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Psychological Science Paradoxes

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“There are trivial truths and great truths,” the physicist Niels Bohr reportedly said.[1] “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Light is a particle. And light is a wave.

Psychology, too, embraces paradoxical truths. Some are more complementary than contradictory:

  • Attitudes influence behavior, and attitudes follow behavior.
  • Self-esteem pays dividends, and self-serving bias is perilous.
  • Memories and attitudes are explicit, and they are implicit.
  • We are the creatures of our social worlds, and we are the creators of our social worlds.
  • Brain makes mind, and mind controls brain.
  • To strengthen attitudes, use persuasion, and to strengthen attitudes, challenge them.
  • Religion “makes prejudice, and it unmakes prejudice” (Gordon Allport).
  • “When I accept myself just as I am, then I can change” (Carl Rogers).

Psychology also offers puzzling paradoxical concepts. Paradoxical sleep (aka REM sleep) is so-called because the muscles become near-paralyzed while the body is internally aroused. The immigrant paradox refers to immigrant U.S. children exhibiting better mental health than native-born children. And the paradox of choice describes how the modern world’s excessive options produce diminished satisfaction.

Even more puzzling are seemingly contradictory findings from different levels of analysis. First, consider:

  • Who in the U.S. is more likely to vote Republican—those with lots of money or those with little?
  • Who is happier—liberals or conservatives?
  • Who does more Google searches for “sex”—religious or nonreligious people?
  • Who scores highest on having meaning in life—those who have wealth or those who don’t?
  • Who is happiest and healthiest—actively religious or nonreligious people?

As I have documented, in each case the answer depends on whether we compare places or individuals:

  1. Politics. Low-income states and high-income individuals have voted Republican in recent U.S. presidential elections.
  2. Happy welfare states and unhappy liberals. Liberal countries and conservative individuals manifest greater well-being.
  3. Google “sex” searches. Highly religious states, and less religious individuals, do more Google “sex” searching.
  4. Meaning in life. Self-reported meaning in life is greatest in poor countries, and among rich individuals.
  5. Religious engagement correlates negatively with well-being across aggregate levels (when comparing more vs. less religious countries or American states), yet positively across individuals. Said simply, actively religious individuals and nonreligious places are generally flourishing.

As sociologist W. S. Robinson long ago appreciated, “An ecological [aggregate-level] correlation is almost certainly not equal to its individual correlation.” Thus, for example, if you want to make religion look good, cite individual data. If you want to make it look bad, cite aggregate data. In response to this paradoxical finding, Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Arthur Stone wondered: “Why might there be this sharp contradiction between religious people being happy and healthy, and religious places being anything but?”[2]

To this list of psychological science paradoxes, we can add one more: the gender-equality paradox—the curious finding of greater gender differences in more gender-equal societies.

You read that right. Several research teams have reported that across several phenomena, including the proportion of women pursuing degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, gender differences are greater in societies with more political and economic gender equality.

In the February, 2022, issue of Psychological Science, University of Michigan researcher Allon Vishkin describes “the myriad findings” that societies with lower male-superior ideology and educational policy “display larger gender differences.” This appears, he reports, not only in STEM fields of study, but also in values and preferences, personality traits, depression rates, and moral judgments. Moreover, his analysis of 803,485 chess players in 160 countries reveals that 90 percent of chess players are men; yet “women participate more often in countries with less gender equality.”

Go figure. Vishkin reckons that underlying the paradox is another curious phenomenon: Gender unequal societies have more younger players, and there’s greater gender equality in chess among younger people.

Paradoxical findings energize psychological scientists, as we sleuth their explanation. They also remind us of Bohr’s lesson. Sometimes the seeming opposite of a truth is another truth. Reality is often best described by complementary principles: mind emerges from brain, and mind controls brain. Both are true, yet either, by itself, is a half-truth.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

[1] I first read this unsourced quote in a 1973 article by social psychologist William McGuire. Neils Bohr’s son, Hans Bohr, in his biography of his father, reports that Neils Bohr discerned “two sorts of truths, profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd.”

[2] For fellow researchers: The paradox is partially resolved by removing income as a confounding factor. Less religious places also tend to be affluent places (think Denmark and Oregon). More religious places tend to be poorer places (think Pakistan and Alabama). Thus, when we compare less versus more religious places, we also are comparing richer versus poorer places. And as Ed Diener, Louis Tay, and I observed from Gallup World Poll data, controlling for objective life circumstances, such as income, eliminates or even slightly reverses the negative religiosity/well-being correlation across countries.

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).