Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Is Psychology or Common Sense More Accurate?

Do "opposites attract" or do "birds of a feather flock together"?

All too often, I have heard people say, "Psychology is all common sense." (Usually they don't know much about psychology). The suggestion is that Psychology is just re-inventing what folk wisdom already knows. But here is the problem: For every piece of folk wisdom, there is typically a completely contradictory piece of wisdom.

Take folk sayings. We have all heard the saying, "Birds of a feather flock together." It means that similar people are attracted to one another. But there is also the folk wisdom of "Opposites attract." They both can't be right. So which is it? This is where psychology, and psychology research, enters the picture. Research in social psychology makes it clear that similar people are more often attracted to one another, opposites rarely attract (at least in terms of long-term love relationships and friendships).

Here's another set of contradictory folk sayings regarding relationships: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" vs. "Out of sight, out of mind." Which does psychological research support? Because long distance relationships are difficult to maintain, research results suggest that "out of sight, out of mind" is most often true.

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What does folk wisdom say about aging and our ability to learn? "You're never too old to learn" or "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"? Fortunately, psychological research suggests that barring physical limitations learning can take place throughout the lifespan.

Here's what folk wisdom tells us about work. "Many hands make light the work" (or "two heads are better than one") " but "too many cooks spoil the broth." Research in decision making and I/O psychology suggests that for additive tasks, the more (skilled) hands, the better, but when it comes to arriving at a best solution, or creative tasks, it gets much more complex. For example, the "many hands" suggests having a brainstorming session, but research evidence suggests brainstorming often doesn't lead to more creative solutions that individuals working alone.

That's the point. Psychological research helps us to better understand what we already think we know (but don't - because for every piece of folk wisdom, there is usually a contradictory folk saying). Sometimes psychological research suggests when folk wisdom can steer us in the wrong direction. Take these contradictory sayings:

"Don't judge a book by its cover" vs. "Clothes make the man"

Going on a job interview? You better dress appropriately and put your best foot forward. Are you the interviewer? Don't be fooled by appearances.

Here are some other contradictory folk sayings (and the relevant psychology research stream):

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" vs.


"Don't beat your head against a stone wall"

What does the psychological literature on motivation have to say about this? We know that we can often learn more from failures than from successes, but if you are using the wrong strategy, just trying it over and over won't work.

"Look before you leap" vs.

"He who hesitates is lost"

Well, the research on this topic is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book, "Blink." Read that and you will get an idea of some of the complex issues involved (and read the original psychological research literature, and you will find out that it is even more complex than Gladwell portrays).

Want some more contradictory folk sayings?

"A word to the wise is sufficient" vs. "Talk is cheap"

"It's better to be safe than sorry" vs. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained"

My favorite:

"Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" vs. "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" (unless it's a Trojan horse)

Share some others...there are lots of them!


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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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