Hidden Psychology: Finding psychology in the unexpected

I think most of you know by now that I am a proud psychology geek from the references I sneak into almost every post I make. Psychology, to most, is simply the study of human behavior and why we do what we do; but have you ever stopped to think about what affects our decisions, mood, motives, etc beyond the fact that our brains tells us to do or feel something? Sometimes we get so used to everyday life that we don’t stop and think about how we came to our decision to impulse buy the cereal we haven’t eaten since we were five, or why we chose to wear all black instead of a brighter color on a rainy day. Unlike math, psychology applies to literally everything, and I do mean that literally (do you use derivatives to decide what you want for lunch? Didn’t think so). While I could make a much bigger list than what I am about to explain, here are 10 places that you see or use psychology every single day.

1. Psychology is in your sandwich

Psychology has a lot to do with what foods we make and decide to eat on a given day. We base what we eat on texture, flavor, how long it takes to prepare, etc…but why does that even matter? If there was no psychological aspect to eating we would be fine with eating piles of lettuce every meal because it quiets hunger. Our decisions come from a motive…that motive being our mood and the context of our day. We’ve all heard of emotional eating, but it goes beyond that because psychology dictates what foods we eat on days where we aren’t drowning our sorrows in chocolate, too. Eating is not an act to fulfill physical needs, it also feeds us mentally, and sometimes spiritually. Have you ever noticed how comforting a warm bowl of soup is on a gloomy/cold day, but you wouldn’t dare eat some scorching bowl of chicken noodle poolside in the middle of summer? (I mean if you do, all power to you). On the converse, an ice cold lemonade by the pool is a lot more mood boosting than an ice cold lemonade watching the first snowfall. There’s a reason some foods are called comfort foods, because we eat them to feel good or connected to something. This could be along the lines of choosing a category of food that aligns with your mood (taco Tuesday is definitely a mood), toasting with a glass of champagne, or maybe eating your grandma’s famous broccoli casserole when you miss her since she lives halfway across the country. Next time you decide what you want for dinner, notice what’s happening in your life around you and how it affects what choice you make.

2. Psychology keeps you efficient

Engineering Psychology exists to essentially predict how humans will mess up. Why isn’t the reverse gear next to drive? Why is technology made the way it is? Why is “Hot” up and “Cold” down in the shower? Why does your microwave have a “popcorn” setting but not a “hot pocket” setting (still probably would be cold on the inside). It is important to involve psychology in the design of building houses, cars, new technology, and machines in order to make sure that our human tendency to mess up under pressure doesn’t put anyone at risk. But also, because our brains interact with things in a certain way, and humans resort to doing a lot of the same things. For instance, we associate two non-related things with each other such as hot with up, and cold with down which is why showers are the way they are. I can guarantee you that there was a psychologist on call for the design of the iPhone, and that there is a reason the home button was placed on the bottom rather than on the back or side (and a reason the home button is no longer there anymore). Have you ever seen some ridiculous rule or law somewhere and thought “why on earth does this need to be said?” It’s probably because some bonehead did that stupid thing, and that’s what engineering psychologists try to predict in order to prevent. I instantly think of the law in Kentucky stating “no carrying an ice cream cone in your back pocket” …someone set the precedence, and maybe that’s why women’s jeans are now designed with little to no pockets at all!

3. Psychology makes you buy blue things

We all know that the main point of marketing is to get us to buy something, or positively promote. But as I will keep saying in this post, HOW do we suddenly go from only needing to pick up shampoo at Target, to coming out with 7 new cheesy decorative pillows, 5 bags of flavored popcorn, and all the products marked “new”? Consumer Psychologists work to study consumer behavior and patterns, and psychology is the base of marketing because it kick starts the feeling centers of our brains (Amygdala) which tampers with the frontal lobes that are in charge of reasoning and decision making. First, the psychology of color. Studies show that blue is the most attractive color because it makes us feel calm, and productive- now think of all the brands that are blue; Oreos, Culvers, Pillsbury, Pop Tarts, Pepsi, etc. You are more likely to buy a product if it is blue, rather than red, since red according to studies is the least attractive color (maybe that’s why everyone hates Valentine’s Day). Color is used to both make us feel a certain way, but also to catch our attention, and make the executive decision making parts of our brains temporarily turn into the reasoning of a two year old’s.

Second, loss aversion and the scarcity mindset. Psychology says that you are more likely to buy something if you think you’re going to lose it, or never get it again. This is why seasonal products like pumpkin spice make us impulse buy nasty pumpkin spice things that should not be pumpkin spice in the first place. This is also why “on sale” signs work so well even though it’s discounted 2 cents. Humans don’t want to miss out on a good deal, even if we are spending more money just to get the stale pretzels on sale. Next time you go to Target, pay attention to the colors and notice how there’s not much black, white, or brown. Notice what items are placed on end caps and what they are (seasonal, new, or clearance, typically), and actually look at the on sale sign and evaluate if those giant tub of cheese balls that are 50 cents off will make you feel more fulfilled in life.

4. Psychology prevents road rage

Don’t laugh, but there are psychologists out there with a career solely dedicated to traffic. Before you think traffic psychology is a weird career, it is a rising career track, and how great would it be to just people watch to see what people do in their cars when they think no one is looking? Traffic psychologists evaluate driver behavior and whether it’s planned, impulsive, or habitual. Based on this, they help to determine where road signs should be placed based on where the optimal attention point will be, what the signs should say, predict road rage based on how frustrating certain intersections will be, and evaluate traffic patterns. A huge reason that traffic happens in the first place is because human curiosity is too powerful, and we need to be nosy and look at that person who got pulled over by a cop to see what they look like, of course. Traffic psychologists study why this is and how to resolve it.

Traffic psychologists help to ease any commotion, and try to eliminate negative behaviors by setting up construction sites a certain way or putting directional detour signs in the perfect spot to eliminate confusion. What goes on road signs is just as important because that is how you get people to obey them. This is where color, word placement, word size etc, is important. You’re more likely to actually read a road sign if it has a snarky/sarcastic saying than if it is your everyday “slow down” sign. Many places are seeing these new electric signs that are doing just that, and that is the kind of thing that people remember. I don’t know about you, but the one sign that read “slow down, moron” worked a lot better on me than a regular slow down sign.

5. Psychology belongs in business

This one may not be a huge surprise, but even though it’s already known that psychology exists here, people don’t actually use it to their advantage. Psychology can do some powerful things in Change Management, Employee Retention, User Experience, Business Analyzation, Recruiting, and Human Resources. This is what I have dedicated my career to, and have been trying to sneak into my daily work whether that be wording an email in a certain way to help someone be more comfortable with change, sneaking in jokes at the bottom of my meeting recap emails so people actually read them, recognizing what category someone falls in for the DISC assessment and using the communication style they respond most positively to, or working on new initiatives to make employees feel like they can be their authentic selves in the workplace.

Psychology goes all the way to the beginning: recruiting. Building a killer company starts with finding the best talent, and you get people at their best when they aren’t nervous, and can be themselves. Every time I have had to interview someone, or have been interviewed, I don’t hesitate to crack a joke or have an actual conversation with the person because that is really how it should be. Believe it or not, recruiters actually like to hear how you’re doing when they ask you instead of “good” all the time! While this is a known fact that it’s better to tailor interviews to make people feel more at ease, companies still keep interviews pretty routine and static. Fear may be a great tactic to scare people into getting things done or to see how they do under pressure, but that is the worst idea ever if you’re trying to get people to stay long term and actually want to work. I could make this a huge paragraph and explain why a good company needs an executive leadership team that uses psychology to make their employees feel safe, seen, and valued…but it seems self explanatory, right? You’d be surprised how many companies are lacking this. Psychology is still seen as a luxury rather than a necessity in the business world, and in my totally biased but actually factual opinion, putting psychology into how a company manages change, making employees feel like they matter, and having good leadership is where companies should be focusing more of their time instead of more razzle dazzle benefits or a couple more hundred dollars in a bonus.

6. Psychology predicts if not eating marshmallows leads to better money managing

Psychology is important when it comes to how you manage your money. Those who invest and see the benefit of saving their money rather than buying that new car or stupidly expensive purse probably also would have passed the famous instant gratification test done in 1972 by Stanford. This measured how well children could delay the immediate gratification of eating 1 marshmallow to receive greater rewards in the future aka 2-3 marshmallows. The longer they waited, the more marshmallows they got. This ability at a young age predicts success later in life by having the ability to be patient rather than need to feel satisfied right away.

The way you spend your money can also tell others a lot about you. Those who buy extravagant things for others or for themselves may be trying to boost low self-esteem, and money is their way of gaining status or trying to get others to like them. Money can actually buy happiness for some if they believe negatively about most aspects in their life, and their wealth is part of their identity. Additionally, extroverts are more likely to take risks with their money than introverts when it comes to investing, but also as we know, money can make people do some crazy things like doing weird jobs for a couple bucks or staying with a job you despise just for the salary. While money is just a piece of paper, it is the psychology around it that makes it come alive.

7. Psychology connects ice cream sales and homicides

Meteorologists can provide forecasts for so much more than weather if they’d tap into the psychology of weather. There is a lot of research out there saying that ice cream sales and homicides are positively correlated on hot day. The glue that binds this innocent topic to this not so innocent act is the weather. Studies show people are more likely to lose their temper when it is a hot day. In this case, ice cream shops should see a 90 degree day, and know to not give a beefy sweaty customer butter pecan when they asked for unicorn swirl because that may end more badly than if it were a chill sunny and 75. Think about it, when you’re sweating when you’re not actually trying to sweat, or trying to do something but starting to get hot, don’t you feel flustered? This goes for other moods too. Vitamin D is no happy pill, and the sun is not the reason we are happy on sunny days. It is the sunny day itself that is making us happy, calm, and content with the world. When people feel like this, there will be less homicides and more acts of kindness.

On the converse, gloomy/rainy days also have an effect on us. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real thing (in psychology, affect means mood). Studies show that our moods lower on doom and gloom days, so when we go from sunny summer to dull fall with less hours of light, it is no wonder that there are more cases of depression and low motivation. But, some people may thrive on depressing looking days, and I am one of those people. While studies show that gray days lowers moods, it also shows that it increases deep thinking and improves memory. I love a good, gross looking day, it is prime blogging weather. The darkness of the sky comforts me and makes me feel secure and safe inside in order to get everything I needed done without feeling guilty for being inside on a sunny day. Weather and fear of missing out can be tied together for some people. Other weather psychology phenomenons are the tie between those who live in natural disaster prone areas and mental health problems, low pressure days and suicide, and how strong the wind blows leading to road rage. Why only predict the weather when you can predict when your best chance is to remember all your test answers, too?

8. Psychology can help you flip on a wood plank

Sports psychology has been a love of mine since middle school because I have seen the fascinating effects that it produces. If I were not in business, I would be on my way to being Dr. Lauren Casey, sports psychologist. Psychology is hard to believe because you cannot see it, but really, sports are a great way to show that psychology actually does work. Sports psych helps athletes get out of their heads, hone into positive energy, visualize performance, and helps to solve any issues going on outside of the sport that may be transferring to the court. You become what you believe; so if you think that you have the worst fast ball, are going to miss your free throws, your crush came to watch you play and you’re going to mess up, or have the worlds worst goalie skills, your brain will start to make your body follow that.

Back in 6th grade, I had a mental block trying to learn to do my backhandspring on the high beam. No matter how many times I told myself to go, my body would not move (my brain doing its job and keeping me safe by refusing to do a flip on a wood plank? How terrible!) I would get a cold shock through my brain if I was about to chuck the skill which made me even more freaked out. It was like there was a brick wall behind me not allowing myself to flip, but really my mind was in the way creating a wall of fear with all the bad outcomes that I pictured in my head. My coach brought in a sports psychologist for the team that week and we did an exercise where we visualized ourselves doing the one thing we were scared of perfectly over and over. After that, I walked over to beam and threw that backhandspring with no hesitation. Athletes tend to only picture the bad outcome, but when we focus on the good, and believe we can reach new heights, that’s when we get GOAT athletes!

9. Psychology is a sleeping pill

Sleeping is a time for our bodies to finally chill out and recover after a long day, but nowadays, I am starting to hear of more sleeping problems as if sleeping is a chore. There really is a pill for everything, but sleep is something that can be fixed without a pill. The psychology of sleep is truly fascinating because our subconscious mind is just as active as our conscious mind when we give it the chance. Sleeping conditions can be a reason that you aren’t sleeping well; maybe the door open freaks you out more than you think, you’re almost asleep and then you remember your leg is hanging off the bed for the monster under the bed to get (I can’t be the only one, still), or maybe your room is too hot causing you to have some wacky dreams. Sleep psychology gets down to the bottom of why you wake up during a certain sleep cycle, helps to calm the anxieties in your head that yell at you at night, and can even help with sleep breathing disorders by working to get the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. Next time you have a hard time falling asleep, keep in mind that the reason behind it is often psychological and you just need to listen to your mind or your body to figure out what is wrong.

10. Psychology allows you to change others’ behavior

Growing up, we were taught to never play with people’s emotions….but there was never anything said about playing with people’s behavior! The psychology of gamification can be applicable and helpful to pretty much every area of life- but especially the work world, or parenting. It can be hard to get people to do what you want if you simply ask them sometimes, but once that same thing is turned into a contest or a game, it magically gets done very quickly. Kids will respond much better to doing chores if there is a point system or a prize at the end. Employees will pass phishing tests more frequently if there’s a contest for who can pass the most tests. Why do you think snapchat is doing so well? Because of the streak concept, and the need to keep up with the task in order to not lose the “game.” Additionally, it can even work on yourself! New Years Resolutions are the most open ended initiative ever, but if your goals were turned into a game or contest, you’d be a lot more motivated to complete them. Many people struggle to work out more, eat better, etc…but that’s because motivation and willpower isn’t enough. The key to success is making everything a competition because humans are naturally wired to want to win! We all have experienced the race to finish a task before the microwave buzzer goes off, don’t deny it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of you already knew of these, but you probably forgot just how much psychology affects you in day to day life. I challenge you to pay attention to the decisions you make at the grocery store, the thoughts you have while driving, the actions you take when it is rainy out, and how you respond to things and others at work this week. You will be fascinated at how it all ties together!

Happy September, friends!