Can psychological research change your life? Most of the time, no—findings by psychologists don’t usually bear on everyday concerns. My colleagues at Yale, for instance, study topics such as the neuroscience of memory, how babies reason about social groups, and decision-making in psychopaths. Such studies are intended to explore how the mind works, and while their findings might ultimately make the world a better place—at least this is what we say in our grant proposals—that’s not their immediate focus.
But there are exceptions, and a lot of these come from social psychology. Classic research in this area generates striking—and useful—insights having to do with persuasion, racial bias, personality, romantic attraction, and much more. The studies from social psychology that have most changed my own life concern consciousness and the self.
In an experiment published in 2000, the psychologist Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues asked undergraduates to wear a piece of clothing that they found embarrassing—a t-shirt with a picture of singer-songwriter Barry Manilow on it. After putting on the shirt, the undergraduates had to spend some time in a room with other students and were later asked to guess how many of the other students noticed what they were wearing. The undergraduates tended to overestimate the proportion by a large margin, and did the same when asked to wear a t-shirt with a positive image on it, like Bob Marley or Martin Luther King Jr. In study after study, experimental subjects thought that other people would notice them much more than they actually did.