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The Top 10 Psychology Myths

Personality is set by age 30 ... and other canards.

Fans of psychology, unite! It's time to put those psychology myths to rest! This quick list will give you all the ammunition you need to argue against the false claims about your favorite subject matter.

1. Little Albert developed a phobia as an adult and required treatment.

Little Albert was the baby conditioned to fear furry objects by behavioral psychologist John Watson back in the early 1900s. This myth gained a great deal of traction due to the mysteries surrounding the identity of the unfortunate baby. No one knew what happened to him until psychologist Hall P. Beck discovered that "Little Albert" was a man named Douglas Merritte, who died at the age of 6 from hydrocephalus. You can read more about the story in Kendra Cherry's "About Psychology" story.

2. Freud was a master hypnotist.

We often associate Freud with hypnosis, because he did receive training in his attempt to improve his therapeutic skills. The truth is, though, that Freud could not actually hypnotize his patients, try as he might. His "piercing" brown eyes seemed to put his patients on edge. Eventually, his inability to hypnotize patients, along with his firm belief in unconscious forces, led him to develop the technique of free association that formed the basis for classical psychoanalysis. With his patients lying on a couch, away from his soul-searching gaze, Freud was able to allow them to express their unconscious fears, wishes, and desires.

3. Milgram's experiments could never be completed today.

Remember the famous study in which subjects thought they were giving electric shocks in a "learning" experiment? Stanley Milgram conducted these studies in the early 1960s, showing that almost anyone, under any conditions would obey authority. Unfortunately, these famous experiments were recently replicated. You can see the current version of the Milgram experiments in the Science Channel documentary featuring Santa Clara psychologist Jerry Burger. The results on the show, conducted as actual experiments, almost entirely matched the original Milgram experiment.

4. Personality is "set in plaster" by age 30.

One of the founders of psychology, Harvard philosopher William James, believed that personality was fixed by early adulthood. Freud also believed in the immutability of personality, but it was James who is credited with the "set in plaster" quote. It's not unusual to find people today who believe that we are stuck with our childhood or at least adolescent personality. However, years of research on personality in adulthood shows that people can change in many ways throughout life, even in their very fundamental dispositions.

5. People cannot recover from a chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Along the same lines as Myth #4 is the belief that severe mental illness cannot be successfully treated. However, as is true for Myth #4, people can overcome their early life personalities or even forms of psychopathology. if people with schizophrenia receive current treatment during their acute phase, over 40% can recover (i.e. have no symptoms or hospitalizations and at least part-time work) for one or more years at a time. Some people with schizophrenia can even show complete recovery for the remainder of their lives (Jobe & Harrow, 2010).

6. The eye is like a camera.

You may think that the retina records everything it sees, though upside down, but in fact, the retina records patterns in an "on" and "off" manner. As the retinal cells transmit information up to the brain, the signal is continually refined, but it never physically resembles the objects that you "see." Introductory psych books unfortunately perpetuate this myth by showing the object facing the eye appearing upside down on the back of the retina. In actuality, we construct the images we see in our world by putting together the data in the higher regions of the brain, not the back of the eye.

7. Most people watching the Kitty Genovese murder (source of "bystander effect" research) did not offer help.

The infamous murder of Kitty Genovese murder in March of 1964 in front of dozens of passive bystanders stimulated research by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane to investigate the theory of "diffusion of responsibility." Darley and Latane's research showed that the larger the number of bystanders, the less likely any one person is to help. However, the true Genovese story didn't play out quite as described in most intro psych books. In fact, many people tried to help and were unable to due to the fact that the deadly assault did not take place right in front of them. Although there still is validity to the bystander effect, its origins in this case are more mythical than real.

8. Denial is a bad way to cope with stress. We are often told to get a grip on reality as a way to handle our problems, but this is only sometimes true. When a situation is unchangeable, you are better to use a so-called "emotion-focused" coping strategy, such as focusing on the positive or pushing the situation out of your consciousness. If someone has stolen a prized possession of yours, and you know there's no way to get it back, your mood will only worsen if you ruminate over the experience. However, if a situation is changeable, then it would be a bad idea to ignore it. If you know who took your possession, but are afraid to confront this person, you could use "problem-focused coping." This would involve developing a plan in which you come up with possible strategies, evaluate them, and then put one of them into place. There is no one best way to cope with stress, so you are best off if you flexibly adapt to the situation by using denial (or other ways to feel better) or taking action.

9. Experiencing déjà vu means that you are clairvoyant.

The phenomenon of déjà vu refers to feeling like you've seen something before that you have not. People who experience déjà vu think that they have special psychic powers. You may feel that you've seen a situation you're in now at an earlier time (such as in a dream), and that you're therefore operating on some type of precognition. However, most people's déjà vu experiences reflect faulty "source memory." Perhaps you've had this feeling when you've ordered coffee from your local barista. You're sure this has happened to you in a dream and now it is happening in real life. However, the chances are that the situation is just close enough to real experiences you've had many times before that it's simply an old memory whose source you can no longer place. Check out Art Markman's Psychology Today post for a more detailed explanation (and if you think you've read it before, well—maybe you have!).

10. Skinner's daughter was raised in a Skinner box and grew up having severe mental disturbances.

I've saved one of the most mythical of the myths for last. Perhaps you even heard this one in the classroom (though I hope not). The truth is that Skinner built a crib for his younger daughter that resembled a "box," but it was not a box like the ones he used for training pigeons. Instead, it was intended to keep her warm and draft-free. No food pellets were dispensed and no shock provided. Regarding this daughter's future mental health, she didn't seem to have been harmed by the experience whatsoever, at least according to her autobiographical statements. On the other hand, his older daughter Julie Vargas became a behavioral psychologist and now is president of the B.F. Skinner Foundation, which you can "like" on Facebook.

As you can see, psychology is full of entertaining and informative surprises. I hope that by debunking these myths, you'll be better prepared to apply the important knowledge from our field to promoting the understanding of behavior.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging and please check out my website,, where you can get additional information, self-tests, and links. Join my Facebook group to share your favorite psychology stories and to have your psychology questions answered!

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.

For more psych myths, check out 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues.


Jobe, T. H. and Harrow, M. (2010). "Schizophrenia course, long-term outcome, recovery, and prognosis." Current Directions in Psychological Science 19(4): 220-225.