11 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day
If you assume that you understand why you think and act the way you do, you're probably wrong.
Decades of psychological research suggest that people behave in ways that are mysterious and perplexing — even to themselves.
We sifted through the Quora thread, "What are some mind-blowing facts about social psychology?" and pulled out the most fascinating findings. (Some fall outside the realms of social psychology, but we thought they were worth including.)
Read on to find out why we label other people jerks and ourselves victims of circumstance; why powerful people are messier eaters; and why we'd rather give ourselves electric shocks than sit alone for 15 minutes (seriously).
1. We often subscribe to the majority opinion, even when it's obvious the majority is wrong
"People often go to surprising lengths to conform to the majority opinion," writes Quora user Leo Polovets, referring to an experiment conducted by psychologist Solomon Asch.
Back in the 1950s, Asch designed an experiment in which participants saw three lines and were asked to say which one was longest. One line was clearly longer than the others.
In each iteration of the experiment, just one participant was surrounded by a group of confederates, who all reported that one of the shorter lines was longest. Sure enough, three-quarters of participants agreed with the rest of the group at least once.
In 2005, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Gregory Berns replicated the experiment and found similar results. Berns also scanned participants' brains while the experiment was going on and determined that group pressure actually caused people to change their perception of reality, while disagreeing with the group caused people to experience emotional discomfort.
2. We don't always realize that the environment has a huge impact on our behavior
In countries where drivers' licenses have an opt-out box for organ donation, the rate of consent is significantly higher than in countries where there's an opt-in box, according to research.
"Making a decision is difficult so often times people resort to the default option," says Christopher Lee.
3. We can be harsher on other people than we are on ourselves
The "fundamental attribution error," also known as the "correspondence bias," explains our tendency to believe that other people's mistakes are the result of personality flaws and our own mistakes are the result of circumstantial factors.
So if someone bumps into you on the sidewalk, you assume he's a jerk, rather than thinking he might be late to see his son's school play. But if you bump into someone on the sidewalk, you know that you're a nice person, but you're in a rush to make it to a meeting.
The phenomenon "is an elemental part of how we think and process information and experience our surroundings," says James Em.
4. We hate sitting alone so much that many of us would rather give ourselves electric shocks
One Quora user highlights a 2014 study that found sitting alone and unstimulated for 10 to 20 minutes is for many people more painful than receiving an electric shock. A whopping 64% of men gave themselves at least one shock during a period in which they were supposed to be simply thinking. Fifteen percent of women did the same.
This happened in spite of the fact that, in an earlier part of the study, these men said the shock was so aversive that they would pay to avoid the experience.
The study authors write that "it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there," which is why many people seek to control their thoughts through techniques like meditation. "Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it."
5. We can easily be tricked into paying more than we want to
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains the phenomenon in one of his TED talks, using an old Economist advertisement as an example. The ad featured three subscription levels: $59 for online only, $159 for print only, and $159 for online and print. Ariely figured out that the option to pay $159 for print only exists so that it makes the option to pay $159 for online and print look more enticing than it would if it was just paired with the $59 option.
6. We’re greedier and less socially appropriate when we feel powerful
Kevin Coe spotlights a study that examines how power influences behavior.
Researchers divided participants into groups of three and appointed some people the leaders, in charge of assigning points to the other two people according to their contributions. As it turns out, when the experimenter appeared with a plate of five cookies, the appointed leaders were more likely to take a second cookie and to chew with their mouths open and get crumbs all over the table.
In a meta-analysis of studies like this one, researchers say that "power disinhibits more pernicious forms of aggression as well," such as sexual harassment in cultures where women are subordinated and hate crimes against minority groups.
7. We rely too heavily on the first piece of information we hear when making decisions
Tejasvita Apte provides a straightforward example of how the anchoring effect works.
Imagine someone asking you whether Gandhi was older than 100 years old when he died; now imagine someone asking you whether Gandhi was younger than 20 years old when he died. If in both cases you tried to estimate how old Gandhi was when he died, you'd be more likely to give a higher number in the first instance, since the anchor (100) was higher.
Even experts can fall prey to the anchoring effect without realizing it. In a 1987 study, researchers had a group of undergrads and volunteer real-estate agents visit a property for sale and then presented them with its listing price. Some participants saw a listing price that was higher than others.
Sure enough, when participants were asked to estimate the property's appraisal value and purchase price, those who had seen a higher listing price gave higher numbers. Interestingly, the real-estate agents were generally less sensitive than the undergrads to the fact that the listing price had influenced their estimates.
8. We're more likely to act unethically when we're part of an anonymous group
Researchers wanted to know under what conditions trick-or-treating kids would be more likely to take extra candy. On Halloween, experimenter stationed themselves inside Seattle homes and opened the doors to trick-or-treaters.
Half the time, the experimenter asked the kids what their names were and where they lived. Half the time, she didn't ask anything. In both cases, the experimenter said the kids were allowed to take one candy from a bowl and then went away to do some work.
As it turns out, kids were most likely to take more than one candy when they were part of an anonymous group and least likely to take extra candy when they were identified and trick-or-treating solo.
The takeaway here seems to be that when we're in groups, we tend to be less inhibited and act in non-socially normative ways.
9. We notice only what we're paying attention to at the moment
"We are not as observant as we think we are," writes Lukas Schwekendiek. "We do not pay attention to most of our surroundings because we are so focused on what our attention is currently on."
Schwekendiek cites a classic experiment known as the "gorilla test."
For the experiment, the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created a short film in which a team wearing white and a team wearing black pass basketballs. Participants are asked to count the number of passes made by either the white or the black team. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit crosses the court, thumps her chest, and walks off screen. She's on screen for a total of nine seconds.
About half of the thousands of people who have watched the video (you can watch it here) don't notice the gorilla, presumably because they're so wrapped up in counting the basketball passes.
Of course, when asked if they would notice the gorilla in this situation, nearly everyone says they would.
10. We like someone more after we've done them a favor
James Saker highlights the psychological phenomenon commonly known as the "Ben Franklin Effect." Supposedly, Franklin asked one of his detractors to borrow a book from his library; the man was flattered and soon became a friend of his.
The moral of the story is: Get someone to do you a favor and they'll like you more, instead of less, as you might assume.
Researchers tested this theory in 1969 and found that it did in fact hold water. For the experiment, volunteers participated in a study in which they could win money.
One-third of the volunteers were then approached by a secretary who said that the psychology department had paid for the study and funds were running out, and asked the volunteer to return the payment. One-third were approached by the experimenter and told that he himself had paid for the study and funds were running out, and asked the volunteer to return the payment. The final third were allowed to keep their money.
Results showed that volunteers liked the experimenter most when they'd done him the favor of returning his money, and least when they'd gotten to keep their money.
11. Extrinsic motivators can undermine our intrinsic motivation
Self-determination theory is a framework used to understand human motivation. The theory was developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, and has since been expanded by other researchers.
According to Deci and Ryan's research, when you perform an inherently interesting activity and are then rewarded for it, your intrinsic motivation (doing something because you enjoy it) can in some cases subsequently decrease. Think receiving a monetary bonus for hitting your goals at work and then feeling less inclined to work hard afterward.
Nicolas Connault writes that this idea is often unpopular "because it essentially means you cannot directly control someone's motivation." He adds: "Despite this extremely well researched and cross-cultural effect, most people just don't get it because it seems so counterintuitive."