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9 Surprising Psychology Studies That Will Change The Way You Think

9 Surprising Psychology Studies That Will Change The Way You Think

9 Surprising Psychology Studies That Will Change The Way You Think

Table of contents

The Pratfall Effect
Reactance Theory
Loss Aversion
The Clustering Illusion
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Friendship Limits
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Urge to Conform
The Speed of Wit

The Pratfall Effect

The Pratfall Effect comes from a study conducted by Elliot Aronson. The subjects heard one of two scenarios: someone answering an oral quiz, and someone answering an oral quiz but also knocking over a cup of coffee by accident. With no other information or context, people rated the people who knocked over the cup of coffee as universally more likeable.

What were the implications of this study? Do we like clumsiness?

Actually, kind of. More accurately, we like vulnerability and people showing their human sides. Clumsiness is just a part of that. When people make mistakes and otherwise break from any façade they might have about themselves, this makes them appear more relatable and likeable to others.

There’s a certain amount of bumbling and fumbling that is actually incredibly endearing. The opposite, perfection, and never showing weakness, is threatening and uncomfortable because you feel like you are inadequate and have to filter yourself.

Suppose you have a new substitute teacher. You’re going to be on your best behaviour. But about five minutes into the first class, the substitute casually swears and makes fun of another student in a nice way. You are going to relax instantly because you know you don’t have to keep up a façade or filter, and that’s exactly how the Pratfall Effect works.

Intentionally making small mistakes or flubs, and then handling them genuinely and positively will endear people to you instantly. This can be especially effective if you want to appear non-threatening to new people.

Reactance Theory

If you have ever dealt with young children, you will be very familiar with the Reactance Theory.

Reactance Theory is essentially the compulsion all humans have to exercise their sense of free will and freedom. This occurs when we don’t like to be told what to do, we attempt to circumvent rules and regulations, and we do things to be contrary and not listen to others. We will attempt to find a way to successfully assert our free will and ignore what we have been told to do to avoid the feeling of being commanded.

Brehm coined this in 1966 in his seminal publication, A theory of psychological reactance.

The classic example is with children – if you tell them they can’t do something, they are more likely to want to do it simply because they feel that their freedom and sense of free will has been restricted, so they will act to reclaim it. Of course, we see this all the time with stubborn adults as well who might not understand why they feel compulsions to go against the grain and blaze their own trails. Of course, this is also where the term reverse psychology comes in because many people unknowingly try to prevent psychological reactance by using reverse psychology.

Ultimately, we hate feeling like we are just acting on the wishes of someone else, even if that is our job. We might swallow it like bitter medicine even if we know it is best for us – that’s the feeling of psychological reactance kicking in.

Loss Aversion

We hate to lose things.

In fact, we hate to lose things so much that we often would rather not lose anything as opposed to gain a lot. This is referred to as loss aversion, and it perfectly encapsulates people’s strong tendency to prefer avoiding loss as opposed to acquiring gains.

Studies by Kahneman and Tversky showed that the motivation, and thus decisional influencing, of avoiding losses are twice as powerful as acquiring again.

That’s why one of the most effective sales techniques is the free 30-day trial. It doesn’t matter that you don’t actually own something; the act of removing something from your home is so much more painful than spending the same money to buy it.

The idea that we have ownership over something is hard to overcome because we don’t like the idea of giving it up. Most of the time, when given a choice, people prefer to avoid the loss, and in a sense, play it safe because of loss aversion.

A 2013 study by Cullen et al. found that first rewarding someone, then threatening to take it away as a penalty was a far better motivational tool than handing out a reward after achievement. The fear of losing something that was already yours, having it ripped from your fingers, was far more powerful.

Scenario A: I give you ten dollars, then flip a coin. If the coin is lands on heads, I take the money back.

Scenario B: I flip a coin. If the coin is a head, I give you ten dollars. Which do you prefer? Scenario B is clearly more comfortable psychologically, even though the outcomes are the same. The only difference is that you have psychologically claimed ownership over something.

The Clustering Illusion

The Clustering Illusion is when we attempt to see clusters, patterns, and predictability in situations where there is inherently none. There may be some correlation, but there is absolutely no causation, and the probabilities don’t support it.

But we feel that there should be a pattern, which guides our actions and decisions. Gilvocih, Vallone, and Tversky discovered this.

The most prevalent examples of this are the gambler’s fallacy and hot hand fallacy.

The gambler’s fallacy is when the gambler, losing at a table, keeps repeating, “My time to win is due. It’s been red for so long; it must be black soon!” While that sounds comforting, it’s also 100% false because the probability for a card to be black or red is 50%, and that doesn’t change regardless of time. We are attempting to see a pattern where there is none, and want to deny the random nature of life so we can feel like we can have some control and predictability within it.

The hot hand fallacy works in the same way. The athlete keeps trying to hit a baseball, and proclaims that since he has failed so many times in a row, “he is due for a hit.” Probability-wise, he absolutely is not!

Suppose you flip a coin, and it comes up heads nine times in a row. Do you think it’s more likely to come up tails on the tenth flip? It’s not, and the feeling we have that it should be tails is the clustering effect. You are trying to impose your own perception onto the world, and it actually works the opposite way – the world imposes its reality on you.

Life is more chaotic and random that we might like, and we also have control over less than we think. The clustering effect is just a defence mechanism to deal with this reality.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Speaking of defence mechanisms, cognitive dissonance theory is full of them. In fact, it’s what causes a majority of them. Leon Festinger developed this theory in 1957.

Cognitive dissonance theory is when you have conflicting or contradicting thoughts simultaneously, but they seem to make perfect sense to you. There are much more involved and convoluted ways of explaining this theory, but it boils down to the fact that you can do mental gymnastics to justify two thoughts that don’t make sense with each other.

In other words, we solve the dissonance and discomfort with rationalization and defence mechanisms. We construct reasons for two conflicting thoughts to be acceptable and glaze over the details – this is easier than changing one or both of the thoughts, so it’s usually the easiest way out.

For example, you feel that you are an extremely moral and principled person, but you consistently steal foodstuffs from the local grocery store. These are conflicting thoughts that would cause a significant amount of discomfort and dissonance – unless you justify and rationalize both sets of behaviour to fit together. For example, you could reduce your dissonance if you told yourself you were making a stand against grocery stores, or you thought the food was overpriced, so you were protesting it.

If you don’t have this rationalization for your behaviour, then your self-image as a moral and principled person goes out the window – so you protect it and make yourself feel acceptable.

Cognitive dissonance explains why people engage in all sorts of unhealthy behaviours and actions but don’t see themselves as unhealthy or needing help.

Friendship Limits

How many friendships can you have at once? Jari Saramaki answered this question in 2013 with his study Persistence of social signatures in human communication.

Many of us might suppose that we have large circles of friends, but in reality, you probably have large circles of acquaintances. That is, you know many people, but none on a deep or significant level. It turns out that we have only a limited amount of social bandwidth and energy, and this truly limits the amounts of friendships we can actively have at one time.

In the study, it was found that people spent 40% to 50% of their social energy and contact on only three people. The people may have changed from time to time, but it was generally impossible for people to spend more energy on more people.

This means we are doing ourselves a disservice when we try to engage too many people at once. You can recognize the top three people in your life and focus on them, or you can focus on meeting new people and growing your personal network. You can’t do both effectively, and this theory forces you to be choosier about your friends and prioritize better.

Focusing on three people is how you gain real friends instead of a circle of acquaintances. Anything else and you become an afterthought to everyone.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when incompetent people vastly overestimate their abilities.

It’s also when competent people underestimate their abilities, but as you can imagine, that’s less of a problem.

In other words, people that lack knowledge or are otherwise unskilled in an area vastly underestimate the amount of intricacy and nuance involved. Therefore, they see themselves as skilled because they don’t know what is actually involved – they aren’t proficient or skilled enough to recognize their lack of skill. It’s when people are too stupid to know that they know nothing.

Take an artist who is wonderful at drawing stick figures. If he doesn’t understand how watercolours or acrylics work, he will assume they are as easy as stick figures and overestimate his abilities because he doesn’t have the exposure or ability to know otherwise. He only sees the finished product, which can look deceptively simple, and assumes there are no other steps to it.

He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and when we operate with incomplete information, we grow falsely confident – that is the essence of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Point being, if something seems too easy or good to be true, you are probably only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you need to know. Always err on the side of asking more questions, even if you need to ask, “Is that it? There’s really nothing else to it?”

The Urge to Conform

This study was conducted by Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College in the 1950s and broadly demonstrated the compulsion to conform and “fit in” despite our best instincts and interests.

The study asked participants to engage in a vision test. In each run of the study, there was only one subject, and the rest of the people present were Asch’s confederates. They would attempt to influence the true participant to conform and act against their free will. The participant sat around a table with seven confederates and was asked two questions:

  1. Which line was the longest in Exhibit 2?
  2. Which line from Exhibit 2 matches the line from Exhibit 1?

Below is what the participants saw and made their judgment on. When participants were asked this question alone, through writing or without confederates who would provide a range of answers, they consistently answered in the same way: obviously Line C and Line A, respectively.

The Urge to Conform

The Urge to Conform

However, when confederates were present and provided incorrect answers, what followed was surprising.

When the true participant was surrounded by confederates who gave incorrect answers, such as stating that Line C was equal to Exhibit 1 or Line B was the longest in Exhibit 2, they also confirmed their answers to be stunningly incorrect based on the social pressures of the people around them. Over one-third of the true participants gave an obviously wrong answer.

Asch successfully displayed that people, whether they believe it or not, wish to blend in with their peers and their environment, so they don’t stick out. Asch commented, “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.” He had the opportunity to ask participants after the experiment whether they actually believed their altered stances, and most did not and wanted to go along with the group because they did not want to be thought of as “peculiar.” Others thought the group’s judgment was actually correct and felt their new answer to be correct as well.

People’s sense of free will is subverted by emotional reactions to what other people are doing. The psychological implications of Asch’s experiment may not be groundbreaking—we are all afraid of judgment, but the degree to which we strive to avoid it is huge. It can be said to make us a follower in a negative way.

The Speed of Wit

A 2015 study by William von Hippel called “Quick Thinkers Are Smooth Talkers: Mental Speed Facilitates Charisma,” provides a clear and instructive lesson that will make an impact on how others perceive you. As you might gather from the name of the study, he discovered that the speed of thought and dialogue was more related to people’s ratings of charisma than many other traits, including being correct or accurate. In fact, if you were to prioritize one aspect of interaction, quickness would be highest rated.

The researchers asked test participants to rate how funny and charismatic their friends depended on how they performed on a series of tests. Friends of the participants were also present and observing the tests. In the first test, participants were asked to answer trivia questions given out in rapid succession. Afterwards, the participants’ friends were asked to rate their friends who actually took the tests.

Conventionally, you would assume that the friends of the participant would rate the participant more charismatic and funny based on how they conducted themselves and the presence they had in the room while they were taking the test. After all, we established that charisma is about some positive impact on the surrounding people. Maybe, like with the General Charisma Inventory, the participant smiled at everyone, got along with the researchers, and made people laugh. Isn’t this our first indication of charisma?

If not, perhaps they rated them on how well they performed on the first test. Intelligence is attractive, and attractiveness is an element of charisma. Perhaps humans are less shallow than we would expect, and we rate correctness and accuracy highly.

Instead, neither of those factors mattered whatsoever. It turns out that charisma wasn’t related to a positive impact on surrounding people or accuracy or the appearance of intelligence. What mattered most was how quickly the participants answered—the speed with which they took action. The friends of the participants didn’t necessarily care whether the participant performed the task correctly. All they based their decisions on was speed.

The study concluded that people tend to have a more favourable impression of you, depending on how quickly you speak or take a position. It doesn’t really matter whether you are correct, accurate, or maybe even sensible. So to appear more charismatic, it’s better to speak first and loudly, even if you have nothing to say and even if you are speaking gibberish (to a reasonable extent). Slowly and correctly, while it may not be seen as negative, clearly won’t have the overwhelmingly positive effect that acting quickly will have.

People apparently tend to have a natural attraction to others who “think on their feet,” and it is seen as one of the ultimate expressions of someone desirable and charismatic. Of course, this is the same tendency that allows us to fall for people who are smooth talkers and conmen; the consummate used car salesman. If someone appears to have a speedy answer for everything, especially confidently and assertively, then we find it appealing for some reason.

Overall, whether we deem someone charismatic is more of an emotional reaction than a logical one, so it makes sense that speed dictates it.

The researcher Von Hippel perhaps summed it up best: “Although we expected mental speed to predict charisma, we thought that it would be less important than IQ. Instead, we found that how smart people were was less important than how quick they were.”

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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