By Tom Bartlett

We are easily fooled, more biased than we believe, less rational than we think, unable to accurately recall the past, unrealistically positive about the future, spoiled by money, controlled by hormones, hamstrung by prejudices, overwhelmed by choice. We can’t stop eating. We pay for free stuff. Our minds go blank. There is something—actually, lots of things—wrong with us.

Or so it feels after attending two days of talks at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, in which researcher after researcher explained how they had exposed humanity’s multitudinous foibles.

What, how, and how much we eat was a much-discussed topic. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, rehearsed his finding that the size of our plates (or bowls or glasses) affects how much we consume, though with his national TV appearances and best-selling book, this was probably a revelation to no one.

Less known is a finding, mentioned by Maferima Touré Tillery of the University of Chicago, that if you divide a cookie into even, equal portions, people will eat less of it than if the same cookie is cut into random chunks. (UPDATE: To be clear, while Tillery briefly noted the finding, it was the result of research by Travis Carter and Ayelet Fishbach, also from the U. of Chicago.)

In other cookie-related research, Jessica Li Yexin of Arizona State University found that people are much more likely to choose familiar chocolate-chip cookies over cookies they had never heard of if they were first exposed to prompts that made them think of disease (a photo of someone sneezing, for instance). When we feel threatened, we opt for the familiar.

But we like the familiar less once we’ve had a taste of the exotic. People who have traveled the world and eaten at fancy restaurants derive less pleasure from a plate of spaghetti than your average Applebee’s patron, according to Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard. His research found that our ability to enjoy mundane pleasures, like eating and travel, hinges on whether we think of ourselves as people of superior discernment. In one study, he found that researchers could manipulate that sense of self, getting people to enjoy an experience less because they thought of themselves more highly.

How you think of yourself affects your behavior if you happen to be the boss. If you believe yourself to be incompetent, you are more likely to be aggressive and lash out at your employees, according to Nathanael J. Fast of the University of Southern California. He and his co-author, Serena Chen, also find, though, that once self-worth rises, the aggression disappears.

That’s useful if you have a boss. But probably the single most applicable piece of data came from a presentation by Marieke Roskes of the University of Amsterdam. Roskes and her co-authors analyzed video of penalty shootouts at all soccer World Cups and found that goalkeepers were significantly more likely to dive to the right, but only when their teams were behind. It’s consistent with other research indicating that human beings have a bias toward moving right when they need to act in a hurry.

When we try to do the right thing—in the moral rather than the directional sense—we actually feel that we are literally, physically higher, according to Eugene Y. Chan of the University of Toronto. He and his co-author, Eunice Kim Cho, found that when subjects were reminded of moral thinking, they felt higher off the ground. Thinking in moral terms also tended, they found, to make people more creative but less analytical.

Nostalgia seems to be a popular subject among psychologists at the moment. Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University did several studies showing that people believe TV shows and movies of the past were of generally higher quality than those on the air today. This seems to be because we recall only the better shows from bygone eras and believe them to be typical. As an example of an unquestionably bad old TV show, Morewedge mentions ALF, which, as a child of the 1980s with a fondness for that wise-cracking, cat-eating alien puppet, I found personally offensive. But that may be my own cognitive bias at work.

Thanks to a bunch of best-selling books and nifty, highly bloggable studies, social psychology has been overshadowing some less flashy disciplines lately. But it also has the reputation, perhaps unfair, of cranking out useless, gee-whiz results. In an effort to combat that perception, one of the sessions focused on findings by researchers like Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, whose newish book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, is focused on overcoming our errors rather than merely pointing them out.

Also, seriously, who eats only part of a cookie?

(The photo of the cookie above comes from a recipe for metric cookies published on the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Web site.)


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