Psychology has a reputation for being the science of common sense, or a field that simply confirms things we already know about ourselves.
One way of battling this misconception, explains Jeremy Dean — a PhD candidate in psychology and master of ceremonies at the always-awesome PsyBlog — is to “think about all the unexpected, surprising, and just plain weird findings that have popped out of psychology studies over the years.” Here are ten of his favorite examples.
This is perhaps one of the weirdest and most unsettling findings in psychology. Cognitive dissonance is the idea that we find it hard to hold two contradictory beliefs, so we unconsciously adjust one to make it fit with the other.
In the classic study, students found a boring task more interesting if they were paid less to take part. Our unconscious reasons like this: if I didn’t do it for money, then I must have done it because it was interesting. As if by magic, a boring task becomes more interesting because otherwise I can’t explain my behaviour.
The reason it’s unsettling is that our minds are probably performing these sorts of rationalisations all the time, without our conscious knowledge. So how do we know what we really think?
Hallucinations are common
Hallucinations are like waking dreams, and we tend to think of them as markers of serious mental illness. In reality, however, they are more common amongst ‘normal’ people than we might imagine. One-third of us report having experienced hallucinations, with 20% experiencing hallucinations once a month, and 2% once a week (Ohayon, 2000).
Similarly, ‘normal’ people often have paranoid thoughts, as in this study I reported previously in which 40% experienced paranoid thoughts on a virtual journey. The gap between people with mental illness and the ‘sane’ is a lot smaller than we’d like to think. [Illustration by S. Stalkfleet]
The placebo effect
That’s the placebo effect: your mind knows you’ve taken a pill, so you feel better. In medicine it seems strongest in the case of pain: some studies suggest a placebo of saline (salty water) can be as powerful as morphine. Some studies even suggest that 80% of the power of Prozac is placebo.
The placebo effect is counter-intuitive because we easily forget that mind and body are not separate.
Obedience to authority
Most of us like to think of ourselves as independently-minded people. We feel sure that we wouldn’t harm another human being unless under very serious duress. Certainly something as weak as being ordered to give someone an electric shock by an authority figure in a white coat wouldn’t be enough, would it?
Stanley Milgram’s famous study found it was. Sixty-three percent of participants kept giving electric shocks to another human being despite the victim screaming in agony and eventually falling silent.
[The test setting is illustrated in the figure shown here, via]
Situations have huge power to control our behaviour, and it’s a power we don’t notice until it’s dramatically revealed in studies like this.
Fantasies reduce motivation
Beware, though, psychologists have found that fantasising about future success is actually bad for motivation. It seems that getting a taste of the future in the here and now reduces the drive to achieve it. Fantasies also fail to flag up the problems we’re likely to face on the way to our goals.
So what’s a better way to commit to goals? Instead of fantasising, use mental contrasting.
We all know the reasons for our decisions, right? For example, do you know why you’re attracted to someone? Don’t be so sure. In one study, people were easily tricked into justifying choices they didn’t actually make about who they found attractive. Under some circumstances, we exhibit what is known as choice blindness: we seem to have little or no awareness of choices we’ve made and why we’ve made them. We then use rationalisations to try and cover our tracks.
This is just one example of the general idea that we have relatively little access to the inner workings of our minds. [Photo by Pablo Perez]
Two (or three, or four…) heads are not always better than one
Want to think outside the box? Do some blue sky thinking? Want to… [insert your own least-favourite cliché here].
Well, according to psychological research, brainstorming doesn’t work. People in groups tend to be lazy, likely to forget their ideas while others talk, and worry about what others will think (despite the rule that ‘there are no bad ideas’).
It turns out it’s much better to send people off to think up new ideas on their own. Groups then do better at evaluating those ideas.
Trying to suppress your thoughts is counterproductive
This is very bad advice. Trying to suppress your thoughts is counter-productive. Like trying as hard as you can not to think about pink elephants or white bears. What people experience when they try to suppress their thoughts is an ironic rebound effect: the thought comes back stronger than before.
Looking for distractions is a much better strategy.
Incredible multi-tasking skills
Despite all the mind’s limitations, we can train it to do incredible things. Take our multitasking abilities, for example — did you know that, with practice, people can actually read and write at the same time?
One study of multitasking trained two volunteers over 16 weeks until they could read a short story and categorise lists of words at the same time. Eventually they could perform as well on both tasks at the same time as they could on each task individually before the study began.
Read a full description of the study, along with potential criticisms, here.
In life, it’s all about the little things
We tend to think that the big events in our lives are the most important: graduation, getting married, or the birth of a child.
But major life events are often not as directly important to our well-being as the little hassles and uplifts of everyday life; major events, on the other hand, mainly affect us through the daily hassles and uplifts they produce. The same is true at work, where job satisfaction is strongly hit by everyday hassles.
What most affects people’s happiness are things like quality of sleep, little ups and downs at work and relationships with our friends and family. In other words: it’s the little things that make us happy.