Understanding Pop Psychology

By: Patricia Oelze

Updated February 12, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC

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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. What that means is that a theory may have been heard for so long and spread so far that the general public believes it. These theories are often those 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 those who are an authority in their field. If it is a topic we don't know about, we defer to the one who is skilled in that area. As humans, most of us are also trusting that that expert is giving us the 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 these things because they are conveyed with such fervor and seem credible. The following are some of the more common pop-psychology beliefs:

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*Willpower be gone:

This is an idea that everyone may have heard of or may even 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. Forget about it!!! 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 of 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 pruny hands? Haven't seen that.

*I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me:

The honor system means that you carry out the expected behavior even when no one is there to witness it or conduct business. 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 stated 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 when others wear red, but others may hate red. 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.

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*The Mozart Effect:

This one has been around for quite a while, but, alas, it isn't 100% true. This idea was 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. Not so much in real life. 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, to begin with, are often the things that keep you together long term.

*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 more than being taught in one specific method. You may learn math better in one learning style while your writing skills shine with a different method. Don't pigeonhole yourself into one specific learning style. Explore and see what works best for you in each instance.


There is conscious and unconscious. There is no such thing as a subconscious telling us to do things that we shouldn't do or don't understand. Unconscious thoughts are thoughts that we are not aware of.

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*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 once, 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 let your anger out by punching a punching bag, yelling or telling someone how you feel. Again, not true. It has 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 every day. 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 concept and the phony, popular psychology ideas. Just remember to do your homework on these theories.

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*Seek the Truth: When you read a book or magazine article, make sure that it is written by someone who is a professional or who has done extensive research in that area. If it seems too far-fetched or isn't something that you believe it, 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 alleged study that the "fact" is based on only includes a very small sampling of participants, don't give it all the credibility that it thinks 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 is 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 flipside, 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 on, you can contact a trained professional to assist you. Going to BetterHelp (https://www.betterhelp.com/start/) can be your first step to getting the help you need.

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