The obvious and not-so-obvious in psychology

by Limbic on September 17, 2007

From Mindhacks:

Tom has written an excellent article for The Psychologist on the not-so-obvious findings in psychology which has just been made freely available.

There are certain predictable responses you get if you introduce yourself as a psychologist.

The most common is ‘are you analyzing me?’, followed by ‘can you read my mind?’. The best answer to both, of course, is ‘sometimes’.

Occasionally, a bright spark will tell you ‘psychology, well, it’s just obvious isn’t it?’, which, to be frank, I wish it was. But sadly, it’s fiendishly complicated.

Tom’s article gathers a whole bunch of counter-intuitive research findings for exactly such situations:

I used to keep a stock of ‘unobvious’ findings ready to hand for occasions like this. Is it really obvious that people can be made to enjoy a task more by being more poorly paid to recruit for it (cognitive dissonance: Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959)? That a saline solution can be as effective as morphine in killing pain (the placebo effect: Hrobjartsson, 2001)? That students warned that excessive drinking is putting many of their peers at risk may actually drink more, whereas advertising the fact that most students don’t drink, or drink in moderation, is the thing that actually reduces binge drinking (Perkins et al., 2005)? That over a third of normal people report having had hallucinations, something we normally experience solely with mental illness or substance abuse (Ohayon, 2000)? Or that the majority of ordinary Americans could be persuaded to electrocute someone to death merely by being asked to by a scientist in a white coat (Milgram, 1974)?

There’s many more great examples, including touching on the cognitive bias that leads people to think they understand more than they do when they have little knowledge.

Priceless stuff.

Link to article in The Psychologist on the ‘obvious’.

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