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Psychology’s Zombie Ideas

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Paul Krugman’s Arguing with Zombies (2020) identifies “zombie ideas”—repeatedly refuted ideas that refuse to die. He offers economic zombie ideas that survive to continue eating people’s brains: “Tax cuts pay for themselves.” “The budget deficit is our biggest economic problem.” “Social Security is going broke.” “Climate change is nonexistent or trivial.”

 

That triggered my musing: Does everyday psychology have a similar army of mind-eating, refuse-to-die ideas?  Here are some candidates, and the research-based findings that tell a different story:

  1. People often repress painful experiences, which years later may later reappear as recovered memories or disguised emotions. (In reality, we remember traumas all too well, often as unwanted flashbacks.)
  2. In realms from sports to stock picking, it pays to go with the person who’s had the hot hand. (Actually, the combination of our pattern-seeking mind and the unexpected streakiness of random data guarantees that we will perceive hot hands even amid random outcomes.)
  3. Parental nurture shapes our abilities, personality, and sexual orientation. (The greatest and most oft-replicated surprise of psychological science is the minimal contribution of siblings’ “shared environment.”)
  4. Immigrants are crime-prone. (Contrary to what President Donald Trump has alleged, and contrary to people’s greater fear of immigrants in regions where few immigrants live, immigrants do not have greater-than-average arrest and incarceration rates.)
  5. Big round numbers: The brain has 100 billion neurons. 10 percent of people are gay. We use only 10 percent of our brain. 10,000 daily steps make for health. 10,000 practice hours make an expert. (Psychological science tells us to distrust such big round numbers.)
  6. Psychology’s three most misunderstood concepts are that: “Negative reinforcement” refers to punishment. “Heritability” means how much of a person’s traits are attributable to genes. “Short-term memory” refers to your inability to remember what you experienced yesterday or last week, as opposed to long ago. (These zombie ideas are all false, as I explain here.)
  7. Seasonal affective disorder causes more people to get depressed in winter, especially in cloudy places, and in northern latitudes. (This is still an open debate, but massive new data suggest to me that it just isn’t so.)
  8. To raise healthy children, protect them from stress and other risks. (Actually, children are antifragile. Much as their immune systems develop protective antibodies from being challenged, children’s emotional resilience builds from experiencing normal stresses.)
  9. Teaching should align with individual students’ “learning styles.” (Do students learn best when teaching builds on their responding to, say, auditory versus visual input? Nice-sounding idea, but researchers—here and here—continue to find little support for it.)
  10. Well-intentioned therapies change lives. (Often yes, but sometimes no—as illustrated by the repeated failures of some therapy zombies: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, D.A.R.E. Drug Abuse Prevention, Scared Straight crime prevention, Conversion Therapy for sexual reorientation, permanent weight-loss training programs.)

Association for Psychological Science President Lisa Feldman Barrett, with support from colleagues, has offered additional psychology-relevant zombie ideas:

  • Vaccines cause autism (a zombie idea responsible for the spread of preventable disease).
  • A woman’s waist-to-hip ratio predicts her reproductive success. (For people who advocate this idea about women, says Barrett, “There should be a special place in hell, filled with mirrors.”)
  • A sharp distinction between nature and nurture. (Instead, biology and experience intertwine: “Nature requires nurture, and nurture has its impact via nature.”)
  • “Male” and “female” are genetically fixed, non-overlapping categories. (Neuroscience shows our human gender reality to be more complicated.)
  • People worldwide similarly read emotion in faces. (People do smile when happy, frown when sad, and scowl when angry—but there is variation across context and cultures. Moreover, a wide-eyed gasping face can convey more than one emotion, depending on the context.)

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Ergo, when approached by a possible zombie idea, don’t just invite it to become part of your mental family. Apply psychological science by welcoming plausible-sounding ideas, even hunches, and then putting each to the test: Ask does the idea work? Do the data support its predictions?

 

When subjected to skeptical scrutiny, crazy-sounding ideas do sometimes find support. During the 1700s, scientists ridiculed the notion that meteorites had extraterrestrial origins. Thomas Jefferson reportedly scoffed at the idea that “stones fell from heaven.”

 

But more often, as I suggest in Psychology 13th Edition (with Nathan DeWall), “science becomes society’s garbage collector, sending crazy-sounding ideas to the waste heap atop previous claims of perpetual motion machines, miracle cancer cures, and out-of-body travels. To sift reality from fantasy and fact from fiction therefore requires a scientific attitude: being skeptical but not cynical, open-minded but not gullible.”

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

 

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).