I asked 7 top psychologists to tell me what blows their mind -- here are their answers

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In May, I flew to Chicago for the Psychological Science convention.

If you’re at all inclined to nerd out over the study of human behaviour (nope, not me), the convention is one of the coolest places you’ll ever find yourself.

Dozens of top psychologists were there to present their findings on topics including happiness and well-being, memory, and goal pursuit.

Around the same time, my colleague Melia Robinson of Tech Insider was visiting Stanford University, asking students to tell her something that would blow her mind. And I thought: Who knows more about the mind than an entire convention of psychologists?

I caught up with a few of them and asked each one to tell me about a piece of research that completely blows their mind.

Here’s are the findings that make psychologists do a double-take:

1. Simply walking through first class on a plane can make economy passengers really, really angry

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Susan Fiske, a professor at Princeton University, cited a study that was published in May 2016.

Researchers found that fliers who were reminded of social inequality were more likely to get angry and start 'air-rage' incidents, becoming abusive or unruly toward crew members and other passengers.

Specifically, air-rage incidents in the economy class were nearly four times more common in planes with a first-class cabin. And those incidents were more than twice as common in planes that required passengers to board from the front, meaning everyone had to walk through the first-class cabin.

Bottom line: No one likes being reminded that other people are getting better treatment than they are, especially after they have shelled out a hefty sum for a flight.

2. When it comes to addiction, it may be mostly in your head

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University, recently learned about some intriguing research on addiction.

For a 2010 study, researchers measured cigarette cravings among flight attendants who smoked, on both long and short flights. (Smoking is prohibited on flights.)

Results showed that flight length had no significant effect on craving levels. And interestingly, cravings were stronger at the end of the short flights than they were at the end of the long flights.

These findings suggest that people start craving cigarettes when they know they're about to have one -- not when they haven't had one in a while.

3. Your motivation to achieve your goals depends on thoughts you aren't even aware of

Gabriele Oettingen, a professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, pointed to her work on a process called 'mental contrasting,' or 'WOOP.'

An alternative to positive thinking, WOOP involves thinking about your goal, the best possible outcome, the personal obstacles that stand in the way, and a plan for getting around them.

Oettingen and her colleagues have found that WOOP works by affecting our nonconscious processes, which in turn influence our conscious decisions.

For example, in one clever 2014 study, researchers had college students go through the WOOP process for a social goal, like finding a girlfriend. Then those students took a reaction-time test that measured how quickly they connected words related to their present reality and their desired future. (The words were presented quickly, so the students couldn't have consciously made the connection.)

Finally, the students indicated how motivated they were to achieve their goal.

Results showed that the students who had completed the WOOP process were more motivated to achieve their goal than students who hadn't gone through the WOOP process. And that was largely because the WOOP-ers saw the future and reality as more closely linked.

4. You're more likely to cheat when another person is involved

Nicholas Epley, a professor at the Chicago University Booth School of Business, said he was fascinated by the idea that we're more likely to act unethically when someone else is involved.

In one 2015 study, researchers had participants work in pairs: Player A would roll a die and report the number and then player B would do the same. If the players rolled the same number, they would each get that number of Euros as a reward.

Each pair rolled the dice 20 times, meaning they should have rolled the same number about three times. Instead, the average pair said they rolled the same number a whopping 16 times.

Even more interesting was that people seemed to egg each other on. Player B was more like to lie when player A lied, meaning when player A kept saying they'd rolled a high number.

5. Popping a pill can make people less afraid of spiders

A postdoctoral student who works with Henry L. Roediger, III, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, highlighted research suggesting that the drug propranolol can reduce fear in humans.

In the 2015 study, researchers had some spider-fearing women take a propranolol pill and some women pop a placebo. (None of the women knew which pill they were consuming.) Before and after they took the pill, they were asked to touch a tarantula and rate how frightened they felt.

As it turns out, all the women who'd taken propranolol touched the tarantula, while only some of the participants in the other group were able to do so. Even three months later, the women who'd taken propranolol were able to touch the tarantula.

6. There's a counterintuitive way to change people's political views

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Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, mentioned research that found Israeli rightists were inclined to change their political views when they saw the extreme version of their political opinions.

For the study, which was published in 2014, researchers had a group of Israeli participants watch either a video clip of a tourism campaign or a video clip that was designed to present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a positive experience that underlied Israeli Jewish identity. The second video ended with the message, 'We need the conflict in order to have the strongest army in the world.'

Participants watched these videos multiple times over the course of the months leading up to the 2013 Israeli elections.

Results showed that participants who'd seen the political videos were more likely to vote for a moderate party. Even one year after the study ended, the participants who'd seen the political videos showed a shift in their attitudes.

The researchers say this approach doesn't threaten people, so it reduces the activation of defence mechanisms, and allows them to reconsider their positions. And responses from an earlier experiment in the study suggest that participants might have seen the messages as so extreme as to be absurd.

7. Asking for someone's opinion isn't always the best way to get help

Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and CEO and president of Influence at Work, pointed out that a small tweak can change people's willingness to help you.

While we typically ask for our boss' input or feedback on a project, studies suggest that's a mistake. Instead, we should ask for their advice.

When you ask for someone's opinion, they take a step back from you and your work, Cialdini said. But when you ask for their advice, they feel like they're helping and collaborating with you. Suddenly you have an accomplice in your manager.

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