Last week, U.S. News interviewed Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, about 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, a new book he coauthored. We invited you to weigh in on whether 10 widely held notions are true or false. Appealing though they may seem, and while some may contain a shred of truth, every one is false. Here's how you voted as of this morning along with the facts behind the fallacies, as explained by the book's authors:
1. When stumped by a multiple-choice question on a test, always trust your first instinct. 68 percent said true, 32 percent said false. Actually, research suggests that when students fiddle with answers on multiple-choice tests, they're more apt to make incorrect answers correct than make correct answers incorrect. Although this may not hold true when we're purely guessing, the moral, say the authors, is: "If we have a good reason to believe we're wrong, we should go with our head, not our gut."
2. Most people have a midlife crisis. 34 percent said true, 66 percent said false. "Studies across cultures provide no fodder for the idea that middle age is a particularly stressful and difficult period," say the authors. Au contraire, research findings show that midlife is typically accompanied by a greater sense of well-being and control over one's life than before. This one, the authors concede, is based on a nugget of fact. Psychologist Erik Erikson noted in the 1960s, they write, that "most people grapple with finding direction, meaning, and purpose in their lives, and they strive to find out whether there's a need for mid-course correction." But Erikson ballooned the magnitude of this problem, they say, and he described symptoms of a midlife crisis that were not decade-specific: "People re-evaluate their goals and priorities and experience crises in every decade of life," they add.
3. Dreams hold meaning. 57 percent said true, 43 percent said false. It makes sense that our daily thoughts and emotions can pop up in dreams—but the evidence just isn't there that dreams are windows into the subconscious. "Most contemporary scientists reject the idea that specific dream images carry universal symbolic meaning," they write.
4. Lie detectors are reliable. 31 percent said true, 69 percent said false. "We know from research that's not true," says Lilienfeld. "It is almost certainly the case," however, that many innocent people have lost their jobs, or have had their reputations damaged, because of a polygraph test, he adds. In a perfect world, according to the authors, it would be called an "arousal detector," not a lie detector, since it measures how the body reacts to certain questions—a far-from-perfect truthfulness indicator.
5. People are either right-brained (emotional and artistic) or left-brained (logical and analytical). 33 percent said true, 67 percent said false. "Brain-imaging research shows that the two hemispheres routinely communicate during most tasks," according to the authors. Although the two sides of the brain may process information somewhat differently, their styles overlap far more than they differ, says Lilienfeld. "Modern neuroscientists have never agreed with many New Age 'hemisphere trainers,' who claim that the brain's two halves house totally dissimilar minds," they write.
6. Handwriting reveals an individual's personality traits. 39 percent said true, 61 percent said false. Despite claims by "graphologists," research suggests that how you write reveals virtually nothing about your personality. As Freud supposedly said (there's no proof he did), sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and handwriting appears to be...handwriting.
7. A positive attitude can help beat cancer. 74 percent said true, 26 percent said false. Optimism might make cancer patients feel better about their lives, but evidence that it can thwart the disease—or that a negative attitude can cause it—is unpersuasive.
8. Venting is better than keeping anger in check. 57 percent said true, 43 percent said false. Blow your top. Let off steam. Get it off your chest. Scream! Nope—studies suggest that getting angry isn't a great way to cope with anger and may actually intensify it, says Lilienfeld.