10 great psychology experiments
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: December 31, 2021.
Stare in the mirror and you'll find a strong sense of self
staring back. Every one of us thinks we have a good idea who we
are and what we're about—how we laugh and live and
love, and all the complicated rest. But if you're a student of
psychology—the fascinating science of human behaviour—you may well stare at your reflection with a wary eye. Because you'll know
already that the ideas you have about yourself and other people can
be very wide of the mark.
You might think you can learn a lot about human behaviour
simply by observing yourself, but
psychologists know that isn't really true. "Introspection"
(thinking about yourself) has long been considered a suspect source of
psychological research, even though one of the founding
fathers of the science, William James, gained many important insights
with its help.
Fortunately, there are thousands of rigorous experiments you can study that will
do the job much more objectively and scientifically. And here's a quick
selection of 10 of my favourites.
Artwork: Ivan Pavlov trained dogs to associate the sound of a bell with
the arrival of food in perhaps the most famous psychology experiment of all time.
- Are you really paying attention? (Simons and Chabris (1999))
- Are you trying too hard? (Aronson, 1966)
- Is the past a foreign country? (Loftus and Palmer, 1974)
- Do you cave in to peer pressure? Milgram, 1963, 1974)
- Are you a slave to pleasure? (Olds and Milner, 1954)
- Are you asleep at the wheel? (Libet, 1985)
- Why are you so attached? (Harlow et al, 1971)
- Are you as rational as you think? (Wason, 1966)
- How do you learn things? (Pavlov, 1890s)
- You're happier than you realize (Seligman, 1975)
- And so...
1: Are you really paying attention? (Simons & Chabris, 1999)
“...our findings suggest that unexpected events are often overlooked...”
Simons & Chabris, 1999
You can read a book or you can listen to the radio, but can you do
both at once? Maybe you can listen to a soft-rock album you've
heard hundreds of times before and simultaneously plod your way
through an undemanding crime novel, but how about listening to a
complex political debate while trying to revise for a politics exam?
What about listening to a German radio station while reading a French
What about mixing things up a bit more.
You can iron your clothes while listening to the radio, no
problem. But how about trying to follow (and visualize) the radio
commentary on a football game while driving a highway you've never
been along before? That's much more challenging because both things
call on your brain's ability to process spatial information and one
tends to interfere with the other. (There are very good reasons why
it's unwise to use a cellphone while you're driving—and in some
countries it's illegal.)
Generally speaking, we can do—and pay attention—to only so
many things at once. That's no big surprise. However human attention works
(and there are many theories about that), it's obviously not unlimited.
What is surprising is how we pay attention to some things, in some situations, but not others.
Psychologists have long studied something they call the cocktail-party effect.
If you're at a noisy party, you can selectively
switch your attention to any of the voices around you, just like
tuning in a radio, while ignoring all the rest. Even more striking,
if you're listening to one person and someone else happens to say
your name, your ears will prick up and your attention will instantly
switch to the other person instead. So your brain must be aware of
much more than you think, even if it's not giving everything its full attention,
all the time.
Photo: Would you spot a gorilla if it were in plain sight?
Picture by Richard Ruggiero courtesy of
US Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.
Sometimes, when we're really paying attention, we aren't easily distracted, even by
drastic changes we ought to notice.
A particularly striking demonstration of this comes from the work of Daniel
Simons and Christopher Chabris (1999), who built on earlier work by the
esteemed cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser and colleagues.
Simons and Chabris made a video of people in
black or white shirts throwing a basketball back and forth and asked
viewers to count the number of passes made by the white-shirted
players. You can watch it
Half the viewers failed to notice something else that happens at
the same time (the gorilla-suited person wandering across the set)—an
extraordinary example of something psychologists call inattentional
blindness (in plain English: failure to see something you really should have spotted).
A related phenomenon called change blindness explains why we
generally fail to notice things like glaring continuity errors in
movies: we don't expect to see them—and so we don't.
Whether experiments like "the invisible gorilla" allow us to conclude
broader things about human nature is a moot point, but it's certainly fair
to say (as Simons and Chabris argue) that they reveal "critically important
limitations of our cognitive abilities." None of us are as smart as we like to think, but
just because we fail and fall short that doesn't make us bad people;
we'd do a lot better if we understood and recognized our shortcomings.
2: Are you trying too hard? (Aronson, 1966)
No-one likes a smart-aleck, so the saying goes, but just how true
is that? Even if you really hate someone who has everything—the
good looks, the great house, the well-paid job—it tuns out that there are certain circumstances in which
you'll like them a whole lot more: if they suddenly make a stupid
mistake. This not-entirely-surprising bit of psychology mirrors
everyday experience: we like our fellow humans slightly flawed,
down-to-earth, and somewhat relatable. Known as the pratfall effect,
it was famously demonstrated back in 1966 by social psychologist
“...a superior person may be viewed as superhuman and, therefore, distant; a blunder tends to
humanize him and, consequently, increases his attractiveness.”
Aronson et al, 1966
Aronson made taped audio recordings of two very different people
talking about themselves and answering 50 difficult questions, which were
supposedly part of an interview for a college quiz team. One person
was very superior, got almost all the questions right, and revealed
(in passing) that they were generally excellent at what they did (an
honors student, yearbook editor, and member of the college track team). The
other person was much more mediocre, got many questions wrong, and
revealed (in passing) that they were much more of a plodder
(average grades in high school, proofreader of the yearbook, and failed to make the track team).
In the experiment, "subjects" (that's what psychologists call
the people who take part in their trials) had to listen to the
recordings of the two people and rate them on various things,
including their likeability. But there was a twist. In some of the
taped interviews, an extra bit (the "pratfall") was added at the
end where either the superior person or the mediocrity suddenly
shouted "Oh my goodness I've spilled coffee all over my new
suit", accompanied by the sounds of a clattering chair and general
chaos (noises that were identically spliced onto both tapes).
Artwork: Mistakes make you more likeable—if you're considered competent
to begin with.
What Aronson found was that the superior person was rated more
attractive with the pratfall at the end of their interview; the
inferior person, less so. In other words, a pratfall can really work
in your favor, but only if you're considered halfway competent to
begin with; if not, it works against you. Knowingly or otherwise,
smart celebrities and politicians often appear to take advantage of
this to improve their popularity.
3: Is the past a foreign country? (Loftus and Palmer, 1974)
Attention isn't the only thing that lets us down; memory is
hugely infallible too—and it's one of the strangest and most
complex things psychologists study.
Can you remember where you were when the Twin Towers fell in 2001
or (if you're much older and willing to go back further) when JFK
was shot in Dallas in 1963? You might remember a girl you were in
kindergarten with 20 years ago, but perhaps you can't remember the
guy you met last week, last night, or even 10 minutes ago.
What about the so-called tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon where you're
certain you know a word or fact or name, and you can even describe
what it's like ("It's a really short word, maybe beginning with
'F'..."), but you can't bring it instantly to mind?
How about the madeleine effect, where the taste or smell or something
suddenly sets off an incredibly powerful involuntary memory?
What about déjà-vu: a jarring true-false memory—the
strong sense something is very familiar when it can't possibly be?
How about the curious split between short- and long-term
memories or between "procedural memory" (knowing how to do things
or follow instructions) and "declarative memory" (knowing facts),
which breaks down further into "semantic memory" (general knowledge
about things) and "episodic memory" (specific things that have
happened to you). What about the many flavors of selective memory failure, such as seniors who can
remember the name of a high-school sweetheart but can't recall
their own name? Or sudden episodes of amnesia? Human memory is a
massive—and massively complex—subject.
And any comprehensive theory of it needs to be able to explain a lot.
“...the questions asked subsequent to an event can cause a reconstruction in one's memory of that event..”
Loftus & Palmer, 1974
Much of the time, poor memory is just a nuisance and we all have
tricks for working around it—from slapping Post-It notes
on the mirror to setting reminders on our phones. But there's one
situation where poor memories can be a matter of life or death: in
criminal investigation and court testimony. Suppose you give evidence
in a trial based on events you think you remember that
happened years ago—and suppose your evidence helps to convict a
"murderer" who's subsequently sentenced to death. But what if
your memory was quite wrong and the person was innocent?
One of the most famous studies of just how flawed our memories can
be was made by psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer in
After showing their subjects footage of a car accident, they
tested their memories some time later by asking "About how fast were the cars going
when they smashed into each other?" or
using "collided," "bumped," "contacted," or "hit" in place of smashed.
Those asked the first—leading—question reported higher speeds.
Later, the subjects were asked if they'd seen any broken glass
and those asked the leading question ("smashed") were much more likely
to say "yes" even though there was no broken glass in the film.
So our memories are much more fluid, far less fixed, than we suppose.
Artwork: The words we use to probe our memories can affect the memories we think we have.
This classic experiment very powerfully illustrates the potential
unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal investigations, but
the work of Elizabeth Loftus on so-called "false memory syndrome"
has had far-reaching impacts
in provocative areas, such as people's alleged recollections
of alien abduction,
multiple personality disorder, and
memories of childhood abuse.
Ultimately, what it demonstrates is that memory is fallible and
remembering is sometimes less of a mechanical activity (pulling a
dusty book from long-neglected library shelf) than a creative and
recreative one (rewriting the book partly or completely to compensate
for the fact that the print has faded with time).
4. Do you cave in to peer pressure? (Milgram, 1963)
Experiments like the three we've considered so far might cast an
uncomfortable shadow, yet most of us are still convinced we're
rational, reasonable people, most of the time. Asked to predict how
we'd behave in any given situation, we'd be able to give a pretty
good account of ourselves—or so you might think. Consider the
question of whether you'd ever, under any circumstances, torture
another human being and you'd probably be appalled at the prospect.
"Of course not!" And yet, as Yale University's Stanley Milgram
famously demonstrated in the 1960s and 1970s, you'd probably be mistaken.
In the Milgram experiment, which is all about how we obey
authority figures, you take a large number of experimental subjects
and divide them into two groups called "learners" and
"teachers". The "learners" have to learn pairs of words and
the "teachers" (in a separate room but able to hear what the
learners are saying and doing) have to assist by punishing them
(giving them mild electric shocks) when they get their answers wrong.
Meanwhile, an experimental supervisor hovers over the teachers
stressing the importance of following their instructions. As the
experiment progresses, the supervisor prompts the teachers to give
higher and higher shocks that range from "Slight shock"
all the way up to "Danger: Severe Shock, 450 volts,"
and even when the "learners" begin to
pound on the wall and complain.
As the shocks increase, and the subjects increasingly resist,
the experimenters give stronger and stronger "prods" to go on:
"The experiment requires that you continue," "It is absolutely essential that you continue,"
and "You have no other choice, you must go on."
Artwork: The Milgram experiment: a shocking turn of events.
The twist in the experiment is that the "learners"
(who are really ‘stooges' or accomplices of the experimenters)
are not being shocked at all: the whole thing is a setup and no
shocks are really being delivered. It's all a pretence. Despite failing to recognize this,
the teachers happily go along with shocking the learners even when it
should be obvious to them that what they're doing is
quite wrong and, in all probability, very dangerous.
Milgram's experiments on obedience to authority have been widely
discussed and offered as explanations for all kinds of things, from
minor everyday cruelty to the appalling catalogue of repugnant human
behavior witnessed during the Nazi Holocaust. Today, they're generally
considered unethical because they're deceptive and could, potentially, damage the
mental health of people taking part in them (a claim Milgram himself
investigated and refuted).
“...the conflict stems from the opposition of two deeply ingrained behavior dispositions: first, the disposition not to harm other people, and second, the tendency to obey those whom we perceive to be legitimate authorities.”
Though Milgram's studies have not been repeated, related
experiments have sought to shed more light on why people find
themselves participating in quite disturbing forms of behavior. One
explanation is that, like willing actors, we simply assume the roles
we're given and play our parts well. In 1972, Stanford
University's Philip Zimbardo set up an entire "pretend prison"
and assigned his subjects roles as prisoners or guards. Quite
quickly, the guards went beyond simple play acting and actually took
on the roles of sadistic bullies, exposing the prisoners to all kinds
of rough and degrading treatment, while the prisoners resigned
themselves to their fate or took on the roles of rebels.
More recently, Zimbardo
has argued that his work sheds light on atrocities such as the
torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, when US army guards were
found to have tortured and degraded Iraqi prisoners under their guard
in truly shocking ways.
5. Are you a slave to pleasure? (Olds and Milner, 1954)
Why do we do the things we do? Why do we eat or drink, play
football, watch TV... or do the legions of other things we feel
compelled to do each day? How, when we take these sorts of behaviors
to extremes, do we become addicted to things like drink and drugs,
gambling or sex? Are they ordinary pleasures taken to extremes or something
altogether different? Obsessions, compulsions, and addictive behaviors are
complex and very difficult to treat, but what causes them... and how
do we treat them?
Way back in 1954, a startling experiment by Canadian
neuropsychologists James Olds and Peter Milner used tiny electric
shocks to offer insight into pleasurable but highly addictive behavior.
Electric shocks aren't always as painful and "shocking" as they
turned out to be in the Milgram experiment; sometimes they provoke
pleasure instead of pain. That much had been previously demonstrated by Tulane
University's Robert Heath, though he didn't realize it at the time.
While testing the idea that mental illnesses
might be cured by "deep-brain stimulation" ("poking" the brain with electrodes),
Heath found that schizophrenics reported pleasant feelings when he zapped their brains.
(Much of Heath's work was intensely controversial, particularly a number of experiments he carried out
later that attempted to prove he could cure homosexuality by brain stimulation.
Artwork: A rat will happily stimulate the "pleasure centre" in its brain.
Back to Olds and Milner. While systematically studying the effects of electricity on a rat's brain,
they accidentally discovered that if they stimulated its septum (a tiny region deep in the core of the brain
known as the limbic system), the animal would return for more. So they designed a
follow-up experiment where they implanted an electrode in the rat's
septum and wired it up to a foot pedal: if the rat pressed the pedal,
it gave itself a shock. To their astonishment, the rat
didn't just return once or twice: it kept coming back. The rats
in this experiment "self-stimulated" up to 5000 times an hour
until they finally collapsed from exhaustion.
“It appears that motivation, like sensation, has local centers in the brain.”
James Olds, Scientific American, 1956.
The Olds and Milner ICSS (intracranial self-stimulation) experiment was widely interpreted as the
discovery of a "pleasure center" in the brain, but we have to take that
suggestion with quite a pinch of salt. It's fascinating, but also quite
reductively depressing, to imagine that a lot of the things humans
feel compelled to do each day—from work and eating to sport and
sex—are motivated by nothing more than the need to scratch a deep
neural itch: to repeatedly stimulate a "hungry" part of our
brain. While it offers important insights into addictive behavior,
the idea that all of our complex human pleasure-seeking stems from something so
crudely behavioral—stimulus and reward—seems absurdly over-simple.
It's fascinating to search for references to Olds and Milner's work and see
it quoted in books with such titles as
Your Money and Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich.
But it's quite a stretch from a rat pushing on a pedal to making arguments of that kind.
6: Are you asleep at the wheel? (Libet, 1983)
Being a conscious, active human being is a bit like driving a car:
looking out through your eyes is like staring through a windshield,
seeing (perceiving) things and responding to them, as they see and
respond to you. Consciousness, in other words, feels like a
"top-down" thing; like the driver of a car, we're always in
control, willing the world to bend to our way, making things happen
according to ideas our brains we devise beforehand. But how true is
that really? If you are a driver, you'll know that much of what you
do depends on a kind of mental "auto-pilot" or cruise control. As
a practiced driver, you barely have to think about what you're
doing at all—it's completely automatic.
We're only really aware of just how effort-full and attentive drivers need to be when we
first start learning. We soon learn to do most of the things involved in
driving without being consciously aware of them at all—and that's
true of other things too, not just driving a car. Seen this way, driving seems
impressive—but if you think again about the Simons and Chabris gorilla experiment,
and consider its implications for sitting behind the wheel,
you might want to take the bus in future.
Still, you might think, you're always, ultimately, in charge and in
control: you're the driver, not the passenger, even if you are
sometimes dozy at the wheel. And yet, a remarkable series
of experiments by Benjamin Libet, in the 1980s, appeared to demonstrate something
entirely different: far from consciously making things happen,
sometimes we become conscious of what we've done after the
fact. In Libet's experiments, he made people watch a clock and move
their wrist when it reached a certain time. But their brain activity
(which he was also monitoring) showed a peak a fraction of a second
before their conscious decision to move, suggesting, at least in this
case, that consciousness is the effect, not the cause.
“Many of our mental functions are carried out unconsciously, without conscious awareness.”
Benjamin Libet, Mind Time, 2004, p.2.
On the face of it, Libet's work seems to have extraordinary
implications for the study of consciousness. It's almost like
we're zombies sitting at the wheel of a self-driving car. Is the
whole idea of conscious free will just an illusion, an accidental
artefact of knee-jerk behavior that happens much more automatically?
You can certainly try to argue it that way, as many people have. On
the other hand, it's important to remember that this is a highly
constrained laboratory experiment and you can't automatically
extrapolate from that to more general human behavior.
(Apart from anything else, the methodology of Libet's experiments
has been questioned.
While you could try to argue that a complex decision (to buy a house or quit your
job) is made unconsciously or subconsciously in whatever manner and
we rationalize or become conscious of it after the fact,
experiments like Libet's aren't offering evidence for that.
Sometimes, it's too much of a stretch to argue from simple, highly
contrived, very abstract laboratory experiments to bigger, bolder, and more general everyday
On the other hand, it's quite likely that some behavior that we
believe to be consciously pre-determined is anything but, as William
James (and, independently, Carl Lange) reasoned way back in the late
19th century. In a famous example James offered, we assume we run
from a scary bear because we see the bear and feel afraid. But James
believed the reasoning here is back to front: we see the bear, run,
and only feel afraid because we find ourselves running from a bear!
(How we arrive at emotions is a whole huge topic of its own. The
James-Lange theory eventually spawned more developed theories by Walter
Cannon and Philip Bard, who believed emotions and their causes happen
simultaneously, and Stanley Shachter and Jerome Singer, who believe
emotions stem both from our bodily reactions and how we think about
7: Why are you so attached? (Harlow et al, 1971)
“Love is a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding. Because of its intimate and personal nature it is regarded by some as an improper topic for experimental research.”
Harry Harlow, 1958.
Artwork: Animals crave proper comfort, not just the simple "reduction"
of "drives" like hunger.
Photo courtesy of NASA and
There's an obvious evolutionary reason why we get attached to
other people: one way or another, it improves our chances of
surviving, mating, and passing on our genes to future generations. Attachment
begins at birth, but our attachment to our mothers isn't motivated purely by
a simple need for nourishment (through breastfeeding or whatever it
might be). One of the most famous psychological experiments of all
time demonstrated this back in the early 1970s.
The University of Wisconsin's Harry Harlow and his wife Margaret tested what happened
when newborn baby monkeys were separated from their mothers and
"raised," instead by crude, mechanical surrogates. In particular,
Harlow looked at how the monkeys behaved toward two rival "mothers",
one with a wooden head and a wire body that had a feeding bottle
attached, and one made from soft, warm, comforting cloth. Perhaps
surprisingly, the babies preferred the cloth mother. Even when they
ventured over to the wire mother for food, they soon returned to the
cloth mother for comfort and reassurance.
The fascinating thing about this study is that it suggests the
need for comfort is at least as important as the
(more obviously fundamental) need for nourishment,
so busting the cold, harsh claims of hard-wired behaviorists,
who believed our attachment to our mothers was all about mechanistic
"drive reduction," or knee-jerk stimulus and response.
Ultimately, we love the loving—Harlow's "contact comfort"—and
perhaps things like habits, routines, and traditions can all be interpreted in this light.
8: Are you as rational as you think? (Wason, 1966)
“... I have concentrated mainly on the mistakes, assumptions, and stereotyped behavior which occur when people
have to reason about abstract material. But... we seldom do reason about abstract material.”
Peter Wason, 1966.
Like everyone else, you probably have your moments of wild,
reckless abandon, but faced with the task of making a calm, rational
judgment about something, how well do you think you'd do? It's
not a question of what you know or how clever you are, but how well
you can make a judgment or a decision.
Suppose, for example, you had to hire the best applicant for a job based on a pile of résumés. Or
what if you had to find a new apartment by the end of the month and
you had a limited selection to pick among. What if you were on the
jury of a trial and had to sit through weeks or evidence to
reach a verdict? How well do you think you'd do? Probably, given
all the information, you feel you'd make a fair job of it: you have
faith in your judgment. And yet, decades of research into
human decision-making suggests you'll massively overestimate your
own ability. Overconfident and under-informed, you'll jump to hasty
conclusions, swayed by glaring biases you don't even notice. In the
words of Daniel Kahneman, probably the world's leading expert
on human rationality, your brain opts to think "fast"
(reaches a quick and dirty decision) when sometimes it'd be better
off thinking "slow" (reaching a more considered verdict).
A classic demonstration of how poorly we think was devised by
British psychologist Peter Wason in 1966. The experimenter puts a set
of four white cards in front of you, each of which has a letter on
one side and a number on the other. Then they tell you that if a card
has a vowel on one side, it has an even number on the other side.
Finally, they ask you which cards you need to turn over to verify if
that statement is true. Suppose the cards show A, D, 4, and 7. The
obvious answer, offered by most people, is A and 4 or just A. But the correct
answer is actually A and 7. Once you've turned over A, it serves no
purpose to turn over D or 4: turning over D tells us nothing, because it's not a vowel,
while turning over 4 doesn't provide extra proof or disprove the statement.
By turning over 7, however, you can potentially disprove the
theory if you reveal a vowel on the other side of it. Wason's four-card test demonstrates what's known as
"confirmation bias"—our failure to seek out evidence that
contradicts things we believe.
Artwork: Peter Wason's four-card selection test. If a card has a vowel on one side, it has an even number on the other. Which cards do you need to turn over to confirm this?
As with the other experiments here, you could extrapolate and
argue that Wason's abstract reasoning test is echoed by bigger and wider failings we
see in ourselves. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining things like online "echo
chambers" and "filter bubbles", where we tend to watch, read,
and listen to things that reinforce things we already
believe—intellectual cloth mothers, you might call them—rather
than challenging those comfortable beliefs or putting them to the test. But,
again, a simple laboratory test is exactly what it is: a simple,
laboratory test. And other, broader personal or social conclusions
don't automatically follow on from it. (Indeed, you might recognize the tendency to
argue that way as a confirmation bias all of its own.)
9: How do you learn things? (Pavlov, 1890s)
Learning might seem a very conscious and deliberate thing,
especially if you hate the subject you're studying or merely
sitting in school. What could be worse than "rote" learning your
times table, practising French vocabulary, or revising for an exam?
We also learn a lot of things less consciously—sometimes without
any conscious effort at all. Animals (other than humans) don't sit
in classrooms all day but they learn plenty of things. Even one of
the simplest (a sea-slug called Aplysia californica)
will learn to withdraw its syphon and gill if you give it an electric shock, as
Eric Kandel and James Schwartz famously discovered.
“The animal must respond to changes in the environment in such a manner
that its responsive activity is directed toward the preservation of its existence.”
Ivan Pavlov, 1926.
So how does learning come about? At its most basic, it involves
making connections or "associations" between things, something that was
probed by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov in perhaps the most famous psychology experiment of all time. Pavlov looked at how dogs behave
when he gave them food. Normally, he found dogs would
salivate (a response) when he brought them a plate of food (a
stimulus). We call this an unconditioned response (meaning default,
normal, or just untrained): it's what the dogs do naturally. Now,
with the food a distant doggy memory, Pavlov rang a bell (a neutral
stimulus) and found it produced no response at all (the dogs didn't
salivate). In the next phase of the experiment, he brought the dogs
plates of food and rang a bell at the same time and found,
again, that they salivated. So again, we have an unconditioned
response, but this time to a pair of stimuli. Finally, after a period
of this training, he tested what happened when he just rang the bell
and, to his surprise, found that they salivated once again. In the
jargon of psychology, we say the dogs had become "conditioned" to
respond to the bell alone: they associated the bell with food and so
responded by salivating. We call this a conditioned (trained or
learned) response: the dogs have learned that the sound of the bell
is generally linked to the appearance of food.
Pavlov's work on conditioning was hugely influential—indeed,
it was a key inspiration for the theory of
Advanced by such luminaries as B.F. Skinner and J.B. Watson, this was the idea
that animal behavior is largely a matter of stimulus and response and
mental states—thinking, feeling, emoting, and reasoning—is
irrelevant. But, as with all the other experiments here, it's a
stretch to argue that we're all quasi-automated zombies raised in a
kind of collective cloud of mind-control conditioning. It's true that we learn
some things by simple, behavioural association, and animals like Aplysia may learn
everything they know that way, but it doesn't follow that all animals learn
everything by making endless daisy-chains of stimulus and response.
10: You're happier than you realize (Seligman, 1975)
Money makes the world go round—or so goes the lyric of a famous
song. But if you're American Martin Seligman, you'd probably
think "happiness" was a better candidate for what powers the
planet, or should. When I was studying psychology at college back in
the mid-1980s, Professor Seligman came along to give a guest
lecture—and it proved to be one of the most thought-provoking talks
I would ever attend.
“The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength
and virtue, and provide guideposts for... 'the good life'.”
Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2003.
Though now widely and popularly known for his work in a field he calls positive psychology,
Seligman originally made his name researching mental illness and how
people came to be depressed. Taking a leaf from Pavlov's book, his
subjects were dogs. Rather than feeding them and ringing bells,
he studied what happened when he gave dogs
electric shocks and either offered them an opportunity to escape or
restrained them in a harness so they couldn't. What he discovered
was that dogs that couldn't avoid the shocks became demoralised and
depressed—they "learned helpnessness"—and eventually didn't
even try to avoid punishment, even when (once again) they were allowed to.
You can easily construct a whole (behavioural) theory of mental
illness on the basis of Seligman's learned helplessness experiments
but, once again, there's much more to it than that. People don't
become depressed purely because they're in impossible situations
where problems seem (to use the terminology) "internal"
(their own fault), "global" (affecting all aspects of their
life), and "stable" (impossible to change). Many different
factors—neurochemical, behavioral, cognitive, and social—feed
into depression and, as a result, there are just as many forms of treatment.
What's really interesting about Seligman's work is what he
did next. In the 1990s, he realized psychologists were obsessed with
mental illness and negativity when, in his view, they should probably
spend more time figuring out what makes people happy. So began his
more recent quest to understand "positive psychology" and the
things we can all do to make our lives feel more
fulfilled. The key, in his view, is working out and playing to what
he calls our "signature strengths" (things we're good at that
we enjoy doing). His ideas, which trace back to those early
experiments on learned helpless in hapless dogs, have proved hugely
influential, prompting many psychologists to switch their attention
to developing a useful, practical "science of happiness."
What do these experiments tell us? We're simply not who we seem. On the debit side of the account, we don't really pay attention to the world around us,
our memories are patchy, we make flawed judgements much of the time,
we easily cave in to peer pressure, we're constantly distracted by simple pleasure seeking, and our overarching sense of being in control and determining events—our
idea of conscious "free will"—is, at times, little more than illusion. But let's not be too harsh and hasty in judging ourselves. On the credit side, given the complexity of a modern world we haven't had time to evolve around, we don't make such a bad job of things. We might not be perfect, but usually we're acting in good faith and doing the best that we can.
And, all things considered, we're often far happier and better adjusted than perhaps we realize.