Psychology: checking on things that seem obvious since 1879

Survey, Interview, Questionnaire, Market, Research

I have a background in social psychology and experimental psychology and the kind of research in my field that I love the most is the kind that disproves stuff that people thought of as obvious, or “common sense”. For example, you might think that unless they are being physically tortured, people would never confess to a crime they didn’t commit. In fact, false confessions are really rather common. Another example is that praising children is not good for their self-esteem.

By doing this, psychologists make a really important contribution to the world. Many things that we see as obvious now, actually weren’t seen as such for a long time, until a psychologist came along.

A classic example for this is Stanley Milgram. In his day, the common explanation for why the second world war atrocities happened was “German people are just evil. There is something specific about German people that made them do these awful things. These atrocities would never have happened in our country.” Milgram set out to prove that the basic make up of Germans was no different than that of other people, and that there was something else at work here. Most of you will know the Milgram experiments so I won’t detail them here, but here’s a link.

Another example: IQ tests, invented by psychologists, were pivotal in showing that women were no less intelligent than men, poor people were no less intelligent than rich people, and perhaps it was a good idea to let intelligent people be officers in the army rather than just any boy whose father happened to own a lot of land. (IQ tests get a bad rap nowadays and there is always room for improvement, but we are at the point of being able to give them a bad rap because we have forgotten what it was like to not have them at all.)

Of course, often psychologists check on things that seem like common sense, and it turns out that common sense was right all along. And sometimes experiments that had surprising findings turned out later to be just plain wrong; an issue that psychology is plagued with.

But as a psychology student I was instilled with the idea that checking if things that seem obvious are actually true is a good idea, because you never know, they might not be!

On this page I’m going to try to collect all the examples of common sense = not true that I can find, as an archive for myself. But if you wandered onto this page, welcome! I hope you learn something new 🙂


Wikipedia has a great list of cognitive biases

Here’s a database of all fact-checking websites and organisations in the world

I know, the list is still pretty short 😉

* If you were wondering about the year in the title, you can read about 1879 as the birth of modern experimental psychology here.

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