The Most Influential Career You've Probably Never Heard Of

Educational psychology reveals solutions for many of life's odd challenges.

Posted Aug 01, 2019

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Whenever anyone learns that I am a college professor the next question is often “what do you teach?” For the sake of simplicity, I respond with “psychology,” although I specialize in educational psychology—the study of human motivation, cognition, and the best ways to enhance learning. Many people haven’t heard of “ed psych,” nor do they realize the substantial influence that educational psychologists play in the design of school curriculum and policy, teaching methods, and the cultivation of peak performance among employees, athletes, and other motivated individuals.

In addition to helping companies and schools create productive work cultures and knowledgeable students, educational psychology explains what may appear to be peculiar human behavior. Have you ever wondered why people act weird, why some offer help while others refuse, or why certain kids hate school while some of their peers adore it? If so, your intellectual curiosity may be well-suited for a career in educational psychology; a profession that relies on research to answer these types of practical questions. As you read on, you’ll find that educational psychology explains far more about life than the typical behavior we encounter not only in classrooms but also at home and on the job.

Why are some people deliberately mean and rude?

Being mean is often described as the deliberate intention to be hurtful. While some meanness can be attributed to organic causes such as personality disorders or differences in cultural norms, most explanations of mean behavior can be ascribed to a feeling of personal dissatisfaction with ourselves and how we are perceived by others. For instance, individuals may develop low self-esteem because they doubt their capabilities. In turn, they project their negative feelings onto other people to feel better about themselves. The consequences of spiteful and hurtful actions are immense with research indicating that “incivility” decreases work effort, increases turnover, lowers productivity, and inhibits performance (Pearson & Porath, 2005).

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Lack of self-control is also related to the exhibition of hurtful behaviors. Like most aspects of human existence, sustained task effort and motivation to achieve a challenging goal gradually diminishes unless we allow time to recover and replenish (Goldberg & Grandey, 2007). This means repeated attempts to control our potentially inappropriate behavior will gradually weaken, resulting in the eventual loss of self-control. If you have unruly children, annoying colleagues or a nagging partner, you certainly know what I mean as evidenced by the idiom “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Eventually, we lose our patience and emotion prevails, resulting in what many people will perceive as being mean-spirited, rude, or uncivil.

Why do some people always think they are right?

Do you know someone who, regardless of the subject or type of experience, has what appears to that particular individual as a highly informed and educated opinion? Often labeled as the “know-it-all,” these individuals are super-confident in offering irrefutable expert advice even in the face of disproving evidence. In a scientific sense, being an expert in multiple areas is nearly impossible and requires mastery to develop. However, the rigid thinker who believes they are always right contends to know more than the type of information you can Google. Their purported knowledge applies to various types of everyday experience, including opinion-based details such as the best way to cook a burger, what’s the ideal route from Boston to NY, or why their favorite TV show is better than yours.

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Sometimes referred to as “absolutist” thinkers (Buehl & Alexander, 2001) these individuals operate under the maxim of “my way or the highway,” showing little interest in changing perspectives, often passionately refuting the ideas of others. The absolutist is firmly convinced there is only one way of doing things, their way. The inflexible thinking and presumption of certainty happen when individuals portray “myside bias” (Stanovich & West, 2008), which happens when individuals stake claims and evaluate outcomes in favor of existing opinions, not upon the actual results observed or available evidence. The only way to debate these folks is with irrefutable evidence from bonafide experts. Don’t get your hopes up though, absolutists rarely admit being wrong, and any apparent change in opinion is often short-lived.

Why do some people take pleasure in the anguish of others?

Schadenfreude (a German word) is generally defined as achieving pleasure based on the misfortune of others (Ouwerkerk et al., 2018). While absolutist thinkers may debate that anyone really feels good when others suffer, neurological evidence confirms that our brains’ pleasure centers are activated when we feel superior. Examples of superiority include winning at a game when others lose (Dvash et al., 2010), or when we think we have more or better worldly possessions than someone else (Takahashi et al., 2009). Survey evidence aligns with the neurological findings and suggests that the success of reality television is based on the joy we get when seeing contestants lose (e.g. American Idol, Dijk et. al., 2012) or when high-status celebrities make fools of themselves (known as the "tall poppy syndrome," Feather, 1989).

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

The most common explanation for schadenfreude is that the misfortune of others enhances a person’s positive self-views. All individuals have an innate need to feel competent and worthy and comparatively seeing someone worse off fortifies our lofty self-impressions (Taylor & Brown, 1988). The superiority effect is more pronounced when misfortune befalls an outgroup (another race or culture than our own), and especially when a low self-esteem individual has doubts about their own group dominance (Ouwerkerk et al., 2018).

Many times, individuals evaluate their worth through direct comparison to others. If the evaluation turns out poorly, low self-esteem may follow, which amplifies schadenfreude. Individuals who see themselves negatively are more prone to feeling inferior when making “upward” comparisons, thus they forgo envy and feel empowered when high-powered or wealthy individuals are scandalized—Jeffery Epstein (van Dijk et al., 2015; Wantanabe, 2016).

Why do politics enrage people?

Have you ever been irritated by something you heard on the news or read on social media? Invariably, we know someone who was either “defriended” on Facebook or who went berserk on social media because another person harbors opposing political, religious, or cultural beliefs. Topics like Donald Trump, abortion, or immigration policy consistently generate strong opinions. However, for some people, nothing matters more than ardently defending their politics and convincing adversaries that their point of view is superior and should be embraced. The dominance of our beliefs (defined as knowledge that is unsupported by scientific evidence) is so influential that it determines where we focus our attention and on what information we consider the fact. Subsequently, our beliefs steer us toward material and people that support our opinions and flatter our preferred culture, while ignoring or negating opposing views (Appiah et al., 2013).

A primary reason people will ardently defend their beliefs is that beliefs comprise a substantial portion of our personal and professional identities. This means that when we evaluate who we are and how we want to be viewed by others, certain values and morals take priority. While there are substantial between-person differences concerning what we choose to include as part of our identities, one thing is for sure--people passionately defend their perspectives and for some disagreement is a personal attack akin to insulting one’s mother. A strong social identity allows a person to relate to others with similar points of view, promotes positive assessments of their unique perspectives, and satisfies the basic human need to affiliate and be embraced by harmonious, like-minded others (Hogg, Abrams, & Brewer, 2017).

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Why do people procrastinate?

Speaking of beliefs, people have beliefs about procrastination too, including beliefs about why they defer important tasks and if deferral is or is not a productive work strategy. Some people swear that procrastination enhances their work product and makes them more productive because there is no time to relax. Schraw, Wadkins, and Olafson (2007) asked students about the reasons for their delay tactics and found that procrastination was often planned because students believed that task deferment promoted a more efficient thinking process and the pressure of tight deadlines motivated performance. However, little if any scientific evidence supports the contention that procrastination of work or academic tasks results in better outcomes compared to slow, deliberate, and paced investment of effort over time.

Causes of procrastination include lack of topic interest, limited topic knowledge, or rejection of the controlling environments imposed by deadlines. While these explanations have merit, the root cause of procrastination is based more on the self-assessment of our capabilities and the potential development of doubt concerning what we can accomplish. Very few individuals are satisfied when self-evaluations come up short, which in turn decreases feelings of self-worth. When evaluating self-worth, individuals often stake their personal reputations based not upon what they specifically achieve, but on subjective reactions to their accomplishments. The person who procrastinates and fails often blames the failure on waiting too long to start a task and not on the questionable evaluation of their capabilities.

Hoffman (2015) revealed that procrastination acts as a psychological mask, taking pressure away from negative self-evaluations. The strategy allows the individual to “save face” by shifting blame for outcomes to factors external to the self. If the individual fails at the task or misses the deadline, the person rationalizes the disappointment as being caused by procrastination and thinks “if I didn’t wait until the last minute, I would have done much better.” If the individual succeeds, feelings of self-worth are elevated because desired results were achieved despite putting off the task. Regardless of the outcome, elevated self-worth remains largely intact.

Making a difference

Thus, while educational psychology effectively answers many specialized and process-oriented questions such as the best way to teach mathematics to a group of restless fourth graders, how to design instruction to motivate disinterested learners, or how to decrease anxiety when preparing for a high-stakes presentation, the profession also reveals the motivation and thinking of people in a variety of everyday situations. Anyone considering a career in the profession should also realize that educational psychologists are also often experts in collecting and analyzing data to make evidence-based decisions. If you have a love for learning, enjoy teaching others and want to make the world a better place, maybe a career in educational psychology is just right for you.


Appiah, O., Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Alter, S. (2013). Ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation: Effects of news valence, character race, and recipient race on selective news reading. Journal of Communication, 63, 517–534. doi:10.1111/jcom.12032

Buehl, M. M., & Alexander, P. A. (2001). Beliefs about academic knowledge. Educational Psychology Review13 (4), 385-418.

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Hoffman, B. (2015). Motivation for learning and performance. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Hogg, M.A., Abrams, D., & Brewer, M.B. (2017) Social identity: The role of self in group processes and intergroup relations. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20 (5), 570-581. doi:10.1177/1368430217690909.

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Pearson, C. M., & Porath, C. L. (2005). On the nature, consequences and remedies of workplace incivility: No time for “nice”? Think again. Academy of Management Perspectives19 (1), 7-18.

Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., & Olafson, L. (2007). Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99 (1), 12–25.

Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T., & Okubo, Y. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Science, 323 (5916), 937-939.

Van Dijk, W. W., Ouwerkerk, J. W., Smith, R. H., & Cikara, M. (2015). The role of self-evaluation and envy in schadenfreude. European Review of Social Psychology26 (1), 247-282.

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