Weekly Digest #88: Psychological Misconceptions in Movies and TV shows

Weekly Digest #88: Psychological Misconceptions in Movies and TV shows

One of goals as teachers of psychology is to make sure that students come out of our classes more equipped to identify misapplications of psychological principles in their everyday lives. Movies and TV shows are a very rich source of these misconceptions, and thus provide a very useful set of materials for training students to detect these misconceptions. Below we provide 5 scenes that can be used for an error-detection exercise, with explanations of the concept that each scene gets wrong. You may also be interested in this guest pot on teaching technique to help students overcome misconceptions, and this digest on how to successfully bust myths.

1) The Big Bang Theory - Sheldon Trains Penny

Psychological concept: Operant Conditioning
Misconception: When Sheldon talks about "negative reinforcement", he is actually talking about "positive punishment". They mention things like spraying Penny with water or giving her mild electric shocks. These are all forms of punishment, because they reduce the target behavior. They are "positive" because they include adding a stimulus, which in this case happens to be unpleasant (because it is a punishment). Negative reinforcement instead involves taking away something a person does not like, in order to reinforce the target behavior. For example, if a child behaves well during dinner, letting them off a chore. Positive punishment, on the other hand, involves adding an unpleasant stimulus to a behavior that you are trying to extinguish. See this blog post and this weekly digest for how behaviorist principles can be applied in the classroom.

2) Limitless (2011)

Psychological concept: The Brain
Misconception: This movie plays with the common misconception that we only use a small part of our brains on a daily basis. The main character in this movie takes a pill and suddenly gets to "access" all of his brain. See also the more recent movie Lucy (2014) for the same idea. In reality, we use most of our brains most of the time. See this blog post for more on the 10% brain myth.

3) Memento (2000)

Psychological Concept: Memory loss
Misconception: This movie refers to short-term memory loss to describe the inability to form new memories. This is actually anterograde amnesia. Short-term memory loss would involve, for example, having trouble remembering the beginning of a sentence you were listening to. See Finding Nemo (2003) and 50 First Dates (2004) for similar misapplications of that term, and see this blog post to read about the length of short-term memory.

4) Inside Out (2015)

Psychological Concepts: Memory and Personality
Misconception: Memory is depicted here as a gallery of individual memories that can be accessed and lost. In reality, memories are distributed throughout the brain in complex connectivity patterns. In addition, personality is depicted as consisting of separate nodes that a person draws upon to act as they do, which is not accurate as personality is wholistic. See this article for more information on what Inside Out gets wrong about psychological concepts.

5) Multi-Task Challenge with Amelia | Bizaardvark | Disney Channel

Psychological Concept: Multi-tasking
Misconception: In this clip, actors form the Disney Channel participate in a challenge to see if they can do more than one thing at once. Their conclusion is that "they did it!", making it seem like they were able to successfully multi-task. However, we know from research that it is generally not possible to do 2 things at once as efficiently as you can do the 2 things one at a time. For an easy demonstration of this effect, see this blog post

Every Sunday, we pick a theme and provide a curated list of links. If you have a theme suggestion, please don’t hesitate to contact us! Occasionally we publish a guest digest, and If you'd like to propose a guest digest click here. Our 5 most recent digests can be found here:

Weekly Digest #83: Memory and Emotion

Weekly Digest #84: Deliberate Practice

Weekly Digest #85: Adjunct Questions

Weekly Digest #86: How to Reduce Exam Stress

Weekly Digest #87: Encouraging Moral and Ethical Behavior