Despite countless myth-busting articles online, dedicated bloggers like Neuroskeptic, and the publication of a recent book described by Ben Goldacre as “a masterful catalogue of neurobollocks” (disclaimer: I wrote it), and another in the same series addressing child development myths, public surveys continue to show stubborn, widespread belief in many brain myths and psychology myths, even among people with neuroscience training. Now the latest survey of the public via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, published open-access in Psychology, suggests that little has changed. Belief in many brain and child developmental myths remains rife, even among those who’ve taken psychology courses.
The prolific psychology researcher and author Adrian Furnham sourced 56 brain myths from my 2014 book Great Myths of the Brain and 49 child development myths from the 2015 book Great Myths of Child Development by Stephen Hupp and Jeremy Jewell. Furnham presented the myths to 220 online participants (aged 19 to 66) and they rated them on a five-point scale from definitely false, probably false to probably true or definitely true, and also including “don’t know”.
Belief in the most infamous brain myths, such as the idea we only use 10 per cent of our brains or that “some people are left-brained, others right-brained“, remains rife, according to this survey (over 40 per cent and 36 per cent of participants said probably or definitely true, respectively).
There were four brain myths that over 40 per cent of the participants thought were definitely true: that the brain is very well designed; that after head injury, people can forget who they are and not recognise others, but be normal in every other way; that we have five senses; and that our brain cells are joined together forming a huge net of nerves.
Similarly, there were two child development myths that more than 30 per cent of participants thought were definitely true: that all boys have one Y chromosome and all girls do not; and that a woman who is already pregnant can’t get pregnant again. Other strongly endorsed child development myths included the idea that sugar makes kids hyperactive and that dyslexia’s defining feature is letter reversal (65 per cent and 66 per cent believed probably or definitely true, respectively).
There was no evidence that participants’ age, gender or educational background (including specific experience with psychology) made any difference to their endorsement in myths. However, those who rated their own common sense higher endorsed fewer myths, and there was a modest correlation between being more religious and/or more right-wing and endorsing fewer myths (Furnham has no explanation for these “surprising” correlations).
Furnham notes that participants were generally disinclined to answer “don’t know” – on average less than a fifth chose this option. “It could be that people were too embarrassed to admit they did not know when indeed the evidence shows quite clearly that they did not,” he said.
The study has a few issues, such as the lack of detailed information on the participants’ psychology background or their geographical location. There were no “brain facts” interspersed with the myths. Also, Furnham reproduced the wording of the myths verbatim from the books, even though many aren’t that easily understood without the accompany explanatory text from the books (some are also open to different interpretations without contextual explanation).
Nonetheless, Furnham says his findings reveal once more “the ‘shocking truth’ about the widespread acceptance of myths” and he warns that they are “potentially harmful and socially divisive“. He adds: “The question of how to combat these myths and ensure that people are better informed about various areas of psychology remains largely unanswered.”