Let me start by saying that this book provides some useful and important information regarding common misconceptions about psychology. I have to admit I was astounded to learn that a significant proportion of college students believe that vision involves emissions from the eyes; and the widespread persistence of less amusing beliefs about the infallibility of eyewitness testimony, the magical powers of hypnosis or the polygraph, and the "dangerousness" of the mentally ill are indeed worrisome and, at times, alarming. The very importance of such issues, however, raises serious questions about how these misunderstandings can best be challenged. Given the complexity of psychological phenomena, the investments of those who traffic in misinformation, and the reluctance of many people to relinquish cherished beliefs, it is important that a book aimed at dispelling such misinformation be exceptionally clear and careful in detailing the actual state of our knowledge about psychology and the ways in which such knowledge needs to be gathered, interpreted and critiqued. Unfortunately Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein ultimately fail in this crucial task.
The mission of the book is unclear. It purports to debunk “myths” about psychology, by which the authors mean widespread misconceptions. When the authors examine simplistic credos and widespread misunderstandings they often make valuable contributions along this line. But they frequently stray from this educational project into a more polemical one. This latter and more polemical project involves looking at areas of genuine controversy in the field of psychology and attacking positions held by those with whom the authors disagree. Of course, Lilienfeld et al. are within their rights to critique any ideas they wish; however, lumping valid intellectual positions together with credos and superstition, and labeling all these claims, sweepingly, as “myths” is analytically problematic and misleading to the public. It lowers the level of discourse, avoids addressing real issues and controversies in the field, and—perhaps most seriously of all—discredits the very educational project that the authors say they want to advance. The "myth" format inevitably creates "straw man" arguments regarding some important issues, a fact which is disconcerting in light of the aggressive marketing of this book for introductory psychology courses. Because the book includes several such misrepresentations, I will focus the remainder of this review on a few of them.
In the cases of genuine controversy, the authors typically misrepresent the position they oppose (the “myth”) (1) by representing it in its most extreme and simplistic form; and/or (2) by constructing it in such a way as to change what the controversy is actually about. There are a number of examples of both these strategies throughout the book, and I will note a few.
An example of the first strategy—wording the opposing point of view in its most extreme and simplistic form—is “Myth” #34: “Most people who were sexually abused in childhood develop severe personality disturbances in adulthood.” Some clinicians do make exaggerated claims about universally damaging effects of sexual abuse, and there is a valid place for disputing such claims. But this issue (like many of those considered by the book) is a complicated one, involving definitional problems, ambiguous data, methodological issues, and interpretive controversies. The position ultimately taken by the authors is, in reality, just as controversial as the one they wish to debunk. That is, most researchers do, in fact, believe that the effects of sexual abuse are generally fairly serious. (Typical findings are that anxiety disorders, personality disorders, suicide attempts and suicides are significantly more likely among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, that depression and drug and alcohol dependency are about two to three times as common in this population, and that these findings are independent of family pathology [Fergusson et al., 2008; Kendler, 2000; see also Salter, 2003, p. 65]). By minimally addressing the mainstream of opinion on this issue, Lilienfeld et al. treat sexual abuse and its effects dismissively. To make matters worse, they do not acknowledge the extremity of their own views. Thus, they write approvingly about Bruce Rind and his colleagues, portraying them as heroic figures who were unjustly persecuted for questioning the severity of the effects of childhood sexual abuse. In reality, Rind et al.’s findings involved several methodological problems; but more importantly, Rind et al. received severe criticism primarily for their conclusion that adult-child sexual contact should not be considered abuse if that contact involves “a willing encounter with positive reactions” (Rind, et al., 1998, p. 46). A number of authors have analyzed the danger that such a position entails for children. For example, Berliner and Conte (1990) describe a study in which children who had been sexually abused were interviewed in depth. The children described how “consent” was frequently obtained through emotional manipulation and/or physical threats; yet many of the children continued to believe that they had willingly participated and that the sexual relationship had been a positive one. (Interestingly, sex offenders who were interviewed in a separate study [Conte, Wolf & Smith, 1989] gave reports that closely matched the reports of these abused children, frequently describing themselves as targeting the most vulnerable and needy children they could find.) None of this is considered by Lilienfeld et al., much less by Rind and his co-author Robert Bauserman, both of whom have publicly aligned themselves with pedophile advocacy groups (see Dallam, 2001; Dallam et al., 2001; Salter, 2003).
As an additional example of the extremity of Lilienfeld et al.’s position, consider their citation of Lenore Terr’s 1983 follow-up report on the Chowchilla kidnapping victims. Lilienfeld et al. summarize Terr’s findings with the peculiar statement that “although most [of the children] were haunted by memories of the incident, virtually all were well adjusted” (p. 170). Here is the abstract of Terr’s article; you can decide for yourself how “well adjusted”: the children were:
Conducted a 4-yr follow-up study of 25 children who had been school bus kidnapping victims and 1 child who narrowly missed the experience. Results revealed that every S exhibited posttraumatic effects. Symptom severity was related to the prior vulnerabilities, family pathology, and community bonding. Findings included pessimism about the future, belief in omens and prediction, memories of incorrect perceptions, thought suppression, shame, fear of reexperiencing traumatic anxiety, trauma-specific and mundane fears, posttraumatic play, behavioral reenactment, repetitions of psychophysiological disturbances that began with the kidnapping, repeated nightmares, and dreams of personal death. It is concluded that brief treatment 5–23 mo after the kidnapping did not prevent symptoms and signs 4 yrs later.
The second technique used by Lilienfeld et al. to avoid real discussion of controversial issues—subtly altering what the controversy is about—is illustrated by “Myth” # 20 “Researchers have demonstrated that dreams possess symbolic meaning.” In reality, nobody claims that experimental psychologists (the kind of researchers the authors are referring to here) have “demonstrated” such a thing, so disproving it won’t be hard. But starting with this misleading formulation, the authors go on to ignore most clinical theories of dreaming and focus on Freud, with an increasingly dersive tone. I won’t discuss this issue in detail, but I will note a few things in passing: (1) Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is considered a classic in the history of psychology by many serious thinkers, and for good reasons: putting aside his more dated speculations (which made considerably more sense in 19th Century Vienna), Freud's analysis of dream formation by “primary process thinking” and “the dreamwork” represents an array of insights that psychologists, including neuroscientists, have been drawing on for over a hundred years; Hobson, who Lilienfeld et al. cite favorably, actually followed Freud’s theory rather closely (despite his denials of doing so), and his later work approached Freud even more closely when he revised his theory to recognize emotional determination of dreams by structures in the limbic system (Hobson, 1999); (2) Recent neuropsychological research, including studies of associative thinking in dreams by Robert Stickgold, one of Hobson’s colleagues, have lent even greater support to Freud’s analyses; (3) Despite all of this, Lilienfeld et al. largely disregard Freud by focusing prominently on his most dated and questionable claims and lumping him together with pop-psych hucksters and gurus; this is a common tactic among psychologists who overvalue controlled laboratory research, who undervalue careful clinical analysis, and who prefer to avoid the difficult work of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of these two very different kinds of information and considering how discrepancies between them might be reconcilable.
I will additionally note in passing that Lilienfeld et al.’s second technique of altering what a controversy is about applies, too, to their analysis of “Myth” # 15 “Intelligence (IQ) tests are biased against certain groups of people.” In reality, the most important criticisms of IQ tests are not about how they are constructed but rather about how they are used, how operational definitions of intelligence are confused with real intellectual capabilities, how score variance is fallaciously attributed to genetic factors, and how overreliance on the results of these tests frequently serves social and political agendas of channeling resources from more needy to less needy populations (see my web page on race and intelligence). Lilienfeld et al. take the easy path of defending the technical aspects of tests and avoid the more difficult one of considering how psychometric technologies and institutions routinize practices that systematically contribute to misinterpretations of test scores and to “keeping the playing field uneven.”
A final example of the technique of altering a controversy is “Myth” #13, “Individuals commonly repress memories of traumatic experiences.” I have analyzed this controversy in considerable detail on another page, so I won’t deal with all the problems with Lilienfeld et al.’s analysis here. However, the centerpiece of their “refutation” of this myth is their statement on p. 74 “What’s at issue is whether a special mechanism of repression accounts for the forgetting of traumatic material.” They go on to argue that the existence of this special mechanism “has not been validated” (p. 76; see especially the comments about Holmes and McNally). But this is precisely not what is at issue. Here is a relevant except from the above-mentioned web page (the Holmes study I refer to is the same one cited by Lilienfeld et al.):
“The critics of recovered memory are resistant to acknowledging it, above all, because to do so might be seen as legitimizing the Freudian concept of repression. When one examines the grounds for their concerns, however, the rejection of the concept of repression begins to look less like a judgment based on evidence and more like a determination to disregard any and all evidence that does not fit a preconceived and untenably narrow notion of science. An example is the earlier quoted statement by Holmes (1990) that previous research had produced "no evidence" for repression. In reality, Holmes's review identifies a number of studies that are either consistent with or supportive of repression - including studies by Holmes himself. But what Holmes is referring to is the fact that no researcher has succeeded in identifying any technique that can reliably produce a completely unambiguous specimen of repression in a controlled laboratory setting. In his review, Holmes disregards many previous studies that suggest the existence of motivated forgetting because their results cannot be definitively identified as repression, as distinct from other psychological processes, including defense mechanisms like denial, suppression, or negation. Yet Freud repeatedly emphasized the need to be flexible about theoretical constructions and he often used the word "repression" as a generic term to cover a variety of related processes (Rabin, 2010). Other researchers who have remained more faithful to Freud's actual conception of repression have discovered substantial evidence for the process (Bornstein, 2003; Weston, 1998; Weston & Gabbard, 1999). Most psychologists who have researched memory and its distortions currently believe that a variety of psychological mechanisms may be involved, some of which are similar to Freud's notion of repression in the narrowest sense and others of which encompass various neurological and cognitive processes, including psychodynamic mechanisms of motivated forgetting (i.e., of repression in the broader sense) (e.g., see Dalenberg, 2006). The issue is not the existence of repression in a narrow and technical sense but whether memory is distorted, transformed, and sometimes lost altogether in reaction to overwhelming trauma, and whether it can subsequently be retrieved; and for this there is abundant evidence.”
Finally, I would like to make some comments about “Myth” # 47 “Expert judgment and intuition are the best means of making clinical decisions” because I think that Lilienfeld et al.’s argument here is particularly revealing about what is problematic in their larger approach. The argument does make some important points about the danger of overestimating the accuracy of one’s own intuition. What I find problematic, however, is the unspoken assumption that clinical work is exclusively about prediction and control. While predicting the client’s behavior and taking steps to control it can be important at times (e.g., when recommending medication or when suicide may be a concern), the argument gives no recognition to the importance of intuition in—for example—assessing the meaning of a statement, forming a relationship with a client, or helping a client explore personal concerns. I suspect that Lilienfeld et al. would respond that all of these “warm and fuzzy” activities are really just complicated acts of prediction and control; but this kind of argument is merely a dodge. It reconstructs the core character of the psychotherapeutic relationship in a significantly inaccurate way that is designed to delegitimize and disregard the foundational clinical observations and insights that undergird it in order to substitute evidence from less relevant but highly controlled laboratory research (in this case, research on decision making). In reality, however, systematic research in psychology—and in science generally—is a much broader enterprise than Lilienfeld et al. seem to recognize. It encompasses not only controlled laboratory research but also a wide range of other investigative methods, including naturalistic/qualitative techniques. These naturalistic/qualitative techniques, which involve systematically observing psychological phenomena in informal and natural settings and analyzing the themes, patterns, repetitions, and convergences that characterize them, have been developed specifically to remain faithful to complex and ambiguous characteristics of psychological phenomena as they actually occur. This is why, for example, the qualitative (interview) study of sexually molested children described above is particularly useful for clarifying what is wrong with Rind et al.’s conclusion about “willing” sex between adults and children. In regard to the present “myth,” qualitative tools are particularly well-suited to observing and analyzing aspects of clinical work that are not ordinarily replicable, including how a therapist can use intuition to integrate a wide range of words, bodily cues and other kinds of meaning in understanding a unique clinical situation or how he or she might use such intuition to respond in a way that communicates reassurance or is productively ambiguous. Lilienfeld et al., however, seem to be clueless about the strengths and limitations of various kinds of psychological evidence; they rely overwhelmingly on evidence from controlled experimentation and other reductionistic procedures, and like the proverbial man who has only a hammer and therefore sees everything as a nail, they cannot adequately conceptualize certain complex and dynamic psychological processes (in this case, specific kinds of intuitive judgments) that are best understood not by experimental manipulation but by naturalistic forms of knowledge-gathering. I believe this also explains why they fail to see important aspects of many other issues they are analyzing.
Overall, therefore, this is a disappointing book. It presents interesting and sometimes valuable information about widespread psychological misconceptions; but ultimately it discredits its own arguments by indiscriminately assimilating a wide range of psychological issues, and a variety of related conceptual, methodological and theoretical problems, under an unnecessarily narrow and inappropriately rigid notion of science. The authors present themselves as reasonable arbiters of muddle and controversy in the field of psychology; but all too often they turn out to be peddling their own brand of psychological sophistry.