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Psychological myths as zombie ideas

sue_frantz
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[Updated May 8, 2022: David Myers wrote a blog post in 2020 where he identified economist Paul Krugman's Arguing with Zombies book as inspiration for Myers' own psychology zombie ideas. I was aware of neither Krugman's book or Myers' blog post when I read the Science article that was my inspiration for this zombie idea post. Mea culpa!]

In the teaching of psychology world, we talk a lot about myths that need to be dispelled. Scott Lilienfeld filled a book with 50 of them (2010). For example, we only use 10% of our brain. Um, no. We use all of it. When we put that up on a slide and tell students that’s a myth, we may be inadvertently reinforcing it, not dispelling it. When we talk about it, it is not the first time students are hearing it. (That’s why it’s a myth.) Nor will it be the last time. If everyone keeps saying it—even us, even though we say “it’s wrong!”—it must be true. We also know that source amnesia doesn’t help matters. Students may remember that they’ve heard this 10% thing before, but forget that they heard it in our classes where we said, “it’s wrong!”

Instead, some researchers make a compelling argument for not talking about myths at all, and instead just talk about the truth (Schwarz et al., 2016) . For example, rather than talk about the 10% myth, we can instead talk about how we use 100% of our brain—and to drive the point home, how removing 90% of our brain would result in, well, catastrophic failure.

For some myths, it is difficult to imagine how we could focus on the truth without tackling the myth head on. Here is one. Exercise provides many benefits, including improved sleep and reduced stress. Weight loss, however, is not one of the benefits. Exercise can help us keep from gaining weight and can influence where we store our fat, but it will not result in weight loss. Weight loss is mostly about diet—what and how much we eat (Gibbons, 2022). We can keep listing the benefits of exercise and excluding weight loss, but the latter is so engraved in our consciousness, people will assume it’s one of the benefits. John Speakman, an evolutionary physiologist, calls our collective belief that the key to weight loss is exercise is a zombie idea (Gibbons, 2022, article is freely available).

Zombie idea. In psychology, I propose that we stop calling psychological myths “myths.” Let’s call them zombie ideas. It’s much better marketing. In fact, let’s up its stature with capitalization: Zombie Ideas. For every slide you have that features a myth, add the title “Zombie Idea,” and—this is crucial—drop some gruesome zombie images on the slide. Let’s see if we can get a little classical conditioning working for us. Think of Zombie Idea, experience revulsion.

This may be another Zombie Idea; all of you who teach Developmental Psychology will know this better than I do. Who has the highest metabolism? Pregnant women and teenagers do not have a higher metabolism than anyone else. Toddlers between the ages of 9 and 15 months are the ones with an off-the-chart metabolism. They “expend 50% more energy in a day than do adults, when adjusted for body size and fat…That’s likely to fuel their growing brain and, perhaps, developing immune systems” (Gibbons, 2022, p. 713).

Zombie Ideas. Who’s in?

 

References

Gibbons, A. (2022). The calorie counter. Science, 375(6582), 710–713. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.ada1185

Lilienfeld, S. O. (Ed.). (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. Wiley-Blackwell.

Schwarz, N., Newman, E., & Leach, W. (2016). Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), 85–95. https://doi.org/10.1353/bsp.2016.0009

 

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.