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.


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

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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 a previously unseen picture of a different woman entirely. 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 percent of the participants noticed the switch. 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 2013 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 that they would actually 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.​


Visualizing Your Success Might Actually Lead to Failure

Woman visualizing her success
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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 is actually counterproductive. A 2011 study that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that visualizing 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 the results indicate that engaging in this positive visualization 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 finding a partner, getting a job, taking an exam, and undergoing 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 found a partner, 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.


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

Giving an order to obey
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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 percent 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 percent 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.

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  • Hall L, Strandberg T, Pärnamets P, Lind A, Tärning B, Johansson P. How the Polls Can Be Both Spot On and Dead Wrong: Using Choice Blindness to Shift Political Attitudes and Voter Intentions. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060554.
  • Haslam SA, Reicher SD. Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardos Studies Really Show. PLoS Biology. 2012;10(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001426.
  • Johansson P, Hall L, Chater N (2011) Preference change through choice. In: Dolan RJ, Sharot T, editors. Neuroscience of Preference and Choice. Elsevier Academic Press. Pp. 121–142.
  • 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.