5 Famous Psychological Studies (That Were Hugely Overhyped)

Human nature is rarely simple.
5 Famous Psychological Studies (That Were Hugely Overhyped)

We cling to certain psychological studies like they're the only mental life preservers in this great big raging ocean of crazy. These experiments are talked about and analyzed so much that they enter society's collective consciousness, usually because they say something simple yet compelling about human nature. But human nature is rarely simple, and some of the "deepest" or most provocative studies that you're familiar with are wildly inaccurate, completely misinterpreted, or otherwise full of crap. For instance ...

Your Answer To The Trolley Problem Has No Relation To What You'd Do In Reality

The infamous Trolley Problem is a popular thought experiment in Intro to Philosophy, as well as a beloved pop culture trope. You may remember it from that one episode of The Good Place, helpfully called "The Trolley Problem." Even its name is a sign of longevity, because who the hell has taken a trolley ride recently?

The problem asks whether you'd be willing to kill one person to save the lives of multiple people. Either way, someone has to die, and the way you determine who supposedly says something fundamental about you. Are you ruthlessly logical enough to pull the lever, sentencing one person to death for the greater good? Do you think it's wrong to make that decision at all? What if it was a child versus five adults? What if it was a fat guy? What if that fat guy was a real big asshole? What if that fat guy was an asshole and it was his fault the people were tied to the trolley tracks in the first place, but you have to physically push him in front of the trolley to save the other people?

McGeddon/Wikimedia Commons
Though it seems like the solution to all of those is "Never hang out with ethicists around train tracks."

Those are all real variants of the problem, and just looking at the way people answer these questions has become a miniature field of its own, dubbed "trolleyology." Notable conclusions are that men are more likely than women to push someone onto the tracks for the greater good, young people are ruthless as hell, and everyone is more reluctant to push a woman than a man.

But ultimately, there's no way to tell what people would do in real life, right? Unfortunately, the buzzkills at the ethics board wouldn't allow Bostyn, et al to tie real humans to real train tracks, but they could use mice and (fake) electric shocks. Participants, not knowing the shocks were fake, had to choose between zapping one mouse or letting five be zapped. Before doing so, they were questioned on how they would react to a variety of trolley genre moral dilemmas.

The result found almost no correlation to what participants said they would do and what they actually did. People were more decisive in real life than in the hypothetical scenarios. And yes, we're aware that zapping mice isn't exactly analogous to putting human lives on the line, but philosophers and social scientists have long been arguing that the Trolley Problem is overhyped and over-applied. As a general rule, a discussion you once had with your college buddies over some beers doesn't have much to do with how you'd react in the heat of the moment. That Good Place episode was solid, though.

Related: 5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity Is Doomed

The "Bystander Effect" Isn't The Whole Story About Kitty Genovese

In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her Queens apartment building. The popular story goes that 38 people in the building either witnessed the attack or heard Genovese's screams for help, and yet not a single one stepped in to intervene, came to her aid afterward, or called the police. And so the field of psychology coined the term "Genovese Syndrome," aka the Bystander Effect. Humans, being selfish bastards, will ignore a nasty public incident because it's someone else's problem.

Except many of the 38 "witnesses" didn't witness anything. No one saw the entire attack. Few saw any of it. Most only heard bits of the incident, and to them it sounded like a couple having an argument or two rowdy drunks on a Friday night. And no, Genovese wasn't screaming for half an hour; her attacker quickly punctured her lung. So while this case proves that dozens of '60s New Yorkers lacked the initiative and enhanced senses of Spider-Man, that's not the same as people all being indifferent to the suffering of those around them.

Oh, and even with this limited view of the crime, two separate witnesses did call the police. This was before 911 services went into operation, so calling the police was a bit of a pain in the ass. Also, one of the callers is believed to have been gay, which gave him every reason to distance himself from New York City police in the '60s. Also, an elderly neighbor came to Genovese's aid despite not knowing whether the attacker had left, cradling Genovese in her arms until authorities arrived. Maybe people sometimes dodge responsibility, but this case in truth demonstrated the exact opposite point.

So how did we end up with a story about 38 people suddenly finding their shoes very interesting when it came time to help? It all goes back to a sensational New York Times feature that ran two weeks after the until-then-obscure crime. How the article came to be is a long story, but in short, the reporters involved knew it was a crock, but didn't want to risk their careers by challenging editor Abe Rosenthal, who insisted on including all the outlandish details.

The psychological community knew about these inaccuracies for decades and dropped the Kitty Genovese case as a teachable example, even as it remained a popular urban legend. The Times owned up to their mistakes 52 years later when covering the death of Genovese's murderer. So at this point, "Genovese Syndrome" should be the name for when people parrot old myths to look cynical instead of bothering to check basic facts.

Related: 5 Ridiculous Lies You Probably Believe About Psychology

Power Posing Doesn't Change Anything In Your Body

Your body language says a lot about how you're feeling, which is why you don't give a big presentation while slouched over like you're four hours into a Gears Of War marathon. And supposedly, a "powerful" posture can make you powerful. Stand like Superman or Wonder Woman, and you will experience an increase in testosterone and a drop in cortisol, giving you strength and lowering stress. Psychologists Dana Carney and Amy Cuddy discovered this in a 2010 experiment, and "power posing" was since given positive coverage by Oprah, CNN, Wired, and The New York Times. Cuddy even gave one of the most-watched TED Talks in history on it.

5 Famous Psychological Studies (That Were Hugely Overhyped)
Erik Hersman/Wikimedia Commons
Which is convenient, since a TED Talk is about the only setting where posing like that doesn't make you look crazy.

But while the original study found a positive correlation with power posing, later experiments didn't. In 2017 alone, 11 different experiments tried to replicate the original's results, and all of them found that power posing apparently does nothing for your body. Even the lead author of the original study now says it's junk. Carney put out a statement declaring that she doesn't believe in power posing, and she discourages others from pursuing the research further.

That original study was rife with problems. It wasn't double-blind, it didn't account for gender, the sample size was tiny (42 subjects), and there were issues with statistical manipulation that none of us understand but Carney herself now admits to. Then there was the little fact that the study measured people's preference for risk using a gambling game. So if anything, the experiment was detecting the effects of winning, not posing.

After a whole lot of criticism, Cuddy dialed things back a bit, pushing less on the nonexistent physiological effects of power posing and more about how it feels good. Her message is essentially now "If you're more confident, you will be more confident." Which ... yeah, that's what confidence means.

Related: 6 Myths About Psychology That Everyone (Wrongly) Believes

No, Your Ego Doesn't Get "Depleted"

In the 1990s, neon was king, turtles were ninjas, and a psychologist named Roy Baumeister published a revolutionary theory of willpower. Baumeister's concept of ego depletion, aka decision fatigue, is that willpower is a finite resource used like a muscle. Our willpower gets tired, needs rest, uses glucose as fuel, and will look great all pumped up for Jeremy's awesome pool party this weekend. You've only got so much time before the pump wears off, but willpower can be rejuvenated by, say, eating a sandwich or drinking some lemonade -- things that give us the necessary sugar power to unleash the Green Lantern inside us all.

Baumeister's experiments were widely publicized. You might have heard about one supposed example, involving an Israeli parole board being less likely to grant parole in the afternoon, when they've grown tired from looking at cases all day. Baumeister also did an experiment wherein subjects had to resist a plate of cookies while completing a geometric puzzle. They did far worse than the group that was allowed cookies, which probably violates some sort of Keebler ethics code.

All of this led to the idea that people should conserve their will if they need to make a lot of decisions. Hell, his theory is why Obama only wore one kind of suit. He's the president, so one fewer decision to make could feasibly make him a more effective leader.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
We're sure the fact that he looks like a dork in a tan suit had nothing to do with that decision.

Unfortunately for fans of thinking less, psychologists tried to replicate Baumeister's results and very much could not. A previous meta-analysis was also reviewed, and the results weren't pretty there, either. The theory appears to only apply if you personally have been convinced that your willpower is a finite resource. Willpower can also be enhanced if you're motivated, which has nothing to do with glucose levels, or even pool parties.

This doesn't mean that you should go around making fast decisions all willy-nilly, but there are no quick and easy ways to trick your own mind. The whole idea that a shot of glucose could boost willpower was also debunked. The lemonade's effect can be chalked up to the placebo effect, because glucose doesn't enter the bloodstream fast enough to power the brain like the experiment thought it should. Which is something they probably should have thought about while planning the experiment, but maybe it had been a long day.

Related: 5 Psychology 'Facts' You Believe (That Are Myths)

Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs Needed More Real Science

If you've so much as glanced sideways at a psych textbook, you know about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's the idea that there's a logical order to human need. First you fulfill your physiological needs, like sleep, water, and pizza. Safety, like not being beaten up for your pizza, comes next. Once you're safe, you can look to fulfill your need for social belonging (getting invited to pizza parties), esteem (being lauded for bringing good pizza), and finally self-actualization (building a pizza oven and inviting people over to witness the depth of your pizza skills).

It makes sense on the surface. You probably wouldn't be too worried about making friends if you were one bad beat away from bankruptcy and homelessness. And how could you fulfill your needs out of order? Self-actualization, the pinnacle of having your moral and creative needs met, can only truly be fulfilled once you've taken care of everything else, right?

The problem is that Maslow's hierarchy is really unscientific. The pyramid makes for a nice image and all, but Maslow didn't have a way to prove any of it, especially the self-actualization part. People can be morally fulfilled while sometimes going hungry, they can be creative without esteem, and they can have friends but not live in a safe environment. There's not a lot of logic to the order, because people often aren't orderly or logical. When research into Maslow's structure came along, it showed that humans can fulfill their needs in any order, and can feel self-actualized even when their basic needs aren't being met.

On top of that, self-actualization as a concept is a sticky wicket. It's right there in the name -- it's personal, and therefore subjective. The most self-actualized people in Maslow's study were possibly just the ones who were most open about their lives. So psychologists have now largely abandoned the hierarchy in favor of the concept of "relatedness, competence, and autonomy" to explain what makes people feel fulfilled. Being connected to others, knowing what the hell you're doing, and feeling like you have some control over your life is the best way to happiness. Well, unless someone tries to replicate the latest data and determines that it's all bunk.

Steven Assarian is a librarian. He thinks you should read Orchid Fever by Susan Orlean. It's great. Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.

For more, check out Psychology Myths You Believe (Thanks To Movies) - The Cracked Podcast:

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