The Point of Inquiry podcast has a great discussion with psychologist Scott Lilienfeld about his new book ’50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology’ and why scientific-sounding mental fairy tales persist, despite them having no good evidence to support them.
The most interesting bit is where Lilienfeld tackles why such myths have their psychological power, which to me is far the most interesting aspect of why certain stories perpetuate.
Some ideas seem to have properties that give them social currency. Here’s one of my favourite and you can try it out yourself – the usual format of the conversation goes something like this:
- Remember Bobby McFerrin, the ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ guy?
- Yeah, I remember him.
- Killed himself.
- Huh, that figures.
This myth has no evidence for it whatsoever, Bobby McFerrrin is alive and well, but it became so widespread that Snopes created a page debunking the story.
What is it about this story that makes it so easily accepted? Or perhaps, we should ask, what is it about this story which makes it so attractive to pass on to others?
There has been a considerable amount of research on the psychology of rumours that attempts to explain why we are motivated to spread them. A fantastic book called Rumor Psychology reviews the research which indicates that uncertainty, importance or outcome-relevant involvement, lack of control, anxiety, and belief are crucial – but this doesn’t seem to apply to all such rumours (as an aside, it’s interesting that these principles seem rarely applied in military PsyOps campaigns e.g. see PsyWar.org Iraq war leaflet archive).
On a personal level, you can see how these principles might apply to trite ‘women are from mars, women are from venus’ pop relationship psychology, but it doesn’t seem to apply quite so well to the commonly repeated myth that we use only 10% of our brains.
And when we consider the ‘Bobby McFerrin topped himself’ story, none of it seems relevant. Perhaps this is better thought of as ‘gossip’, but unfortunately the psychology of gossip is much less developed and relies largely on pseudo-evolutionary ideas about social bonding and the like (Robin Dunbar’s book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language is perhaps the most developed example of this).
I often wonder if we need an experimental aesthetics of information that helps us understand why such stories are inherently attractive, in the same way that studies have begun to focus on what makes certain tunes catchy.
Link to Point of Inquiry podcast on PopPsy myths.