PLoS ONE includes an article: “65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys.”
One of the most annoying things you can say to a psychologist is: “Isn’t it all just common sense?”. No it’s not, as the list below demonstrates. But anyway, such a criticism of the field misses the point. Many findings in psychology can seem obvious after the fact, but we can’t know in advance which aspects of folk wisdom will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Striving for the objective truth through empirical testing – that’s what science is for, whether applied to molecules or minds.
That said, it’s always fun to share those findings that clash with received wisdom. So for your reading pleasure (and for the next time someone asks you the “common sense” question), here are 10 particularly counter-intuitive findings from the psychology archives. Please use comments to share your own favourites that we’ve missed.
1. Self-help Mantras Can Do More Harm Than Good
If you’ve got low self-esteem, you might want to avoid uttering positive mantras such as “I’m a lovable person”. A 2009 study found that people lacking in self-belief who spoke this phrase to themselves didn’t feel any better afterwards. In fact they felt worse, possibly because the repeated utterance led them to generate contradictory thoughts automatically. On a related note, there’s evidence that positive fantasies can also backfire. It’s thought that visualising your aims can cultivate a relaxed mindset that leads you to overlook the hurdles between you and your goals.
2. People Do Not Learn Better When Taught Via Their Preferred “Learning Style”
An incredibly popular idea, including among teachers, is that pupils learn better when they are taught information via their preferred modality, such as auditory, visual or by doing. In fact research has shown that people do not perform better when they are taught information via the modality that they say they prefer. A 2008 review of the learning styles concept put it like this: “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” Want more? – here’s all you need to know about the learning styles myth in 2 minutes.
3. Criminals Show Cooperation and Prosocial Behaviour in Economic Games
It’s easy to demonise people who have broken the law. However, recent studies using economic games that test fairness and cooperation show that this is short-sighted. Last year, researchers observed prisoners’ performance on a famous game known as the “prisoner’s dilemma” – the convicted criminals actually displayed more cooperation during the game than undergrad students. Similarly, another study published this year found that people with a criminal record displayed just as much “prosocial motivation” (i.e. they distributed money fairly) in the “dictator game” as those without such a record.
4. Bottling Up Your Anger May Actually Be Good For You
Folk wisdom states that it’s better to relieve your anger by letting it out. In fact a tendency to lose one’s temper tends to go hand in hand with poorer health. Another study found that hitting a punch-bag while thinking about the person who made you angry actually just makes you angrier. It’s a complicated area, and expressing anger constructively may sometimes be a good thing to do, but the old rule that’s it always better to let it all it out is definitely flawed.
5. We Make Many Decisions Mindlessly
Unless we’re exhausted or intoxicated, we usually feel as though we are very much in control of our own choices and that we make them consciously and deliberately. This intuitive view is challenged by research on what’s known as “choice blindness”. In one study from 2005, participants picked out the face they found more attractive from successive pairs of photos. When researchers used sleight of hand to switch the chosen photo for the rejected photo, participants proceeded to justify their choice all the same, apparently ignorant of the switch. It was a similar story in 2010 when participants chose between different jams.
6. Opposites Don’t Attract
When it comes to human relationships, the aphorism that “opposites attract” turns out to be wide of the mark. There are of course exceptions, but mountains of evidence highlights how we are drawn to friends and romantic partners who are similar to ourselves, whether in terms of physical appearance, their personality, interests, or beliefs – known as “homophily”. To take just two examples, a study from 2010 found that people found faces more attractive when (unbeknown to them) they’d been morphed with their own; and a paper from 2011 found that people tend to choose to sit near others who look like themselves.
7. Wine Experts Don’t Know if They’re Smelling Red or White Wine
There is a vast literature on the limitations of expertise (for instance, political pundits are mostly useless at predicting electoral outcomes), but one of my favourite examples concerns people who study wine. A 2001 investigation showed that all it took to trick trainee oenologists into thinking a white wine smelt of red wine, was to dye it red. This research also challenges the intuitive belief that our senses are largely separate – in fact, perceptual experience derives from a blending of the senses, as shown for example via the McGurk Effect.
8. It Helps to Have Narcissists on Your Team
We usually think of narcissists – people with inflated views of their own skills and self-importance – as individuals to avoid. However, a study published in 2010 found that their presence can have a beneficial effect in the context of creative team work. When groups of four people were challenged to come up with new ways for a company to improve, it was the groups with two narcissists in their ranks who performed the best. The researchers think the presence of some narcissists helps generate healthy in-group competition.
9. Placebo Treatments Can Work Even When People Are Told It’s A Placebo
The amazing power of the placebo effect – the way that our beliefs about the action of an inert medicine can trigger substantial physiological effects – is itself, counter-intuitive. More surprising perhaps, is that the effect can still occur even when people know the medicine is inert. This was shown in a 2010 study involving people with IBS. “Our study suggests that openly described inert interventions when delivered with a plausible rationale can produce placebo responses,” the researchers said.
10. Sometimes a Pregnant Woman’s Depression is Advantageous For Her Baby
There is lots of evidence showing the adverse effects of a stressful pregnancy. But dig deeper into this field and you find some surprising results. For instance, a 2012 study uncovered an association between depression in pregnancy and superior functioning in the child at ages three and six months. This was found in the specific context in which the mother’s depression continued into the postnatal period. The finding is consistent with the “predictive-adaptive response model”, which says that adversity in-utero can have adaptive advantages if adversity is also encountered after birth.
Please do share your own favourite counter-intuitive findings via comments!
The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever published.
Most children and teens with gender dysphoria also have multiple other psychological issues
By Alex Fradera
New research on gender identity disorder (also known as gender dysphoria, in which a person does not identify with their biological sex) questions how best to handle the condition when it arises in children and adolescents. Should biological treatments be used as early as possible to help a young client transition, or is caution required, in case of complicating psychological issues?
Melanie Bechard of the University of Toronto and her colleagues examined the prevalence of “psychosocial and psychological vulnerabilities” in 50 child and teen cases of gender dysphoria, and writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, they argue their findings show that physicians should be considering these factors more seriously when deciding on a treatment plan. Salting the situation, one of the paper’s co-authors is Kenneth Zucker, an expert on gender dysphoria who was last year considered too controversial for Canadian state television.
Zucker’s approach, in contrast, was more hesitant and he questioned the ease with which young people can draw conclusions about their gender identity during a universally tumultuous stage of life. He also placed more emphasis on the costs that transition may bear upon an individual. To say that he considered transition a last resort would be as much of a caricature as saying the gender affirmative approach considers it a first resort, but they clearly represent different points on this spectrum.
To Zucker’s critics he was a transphobe, his approach analogous to gay conversion therapy (the now widely condemned use of psychological therapy to attempt to alter a client’s sexual orientation) – for example, he reportedly advised some parents to discourage their younger children from behaving in ways that contradicted their assigned gender.
Last year, hostility toward Zucker’s views was substantive enough to lead the Canadian broadcaster CBC to pull a BBC documentary that reported his perspective. For his part, Zucker continues to maintain that his priority has always been the wellbeing of his clinical charges. The recent articlethat he co-authored with Bechard and others puts into the scientific record one of the concerns of his clinic, that gender dysphoric youth are a psychologically vulnerable population.
The paper examines the case files of 17 people assigned a male gender and 33 people assigned a female gender, at birth, based on their biological sex. Following their experience of gender dysphoria, the clients had been referred to a specialist gender identity service for young people, at which time they were aged 13 to 20. Sixty-four per cent of the clients were homosexual with respect to the gender they were assigned at birth.
The researchers looked for evidence of 15 factors that can signify or contribute to psychological issues, from self-harm to a previous outpatient therapy visit, and found that over half their sample had six or more of these factors. The majority had two or more prior diagnoses of a psychological disorder, the most common being a mood disorder such as depression. More than half had reported thinking about suicide, a third had dropped out of high school, a quarter had self harmed. A history of sexual abuse was rarer, observed in ”only” 10 per cent of cases.
All these measures are likely to be underestimates because they depended on the clients’ own descriptions during their initial interview at the gender identity clinic. Without a control group, it’s hard to say whether these rates of psychological distress are higher than for other client groups. Certainly though, the findings are consistent with the sense that these individuals were already in a state of psychological vulnerability when they were referred for gender dysphoria.
Bechard’s team present in-depth examples of two clients, both assigned as female at birth, that bring these psychological complexities to life, demonstrating the kinds of situations these cases often involve.
The first individual was very intelligent but struggling socially, especially around girls. They were fixated on emphasising their femininity in selfies, leading the parents to suspect body dysmorphic disorder (a troubling belief that there is something wrong with one’s body). This individual’s boyfriend then came out as gay. Sometime following this, the client disclosed that they identified as a boy. This change in identity happened “overnight” with no developmental history of cross-gender identification.
The second client’s history is more convoluted: at around age 14-15 this individual had disclosed that they were transgender (now identifying as male), and had felt this way for a while. This individual also had a history of anxiety, social problems interacting with girls, and extreme anxiety about sexuality. From the point of disclosing their gender dysphoria, they also reported that they were gay (oriented towards men) but had no interest in romantic/sexual relations.
In both these cases, after an initial assessment the individual was given testosterone treatment by a physician against the wishes of the parents – in the first case, the physician actually refused to meet the parents, and in the second, the physician recorded that the issues raised by the parents regarding anxiety, sexual and social problems weren’t relevant for the course of action. Sadly, in the case of the second individual, a few months after the start of the hormone treatment, they made a suicide attempt that required hospitalisation; the reasons for this were not reported.
Are the indicators of psychological vulnerability identified in these case histories the consequence, cause or simply coincident to gender identity disorder? If they are all solely a fall-out from the gender dysphoria, then the decisive approach of the physicians described above has a certain sense to it. But if some of the psychological complications pre-dated the gender dysphoria, or were separate from it, then at the very least this would suggest that the consulted physicians should have considered a broader treatment plan, and considered the psychological complications when judging their clients’ “readiness” to commence biomedical treatments.
The possibility that disclosure of gender dysphoria may in some cases be driven by earlier psychological vulnerabilities and social problems seems likely to be greater than zero. This is a controversial idea among many online trans activists, but actually it isn’t among health practitioners, even those who espouse the gender affirmation philosophy, who recognise that some young gender identity referrals may be transiently mixed-up individuals.
The issue of pre-existing or concurrent psychological vulnerabilities also speaks to the fact that a substantial proportion, perhaps even the majority, of children who experience some form of gender identity challenge, later come to endorse the gender they were raised as (further commentary and discussion); the new findings may also be relevant to the experience of detransitioning individuals, who reach similar conclusions, but often after a much greater investment in the process of transition – a phenomenon that is struggling to get scientific attention.
However, when a child with gender dysphoria is “insistent, persistent, and consistent” over an extended period, then (under the gender affirmative approach) this is typically treated as a good indicator that it is appropriate to begin facilitating the transition process. The trouble is, psychological vulnerabilities can also be persistent, and if a young person feels like they’ve found the solution, it’s understandable that they might not want to let go.
Life can sometimes feel as complicated as the Gordian knot, the legendary challenge that was seemingly impossible to disentangle. It’s understandable to weigh up a radical solution, like Alexander the Great cleaving the knot with a single sword-stroke: to abandon your external environment for a new home, to step outside of the confines of an identity that may be the source of the myriad issues plaguing you.
This research from Bechard, Zucker and company provides preliminary evidence about the psychological vulnerabilities of children and teens with gender dysphoria, extending previous workthat’s shown high rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation in this group, but more research is required to give us the full clinical picture. As such, this new paper represents just the latest sally in a difficult, complicated conversation that’s far from over: a conversation about how we can most compassionately treat those who feel out of step with where they find themselves in the social world.