Five Surprising Findings from 2011

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Juli Breines and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on January 13, 2012.

Social psychology findings can sometimes seem obvious. At times, however, they contradict common sense, make us question our assumptions, or are just plain bizarre. Here are five of such findings, published in the past year, that particularly caught my attention:

1. Spoilers are good. Apparently knowing the end of a story as you’re reading it can increase rather than decrease your enjoyment, in part because the tension of not knowing what happens next can be unpleasant. For me, the uncertainty is part of the pleasure, and the moment when everything suddenly comes together is so much more satisfying when it’s a surprise. But I might be an exception, or maybe I just haven’t given spoilers enough of a chance. See this post by Jonah Lehrer for some interesting thoughts on this research, like the idea that suspense is often itself formulaic and the truth is that “we never have to worry about the death of the protagonist or the lovers in a romantic comedy.” (Leavitt & Christenfeld)

2. So is gossip. Gossip has a bad rap, but recent research suggests that gossip can sometimes have a positive, prosocial function, protecting others from exploitation. This research shows that people are often willing to anonymously (and sometimes at a cost to themselves) divulge information about another person’s selfish behavior if this information will help someone else avoid becoming their victim. Clearly some gossip is just nasty, but these findings shed new light on the utility of gossip when it comes to choosing trustworthy romantic partners, making wise career decisions, and avoiding toxic friends.  (Feinberg, Willer, Stellar, & Keltner)

3. Vitamins are bad. Vitamins (even placebo forms) can undermine health by giving people an illusion of invulnerability and thus encouraging risky behavior like sunbathing, casual sex, binge drinking, and over-eating. As Jezebel bluntly puts it, “Vitamins Make You Slutty.” Knowing about this finding can probably help counteract it to some extent — just remember that vitamins are supplements that can’t replace actual nutritious foods (or sunscreen). (Chiou & Chao-Chin)

4. Ovulation increases prejudice. It seems like women are at their best when ovulating — happier, more attractive, better able to detect good genes in potential mates. But recent research suggests that there may be a dark side to peak fertility. Ovulating women seem to be especially threatened by physically formidable male outgroup members, perhaps, the authors suggest, because of the higher risk of sexual coercion by strangers during this time. Interestingly, however, ovulation is also associated with a heightened attraction to strength and formidability in same-group members. (McDonald, Asher, & Navarette)

5. Nice people (especially men) make less money. Maybe this isn’t all that surprising, but it’s counter to what one might hope would be the case. A large-scale study spanning multiple professions found that men high in agreeableness (e.g., friendliness, warmth) made ~18% less than disagreeable men, controlling for possible confounds such as career selection. The same pattern emerged for women but was much weaker (women made less either way). Nice guys may indeed finish last at work, but in life they seem to fare better overall. (Judge, Livingston, & Hurst)

Richard, F., Bond, C., & Stokes-Zoota, J. (2001). “That’s Completely Obvious… and Important”: Lay Judgments of Social Psychological Findings Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27 (4), 497-505 DOI:10.1177/0146167201274010

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