The Seductive Nature of Psychological Myths: Is Metacognition the Great Equalizer?

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The Academically Gag Inducing Problem

Recently, in my educational psychology class, I overheard two students talking about how they were right-brain thinkers (i.e., are holistic thinkers, problem solve using intuition, creative, etc.).

Two weeks later, I heard my one of my developmental research methods students say, “I think the best way to study is to use color-coded highlighters” followed by “It also helps me on tests when I listen to lectures because I am an auditory learner.”

In all three of these instances, I had this involuntary gag reflex (not joking and I am thankful my students weren’t looking at me) because I was so astonished that these well-documented psychological myths had been publicly denounced and yet students (psychology students no less) still whole-heartedly believed in them.

The inner-researcher in me just couldn’t take it anymore. As an educational psychologist who studies metacognition, I instantly thought that these cringe-worthy comments had to do with lack of metacognition, but most of the research on susceptibility to myths had to do with—what were the myths, how prevalent were they—and very few researchers focused on the source of why students and even the general public were seduced into believing in these myths?

Therefore, to answer this question, my students and I set out to investigate if metacognition may play an integral role in understanding why we “drink-the-Koolaid” of psychological myths.

One Potential Answer to the Question

We gave over 300 undergraduate freshman a 65-item psychological and educational misconceptions inventory that were pooled from several studies (e.g., Amsel et al., 2009; Standing & Huber, 2003). We assessed metacognitive beliefs using the Need for Cognition Scale (NCS; Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996), the Metacognitive Awareness Inventory (MAI; Schraw & Dennison, 1994), the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ; Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1991), and the Memory for Self-Efficacy Questionnaire (MSEQ; Berry, West, & Dennehy, 1989).

All the above measures were self-reported measures of metacognition. We included one direct measure of metacognition, that is calibration (Schraw, Kuch, Gutierrez, & Richmond, 2014). Calibration is the degree to which learners understand what they know and what they do not know. We used these variables to predict how susceptible students were to believe in these beliefs.

Is Metacognition the Great Equalizer?

We found that metacognitive variables were highly predictive of student’s susceptibility to believing in educational and psychological misconceptions (Richmond et al., 2015). Up to 45% of the variance of the susceptibility to myths was explained by metacognition variables. Interestingly, the most powerful predictor (over 26%) was the student’s actual measure of metacognition (e.g., calibration as measured through gamma).

the more accurate students were at knowing when they knew or did not know something, the less they believed in misconceptions - Aaron Richmond, PhD Click To Tweet

Meaning, the more accurate students were at knowing when they knew or did not know something (i.e., calibration), the less they believed in misconceptions. Also, when students had higher scores on need for cognition, they had more advanced beliefs on how to regulate cognition, stronger self-efficacy for learning preferences and control of learning beliefs, the less susceptible they were to believe in these pervasive misconceptions.

Well Great, What Do We Do Now?

The answer to this question lies within the metacognition research. The most important question is: How can we teach our students to calibrate?

In other words, how do we teach our students when to recognize what they know and what they don’t know? This is a question long studied in the metacognition research realm and my good friend and colleague Chris Was at Kent State University has developed some interesting ways to increase students’ calibration. Specifically, he has conducted several (both laboratory and ecologically valid) experiments which center on the use of weighted assessments (Foster, Was, Dunlosky, & Isaacson, 2017; Hartwig, Was, Isaacson, & Dunlosky, 2012; Was, Beziat, & Isaacson, 2013) as a means to provide personal feedback to students (that they own).

As illustrated in the Figure below, students are presented with a quiz, based on their calibration (whether they believe they know it or not), they are allowed to give more points (weight) to the questions they thought they knew the correct answer to and fewer points (weight) to the questions they feel like they do not know.

Quiz 5: The format of this quiz allows you to increase the value of the questions you are sure of and decrease the value of those you are unsure of. To do this, choose 3 questions to be Light-Weight (worth 2 points each) and 4 questions you think should be Heavy-Weight (worth 4 points) by writing your answer in either the Light-Weight or Heavy-Weight column. Be sure to indicate whether you know the answer or not.

Heavy -Weight
Do you know it?
Yes or No
When Celeste was unable to obtain her regular supply of heroin, she began to develop pain and an intense craving for the drug. Celeste was experiencing symptoms of
a.       tolerance.
b.      reuptake.
c.       synthesis.
d.      withdrawal.
The simultaneous processing of information at both conscious and unconscious levels is called
a.       the cocktail party effect.
b.      the pop-out phenomenon.
c.       dual processing.
d.      selective attention.

After each quiz, instructors or teaching assistants (TAs) can debrief with each student (obviously most instructors can’t do this every quiz) to discuss why they thought they knew or did not know each answer. In this discussion, the TA or instructor specifically discusses three questions:

  1. Why do you think you were right (on questions they got wrong which is overconfidence)?
  2. Why do you think you were wrong (on questions they got right, which is underconfidence)? and
  3. How can you improve your study skills? In Dr. Was’ studies, they do this several times over the course of the semester.

The Metacognitive Take Home Message

First, my students and I think that understanding the role metacognition has in conceptual development (both inaccurate and accurate) is the first step in solving the susceptibility to psychological myths problem.

Second, if metacognition has such a huge impact on susceptibility to believing in these myths, teachers should stress the importance of metacognitive development and teach how to improve student metacognition. As such, our students will have more accurate conceptual development.

Finally, if metacognition is such a key player in this problem, far more researchers and teachers need to create effective interventions to raise the metacognitive levels of our students. I hope you will join us in this last endeavor.



Amsel, E., Johnston, A., Alvarado, E., Kettering, J., Rankin, L., & Ward, M. (2009). The effect of perspective on misconceptions in psychology: A test of conceptual change theory. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 36(4), 289-295.

Berry, J. M., West, R. L. & Dennehey, D. M. (1989). Reliability and validity of the Memory Self-Efficacy Questionnaire. Developmental Psychology, 25, 701-713. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.25.5.701

Foster, N. L., Was, C. A., Dunlosky, J., & Isaacson, R. M. (2017). Even after thirteen class exams, students are still overconfident: the role of memory for past exam performance in student predictions. Metacognition and Learning12, 1-19.

Hartwig, M. K., Was, C. A., Isaacson, R. M., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). General knowledge monitoring as a predictor of in‐class exam performance. British Journal of Educational

Pintrich, P. R., Smith. D. A., Garcia, T., & McKeachie. W. (1991) A manual for the use of the motivated strategies for learning questionnaire. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

Richmond, A. S., Rauer, H. M., & Klein, E. (2015). How does metacognition predict beliefs in psychological and educational misconceptions? The Researcher, 27, 20-24. Retrieved from

Schraw, G., & Dennison, R. S. (1994). Assessing metacognitive awareness. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 19, 460-475. doi:10.1006/ceps.1994.1033

Schraw, G., Kuch, F., Gutierrez, A. P., & Richmond, A. S. (2014). Exploring a three-level model of calibration accuracy. Journal of Educational Psychology106(4), 1192.

Standing, L. G., & Huber, H. (2003). Do psychology courses reduce beliefs in psychological myths? Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 31, 585-585. doi:10.2224/sbp.2003.31.6.585

Was, C. A., Beziat, T. L., & Isaacson, R. M. (2013). Improving metacognition in a college classroom: Does enough practice work?. Journal of Research in Education23, 77-93.

About the Author

Aaron Richmond
Aaron S. Richmond is a professor of educational psychology and human development at Metropolitan State University of Denver. With almost a decade of professional teaching experience, Dr. Richmond has taught over a dozen different psychology and education courses. Dr. Richmond approaches teaching by focusing on model teaching skills, such as, engaging students, being caring, respectful, and prepared. As a result of his approach and dedication to teaching, Dr. Richmond has garnered several awards for excellence in teaching and mentoring. These including student lead awards such as the Psi Chi Excellence in Teaching Award to national teaching awards such as the Society for Teaching of Psychology Jane S. Halonen Award for Excellence in Teaching. In more than 75 peer reviewed journal articles, books, and book chapters Dr. Richmond has explored effective pedagogical approaches to instruction in both k-12 and higher education. He specifically investigates cognitive and elaborative processes, model teaching competencies, the efficacy of instructional strategies, and various other topics in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Furthermore, as evident by publishing and presenting research with over 25 undergraduate and graduate students, Dr. Richmond strongly believes in mentoring students through the research process in hopes to help shape future leaders in psychology and SoTL research. In the end, Dr. Richmond has dedicated his academic career to studying the improvement of classroom practices and learning in order to better serve his students.

4 Comments on "The Seductive Nature of Psychological Myths: Is Metacognition the Great Equalizer?"

  1. Using the phrase “drink the kool-aid” is disgusting and trivializes the real tragedy of Jonestown in which the victims were forced to drink the flavoraid and cyanide mixture at gunpoint. For someone railing against psychological myths to use a trope like this makes your point highly suspect since you’re not engaging in the same introspective practices you’re looking down on others for not engaging in.

  2. Avatar Aaron S. Richmond, Ph.D. | March 8, 2019 at 12:40 pm |

    Sorry CM. It wasn’t my intent to be offensive.

  3. Avatar Cathie Davies | March 10, 2019 at 10:17 am |

    Steven Pinker, in his book “Enlightenment Now”, quotes analysis by Dan Kahan that suggests that certain beliefs become “symbols of cultural allegiance”, and that “people affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are”(P.357). Pinker explains: “To express the wrong opinion on a politicised issue can make one an oddball at best – someone who “doesn’t get it” – and a traitor at worst. The pressure to conform becomes all the greater as people live and work with others who are like them …” (p.358).

    The questions in your quiz appear to be designed to probe the student’s capacity for memorising terminology – the vocabulary shared within a scientific community – rather than their capacity for scientific reasoning. It does not appear to be designed to assess their capacity to evaluate the quality of research on a given topic, nor to gauge whether plausible alternative hypotheses have been adequately considered. Are you sure that your gag reflex was not simply a gut reaction to someone questioning the dogma? I am not familiar with the research topics you mention, but your belief in the infallibility of the research must be remarkably secure.

  4. Avatar Aaron S. Richmond, Ph.D. | March 12, 2019 at 12:53 am |

    Cathie, Thanks for the insightful comment on my blog. The questions in the quiz are fro an introductory psychology class an are unrelated to neuromyths. They are an example of how you can teach calibration to your students. One of the questions was definitely assessing the ability to recall a definition. The other was meant to assess the ability to apply a concept. In hindsight, I think it would have been better if I wrote the quiz as a way of calibrating neuromyths.

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