21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

mind blown

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Mind. Blown.

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).

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21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

3. We incorrectly assume that most people support common behavior

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 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, when they discovered that most college students didn't support racial segregation, but were convinced that their classmates did.

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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

4. 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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

5. 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.

Those experiments led the researchers to conclude that mimicking other people's speech quirks and physical gestures makes other people like us more, a phenomenon known as the "chameleon effect."

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

6. We think we have a greater influence on how things work out than we actually do

Kris 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."

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

7. 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. Essentially, the team came up with a plan that Kennedy liked instead of a plan that was sensible.

As psychologist Ben Dattner, Ph.D. 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."

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

8. 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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

9. We're generally unaware of what causes our behavior

"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 behavior to the pill, instead saying things like they had built radios when they were younger and so they were used to electric shocks.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

10. We hate sitting alone so much that many of us would rather give ourselves electric shocks

Bhag Singh 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."

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

11. We can easily be tricked into paying more than we want to

Paavni Shukla writes about the "decoy effect," also known as the "asymmetric dominance effect," first labeled by researchers in 1982.

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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

12. 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?'"

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

13. We may think we're more attracted to someone when we meet them in a scary situation

Jessica Novak jokes that she started taking all her dates sky-diving after she came across this study from the 1970s.

When male participants were approached by an attractive female interviewer on a shaky suspension bridge, they were more likely to call her afterward (presumably to learn more about the study) than they were when they met on a stable bridge. The idea is that the men on the shaky bridge misidentified their fear as sexual arousal.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

14. We behave more ethically when there’s an image of eyes staring at us

Tarun Sharma writes about an experiment in which an image of eyes got people to pay for the products they bought at a canteen.

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 behavior. And these findings have important implications for the real world: The authors say that "behavioral scientists have an important role to play in helping design the social environment in ways that provide effective nudges toward socially beneficial outcomes."

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

15. 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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

16. We often think attractive people are talented

Prateek Singh mentions a study on the "halo effect," which occurs when we assume that because people are good at one thing they will be good at another thing.

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 favorably than those who believed she was unattractive. (Those who didn't see any photo rated her and her work intermediately.)

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

17. We sometimes assume other people will help so we don't have to

Mattias Wideklint says he's intrigued by the "bystander effect," which occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency.

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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

18. 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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

19. 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 behaviors, while other participants viewed pictures of actors paired with descriptions of random behaviors. Results showed that participants in both groups associated the traits implicated in the descriptions of the behaviors with the actors.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

20. 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.

21 mind-blowing psychology findings that explain the baffling choices you make every day

21. We place more value on things once we own them

Apte also cites behavioral economics research on the endowment effect. "Once a person owns an item, forgoing it feels like a loss, and humans are loss-averse," he writes.

A 1990 study by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch, and Richard Thaler illustrates the power of the endowment effect. College students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: seller, buyer, or chooser. Sellers were given a university mug and asked if they would sell it for between $0.00 and $9.25. Buyers were asked if they would purchase the mug for a price in that range. Choosers were given the option at each price to choose between a mug and the same amount of cash.

Results showed that sellers (who already owned the mugs) placed a significantly higher value on the mugs than the other two groups did. Specifically, they required a median sum of $7.12 to give up the mug, while choosers said the mug was worth a median of $3.12 and buyers were willing to pay a median of $2.87.

In other words, once you own something, your reference point for how valuable that item is goes up.

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