Our world is made up of lots of people doing lots of things all the time. Psychology can help you to understand your own and other people’s behavior better.
Following are just a few of the ways you can deploy psychology in your social life. Some people might call these items hacks, shortcuts, or even manipulation techniques. But all can be socially useful—and are based on sound psychological principles.
1. People remember the first and last things you do, so make a good impression and end on a high note.
The Serial Positioning Effect is one of the most well-researched concepts in all of psychology. Basically, it explains that, in a list, we tend to remember the things at the start and at the end. This is a fairly strong and reliable effect. More generally, in a sequence of events, things that happen first and last are going to stick in our memory more strongly than events in the middle.
There are many ways to use this knowledge to your advantage: If you are interviewing for a job, having a business meeting, or just having a conversation with someone you want to impress, start with a bang (making a good first impression) and end on a high note—this may mean finishing earlier than you had planned. People will remember the good parts and forget what happened in between, even if it was kind of average.
2. Remember things by "chunking" them together.
Evidence suggests that we can only store about seven (plus or minus two) individual bits of information in our short-term memories at any given time (see Miller experiment). This means that we can handle anywhere between five and nine numbers or letters at a time. The sequence A-C-G-F-M-R-T is probably fairly easy to remember, but the sequence B-D-A-J-F-T-H-S-R-E-N-O-M a bit beyond most of us.
The way to get around this is by chunking items together. For example, remembering a sequence of 17 letters might seem hard but what about if the letters were V-E-R-Y-L-A-R-G-E-E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T. Although there are 17 items, you really only have to remember three words. The point is that by grouping (or chunking) things together you make a multiple-item sequence become just a single thing to remember. In this way, you effectively increase the capacity of your short-term memory.
3. If you want someone to enjoy something, don’t give them any incentive.
This probably sounds absolutely bizarre. Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental discomfort that someone feels when they do something which contradicts a belief they have, or when they hold a belief which contradicts something they have done. The way people generally deal with this discomfort is by adjusting either their belief or behavior so that it’s more like the other one.
Many studies have shown that when you:
- Ask people to do some hard/boring task;
- Give some of them a reward for doing it (group A), and some no reward at all (group B); and
- Ask them all to rate how much they enjoyed the hard/boring task ...
People in Group B rate their enjoyment as being much higher than those in Group A do. People in Group B are faced with a dilemma: They did something hard or boring, but didn’t receive compensation for it. To resolve this conflict they reason, “Seeing as I didn’t get any compensation for it, I must have enjoyed the task,” and rate their enjoyment high.
4. Give quiet time after a question.
We live in a social world. Many of the things we do in life will have a strong influence from our ability to interpret, navigate, and adapt to certain social situations and circumstances. In addition to physiological/biological pressures, social pressures are among the most important factors in determining people’s behavior.
If you are having a conversation with someone and they only partially answer or respond to something you say, remain silent but keep eye contact. They will feel an implicit pressure to elaborate or keep talking. People tend to feel subtly pressured and will generally want to decrease the social awkwardness by talking.
5. Chew gum when you are going into nervous situations.
You might have heard the old trick about eating an apple when you are on the phone with a romantic interest (popularized on Seinfeld). Well, this tip works in a similar way but is a bit subtler: By chewing gum, you are basically tricking your brain into thinking you are comfortable. Rather than getting flustered and panicky (which takes a lot of energy) your brain reasons that because you are doing something else (chewing gum), you mustn’t be worried or nervous—if you were you wouldn’t be doing something like chewing gum.
6. Watch people’s feet during a conversation.
Whether you’ve just joined a standing conversation between two or more people, or you’re having a one-on-one conversation, it’s a good idea to be aware of the orientation of other people’s feet. Obviously, you don’t want to stare at them—that would be weird, and probably make them very uncomfortable—but taking the occasional micro-glance or monitoring them in your peripheral vision is fine, as long as you are subtle.
Here's why: People (often unconsciously) stand with their feet pointing away from someone if they are disinterested in them. This works the other way too: If they are standing with their feet pointing toward you, they are probably interested in you as a person—either socially or romantically—or in what you are saying or doing.
7. Get yourself happy and excited before seeing someone whom you want to like you. (They will reciprocate next time you see them.)
Most people probably have some awareness of emotions being, to some extent, contagious. It’s hard to be really upset when you are surrounded by happy people. (This doesn’t mean that you should go to a circus to get over your depression, but it will probably be more helpful than being alone.)
People respond to social cues. When you are happy and enthusiastic, this does tend to rub off on people, to an extent. It’s not paranormal; people just pick up on your demeanor, and consciously or not, adjust their own to be more similar. So by being happy and excited, you are also conditioning other people to associate those emotions with you.
8. When people are angry at you, be calm. They will get even angrier and later feel embarrassed.
If you have ever been in a situation in which you were really upset with someone, you will probably understand how frustrating it can be when they remain calm. By not seeming bothered, they are signaling that the situation isn’t upsetting them—and that they are better able to control their emotions. When you are a screaming ball of anger, you don’t want the other person to just sit there and play it cool.
So as hard as it may be, when someone is screaming and abusing you, the best thing to do is to just remain cool and calm. The mismatch between your emotional state and theirs will cause them to feel even more upset—and later, a bit embarrassed.
9. Warm your hands before you shake hands (rub them together).
Again, whether in business, social, or romantic settings, first impressions matter a lot. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company once reportedly said that when he was choosing between two similarly qualified applicants, he always went with the one that had the better handshake.
This story has probably been exaggerated wildly over time, but there is some truth to it: Studies show that handshakes can be even more influential than agreeableness, conscientiousness, or emotional stability. It’s not that warm hands make you desirable—but cold or wet hands definitely do the opposite. Hands that are dry and warm inspire confidence; those that are wet and/or cold indicate nervousness and weakness.
10. Take your date on a roller coaster ride.
Evolution has ensured that life in the human body is enjoyable. Things that help our own survival, or that of the species, feel good (and are reinforced) and those that are harmful to it are punished. Adrenaline has traditionally been associated with strongly positive feelings. It’s exhilarating and causes a surge of energy.
Evidence suggests that people are more likely to enjoy themselves with you if they experience some kind of adrenaline rush while in your presence. The positive feelings that come with adrenaline will be partially transferred to you. Adrenaline "rushes" can come in times of fear or distress. Taking a date on a roller coaster ride, for example, will give them all kinds of good feelings, some of which will be associated with you.
11. When speaking with someone, use their name as much as possible.
Most of us are aware that people love hearing and talking about themselves. There is an old saying that everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. This may be overstating the truth a bit, but it’s hard to deny that nearly everyone enjoys talking and hearing about themselves.
Talking to someone by using their name—rather than buddy, Miss, etc.—suggests that you consider them important and memorable, and so they are more likely to find you more likable, agreeable, and personable. Additionally, find out how people like to think of themselves (what is their self-image) and reinforce this to enable them to like you even more.
12. Don’t reward all the time.
Studies have shown that intermittent reinforcement is more effective at modifying someone’s behavior than constant reinforcement. When you reward someone for something every time they do it, they get used to it, and so the reward has to keep increasing to have the same effect. Rewarding only sometimes is a better option.
When people say something funny, don’t smile every single time. Use what’s called an intermittent reinforcement schedule—you can keep track mentally—to be sure that you only deliver the reward between 30-70 percent of the time. The exact frequency depends on things such as the reward, the person, and what is practical, but the bottom line is, don’t reward all the time.
13. Nod (subtly) when people are talking to you.
It indicates that you are genuinely interested in what they are saying, and will cause them to like you more. People are drawn to other people who convey some kind of interest in them. There is a fine line between being subtle and mildly annoying; learn to tread it.
14. To get a girlfriend or boyfriend, have a girlfriend or boyfriend.
People like what other people like, and we have a tendency to judge the value of something by how in demand it is. One of the best ways to convince someone to like you, especially romantically, is by demonstrating to them that there are other people who like you as well.
In order to get a girlfriend or boyfriend, paradoxically, it helps if you already have one. This shows that you are sought after—by at least one person. Having a partner is like being implicitly endorsed. People will reason that there must be something good about you if you have managed to attract a romantic partner.
15. Fake it till you make it.
Smile in order to be happy. It tricks your brain into thinking that you are. Your brain will reason, Why would I smile unless I was happy? This is very similar to the chewing-gum trick. The basic idea behind cognitive dissonance is that we tend to feel uneasy when our thoughts are inconsistent with our behavior. When you are smiling, it’s much easier for your brain to convince itself that you are happy (consistent with the smiling behavior, no distress) than that you are unhappy (inconsistent with the smiling behavior, causes distress). So if you want to genuinely be happy, faking happiness gets the engine warmed up, and then your brain does the rest of the work.
16. Make a plea to individuals rather than groups.
Research on the bystander effect reveals that people tend to ignore pleas—especially pleas for help—when they are among a group of people. Appealing to five people individually will generally get you better results than directing a single appeal to the entire group. The idea is that people in a group will tend to dismiss you as they will reason that there are other people who could help you, and so they don’t feel personally responsible. If, however, you make a plea to them directly, they will feel more personally responsible and be more likely to help. The point here is that people are generally nice and willing to help you, but social circumstances and pressures can sometimes be strong enough to prevent them from doing so.