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Myth: Shattering a myth is easy

Myth: Shattering a myth is easy

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

For the past two years, scientists have tried to shatter 71 myths in this column. The principle was always: people once received incorrect information about the subject, so if we tell them how it really is, they will no longer believe in the myth. Unfortunately, it is not that simple, says psychologist Arie van der Lugt.

“People are constantly searching for explanations as to why things are the way they are. When we find a viable explanation, we hang on to that. Even when we are confronted with the opposite. Even if the explanation is not all that logical. The truth is more complex than the myth, not as clear, and less certain. All scientific studies therefore end with a recommendation for more research, because we don't know the whole story. People don't like uncertainty, we would rather hear a bad story than no story at all.”

In science, this danger is lurking too. “We forget that we are emotional beings. We choose to hear and see those things that suit our story. When we have a certain theory, we easily see proof to fit. Just like when you have a new car, you suddenly see that car everywhere.”

Van der Lugt refers to research in which people had to guess what someone's profession was. “They first read that this person has characteristics that we associate with engineers. Then how small the chance is that this person is actually an engineer. The majority of the participants ignore that information, even statisticians who are trained to focus on these types of figures.” The stereotype – these characteristics go with this profession, so it almost has to be true – suppresses reason. A bit like someone who thinks that the longer it takes him, the greater his chances are of throwing a six, because it still hasn't happened. “Casinos live on that.”

Van der Lugt himself always tries to be a critical thinker. “The moment I find myself nodding enthusiastically, I ask myself: is this correct? How does it work? We often ask ‘why’, but not ‘how’. For example: explanations for our present-day behaviour are easily drawn from the theory of evolution. Women love shopping more so than men, because in prehistoric times they were the collectors. Then you have an answer to the question: why are women more into shopping? But what you should ask yourself is: how does that work exactly? How did the collecting of berries grow into a predilection for shopping? This type of ‘Flintstone stories’, myths about cave dwellers, ignores all too easily the millions of years of evolution leading up to this.”

If it is so difficult to shatter a myth, should scientists even try? “I myself am very careful with this during my lecturers. Start by stating clearly that it is a myth. Don't go into too much detail – this creates uncertainty in people, as a result of which they will turn their backs on the new information. Do, however, ensure that your story is not too simplistic, because then it still won't be right.” So, it is a difficult task. According to Van der Lugt, the most important thing is that we are aware of our tendency to believe in myths. “Be a critical thinker, we are looking for the truth, not truthiness.”

One last remark: not all myths are bad. “We can learn wise lessons in life from fairy tales or ancient Greek stories. Others – you go to heaven after you die – work like a soother. The story in which we believe, puts our minds at rest. That is fine as long as we know that this is the reason why we believe in it.”

Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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