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Top 10 Cool Psychological Research Findings

What we know about people may surprise you.

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In the world of behavioral science, where I live, researchers implement studies in an effort to better understand the nature of behavior. As a result of well-designed psychological research over the years, many novel findings with all kinds of implications have been documented. Here is a list of my top-10 cool findings—results you might find surprising, and that could help you better understand the people in your world:

10. Human emotional expression shows extraordinary constancy across human populations (i.e., a smile is a smile wherever you go).

In groundbreaking research on the nature of human emotional expression, Ekman and Friesen (1986) found that the facial expressions which correspond to such basic emotions as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust, and fear are remarkably similar across the world. From remote nomads in the South Pacific to millionaires sipping high-end tea on Park Avenue, the basics of how we express emotions are the same.

9. You have more in common with a typical pigeon than you might realize.

In some of the most important research ever done on the nature of behavior, across a storied career, B. F. Skinner (1953) made the case that the processes that underlie learning, such as operant and classical conditioning, are remarkably similar across species of animals—from dogs to goldfish to pigeons to rats to humans.

8. The more you pay someone for doing a menial task, the less he or she will enjoy it.

In a classic set of studies on the concept of cognitive dissonance, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) found that people who (a) engaged in menial tasks for no good apparent reason, (b) told another student that they liked the tasks, and were then (c) paid $1 for doing so reported liking the tasks much more than did participants who were in the same study, but who were paid $20 for their work. When people are poorly compensated for unpleasant work, they are more likely to convince themselves that they actually enjoyed the work so as to reduce their own levels of cognitive dissonance.

7. People like you and me are quite capable of obeying a stranger to the point of killing another human being.

In a series of studies on the psychology of obedience to authority, Stanley Milgram documented, without question, that under certain conditions a large majority of normal adults are capable of killing someone else—especially if they are being directed to do so by some credible-seeming authority figure, and the context is framed as “for the good of science” (Milgram, 1963).

6. Emotional intelligence often matters more than cognitive intelligence when it comes to success in life.

We place a premium on the importance of intelligence and on markers of academic aptitude. In fact, in several behavioral and life domains, based on a large body of research, success is better predicted by emotional intelligence than by cognitive intelligence (Mayer & Salovey, 1997).

5. About one-third of homicides in North America today have something to do with infidelity.

While we may think that humans are all civilized and have somehow emerged to be above our base evolutionary origins, it’s just not true. In an analysis of thousands of recent North American homicides, Daly and Wilson (1982) found that approximately one-third were most accurately conceptualized as reactions to infidelity.

4. People are more giving to others when the room smells nice.

In a study on volunteerism, Liljenquist et al. (2010) had participants either (a) sit in a room that had not been cleaned recently or (b) sit in a room that was recently cleaned and sprayed with a nice-smelling cleaner. They were then offered the opportunity to take a brochure for Habitat for Humanity. The participants in the nice-smelling room were more likely to take the flyer, and to report that they would volunteer for the organization.

3. People’s reports of why they do what they do are often completely incorrect.

In a description of a series of studies, Nisbett and Wilson (1977) found that while people have no problem providing justifications for their actions, they are quite often totally unaware of the real causes of their behavior. For instance, participants who watched a movie that was accompanied by a constant loud noise from the hallway liked the movie much less than did participants who watched the same movie without the loud noise. When asked why they didn’t like the movie, not a single person in the loud-noise condition mentioned the loud noise.

2. Personality barely shapes what we do.

Research on the power of personality in predicting behavior has found that, on average, our personality traits tend to account for only about 9 percent of our behavior—at most (Mischel, 1968).

1. We are not as helpful as we think we are.

A large majority of seminar students connected with an Ivy League university who are slated to give a lecture on the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible will step right over a person in need if they are running late to deliver the lecture (Darley & Batson, 1973). Think about that!

Bottom Line: If you know an armchair psychologist who thinks that he or she knows all the answers when it comes to people, and that the work done by researchers in this field is a waste of time, you might want to forward him or her this list. As demonstrated here, psychological research is, well, really cool, and regularly leads to new and unexpected insights into what it means to be human.


Daly, M., & Wilson, M. I. (1982). Homicide and Kinship. American Anthropologist, 84, 372-78.

Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D. (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27,100-108.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1986). A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, K. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.

Liljenquist, K., Zhong, C-B., & Galinsky, A.D. (2010). The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents Promote Reciprocity and Charity. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797610361426

Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. J. Sluyter (Eds.), Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications (pp. 3-34). New York: Harper Collins.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–8.

Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

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