Monday, 1 December 2014

10 of The Most Counter-Intuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published

One of the most annoying things you can say to a psychologist is: "Isn't it all just common sense?". No it's not, as the list below demonstrates. But anyway, such a criticism of the field misses the point. Many findings in psychology can seem obvious after the fact, but we can't know in advance which aspects of folk wisdom will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Striving for the objective truth through empirical testing - that's what science is for, whether applied to molecules or minds.

That said, it's always fun to share those findings that clash with received wisdom. So for your reading pleasure (and for the next time someone asks you the "common sense" question), here are 10 particularly counter-intuitive findings from the psychology archives. Please use comments to share your own favourites that we've missed.

1. Self-help Mantras Can Do More Harm Than Good
If you've got low self-esteem, you might want to avoid uttering positive mantras such as "I'm a lovable person". A 2009 study found that people lacking in self-belief who spoke this phrase to themselves didn't feel any better afterwards. In fact they felt worse, possibly because the repeated utterance led them to generate contradictory thoughts automatically. On a related note, there's evidence that positive fantasies can also backfire. It's thought that visualising your aims can cultivate a relaxed mindset that leads you to overlook the hurdles between you and your goals.

2. People Do Not Learn Better When Taught Via Their Preferred "Learning Style"
An incredibly popular idea, including among teachers, is that pupils learn better when they are taught information via their preferred modality, such as auditory, visual or by doing. In fact research has shown that people do not perform better when they are taught information via the modality that they say they prefer. A 2008 review of the learning styles concept put it like this: "there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice." Want more? - here's all you need to know about the learning styles myth in 2 minutes.

3. Criminals Show Cooperation and Prosocial Behaviour in Economic Games
It's easy to demonise people who have broken the law. However, recent studies using economic games that test fairness and cooperation show that this is short-sighted. Last year, researchers observed prisoners' performance on a famous game known as the "prisoner's dilemma" - the convicted criminals actually displayed more cooperation during the game than undergrad students. Similarly, another study published this year found that people with a criminal record displayed just as much "prosocial motivation" (i.e. they distributed money fairly) in the "dictator game" as those without such a record.

4. Bottling Up Your Anger May Actually Be Good For You
Folk wisdom states that it's better to relieve your anger by letting it out. In fact a tendency to lose one's temper tends to go hand in hand with poorer health. Another study found that hitting a punch-bag while thinking about the person who made you angry actually just makes you angrier. It's a complicated area, and expressing anger constructively may sometimes be a good thing to do, but the old rule that's it always better to let it all it out is definitely flawed.

5. We Make Many Decisions Mindlessly
Unless we're exhausted or intoxicated, we usually feel as though we are very much in control of our own choices and that we make them consciously and deliberately. This intuitive view is challenged by research on what's known as "choice blindness". In one study from 2005, participants picked out the face they found more attractive from successive pairs of photos. When researchers used sleight of hand to switch the chosen photo for the rejected photo, participants proceeded to justify their choice all the same, apparently ignorant of the switch. It was a similar story in 2010 when participants chose between different jams.

6. Opposites Don't Attract
When it comes to human relationships, the aphorism that "opposites attract" turns out to be wide of the mark. There are of course exceptions, but mountains of evidence highlights how we are drawn to friends and romantic partners who are similar to ourselves, whether in terms of physical appearance, their personality, interests, or beliefs - known as "homophily". To take just two examples, a study from 2010 found that people found faces more attractive when (unbeknown to them) they'd been morphed with their own; and a paper from 2011 found that people tend to choose to sit near others who look like themselves.

7. Wine Experts Don't Know if They're Smelling Red or White Wine
There is a vast literature on the limitations of expertise (for instance, political pundits are mostly useless at predicting electoral outcomes), but one of my favourite examples concerns people who study wine. A 2001 investigation showed that all it took to trick trainee oenologists into thinking a white wine smelt of red wine, was to dye it red. This research also challenges the intuitive belief that our senses are largely separate - in fact, perceptual experience derives from a blending of the senses, as shown for example via the McGurk Effect.

8. It Helps to Have Narcissists on Your Team
We usually think of narcissists - people with inflated views of their own skills and self-importance - as individuals to avoid. However, a study published in 2010 found that their presence can have a beneficial effect in the context of creative team work. When groups of four people were challenged to come up with new ways for a company to improve, it was the groups with two narcissists in their ranks who performed the best. The researchers think the presence of some narcissists helps generate healthy in-group competition.

9. Placebo Treatments Can Work Even When People Are Told It's A Placebo
The amazing power of the placebo effect - the way that our beliefs about the action of an inert medicine can trigger substantial physiological effects - is itself, counter-intuitive. More surprising perhaps, is that the effect can still occur even when people know the medicine is inert. This was shown in a 2010 study involving people with IBS. "Our study suggests that openly described inert interventions when delivered with a plausible rationale can produce placebo responses," the researchers said.

10. Sometimes a Pregnant Woman's Depression is Advantageous For Her Baby
There is lots of evidence showing the adverse effects of a stressful pregnancy. But dig deeper into this field and you find some surprising results. For instance, a 2012 study uncovered an association between depression in pregnancy and superior functioning in the child at ages three and six months. This was found in the specific context in which the mother's depression continued into the postnatal period. The finding is consistent with the "predictive-adaptive response model", which says that adversity in-utero can have adaptive advantages if adversity is also encountered after birth.

Please do share your own favourite counter-intuitive findings via comments!

--Further reading--
The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever published.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Research Digest said...

An immediate improvement in mood may not be desirable if it prevents a deeper processing of the experience. More than an immediate change in mood should be considered.

Research Digest said...

It is true that reality is sometimes counterintuitive, but there is no reason to throw common sense out of the window for this sort of sensationalist "science" journalism. "A study has shown..." doesn't automatically authorise a conclusion. Lots of studies don't really measure what they set out to measure, or the samle size is small, or the sampling method causes bias, there are assumptions that need to be met et.c... that's just normal. The studies can still be interesting, but most studies have caveats/limitations/assumptions, and without knowing those it is hard to tell what to read into the findings, under which circumstances they apply, how trustworthy they are e.t.c. The authority of the researchers or journals or educational institutions (or journalists) doesn't change that.

I looked up some of the studies linked to in the article, they were behind paywalls. There was no access to see the methodology / description / study design, sample sizes, caveats (without paying) ... only the authors' conclusions in form of the abstract. Since that is the case, for this article to be worth reading at all, it should at least for each study (that doesn't give access to information about its methods), have provided a brief outline of its methodology incl sample size, sampling, asssumptions, caveats et.c. "A 2009 study has shown"... doesn't mean "This is Evidence Produced by Science, so Everyone Must Belive in It, and Don't Worry about the Mysterious Ways in which it has been Produced, because this is Science so it is True and Unquestionable".

Research Digest said...

Many leading periodicals are behind paywalls.

Research Digest said...

To make the phenomenon of prosocial behavior even more difficult: There is also a new study where they did behave more antisocial:

and here:

Research Digest said...

I think you have missed the point of this post though, imho the point was "psychology isn't all common sense, here are some articles which have counter intuitive results"; not "psychology isn't all common sense, here are some studies which [B]prove[/b] this, therefore nothing is common sense". With regards to limitations etc, I would go as far as to say all studies have limitations in one way or another, this doesn't stop results being interesting though, so I would agree with you on this, though the typically speaking some journals are more scrutinising than others in terms of what they publish.

I don't really understand your second point, why would you expect peoples work to be accessible to you for free?

Research Digest said...

11. Most published psychological "findings" are not replicated and do not scale with larger sample size.

Research Digest said...

Wow! How to completely misunderstand / misrepresent a fun little article!

Research Digest said...

Qualifies as 1 of the 10000000 most useless "science" blog articles ever "written".

Research Digest said...

The wine one is often misrepresented, and this is no exception. What the study found was NOT that experts can not tell the difference between red and white wine. What they did was observe wine experts, and they found that they used a different vocabulary when describing red wines vs white wines. When they dyed white wine red, they found that the experts used the vocabulary of red wine to describe it.

This is not really surprising, and says nothing about the differences between red and white wine or the abilities of the experts.

The brain is highly efficient, and one of the 'tricks' it uses to gain this efficiency is applying already known knowledge in a new situation. This limits the amount of information the brain has to process in order to determine what is going on in the new situation. If this were not the case we would not be able to survive.

It is a very old theatrical 'trick' to make objects seem farther away than they actually are by making them smaller than they normally are. This is because your brain assumes that a group similar buildings are going to be close to the same height, and therefore they APPEAR to be getting smaller it is because they are really getting farther away. Would a headline 'people can't tell how close an object is' make sense? Of course not, such ability is critical to our survival.

The same is true in this experiment. Dying the white wine red is the same as changing the size of an object, thereby tricking your brain in that situation. Their prvious experience told them that a red colored wine is a red wine, and there was no reason to think that was not the case this time. Therefore they described the wine in terms of a red wine. Note that they did not say that what they were tasting was a GOOD red wine.

Research Digest said...

"Behind a paywall," is a cumbersome expression; how about the clever new word: "gated."

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.