Business Insider recently published a roundup of 11 fascinating psychology findings, drawn from responses on the Quora thread,”What are some mind-blowing facts about social psychology?“
We could have gone on forever.
Below, we’ve rounded up another 13 insights into human behaviour that were shared on the same Quora thread.
Read on to find out why mimicking someone’s body language makes them like you more, why an image of eyes encourages us to behave ethically, and why we dismiss things we can’t have as totally not worth it.
(Note that some of these findings fall outside the realms of social psychology, but we thought they were worth including.)
1. We incorrectly assume that most people support common behaviour
One way to explain this phenomenon, writes Anunay Arunav, is, “when no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes.” In other words, individual members of a group privately believe one thing, but think that everyone else in the group believes the opposite.
This phenomenon, known as “pluralistic ignorance,” can help explain why certain cultural practices and government policies persist long after support for them has waned. The term was coined in 1931 by psychologists Daniel Katz and Floyd Allport.
More recently, researchers asked college students about their attitudes toward alcohol use and their estimates of their peers’ attitudes. Most students believed they were more uncomfortable with alcohol use on campus than the average student.
2. We’re more influenced by our immediate surroundings than we acknowledge
In one study, cited in the book “You Are Not So Smart,” researchers had participants decide how to split a $10 sum with a confederate. When participants were seated in a room with a briefcase, a leather portfolio, and a fountain pen, they were twice as likely to take more money for themselves as when they sat in a room with neutral items.
Yet when asked why they behaved the way they did, no one mentioned the objects in the room, instead saying that they acted according to what was fair.
“The takeaway is that our actions are always being influenced by the values and messages perceived in our environment,” says Fabio Bracht.
3. We like people better when they act the same way we do
“Although it had long been suspected that copying other people’s body language increases liking, the effect wasn’t tested rigorously until Chartrand and Bargh (1999) carried out a series of experiments,” writes Noor Alansari.
4. We think we have a greater influence on how things work out than we actually do
Krish Munot points to the existence of the illusory correlation. It explains why we always think that we’ve gotten stuck on the slower line at the grocery store or the slower traffic lane.
The illusory correlation occurs when two things seem to be linked, even though they’re not. So when you’re standing in line, you notice two things: one, the line moving faster and two, yourself. You aren’t paying attention to the fact that you’ve actually been steadily inching closer to the checkout counter.
In other words, according to Tom Stafford at the BBC, we’re plagued by “a mind that over-exaggerates our own importance, giving each of us the false impression that we are more important in how events work out than we really are.”
5. We don’t always think reasonably while working in groups
Mark Alexander Fonds mentions Groupthink and how it helps explain the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “Groupthink” when he was researching the 1961 invasion, in which American soldiers tried to overthrow the Cuban government.
What happened, according to Janis’ theory, is that President Kennedy’s subordinates knew he wanted to get rid of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and so they jumped to conclusions without staying open to new information. The team came up with a plan that Kennedy liked instead of a plan that was sensible.
As psychologist Ben Dattner writes in Psychology Today, “sometimes, the best thing a leader can do to prevent Groupthink is to take a step back from his or her team, and allow the group to reach its own independent consensus before making a final decision.”
6. We’re generally unaware of what causes our behaviour
“Not only are there a great many social and environmental effects that influence subjects’ behaviour,” writes Timothy Takemoto, “but people are generally unaware that these effects take place in themselves.”
Takemoto refers to a 1977 analysis conducted by Richard Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson, which found that people were unable to identify what had prompted them to behave a certain way, even when it was seemingly obvious.
For example, in one study, participants were given a placebo pill, and told that it would reduce physical symptoms associated with receiving an electric shock. After taking the pill, participants took four times as much amperage as people who hadn’t taken the pill. But when asked why, only one-quarter of subjects attributed their behaviour to the pill, instead saying things like they had built radios when they were younger and so they were used to electric shocks.
7. We perform worse on cognitive tests when we think about stereotypes
Sarvoday Bishnoi says he’s fascinated by an experiment on “priming,” a phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus.
This particular experiment, published in 1995, used priming to demonstrate the effects of stereotype threat. Participants took a test composed of GRE questions and everyone was asked to identify their race beforehand. Results showed that black participants performed significantly worse than they did when they weren’t primed with negative stereotypes of African Americans and academic achievement.
Writing about the research in “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell says: “If a white student from a prestigious private high school gets a higher SAT score than a black student from an inner-city school, is it because she’s truly a better student, or is it because to be white and to attend a prestigious high school is to be constantly primed with the idea of ‘smart?'”
8. We behave more ethically when there’s an image of eyes staring at us
Tarun Sharma wrote about an experiment in which an image of eyes got people to pay for the products they bought at a canteen. (The answer has since been deleted.)
It sounds similar to another recent study, which found that participants were more likely to clean up after themselves in a cafeteria when they saw posters featuring eyes as opposed to flowers.
The study authors say that eyes typically indicate social scrutiny, which is why participants may have been more inclined toward cooperative behaviour. And these findings have important implications for the real world: The authors say that “behavioural scientists have an important role to play in helping design the social environment in ways that provide effective nudges toward socially beneficial outcomes.”
9. We often think attractive people are talented
In the study, male undergrads read an essay supposedly written by a female college freshman, then evaluated the essay’s quality and the writer’s ability. One-third of the participants saw a photo of an attractive woman whom they believed to be the writer; one-third of the participants saw an unattractive woman; and one-third did not see a photo.
Results showed that those who believed the writer was attractive judged the writer and her work more favourably than those who believed she was unattractive. (Those who didn’t see any photo rated her and her work intermediately.)
10. We sometimes assume other people will help so we don’t have to
Psychologists Bibb Latané and John M. Darley became interested in the phenomenon after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 — supposedly, many people heard Genovese screaming, but failed to act.
In Latané and Darley’s experiment, researchers measured how long participants would stay in a room filling with smoke. Some participants were alone in a room; others were accompanied by two or three passive confederates. Results showed that participants left alone were significantly more likely to report the smoke.
However, a more recent meta-analysis suggests that the bystander effect is less pronounced in highly dangerous situations, meaning that people in groups are more likely to help if they think someone’s life is really in danger.
And in the last few years, the story of Genovese’s murder has been revised. There may not in fact have been dozens of passive witnesses and it’s possible that no one saw the final assault, suggesting that the bystander effect may be more nuanced than we once believed.
11. We perform better when people have high expectations for us
Chi Nguyen cites a classic experiment on the power of expectations by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.
In the 1960s, Rosenthal and Jacobson discovered that manipulating teachers’ expectations of students’ ability could influence those students’ performance. Experimenters told teachers that they were administering to students a test that could predict future intellectual gain, and then gave teachers a completely random list of students who had supposedly received high scores.
Eight months later, the experimenters administered the same test (it was actually an IQ test) to the same group of students. Sure enough, the students who had supposedly scored high the first time scored higher the second time around. Because the teachers had expected certain students to do well, they had positively influenced those students’ development.
More recently, researchers found evidence of the same phenomenon among college students playing a basketball game. Students were assigned to groups led by a single “coach” who was given made-up information about the students’ shooting ability. As it turns out, students who were supposedly more skilled at shooting performed better on a free-throw task, which was partly because the coaches gave them more opportunities to try.
12. We associate people with the adjectives they use to describe others
“Spontaneous trait transference occurs when you say something about a person, then the listener automatically and unintentionally associates the trait with you,” writes Sibell Loitz.
A 1998 study documented this effect: Some participants viewed pictures of actors describing their own behaviours, while other participants viewed pictures of actors paired with descriptions of random behaviours. Results showed that participants in both groups associated the traits implicated in the descriptions of the behaviours with the actors.
13. We like things less when we can’t have them
Jenny ZW Li writes about what she labels the “sour grapes effect,” named after a fable by Aesop. In the story, a fox tries to grab a bunch of grapes hanging from a tree, realises they’re placed too high, and finally walks away saying that the grapes must be sour.
In his 2004 TED Talk, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert discusses an experiment he helped conduct that highlights the pervasiveness of the sour grapes effect. Participants included both amnesiacs (who struggled with short-term memory) and normal subjects.
Participants were presented with a few Monet prints and asked to rank them in order of how much they liked them. Then they were told they could have either their third or fourth choice print. Usually, they picked their third choice. When asked — even just 15 minutes later — to re-rank all the prints, suddenly their third choice had become their second choice.
This effect was observed even among the amensiacs, who didn’t know that they owned one of the prints.
In other words, we have what Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system” that helps us learn to be happy with what we have.
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