Insights into Psychology

What Is… Pop Psychology

Pop psychology myths

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 vs. pop psychology

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 in psychology that 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 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, if 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 necessary 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 effect 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

The illusory truth effect tells that we’re more like to believe these myths because we’re exposed to them so often.

So, as with anything, critical thinking is key, and even if you like what someone is saying and it fits with what you believe, that doesn’t mean it’s true.


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.

29 thoughts on “What Is… Pop Psychology”

  1. Yeah, that is so weird. I often can’t tell the difference between what’s commonly believed and what’s actual scientific fact. And it does rub me the wrong way when self-help books veer into “this has been my experience” territory. I read this one book once in which the author criticized a survivor of incest for playing the victim. I found it appalling that she could be so brutal about incest, of all things. (There was no evidence the author herself had ever had to overcome anything along those lines.) She was trying to conclude that people readily identify with their wounds rather than trying to heal from them, but she had no basis to show how to heal from such a thing, since nothing bad had happened to her. So her argument or thesis or whatever you’d call it fell flat and made her seem like an insensitive buffoon. It’s easy to talk a big talk about overcoming incest (?!?!) if nothing bad’s ever happened in your life.

    A lot of times when I encounter pop psychology, there’s that attitude of, “Oh, get over it already,” or “Just overcome it like I’d be able to if it were me,” etc. A book written with more science, like techniques that have been shown to help, sans the holier-than-thou judgment (because why would someone even be reading the book if they were that resistant to getting help) would be better than the pop psychology approach of victim shaming (is that what it is?).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

  5. 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. 🌻

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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’

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