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A Top 10 List of Psychology’s Big Questions, and the Answers

The surprising knowledge psychology can offer about many of life’s mysteries.

Key points

  • Psychologists ask — and answer — many fundamental questions about a range of topics, from the nature of the mind to the causes of discrimination.
  • Psychology has the potential to help us not only understand life’s mysteries but uncover new ones as well.
  • Psychology has weighed in on the enduring question of nature vs. nurture, helping us understand that the two work hand in hand.

The joke is that if you ask a psychologist a question, you’ll get a question in return. “Why do we dream?” you ask, and the response you get in return should be “why would you like to know?” However, in reality, psychologists ask, and answer, fundamental questions about a wide range of topics, from the nature of the mind to the causes of discrimination, and everything in between. Although it’s a challenge to winnow the list down to 10, what follows is a good sampling of psychology’s best attempts to answer its best questions.

1. Is there such a thing as ESP?

There may be no topic in psychology quite as controversial, or as fascinating, as extrasensory perception, or ESP. Three posited forms of ESP are:

  1. Telepathy - transfer of information from one person to another without known mediation of sensory communication
  2. Clairvoyance - acquisition of information about places, people, or events without mediation of known senses
  3. Precognition - acquisition of information about a future event that could not be anticipated through any known processes of inference

In a study of telepathy, or psi, for example, participants are seated in two separate rooms; while one “transmits” signals, the other attempts to “receive” them. However, critics argue that many of the effects demonstrated in ESP experiments can simply be explained by faulty methodology and sensory “leakage” in which participants inadvertently give away the answers. The only "extra-sensory" feature in such cases might be that some people are very good at reading people’s very subtle signals.

2. Why do we dream?

Our dreams mystify us and often leave us waking up confused, disoriented, frightened, or perhaps very, very satisfied. Freud, of course, proposed that our dreams represent unconscious wishes that we’re afraid to express in our waking life. The most recent explanations aren’t totally incompatible with this theory. According to the activation-synthesis model, dreams are stories that we create out of the random stimulation that occurs in the brain while we sleep. The updated activation-integration-modulation (AIM) model proposes that dreams reflect the activity of regions of the brain at a particular moment as well as the activity of particular neurotransmitters. This neuroscience explanation regards the stories we make up as reflecting, in part, our hidden desires, but they are not primarily the products of repressed wishes.

3. How can we motivate ourselves more effectively through reinforcement?

We’d all like to be more effective in reaching our goals, and according to behaviorists, the way to improve our effectiveness is by rewarding ourselves for the little steps that take us closer and closer to those desirable outcomes. First, find something you really like to do or something you’d like to have that can, realistically, serve as a reward. Then, take the goal that you are hoping to achieve that, realistically, you could achieve but just haven’t succeeded at yet. Next, work backward from that goal to your present state. Arrange to give yourself those desired rewards as you inch closer from where you are now to the desired endpoint. As you start to make progress, only give yourself a reward when you’ve moved forward from where you are now. For example, if you’d like to cut back on your television watching and instead read more often, reward yourself by allowing yourself to watch television only when you’ve read for 20 minutes, then 30, then maybe 2 hours. By the time you’ve gotten to the 2-hour mark, who knows, you may enjoy reading so much that you won’t even care about watching television anymore.

4. How can we get our working memory to work for us?

Working memory is that part of your memory system that allows you to keep information actively in “consciousness,” either because you are learning something for the first time or are trying to recall something you learned in the past. Theoretically, you could keep information in working memory indefinitely if you thought about it and nothing else, but obviously this would not be a very feasible task. The trick is for you to keep information for as long as you need it.

Psychology has three simple tricks to help your working memory:

  1. Chunking - By organizing large amounts of information into a smaller number of units (the “magical number of 7 plus or minus 2”), you will be able to store the information much more efficiently but then you have to use step #2.
  2. Encoding so you can retrieve - You have to be able to pull up the organizational framework you created at the time of encoding if you’re going to be able to use it later, so you need to follow the adage “If you don’t encode, you can’t retrieve."
  3. Using “deep” processing - According to levels of processing theory, the more meaning you put into what you’re trying to remember, the better your chances of remembering it. Even putting a list of words you need to remember into a sentence, rather than just memorizing them through rote practice, will give you that deeper processing edge.

At the same time, though, we know from eyewitness memory research that people’s memory is highly unreliable. We are likely to forget small details or change the small details of experiences to fit with what we had expected to have happened.

The classic eyewitness memory research asked participants to estimate the speed of two cars involved in an accident. If they were asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other, participants estimated the speed as higher than if asked how fast they were going when they “contacted” each other. Similarly, people can be misled into thinking that an item was on a word list when it in fact was not. If you read a list of words that all relate to the category “sweet” (but don’t actually include “sweet”), people will think that the word “sweet” was on the list. Relying on your own or other people’s eyewitness memory is a risky proposition. If you need to remember something that’s happening in front of you, either write it down or snap a picture with your smartphone!

5. What’s the key to solving life’s problems?

The kinds of problems that psychology can help you solve include a wide range of practical situations that confront people on a daily basis. Whether it’s hooking up a new computer, fixing a broken electrical fixture, arranging the order of foods to cook when you’re preparing a meal, or figuring out the best route home, there are similar steps involved in being a good problem-solver.

Psychologists suggest that you first understand the nature of the problem, like rearranging puzzle pieces or putting things in proper order. Then, more importantly, you need to keep an open mind to possible solutions, even ones that may seem a bit out of the ordinary. In fact, sometimes the more unusual, the better. We are all very prone to mental sets, and that can be a huge impediment to problem-solving. Finally, be ready to start all over if your results were unsuccessful. Holding onto your first answer, even if it’s not a very good one can impede you from ever coming up with a way out of your dilemma. Rushing ahead to complete a problem is probably the biggest mistake that people make (other than procrastinating too long)!

6. How can we communicate more effectively?

Good communication is the key to our interactions with other people. When we think of how to communicate, we often focus on spoken or written language. However, when it comes to language, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

For example, when you speak, you must by definition get your point across in linear fashion, meaning that the first words you utter in a sentence will guide the listener to understanding what will follow. Saying “I’m sorry" at the beginning of a conversation will have a much greater impact, for example, than throwing your apology in at the end of a long explanation.

The tone in which you speak lets your listener know whether you’re asking a question or making a statement. However, if you’re like many people, you may find that you speak your sentences as if they were questions. This can make you sound less confident and can undercut your effectiveness when you’re trying to convince someone to believe that you know what you’re talking about.

Your body language may say even more about you than your verbal language. Most people fail to look others in the eye, slouch, jiggle their hands and feet when they’re nervous, and reveal what they’re really feeling inside through the tiny “microexpressions” on their faces.

Learn to control your body language, and you can control the impression you make on others.

7. What is intelligence (and why should we care)?

This is definitely one of psychology’s “big” questions. The study of intelligence has a long history in psychology, going back at least to the early 1900s when educators sought to test the mental abilities of schoolchildren. There is no singular, set definition that psychologists generally agree upon nor is there even now one clear-cut way to measure it.

There are also many controversies regarding such issues as whether intelligence can be “trained” the extent to which being intelligent makes a difference in your real-life accomplishments. However, psychologists seem to be coming to an understanding that intelligence is more than just academic knowledge and that any good definition must include such attributes as practical knowledge (“street smarts”), self-understanding, and understanding of others. We should care about what intelligence is because these skills extend well beyond the classroom and can enrich our lives, and the lives of others, in important ways.

8. What does it mean to be self-actualized?

According to Abraham Maslow, who was instrumental in developing the theory of self-actualization, it is a continuous process of realizing our own unique potential. The theory proposes the famous hierarchy of needs, according to which self-actualization sits at the top of all of our motivations.

Often, this theory is wrongly described as suggesting that you can’t consider fulfilling your higher-order needs until your lower-order needs are fulfilled. However, you only have to think of a few examples of some of the most famous self-actualized individuals to see that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, Maslow himself believed that many self-actualized people specifically chose to make sometimes life-threatening personal sacrifices in order to fulfill their inner potential. It’s also important to realize that there is no one state of “perfection” that characterizes self-actualization but, instead, each of us has our own idiosyncratic way of achieving inner fulfillment.

9. How does the mind-body connection affect our emotions?

Psychologists from William James to Richard Lazarus have struggled with the notion of specifying the ways our mental states are affected by our physical states and vice versa. William James proposed a theory of emotions that emphasized the body’s role in producing emotional experiences. Physiologist Carl Lange proposed a similar theory, and so the theory is known by both of their names. The theory proposes that our bodily changes follow directly from the perceptions of an “exciting fact,” and that these bodily changes are the emotions.

Physiologist Walter Cannon regarded the thalamus as the key relay station between the cortex and the autonomic nervous system. An emotional stimulus activates the thalamus which, in turn, activates the autonomic nervous system (which then produces arousal) and the cortex (which interprets the event and the experience of the emotion). According to Stanley Schachter and his colleague Jerome Singer, emotions are the product of autonomic arousal and the reactions of other people in the environment or context. The facial feedback hypothesis proposes, instead, that our emotions can be determined by the muscles of our face. If you want to be happy, this suggests, you should smile.

Even though no one of these theories may be completely correct, psychologists seem to agree that our emotions are defined, at least in part, by the responses of our bodies, with perhaps the added coloring provided by our thoughts about a given situation.

10. Which is more important, nature or nurture?

Here’s one of the truly enduring questions of all time. However, despite what you may have learned in your introductory psychology class, there’s no longer a “vs” in the nature-nurture debate. The question instead is a matter of “and” and “how.” For example, through the process called epigenesis, while pregnant, a stressed mother can change the expression of genes in her unborn child. Other ways that nature and nurture interact include niche-picking in which children’s genetic predisposition leads them to seek certain environments which, in turn, further alter their development.

To sum up, I hope you agree with this top 10 list of psychology’s great questions and answers. It’s quite likely that these top 10 don’t include your personal favorites, or that you agree completely with these answers. However, you’ll almost certainly agree with the idea that psychology has the potential to help us not only understand life’s mysteries but also to uncover new mysteries for us to continue to explore.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013