5 Common Pop-Psych Myths

An author of '50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology' discusses some of his favorite misconceptions.

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Opposites attract....We use very little of our brainpower....American culture teems with commonly accepted pop-psych beliefs. They're embedded in TV talk shows, self-help books, websites, movies, magazines, radio talk shows, and, of course, everyday conversation. In a new book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology (Wiley-Blackwell), Scott Lilienfeld and his coauthors explore the gulf between what millions of people say is so and the truth. While some of these myths are just plain fascinating, others may lead to bad decisions with unfortunate consequences. (Are they all false, as Lilienfeld says? Take our poll, and see what others think about 10 widespread beliefs.) U.S. News spoke to Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, about five of the myths exposed in the book:

Opposites attract. This widespread assumption has almost certainly provoked people to seek out mates who are as different from them as possible, says Lilienfeld. But not only do opposites not attract in romantic relationships, but being too different from a partner in personality, beliefs, and attitude is a good predictor of a future breakup, says Lilienfeld. For the most part, similarities attract (although 100 percent carbon-copy couplings can go stale). Pairing up with someone who is a yin to your yang may make life more exciting in the short run, but it's unlikely to be a recipe for long-term love, he says.

We use only 10 percent of our brains. Who wouldn't like to believe we have a fabulous stockpile of untapped potential? That 90 percent of our brains lie dormant, waiting to be unlocked? There's no good evidence to suggest that's true. To the contrary, says Lilienfeld, nearly all of our brain is constantly humming. So much for gadgets promising to boost brainpower.

Mozart makes infants smarter. Hike a baby's IQ by aiming the Jupiter Symphony at mom's expanding abdomen? Lilienfeld chuckles. The original study flicking at this notion, he says, wasn't even based on babies but on college students who performed better on a spatial reasoning test after listening to Mozart for 10 minutes. And that probably was due to a boost in alertness, akin to the effect of coffee, not the classical tunes, he says. Still, the market exploded with Mozart-effect products for infants. Even the governor of Georgia was swayed, Lilienfeld recalls: He added money to the budget so that every Georgia newborn could get a free Mozart CD or cassette.

Low self-esteem is a key to future psychological problems. "The self-help industry has probably persuaded people who don't have the highest self-esteem [to believe] they can't amount to much in life," says Lilienfeld. It may hurt people whose confidence is at basement level, but in general, he says, the link between self-esteem and "mental adjustment" is modest at best. Nor is high self-esteem, the obvious flip side of the belief, always good. A subset of people brimming with self-esteem could be considered narcissistic and are at heightened risk, says Lilienfeld, of aggression if challenged or insulted.

Full moons trigger wacky behavior. Murders, suicides, admissions to psychiatric hospitals, biting dogs, car accidents—all have been blamed on a full moon. But researchers have unearthed no good evidence of a "lunar effect," says Lilienfeld, despite earlier flawed findings and ideas promoted by writers and psychiatrists. Why has this myth—and others about purely coincidental relationships—persisted? People tend to remember events that confirm their beliefs and ignore those that don't, says Lilienfeld. If a tree smashes through your Volvo's windshield on a night the moon is full, you might connect the two and blame the orb in the sky; if nothing odd happens during a full moon, you're not likely to log that into your mental diary. That hasn't stopped some police departments from putting more cops on the street when the moon is full, says Lilienfeld.