What Is Pop Psychology?

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What Is Pop Psychology?

Popular (pop) psychology is an umbrella term that covers any psychological ideology, therapy, or other technique which gained popularity through a book, TV show, or blog post.

Pop psychology approaches are often characterized by an emphasis on personal feelings, the latest trends in popular culture, and self-help techniques. These approaches may not be scientifically supported or researched but have become popular with people who want to improve their mental well-being.

Pop psychology is often associated with quick fixes as it promises easy solutions to difficult problems. It is also associated with personality tests that may not be scientifically validated. Popular personalities who promote pop psychology approaches such as Dr. Phil McGraw or Oprah Winfrey have contributed greatly to the growth of pop psychology.

This article discusses the history of pop psychology and its types. It also teaches you how to spot pop psychology information and explores the pitfalls of relying on this kind of content.

History of Pop Psychology

The history of pop psychology dates back to the 17th century when philosophers such as Descartes and Locke used their knowledge of human nature to “prove” what we now call scientific theories.

Pop psychology emerged in full force due to Freud's psychoanalytic theories being published for the masses in his self-published book titled “The Interpretation of Dreams.” At that time, there was a huge surge in interest.

In the 1960s, another pop psychology resurgence resulted in controversial books like Erich Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom.” This book was the first to tie the post-WWII interest in Eastern religions and yoga to our need for individual freedom.

The 1970s saw a pop psychology book boom, with titles like Thomas Harris’s “I’m OK - You’re OK.” Then, in 1980, John Gray published “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,” which became one of the most popular self-help books of all time.

There has been a push for more scientifically based approaches rather than those rooted in popular culture in recent years. However, it seems as if we’ll never shake our need for popular psychology to some extent.

Signs You’re Reading Pop Psychology

Are you unsure whether that book you are reading, show you are watching, or blog post you are scanning is based on pop psychology or something more scientifically sound?

Here are some signs that what you are consuming might be pop psychology:

  • It sounds too good to be true or doesn’t provide any research evidence of effectiveness.
  • The author/speaker has never treated anyone with the conditions they claim expertise in treating.
  • There’s no mention of qualifications, training, licensure, or certification.

While being “popular” doesn’t necessarily mean that a book, program, or website is unhelpful, it can be a red flag if any of the above signs are true.

Types of Pop Psychology

Below are some of the common types of pop psychology you may come across.

  • Pop Psychology Blogs. Personal websites written by authors without expertise on a given topic.
  • Talk Shows/ TV Programs/Podcasts. These can vary in quality, from those hosted by psychologists to those hosted by people who have never studied psychology.
  • YouTube Channels. There are many YouTubers making videos on mental health topics and claiming to be experts in the field. It is important to research their qualifications before watching any of these channels for advice.
  • Self-Help Books. Self-help books sometimes contain methods that are not evidence-based or endorsed by scientific research.
  • Self-Help Products. Many self-help products can be found online, but they are not all based on evidence-based methods.
  • Internet Forums. Internet forums may have users who claim to know about psychology when they don’t. Therefore, it is important to research the qualifications of any user before taking advice from them or their posts on these types of platforms.

Tips for Using Pop Psychology

Pop psychology provides you with an opportunity to explore your mind and emotions. It provides self-help techniques that could potentially improve your life, relationships, or career.

However, forms of pop psychology that are not rooted in academic research and have no empirical evidence backing up their claims can be dangerous if you are struggling with mental health issues.

Below is a list of tips to help you use pop psychology as a part of your mental health care plan.

  • Do not rely on pop psychology alone, but instead combine it with other treatments such as psychotherapy or medication.
  • Talk with your doctor about pop psychology methods you plan to try.
  • Recognize that the same advice may not work for everyone. Look for evidence-based methods rather than personal stories or anecdotes about success.
  • Don’t spend more than you can afford to lose since there are no guarantees about the outcome.
  • Be cautious about self-diagnosis based on what you read or watch online.
  • Reflect on whether you want advice from someone who has never evaluated or treated your condition.

Pitfalls of Pop Psychology

While there are many benefits to pop psychology, there are also drawbacks. One of the main disadvantages is that it generally is not based on empirical evidence and therefore cannot be tested for effectiveness.

Below are some other potential pitfalls of pop psychology:

  • Misleading. Pop psychology is sometimes based on outdated science, ideas, or theories.
  • Objectionable. Some content may not align with your specific values and beliefs. For example, someone who belongs to a certain religion might find the teachings of other religions objectionable within pop psychology.
  • Profit-based. Pop psychology is often sensationalized and oversimplified for profit. If you are spending money on pop psychology, you may be a victim of what is called “junk science.” In other words, those promoting cures based on pop psychology never have their ideas tested in the scientific arena.
  • Placebo effect. Pop psychology can also involve what is known as the “placebo effect.” The placebo effect occurs when a group is given a “cure” that does not actually have an effect. However, the group experiences a positive outcome because of their expectations that it will occur.
  • Not subject to scrutiny. Scientists publish their research in peer-reviewed journals, where they share information with other experts in the field. These experts can let them know of any potential errors or omissions in their work. Pop psychologists, on the other hand, write books about their ideas and use anecdotes and personal experiences as evidence to back up their claims. As long as pop psychology works outside the realm of science-based inquiry, it won’t be easy to assess its impacts and improve on any successes.
  • Used in place of treatment. Pop psychology books can be problematic in that they can sometimes lead people in need of professional treatment down a path that’s not only ineffective but potentially harmful. What’s more, if you are already receiving mental health care, reading these types of books can be counterproductive. For example, if you’re in therapy to address your eating disorder and read a book that suggests dieting is the answer, it could cause major setbacks with treatment progress.

A Word From Verywell

Given that pop psychology is a way to express and share personal experiences, it can be helpful for those who need support. There are clear benefits to pop psychology, as it is both entertaining and an outlet for people who might not otherwise have any mental health support system at all.

However, If you are considering using pop psychology, it is important to know that there are a number of risks involved. With so many pop psychology books and online resources, it is easy to lose sight of the essential questions: What are the qualifications of this author or therapist? Can I afford what’s being offered? Am I taking advice from someone who has never evaluated or treated this condition?

Only after you have answered these questions can you make an informed decision about the risks and benefits of jumping on the pop psychology bandwagon.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Mommaerts JL, Devroey D. From "does it work?" to "what is 'it'?": implications for voodoo, psychotherapy, pop-psychology, regular, and alternative medicine. Perspect Biol Med. 2013 Spring;56(2):274-88. doi:10.1353/pbm.2013.0015

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."