myths-factsIn an excellent TED talk entitled “10 Myths about Psychology: Debunked”, psychologist Ben Ambridge uses science to demonstrate how many of the things people believe to be true, just aren’t so.

(Click here to get the transcript of his presentation.)

In case you don’t have time to read or watch it, here is a list of the myths he debunks:

  • We can catch a liar based on their body language.
  • Psychology is just a collection of interesting theories.
  • People’s performance can be improved by punishment.
  • Our preferences in a romantic partner are a product of our culture.
  • Listening to Mozart can make you cleverer and healthier.
  • We only use ten percent of our brains.
  • The left brain is logical,it’s good with equations,and the right brain is more creative, so the right brain is better at music.
  • How hard you try on a test is more important to doing well than your genes.
  • Rorschach inkblot tests are used a lot because they are so valid.
  • Speaking of psychological differences, it is correct that men are from Mars and women are from Venus

In summary, none of them are valid. Some of them are born from a grain of truth, but as stated above in their commonly believed myth form, they aren’t true.

What Makes Us Believe a Myth?

I found this speech fascinating. Myths often drive our interpersonal interactions. How many times is information presented as “fact” when, in fact, it’s anything but—especially in organizations?

What may determine believability of information presented may depend almost entirely on whom the informer is and the style of the informer’s presentation.

Let me give you an example. If someone you admire and respect tells you something, you are probably more inclined to believe it than if someone you don’t like tells you the same thing. If the speaker is bright and well read, many are usually willing to give the benefit of the doubt (if there even is a doubt). If the person relaying the information is known for delivering factual information, again, we are often swayed.

Personality Plays a Role in Believability

Personality of course also plays a role in whether we believe what we hear. Those of us high in trust may tend to believe most things until proven otherwise. Those high in skepticism or mistrust may not believe most of what they hear.

For me, there’s another factor, too. There are facts I learn to be true, but I don’t want to believe. For example, sun tanning is bad for you. How could anything that felt that good be bad? The public received that bad news decades ago and yet sun-tanning parlors still thrive. Fortunately, I was an early (albeit reluctant) convert. I like avoiding skin cancer.

I am guilty of believing the left brain/right brain differences included in Mr. Ambridge’s list. The theory seemed so “right” and made a great deal of sense to me. It is unsettling to try to unlearn what has become an integral part of my worldview. However, it’s also exciting to learn more and more each day about what we don’t know about the brain and how much more we have to learn.

Other factors affecting believability are our perceptions of the others body language, facial expression or tone of voice. People who are easily intimidated may tend to agree with (and believe) anything anyone tells them. Say it forcefully enough with an imposing presence, and they believe it–especially if serious insecurity is thriving.

The Problem with the “Wisdom” about Body Language

The validity of body language as a measure of what a person is thinking and feeling is also addressed by Ambridge, and largely debunked. Still it continues to be an integral part of most management and leadership training, as well as in the shared “wisdom” among professionals (myself included).

In my coaching practice, I work with my clients primarily by phone and occasionally Skype video. Many believe that establishing a positive relationship is unlikely unless in a direct person-to-person situation. I suffered criticism that I am missing much of what the client is saying or not saying because I cant’ see body language over the phone.

In the spirit of debunking, I have found the opposite to be true. I have many coaching clients I’ve never met or seen via online video. Several have been with me for years—and the relationship is extremely powerful. When clients feel they have met their goals in the coaching process, it’s hard to argue they would have met them better if I were in the room with them.

So, I respectfully disagree. Not seeing the person helps me listen better as I am not distracted by the temperature of the room, the lighting, or the person’s movements or interruptions. I can give my full attention to their words, the tone, the pauses, and the emotions expressed. My mind has been changed by what I’ve experienced. It’s nice to hear it’s also starting to be supported by science.

Bandwagons Are Often a Myth Delivery System

There is the concept and growing profitable field of “evidence-based practice,” or EBP. When the term first emerged in the early 1990s, practitioners of health, mental health and management leaped on the bandwagon. Soon, every organization claimed it used EBP.

I was skeptical. I had seen too many bandwagons come and go, and I had just endured three years of skeptics training (law school).

Some bandwagon ideas have valuable and even lasting components, but none is ever THE answer. Sometimes, they fade from popularity because something sexier comes along to replace it. Now, evidence-based practice is mainstream and valiant efforts are being made to establish guidelines for proof of “evidence”. Unfortunately, far too many claim proof of evidence when it is only clever marketing. The dilemma for consumers is who to believe?

What Does This Mean to Leaders?

In the information-drowning world we live in, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to have all the facts. That could suggest that we stop believing anything we hear, but it’s difficult to function in that kind of atmosphere. It could imply a need to spend 24 hours a day trying to dig out the facts on every topic, which is, of course, another impossible scenario. Like so many things, as leaders we have to rely on our judgment and forgive ourselves when we make a bad decision.

As a leader, is it critical to be reliably factual and consistent in that regard. When considering the “facts” presented to you, the terms “healthy skepticism” or “cautious trust” come to mind. Or perhaps we need to begin to acknowledge just how much we don’t know and face the future with more openness to questioning the facts and learning the truth, debunking largely held myths in the process.