The top 10 myths of psychology | Ben Ambridge | [email protected]

October 22, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


So you’ve heard of your IQ, your general intelligence, but what’s your Psy-Q? How much do you know
about what makes you tick, and how good are you
at predicting other peoples’ behavior or even your own? And how much about what you think
you know about psychology is wrong? So let’s find out by counting down
the top 10 myths of psychology. So you’ve probably heard it said
that when it comes to their psychology, man and women are very different. It’s almost as if men are from Mars
and women are from Venus. But how different
are men and women really? So to find out, let’s start by looking
at something on which men and women really do differ and plotting some psychological
gender differences on the same scale. So one thing that men and women do really differ on is how far
they can throw a ball. So if we look at the data for men here, we see what is called
a normal distribution curve. A few men can throw a ball really far, and a few men not far at all, but most a kind of average distance. And women share
the same distribution as well, but actually there’s
quite a big difference. In fact, the average man
can throw a ball further than about 98 percent of all women. So now let’s look at what
some psychological gender differences look like on the same standardized scale. So any psychologist will tell you
that men are better at spacial awareness than women, so things like map-reading, for example,
and it’s true, but let’s have a look
at the size of this difference. It’s tiny: the lines are so close together
that they almost overlap. In fact, the average woman is better
than 33 percent of all men, and of course, if that was 50 percent, then the two genders
would be exactly equal. It’s worth bearing in mind that this and
the next difference I’m going to show you are pretty much the biggest
psychological gender differences ever discovered in psychology. Here’s the next one. Any psychologist will tell you
that women are better with language and grammar than men. So here’s performance
on the standardized grammar test. There go the women. There go to the men. Again, yes, women are better on average,
but the lines are so close that 33 percent of men are better than the average woman, and again, if it was 50 percent, that would represent
complete gender equality. So it’s not really
a case of Mars and Venus. It’s more a case of, if anything,
Mars and Snickers: basically the same, but, you know, one’s maybe slightly
nuttier than the other. I won’t say which. Right. Now we’ve got you warmed up. Let’s psychoanalyze you using
the famous Rorschach inkblot test. So you can probably see, I don’t know,
two bears or two people or something. But what do you think they’re doing? Put your hand up if you think
they’re saying hello. Not many people. Okay. Put your hands up if you think
they are high-fiving. Okay. What if you think they’re fighting? Only a few people there. Okay, so if you think they’re
saying hello or high-fiving, then that means you’re a friendly person. If you think they’re fighting,
that means you’re a bit more of a nasty, aggressive person. Are you a lover or a fighter, basically. What about this one?
This isn’t really a voting one, so on three, everyone
shout out what you see. One, two, three. (Audience shouting) I heard hamster. Who said hamster? That was very worrying. A guy there said hamster. Well, you should see
some kind of two-legged animal here, and then the mirror image of them there. If you didn’t, then this means
that you have difficulty processing complex situations where there’s a lot going on. Except, of course,
it doesn’t mean that at all. Rorschach inkblot tests
have basically no validity when it comes to diagnosing
people’s personality and are not used
by modern-day psychologists. In fact, one recent study found that when you do try
to diagnose people’s personality using Rorschach inkblot tests, schizophrenia was diagnosed in about one sixth of apparently
perfectly normal participants. So if you didn’t do that well on this, maybe you are not
a very visual type of person. So let’s do another
quick quiz to find out. When making a cake, do you prefer to – so hands up for each one again – do you prefer to use
a recipe book with pictures? Yeah, a few people. Have a friend talk you through? Or have a go, making it up
as you go along? Quite a few people there. Okay, so if you said a, then this means
that you are a visual learner and you learn best when information is presented in a visual style. If you said b, it means
you’re an auditory learner, that you learn best when information
is presented to you in an auditory format, and if you said c, it means that you’re
a kinesthetic learner, that you learn best when you get stuck in and do things with your hands. Except, of course,
as you’ve probably guessed, that it doesn’t, because
the whole thing is a complete myth. Learning styles are made up and are not supported
by scientific evidence. So we know this because in
tightly controlled experimental studies, when learners are given material to learn either in their preferred style
or an opposite style, it makes no difference at all to the amount of information
that they retain. And if you think about it
for just a second, it’s just obvious
that this has to be true. It’s obvious that
the best presentation format depends not on you, but on what you’re trying to learn. Could you learn to drive a car,
for example, just by listening to someone
telling you what to do with no kinesthetic experience? Could you solve simultaneous equations by talking them through in your head
and without writing them down? Could you revise
for your architecture exams using interpretive dance
if you’re a kinesthetic learner? No. What you need to do is match the material to be learned
to the presentation format, not you. So, I know many of you
are A-level students that will have recently gotten
your GCSE results. And if you didn’t quite get
what you were hoping for, then you can’t really blame
your learning style, but one thing that you might want
to think about blaming is your genes. So what this is all about is a recent study
at University College London found that 58 percent of the variation between different students
and their GCSE results was down to genetic factors. So that sounds a very precise figure, so how can we tell? Well, when we want to unpack
the relative contributions of genes and the environment, what we can do is do a twin study. So identical twins share 100 percent
of their environment and 100 percent of their genes, whereas non-identical twins
share 100 percent of their environment, but just like any brother and sister, share only 50 percent of their genes. So by comparing how similar GCSE
results are in identical twins versus non-identical twins, and doing some clever math, we can an idea of how much variation
and performance is due to the environment and how much is due to genes. And it turns out that it’s about
58 percent due to genes. So this isn’t to undermine the hard work
that you and your teachers here put in. If you didn’t quite get the GCSE results
that you were hoping for, then you can always try blaming
your parents, or at least their genes. One thing that you shouldn’t blame is being a left brained
or right brained learner, because again, this is a myth. So the myth here
is that the left brain is logical, it’s good with equations like this, and the right brain is more creative, so the right brain is better at music. But again, this is a myth
because nearly everything that you do involves nearly all parts
of your brain talking together, even just the most mundane thing
like having a normal conversation. However, perhaps one reason
why this myth has survived is that there is
a slight grain of truth to it. So a related version of the myth is that left-handed people are more
creative than right-handed people, which kind of makes sense because
your brain controls the opposite hands, so left-handed people, the right side of the brain
is slightly more active than the left hand side of the brain, and the idea is the right-hand side
is more creative. Now, it isn’t true per se that left-handed people are more creative
than right-handed people. What is true that ambidextrous people, or people who use both hands
for different tasks, are more creative thinkers
than one-handed people, because being ambidextrous involves having both sides of the brain
talk to each other a lot, which seems to be involved
in creative and flexible thinking. The myth of the creative left-hander arises from the fact
that being ambidextrous is more common amongst left-handers than right handers, so a grain of truth in the idea
of the creative left-hander, but not much. A related myth that you’ve
probably heard of is that we only use
10 percent of our brains. This is, again, a complete myth. Nearly everything that we do,
even the most mundane thing, uses nearly all of our brains. That said, it is of course true that most of us don’t use our brainpower quite as well as we could
most of the time. So what could we do
to boost our brain power? Maybe we could listen
to a nice bit of Mozart. So have you heard of the idea
of the Mozart effect? So the idea is that listening to Mozart makes you smarter and improves
your performance on IQ tests. Now again, what’s interesting
about this myth is that although it’s basically a myth, there is a grain of truth to it. So the original study found that participants who were played
Mozart music for a few minutes did better on a subsequent IQ test than participants who simply
sat in silence. But a follow-up study recruited
some people who liked Mozart music and then another group of people who were fans of the horror stories
of Stephen King. And they played the people
the music or the stories. The people who preferred
Mozart music to the stories got a bigger IQ boost
from the Mozart than the stories, but the people who preferred
the stories to the Mozart music got a bigger IQ boost from listening to the Stephen King stories
than the Mozart music. So the truth is that listening
to something that you enjoy perks you up a bit
and gives you a temporary IQ boost on a narrow range of tasks. There’s no suggestion
that listening to Mozart or indeed Stephen King stories is going to make you any smarter
in the long run. So another version of the Mozart myth is that listening to Mozart can make you
not only cleverer but healthier, too. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem
to be true of someone who listened
to the music of Mozart almost every day, Mozart himself, who suffered from gonorrhea,
smallpox, arthritis, and what most people think
eventually killed him in the end, syphilis. This suggests that Mozart
should have bit more careful, perhaps, when choosing his sexual partners. But how do we choose a partner? So a myth, but I have to say
is sometimes spread a bit by sociologists is that our preferences
in a romantic partner are a product of our culture, that they’re very culturally specific, but in fact, the data don’t back this up. So a famous study surveyed people from
[37] different cultures across the globe, from Americans to Zulus, on what they look for in a partner. And in every single culture
across the globe, men placed more value
on physical attractiveness in a partner than did women, and in every single culture, too, women placed more importance than did men on ambition and high earning power. In every culture, too, men preferred women
who were younger than themselves, an average of I think it was 2.66 years, and in every culture, too, women preferred men
who were older than them, so an average of 3.42 years, which is why we’ve got here
“Everybody Needs A Sugar Daddy.” So moving on from trying
to score with a partner to trying to score in basketball
or football or whatever your sport is. So the myth here is that sportsmen go through hot hand streaks,
Americans call them, or purple patches,
we sometimes say in England, where they just can’t miss, like this guy here. But in fact, what happens is
that if you analyze the pattern of hits and misses statistically, it turns out that it’s
nearly always at random. Your brain creates patterns
from the randomness. So if you toss a coin, you know, a streak of heads or tails is going to
come out somewhere in randomness, and becomes the brain likes
to see patterns where there are none, we look at these streaks
and attribute meaning to them and say, “Yeah he’s really on form today,” whereas actually you would
get the same pattern if you were just getting
hits and misses at random. So an exception to this, however,
is penalty shootouts. A recent study looking
at penalty shootouts in football shows that players who represent countries with a very bad record
in penalty shootouts, like, for example, England, tend to be quicker to take their shots
than countries with a better record, and presumably as a result,
they’re more likely to miss. Which raises the question of if there’s any way that we could
improve people’s performance, and one thing you might think about doing is punishing people for their misses and seeing if that improves things. This idea, the effect that punishment
can improve performance, is what participants
thought they were testing in Milgram’s famous learning
and punishment experiment that you’ve probably heard about
if you’re a psychology student. The story goes that participants
were prepared to give what they believed to be fatal
electric shocks to a fellow participant when they got a question wrong, just because someone
in a white coat told them too. But this story is a myth
for three reasons. Firstly and most crucially,
the lab coat wasn’t white. It was, in fact, grey. Secondly, the participants
were told before the study and reminded any time
they raised a concern, that although the shocks were painful,
they were not fatal and indeed caused
no permanent damage whatsoever. And thirdly, participants
didn’t give the shocks just because someone
in the coat told them to. When they were interviewed
after the study, all the participants said
that they firmly believed that the learning and punishment study
served a worthy scientific purpose which would have
enduring gains for science as opposed to the momentary
non-fatal discomfort caused to the participants. Okay, so I’ve been talking
for about 12 minutes now, and you’ve probably been sitting there listening to me, analyzing
my speech patterns and body language and trying to work out if you should
take any notice of what I’m saying, whether I’m telling the truth
or whether I’m lying, but if so you’ve
probably completely failed, because although we all think
we can catch a liar from their body language
and speech patterns, hundreds of psychological tests
over the years have shown that all of us, including
police officers and detectives, are basically at chance when it comes
to detecting lies from body language and verbal patterns. Interestingly, there is one exception: TV appeals for missing relatives. It’s quite easy to predict
when the relatives are missing and when the appealers have in fact
murdered the relatives themselves. So hoax appealers are more likely
to shake their heads, to look away, and to make errors in their speech, whereas genuine appealers are more likely to express hope that the person
will return safely and to avoid brutal language. So, for example, they might say
“taken from us” rather than “killed.” Speaking of which, it’s about time I killed this talk, but before I do, I just want to give you in 30 seconds the overarching myth of psychology. So the myth of psychology, as I see, and one that I don’t think textbooks
about psychology and even university courses
do enough to dispel, the myth is that psychology is just a collection
of interesting theories, all of which say something useful and all of which have something to offer. What I hope to have shown you
in the past few minutes is that this isn’t true. What we need to do is assess
psychological theories by seeing what predictions they make, whether that is that listening to Mozart
makes you smarter, that you learn better when information is presented in your
preferred learning style, or whatever it is, all of these
are testable empirical predictions, and the only way we can make progress is to test these predictions
against the data in tightly controlled
experimental studies, and it’s only by doing so
that we can hope to discover which of these theoriesare well-supported, and which, like all the ones
I’ve told you about today, are myths. Thank you. (Applause)