Understanding Pop Psychology: Myths And Misconceptions

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Popular psychology (pop psychology) describes popular beliefs and ideas discussed throughout communities in the field of psychology. However, many people are unsure whether pop psychology is accurate, or made up of myths and misconceptions. Understanding what "pop psychology" means, and how to identify myths, may ensure you get informed and accurate self-improvement advice. 

It can be valuable to consider common myths about pop psychology, the value of critical thinking when interpreting research findings, and how therapy might help individuals gain insight into the uniqueness of psychology.

Are you eager to learn more about psychology?

What is pop psychology?

Popular psychology, also called pop psychology, refers to psychological knowledge often repeated and understood by the public. It may rely on applying scientific theories to provide valuable insight into mental health, relationships, and other psychological phenomena, to people within a society. For many, this knowledge is based on trending topics on social media, commonly discussed areas of mental health in the psychological field, and lessons learned from therapy. 

Popular psychology might examine cognitive-behavioral therapy, positive psychology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation, and attachment theory, among other areas. These subject areas may help communities better understand thoughts and feelings in different contexts. When knowledge is correct and based on research and critical thinking, it can positively affect the public perception of psychology. However, when misconceptions and myths are spread around communities, pop psychology can have a negative impact.  

Evidence-based practice means looking at research findings objectively rather than relying on anecdotal information or your own opinion on psychological strategies or interventions. Critical thinking could allow for an open mind when interpreting data, which could help individuals avoid assumptions or biases in interpretations of popular psychological concepts. 

Common myths and misconceptions in pop psychology

There are a few common myths and misconceptions that may be spread through popular forms of media, including social media and television. These myths can further stigmatize mental health, which can have adverse effects. 

Myth: Left brain vs. right brain personalities

One of the most popular myths in pop psychology is the notion that people have either a "left-brained" or "right-brained" personality. According to this idea, left-brained individuals are logical, analytical, and detail-oriented, while right-brained individuals are creative, emotional, and intuitive.

Neuroscience research indicates that the brain might be far more interconnected and complex than the left and right dichotomy theory suggests. Both hemispheres involve various cognitive processes; no person relies exclusively on one side.

Myth: The 10% brain usage myth

Another myth individuals may hear is that humans only use 10% of their brains. This idea has been around for decades and might have been perpetuated by movies and pop culture. According to Scientific American, individuals use more than 10% of their brains, including when performing daily tasks. Every part of the brain has a function, and most regions are active throughout the day. John Henley, a psychologist at Mayo Clinic, confirms that most individuals use 100% of their brain power daily. 

Myth: Subliminal messaging

The concept of subliminal messaging may be discussed in pop culture. It suggests that hidden messages in advertisements, movies, or music may influence an individual's behavior without them being consciously aware.

While it's true that brains may process information subconsciously, the impact of subliminal messaging is often exaggerated. Research has shown that subliminal messages have minimal effects on behavior and decision-making.

Myth: Pheromones attract partners

Many people discuss the phenomenon of pheromones, which have been studied in animals and exist within the animal kingdom. Although many brands talk about using "pheromones" in their products to boost attraction, no study has found proof of pheromones in humans, even though researchers believe they may exist. 

For this reason, buying a perfume that claims to have "pheromones" in it could be a placebo effect since no one has found pheromones that can be measured or added to a concoction like perfume.

What role does popular psychology play in daily life?

While pop psychology may have its share of myths and misconceptions, there are a few valuable contributions it may make in your daily life, including the following.

Increasing awareness and interest in psychology

Pop psychology often sparks curiosity and interest in psychological concepts. By making psychology more accessible, it could encourage people to explore the field and potentially seek more in-depth information from credible sources. With more people taking an interest in psychology, it may be possible for communities to start pushing back against misconceptions and educating their members about harmful stereotypes. 

Encouraging self-reflection and personal growth

Many pop psychology ideas, such as growth mindset or emotional intelligence, may inspire individuals to reflect on their thoughts and behaviors. This introspection could lead to personal growth and self-improvement.

Providing conversation starters and common ground

Pop psychology might serve as a conversation starter, helping people connect with others over shared interests in psychological concepts. Discussing these ideas could lead to more profound, meaningful conversations and create common ground among individuals.

Destigmatizing seeking help

Many people fear seeking professional help, as they may believe that talking to a therapist is "weak." Studies have found that men are less likely to seek support, as they often carry these interpretations about therapy. When men in popular culture address mental health and destigmatize its impacts, people might be more likely to ask for support, knowing that someone they respect is confident in these treatments.

In addition, someone who sees an interesting fact about mental health online might be more likely to look into a mental health screening if they relate to the information. For example, if a video on social media talks about the signs of depression and someone relates to those symptoms, they can reach out to their doctor for further support. 

Navigating pop psychology responsibly

Pop culture can have benefits, but it may be more valuable when approached responsibly and with caution. Below are tips to help you navigate pop psychology while maintaining a healthy, balanced perspective.

Be open to learning from various sources

While pop psychology might introduce psychological concepts, it can be vital to recognize that it may not offer the most accurate or comprehensive information. Explore other sources, such as academic articles, books, and reputable websites, to better understand the subject matter. Try to take in several sources before believing what you see on social media, for example. 

Avoid overgeneralizing

Pop psychology often simplifies complex concepts, which may lead to overgeneralization. People are diverse; not everyone fits into neat categories or labels. Be cautious of applying pop psychology concepts too broadly or assuming they are used universally.

Cultivate healthy skepticism

When encountering pop psychology claims or ideas, approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Be willing to question the information and consider alternative viewpoints. Keep in mind that the field of psychology is constantly evolving, and discoveries may challenge or update existing ideas.

Share your knowledge responsibly

As you continue to explore the world of psychology, you might be tempted to share your newfound knowledge with others. While engaging in conversations about psychology might be valuable, be cautious about presenting pop psychology ideas as facts. Encourage others to think critically and seek out additional information as well.

Are you eager to learn more about psychology?

Seek professional advice

Consulting with a professional can be beneficial instead of relying solely on pop psychology for guidance if you're struggling with your mental health or personal challenges. A licensed therapist or counselor may have a deeper understanding of psychological concepts and can provide tailored advice and support. 

If you spend a lot of time online on social media, you might also feel more comfortable talking to a therapist online. Through online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, you can receive personalized guidance and support provided by a professional. Pop psychology often presents generalized or oversimplified concepts, which may not adequately address an individual's unique needs and experiences. In contrast, a licensed therapist or counselor has the expertise to assess an individual's specific circumstances. Engaging in therapy can foster a deeper understanding of yourself, promote healthier coping mechanisms, and help you navigate the complexities of life beyond what you see in popular media. 

The effectiveness of therapy in debunking the myths and misconceptions associated with pop psychology has been recognized in recent years. A comprehensive meta-analysis called Evidence-Based Psychotherapy: Advantages and Challenges highlights the essential role that evidence-based therapies play in dismantling the misconceptions that often stem from pop psychology. By comparing the outcomes of various therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), the study showed a marked improvement in the client's understanding and rejection of pop psychology myths. 

The results emphasized the importance of a solid therapeutic alliance, and the utilization of scientifically validated techniques, to counter the influence of pop psychology. Additional studies have found that many clients prefer the convenience of online therapy through chat messaging, as it can mimic comfortable online formats of care with which they may be familiar. 

Takeaway

Pop psychology has limits and benefits that can be fun to explore. However, consider contacting a therapist for support if you're looking for comprehensive and personalized guidance. A counselor has experience and education in modern psychological concepts and can answer any questions you might have about psychology as you receive care.

Explore mental health options online

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