Lesson Idea: Psychology in Popular Media

Travis DixonResearch Methodology

People naturally find psychological research really fascinating. But reporters and writers know this and use it to their advantage. This is why we need to be careful of "neurobunk."

This would be a particularly good TOK lesson. 

Activity One: Watch a TED Talk

Watch this TED Talk by Molly Crockett, one of the researchers in the Passamonti et al.’s experiment on trytophan depletion and its effects on the prefrontal cortex. In this talk she explains why we should be wary of “neurobunk.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b64qvG2Jgro&w=560&h=315]

After the video, discuss what you think is meant by the term “neurobunk.”

Activity Two: Do some reading

Find a partner and choose one of the following articles to read.

  • Chocolate stops you from being grump (Link)

  • A cheese sandwich is all you need for good decision making (Link)

  • The brain scan that can reveal people’s intentions (Link)

  • You have a favourite child and its costing you money (Link

  • If you’re looking for a healthier life, get a dog (Link)

After you’ve read the article, discuss with your partner and write some notes on differences between the original study and how its reported in the article. You might want to do some digging and find the original study and compare with how it’s presented originally, with how it’s presented in popular media.

Activity Three: Guiding Question

Can you answer this question?

  • How can understanding psychological research methodology protect you from being misinformed by the media?


  • Do journalists have an ethical obligation to present information factually, or do you think it’s OK to distort findings to bring research to a wider audience and/or entertain people?

This would make an excellent assignment for IB Language and Literature students, either for a written task or a further oral activity, or even just as a class activity.

Need help? This excellent article by psyblog “Revealed: Eight Ways the Media Distorts Psychology” has more excellent links and also goes into detail explaining just how the media can misrepresent research in order to entertain and get views, at the expense of providing accurate information.

Have you found an example of psychological research being distorted in the media? Post it in the comments.

A note for teachers…

I think an activity like this has the potential to be a really good summative assessment in IB Psychology. Imagine an exam paper where students are presented with an article like this and asked to critically evaluate its representation. I’m thinking this would be a good way to assess how well students can practically apply what they’ve learned in this course about research methodology in a way that will be really useful for them even after they graduate.