Disturbing dinner table psychology. Have a go at a famous psychology experiment!

When out for dinner recently on holiday (oh to be back in that Greek Taverna overlooking the sea…), our friend’s teenager asked me which interesting psychology things I liked the most.

Surprisingly (and thankfully!) the answer came to me pretty quickly.

Here it is…

We like to think we are sophisticated mammals who are in charge of our decision-making. In reality, we are often driven by our more primitive survival urges and instincts, most of which operate outside of our conscious control (research shows increased brain activity way before we are conscious of our decision).

This gets particularly interesting when we look at our social interactions. The success of the human species has a lot to do with our ability to operate in social groups. Humans have evolved to pick up on very subtle social cues and to conform socially. This is what magicians and advertisers exploit all the time. It also helps explain why we feel so threated when we perceive rejection or ridicule from our peers.

Psychology experiment results in these areas are pretty disturbing!

  • Asch (1951) found that 75% of college students knowingly gave the wrong answer to an obvious question to fit in with or go along with the group. My daughter presented this research in her GCSE English presentation to her Year 10 class to encourage them to think about their response to social media influencers (fair to say I was rather proud of her!).
  • Milgram (1963) found that 65% of a group of 636 men continued to administer electric shock up to 450 volts and all administered up to 300 volts when instructed to do so by someone perceived to be in authority i.e wearing a white coat. If you want to know more about this study and hear some audio clips from it go here.
  • Several studies have demonstrated that we can be blind to something very obvious if we are focused in or expect to see something else.  I won’t ruin it for you but have a go yourself at this famous psychology experiment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo
  • Darley and Latane (1960’s and 1970’s) found we are much less likely to take action in an emergency if there are other passive bystanders present compared with if we are alone. When others are present we wait for someone else to do something instead. This research followed the famous murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964 while over 30 of her neighbours looked on.

However, cognitive and neurological psychology has shown that there is a lot we can do to improve our decision making via our conscious deliberate thinking. Of course, that is often what we aim to do in therapy – increase conscious awareness of and control over our thoughts, feelings and patterns of behaviour.

Here are some tips to support effective and conscious decision-making.

  • Notice your initial emotional response to something
  • Evaluate information in a situation
  • Be clear on your goals and values
  • Think through the consequences of your actions before acting
  • Be aware of and evaluate your motivations in a situation (be honest with yourself!)
  • Find the courage to act in line with your values rather than simply conforming or avoiding something difficult

Send this on to someone who might be interested.

Take care,

Pocket Family Psychologist

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