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‘Crowds turn people stupid and dangerous’ and other leading psychological myths

Psychologist Christian Jarrett lists 10 of the most “erroneous psychological intuitions [that] are widely believed among the public and are stubbornly persistent.”

There's an implication that when we're in a large group, we lose our senses and it's everyone for themselves. This characterization is refuted by psychology research on crowd behavior.

I’ve written here many times before about medical (and other scientific) myths that people stubbornly cling to, despite the myths having been thoroughly debunked.

Still, it’s a topic worth returning to because of the potential harm that can arise from such myths (“vaccines cause autism,” “homeopathy can cure illness“). 

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The field of psychology certainly has its share of myths, as psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett makes clear in a recent article for BPS Research Digest, a website hosted by the British Psychological Society.

Drawing partially on his latest book, “Great Myths of the Brain,” Jarrett lists 10 of the public’s most “erroneous psychological intuitions [that] are widely believed among the public and are stubbornly persistent.”

“It’s important to challenge these myths,” he writes, “not just to set the record straight, but also because their existence can contribute to stigma and stereotypes and to misinformed public policies in areas like education and policing.”

Here are Jarrett’s descriptions of some of those myths:

  • Crowds turn people stupid and dangerous.

After a mass emergency, it’s typical for reports to describe the crowd as “stampeding” in blind panic. There’s an implication that when we’re in a large group, we lose our senses and it’s everyone for themselves. This characterisation is refuted by psychology research on crowd behaviour that’s shown panic is rare and people frequently stop to help one another. Cooperation is particularly likely when people feel a shared sense of identity. Psychologist John Drury made this finding based partly on his interviews with people caught up in real-life emergencies, such as the overcrowding that occurred at a Fatboy Slim concert on Brighton beach in 2002. Drury and his colleagues argue this has implications for the handling by authorities of emergency situations: “Crowds in emergencies can be trusted to behave in more social ways than previously expected by some involved in emergency planning,” they wrote.

  • The Stanford Prison Experiment shows how the wrong situation can turn anyone bad.

One of the most infamous studies in psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971, involved student participants being allocated to the role of prisoner or guard, and it had to be aborted when the guards became abusive. Philip Zimbardo who led the study said it showed how certain situational dynamics can turn any of us bad, and this meme of “bad barrels” rather than “bad apples” has entered the public consciousness. Zimbardo even acted as an expert witness for the defence in the real-life trial of one of the abusive guards at Abu Ghraib. But the Stanford Experiment was highly flawed and has been misinterpreted. Later research, such as the BBC Prison Experiment, has shown how the same situation can lead to cooperative behaviour rather than tyranny, depending on whether and how different people identify with each other. Unfortunately, many modern psychology textbooks continue to spread a simplistic, uncritical account of the Stanford Experiment. 

  • Autism is caused by “broken” mirror neurons (and numerous other autism myths) 

Writing in 2011, the famous Californian neuroscientist VS. Ramachandran stated “the main cause of autism is a disturbed mirror neuron system”. Mirror neurons are cells that respond when we perform an action or see someone else perform that action. The “broken mirror” autism hypothesis is a catchy idea that attracts plenty of coverage and is frequently recycled by popular science writers (for example, writing in the Daily Mail, Rita Carer said “autistic people often lack empathy and have been found to show less mirror-neuron activity”). However, a review published in 2013 of 25 relevant studies found no evidence to support the hypotheses, and just this month another study provided yet more counter evidence. This is just one misconception about autism – others are that it is caused by vaccines and that everyone with autism has a rare gift

  • Mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

One survey in the US from a few years ago found that over 80 per cent of people believed that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, ask any psychiatrist or neurologist and if they’re honest they’ll tell you that no one knows what the “correct” balance of chemicals in the brain should be. Part of the support for the imbalance idea comes from the fact that anti-depressant medication alters levels of neurochemicals in the brain, but of course that doesn’t mean that a chemical imbalance causes the problems in the first place (any more than a headache is caused by a lack of paracetamol).

The myth is actually endorsed by many people with mental health problems and by some mental health campaigners, partly because they believe it lends a medical legitimacy to conditions like depression and anxiety. However, research has shown that biological accounts of mental illness (including the chemical imbalance theory) can increase stigma, for example — by encouraging the idea that mental health problems are permanent.

The other myths that made Jarrett’s list:

  • We learn more effectively when taught via our preferred “learning style.”
  • Human memory is like a recording of what happened.
  • Violent offenders usually have a diagnosis of mental illness.
  • Vision depends on signals emitted from the eyes.
  • The overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence are committed by men.
  • Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is scientific.

FMI:  You can read Jarrett’s descriptions of all 10 myths on the BPS Research Digest website.