What Is… Pop Psychology

Common pop psychology myths, e.g. opposites attract, people only use 10% of their brain

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is pop psychology.

Wikipedia describes popular (pop) psychology as “the concepts and theories about human mental life and behavior that are purportedly based on psychology and that find credence among and pass muster with the populace.” Pop psychology is to psychology sort of like what pseudoscience is to science.

Psychology is often viewed as a field that’s intuitive and common sense. It then becomes easy to assume that common sense conclusions (that may or may not have any sense at all) are equivalent to psychological findings. Research involving students in psychology courses has shown that students regularly come into the class with ideas that they think are based on psychology but are actually derived from pop psychology.

Actual psychology is based on rigorous research. Anecdotal reports and personal beliefs/observations in pop psychology just aren’t as reliable. The more that people believe that pop psychology is accurate, the greater the divide becomes between the reality of psychology and what people perceive it to be, and people may assume that pop psychology is representative of the field of psychology.

What pop psychology looks like

Popular psychology often plays a major part in self-help books. The broad umbrella includes popular misusage of psychological terms, psychology myths, and concepts or techniques that haven’t been validated by research (e.g. the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality type system). Money is often a major driving factor in pop psychology.

Neuro-linguistic programming has become a pop psychology staple but it’s never been scientifically validated. Some NLP practitioners describe it as a “science of excellence” … but without the actual science.

While there are self-help books written by experts in their fields that are grounded in research findings, there are also a great many that are based on the author’s way of looking at the world. And that would be fine, as long as they were presented as such. The problem comes when people claim to be authoritative sources on subjects when what they’re doing is presenting their own beliefs. And the big money? It’s more likely to be in pop psychology rather than actual, science-based psychology.

Psychological myths

Certain myths about psychology are widely recognized and assumed to be true even though there’s no indication that they are. What we want to believe or intuitively believe doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what’s actually true. A few examples are:

  • opposites attract
  • lie detector tests are reliable (the actual error rate may be up to 40%, and the tendency is to err on the side of guilty)
  • people only use 10% of their brain
  • repression of childhood memories is common
  • people with mental illness are more likely to be violent, and violent people are most likely mentally ill
  • women have better social intuition than men
  • most women’s moods worsen during their period (some certainly do, but it’s not as prevalent as what’s popularly believed)
  • brainstorming is more effective than generating ideas individually
  • the overwhelming majority of domestic violence is committed by men (there’s actually a substantial amount of domestic violence committed by females)
  • punishment is a highly effective way of changing behaviour long-term

Because of the illusory truth effect, we’re likely to believe these myths because we’re exposed to them so often.

Cutting through the nonsense

As with anything, critical thinking is key. Even if you like what someone is saying and it fits with what you believe, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if it seems like everyone seems to believe something (like opposites attract), that doesn’t mean that the idea has a solid scientific basis.

Always evaluate the source. Actual psychologists have many years of training, and that training includes research methods. Not everyone has the background knowledge to be able to evaluate existing research literature on a topic. Just because someone is famous doesn’t mean they actually know what they’re talking about.

There’s a lot of nonsense out there. Being aware that pop psychology isn’t the same creature as scientific psychology is an important starting point in being able to filter out what’s sense and what’s nonsense.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

26 thoughts on “What Is… Pop Psychology”

  1. Interesting that Big Money is more wrapped up in pop psychology than in the actual true field of Psychology. Kinda analogous to Big Money being wrapped up in the Trump Administration and an oversimplified psuedo-conservative fantasy than in any kind of more advanced political system based on reality through quantitative empirical data, etc.

    Thanks also for posting the list of myths. Very informative. I haven’t clicked the links yet but will do so shortly.

  2. Reminiscent of a small point I made in yesterday’s blog post (which I know you read.) Sometimes people in believing an illusory fantasy because of its simplicity. Sorta the opposite of what my next point was (that sometimes people get caught up in the details of their belief-system so rigidly that they fail to see the forest for the trees.) Both stem from stubbornness and the unwillingness to further open one’s mind.

  3. Left out the word “persist” between “people” and “believing.” (An annoying side effect of “typing faster with age.”)

  4. When I started my blog I had to ask myself what my role should be… at first I thought I would be giving helpful advice and tips and what not… but then I decided it would be better to make it more about my own experiences. Seemed more authentic seeing as I wasn’t anything close to being qualified to be passing myself off as an expert. I guess it’s a fine line to cross and I try to be mindful of it. 🌻

  5. My friend Tim Brownson is a veteran life coach, with a reasonable understanding of which techniques work with clients, no matter their scientific pedigree. He does use some NLP techniques (there’s a wide variety) though he acknowledges some are pseudoscience. And I’m pretty sure I read somewhere than some NLP techniques now have some reputable science behind them. But unfortunately I don’t recall which ones specifically!

    1. I wish it was clearer so that people could more easily differentiate between the two. If they choose pop psychology, that’s fine, but but they should know that it’s not the same as what mental health professionals are drawing on.

  6. Interesting post and I think that “pop psychology”, although I had not heard of this term before, is incredibly influential. Probably because most people are interested in understanding the minds of other people, without wanting to look at a lot of scientific reasoning, or to question already imbedded judgements.

  7. This was a really interesting read, I’m currently studying Psychology and one of my first modules was ‘Understanding Psychology as a Science.’ It’s amazing how blurred the lines are for people who do not understand how to differentiate what is ‘pop psychology’

    I’m actually new to the world of word press but I would love if you had a minute to check my page out: https://psychologystudent7770157.wordpress.com/

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