10 Psychology Theories That Defy Common Sense

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Quick, rattle off psychology theories from the top of your head. Like, “Good-looking people have it easier,” or “extroverts are happier than introverts” or “we’re more likely to do favors for people we like.” What do they all have in common? Yep, you’ve guessed it: They’re all theories that even a non-psychologist can work out given a basic understanding of human nature.

Of course, we’re not suggesting that “psychology” should be renamed “commonsensology.” It’s cool that psychologists can dig up empirical evidence to prove what most of us dismiss as “plain old common sense.” Also, in their efforts to understand how humans think, they sometimes find out stuff that can make even the most rational layperson go “Wait, what?”

10. Agreeable People Are More Likely to Do “Bad” Things

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Imagine you have two friends named Alex and Daniel. Alex is pleasant and outgoing, while Daniel is cold and aloof. If someone asked them to dole out electric shocks to a complete stranger, who do you think is more likely to do it?

Your first answer would probably be Daniel, which is wrong according to an unpublished study in the Journal of Personality. The researchers found that people who are agreeable and conscientious are more compliant with requests like “Shock this person with electricity” compared to people who are contrarian and disagreeable. Furthermore, those who have left-wing political views are also less compliant with such requests, so if you know an ornery socialist they’re the one you’d want to trust in this scenario.

How’s this possible? Well, “agreeableness” can be a double-edged sword: If you’re an agreeable person, you’re more likely to go with the norm, whether that “norm” is morally questionable or not. If you’re disagreeable, you’re more likely to be the questioning type. Now, this isn’t to say that every Agreeable Alex is automatically “bad,” while everyone who’s a Disagreeable Daniel is automatically “good.” People are much more complicated than that, and trying to predict their future actions using one facet of their personality is ridiculous. Generally, it’s better to figure out to what degree they’d be compliant with a norm, rather than jump to hasty assumptions based on limited information.

9. Military Uniforms Alter Police Officers’ Psychology

Police Shooting Missouri

Unless you hid under a rock in 2014, you’re probably aware of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. But we’re not here to discuss politics — we want to zero in on one particular aspect of the incident that may or may not have contributed to it: The Ferguson police officers’ uniform.

According to Maria Konnikova of The New Yorker, people associate police officers in military-style gear (e.g. SWAT suits, fatigues) with aggression. This seems commonsensical enough. But what’s really surprising is the effect of the uniforms on the police themselves. Konnikova writes: “When (police officers) ‘dress up’ for serious engagements, for example when donning SWAT gear to respond to a riot, they no longer feel like law enforcement anymore but like part of a broader military machine.” Gives a whole new meaning to “You are what you wear,” doesn’t it?

8. Your Language Affects Your Perception of the World

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If we have “You are what you wear” we also have “You are what you speak,” at least according to university professors Lera Boroditsky and Aneta Pavlenko. For them, the language you use determines what you notice, what you don’t notice, and how you categorize things. For example, since the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t have specific words for “left” and “right” they say “The man to your west is my father.” Likewise, Russian distinguishes objects based on shape rather than material, while Spanish and German designate genders for objects.

There are people who disagree with this idea. John McWhorter, a linguist from Columbia University, argues that it’s not the language per se, but the culture surrounding the language that explains why bilinguals seem to switch personalities when they switch languages. Boroditsky counters this by saying that a language is just one factor that shapes our worldview, and that learning languages changes our way of thinking the way other forms of learning does. Whichever you believe, one thing’s for sure: Learning a language other than the one you’re born with can be a life-changing experience — if you let it be that way.

7. Yawning Keeps Your Brain Alert (Among Other Things)

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Next time your boss calls you out for yawning in front of him, say “But sir, it helps me think!” Then smile inwardly as his eyes glaze over you and wonder what’s going on.

Seriously, though, there’s a good reason you yawn, and it’s not always because you lack sleep. Andrew Gallup, an assistant professor from the State University of New York’s  psychology department, says that humans yawn for the following reasons: to keep their own brains at an optimal temperature and become more alert, to make other people more alert (which explains why “contagious yawning” is a thing) and as a response to weaning off certain drugs, which explains why recovering heroin addicts yawn a lot. Talk about a load of useful functions for something so embarrassing!

6. Liking Starbucks Coffee Has Nothing to Do with “Quality”

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Ever wonder why people flock to Starbucks the way piranhas flock to fresh meat? Maybe it’s because Starbucks coffee is superior, quality-wise, to other types of coffee. Or maybe not: In a blind taste test, people think Walmart’s $3.88 coffee tastes just as good as $8.88 Starbucks coffee! So what is the secret to the latter’s popularity, if not taste?

Psychologist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, thinks he knows the answer. In his book, Ariely writes that Howard Schultz took great care to design Starbucks like a “continental coffeehouse.” Basically, the coffee store’s great ambiance explains why people keep coming back to the green-and-white two-tailed mermaid again and again. The fact that Starbucks coffee is a rewarding and familiar splurge for caffeine-thirsty office workers also helps.

5. Distractions Bump up Your Productivity

“Block social media.” “Don’t check e-mail first thing in the morning.” If you’re a productivity junkie, chances are you’ve come across these tips at some point. But it turns out they’re not gospel, at least not for all people. One study by University of Copenhagen researchers showed that people who watched a funny video before completing a task made fewer mistakes than the people who were explicitly told not to watch the video beforehand. Given what we know about Internet distractions, it should’ve worked the other way around. So what gives?

Six words: Human willpower is a finite resource. You can only do the same thing over and over again for so long before you crack and get sucked into the Internet wormhole. As Jenna Wortham writes in her New York Times piece “I Took a Web Detour, and Now I Feel Better“: “Sometimes, I’ve found that losing myself in the Web can be invigorating.”

4. People Who Own More Aren’t Necessarily Happier

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When we think of “happy” people, we tend to think of those who have everything they could ever ask for: A big house, a nice car, and everything else money can buy. But Dr. Tim Kasser, a psychology professor from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, doesn’t think that’s the case. In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Kasser says that materialistic people are less healthy, less concerned about the environment, more selfish, have poorer academic performance and have more money problems. This can be explained by the main reason behind materialism: People want to own more, more and more when they try to overcompensate for something, or protect themselves from a perceived threat. So the next time you meet someone with more possessions than they can handle, maybe — just maybe — there’s more to that person than meets the eye.

3. When You Do Favors for Someone, You Tend To Like Them More

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From what we know about “liking” someone it usually works this way: If you do a favor for a person, that person will like you. Because, hey, who doesn’t like being on the receiving end of favors? But Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) thought differently. Legend says that when a political opponent insulted him, Franklin returned the favor by asking him to let Franklin borrow a book. Flattered that Franklin — who was known for his good taste in books — asked him that, the man accomplished the favor right away and became a good friend of Franklin.

Whether or not this story is true, the Ben Franklin effect is definitely real. When a researcher challenged participants to an “intellectual contest” and asked them to return the prize money to him afterwards, the participants rated the researcher as more likeable. One possible explanation for this baffling phenomenon is cognitive dissonance. We all want our thoughts, words and actions to be consistent with each other. When we come across a situation causing an internal conflict between those three, we feel uncomfortable and try to “equalize” the conflicting sides to relieve our discomfort. To put this in the context of the Ben Franklin effect: Even if you dislike the person you’re doing favors for, a part of you wants to like that person, because why else would you do a favor for someone you don’t like?

2. Being Able to Feel Depression Is a Good Sign

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Let’s be clear on one thing first: We’re not saying that depression sufferers shouldn’t seek help. If you have it, please seek professional help.

That said, there’s a reason people are capable of experiencing depression in the first place. According to psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg, our high and low moods balance each other out. Without the highs  you’d be a real-life Eeyore, but without the lows you’d be a reckless bouncing ball of sunshine. Which brings us to…

1. Positive Psychology Can Be Negative

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Every day we’re bombarded with well-meaning but borderline sugary messages like “Be happy! Stay positive! Don’t be such a Debbie Downer!” But, as you may suspect, this is oversimplifying things a bit.

Negative emotions are hardwired in us as a sort-of leftover from the days when we had to defend ourselves from the likes of saber-toothed tigers. While these types of emotions can harm us if they’re left to stew and simmer, they can also push us to make the most out of a bad day, as a study from the University of Liverpool suggests. In fact, according to that same study, people who are “too compassionate” (yes, that’s totally a thing) feel emotional stress from basically being human shock-absorbers to other people’s negative energy.

Bottom line: To be emotionally healthy, allow yourself to experience both positive and negative emotions. Once you’ve calmed down a bit, think about why you’re experiencing them, use your judgment to decide the best course of action at the moment, and do it!

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Issa Mirandilla may be able to write about any write-able topic you can think of, but she prefers to get her hands dirty in the fields of blogging, freelancing, productivity, psychology and business. Drop her a line on her website, or say hello to her on Twitter.

Read more about the weird ways our brains work!
Check out 10 strange cognitive phenomenon, or get your weird brain working with some famous thought experiments.

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3 Comments

  1. I think # 1 may explain why so many people seem to hate Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s such a lovely little non-aggressive piece that I don’t understand why people are driven to eviscerate it. It’s the perfect antidote if you’re ever trapped somewhere and bitten by a Bobby Goldsboro song. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” can neutralize the poison.

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