Trying to name the ten best psychology studies from any year is extremely hard for a couple of reasons: (1) What one person defines as the "best" will be different than another person's definition, and (2) So many excellent studies are conducted every year, choosing only ten is a fool's errand.
So instead of naming the best studies, what follows are ten studies that impressed me as the year rolled along, both for their intriguing topics and potential usefulness.
1. Why Absolute Rudeness Impresses Absolutely
If asked, most of us would probably say that we despise rudeness, but research suggests that we also see it as a sign of power. A 2011 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science indicates that the ruder someone acts, the more convinced observers become that he or she is powerful, and therefore does not have to respect the same rules the rest of us bow to.
Study participants read about a visitor to an office who marched in and poured himself a cup of "employee only" coffee without asking. In another case they read about a bookkeeper that flagrantly bent accounting rules. Participants rated the rule breakers as more in control and powerful compared to people who didn't steal the coffee or break accounting rules.
In a follow-up experiment, participants watched a video of a man at a sidewalk café put his feet on another chair, tap cigarette ashes on the ground and rudely order a meal. Participants rated the man as more likely to "get to make decisions" and able to "get people to listen to what he says" than participants who saw a video of the same man behaving politely.
What this study appears to indicate is that violating norms is viewed by others as a sign of power, even if the observers would otherwise judge those violations as rude or flatly wrong. Considering many of the public personalities we venerate, these findings make a lot of sense.
2. Visualize Success if You Want to Fail
For many years we've heard that visualizing our success is key to attaining it--but an intriguing study conducted in 2011 indicates otherwise. Researcher published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that not only is positive visualization ineffective, it's counterproductive. A practice proffered to help us succeed may do just the opposite.
During the course of four experiments, researchers demonstrated that conjuring positive fantasies of success drains the energy out of ambition. When we imagine having reached what we want, our brains fall for the trick. Instead of mustering more energy to get "there," we inadvertently trigger a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we'd actually reached the goal. Physiologically, we slide into our comfy shoes; blood pressure lowers, heart rate decreases, all is well in the success world of our mind's making.
The research also uncovers that the more pressing the need to succeed, the more deflating positive visualization becomes. One of the experiments tested whether water-deprived participants would experience an energy drain from visualizing a glass of icy cold water (a simple but elegant study design) and found that indeed, in even something so basic, the brain responds as if the goal has been reached.
From a "proof is in the pudding" standpoint, the research showed that participants told to visualize attaining goals throughout the course of the week ended up attaining far fewer goals than a control group told they could mull over the week's challenges any way they liked. The positive visualizers also self-reported feeling less energetic than the control group, and physiological tests supported their claim.
3. Why Relaxed Shoppers Spend More Money
For all its benefits, the state of being relaxed may have a significant downside when it comes to making smart purchasing decisions. A 2011 study suggests that the more relaxed you are when you enter a store, the more money you'll spend.
Researchers used videos and music-pretested for their effects in prior research-to induce two states of relaxation in 670 study participants. One set of participants had a pleasant mind-set and was very relaxed. The other set felt equally pleasant but not as relaxed, though also not overly stressed.
Participants were then presented with a variety of products and asked to assess their monetary value using several methods (to ensure that no single method produced a particular result), such as bidding in an online auction. In the first of six studies, very relaxed participants bid about 11 percent higher for a digital camera than less-relaxed participants. Conversely, less-relaxed participants' bids were very close to the actual estimated value of the item. The same effect held true for other auction items, with the result that relaxed participants over-valued items by an average of 15%.
Other items and services tested included a spa treatment, a cruise, bungee jumping, and ice cream. Across the board, more relaxed participants valued these items well above their actual market value.
The reason for this effect, suggested by the researchers, is that in a relaxed environment your brain does not perceive a threat. This opens the door for thinking at an abstract level about products and services. For example, when evaluating a camera, a more relaxed person will consider the advantages of owning a product that will capture memories. A less-relaxed person is more apt to focus on specific features of the camera and whether they are worth the price being asked.
4. The Connection Between Marshmallows and the Financial Crisis
You may recall the famous 1972 Stanford psychology study, conducted by Walter Mischel, in which a group of kids were presented with a plate of marshmallows and told that if they could wait and not eat them now, they'd get a better reward later. When the adults left the room, some of the kids stuffed marshmallows into their mouths with abandon, while others fought back the urge and waited it out.
In the current economic crisis, a lot of economists have wondered if what we have going on is the marshmallow experiment writ large. A 2011 study in the journal Psychological Science tested the hypothesis and the results suggest that, indeed, we're living in a confectionary crisis of Stay Puft proportions.
Researchers recruited 437 low-to-moderate income people at a community center that was offering tax preparation help. Each person was given a questionnaire in which they made choices between a smaller, immediate reward and a larger future reward (a common test for finding out if people are willing to delay gratification).
The time spans for how long they'd have to delay gratification were varied, which layered in an additional test for patience (in other words, you might be willing to delay gratification for a day, but three days pushes you over the limit). The participants also agreed to let the researchers access their credit scores. The result: The most impatient among the group of volunteers had the lowest credit scores. This result held true even when confounding factors like income levels were accounted for.
It is, of course, unfair to conclude from these results that everyone with a low credit score who participated in this study brought financial disaster upon themselves. Some had lost their jobs, and the subsequent cascade of debt defaults was not something they chose. But the correlation is strong enough to suggest a general connection between faulty short-term desire management and bad financial outcomes. And with the credit and mortgage industries serving up an endless supply of short-term marshmallows, it's not hard to see how we got here.
5. Why do Fake Cigs Help Some Quit Smoking?
A 2011 study published in the European Respiratory Journal suggests many smokers can quit more successfully if they focus their energy on the "behavioral dependence" facet of their addiction--that is, the non-chemical reasons why they persist in lighting up. For example, simply having a cylinder shaped object, like a pen, in their mouth helps take the edge off of jonesing for some smokers.
Researchers studied 120 participants in a program structured to help them quit smoking. Participants were split into two groups: one group received plastic, nicotine-free inhalers as treatment (basically a fake cigarette without any nicotine in it), and the other group followed a standard "quit smoking" program. The researchers also assessed both groups with questionnaires designed to determine physical and behavioral dependence on cigarettes.
At the end of the 24-week period, results showed that participants given the fake cigarette as treatment, and who were identified as being heavily dependent on the behavior of smoking, had a quit rate roughly 3.5 times higher than those in the standard-treatment group (67% vs. 19%).
What's remarkable about this research is that if all of the participants were left to follow the standard program, several would have failed chiefly because they wouldn't respond well to a one-size-fits-all approach-but their failure would be attributed to the usual suspects (lack of willpower, poor impulse control, etc). Perhaps by using a slightly finer instrument to identify the drivers of dependency, more people would be able to break loose from the smoke demon without suffering through years of frustration and failure.
6. Never Underestimate the Power of Metaphor
Though we seldom realize it, metaphors influence our thinking every day in what we read and hear from a multitude of sources. In a 2011 study, Researchers from Stanford University demonstrated how influential metaphors can be through a series of five experiments designed to tease apart the "why" and "when" of a metaphor's power. First, the researchers asked 482 students to read one of two reports about crime in the City of Addison. Later, they had to suggest solutions for the problem. In the first report, crime was described as a "wild beast preying on the city" and "lurking in neighborhoods".
After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions that involved enforcement or punishment, such as building more jails or even calling in the military for help. Only 25% suggested social reforms such as fixing the economy, improving education or providing better health care. The second report was exactly the same, except it described crime as a "virus infecting the city" and "plaguing" communities. After reading this version, only 56% opted for great law enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms.
Interestingly, very few of the participants realized how affected they were by the differing crime metaphors. When researchers asked the participants to identify which parts of the text had most influenced their decisions, the vast majority pointed to the crime statistics, not the language. Only 3% identified the metaphors as culprits. The researchers confirmed their results with more experiments that used the same reports without the vivid words. Even though they described crime as a beast or virus only once, they found the same trend as before.
7. Two Narcissists are Better than One, or More
For many years psychologists have explored whether narcissism and creativity are linked, and some studies have suggested that the self-obsessed may, in fact, be more creative than the rest of us. But 2011 research from Cornell University argues otherwise.
Two hundred and forty-four students completed a test that measures narcissism (with questions such as, "I enjoy being the center of attentiom"). Participants then paired up and "pitched" movie ideas to one another, with one playing the role of pitcher and the other evaluator. Narcissistic participants' pitches were consistently rated as especially creative by evaluators, but when independent evaluators--unaware of which participants were self-obsessed--reviewed transcripts of the pitches, the narcissists' pitches were not rated as more creative. This result suggests that charisma influences how egotists' ideas are received, but the ideas themselves are no more creative than average.
Researchers then paired 292 undergrads (all of whom completed the narcissism test) into 73 four-person groups. The groups were given the task of proposing creative ways for a company to improve its performance. The experimenters found that having two narcissists in a group produced more creative results than a group with none, because their competitiveness sparked more brainstorming. But when more than two narcissists were in a group, the opposite happened: hypercompetitiveness undermined the group's productivity.
8. Happy Kid, Happy Adult?
Few topics in psychology get as much attention as the linkage between childhood experiences and adult happiness (or lack thereof). Researchers at Cambridge University tackled this issue in 2011 by examining the early and teen years of 2,776 adult subjects, analyzing their childhood mental well-being and personality (assessed from school records and personality tests, among other sources). They then correlated this information with their adult subjects' education level, marital status, income, occupation, mental health, social involvement and leadership activities.
Compared with children who had no positive ratings, participants with one positive childhood rating (e.g., a glowing teacher's report) were 21% less likely to develop emotional problems as adults, while those with two or more positive ratings were 61% less likely to develop those problems.
Surprisingly, however, happy children were no more likely to get married in adulthood, and they were more likely to get divorced.
9. The Mental Dynamics of Choosing the Very Best
Much of the research on decision-making focuses on the "choice paralysis" commonly thought to result from having too many options. But 2011 research from one of the top authorities on decision-making suggests that instead of being a debilitating factor, having many options actually sharpens our focus on quality.
Sheena Iyengar, from the London Business School and author of the book "The Art of Choosing," led a team that conducted multiple experiments to examine what happens when consumers are faced with multiple varieties of chocolate and wine. Participants faced with more than 20 types of chocolate or wine, instead of a mere handful (seven or fewer), not only consistently chose the "premium" varieties, but also willingly paid much more. Researchers also analyzed 63 wine auctions conducted by London-based auctioneers between 2006 and 2009 and found the same effect: At auction events with a denser assortment of wine, people willingly paid more for wines with high appraisals and offered far less for wines with lower appraisals.
10. How Getting Angry can Defeat Your Bias
Researchers asked 97 undergrads to participate in what they thought were two separate experiments. The first involved either recalling and writing about a time they'd been exceptionally angry (this was just a prop designed to make them angry), or a time they'd been sad, or about something mundane.
Next, all the participants read an introduction to the debate about whether hands-free devices make speaking on a mobile phone while driving any safer. (Important to note: all of theparticipants had been chosen because a pre-study showed they believed that the devices do make it safer.) Finally, the participants were presented with one-sentence summaries of eight articles, either in favor, or against, the idea that hands-free devices make driving safer. The participants had to choose five of these articles to read in full.
The results: Participants who'd earlier been made to feel angry read more articles critical of hands-free devices, contrary to their own position. And when the participants' attitudes were retested at the end of the study, it was the angry participants who'd shifted more from their original position in the debate.
Check out my Ten Brain Science Studies from 2011 Worth Talking About post at Forbes.