Posted by: CS | June 27, 2012

Is Pop Psychology Mostly Bunk

Most books stores have dozens of books about psychology. But do they tell us anything useful?

Some surely must, but reading Leonard Mlodinow’s latest contribution: Subliminal, How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, I begin to wonder about the pop psych genera.

Mlodinow, for example, discusses our apparent inability to assess ourselves realistically. Ninety-four percent of college professors, Mlodinow reports, say they do “above average work,” while 25% of US high school seniors rated themselves among the top 1% in ability to get along with others. “Ironically,” he says, “people tend to recognize that inflated self-assessment and overconfidence can be a problem — but only in others.”

But is this so-call “above average effect” due to faulty self-assessment, which is to say self-deception, or to the fact that most of us, reasonably enough, try to do good PR for ourselves?

When devious stock market manipulator Joseph Patrick Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy, was about to sail from New York to take up his appointment as US Ambassador to Britain — or rather to the Court of St. James, to use the correct British terminology — he was asked by a reporter: “Are you really qualified for the job?” To which Kennedy replied: “If Marlene Dietrich asked you to go to bed with her, would you say you weren’t very good at it?”

Which reminds me of the time I published a scholarly journal. When I launched it, one editor, a Fellow of the Royal Society, remarked, “you realize there aren’t any good people in this field,” which was no great exaggeration. But for 23 years I never spoke a negative word about that journal or its “distinguished” contributors, except possibly in my sleep, and in due course it came to be rated on the basis of citations analysis as the most “prestigious” journal in a field that included almost 100 international titles. So was I self-deceived for 23 years about that journal and its contributors, or simply doing what a publisher has to do, which is to promote his authors?

But what particularly roused my skepticism about pop psychology, and indeed about much of psychology in general, was Mlodinow’s account of an experiment by Stanley Schachter and associates in which an attempt was made to solve the riddle of the relationship between emotion and its physiological and behavioral accompaniments. More specifically, do we run from a charging bull because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run away?

This is a question that particularly interests me, having published in a most august journal the claim that both views are incorrect, since as I maintain, emotion and its bodily correlates are related to one another in a feedback loop as both cause and effect (But don’t buy the Science Magazine “content”: it’s only three paragraphs long, and the first paragraph is a joke.)

In outline, what Schachter and co. did was to measure the behavioral response (making a phone call) of test subjects (all males) to a stimulus (attractive young woman) under normal (at ground level) or anxiety provoking (on a high swaying bridge) conditions. What they found was that being on a high swaying bridge at the time of stimulus presentation increased the likelihood of the subject making the call. The conclusion drawn by the authors from the study was that prior emotional and physiological arousal (i.e., due to being on a high swaying bridge) increased the emotional interest of the male subjects in the female object of arousal.

Apart from the rather weak statistical support for this conclusion, there is no indication in Shachter’s own account of the experiment to indicate any attempt to control for the effect of physiological and emotional arousal of the female “stimulus” from the effect of being on a high, swaying bridge. Yet adding a little color to the cheeks surely adds to a pretty girl’s appeal. Moreover, there is no evidence that any effort was made to insure that the experimental result was unaffected by the expectations of the experimenters and their accomplice. Yet it is one of the most well established assumptions in psychology that expectations influence outcomes.

So I reject William James’ ingenious notion that we run away not because we are afraid, but that we are afraid because we run away. Rather I maintain that fear evokes the “flight or fight” response, the increase in heart rate, blood sugar, blood flow to the brain, etc., and that that response then damps the emotion, so that we are not petrified with fear, but utterly focused and fully primed emotionally as well as physically for fight of flight. That is why Charles Darwin observed in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, that the arousal of anger can make one feel good:

A physician once remarked to me as a proof of the exciting nature of anger, that a man when excessively jaded will sometimes invent imaginary offences and put himself into a passion, unconsciously for the sake of reinvigorating himself; and since hearing this remark, I have occasionally recognized its full truth.

But the effect, I maintain, is not experienced until the emotion has evoked a physiological response that exerts a feedback effect on the central nervous quelling the initial emotional response, while empowering appropriate action in response to the arousing stimulus. That, pretty clearly, was Dawin’s view, also, for he said:

Anger and joy… [lead] to energetic movements, which react on the heart and this again on the brain.

And, talking of Marlene Dietrich, she could act: Shanghai Express 

Continued as: When Pop Sci Turns Toxic



  1. Good stuff. Have you read any stuff by UK researcher Anthony Peake? Not sure if he'd Pop Psych specifically, though he has lots of training in brain science and has a terrifyingly curious habit of mind. He has a website, online videos, even a forum, but most people don't bother till they read his classic IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH? His latest is about the human mind and time itself. What piques about Peake is he and William James could have had a great debate about the example cited above. Not sure where it would end up, but it would have been fun to watch. Or WILL be fun to watch. Peake takes the Eternal Return quite seriously, and this makes temporal chicken-and-egg experiments lots more fun.

  2. Thanks for the mention of Anthony Peake. His website looks interesting. I take a closer look.

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