The Problems With Popular Psychology

Today, I’ll discuss some of the main problems of psychology related to mass awareness of certain concepts and data. Because we have access to so much psychology, a lot of trash is generated. Psychology is a science. However, people seem to be corrupting the scientific endeavour and turning it into quackery.

Take, for example, the widespread understanding of personality based on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI). At least 2 million people take the official test every year. How many million more take its rip-offs on BuzzFeed and Meaww? The test is questionable. Its ripoffs even more so. Yet, people label their lives based on its results.

Are people drowning in the incorrect use of psychology?

This article may sound harsh but it’ll give you plenty to think about. I am not accusing people who believe the following, I am underscoring how pervasive the spread of incorrect information is.

I generally find the following aspects of popular psychology bothersome. There is so much bad psychology around us. It irks me. Here are some highlights.

Top Picks For Bad Psychology

Calling Traits A Disorder

Are you sad because your pet died? You are sad and are grieving. You aren’t depressed. Is your spelling bad? You don’t necessarily have dyslexia or dysgraphia. You like things neat? Stop saying you have OCD. You just like things neat.

We cannot trivialize actual disorders and the experience of people who suffer as a result. I’d say don’t joke about it either. If all you have is a habit/preference, call it a habit/preference.

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Disorders have diagnostic criteria which are used to see if some aspect of behavior or mental health actually is a disorder or not. I’d like to highlight that calling (or inclining to call) some behavior a disorder is warranted only when it interferes with daily functioning, professional and social functioning, causes harm to oneself or someone else, and creates rigid problems with respect to mental and/or physical health. While diagnosing disorders is still imperfect, it is important to meet basic requirements such as poor functioning in a certain facet of life or it causes distress. There is, almost always, personal distress and poor quality of life.

Analysing Body Language Out Of Context

Body language is highly culture-dependent. One can’t just use observations from New York and apply them to Sri Lankans. A study done on interpreting emotional states from body postures shows that there are culturally unique as well as universally common elements that belie body language. Culture, the environment, as well as our biological make-up as a species influence body language deferentially. These nonverbal communication differences are deeply embedded in culture and context. Thus, analysing body language without context will lead to errors. My guess is that this does more harm than good.

Compulsory Disorders

Everyone doesn’t have to have a disorder or condition. While the prevalence of certain disorders and mental health issues is high, one can’t point at anyone and assume that their behavior is a result of a disorder.

There is always a story behind what makes people people. Try to ask for those stories and you’ll realise that they aren’t always fueled by disorders.


While there are many sources which are clinically valid, self-diagnosis is shallow. After giving themselves a diagnosis, people end up acting like it and reinforce a false diagnosis. This creates a feedback loop that actually turns into maladaptive behaviour later on.

In this article, I’ll limit this point. I will write in depth about this someday. There is an interesting new concept called cyberchondria – hypochondria resulting from online research & self-diagnoses of disorders and diseases.


The world needs to get over MBTI. It is a gross approximation of Carl Jung’s work, done by non-professionals. The whole labeling of INFP, INTP, and announcing it (on Quora, for example) is quite lame. Are people actually craving a label so much that they are willing to define themselves on something not so accurate? At the risk of over-exaggeration, it is as bad as astrology.

Also Read: The Secret To Happiness

The test has been extensively used. However, its popular knockoffs give it a bad name and its popularity leads to an extremely poor interpretation of what it measures. Strictly speaking, the constructs that MBTI measures are themselves not standing on solid ground. MBTI aims to categorise people into binary preferences (extroversion vs. introversion, thinking vs. feeling, sensing vs. intuition, judgement vs. perception). The problem is, research shows that actual results from people do not represent such a binary preference. The distribution of scores is normal, but it should’ve been bimodal. That is evidence against its validity.

Personality is dynamic over time. Such labelling leads to a path of ‘adopting’ the personality and make it even more rigid. Is that a hot spot for unnecessary cognitive dissonance? I think so.

The reliability of MBTI is so bad that after just 5 weeks, you are likely to get a different personality. Personality is dynamic over time but it isn’t on Acid. I’m not saying the MBTI is all bad, it has a utility value that is supported by many clinicians. The problem is the weight people put on its results.

Are you an INTJ, ENTP, ESTJ?

ABFG, BJOH, DODO, sbjhgfslabslbfljbsfljb.

MBTI is probably gobbledygook and there is enough evidence that suggests poor validity and reliability. No offence Carl Jung, this wasn’t your mistake.

An ending note on my MBTI rant: This test is largely used by HR departments for team building workshops and overall training. Is the industry giving its employees a false evaluation? Are corporate decisions made using incorrect measurements?

Not Following Evidence

Psychology suffers from the weight of historical popularity. Information that is five decades old somehow just overshadows modern findings. Graduates and undergraduates have the power to change this but more often than not, they are just not up to date. I didn’t even know how to stay up to date during my masters program.

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This is worsened by the Dunning Kruger effect – people with low competence have high confidence in their trade until they reach a moderate level of competency and realise that their confidence is not warranted due to the extensive lack of knowledge, and then, confidence steadily grows as you develop serious expertise.

Tip #1

Old is not always Gold. Follow new findings and compare them with historical findings. Observe where the body of literature is moving. Look out for conflicting researches.

Tip #2

Follow Google+ groups for the latest research in easy article formats. Update the knowledge proactively by finding out what people are doing. Use the internet smartly (points 8, 9, 10).

Businesses Using Psychology

Applying so-called ‘Psychological findings’ for businesses without a psychologist’s consultation is damaging. You don’t want to spend tons of money without knowing what is happening. Interpretation of psychological findings is very different when done by a professional as compared to a layperson.

The most common problem is that people like to use a certain finding such as ‘Doing X affects Y’ and try to implement it. There is an error in this approach. Research findings are in the context of a larger body of literature. Research evidence is evidence for a certain theory (on most occasions). The theory/model is the framework that is supported by the research finding. Thus, for a chance at successful implementation, focus on implementing the theory and model that the research supports. Not the finding by itself.

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Tip #3

Follow the evidence-based theory by exploring underlying mechanisms. Not just the statement of the research finding you read about.

Confounding Variables

Psychology is complex; studying it, even more. Let’s say a study says, ‘Doing X daily helps lower anxiety’. A confounding variable is a thing that affects both X & anxiety. These variables need to be accounted for in follow up research. They should also be communicated while quoting the research.

Tip #4

Once again, when you see a research finding and want to use it in life, look for confounding variables and see if they apply to you.

Left-Right Brainer

I’ve heard business coaches, life coaches, and many industry experts talk about being a left-brainer or a right-brainer. And how for some business practices you need a right-brainer front-man. What went wrong in communicating about split-brain research insights that lead to this myth?

We aren’t Left- or Right-brained. We use both parts for all activities. Sometimes, a certain region on one side of the brain is more relevant to a certain process, such as left for language. That is called hemispheric lateralisation. It just means that one side has a dominant role in a process. Rest assured, you can perform all activities to the best of your ability when you have both your halves.

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So what scientific thing can you infer by classifying people as left-brainers or right-brainers? Nada.

Here is a 1000-person study done on finding out the truth about this left-right hooey. Even gender differences weren’t found in terms of left and right.

Might I say, you aren’t a leftist. Even if you want to be one. At least your brain isn’t. Or is it? Research points to differences between the brains of people with different political ideologies.

Personality is dynamic yet relatively stable. Bad psychology is seeking validation from labels of poorly constructed tests like MBTI and its rip-offs.

There is a new model of personality which is insightful, useful, and great for non-judgemental labels. The HEXACO model. It’s an improvement on the big 5-personality model. Take the official test to know more.

I hope, with this article, you can make use of psychology in your life in useful and meaningful ways!

P.S. Lady Gaga should write a song called ‘Bad Psychology’.


The author, Aditya Shukla, is a learning scientist, psychologist and entrepreneur. He is a founder of The OWL, an organisation working on optimising the interaction of information and the brain.

A version of this article first appeared on his personal site.


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2 thoughts on “The Problems With Popular Psychology

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  • February 14, 2018 at 12:46 AM

    Damn what an interesting read! I get frustrated with the same aspects on an almost daily basis


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