12 Most Revealing Studies of Human Behavior
Our personal and business lives depend on how well we understand human nature and behavior. The better we understand ourselves and others, the more we can do to improve our society and our relationships.
The field of social psychology is all about discovering why we think and act the way we do and how other people affect us and we them. Here are twelve of the most revealing, influential, and in some cases controversial findings in the realm of human thinking and behavior.
1. Obedience: Do we do what we’re told?
This classic study is the closest psychology has come so far to understanding Nazi Germany, or why good people will do terrible things to others simply on the orders of an authority figure. Stanley Milgram showed that ordinary people would administer shocks of rising intensity to an innocent “victim” — though most did it highly unwillingly — because an experimenter, the “authority figure,” told them that they must. This study has been extremely controversial, yet the findings remain as relevant today as they were when it was done in the 1960s. Milgram demonstrated that “just following orders” is far from an easy excuse and that resisting authority can be very difficult indeed.
2. The Stanford Prison Experiment: The power of the situation
In some ways similar to Milgram’s study, this experiment was often mentioned in connection with the Abu Ghraib scandal. In 1971, Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University recruited college students to play a “game” in which they would be randomly assigned to be “prisoners” and “guards” and to spend two weeks within a simulated prison on the campus. The experiment was called off after six days because the “guards” had become vicious and sadistic and the “prisoners” passive and extremely stressed. Like Milgram’s participants, the students were ordinary people who had been chosen specifically because they were physically and psychologically healthy, yet the power of the situation and its realistic nature came to control their behavior in destructive ways.
3. The bystander effect: Who’s responsible?
The famous case of Kitty Genovese, in which a young woman was stabbed to death outside her apartment building while a number of people reportedly watched and did nothing, has inspired study of how people react in an ambiguous emergency situation. The findings showed that the greater the number of people who saw the incident, the less likely it was that anyone would intervene. Possible explanations for the effect were, first, that people watch the reactions of other people to judge the seriousness of a situation. If we see others watching and no one interfering, we’re likely to feel that they know more than we do about what’s happening; if they do nothing, neither do we. The second explanation is diffusion of responsibility, or the “it’s not up to me” reaction. We tend to believe that if it’s an emergency, someone else will help; therefore,we don’t need to. This explanation is enforced by the fact that, in experiments, a single witness was far more likely to help than was an individual in a group, perhaps because the single witness realized that he or she alone bore the responsibility to act.
4. Conformity: Do we trust our own judgment?
You are shown a drawing of a single vertical line along with one of three vertical lines of varying lengths. You’re asked to tell which of the three lines is the same length as the single one. The difference seems very clear to you; you wonder why you’re being asked. Now suppose you’re with a group of other people who are asked the same question before you are. Each one of them chooses a line that you believe is clearly the wrong length. When it’s your turn to answer, will you stick with your original judgment or go along with the group and give the wrong answer? Psychologist Solomon Asch performed this experiment, instructing all but one person — the naive participant — to give the wrong answer. He found that more than three quarters of the naive participants agreed with the majority on at least one of six trials. However, in trials in which one other person went against the majority, the naive participant did also. It seems that unanimity is a very powerful incentive to conformity, but once it is broken, individual judgment is again free to assert itself.
5. Aggression: Does exposure to media violence cause violent behavior?
This is another highly controversial question that has been debated for decades. Albert Bandura in the 1960s made a case for social learning when he showed children a film of adults behaving aggressively toward an inflatable doll; later the children, left alone with the doll, imitated the behavior of the adults they had seen, behaving violently toward the doll. To this day psychologists continue to find evidence that adults who were heavy viewers of violent programs as children are more likely to commit domestic violence, to aggress against others when insulted or offended, and to have been convicted of crimes. Is it time for our society to take these studies seriously?
6. Foot-in-the-door: Just one little favor?
This phenomenon and its variant, the door-in-the-face, are beloved of marketers and salespeople. Has anyone ever asked you to sign a petition for a cause or a political candidate? And if you did so, were you later asked to donate money to the cause or the candidate? If so, you have experienced the foot-in-the-door technique. In theory, when a person does a small favor, he or she feels a measure of commitment to the person or cause and will infer that “I believe in this, so I should invest more in it.” You have experienced the door-in-the-face technique if you have ever refused to do a large favor for someone and subsequently agreed to a smaller one. For instance, a charity spokesperson may call you and ask for a donation of a rather large sum, such as one hundred dollars. If you don’t agree to this, the caller will lower the amount until you do agree, thus inducing you to contribute perhaps more than you would have if you hadn’t “slammed the door” on the higher requests.
7. Cognitive dissonance: Do I act as I think, or think as I act?
When people are confronted with behaviors of their own that contradict their own beliefs about themselves, what will they do? Try to explain away the behavior? Change their behavior? Or change their attitudes? This is the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. When we contradict ourselves, it’s uncomfortable, and we try to ease that discomfort somehow. Interestingly, much psychology research has found that under certain circumstances people find it easier to change their beliefs about themselves than to change their behavior, especially when they were not under any pressure to make the choice they did.
8. The fundamental attribution error: He did that, so he must be a bad person
Suppose you meet a new acquaintance on the street. You say hello, but he doesn’t respond. Will you think this person is rude or unfriendly? Now suppose you’re walking on the street. You have a headache or a bad cold; you’re worried about a problem at work. Then someone asks you the next day why you ignored her on the street when she spoke to you. Does that mean you’re rude or unfriendly? Or did you simply not notice her because you had so much on your mind? The fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency to attribute another person’s behavior to internal causes — their personality or character — rather than to a particular situation. Conversely, we understand that our own behavior often reflects the situation we’re in at the time. We have access to our own thoughts and feelings that we don’t have to those of other people. This is also known as the actor-observer bias: We can see another person’s behavior but not its underlying cause, as we can with our own behavior. Incorrect judgments, poor communication, and misunderstandings may result from such cognitive biases.
9. Groupthink: Do groups make better decisions?
You have probably been on committees or attended decision-making meetings in your life or in business. In the best of these, the group discusses all possible courses of action and their pros and cons and listens to everyone’s opinion before deciding. But what about such disastrous and high-profile cases as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the launch of the Challenger space shuttle, cases that had most people wondering “What were they thinking?” Psychologist Irving Janis analyzed several of these cases and found that some common elements led to doomed decisions in high-stress and important situations: group cohesiveness, a striving for unanimity that overpowers the ability of individual members to realistically appraise other courses of action; pressures for conformity in reaching a decision; self-censoring of different ideas; guarding oneself against information that conflicts with the group’s desired solution; and illusions and misperceptions of invulnerability.
10. The halo effect: Does a pretty face make a pretty soul?
Here is an effect that advertisers, marketers, and political advisors count on: We tend to see attractive people as being superior in their other attributes as well. We believe they are intelligent, likeable, even good and moral people. Thus those who want to influence our opinions pay big money to entertainment stars and athletes to endorse their products or points of view. It’s also why we pay exorbitant amounts of money for famous designer shoes or sunglasses. You would probably protest — as would most people — that you aren’t influenced by these superficial things, but many people believe in “love at first sight.” Have you ever met a plain or “nerdish” person and felt indifferent about getting to know him or her? These kinds of global judgments may well operate subliminally and powerfully and unconsciously affect our behaviors and beliefs. Might we have more money and a lower divorce rate if we didn’t let our minds fool us in such a way?
11. Automatic stereotyping: Can we control our prejudices?
Most of us sincerely believe that we aren’t prejudiced, and yet many of us have had the experience of being alone on a street at night, seeing someone of a different race or ethnic group coming toward us, and mentally flinching just a little. If we do react in this way, does it mean we are secretly prejudiced? Psychologists have studied automatic stereotyping — the fact that just having knowledge of a stereotype automatically triggers prejudiced thoughts and behaviors when we see a person from a stereotyped group. They suggest that these stereotypes have become so well learned that they have become unconscious. However, on the hopeful side, some researchers believe that conscious cognitive effort to inhibit stereotypes may eventually result in truly changed attitudes, particularly among people who are genuinely low in prejudice and motivated to change their reactions.
12. Minority influence: The majority doesn’t always win
Many of the preceding studies present a rather discouraging view that human beings are easily manipulated and tend to go along with the crowd. But this isn’t always the case. Researchers have identified situations in which the minority can influence the majority: for instance, when the minority is consistent and when its stances are moderate rather than rigid. In several of the studies mentioned above, the minority view has been effective. For example, when Milgram included a confederate who refused to progress with the shocks, the compliance level among his real participants dropped significantly. Similarly, conformity in the line-length experiment decreased when just one confederate disagreed with the majority’s wrong judgment. And a dissenter in a cohesive group could prevent the “groupthink” effect.
Many of these findings may seem pessimistic about human nature, but when we know our weaknesses, we can work to overcome, change, or accommodate them and thus improve our relationships and our society. Which of these studies do you find most important for your own personal and work life?
Featured image courtesy of shannonkringen licensed via Creative Commons.