Understanding Pop Psychology

Updated January 5, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Unsure Of How To Progress On Your Mental Health Journey?

The understanding of pop psychology is the understanding that it is pseudo-psychology, pseudo meaning fake. Pop psychology, which is short for popular psychology, is often based on an "urban myth" type culture. That means that a theory may have been heard for so long and spread so far that the general public believes it. These theories are often written about in magazines, discussed on talk shows, and spewed forth by non-psychologists.

As humans, most of us are open to hearing what the experts have to say and want to learn from authorities in their fields. If it is a topic we don't know about, we defer to those skilled in that topic area. Many people are also trusting that that expert is giving us correct, helpful information. Why would we question the authority?

Have You Heard This One?

You may be the victim of pop psychology yourself. No one can be blamed or harangued for believing pop psychology because the myths are conveyed with so much fervor they seem credible, and often the people who create the myths have active imaginations. The following are some of the more common pop psychology beliefs:

*Willpower be gone:

This is an idea that many people may have heard of and some truly believe. If you use your willpower to skip that decadent dessert, you will have no willpower later in the day when you go online and see an item that you want. You will have to buy because you used up all your willpower. WRONG! That is not to say that this may be true for some, but some may have stronger willpower in both situations because they have been strengthening their willpower muscle.

*Out, Out Damn Spot:

This theory says that when people see or are involved in something dishonorable, they have a compulsion to wash their hands. Yes, you need to wash your hands often to get rid of the myriad germs present in our environment, but compulsive hand washing after the disreputable behavior is not a thing. Wouldn't that mean that all people who make bad choices would have extremely dry or pruney hands? Haven't seen that.

*I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me:

The honor system means that you carry out expected behavior even when no one is there to witness it. Many offices may have this system for their coffee offerings. There is a cup or box next to the coffee pot where you pay for your cup of coffee, and it covers the price of the supplies. Several small studies found that if there is a poster with “eyes” watching the coffee drinkers (or other honor system participants), they are more likely to pay. Nope, sorry. The eyes do not have it.

*Red Means Love:

Another pop psychology legend is that you should wear red if you want to attract a mate. Now some people may truly love someone in red, but others may not. It has no bearing on finding your one true love. If you are picking your beloved by the color they wear, you may want to look deeper at that relationship.

*The Mozart Effect:

This one has been around for quite a while, but, alas, it isn't 100% true. This idea is that listening to classical music improves brainpower. The truth of this is that while classical music may intensify attentiveness, thereby improving "spatial reasoning" (source: ranker.com), anything that intensifies attentiveness will improve spatial reasoning.

*Opposites Attract:

It may look good in the movies when two people who are total opposites fall in love and live happily ever after. In reality, the couples that have similar pursuits, ways of life, and beliefs are the ones who stay together for the long haul. It's not to say that you can't have different hobbies or some differing views, but the things that brought you together are often the things that keep you together.

*Learning Style:

It is said that we each have a particular learning style and that we can only learn best through that particular method. The truth of this is that it depends on what is being taught. You may learn math better using one learning style, while your writing skills shine through a different method. Don't pigeonhole yourself into one specific learning style. Explore and see what works best for you in each instance.


Unsure Of How To Progress On Your Mental Health Journey?

*10% Brain Power:

It is not true that we only use 10% of our brain. We may simply use one small part of our brain at a time, but every area of the brain is used at some point in time.

*Envision It And It Will Happen:

Many articles, books, and speakers have touted the miracle of merely visualizing something, and it will happen. This isn't true. If you only imagine and dream about it happening and don't do anything to make it happen, it will not happen. You have to put thoughts into action to get what you want.

*Let That Anger-Free:

Another popular topic in the books, magazines, and discussions is to let your anger out by punching a punching bag, yelling, or telling someone how you feel. Again, not true. These actions have been shown to make you even madder. The best way to let anger free is to breathe deeply with your eyes closed until the anger subsides.

How To Break Free Of Pop Psychology Falsehoods

There are a lot of pop psychology myths that people live by. What do you do if you have been living with these inaccuracies and they have negatively affected or, at least, haven't enhanced your life? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the true, research-based psychological concepts and the phony, popular psychology ideas. Just remember to do your homework on these theories.

*Seek The Truth: When you read a book or magazine article, make sure that it is written by a professional or someone who has done extensive research in that area. If it seems too far-fetched or isn't something that you necessarily believe, then take it with a grain of salt. Don't put all your beliefs in the pop psychology basket. The truth is out there.

How Do I Differentiate Fact From Fiction?

If the study "facts" are based on only a very small sampling of participants, don't give it all the credibility that others think it deserves. Wait until you hear about another study done with a much larger pool of individuals.

*Go To School: There are numerous online and classroom-based psychology courses that you can take. Make sure that lessons are led by an expert in the field and from an accredited source. You could even reach out to a psychologist that you trust to see if they think the offering is worth your time.

*Talk To A Professional: If self-help books and conversations with friends are not helping you to improve your life or get over a difficult patch in your life, seek help from a professional. They have the training and experience to help you through whatever it is you are going through. Make sure to find someone who specializes in your area of need.

*Read A Psychology/Science-Based Book: There are a plethora of pop psychology books out there. On the flip side, there are also a lot of science-based books and books based on years of research. Psychologists write many of these.

  • The Happiness Hypothesis, written by Jonathan Haidt: based on psychology and neuroscience
  • Thinking Fast and Slow, written by Daniel Kahneman: based on decades of research
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini: written by a PhD
  • Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: based on decades of research
  • Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman: written by a PhD
  • Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, written by Mark Williams and Danny Penman: based on psychological discoveries

If you have a pop psychology belief that you need clarification about, or would like to explore your mental wellbeing, consider contacting a trained professional. Online therapy is a convenient choice and is growing in popularity. This study, conducted by Brigham Young University researchers, found that technology-based therapy is as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy, with the potential to be delivered at a lower cost and with more convenience.

BetterHelp offers numerous sources of helpful information about how to cope with daily stress, mood disorders like depression, and mental health. The professional, licensed therapists at BetterHelp can provide ongoing daily support via email, chat, or video conferencing, which means you can select the best format for you. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors who have helped people like you.

Counselor Reviews

“In a very short time, I have made a connection to Molly and a level of comfort that normally takes quite some time in a counseling environment. The sessions are very productive, and I'm always walking away with additional work or objectives to work on between sessions, and she checks in to keep me accountable. I was skeptical of online counseling but so far it has been exactly what I needed.”


“Tiffany has really helped me so much. I was skeptical about doing an online counseling service, but she has made it feel very personal. It takes a few weeks to create a relationship, but I am extremely pleased. The guidance she provides me with helps me get through my week to week, and she is diligent about checking in with me each week. She makes me feel like I am a priority, and I appreciate that. I recommend her a thousand times over.”

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started