It’s no exaggeration to say that we are complex beings, therefore, understanding human behavior is, in itself, complicated.

Human beings are products of all kinds of influences. Genes, environment, culture, and, of course, our upbringing. We actively process and interact with an ever-changing world around us. As we endeavor to navigate through this world, we adapt and learn certain behaviors in order to survive. So how can we explain why we do the things we do? Thankfully, science has the key to understanding human behavior.

4 Scientific Examples That Can Help Us with Understanding Human Behavior

1. Why we credit success to ourselves but blame others when we have failed

So that we can make sense of the world, events have to have some cause or meaning behind them. This helps us to understand what’s going on. As such, we tend to attribute this cause when it comes to our behavior.

This is Attribution Theory.

There are two types of attribution:

  1. Internal Attribution – where we assign causes to internal factors (ourselves)
  2. External Attribution – in which we assign causes to external factors (others)

When we have succeeded, we are more likely to use internal attribution, believing that we are responsible for the win. On the other hand, if we fail or make a mistake, we’ll prefer to use external attribution. In other words, it wasn’t our fault, factors outside our control were to blame.

So why do we do this? One of the reasons is because we all want to be seen in a good light. We don’t want to acknowledge that failure is down to our own mistakes. Another theory is that by using attributions, we are protecting ourselves. If we can blame others, we avoid punishment or recriminations.

However, research shows that we don’t do ourselves any favors by these self-serving attributions. One particular study discovered that athletes with more experience tended to make less self-serving attributions. This allowed them to focus more on the real causes that were holding them back. By doing this, they improved their performance.

This is one theory where understanding human behavior can help us improve.

2. Why we automatically believe what we see, hear and read

We all have free will right? In addition, we are undoubtedly the most intelligent creatures on the planet. It is likely then that before we make a judgment on a situation, we have weighed up all the pros and cons. We question everything before us.

Actually no. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead, we automatically believe whatever is put in front of us. And you know that old saying – ‘seeing is believing’? Well, it also applies to what we hear and read.

This is Automatic Thinking.

But why do we automatically believe what we see? A very recent study (2018), which deals with why people fall for fake news, believes it’s because we are lazy. The study explored reasons for believing in ‘blatantly inaccurate headlines’ and found that susceptibility to fake news is driven by laziness. This might seem a little harsh but there is some truth behind it.

Earlier research suggests that tiredness is the issue. In one experiment, participants were asked to recommend prison sentences after reading crime reports on two offenders. Participants were told that within the crime reports any false statements were marked in red.

Then half the participants were distracted whilst the others completed the test in normal conditions. When the participants were distracted, they didn’t have time to process the false statements and gave longer sentences to the robber.

But I think it’s more than that. We have to make snap decisions in life. And because of that our instincts kick in and we rely on past experiences. As we have to react quickly it makes sense to believe what we see and hear.

Our ancestors didn’t have time to sit around, debating whether it was an enormous mammoth trampling towards them. But obviously, times have changed. This theory can help with understanding human behavior in particular circumstances. For instance, our judgment can be impaired when we are tired and distracted.

3. Why we only like to compare ourselves with similar types of people

Many of us compare ourselves with friends, colleagues, family members, even partners. But what do all these individuals have in common? They are all likely to be very similar to ourselves.

This is Social Comparison Theory.

We learn about ourselves and our abilities by comparing ourselves to other people. This is because we have an innate desire to re-evaluate our lives. The thing is, we can’t do it without comparison. But why do we only compare people that are similar to us?

Well, mostly we do, but there are two kinds of social comparison:

  1. Upward social comparison –where we compare ourselves with those who we think are better than us.
  2. Downward social comparison –where we compare ourselves to those who are worse off than us.

We use ‘upward’ social comparison to help drive us to achieve higher goals in life. We use ‘downward’ social comparison to help us feel better about our current situation.

But why is it important for us to compare ourselves to similar people? One study might show some light into understanding the human behavior of this kind.

In this experiment, researchers wanted to know how the American public would react upon finding a wallet in midtown Manhattan.

There were two variations of the wallet but each contained a letter, $2 and a return address. The first wallet included a letter from an intelligent and articulate English person (the type of person who lived in that area of Manhattan).

The second wallet included a letter from a foreigner. To mix it up even further, some of the letters had a positive tone, others were neutral whereas some were negative.

The results were pretty conclusive:

  • The wallet from the English person with a positive or neutral letter was returned about 65% of the time.
  • However, the wallet with a negative letter from the foreigner was only returned 10% of the time.

The study concluded that when we feel an affinity to another person, we are more likely to help them. This is because we compare ourselves to them and put ourselves in their position.

4. Why we don’t express our opinions if we are in the minority

Many of us have watched those reality shows where contestants are fond of telling the cameras that ‘I’ll tell you to your face’ or ‘I say it like it is’. But if you were the only person that disagreed with all your friends, would you still state your opinion? I bet most of you said that you would.

However, research doesn’t back this up. In fact, it suggests the opposite. If someone thinks they’re in the minority, they are less likely to voice their opinion. However, if they believe the majority agrees with them, they’ll be much more willing to speak out.

This is the Spiral of Silence Theory.

So why don’t we speak out if we are the lone voice? Because we all want to fit in at the end of the day. No one wants to be singled out and rejected. This works because we fear social rejection.

There are many studies that support this theory. One study had smokers giving up their rights if they believed they were the only person in a room full of non-smokers. Another example showed that people will agree with an obviously wrong answer if everyone else gives that answer.

There are serious undertones to this theory, however. One historical example goes back to the French Revolution. During this time, religion came under attack, and the French church, believing it was in the minority, was silent. The French people, despite being religious and backing the church, joined the opposition.

 “More frightened of isolation than of committing an error, they joined the masses even though they did not agree with them.” – Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann (German political scientist)

In any event, these are just four theories that help when it comes to understanding human behavior. Human beings are naturally curious. We want to know why we behave in the ways we do. For this reason, we’ll continue to study ourselves until we find the answers we’re looking for.



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