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Despite Scientific Evidence, Most People Believe These Myths

8 reasoning "zombies" that you should fear.

What exactly entitles one to be called intelligent? Some people believe that performance on IQ tests is the gold standard to determine intelligence. Others contend that adaptability to the environment and knowing how to be “successful” within your culture is the benchmark of intellectual prowess. The commonality between these two analytic intelligence views is the well-substantiated finding that being smart is only marginally related to rational problem-solving and sound logical reasoning (Stanovich, 2019). As such, many people who describe themselves as intelligent make poor and regrettable decisions, often because they harbor false beliefs and rely on misinformation.

Beliefs are considered false when the views are contrary to established scientific evidence. Examples of generalized and prevalent false beliefs include the notion that suicides are more likely during the holiday season, that most women’s moods worsen during their premenstrual cycles (PMS), and that switching among different types of alcohol leads to more intoxication than drinking one alcohol type (Furnham & Hughes, 2014).

Despite what you believe, each statement above was proven false with scientific data. Individuals who base decisions upon false beliefs often incur adverse consequences including financial loss, poor health, and lack of psychological well-being. However, the impact of false beliefs escalates when unwarranted reasoning affects others, which is often the case for parents, educators, and business leaders.

Analyzing the many reasons why “smart” people reject facts are too voluminous and detailed to describe here, but the reasons often include the influence of culture and personal experience, inability or unwillingness to examine the evidence, and the prevalence of the herd mentality (whereby group acceptance supports believability). People are also resistant to surrendering false beliefs when they perceive no compelling reason to change or when they fail to realize the consequences of embracing a false belief.

University of Southern California researchers Sinatra and Jacobson (2019) used the metaphor of “Zombie Concepts” to describe persistent myths that plague the teaching and educational community despite contrary evidence. Below I identify some popular myths that hinder organizational performance, thinking, and decision-making, focusing primarily on myths related to human intelligence and motivation.

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

1. People are unmotivated.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous myth in the domain of motivation is the purported absence of motivation in others. Hoffman (2017) explained that when implying others lack motivation, we are making an ego-inflating value judgment that benefits personal self-worth. The “amotivational” assessment allows us to evaluate the other person as psychologically inferior to our own goals and aspirations.

In reality, there is no such thing as being unmotivated. People (and even zombies) are motivated by different things at different times and motivations change according to the context, social circumstances, and task at hand.

2. Willpower is limited.

For years researchers were adamant that willpower, like physical exercise, had endurance limits that affected self-control. A great example is a reticent dieter who, after avoiding sweets for weeks, breaks down and consumes a box of donuts (probably when no one is looking).

While there is evidence to support the limitations of self-control, goal persistence, and resisting temptation over time (Muraven, 2012), recent findings suggest otherwise. Job et al. (2010) observed that during the completion of folding-box problems found on IQ tests, participants who believed (or were told) that they had unlimited self-control outperformed a comparison group of individuals who thought their ability decreased over time. In other words, despite mental exhaustion, our minds can be tricked into believing we have the power to endure.

3. Multi-tasking works.

To the dismay of many students, aviators, and drivers who text, the ability to multi-task without impacting performance is vastly overstated (Kraushaar & Novak, 2010; Loukopoulos et al., 2016). Research reveals that there are capacity limits when engaging in cognitively demanding tasks. Simply put, limited working memory capacity constrains our ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously (Kirschner & van Merrienboer, 2013).

This means that we can perform some automated tasks simultaneously (like brushing one’s teeth and thinking about what we will wear to work) and we can rapidly switch between more complex tasks such as cooking and yelling at the kids! However, we cannot and should not concurrently attempt tasks that require precision and detail without expecting a decrease in effectiveness.

4. Nurturing alters intelligence.

We would all like to believe that any genetically determined attribute like intelligence can be modified based on tender loving care, but the benefits of “nurturing” are limited. Nurturing is necessary, but not sufficient to promote the genetic evolution of skills and abilities. Regardless of ability type, 50 to 70 percent of your talent potential is based solely on genetics.

Recent confluent findings (Kan et al., 2013; Nesbitt et al., 2012) indicated that genetic influences on cognition are maximized in more advantageous socioeconomic contexts (Tucker-Drob et al., 2013). When examining the genes/environment interaction closely we find that children who live in poverty are at a distinct genetic disadvantage even with the most supportive and nurturing caregivers.

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

5. IQ scores are culturally biased.

There are two types of abilities measured on most intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. Fluid abilities account for components of intelligence such as problem-solving ability, logic, and pattern recognition. The need for these on-the-spot types of skills is constant across cultures with relatively few cross-cultural variations.

Crystallized intelligence is culturally unique information acquired through education or experience—what most of us describe as “book knowledge.” Measures of crystallized intelligence and IQ tests are routinely adapted for different cultures and languages to control for the inherent bias of a culturally validated test. Thus, while some people believe that IQ tests favor specific nationalities and races, it is not the tests that are the concern but the ability to gain access to resources that might boost overall test performance.

6. Intelligence can be radically improved.

Some aspects of intelligence can be improved; however, controversy engulfs how to improve intelligence and how much intelligence can evolve. Perhaps the most relevant maxim is “just because people can circumvent limits on performance does not mean that performance is without limits” (Hambrick & Burgoyne, 2019).

First, one critical prerequisite for intellectual growth is rejecting the belief that intelligence is fixed. Second, the aspects of intelligence that can be improved include processing speed, problem-solving strategies, and memory improvement (Cheng & Saqui, 2017). There is a much lower probability of improving overall IQ test performance or working memory capacity (a major correlate of intelligence).

Also, beware of marketing claims from brain training apps. The skills practiced in the applications are not readily transferable to either IQ test performance or to solve unique environmental challenges (Bainbridge & Mayer, 2018).

7. Positive thinking cures disease.

Few of us would dispute that illness breeds anxiety and stress. Sometimes the psychological rumination about the future can supersede the symptoms and consequences of the illness. However, many people swear that optimism is positively related to avoiding illness as well as an effective strategy to overcome sickness.

While some research is ambiguous, a recent aggregate of experimental studies (meta-analysis) revealed that people diagnosed with clinical depression are NOT at increased risk of developing cancer (Ahn et al., 2016). Most studies that indicate optimism is related to disease resilience and quicker recovery often fail to reflect the influence of having quality health care available. It is quite possible that when one has limited care options that other factors besides psychological disposition account for recovery perspectives.

8. We accurately judge our capabilities.

Known as “miscalibration,” humans are notoriously bad at estimating task challenges commensurate with actual skill. We think we can accomplish things better and faster than we do and consistently believe that good fortune will always be on our side. The overestimation of skill and ability contributes to often-inaccurate perceptions, such as we won’t get caught in traffic driving to the airport, we are more intelligent than others, and we can master a new language with minimal effort (Zell & Krizan, 2014). Surprisingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that the less talent we have the more we overestimate our skills. The converse also holds true as those who are perceived as experts by societal standards of wealth, expertise, and experience tend to underestimate their capabilities and anticipated success, despite their demonstrated capability!

Do you harbor any of these false beliefs? The most likely answer is yes and according to the research, you will continue to embrace your beliefs despite the evidence presented here.

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Muraven, M. (2012). Ego depletion: Theory and evidence. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 111–126). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Sinatra, G. M. & Jacobson, N. G. (2019). Zombie concepts in education: Why they won’t die and you why you can’t kill them. In P. Kendeou, D. H. Robinson, & M. T. McCrudden (Eds.). Misinformation and Fake News in Education, (pp 7-27). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Stanovich, K. E. (2016). The comprehensive assessment of rational thinking. Educational Psychologist, 51 (1), 23-34.

Tucker-Drob, E. M., Briley, D. A., & Harden, K. P. (2013). Genetic and environmental influences on cognition across development and context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(5), 349-355.

Zell, E., & Krizan, Z. (2014). Do people have insight into their abilities? A meta synthesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(2), 111-125.

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