Psychology Experiments That Will Surprise You

What is it that makes people do the things they do? Artists, writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, and psychologists have explored this basic question for thousands of years, but so much about the human mind and behavior remains a mystery.

Yet numerous psychology experiments have revealed some remarkable insights into our thoughts and actions, from understanding the very nature of evil to the bad decisions we sometimes make. In fact, many of these findings might shock you and challenge what you think you know about yourself.

These three examples of experiments upended what most people and many scientists thought about how people think and act. Research can shed new light on human behavior. It pays to be open to new evidence.

1

You Probably Aren't as Aware of Your Choices as You Like to Think You Are

Man voting in polling place
Hill Street Studios/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

When you head to the polls to vote, you cast your ballot based on careful deliberation of the issues and consideration for how the candidate's views reflect your own beliefs and values, right? While this is what everyone likes to believe, the research actually suggests that you are not as aware of the choices you make as you probably think you are—a phenomenon that experts refer to as choice blindness.

How exactly does this work? In one study, researchers asked participants to look at images of different women and then pick the one they found the most attractive. The researchers then showed the participants a picture of the woman they had supposedly selected. In reality, the image was of the woman they had rejected. The participants in the study were then asked to explain why they had chosen this particular picture and why they found the woman attractive.

If people were aware of the choices that they make, it would stand to reason that most people would immediately notice this deception. Yet the researchers discovered that only about 13% of the swaps were noticed. Perhaps more surprisingly, however, was that many participants then went on to confabulate reasons why they had chosen the image and why they found the woman attractive. Some even claimed that they preferred blondes, even though the picture they had actually rated as more attractive originally depicted a brunette.

Researchers have found that this choice blindness doesn't just apply to visual stimuli—it also extends to other senses such as taste and smell.

It also affects the choices we make that are supposedly based upon deeply held beliefs—our political attitudes. A 2012 study found that researchers could manipulate participant answers to questions about various political issues and participants would not only fail to notice that their answers had been changed but also go on to defend and justify these "choices", even though they were not the responses they had given in the first place.

The bottom line: People are less aware of their preferences than they think they are.​

2

Fantasizing About Your Success Might Actually Lead to Failure

Woman visualizing her success
Zero Creatives/Getty Images

Pick up any self-help book and one of the tips you'll likely find is to visualize your success if you want to achieve your goals. It turns out that this advice can sometimes be counterproductive. A 2011 study that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that fantasizing about success is not just ineffective—it actually increases your chances of failure.

The researchers found that engaging in positive fantasies, or imagining a desired future, resulted in less energy than negative or neutral fantasies. The authors of the study suggest that engaging in these positive fantasies actually decreases the amount of energy people have to pursue the desired goal.

What really works to motivate people to achieve their goals? Experts suggest that expectations work better than fantasies. In one study, researchers looked at how people respond to life challenges, including getting a job, starting a relationship with their crush, taking an exam, and recovering from surgery. For each of these conditions, the researchers also measured how much these participants fantasized about positive outcomes and how much they actually expected a positive outcome.

What's the difference really between fantasy and expectation? While fantasy involves imagining an idealized future, the expectation is actually based on a person's past experiences.

What did the researchers find? The results revealed that those who had engaged in fantasizing about the desired future did worse in all four conditions. Those who had more positive expectations for success did better in the following weeks, months, and years. These individuals were more likely to have started a relationship with their crush, found a job, passed their exams, and successfully recovered from their surgery.

The bottom line: Positive expectations are more effective than fantasizing about a desired future.

3

People Are Willing to Go to Great (Sometimes Deadly) Lengths to Obey Authority

Giving an order to obey
RunPhoto/Getty Images

If your boss told you to do something that you knew was wrong, immoral, or even illegal, would you do it? While most people will answer such a question with a resounding "No," one of psychology's most famous (and obviously controversial) experiments suggests otherwise. 

In a series of experiments conducted during the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram found that an astonishing 65% of participants were willing to deliver what they believed were painful or even fatal electrical shocks to another human being simply because an authority figure ordered them to do so. In reality, the victim was in on the experiment and was simply pretending to be suffering from electrical shocks, but the participants in Milgram's studies fully believed that the shocks were real.

Milgram's research has been criticized for a number of reasons, including ethical issues and concerns over his experimental procedures, yet other researchers have been able to replicate Milgram's findings in a variety of situations. These further replications have consistently found that around 65% of people will follow orders, even if it means hurting another human being.

But could these results from the lab really translate to situations in the real world? Consider the atrocities of World War II. Many who committed horrific acts later suggested that they were simply following orders and doing what they were told to do. More recent examples include the abuse of prisoners by military personnel at Abu Ghraib or incidents of college hazing where students were injured during fraternity pledging.

The bottom line: People tend to be more obedient than they think—and that obedience to authority can sometimes be dangerous.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Johansson P, Hall L, Sikstrom S, Olsson A. Failure to detect mismatches between intention and outcome in a simple decision task. Science. 2005;310(5745):116-119. doi:10.1126/science.1111709

  2. Halls L, Johansson P, Tarning B, Sikstrom S, Deutgen T. Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Cognition. 2010;117(1):54-61. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.06.010

  3. Hall L, Johansson P, Strandberg T. Lifting the veil of morality: Choice blindness and attitude reversals on a self-transforming survey. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(9):e45457. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045457

  4. Kappes HB, Oettingen G. Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2011;47(4):719-729. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003

  5. Oettingen G, Mayer D. The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2002;83(5):1198-1212. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.83.5.1198

  6. Haslam SA, Reicher SD. Contesting the “nature” of conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo's studies really show. PLoS Biology. 2012;10(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001426

  7. Dolinksi D, Grzyb T, Folwarczny M, et al. Would you deliver an electric shock in 2015? Obedience in the experimental paradigm developed by Stanley Milgram in the 50 years following the original studies. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2017;8(8)927-933. doi:10.1177/1948550617693060

  8. Leveillee NP. The role of obedience in society. Inquiries Journal. 2011;3(5).