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Belief in myths about the brain and child development is widespread, study finds

People who gave themselves higher ratings for common sense tended to believe in fewer of the myths.

The study found that misconceptions about the brain and child development — such as most toddlers go through a “terrible twos” stage — are pervasive.

Belief in psychological myths about the brain and child development — such as the idea that a brain injury can turn a quiet, hard-working man into an impulsive brute or that most toddlers go through a “terrible twos” stage — are widespread, according to a recent study in the open-access journal Psycholog

The study also found that age, gender or educational background — including whether or not people have taken psychology courses — makes no difference in how strongly they believed in such myths.

Interestingly, the study did find that people tend to endorse slightly fewer myths if they self-describe themselves as being religious and/or hold right-wing political views. That correlation was found to be weak, however.

How the study was designed

For the study, British psychologist Adrian Furnham, who currently teaches at the BI Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, recruited 220 participants through the Mechanical Turk website, a source used frequently by social scientists for research projects.

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Furnham’s participants ranged in age from 19 to 66 (mean age: 36). Slightly more than half (52 percent) were men, and most (76 percent) were white. About a third (34 percent) had studied psychology or psychiatry at some point in their education.

The participants were asked to rate themselves on three scales: Compared to other people, how much common sense do you believe you have? How religious are you? And how would you describe your political beliefs (from “very left wing” to “very right wing”)?

They were then shown 56 statements related to the brain and to child development, which were taken from the 2014 book “Great Myths of the Brain” and the 2015 book “Great Myths of Child Development.” They were told to mark each statement as either “definitely false,” “probably false,” “definitely true” or “probably true.” They also had the option of “don’t know.” 

Unknown to the participants, all the statements were myths, or false.

Key findings

The study found that misconceptions about the brain and child development are pervasive. Indeed, only 15 of the brain myths and three of the developmental myths were correctly identified by at least 50 percent of the participants as definitely false.

The brain-related statements that fell into this category included “Drilling a hole in the head releases evil spirits” (91 percent of the respondents recognized this statement as false), “The brain pumps animal spirits around the body” (81 percent), “Strokes only affect old people” (81 percent) and “A concussion is not a form of brain injury” (71 percent).

Among the child-development statements that more than half of the participants recognized as definitely false were “The Chinese lunar year calendar accurately predicts the sex of a baby” (69 percent), “Parents can predict the sex of a fetus by examining the shape of a mother’s body (64 percent) and “Couples dealing with infertility are more likely to get pregnant if they adopt” (50 percent). 

On the other hand, there were four brain myths that at least 40 percent of the participants thought were definitely true. Fifty-one percent mistakenly identified the idea that “After a head injury, people can forget who they are and not recognize others, but be normal in every other way” as being definitely true, while 56 said the same for the idea that “The brain is very well designed.” (FYI: Instead of being well designed, the brain is considered by scientists to be more of a kludge — “a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem that gets the job done, but not necessarily in the best way possible.”)

Similarly, at least 30 percent of the study’s participants thought two child development myths were definitely true: “All boys have one Y chromosome and girls do not” (42 percent) and “A woman who is already pregnant can’t get pregnant again” (37 percent).

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Other widely believed child development myths included the ideas that “Sugar intake causes children to be hyperactive” (65 percent of the participants thought this statement was either definitely or probably true) and that “Showing cognitively stimulating videos to babies boosts their intelligence” (64 percent said this statement was either definitely or probably true).

No clear predictors

The study found no link between the participants’ overall scores and their age, gender or educational background — including whether or not they had taken a course in psychology.

“Indeed,” writes Furnham, “scores of those who had and had not some education in psychology were almost identical.” 

Furnham did find, however, that people who gave themselves higher ratings for common sense tended to believe in fewer of the myths. There was also a correlation, although a modest one, between being more religious and/or having more right-wing political views and being able to successfully identify the myths. The reasons for those “rather surprising” results are unclear, says Furnham, and require “both replication and explanation.” 

Limitations and implications

The study comes with many caveats, as Furnham points out in his paper. It included a modest number of participants, and didn’t ask for details about their psychology backgrounds. (For example, did they take just a single course in high school or did they major in it in college?)

Also, the wording of the statements was lifted right from the two books — without the follow-up explanations that were included in the books. Lacking those clarifications, the statements may have been confusing to some of the study’s participants.

Another potential problem with the study was that all the statements were false. That may have led the participants to sometimes answer “true” simply because they felt that some of the statements must be true.

Still, as Furnham notes in his paper’s conclusion, his research supports earlier studies that also uncovered the “shocking truth” of the widespread prevalence of psychological myths and misconceptions throughout society.

“The question of how to combat these myths and ensure that people are better informed about various areas of psychology remains largely unanswered,” he adds.

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FYI:  You can read the study in full on Psychology’s website.