Are Counterintuitive Psychology Findings Actually Counterintuitive?

Since I found out that the Standard Prison Experiment is not all it’s cracked up to be I’ve been starting to wonder if the field of Experimental Psychology itself might have a problem when it comes to generating meaningful insights. We’ve all heard about the replication crisis by now but what can we say about the findings that do replicate and actually challenge our pre-existing beliefs? I visited the first couple of links appearing when googling ‘counterintuitive psychological findings’ to see the best that the field has to offer. Here we go:

From 10 of The Most Counter-Intuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published:

1) Self-help Mantras Can Do More Harm Than Good

This is one of those things where before Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret came out, it was actually counterintuitive to think that adding a heap of zeros to a bank statement in hopes of future riches might manifest those hopes into reality. It was counterintuitive then precisely because it didn’t really make much sense. I would say that our intuitions have proven accurate given the stagnating wage growth of the last fifteen years suggesting that either the lower and middle class aren’t trying hard enough to manifest their destinies or that the upper class has cunningly found a way to do it reliably.

That book really had an impact on people though. See if you can guess whose quote this is:

My father gave me a book called The Secret after I had dinner at his house in February. He said it will help me develop a positive attitude. The book explained the fundamentals of a concept known as the Law of Attraction. I had never heard or read anything quite like this before, and I was intrigued. The theory stated that one’s thoughts were connected to a universal force that can shape the future of reality. Being one who always loved fantasy and magic, and who always wished that such things were real, I was swept up in a temporary wave of enthusiasm over this book. The prospect that I could change my future just by visualizing in my mind the life I wanted filled me with a surge of hope that my life could turn out happy. The idea was ridiculous, of course, but the world is such a ridiculous place already that I figured I might as well give it a try. In addition, I was so desperate for something to live for that I wanted to believe in the Law of Attraction, even if it was proven to me that it wasn’t real.

My faith was soon broken, as I bought a few Megamillions Lottery tickets and visualized myself being the winner. I usually visualized it by meditating on the rooftop of my mother’s apartment right at the time of the drawing. A part of me knew it was impossible to will the universe to make me the winner just by wishing for it on a rooftop, but I was so desperate that I wanted to believe I could. I wanted to believe I had the POWER to do it. After failing to win when the jackpot reset because someone else won, I lost all faith in that book, and I almost ripped it apart in frustration.

You guessed it: Elliot Rodger.

At any rate, enough time has passed that we now see how self-help mantras and the Law Of Attraction haven’t been the silver bullet we thought they were. Yes, there are exceptions (see point 9) but in general it hasn’t panned out. Is it counter-intuitive that an initially counter-intuitive idea has proven false? Sounds more like intuitive to me. To be fair, it’s one thing to say these mantras are useless, it’s another to claim they are actively harmful. But I think that’s just as intuitive: you want something, you try to manifest it, you fail, then you feel bad. I doubt Elliot Rodger was the first person to have ripped The Secret to pieces, and I doubt he will be the last.

2) People Do Not Learn Better When Taught Via Their Preferred “Learning Style”

Same as above: the initial claim that people have unique learning styles that the education system fails to account for struck me as deeply counterintuitive, and if I recall correctly it was marketed as a crazy-but-true idea in the first place. As a high-schooler, I always wondered how you would ever apply the idea in reality: do musical-thinkers need the concept of oxidation and reduction converted into song form to have any hope of understanding it? Could a maths concept be explained visually in a way that only benefited the visual-thinkers but made it harder for non-visual thinkers to grasp the concept? Or is it better to just add the visual aid for everybody’s sake because it generally makes it easier to understand the concept?

We’re only on point 2 of this article and both examples follow the same pattern:

Step 1) Put forward a counter-intuitive idea which is wrong
Step 2) Wait long enough for all the wacky progressive highschool teachers to tell students it’s true and for the idea to become intuitive in a suspended-disbelief kind of way
Step 3) State that the originally counter-intuitive (now intuitive) idea is wrong, then pat yourself on the back for publishing yet another counter-intuitive finding

Of course the field of Psychology does not comprise of a single person, and I doubt this is some kind of conspiracy for generating press coverage, but I still think these kinds of findings might not be the best examples to showcase the genius of the field. Just because a finding is counter-intuitive to everybody who internalised the exact opposite finding years ago doesn’t mean it’s counter-intuitive to those who missed the initial fanfare.

3) Criminals Show Cooperation and Prosocial Behaviour in Economic Games

There are two ways to attack this. The first is that anybody who knows anything about game theory knows that there are incentives for cooperation in any game, economic or otherwise. So of course criminals will cooperate in certain games, just like everybody else.

The other approach is to watch The Shawshank Redemption and ask yourself whether all criminals are incapable of being prosocial.

If the field of Psyschology published a peer-reviewed study showing that the average person finds this claim about prosocial criminals counterintuitive, I would add that study to this article because that is not intuitive to me at all.

4) Bottling Up Your Anger May Actually Be Good For You

Good thing we have the field of Psychology leading the way here. I can’t believe the major religions overlooked this one. Wait a minute…

Those who spend (in Allah’s cause) in prosperity and in adversity, who repress anger and who pardon men, verily, Allah loves Al-muhsinoon (all good doers).
- Surah Al-e-Imran, 133–134, The Quran

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil
- Psalm 37:8, The Holy Bible

He who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real driver; other people are but holding the reins.”
- The Dhammapada (Verse 222)

5) We Make Many Decisions Mindlessly

The title makes this sound like an easy one: of course we make decisions mindlessly. But the actual research underpinning this is counter-intuitive and does replicate. The article links this study which states that we will justify choices that weren’t actually ours if we think we made the choice.

I was able to replicate this in a double-blind study with n=2 where a friend and I went back to analyse an online chess game we had just played move-for-move, and only halfway through we realised we had our colours mixed up and had spent the last few minutes giving post-rationalisations for eachother’s moves, thinking them to be our own.

So you win this round, Psychology. But I’ll be back.

6) Opposites Don’t Attract

Again, I don’t think this is particularly counter-intuitive. We all talk about finding somebody ‘compatible’. The specific part about how we’re attracted to people who look like us might be counterintuitive but I think we know enough people who look similar to their partners to not be shocked by the finding.

7) Wine Experts Don’t Know if They’re Smelling Red or White Wine

Big if true, but I doubt it is. The study didn’t involve experts, it involved students, and it’s been argued that the experiment nudged participants towards certain answers.

8) It Helps to Have Narcissists on Your Team

The study here had 292 students separated into groups of four to produce a pitch for how a company might feasibly improve processes. The number of narcissists on the team had a curvilinear relationship with how the team scored in terms of creativeness with a p-value of 0.01 (curvilinear in this case means an upside-down U-shape, and in this case the peak occurred when the team had two narcissists). We could poke holes about how this hasn’t been replicated or how we could be so sure that 292 students had that many narcissists in the mix to yield meaningful results, but I think it’s sufficient to say that if narcissism correlates with competitiveness, it helps to have competitive people on your team for an exercise that requires creativity. Too few is bad as is too many.

Of course, I can’t think of anybody who has enjoyed the experience of working with an actual narcissist, so I’m not sure what practical implications this finding has: hire more narcissists? I’ll wait for some longitudinal results to come back before advocating that policy for my own company.

9. Placebo Treatments Can Work Even When People Are Told It’s A Placebo

Genuinely counter-intuitive and replicates. Point to Psychology.

10. Sometimes a Pregnant Woman’s Depression is Advantageous For Her Baby

The article doesn’t actually capture the truly weird part of the original paper: that if you’ve just been depressed during your pregnancy, it’s better for your child if you remain depressed for a little longer after they’re born. You could spin a theory about how consistency in a child’s early development is beneficial but this is still a crazy enough finding that I’ll happily give the point to Psychology.

In conclusion I give this list a D-. We had a couple of valid studies there but on the whole, I expect better from an article that’s supposed to showcase the best of the best. Maybe I just picked a bad example article to poke holes at?

I fear not. This one starts with:

1) Gender Identity Is More Nature Than Nurture

Is somebody playing a prank on me? I’m not going to dignify this one with a response, other than to say that the original experiment is probably the most shameful in the history of the field.

This post is getting pretty long so I’ll leave the remaining entries in that article as an exercise to the reader, but I’m coming away from these articles feeling despair at how little the field of Psychology has achieved. Am I missing something?

You could argue that science’s job is not to find counter-intuitive results, but I would say that counter-intuitiveness is a good thing, in that results we find counter-intuitive force us to reflect on our models of how the world works, leading to new insights which can improve our livelihoods. When a finding comes out that matches up with our intuition, we have probably already integrated the idea into our culture meaning there’s not a whole lot we can do with the scientific validation.

On the other hand, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy came out of Psychology and it improves lives on a daily basis, despite not being particularly counter-intuitive.

So maybe the field isn’t such a failure. But I still feel a vague feeling of concern that it’s underperformed. If you have examples of counter-intuitive or intuitive-but-life-changing insights from Psychology that I’ve neglected, please let me know, because from my perspective, the field having produced so few insights despite having so many resources feels… a little counterintuitive.

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Less and less certain of my opinions with every passing day

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