How Widely Believed Are These 8 Common Myths Really?

September 06, 2017 - 7 minute read

Are you squeamish? Don’t like spiders? Then I bet you don’t like the idea that we swallow 8 spiders in our sleep each year.

Thankfully, it’s completely fabricated.

Yet Google “swallow 8 spiders in our sleep each year” and you’ll get 2,610,000 results relating to the query. It’s a very common myth, and one that I’ll wager you’ve heard before.

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What about the ‘fact’ that we only use 10% of our brains? Or that humans only have an 8 second attention span - shorter than a goldfish - another ‘fact’ beloved and propagated by marketers who have no clue and don’t care to base their assertions on real evidence if it nicely supports the point they’re trying to make.

All 3 of these claims have been verifiably refuted, but does that stop people believing them?

We polled 250 members of the public to learn which myths continue to endure and which ones are less widely believed.

Here are the results.

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What can we learn from this?

Lesson #1: Personal experience is hard to ignore

What’s interesting is that the 2 myths that are believed the least are both quite easily verified by our own experiences.

I don’t know about you, but my attention span is much longer than 8 seconds. In fact I can quite easily manage a multi-hour Netflix binge, which would be pretty tough to do with an 8 second attention span.

Clearly the vast majority of consumers also get this.

It would seem they can also attest to the fallibility of their memory, and the fact that it doesn’t work like a video camera at all. Therefore they don’t believe the myth - despite a widely cited research paper from 2011 which found that nearly 2/3rds of Americans believed their memory did work like a video recorder.

However there’s no way we can verify from our personal experience whether or not we use only 10% of our brain, or whether a penny dropped from a great height would kill you.

What we can take from this, is that the closer to our experiences, the less likely we are to believe contradictory evidence.

For brands, it’s important to etch this lesson in your notebook:

No amount of great marketing, sloganing, positioning or otherwise will help you win customers back if they have a bad experience. Therefore you need to deliver on your promises and provide peerless customer service.

Lesson #2: Heuristics are powerful

In lieu of personal experience, humans tend to rely on heuristics - mental shortcuts - to help them decide what they believe or not. This is because the world is too complex and fast-paced for us to independently verify all the different messages we receive each day.

We can see heuristics at work in these results.

Is the brain incredibly powerful and complex? Sure it is. So it seems reasonable that given our obvious fallibility, we probably only use a fraction of it. Unless you’ve ever been motivated enough to go and find out whether that’s true or not, whenever you hear the idea that we only use 10% of our brains, it seems to fit neatly enough into your existing worldview that you just accept it.

The same with the idea of a penny dropped from a great height being able to kill someone. Coins have mass and would hurt if someone threw one at you; and things thrown off very tall buildings are dangerous.

Combine the two ideas and most people will readily make the mental shortcut that says ‘seems reasonable’ to the concept of a penny being lobbed off a tall building being able to kill somebody, and so they believe it is true, without any evidence to the contrary.

The big takeaway for brands here is that there are a huge number of heuristics - also known as cognitive biases - that you can learn to leverage when trying to persuade consumers to try or buy your products or services.

#3: Repetition can turn to belief

One of the interesting things about these myths is that they all have something in common - they’re repeated, over and over again, offline and online.

Lazy journalists and bloggers who might have seen it once will add it to their own publication to help back up their argument; or well intentioned friends who heard it somewhere will pass on their ‘knowledge’ to you.

The point is, if you hear something enough times, eventually you can start to believe it as true. This is known as the ‘illusory truth effect’ and has recently been explored (and further shown to be a real phenomena) in ‘The Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior.’

What’s incredible about this is that repeating a statement can convince people of its veracity even when they know it not to be true! So if a frequently repeated myth fits into their existing worldview (triggering confirmation bias) then it’s very likely that they will start to believe it.

Of course, this is a trick often used by marketers and politicians already.

The key thing for brands to note here is that this is yet another data set that supports other mounting evidence that repetition can help form beliefs.

6 More interesting takeaways

Here are a few more interesting takeaways from the results:

  • Women are more likely than men to believe it’s true that men think about sex every 7 seconds; and anyone (male or female) aged over 50 is way more likely to believe it.

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  • Men are more likely than women to believe that humans only have an 8 second attention span; and they’re much more likely to believe this if they live and work in London.

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  • Gen Z (those aged 21 and under) are generally more skeptical of the myths we asked about, but they are more likely to believe we swallow up to 8 spiders a year in our sleep.
  • Millennials (22-35 years old) are more likely than the general population to believe that toilets flush in the opposite direction in Australia.
  • Gen X (36-55 years old) are most likely to believe that men think about sex every 7 seconds
  • Boomers (55+) are most likely to believe that we only use 10% of our brains

You can check out the data in full here.

In conclusion

Our survey shows that the majority of people don’t believe any of the common myths that continue to do the rounds both online and off. Kudos to those who’ve taken the time to separate fact from fiction.

However, significant chunks of the population do still believe them, highlighting that myths can have a powerful hold over our belief systems, even when there’s plenty of evidence just a Google search away that prove they’re untrue.

For brands, the interesting takeaway isn’t that over a third of the UK think they swallow 8 spiders a year...it’s the reasons why. From heuristics to the illusory truth effect to confirmation bias, there are plenty of psychological nuances to the human brain that can help your messages to stick.

Want to know what your target consumers believe? How to shape messages that fit into their existing worldview?

Get in touch today and we’ll help you craft successful marketing campaigns of mythical proportions.

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