‘Looking beyond obvious reasons for our behaviour’
Gabriela Jiga Boy is a Lecturer in Social Psychology at Swansea University. Her research looks at what motivates our decision making about health, the environment, and the workplace.
We are all psychologists. But then, we are not.
I became a psychologist because I was puzzled by how hard it is to understand people. Our reasoning is made of complicated mental processes that help us understand ourselves and the others. But more often than not we are not aware of, or are wrong about, why we act the way we do. Because of this, we are tempted to believe that psychology equals common sense.
But psychology is a science, and it obeys scientific rules in explaining human behaviour just like any other science. To know a little bit more psychology than the average individual means to know that what seems obvious is often not the real reason behind someone’s behaviour.
My research tries to answer questions like ‘Why do we often not act as we know we should?’ and ‘What can help us to be more rational’ – or wiser, if you like. There are many situations in which knowing these answers is paramount: From how to stay healthy and motivated, to how we relate to others, and whether we get involved in societal issues. In my teaching I show my students that healthy behaviour, for instance, is not just something strong-willed people do. Instead, it is a mixture of many influences, some of which don’t easily come to mind: Access to resources, social support, how the environment is structured around us, or something as trivial as how much time we have to cook more healthily.
A common “judgment bias” (or error) is to think that we need less time than we actually do, to realize something. My research shows that if we think about the effort we need to put into making a deadline, we will plan for it better. In other research about what helps us lead healthier lives we found that people often take their health – and many other values – for granted: We know that health is important to us, but we don’t quite know why. If we do think of reasons why health is important, though, we tend to be more mindful about the lifestyles we have.
Right now, my research projects stretch to domains such as work psychology (what makes entrepreneurs resilient in the face of adversity?), motivation (how can we learn to be more self-controlled?), and the environment (why is our pro-environmental behaviour limited to easy things, like recycling?). These are pressing problems for the society we live in now, and social psychology can bring a handful of insights into how we can improve in these domains.
The American writer David Foster Wallace once wrote that education does not teach you how to think, but “how to choose what to think about”. By default, we often think about others or ourselves in an easy, comfortable, effortless way. For example, we may think that eating healthily is necessarily something only rich people do, that the neighbour who has a better car is happier than me, or that immigrants will necessarily bring havoc in our society. I think the best advantage psychology can give us is to help us overcome this way of thinking and to know how to go beyond what seems obvious in our and others’ behaviour.
Gabriela may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the Western Mail on 13th January 2014, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.