Skip to main content

Top 5 Most Counterintuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatric psychology and behavioral health.


Surprising Psychology Findings

They say hindsight is 20-20, meaning that after we’ve learned about something we think it was obvious all along. Many believe that psychology is just common sense, that the basics of the field are logical and therefore we all know about them. Yet many psychological studies have reported findings that are absolutely counterintuitive and that seem illogical. Listed below are several particularly surprising findings from the field of psychology.

1. Gender Identity Is More Nature Than Nurture

It has long been believed by the medical and scientific community that the gender identity of a child was determined by “nurture” or the child’s upbringing, environment, and how the child was treated. This idea was more firmly established in the 1960s when Dr. John Money published his John/Joan case, which discussed two twin boys one of whom was raised as a girl after a botched circumcision.

The child’s parents were instructed to raise the child as a girl and that with this and hormone therapy their child would become a well-adjusted female. Although initially published as a great success, this was later debunked when an adult man named David Reimer identified himself as the twin raised as a female. Along with problems resulting from observer bias and skewed results, as it turned out Reimer was an unhappy, and often suicidal girl growing up who immediately reassumed a male identity as soon as he learned the truth at age 14. He eventually committed suicide in his late 30s.

Reimer’s story was told in the book As Nature Made Him, The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl, by John Colapinto, and there were two BBC Horizon documentaries made about his life.

Subsequent to this case, research conducted at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center has shown that gender identity is almost exclusively based on nature and is almost entirely predetermined before the birth of the baby (e.g., Reiner, & Reiner, 2012). Thoughts on the nature of identity: How disorders of sex development inform clinical research about gender identity disorders. Journal of Homosexuality, 59(3), 434-449. Two studies have indicated that the amount of exposure to male hormones and androgen before birth almost exclusively determines whether the child identifies as male or female.

2. Emotional Intelligence Positively Predicts Life Satisfaction But Cognitive Intelligence Negatively Predicts Life Satisfaction

The rapid growth of technology and unpredictable market instability caused by recession conditions have greatly impacted people’s success and satisfaction with their careers. However, career success has been typically defined solely by objective factors such as pay and promotion though these outcomes may not best reflect career or life satisfaction. This is a reflection of the fact that work advancement is often believed to be associated with general intelligence defined as cognitive ability.

However, in recent years there has been a growing interest in emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is believed to encompass three areas:

  • Emotional awareness: The ability to identify one’s own emotions
  • Emotion management: The ability to regulate one’s own emotions when needed and to positively affect other’s emotions
  • Emotion application: The ability to apply emotions to functions such as thinking and problem solving

The changes in careers due to rapidly developing technology have led to areas becoming increasingly dependent on one another due to the need for support from other areas. Support is used to help people navigate the growing complexity in their work-life across time. Research has shown that the more career and psychosocial support people receive the more satisfied they are with their careers. (e.g., Higging et al., 2010). The ability to obtain this type of support; however, is dependent on having the interpersonal skills to develop relationships in a way that others will want to offer such support. In other words, success in the career world today depends on how capable people are of learning through relationships. People need to have the emotional and social skills necessary for developing strong relationships with others which is dependent far more on emotional intelligence than cognitive intelligence.

Someone who is emotionally intelligent is very conscious of their own emotional states and can manage them and they are also especially aware of others’ emotional experiences. Being sensitive to one’s own and others’ emotional signals clearly can help one become a better co-worker and leader as well as in other areas of their life.

3. Positive Self-Statements May Not Benefit Those With Low Self Esteem

There is a common belief that positive affirmations and self-statements can help people with all kinds of difficulties including low self-esteem and self-concept, poor mood, pessimism, and hopelessness. However, research indicates that positive self-statements may not necessarily benefit people with low self-esteem.

Studies have shown that subjects with high self-esteem who repeated the positive affirmation “I’m a lovable person,” or who focused on how it was true as it related to them, reported better mood than those who did not have high self-esteem—but only to a small degree. Subjects who had low self-esteem who repeated the affirmation or reflected on how it was true reported worse mood compared with those who didn’t repeat the statement or focused on how this statement was true and false (Wood, Perunovic & Lee, 2009).

Research on attribution theory has long demonstrated that internal stable global statements lead to more positive outcomes than external, unstable, specific statements. However, studies have also suggested that this may differ for those with high vs. low self esteem. Those with high self esteem are most likely to benefit from stable, global self statements (e.g. I’m a lovable person) while those with low self-esteem are most likely to benefit from unstable, specific self statements (e.g. In this situation, I can use my listening skills to succeed) (Hames & Joiner, 2012).

This research suggests that positive self- statements may only benefit certain people. Those who have poor self- esteem may find the use of positive self statements ineffective or even harmful. However, it’s possible that the type of positive self-statements might be important such that those with low self-esteem may find unstable, specific affirmations effective but not stable, global ones.

4. Suppressing Your Anger May Actually Be Good for You

Many believe it is common knowledge that it is better to let your anger out than hold it in, that keeping your emotions bottled up will cause an explosion down the road. Yet the expression of anger has been shown to be related to biological health risk in Western cultures (Kitayama, Park, Boylan, Miyamoto, Levine, Markus, & Ryff, 2015). Research indicates that there is a strong relationship between anger expression/hostility and health problems in particular, cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.

Other research shows that expressing anger increases it. As anger increases arousal, this can be a stressor on the body, making it hard to cope with the anger and more likely to lead to aggression and worse anger (Novaco, 2016). Another study found that subjects who hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who made them angry didn’t dispel any of their rage. Instead, it actually made them angrier (Bushman, 2002).

The issue related to the effects of expressing or suppressing anger is complex. While sometimes expressing anger constructively may be positive, the belief that it is always a bad thing to bottle up your anger seems to be flawed.

5. Nonconformity Beats Trying to Fit In

We all likely know what it’s like to try to fit in with a group. It seems, at least anecdotally, that trying to fit in by going along with popular positions lead to a sense of comfort and belonging. While nonconformists who disagree with a group may be viewed as courageous and as being true to who they are, for many of us the consequences of nonconformity may seem too distressing to justify going against group opinion.

Yet research indicates that, depending on the goal, nonconformity can lead to more positive physiological outcomes than conformity with unanimous group opinion (Seery, Gabriel, Lupien, & Shimizu, 2016). It’s not always in people’s best interests to fail to conform to group beliefs and expectations. There are obviously conditions which require conformity for the individual to succeed at a desired outcome. So the goal of conformity may at times be the better choice but the inability to express our individuality can result in negative psychological effects and self-evaluation.

Studies have shown that when the goal was to fit in, that disagreeing with a unanimous resulted in a greater cardiovascular threat response (high total peripheral resistance, low cardiac output). This effect was reversed when subjects had the goal of expressing their individuality. Trying to reach a goal by sticking for oneself was shown to be associated with a more positive, invigorating experience. This was described as "challenge" instead of “threat,” which was associated with feeling more self-confident.


Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.

Hames, J. L., & Joiner, T. E. (2012). Resiliency factors may differ as a function of self-esteem level: Testing the efficacy of two types of positive self-statements following a laboratory stressor. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(6), 641-662.

Higgins, M., Dobrow, S. R., and Roloff, K. S. (2010). Optimism and the boundary-less career: The role of developmental relationships. J. Organ. Behav. 31, 749–769.

Kitayama, S., Park, J., Boylan, J. M., Miyamoto, Y., Levine, C. S., Markus, H. R., ... & Ryff, C. D. (2015). Expression of anger and ill health in two cultures: An examination of inflammation and cardiovascular risk. Psychological science, 26(2), 211-220.

Novaco, R. W. (2016). Anger. In Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior (pp. 285-292).

Reiner, W. G., & Reiner, D. T. (2012). Thoughts on the nature of identity: How disorders of sex development inform clinical research about gender identity disorders. Journal of Homosexuality, 59(3), 434-449.

Seery, M. D., Gabriel, S., Lupien, S. P., & Shimizu, M. (2016). Alone against the group: A unanimously disagreeing group leads to conformity, but cardiovascular threat depends on one's goals. Psychophysiology, 53(8), 1263-1271.

Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866.

© 2018 Natalie Frank


Tessa Schlesinger on December 31, 2018:

Interesting. I've known for at least 40 years that our character/abilities is nature (DNA) from twin studies, and our success depends on environment - whether we had access toresources.

Daniel Goleman, the guy who wrote the book on emotional intelligence, is a journalist - not a psychologist.

America, where people are forced to be 'optimistic' has the greatest degree of depresson in the world. Perhaps Alain de Botton can explain that.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Brightsided which deals with this 'mania' called positive thinking. It is highly destructive in the medium to long term.

If one has genuine inner confidence, oen doesn't need to make statements (affirmations) that one is wonderful/whatever, and if one doens't have confidence, no affirmative statement will give one that confidence.Confidence comes through self-acceptance and developing skills.

Non-conformists tend to be natural leaders. Amongst mammals, 19 out of 20 are followers, and one out of 20 has the brain chemistry of a leader. Twin studies suggest that both intelligence and leadership are 100% genetic.

Of course, different studies come in all the time.