Rational, modest, independent and unbiased: that’s how we like to see ourselves. But psychological research mercilessly exposes our less beautiful sides.
Here are seven facts you would rather not know about yourself, but which are oh so human.
We blame victims for their suffering
7 facts you’d rather not know about yourself…
At breakfast you read a newspaper article about a man who was beaten up after going home from a nightclub. He has been seriously injured and there is a good chance that he is permanently injured by the blows. How awful, you think at first. But after a while, other thoughts start running through your head. ‘Not so clever to walk the streets there alone at night.’ ‘He must have been drinking.’ And, ‘it takes two to tango’. You close the newspaper and start brushing your teeth.
In the 1960s, psychologist Melvin Lerner discovered an interesting mechanism: we tend to hold innocent people responsible for the disaster that befalls them. In one of his experiments, female subjects had to stand by helplessly while another woman was (supposedly) given electric shocks. Instead of cherishing sympathy for the victim, the women attributed all kinds of negative characteristics to her.
According to Lerner, this is because we adhere to the ‘just-world’ theory: we want to believe that we live in a just world, in which good things happen to good people, and bad things to bad people. Simply put, that is a world in which you get what you deserve. And the more tragic someone’s fate, the more negative we think about him.
No matter how unfair this way of thinking may seem, it does have a function. It is psychologically healthy for us to believe that our fate is in our own hands, and that our actions have predictable consequences. That fate can strike at random is simply too threatening.
We find ourselves unique
Are you friendlier than the average American? More generous? More honest? A harder worker? Those who abandon their false modesty probably answer ‘yes’. Regardless of age, education or origin, most people think they stand out in a positive sense. If there is one thing that makes people alike, it is a tendency to see themselves as unique,” this is the painful conclusion of psychologist John Chambers of the University of Florida, who published an overview article on this mechanism.
This self-fulfilment has many manifestations. People who are asked, for example, what the most important component of intelligence is, will give an answer that is suspiciously similar to their own talents. For example, someone with a strong feeling for mathematics will claim that mathematical insight is much more important than knowledge of facts.
Even our emotions we think we experience more intensely than others do. For example, the majority of Americans thought they were more touched by the events of September 11th than their compatriots. New parents also thought they were happier than other parents with their newborn baby.
Psychologists initially explained this mechanism based on the idea that we want to put ourselves in the best possible light. Remarkably, there are also many things in which we find ourselves unique in a negative sense. For example, we think that we will not be able to cope as well as others with disasters on our life’s path, such as a serious illness or death. And funnily enough, we also think that we are harassed by telemarketers on the phone more often than others.
So the explanation that we prefer to see ourselves through pink glasses is not enough. One of the alternative explanations for the feeling that we are unique, writes psychologist Chambers, is that we simply cannot look into someone else’s head. It is crystal clear to you how nervous you were before that presentation and how your heart was beating in your throat; you don’t know that about other people.
We apply a double standard
Those who fail their exams quickly attribute their failure to things over which they have no influence: an annoying examiner, questions that do not match the lesson material, a waking night. Those who pass, on the other hand, will not look for the cause in a sympathetic examiner, easy questions and a rested feeling. No, he performed so well thanks to a diligent work attitude and a smart mind.
The way we try to explain the things that happen to us – and to other people – is called ‘attribution’ in psychology. The Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider was the first to deal with this. Heider discovered that we do not work objectively in this process, but above all we try to keep a positive picture of ourselves; something that according to many psychologists, by the way, is very healthy. The fact that you beat yourself up when you are successful and blame your failure on things that are beyond your control – the so-called self-serving bias – is an example of this.
We also fail to explain other people’s behaviour. Notorious is the ‘fundamental attribution error’: we take too little account of the situation in which a person finds himself, and therefore attribute his behaviour too quickly to his character. If, for example, you get cut up on the motorway, you look for the cause of this in the loutish nature of the other driver instead of considering that he might have been distracted by his child in the back seat. People in collectivist cultures such as China, where there is less emphasis on the individual, are less inclined to these distortions in their thinking.
We bend over backwards so we don’t have to change our minds
On a birthday two guests are engaged in a heated discussion. The more arguments the one puts forward to support his point of view, the more stubbornly the other sticks to his view.
This is what psychologists call the backfire effect. When faced with evidence that we are wrong, we cling even more strongly to our beliefs – instead of taking the new information and reconsidering our opinions as right-thinking people.
Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University researched this phenomenon. In one of their experiments, they had people of different political persuasions read a newspaper article. In that article, former President Bush suggested that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction just before America invaded the country – a mistaken belief that, according to the researchers, most Americans still believed to be alive at the time. Afterwards, the subjects read a follow-up article that disproved the earlier piece. It reported on a report that no weapons had been found.
After reading the second article, the test subjects who had little to do with Bush believed less in the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But for their conservative counterparts the opposite was true: they were even more strongly convinced that Iraq did have such weapons.
In addition to this counterproductive effect, there are other mechanisms that prevent us from abandoning our hobbyhorses quickly. First and foremost, we don’t even look for information that doesn’t conform to our ideas. If we do come across it, we assign less weight to it. Furthermore, our memory helps a hand by being less likely to remember knowledge that we don’t like. This confirmation bias, the preference for confirmation, is most persistent in subjects that are emotionally charged and close to our hearts.
You have a preference for people who look like you.
Next time you take your seat on the train, take a good look at the person next to you. Chances are you’ve sat down next to the passenger who looks most like you. Someone who has the same skin colour, is of the same gender, or is about the same age. Recent research by Canadian researcher Sean Mackinnon and his colleagues even shows that people who wear glasses prefer to sit next to people who do as well.
The reason we feel less at ease with people who are different from us is that we easily fall into us vs them-thinking. Where ‘they’ are not as pleasant people as ‘we’ are.
The ‘minimal group paradigm’ gives a good insight into this. Psychologists use this research method to investigate under which circumstances we start to discriminate against members of another group. The result: absurdly fast. Regardless of how trivial the criterion is on which people are divided into two groups – people who threw heads versus people who threw tails, or people who wore glasses versus people who didn’t – they always have a preference for their own group, writes psychologist Mark Leary in ‘The curse of the self’.
According to Leary, it is inescapable that we pigeonhole people in order to understand the world around us. People use social categories such as black, white, gay, straight, trans, cis, student, school leaver, retired… because to a certain extent they are useful for understanding other people.
If you wouldn’t, Leary says, you’d have to start from scratch with every person you meet. Something our brain doesn’t have the mental energy and time for. According to Leary, it’s smart and efficient to categorize people. Problems arise because people find members of their own group better than those of another group. Researcher Mackinnon also discovered that we expect people who look like us to share our opinions more often, to like us better and to accept us sooner.
You prefer not to act than to act
John plays an important tennis tournament against a strong opponent. John happens to know that his opponent is allergic to cayenne pepper. Which do you find more reprehensible: that John recommends a dish containing cayenne pepper to his opponent, or that he keeps his mouth shut when he sees that his rival orders the dish of his own accord?
While John’s intentions and the result are exactly the same in both cases – a sick opponent – people find the first option the worst. That was when Jonathan Baron of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues presented this scenario to their test subjects. Psychologists call this the omission bias: we find unpleasantness arising from things we fail to do less reprehensible than unpleasantness arising from things we actively do cause.
That’s even the case when the calamity is ultimately greater because of our failure to do something. According to Baron, this is reflected in practice in vaccination programs. Some people choose not to have themselves or their children vaccinated against a dangerous disease because of the chance of side effects; while the consequences of the disease itself are many times greater. Such a choice is mainly made when there is uncertainty about vaccination.
Psychological research into moral dilemmas also shows that we prefer to let fate run its course rather than actively intervene. When people are asked, for example, whether they would throw someone from an overcrowded lifeboat into the ice-cold water to save the others on board, few are prepared to do so. While it is of course rationally smarter to save the lives of ten people than one. Although some psychologists label this tendency as a fallacy, a recent study by American researchers Daniel Bartels and David Pizarro sheds a different light on the matter. They found that people who are mainly guided by practical considerations – in which case do most people stay alive? – score higher on unpleasant traits such as psychopathy and recklessness. Maybe it’s for the best also that we find it difficult to actively do something bad to someone.
We are herd animals
We’re independent. Critical. Make our own choices. The last thing we do is jump in a ditch because somebody else does. At least, that’s what we think. In reality, we’re strongly guided by what other people do.
Classic research by American psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley shows how strongly others influence our behavior. These researchers kept unsuspecting people waiting in a room that slowly filled with smoke. Sometimes the test subjects sat alone in the room; sometimes in the company of others . If the subjects were alone, almost three-quarters of them reported the smoke. If they were in the company of passive people, that percentage dropped to a meagre 10 percent. If other people don’t care, it probably isn’t anything serious, the subjects apparently reasoned.
Even in situations where our own safety is at stake and where independence is to be expected, we imitate others. Social probative force, is what emeritus professor of marketing and psychology Robert Cialdini calls it in his book Persuasive Power. People have been making clever use of it for years. Cialdini writes about the phenomenon claque, groups of people who were hired by French theatres in the nineteenth century to applaud enthusiastically so that others would follow their example: the forerunner of that irritating laugh band stuck under a lot of comedy. A more contemporary example is the street musician who puts some coins in his hat to collect more money. And the TV commercial in which people achieve ecstatic happiness thanks to an anti-dandruff shampoo.
Cialdini doesn’t mind that we are such copycats. Imitating is a handy tactic to determine how we should behave, especially in unclear situations, he says. As a rule, we make fewer mistakes when we act in accordance with social data than when we act against it. As a rule, because sometimes – when the room fills with smoke – it is smarter to think critically yourself.
For more info on psychology and psychiatry we recommend the American Psychiatric Association (APA), visit them here!