What are the most interesting scientific findings about human behavior? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
As a biotech executive, when I see a study regarding the efficacy/safety of a drug, I carefully examine the results and use them to inform my thinking.
Yet when it comes to the world of interpersonal interaction, , and human behavior, most of us tend to do whatever is intuitive. We don’t necessarily feel we need a study to tell us about organizational culture. We live by our own experiences, picking up anecdotes and lessons along the way.
But we shouldn’t dismiss human behavior research so quickly. We simply need to use the same caveats as we would with any study. Has it been reproduced? How good is the study? Are there any methodological issues? Is it from a credible institution? Is it published in a credible journal?
Given the sheer volume of studies, it can be difficult to pick out the gems. Most of these studies aren’t specifically adapted to a corporate setting—and they don’t have cookie cutter conclusions. While applying these studies to myself does take some thinking, I’ve found many useful tidbits to noodle over, and in some cases, apply to our team at .
Here are nine relevant behavioral studies I’ve found particularly interesting:
1. Converging to the lowest common denominator in physical health.
John, L. K., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Converging to the lowest common denominator in physical health. Health Psychology, 32(9), 1023-1028.
There’s a common saying that each of us is the average of the five people we spend the most time with. At first, this makes sense when you think about how other’s habits and ways of thinking rub off on you.
But in this study, that’s not how the data panned out. Researchers put people on standing desks with treadmills attached and then sent them emails detailing how much everyone exercised each week. The scientists found that participants actually began to conform to those who exercised the least. People were drawn to the lowest common denominator.
This finding suggests that having a handful of around you doesn’t matter if you also have very low performers in your vicinity. Those at the low end have the most gravitational pull.
2. Illusions of learning: Irrelevant emotions inflate judgments of learning.
Baumeister, R. F., Alquist, J. L., & Vohs, K. D. (2015). Illusions of learning: Irrelevant emotions inflate judgments of learning. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 28, 149-158.
This study backs up something I’ve always believed: learning is hard, but making it easier doesn’t aid in the process.
The more difficult something is, the more you’ll learn. And if you try to soften that experience, you actually end up learning less. I’ve had discussions with my team about this when it comes to “lunch and learns.” The concept is to get people together during lunch so they’ll listen to a speaker. The atmosphere is casual, the time is limited, and no one’s really doing much hard work. Everyone leaves in a good mood because they’ve just had lunch and spent some time socializing. But whether or not anyone learned is up for debate.
Feeling a positive emotion doesn’t mean you’re learning. In fact, feeling great afterward—rather than tired out—likely means you haven’t absorbed much of anything.
3. Slim by design: Kitchen counter correlates of obesity.
Wansink, B., Hanks, A. S., & Kaipainen, K. (2015). Slim by design: Kitchen counter correlates of obesity. Health Education & Behavior, 1-7.
The outcome of this research will be obvious to anyone who has tried to stick with a diet in an office full of sweets and pastries. The study found that people tend to consume food that’s convenient or accessible. Even if you pack yourself a healthy lunch, you may still hit the box of donuts on the counter when you walk by in the afternoon.
But there’s more to this than just food. Anything that takes activation energy will drop engagement. I’ve heard of people who are so busy they’ll tell someone, “I can’t check my email, but if you want me to review that paper, just physically mail it to me and I will.” Of course, the paper never comes because no one wants to go through the trouble of actually mailing it.
Whether it’s donuts or a simple task, many people will end up reaching for what’s most convenient.
4. Spending money on others promotes happiness.
Dunn, E., W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.
This study has been popularized in the media because it’s one of those paradoxical studies with a feel-good ending.
Essentially, most people think spending money on themselves will make them happier. And that’s true—to an extent. Unfortunately, the high of buying something for yourself doesn’t last very long. Depending on what you’ve purchased, it may only take a few hours or days before you’re back to your baseline level of happiness.
What really makes us happier, it turns out, is spending money on other people. “It’s better to give than to receive,” isn’t groundbreaking—but it should make you think twice before indulging in retail therapy.
5. Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments.
Fehr, E., & Gächer, S. (2000). Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 980-994.
This is a particularly important study for organizations. The results show that over time, cooperation in an organization can begin to decline due to “defectors.” If one person stops cooperating, others will see that and fall into a “tit for tat” mode of operating where they decide they won’t cooperate either. Soon, the organization begins to lose its effectiveness.
The only way to counter this is by setting up some sort of punishment for those who don’t cooperate. Employees have to know there’s a system in place that will hold people accountable if they’re not living up to expectations.
6. The artful dodger: Answering the wrong question the right way.
Rogers, T., & Norton, M. I. (2011). The artful dodger: Answering the wrong question the right way. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17(2), 139-147.
This study is evidence that people tend to respond to human signals but forget underlying content very quickly. It found that interviewers did a poor job picking up on “artful dodges.” That is, they weren’t able to detect when an interviewee answered a slightly different question in an attempt to evade answering the original question.
In fact, the interviewers didn’t rate the dodger negatively because they were busy performing a social evaluation of the interviewee, rather than attempting to detect any deception. This is obviously a good study to keep in mind when interviewing candidates for a job or asking questions to your team. If you’re focused on figuring out whether or not you like the person, you may miss out on what they’re actually saying.
7. Are consumers too trusting? The effects of relationships with expert advisers.
Schwartz, J., Luce, M. F., & Ariely, D. (2011). Are consumers too trusting? The effects of relationships with expert advisers. Journal of Marketing Research, 48, S164-S174.
As the length of a relationship increases, so does trust between the parties involved. Unfortunately, some advisors take advantage of this fact by proposing ideas that are financially better for them but worse for their clients.
At the moment when the client should be , they ask the fewest because they trust the other person so much.
This is actually a good reason to avoid hiring friends. Even if your friends are well-qualified for the job, there’s a chance you will trust them to a greater extent than you would a stranger. That’s not to say your friends would do something shady, just that you might not ask the right questions at the right time because you already have a high level of trust in them.
8. Try it, you’ll like it: The influence of expectation, consumption, and revelation on preferences for beer.
Lee, L., Frederick, S., & Ariely, D. (2006). Try it, you’ll like it: The influence of expectation, consumption, and revelation on preferences for beer. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1054-1058.
In this study, volunteers were given a beer with some vinegar added to it. Some were told the beer would have vinegar, others were not. Those who were told there would be vinegar in their drink had a much stronger negative reaction to it than those who went in with no knowledge of the vinegar.
The study suggests something most people intuitively know—our expectations have a huge effect on how we perceive an outcome. That’s why people always say to set manageable expectations and outperform them, rather than immediately shoot for the stars. If you fail to meet your expectations, that will negatively color how you feel about the experience—even if you were moderately successful.
9. Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos.
Ariely, D., Kamenica, E., & Prelec, D. (2008). Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 67, 671-677.
To discover insights on happiness and meaning, researchers gave two groups of Harvard students Lego figures to build and rewarded each group equally with small amounts of money. However, one group was able to keep the completed figures on the desk in front of them as they worked, while the other group had to watch as each figure was taken apart immediately after they finished it. The second group, known as the “Sisyphus group,” built fewer figures and received less money.
It’s clear that without meaning and a sense of accomplishment, people can easily become disenchanted with work. And interestingly, even the simplest things, such as seeing the fruits of your labor accumulate, can suffuse meaning into work.
Some of the results in these studies seem obvious, while others feel counter-intuitive. But the value is that they’re more than anecdotes—they are rigorously tested hypotheses you can use to improve both your life and work.
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