3 Surprising Ways Your Mind Works

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Think You Know Your Mind? These Findings Might Surprise You

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Psychology studies often provide surprising insight into the human mind and behavior. Why we do the things we do and think the way we think has fascinated people for thousands of years. Yet even now researchers are discovering surprising new facts that upend how many people think about themselves.

Here are just a few fascinating psychological facts that can give you greater insight into the inner workings of your own mind.

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Your Overall Impressions of a Person Impact How You Judge Specific Traits

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When you meet someone for the first time, you probably form an overall impression quite quickly. For example, when introduced to a new co-worker, you might quickly decide that he is good-looking, smart, professional, and friendly. But how exactly do we form impressions of so many traits so quickly? In many cases, your overall impression of a person ("He's nice.") bleeds over into your assessment of other qualities (He's smart and hard-working, too!").

This tendency is known as the halo effect. Essentially, our overall impressions create a sort of "halo" that biases our judgments about a whole host of other qualities. This tendency is also sometimes referred to as the "what is beautiful is good" principle or the physical attractiveness stereotype. In one famous example, students who are given a lesson by a very good-looking teacher were more likely to rate the teacher as smart and nice, but more likely to rate an unattractive teacher as mean and unintelligent.

The same effect has also been shown to influence how teachers view and evaluate their own students. A teacher might assume that a student who is well-mannered in class is also smart and hard-working, while inattentive kids might be viewed as poor students.

The bottom line: The judgments we make about others are often biased by a variety of factors, including our overall impressions of the individual.

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We Often Miss What's Right In Front of Our Eyes

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Do you feel like you are pretty observant? Think you know what's really going on around you? Research has demonstrated that people are often surprisingly oblivious to even large changes in the visual scenes around them, a phenomenon that is known as change blindness.

In one famous 1998 experiment by Simon and Levin, the experimenters approached pedestrians on a college campus and engaged them in a conversation. They then created a temporary interruption by having a door carried between the experimenter and the pedestrian. It was during this brief visual occlusion that the first experiment and a second experimenter switched places, and then continued the conversation as if nothing had happened. Surprisingly, only about half of the subjects even noticed that their conversational partner had switched.

So why are we sometimes so oblivious to the changes around us? Researchers suggest that focused attention and limited resources play a role. When you are focused on a particular aspect of your environment, you might not notice changes to things that you weren't really paying much attention to. And because your ability to process and attend to information in the environment is limited, you have to pick and choose what you pay attention to in order to focus on what's important.

In the case of Simons and Levin "switching" experiment, expectations and past experiences can also play a role. Would you ever expect the person you're having a conversation with to suddenly morph into a completely different person? Probably not. Because it isn't something you expect and is inconsistent with your past experiences, it is less likely that you'll notice such an odd change.

But change blindness can and does have an impact on different aspects of our real-world lives. For example, if you fail to notice a sudden change in the road in front of you (like another car drifting into your lane or a deer bounding out onto the road), a serious traffic accident might result.

The bottom line: More happens around you than you will probably ever know. You can't attend to it all, so be aware that big changes can happen without you even noticing.

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We Lie to Ourselves to Avoid Psychological Conflict

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Perhaps one of the most surprising findings in psychology is the lengths that we will often go to ensure that our beliefs and actions are aligned. We tend to feel uncomfortable when we hold two conflicting beliefs or when the things we believe don't quite line up with our actions, a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. As a result, we sometimes engage in a bit of unconscious mental slight-of-hand to change our beliefs so that they match up better.

In one classic study, participants were asked to complete a boring task and were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell another participant that the task was exciting and interesting. Afterwards, they were asked to rate how interesting they found the activity. Surprisingly, people were more likely to say the activity was really interesting when they were paid less. Why? Since the task was so dull and the participants were paid so little, they needed to find some type of mental justification to explain why they took part. If they weren't in it for the money, then they must have been doing it because it was interesting, right?

But what impact does this really have on your day-to-day behavior outside of the psychology lab? Cognitive dissonance can actually have a powerful influence on many our daily actions and decisions. For example, people often choose to interpret news stories in ways that support their existing beliefs. A news story about a mass shooting, for example, will result in some individuals calling for stricter gun laws while others advocate for increased visibility of guns in public places. Each side chooses to interpret the incident in a way that supports their beliefs.

The bottom line: Cognitive dissonance has a powerful influence on the way we think and behave. It is a great example of how we often don't understand the subtle inner-workings of our own minds.

Learn more about how your mind works:

References

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203.

Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1198-1212.

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