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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 has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. 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).