they are again. (I think his economics example is Say’s Law.) In popular writing, the inverse probability interpretation of p values might be an example. Few will admit to really believing it, but oops, it’s always back again.

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