What Pop Psychology Gets Wrong
BBC Earth|November - December 2020
Power corrupts, crowds are violent, and depression is just a chemical imbalance. Or are they? Classic psychology theories often have a nice ring to them, creating a mythology that persists throughout the media, cinema, and literature. But new research is revealing that the human mind isn’t as simple as we’d like to think
Dr Christian Jarrett

When eye-catching theories emerge in the field of psychology, they often take on a life of their own. Just look at the idea that oxytocin is the ‘cuddle hormone’; this captures our imaginations, but research has shown that oxytocin can also increase feelings of intolerance and aggression. We are all amateur psychologists, and the field provides an appealing way for us to make sense of our emotions and behaviour. If it can confirm our own beliefs about human nature, then even better. But just like every science, psychology is a messy, ongoing process, and many headline-grabbing results have not been replicated, or are far more nuanced than first realised. Here are eight widely believed pop psychology ideas that are probably wrong, or at least overly simplistic.

POWER ALWAYS CORRUPTS

Does evil reside within us, or do circumstances corrupt us? In 1971, the Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo sought to demonstrate the potential power of situations and social roles to corrupt individual morality. Anticipating the scenarios dreamt up by reality TV decades later, Zimbardo and colleagues created a mock prison and recruited 12 male college students to play the role of guards and 12 to play the role of prisoners. The idea was to study their interactions for two weeks, but they had to abort the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ after just six days, such were the levels of cruelty perpetrated by the ‘guards’ upon the ‘prisoners’, including forcing them to clean toilets with their bare hands.

To Zimbardo, the shocking lesson was clear: powerful situations can overwhelm our individuality, turning good people bad. His interpretation chimed with ideas about the roots of evil, apparently helping to explain atrocities of the past, and future – Zimbardo would later invoke his research while testifying in defence of one of the US guards accused of cruelty towards prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003-4.

Over the years, Zimbardo’s study has been subject to intense criticism and reinterpretation. In 2002, the British social psychologists Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher conducted a similar experiment called the ‘BBC Prison Study’. In their version, the prisoners united and overthrew the guards, showing that the events of the Stanford experiment were far from inevitable. Footage has also emerged of Zimbardo – in the role of ‘prison superintendent’ – instructing his guards on how to behave, which seems to undermine the spontaneity of the events that unfolded. More recently, an uncovered audio recording revealed one of Zimbardo’s collaborators, in the role of ‘prison warden’, persuading one of the ‘guards’ to treat the prisoners more cruelly. It told him that, if he did a good enough job, the experiment could lead to real-life prison reform. Critics like Haslam say the recording shows the Stanford study was more akin to a form of live theatre than a science experiment. Zimbardo and his defenders counter that, whether the guards’ sadism was inevitable or not, the study’s message still holds – that, in the wrong circumstances, otherwise ‘normal’ people are capable of extreme cruelty.

CHILDREN WITH MORE WILLPOWER ARE MORE SUCCESSFUL IN LATER LIFE

In the 1960s, the American psychologist Walter Mischel began a series of iconic experiments that involved challenging several dozen young children to sit alone with a marshmallow for around 15 minutes and resist eating it. Their reward, if they waited, was to eat the first marshmallow, plus another. Famously, the researchers caught up with the same kids in the 1980s and 1990s. By that time, they were adults and found that those who’d been successful at this ‘delayed gratification’ task had subsequently done better in life, in terms of exam results and avoiding getting into trouble. The results appeared to suggest that if we could teach kids to have stronger willpower, their lives would benefit.

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