How The Mind Really Works: 10 Counterintuitive Psychology Studies

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Ten psychological findings that challenge our intuitive view of how our minds work.

Some critics say psychology is just common sense, that it only confirms things we already know about ourselves.

Ironically this can be difficult to argue with because once people get some new information they tend to think it was obvious all along.

One way of battling this is to think about all the unexpected, surprising and plain weird findings that have popped out of psychology studies over the years. So here are ten of my favourite.

1. 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 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?

2. Hallucinations are common

Hallucinations are like waking dreams and we tend to think of them as markers of serious mental illness.

In fact 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.

3. The placebo effect

Perhaps you’ve had the experience that a headache improves seconds after you take an aspirin? This can’t 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 (Hrobjartsson et al., 2001). 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.

4. Obedience to authority

Most of us like to think of ourselves as independently-minded. 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. 63% of participants kept giving electric shocks to another human being despite the victim screaming in agony and eventually falling silent.

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.

5. Choice blindness

We all know the reasons for our decisions, right? For example, 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 choice blindness: we seem to have little or no awareness of choices we’ve made and why. 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.

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 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. Fantasises also fail to flag up the problems we’re likely to face on the way to our goals.

Instead of fantasising, use mental contrasting.

7. Brainstorming doesn’t work

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. It turns out that in groups people are lazy, likely to forget their ideas while others talk and worried 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.

8. Don’t suppress

When you’re 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.

9. Incredible multi-tasking skills

Despite all the mind’s limitations, we can train it do incredible things. For example we hear a lot about our multitasking abilities, but with practice, did you know people can 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.

10. It’s 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 actually major life events are often not directly as important to our well-being as the little hassles and uplifts of everyday life (Kanner et al., 1981). Major events 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.

Image credit: Corie Howell & allison



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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 27 February 2012

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License