Do Psychology Courses Reduce Belief in Psychological Myths?

Article excerpt

This study examined the degree to which psychology students accept popular psychology myths that are rejected by mainstream researchers (e.g., "people use only 10% of their brain's capacity"), and the effect of psychology courses on myth acceptance. Using a twenty-item, true-false myth belief questionnaire, it examined the levels of gullibility among 94 undergraduates at different stages of their education, and related these to their educational and demographic backgrounds. High overall levels of myth acceptance (71%) were found, in line with earlier research. Myth acceptance decreased with the number of psychology courses that students had taken in university, but increased with the number that they had taken in junior college. Belief in myths was lower among students who were majoring in psychology, were older, had higher grades, and had advanced training in research methods, but it was not related to gender, geographical origin, or university year. It is concluded that university courses appear beneficial in encouraging methodological skepticism, whereas taking specialized psychology courses in junior college may hinder rather than promote critical thinking among undergraduates.

Keywords: Psychological myths, psychology courses, junior college, university

A common feature of introductory psychology courses is a classroom demonstration that is designed to show the falsity of some popular myth about behavior, for example the idea that people will recognize a totally spurious personality sketch of themselves as having been concocted by the experimenter (Forer, 1949; Standing & Keays, 1986). These everpopular demonstrations typically reveal high levels of misplaced credulity, and are assumed to have an educational impact. Furthermore, an instructor is usually at pains throughout the introductory course to demolish his students' initial belief in various erroneous psychological ideas that are widespread in the popular culture. Accordingly, one might expect that psychology students would be decidedly low in mythbelief. We may also predict specifically that students would show a decreasing level of mythbelief as the number of psychology courses they have taken increases.

However, the evidence is largely discouraging on the first point. For example, Gray (1990) found high levels of belief in scientifically unsubstantiated phenomena among psychology students, with science students being more skeptical and humanities students more accepting of these ideas. Furthermore, it is commonly found that taking the introductory course in psychology reduces mythbelief only slightly (Lamal, 1979; McKeachie, 1960; Vaughan, 1977).

The present survey also examined the impact of psychology education on unsubstantiated beliefs, but over a wider range and number of courses than just the introductory course, and over a greater period of years in students' lives. The aim of the study was to relate myth acceptance to the amount of psychological education that a student has received in junior college and university, and to personal variables.

METHOD

PARTICIPANTS

Ninety-four undergraduate students at a liberal-arts college were employed as volunteer subjects, chosen on the basis that they had taken, or were taking, at least one psychology course at either junior college or university. Sixty-six were psychology majors. The age range was 18 to 43, with a median of 20. Participants gave informed consent to participate in the study and were treated according to APA ethical guidelines.

MATERIALS

The Test Your Psychology IQ questionnaire was employed as a measure of the respondents' myth rejection (Huber, 2000, unpublished). This questionnaire is given as Appendix 1, with the scoring key added. An additional questionnaire was used to record information on the number of psychology courses participants had completed at junior college and at university, their major program at university, whether or not they had taken an advanced research methods course, their overall average grade, their home province or state, their age, their university year, and their gender. …