The Rise and Risks of Pop Psychology

Pop psychology has come about due to the boom in marketing and social media. Little by little, misconceptions have become popular that are damaging the field of psychology. There are also those who believe the psychological myths that this area perpetuates.
The Rise and Risks of Pop Psychology

Last update: 13 September, 2021

Pop psychology is a field that promotes concepts and approaches that aren’t always based on science. This phenomenon has been reinforced by the huge number of publications by “non-experts” as well as social media, for more than a decade. As a matter of fact, what began in the 1950s as a sincere attempt to make the field of psychology more accessible to the general public, has often taken off in some rather dubious directions.

Psychological urban myths colonize many posts that you read daily on your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds. They appear as messages on mugs and  T-shirts. There are also books with titles along the lines of “Positive people change the world”, “If you want something enough, life will give it to you in the end”, or “You can achieve anything with willpower and a smile”.

No doubt you’ve come across these types of magic formulas. That’s because pop psychology sells. In fact, it’s little more than marketing via the communication of simple, positive, and enthusiastic ideas. For this reason, it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Today, self-help publications by figures outside the field of psychology abound. This also makes ideas and theories not supported by science popular.

book with brain symbolizing "pop" psychology

Pop psychology and its origins

Selling mugs labeled with positive messages is fine. However, it’s a world away from publishing psychology books based on real scientific evidence. Indeed, one thing has nothing to do with the other. However, there are still those who don’t differentiate between the two. This is basically due to the “catchiness” of pop psychology, the phenomenon that’s now been around for more than a decade.

Nevertheless, as humans, we’re not ignorant. You know that being told “today you’re going to achieve everything you set out to” doesn’t mean you will. Indeed it’s highly unlikely. Similarly, if you hear “today there are thousands of reasons to smile “doesn’t mean you should feel obliged to do so if you don’t feel like it. Nevertheless, leaving all this aside, the origin of pop psychology is pretty curious and worth delving into.

George Miller was president of the American Psychological Association in 1969. This renowned expert in cognitive psychology issued a proclamation to his fellow professionals. He wanted to bring psychology closer to the world. His aim was worthwhile. In fact, he wanted to sensitize the subject and offer tools to solve society’s problems.

From that moment on, various specialized publications began to appear. However, it wasn’t until the 90s that the real boom emerged. Psychology was selling and it subsequently became a success…

Selling knowledge can be difficult

There’s an extremely interesting book called The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts, by historian Ellen Herman. In it, she explains that in the 1990s, psychology, which had always been a quiet academic discipline, experienced an unusual boom.

Suddenly, it became a voice of authority. In fact, in a short time, publications of all kinds began to proliferate. These ranged from those that gave guidelines on family and emotional matters, to those that advised on government policies. In this area, we can highlight the great success of Brené Brown, professor, and researcher at the University of Houston.

As in all fields, if an academic and professional discipline wants to reach all audiences, it has to change its jargon. Suddenly, psychology became accessible to all audiences and the public wanted more and more. Indeed, they wanted to learn, train, get to know, and understand themselves… It was then that the boom in self-help publications and positive psychology began.

Along with the great boom in psychology in the 90s, came the pop psychologists. They were authors, consultants, and speakers who gave their opinions and were seen as experts, but who didn’t really have any training in psychology.

Pop psychology and the rise of non-scientific publications

It’s important to note that a good amount of psychological publications have one objective: to help from a rigorous and valid perspective. In fact, throughout the boom in the 1990s to the present day, there are plenty of papers that have been written by qualified experts, academics, or science journalists.

For example, there’s Emotional Intelligence (1995) by Daniel Goleman, The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux (1996), and Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman. For this reason, we should emphasize that a good number of the books that go on the market are backed by experts and professionals on the subject.

However, where has the problem arisen? Why are unproven, simplified, or outright misconceptions about psychology proliferating today? These are some of the causes:

  • A high number of self-help publications have been written by non-expert figures on the subject.
  • Excessive simplification of psychological concepts that, in an attempt to reach the general public, end up losing their original meaning.
  • The boom of publications that combine psychology with spiritualism and non-scientific concepts.
  • The high demand for psychological information by the general public, which leads to the proliferation of publications in the media by non-experts.
  • Publication of theories not scientifically validated (such as neurolinguistic programming).
  • Popularization of invalid psychological myths, eg. inner child, differentiation between left and right brain, etc.
Woman with forced smile by pop psychology

The importance of separating the marketing industry from science-based psychology

The happiness industry sells. Indeed, each year it makes millions worldwide. This has led to a proliferation of books based on the classic toxic (and unscientific) positivism, which is based on a clearly individualistic narrative of the self. The same narrative that convinces us of the kinds of ideas like all we have to do to make things happen is to try hard.

It’s important to know how to separate “pop culture” marketing from real scientific publications. Of course, we’re all free to choose whatever we want at any particular time. However, let’s not forget George Armitage Miller’s, aim. Psychology must help society solve its problems.

For this to happen, rigorous, valid, and effective content written by experts in the psychological field must be offered. It’s these kinds of books that we should be looking for among the huge array of publications currently on offer.

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  • Herman, Ellen (1996 ) The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts. University of California Press
  • Park, N., Peterson, C., Szvarca, D., Vander Molen, R. J., Kim, E. S., & Collon, K. (2014). Positive Psychology and Physical Health: Research and Applications. American journal of lifestyle medicine10(3), 200–206. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827614550277
  • Emily Langer (August 3, 2012). “George A. Miller; helped transform the study of psychology; at 92”. Washington Post.  January 19, 2013