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Psychological myths as zombie ideas
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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?
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
This is an outstanding point! I learned the "10% myth" in college- I was told that at any given time we only use 10%- that it was impossible to use our entire brain all the time; "it would put us in a state of overload"! Someone in the class asked if that included the brainstem functions- they did not get a straight answer. Did I mention it was a class in Neurobiology?
Thank you for this. It is a great reminder of how we should not perpetuate these myths.
It's a great example of an instructor saying what they've heard and believe to be true, and then coming up with an explanation as to why it would be true. I bet whatever neuro courses they took did not explicitly say, "Humans use all of our brains. Zombies use only 10%."
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