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Psychological Science: Full of Surprises?

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Photo courtesy Virginia Welle

At a recent Teaching of Psychology in Secondary Schools workshop hosted by Oregon State University, I celebrated and illustrated three sets of big ideas from psychological science. Without further explanation, here is a quick synopsis.

Questions: Which of these would not be on your corresponding lists? And which would you add?

 

Twelve unsurprising but important findings (significant facts of life for our students to understand😞

  • There is continuity to our traits, temperament, and intelligence.
    • With age, emotional stability and conscientiousness increase.
    • Yet individual differences (extraversion and IQ) persist.
  • Specific cognitive abilities are distinct yet correlated (g, general intelligence).
  • Human traits (intelligence, personality, sexual orientation, psychiatric disorders, autism spectrum) are influenced by “many genes having small effects”
  • A pessimistic explanatory style increases depression risk.
  • To a striking extent, perceptual set guides what we see.
  • Rewards shape behavior.
  • We prioritize basic needs.
  • Cultures differ in  
    • how we dress, eat, and speak.
    • values.
  • Conformity and social contagion influence our behavior.
  • Group polarization amplifies our differences.
  • Ingroup bias (us > them) is powerful and perilous.
  • Nevertheless, worldwide, we are all kin beneath the skin (we share a human nature).

Eleven surprising findings that may challenge our beliefs and assumptions:

  • Behavior genetics studies with twins and adoptees reveal a stunning fact: Within the normal range of environments, the “shared environment” effect on personality and intelligence (including parental nurture shared by siblings) is ~nil. As Robert Plomin says (2019), “We would essentially be the same person if we had been adopted at birth and raised in a different family.”
    • Caveats:
      • Parental extremes (neglect/abuse) matter.
      • Parents influence values/beliefs (politics, religion, etc.).
      • Parents help provide peer context (neighborhood, schools).
      • Stable co-parenting correlates with children’s flourishing.
  • Marriage (enduring partnership) matters . . . more than high school seniors assume . . . and predicts greater health, longevity, happiness, income, parental stability, and children’s flourishing. Yet most single adults and their children flourish.
  • Sexual orientation is a natural disposition (parental influence appears nil), not a moral choice.
  • Many gay men’s and women’s traits appear intermediate to those of straight women and men (for example, spatial ability).
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may not exist (judging from new CDC data and people’s Google searches for help, by month).
  • Learning styles—assuming that teaching should align with students’ varying ways of thinking and learning—have been discounted.
  • We too often fear the wrong things (air crashes, terrorism, immigrants, school shootings).
  • Brief “wise interventions” with at-risk youth sometimes succeed where big interventions have failed.
  • Random data (as in coin tosses and sports) are streakier than expected.
  • Reality is often not as we perceive it.
  • Repression rarely occurs.

Some surprising findings reveal things unimagined:

  • Astonishing insights—great lessons of psychological science—that are now accepted wisdom include
    • split-brain experiments: the differing functions of our two hemispheres.
    • sleep experiments: sleep stages and REM-related dreaming.
    • misinformation effect experiments: the malleability of memory.
  • We’ve been surprised to learn
    • what works as therapy (ECT, light therapy).
    • what doesn’t (Critical Incident Debriefing for trauma victims, D.A.R.E. drug abuse prevention, sexual reorientation therapies, permanent weight-loss programs).
  • We’ve been astounded at our dual-processing powers—our two-track (controlled vs. automatic) mind, as evident in phenomena such as
    • blindsight.
    • implicit memory.
    • implicit bias.
    • thinking without thinking (not-thinking => creativity).
  • We’ve been amazed at the robustness of
    • the testing effect (we retain information better after self-testing/rehearsing it)  
    • the Dunning-Krueger effect (ignorance of one’s own incompetence).   

The bottom line: Psychological science works! It affirms important, if unsurprising, truths. And it sometimes surprises us with findings that challenge our assumptions, and with discoveries that astonish us.

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

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About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.