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Ten Misconceptions about Psychology

An activity to kick-start the introductory course

"So, I took a Black History class. I gotta know this, right? I’m black, right? I get a “B” just for showing up, right? Wrong. Failed it. Ain't that some sad shit? A black man failing Black History. That’s sad. Cuz ya know fat people don't fail cooking." (Rock, 1996).

“Professor” Chris Rock humorously notes that he felt destined to succeed at learning a subject because he readily identified with that subject. I suspect that aspiring psychology majors are no different. Many likely enter the introductory psychology course assuming that they’re destined to excel in it because they’re knowledgeable about their own and others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But little do they know that much of what they “know” about psychology is not worth knowing.

Students bring many misconceptions about psychology to the introductory course (Brown, 1983; Furnham & Rawles, 1993; Nixon, 1925; Vaughan, 1977). Several researchers have examined the validity of these misconceptions (Brown, 1984; Griggs & Ransdell, 1987; Ruble, 1986) as well as the resistance of such misconceptions to change (e.g., Best, 1982; Landau & Bavaria, 2003; Standing & Huber, 2003). A relatively underexplored realm is the association between the extent of misconceived beliefs and course performance (but see Gutman, 1979; Valentine, 1936; Vaughan, 1977).

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A few years ago, my colleagues and I investigated whether scores on a 10-item Knowledge of Psychology Test (KOPT; adapted from Vaughan, 1977) taken on the first day of class were related to final course grades in 11 introductory psychology courses I taught at three colleges (Kuhle, Barber, & Bristol, 2006). After a brief introduction and a discussion of the syllabus, I asked students to clear their desks and then distributed the one-page KOPT. Students were told that they had 5 minutes to complete the test and that their scores would in no way affect their class grades. After collecting the tests I led the class in a discussion of (a) the truthfulness and truthiness of each statement, (b) the ubiquity of popular misconceptions held by introductory psychology students, and (c) the possible causes of these widespread misconceptions. Here’s the test they completed:

Knowledge of Psychology Test

Instructions: Read each item and then circle whether you believe the statement to be TRUE or FALSE.

  1. By feeling people’s faces, people born blind can visualize how they look in their minds.
  2. Children memorize lists of information much more easily than adults.
  3. Unlike humans, the lower animals are motivated only by their bodily needs—hunger, thirst, sex, etc.
  4. The more you memorize by rote, the better you will become at memorizing.
  5. The best way to ensure that a desired behavior will persist after training is completed is to reward the behavior every single time it occurs throughout training (rather than intermittently).
  6. By giving a young baby lots of extra stimulation (e.g., mobiles and musical toys), we can markedly increase its intelligence.
  7. Psychiatrists are defined as medical doctors who use psychoanalysis.
  8. Boys and girls exhibit no behavioral differences until environmental differences begin to produce such differences.
  9. The high correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer proves that smoking causes lung cancer.
  10. In love and friendship, more often than not, opposites attract one another. 

Overall, 83% of my 178 students held 5 or more misconceptions out of 10 (M = 6.4, SD = 2.1).  Collapsed across the 11 classes, the correlation between KOPT scores (number of misconcepstions) and course grades was -.40 (p < .01). As predicted, students who began the class with fewer misconceptions tended to have higher course grades than students who held more misconceptions. The number of misconceptions on the KOPT on day 1 was a significant predictor of course grade 15 weeks later.

This activity helps students discern the limitations of their knowledge about psychology and reveals their risk for performing poorly in the course. Learning about the content, causes, and consequences of holding psychology misconceptions can be helpful to students and educators as they embark on the introductory psychology course later this month.

P.S.:  The answer to each item on the KOPT is…false!

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References

Best, J. B. (1982). Misconceptions about psychology among students who perform highly. Psychological Reports, 51, 239-244.

Brown, L. T. (1983). Some more misconceptions about psychology among introductory psychology students. Teaching of Psychology, 10, 207-210.

Brown, L. T. (1984). Misconceptions about psychology aren’t always what they seem. Teaching of Psychology, 11, 75-78.

Furnham, A., & Rawles, R. (1993). What do prospective psychology students know about the subject? Psychologia, 36, 241-249.

Griggs, R. A., & Ransdell, S. (1987). Misconceptions tests or misconceived tests? Teaching of Psychology, 14, 210-214.

Gutman, A. (1979). Misconceptions of psychology and performance in the introductory course.Teaching of Psychology, 6, 159-161.

Kuhle, B. X., Barber, J. M., & Bristol, A. S. (2009). Predicting students’ performance in introductory psychology from their psychology misconceptions. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 36, 199-124.

Landau, J. D., & Bavaria, A. J. (2003). Does deliberate source monitoring reduce students' misconceptions about psychology? Teaching of Psychology, 30, 311-314.

Nixon, H. K. (1925). Popular answers to some psychological questions. American Journal of Psychology, 36, 418-423.

Rock, C. (Executive Producer). (1996). Chris Rock: Bring the Pain [DVD]. DreamWorks Records Home Video.

Ruble, R. (1986). Ambiguous psychological misconceptions. Teaching of Psychology, 13, 34-36.

Standing, L. G., & Huber, H. (2003). Do psychology courses reduce belief in psychological myths? Social Behavior and Personality, 31, 585-592.

Valentine, W. L. (1936). Common misconceptions of college students. Journal of Applied Psychology, 20, 633-658.

Vaughan, E. D. (1977). Misconceptions about psychology among introductory psychology students. Teaching of Psychology, 4, 138-141.

Copyright © 2012 Barry X. Kuhle. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Psychology Today and the University of Scranton, or my friends, family, probation officer, gut bacteria, darkest thoughts, and personal mohel.

Barry X. Kuhle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Scranton.

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