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Psychology’s Greatest Advice

Seven of psychology’s greatest lessons and what makes them great

We live in a time when psychological advice is offered in many different shapes and sizes. Whether it’s Psychology Today, the American Psychological Association’s Help Center or your local area’s mental health resource center, you can find suggestions for ways to improve your life on a daily basis. Relationship advice and tips are by far the most sought-after by the public, as judged by the numerous columns on the topic and their high popularity. However, psychology goes well beyond the love department, offering ways to improve everything from your physical proficiency to your ability to manage your budget.

It’s perhaps an overly ambitious goal to sum up the greatest psychology advice in one short article, but I’m going to try anyhow. Sifting through the many theories and research findings, there are some basic truths that seem to rise up to the surface. See if you agree that these seven pieces of psychology-based advice deserve recognition as psychology’s “greatest”:

1. You can learn a lot about people by observing their behavior. To a behavioral psychologist, the most important (if not the only) information you need to understand a person is to watch what he or she does. People spend money on things they care about, invest their time in projects that they regard as central to their well-being, and express their character in the ways they walk and talk. If you’re an inveterate people-watcher, you may even play Sherlock Holmes-type games in which you deduce something about a person you’re about to meet and test whether your hypothesis is correct. It’s true that people often try to disguise their true motives or are pressed into actions by circumstances over which they have no control (as we'll see below). However, the choices people make when given complete freedom can tell you about their values, interests, and personalities.

2. Inner forces can drive outer behavior. People can be driven by impulses and conflicts that even they don’t realize they have. Freud, who many credit with “discovering” the unconscious, pointed out how our repressed impulses leak out into that observable behavior I discussed in point #1. You don’t have to become a psychoanalyst to be able to understand the basics of defense mechanisms, or to recognize that there are times when issues that are painful or anxiety-provoking can fuel some of our most counterproductive (i.e. "neurotic") behaviors.

3. Close relationships are important to well-being. Self-reliance is a goal that many of us strive to achieve, and many people will make all kinds of sacrifices to be able to express their independence. However, as researchers have shown time after time, including a long-term study of intimacy and well-being I conducted (Sneed et al., 2012), your ability to relate closely to others will carry you through many of life’s challenges. Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many people seek out relationship advice. When your closest relationship isn’t working, you become preoccupied and miserable, but when you have a partner you can rely on, you feel that you survive anything else that happens in the outside world.

4. Positive reinforcement is a great motivator. Skinner showed many years ago that animals—including humans—would work hard to receive desired rewards. The philosophy behind Skinner’s work was that reinforcement, not punishment, is most likely to provide desired outcomes. Skinner designed experimental paradigms that showed precisely how to shape behavior by setting forth the consequences of that behavior. In your own life, you use positive reinforcement all the time even though you may not label it as such. Whether it’s by trying to entice your kids to study longer or to get yourself to kick an unwanted habit, positive reinforcement is an inherent part of life and one that works.

5. Use it or lose it. This well-known phrase is typically associated with the mind, and the need for us to keep active in order to keep from losing such valued skills as memory and quick reaction time. The actual origin of the phrase, as far as I can tell, can be traced to the work of sex researchers Masters and Johnson in discussing sexuality in later life. Their studies of older adults showed the importance of staying sexually active, even if the individual’s physical stamina may be on the wane. However, we now know much more generally that mental activity does promote better cognitive functioning, no matter what your age. Giving up on your memory when in fact all it needs is a little tune-up is a way to ensure that your memory actually will suffer deleterious changes. One long-term study of middle-aged workers found that people in jobs requiring higher levels of cognitive activity actually showed fewer losses in intellectual ability well into their later years.

6. Be aware of how situations affect behavior. Social psychology’s bread and butter is the demonstration of how individuals react similarly, no matter what their personalities, to situational effects. For example, the ingroup-outgroup bias causes people to herd together with others they see as similar to themselves and become angry, insulting, or dismissive of people they see as dissimilar. It doesn’t take true differences to cause this bias to take effect, though. Consider how you feel about pedestrians when you’re behind the wheel of the car (or on your bike), finding it annoying that they make you wait while they cross the street. On the other hand, when it’s you who’s on foot, you become enraged if a car or bike whizzes past you seemingly unaware of your presence. This and similar social effects on behavior abound and once we recognize their pervasive influence, we can be more accepting and empathetic to our fellow humans.

7. Realize there’s more than just “book smarts” to intelligence. For almost a century, the “g” factor theory dominated psychology’s view of intelligence. The idea of g was proposed by the British psychologist Charles Spearman, who proposed that intelligence consists of particular mental abilities. This idea under increasing fire in the 1990s when it became clear that g too heavily reflected academic knowledge (especially the way it was measured). Such esteemed critics as Robert Sternberg, Daniel Goleman, and Howard Gardner led a movement against g that eventually caused a rethinking of how we approach intelligence. Educators, theorists, and researchers now realize that it’s important to add “people smarts” and “street smarts” (among other qualities) to the now outdated intelligence quotient.

Psychology is a subject of endless fascination to many of us, and these 7 of its greatest lessons can help you resolve many of the endless dilemmas you come across in your daily life.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Sneed, J. R., Whitbourne, S., Schwartz, S. J., & Huang, S. (2012). The relationship between identity, intimacy, and midlife well-being: Findings from the Rochester Adult Longitudinal Study. Psychology And Aging, 27(2), 318-323. doi:10.1037/a0026378