10 Most Surprising Findings from Psychological Studies

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.

10. Cognitive dissonance

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 cant explain my behavior.

The reason its unsettling is that our minds are probably performing these sorts of rationalizations all the time, without our conscious knowledge. So how do we know what we really think?

9. 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 among 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 wed like to think.

8. The placebo effect

Perhaps you’ve had the experience that a headache improves seconds after you take an aspirin? This cant be the drug because it takes at least 15 minutes to kick in.

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.

7. 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 Milgrams 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 behavior, and its a power we don’t notice until its dramatically revealed in studies like this.

6. Fantasies reduce motivation

One way people commonly motivate themselves is by using fantasies about the future. The idea is that dreaming about a positive future helps motivate you towards that goal.

Beware, though, psychologists have found that fantasizing 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 were likely to face on the way to our goals.

So whats a better way to commit to goals? Instead of fantasizing, use mental contrasting.

5. Choice blindness

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 rationalizations 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]

4. 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-favorite 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 its much better to send people off to think up new ideas on their own. Groups then do better at evaluating those ideas.

3. Trying to suppress your thoughts is counterproductive

When youre down or worried about something, people often say: hey, try not to think about it; just put it out of your mind!

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.

2. Incredible multi-tasking skills

Despite all the minds 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 categorize 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.

1. In life, its 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 asthe 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 peoples happiness are things like quality of sleep, little ups and downs at work and relationships with our friends and family. In other words: its the little things that make us happy.

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