Some Useful Information but Seriously Flawed

Review of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein

Let me start by saying that this book provides some useful and important information regarding common misconceptions about psychology. I have to admit I was astounded to learn that a significant proportion of college students believe that vision involves emissions from the eyes; and the widespread persistence of less amusing beliefs about the infallibility of eyewitness testimony, the magical powers of hypnosis or the polygraph, and the “dangerousness” of the mentally ill are indeed worrisome and, at times, alarming. The very importance of such issues, however, raises serious questions about how these misunderstandings can best be challenged. Given the complexity of psychological phenomena, the investments of those who traffic in misinformation, and the reluctance of many people to relinquish cherished beliefs, it is important that a book aimed at dispelling such misinformation be exceptionally clear and careful in detailing the actual state of our knowledge about psychology and the ways in which such knowledge needs to be gathered, interpreted and critiqued. Unfortunately Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein ultimately fail in this crucial task.

The mission of the book is unclear. It purports to debunk “myths” about psychology, by which the authors mean widespread misconceptions. When the authors examine simplistic credos and widespread misunderstandings they often make valuable contributions along this line. But they frequently stray from this educational project into a more polemical one. This latter and more polemical project involves looking at areas of genuine controversy in the field of psychology and attacking positions held by those with whom the authors disagree. Of course, Lilienfeld et al. are within their rights to critique any ideas they wish; however, lumping valid intellectual positions together with credos and superstition, and labeling all these claims, sweepingly, as “myths” is analytically problematic and misleading to the public. It lowers the level of discourse, avoids addressing real issues and controversies in the field, and–perhaps most seriously of all–discredits the very educational project that the authors say they want to advance. The “myth” format inevitably creates “straw man” arguments regarding some important issues, a fact which is disconcerting in light of the aggressive marketing of this book for introductory psychology courses. Because the book includes several such misrepresentations, I will focus the remainder of this review on a few of them.

One example of the authors’ polemics is “Myth” #34: “Most people who were sexually abused in childhood develop severe personality disturbances in adulthood.” Some clinicians do make exaggerated claims about universally damaging effects of sexual abuse, and there is a valid place for disputing such claims. But this issue (like many of those considered by the book) is a complicated one, involving definitional problems, ambiguous data, methodological issues, and interpretive controversies. The position ultimately taken by the authors is, in reality, just as controversial as the one they wish to debunk. That is, most researchers do, in fact, believe that the effects of sexual abuse are generally fairly serious. (Typical findings are that anxiety disorders, personality disorders, suicide attempts and suicides are significantly more likely among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, that depression and drug and alcohol dependency are about two to three times as common in this population, and that these findings are independent of family pathology). By minimally addressing the mainstream of opinion on this issue, Lilienfeld et al. treat sexual abuse and its effects dismissively. To make matters worse, they do not acknowledge the extremity of their own views. Thus, they write approvingly about Bruce Rind and his colleagues, portraying them as heroic figures who were unjustly persecuted for questioning the severity of the effects of childhood sexual abuse. In reality, Rind et al.’s findings involved several methodological problems; but more importantly, Rind et al. received severe criticism primarily for their conclusion that adult-child sexual contact should not be considered abuse if that contact involves (in their words) “a willing encounter with positive reactions.” A number of authors have analyzed the danger that such a position entails for children. For example, Berliner and Conte describe a study in which children who had been sexually abused were interviewed in depth. The children described how “consent” was frequently obtained through emotional manipulation and/or physical threats; yet many of the children continued to believe that they had willingly participated and that the sexual relationship had been a positive one. (Interestingly, sex offenders who were interviewed in a separate study by Conte, Wolf & Smith gave reports that closely matched the reports of these abused children, frequently describing themselves as targeting the most vulnerable and needy children they could find.) None of this is considered by Lilienfeld et al., much less by Rind and his co-author Robert Bauserman, both of whom have publicly aligned themselves with pedophile advocacy groups.

As an additional example of the extremity of Lilienfeld et al.’s position, consider their citation of Lenore Terr’s 1983 follow-up report on the Chowchilla kidnapping victims. Lilienfeld et al. summarize Terr’s findings with the peculiar statement that “although most [of the children] were haunted by memories of the incident, virtually all were well adjusted” (p. 170). Here is the abstract of Terr’s article; you can decide for yourself how “well adjusted”: the children were:

“Conducted a 4-yr follow-up study of 25 children who had been school bus kidnapping victims and 1 child who narrowly missed the experience. Results revealed that every S exhibited posttraumatic effects. Symptom severity was related to the prior vulnerabilities, family pathology, and community bonding. Findings included pessimism about the future, belief in omens and prediction, memories of incorrect perceptions, thought suppression, shame, fear of reexperiencing traumatic anxiety, trauma-specific and mundane fears, posttraumatic play, behavioral reenactment, repetitions of psychophysiological disturbances that began with the kidnapping, repeated nightmares, and dreams of personal death. It is concluded that brief treatment 5-23 mo after the kidnapping did not prevent symptoms and signs 4 yrs later.”

On other topics, Lilienfeld et al. take positions on controversies that are not extreme but that are argued in a significantly disproportionate and one-sided manner. An example is Myth #13 “Individuals Commonly Repress Memories of Traumatic Experiences.” The authors devote more than four pages to the refutation of this “myth,” and then include a three sentence disclaimer at the end acknowledging that some traumatic memories may be lost and recovered. The average reader (a first year undergraduate, for example) is left with the impression that there is abundant evidence for false memory syndrome but little to no evidence for the loss and recovery of traumatic memory. In reality, however, the picture is much more mixed, with substantial evidence for both false memory and recovered memory.

Lilienfeld et al. treat other clinical issues in ways that significantly misrepresent them. An example is “Myth” # 20 “Researchers have demonstrated that dreams possess symbolic meaning.” In reality, nobody claims that experimental psychologists (the kind of researchers the authors are referring to here) have “demonstrated” such a thing, so disproving it won’t be hard. But starting from this misleading formulation, the authors go on to ignore most clinical theories of dreaming and focus only on Freud, with an increasingly derisive tone. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, however, is considered a classic in the history of psychology by many serious thinkers, and for good reasons: putting aside his more dated speculations (which made considerably more sense in 19th Century Vienna), Freud’s analysis of dream formation by “primary process thinking” and “the dreamwork” represents an array of insights that psychologists, including neuroscientists, have been drawing on for over a hundred years; Hobson, who Lilienfeld et al. cite favorably, actually followed Freud’s theory rather closely (despite his denials of doing so), and his later work approached Freud even more closely when he revised his theory to recognize emotional determination of dreams by structures in the limbic system. More recent neuropsychological research, including studies of associative thinking in dreams by Robert Stickgold, one of Hobson’s colleagues, have lent even greater support to Freud’s analyses of symbolic thinking in dreams. Despite such facts, Lilienfeld et al. focus prominently on Freud’s most dated and questionable claims and lump him together with pop-psych hucksters and gurus; this is a common tactic among psychologists who overvalue controlled laboratory research, who undervalue careful clinical analysis, and who prefer to avoid the difficult work of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these two very different kinds of information and considering how the discrepancies between them might be reconcilable.

A final example of Lilienfeld et al.’s polemics is “Myth” # 15 “Intelligence (IQ) tests are biased against certain groups of people.” The misrepresentation here is not of the technical aspects of tests but rather of the context in which controversies about testing occur. Most important criticisms of IQ tests are not about how they are constructed but rather about how they are used, how operational definitions of intelligence are confused with real intellectual capabilities, how score variance is fallaciously attributed to genetic factors, and how overreliance on the results of these tests frequently serves social and political agendas of channeling resources from more needy to less needy populations. Lilienfeld et al. take the easy path of defending the technical aspects of tests and avoid the more difficult one of considering how psychometric technologies and institutions routinize practices that systematically contribute to misinterpretations of test scores and to “keeping the playing field uneven.”

In summary, this is a disappointing book. It presents some valuable critiques, but its mission is seriously flawed by the authors’ tendency to present distorted pictures of some legitimate and important controversies in the field of psychology. The authors present themselves as reasonable arbiters of muddle and controversy in the field of psychology; but all too often they turn out to be peddling their own brand of psychological sophistry.