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Pushing Back on Ten Myths About the Brain and Behavior

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Ten Myths About the Mind” by Matt Huston in Psychology Today, September/October 2019 (Vol. 52, #5, pp. 52-61, 88)
“It’s high time we put the most enduring myths about human behavior to bed, and see the mind – and the world – as it is,” says associate editor Matt Huston in this article in Psychology Today. Here’s his debunking list:
• Myth #1: Ten thousand hours of deliberate practice will produce mastery. “One hour of practice is not necessarily going to result in the same amount of gain for two different athletes or musicians,” says Huston. Just as important as the quantity of practice are other factors, including the age when a person starts, the type of practice, coaching, working memory capacity, intelligence, and motivation.
• Myth #2: The brain’s right hemisphere is intuitive, the left analytical. “The right and left hemispheres do specialize in different mental functions,” says Huston. “But the notion that individuals rely more heavily on one or the other glosses over the complexity of the left-right relationship.” Brain imaging shows a complex interaction between the two sides with language, perception, and other capabilities. In addition, there’s variation among individuals.
• Myth #3: People have visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles. “The idea that educators should match their instruction to students’ individual learning styles… has been around for decades,” says Huston. “But scientific reviews have found scant justification for this practice… Unsubstantiated ideas about what differentiates students could distract from what boosts all of them.”
• Myth #4: There are multiple intelligences. Huston says that Howard Gardner’s theory of eight distinct intelligences – linguistic, mathematical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, musical, naturalistic – has not been proven experimentally, and its usefulness to educators is unclear. There’s no getting away from the importance of general intelligence (sometimes called g) as an important factor (along with conscientiousness and other personal factors) in life outcomes, says Huston.
• Myth #5: Male and female brains are basically the same. Although there is more overlap than difference, says Huston, some differences are significant, probably stemming from evolutionary pressures:
- Women tend to engage in more altruistic behavior and rate higher on certain measures of empathy than men.
- Men on average do better at spatially rotating an object, while women are better at remembering the location of objects.
- Males are much more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
- Rates of mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease are higher among women.
- Exposed to traumatic events, boys are more likely to exhibit externalizing, disruptive behaviors while girls have internalizing symptoms, including self-blame.
- There’s evidence that medications have different effects on males and females.
• Myth #6: Birth order shapes personality. The idea that one’s position in the family pecking order determines how assertive, agreeable, imaginative, conscientious, experimental, conformist, conventional, and risk-taking one is has been disproven by recent studies. There is some evidence that firstborns have a slight I.Q. advantage (1.5 points in a German study), but this finding has not been widely replicated.
• Myth #7: People’s attachment style is set early in life. It used to be thought that adults’ ease forming close relationships, versus being anxious or avoidant, is shaped by how they related to parents and caregivers in infancy and early childhood. But insecurity as an infant can be overcome by warm and loving parenting, attentive and supportive teachers, and positive experiences as an adult – and vice-versa.
• Myth #8: There’s a depression gene. “Scientists have failed to turn up reliable evidence that any single, common genetic variant matters much when it comes to mental illness,” reports Huston. “…The connection between one’s genetic profile and vulnerability is highly complex.”
• Myth #9: Grieving people move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who first posited the five sequential stages, later said that not everyone goes through the same order. “In reality,” says Huston, “grief is not so regimented… Grieving people take many different paths; some clearly recover from loss more easily than do others.” About ten percent take much longer, and they may need treatment.
• Myth #10: Compulsive, problematic sexual activity is an addiction. Psychologists have specific criteria for what constitutes addictive behavior, and this kind of sexual activity doesn’t qualify. People caught in affairs and other self-destructive and hurtful actions may be trying to deflect blame by labeling their bad behavior as a mental disorder.
Huston concludes with five psychological findings that have stood the test of time and replication:
- Adults’ personalities as measured by the Big Five “OCEAN” traits – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – mostly stay the same.
- We are swayed by what we believe others think. For example, if prejudiced comments seem acceptable to the group, it’s more likely a person will make them.
- We seek to confirm existing beliefs and overestimate how predictable an event is. Confirmation bias and hindsight bias (having observed an event, we think we knew it all along) are very common.
- Choices are affected by how options are framed. For example, saying that meat is 90 percent fat-free is more enticing than saying it contains 10 percent fat.
- We may recall seeing something we didn’t actually see. “Memory is far from perfect,” says Huston, “and there is evidence that people can be induced to recall invented details of past experiences.”

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