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10 of the Most Surprising Findings in Psychology

How behavioral science regularly teaches us something new.

Key points

  • Psychology is regularly accused of being a "soft science," full of intuitive information.
  • In fact, the behavioral sciences use rigorous methodological and statistical procedures, producing useful and novel findings.
  • Here are 10 findings (of thousands) from the behavioral sciences that shed important and novel light on the human experience.
Mix Tape/Shutterstock
Source: Mix Tape/Shutterstock

The behavioral sciences (which I see as a subset of psychology proper) are sometimes accused of being "soft" and of being full of intuitive findings. Honestly, if this all were true, I would have had a hard time dedicating the last three decades of my career to this field!

In fact, behavioral scientists are trained intensively in rigorous methodological and statistical procedures. I took seven statistics courses across my own undergraduate and graduate career as an example.

One measure of how useful our field is pertains to the ability to turn up novel findings about human behavior that are not simply intuitive. OK, I'll admit that sometimes in our field, we do publish something that everyone already knows (such as research showing that kids don't like bitter vegetables). That said, when you start to look for non-intuitive findings in the field, you end up seeing many of them. And these findings provide important insight into the broader human experience.

Below are 10 such findings that will, hopefully, encourage the reader to step back and see the importance of behavioral science in a bigger frame.

1. Under some conditions, paying people for their work makes them work less hard.

Classic work on the topic of cognitive dissonance has found that under many conditions, if you pay someone to do some task, they realize that they are only doing it for the money, and their motivation regarding the task itself reduces dramatically (see Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).

2. Many people are capable of killing someone who is totally innocent if an authority figure requests them to do so.

In his classic research on obedience to authority, Stanley Milgram found that a substantial majority of regular Americans are capable of engaging in behavior that would kill an innocent man simply because an authority figure requested that they do so (Milgram, 1963).

3. Reactions to infidelity account for about one-third of homicides in the modern world.

An analysis of thousands of homicides from two large North American cities found that a full one-third of homicides are connected, in a significant way, with infidelity (Daly & Wilson, 1982).

4. Basic facial expressions of emotions cut across all cultures of the globe.

The way that people express and understand emotional facial expressions varies almost zero percent across all human groups that have ever been studied (Ekman & Friesen, 1986).

5. We tend to see people who are in "other" groups as all the same as one another relative to people in our own groups.

When we think of people as being members of some "other" group from our own, we literally are unable to see variability among them; we literally tend to see them as "all the same" (Haslam et al., 1996). This phenomenon is known as outgroup homogeneity.

6. Our psychological connections with dogs and cats have strong roots in the human evolutionary story.

Next time you look at your dog or your cat, realize that our psychological connections with these creatures actually go far back into human evolutionary history. They joined us in this journey for very specific, evolution-based reasons.

7. The same five basic personality traits characterize people across the globe.

Research into basic personality traits, which shows much variability from person to person, has found that the same basic personality traits—extraversion, emotional stability, open-mindedness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness—characterize how people differ from one another in all corners of the Earth (see Schmitt et al., 2007).

8. Situational factors account for more "evil" behavior than do dispositional factors.

A mountain of research on "evil" or anti-social behavior points to this conclusion: Evil behavior is much more the result of situational factors than dispositional factors. Thus, it is more accurate to talk about environmental conditions that facilitate evil behavior than it is to talk about "bad people" (see Zimbardo, 2007).

9. Anxiety actually has an important role in human functioning.

While on the surface, we tend to think of anxiety as simply problematic and as something that we need to reduce, in fact, anxiety acts very much like a Darwinian adaptation, leading to benefits such as success at all kinds of tasks. A moderate degree of anxiety is, in fact, a good thing (see Nesse & Williams, 1994).

10. There really is something to the idea of true love. And we can see it in people's brains.

True love really is a thing, and it can be observed in neural activity in the brain. Helen Fisher has dedicated a lifetime of intensive research that ultimately points toward this conclusion (see Fisher, 2012).

Bottom line

Across the past several decades, work in the behavioral sciences has shed light on a broad array of topics that underlie the human experience. Work in this field is not subjective, fluffy, nor intuitive. It is, in fact, rigorous science that utilizes the most advanced statistical processes available in an effort to help us better understand who we are.

The 10 not-necessarily-intuitive findings summarized here are, in fact, the tip of the iceberg. Welcome to scientific psychology.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Mix Tape/Shutterstock

References

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

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.

Fisher, HE (2012). In Geoff Warburton, Ed. WE HAVE CHEMISTRY! The Role of Four Primary Temperament Dimensions in Mate Choice and Partner Compatibility. The Psychotherapist, Autumn 2012:Issue 52: 8-9. United Kingdom.

Haslam, A., Oakes, P., Turner, J., & McGarty, C. (1996). Social identity, self-categorization, and the perceived homogeneity of ingroups and outgroups: The interaction between social motivation and cognition. In R. Sorrentino & E. Higgins (Eds.). Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 182–222. (Chapter 4)

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

Nesse RM, Williams GC: Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Times Books, New York, 1994.

Schmitt, DP., Allik, J., McCrae, RR., Benet-Martínez, V., Alcalay, L., Ault, L., et al. (2007) 'The geographic distribution of Big Five personality traits: Patterns and profiles of human self-description across 56 nations'. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 38 (2). pp. 173 - 212. ISSN: 0022-0221

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil". The Journal of The American Medical Association. 298 (11): 1338–1340.

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