How the Mind Works: Three Surprising Findings from Psychology Research

How the mind works
(Last Updated On: August 3, 2017)

Psychology research often yields surprising insights into how the mind works. Why is it that people do the things they do? This question has fascinated people for thousands of years. Thanks to modern psychology research, scientists have gained a great deal of insight into how people think and the way that they behave. In some cases, the things that researchers have discovered even challenge some of the basic truths that people believe about themselves.

The following are just a few things that researchers have discovered about how the mind works.

What We Miss Reveals a Lot About How the Mind Works

You probably like to think that you are a fairly observant person. If something happened nearby, you would surely spot it, right?

Surprisingly, researchers have found that people are actually quite poor at noticing things that happen in their immediate environment. This phenomenon, known as change blindness, is another great example of how the mind works.

In their famous 1998 experiment, psychologists Simon and Levin approached people on a college campus and struck up conversations. The researchers then created a temporary diversion – in this case, a door was carried between the experimenter and the person they were talking with.

During this brief visual gap, the researchers actually switched places with another experiment, and then continued the conversation once the door was gone just as if nothing had every happened. It may be surprising to learn, but only about half of the subjects in the study even noticed that their conversation partner had changed.

Why are we so oblivious to even fairly huge changes in the world around us? Researchers believe that a few important features of attention play a role, including focused attention and limited resources.

  • First, because we tend to focus our attention on a single thing in the environment, we are more likely to miss changes in things that we weren’t really paying attention to.
  • Secondly, our ability to attend to and process information in the environment is limited. As a result, we tend to focus these limited resources on details that we think are important, thus ignoring some things in the environment around us.
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Do these factors explain why people didn’t notice their conversational partner changing in the Simons and Levin experiment? In that particular case, past experiences and expectations are other factors that also play a major role.

How often does your conversational partner change to a completely different person? It’s not something you would expect to happen, nor is it something that has ever come up in your past experiences. As a result, people are just naturally less likely to notice this type of unusual switch.

The effects of change blindness in our everyday, real-world lives can be quite profound, however. For example, if you fail to notice that an oncoming car has drifted into your lane of traffic, a serious or even fatal car accident might result.

What does this tell us about how the mind works?

  • There’s more happening in the world around us than we can ever know.
  • Because you can’t pay attention to all of it, major changes can take place without you ever noticing.

Our Evaluations Also Offers Clues Into How the Mind Works

First impressions are famous for forming very quickly. Whenever you first meet a new person, you probably very quickly form an impression of who they are and what you think of them.

Imagine, for example, that you have just been introduced to a new co-worker. You quickly decide that he’s good looking, friendly, and even smart. So how do you arrive at this conclusion so fast?

Researchers have found that in many cases, your initial impression of a person (“He’s cute and nice!”) tends to bleed over into how you evaluate him on other qualities. Because he seems nice and attractive, you are also more likely to rate him as being smart, hard-working, and professional.

This tendency involves a cognitive bias known as the halo effect. How does this work? Essentially, your overall impression creates a sort of halo that colors your interpretations of the person’s other characteristics as well. This is also sometimes referred as the physical attractiveness stereotype or the “what is beautiful is good” principle.

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In one well-known study, students were more likely to rate an unattractive teacher as unintelligent and mean, but were also more likely to rate an attractive teacher as intelligence and kind.

As you might imagine, this effect can color our perceptions in many different contexts. In addition to affecting how students rate teachers, the halo effect also influences how teachers view their own students. For example, teachers are more likely to see polite student as hard-working and intelligent, but also view an inattentive student as lazy.

What does this tell us about how the mind works?

  • The judgments we make about other people are not always based upon logic or fact.
  • Our minds sometimes take shortcuts when making evaluations and decisions, and the halo effect is just one example.

Behaviors Can Also Give Clues to How the Mind Works

One of the most surprising findings about how the mind works involves the lengths that people will go to in order to avoid holding conflicting beliefs. Have you ever experience feelings of discomfort when you do something that doesn’t conform to the things you believe?

People tend to feel uncomfortable whenever they hold conflicting beliefs or when these beliefs don’t line up with behavior. This phenomenon is known as cognitive dissonance, and it can have a major impact on how people think and behave.

This tendency can be seen in a classic psychology experiment in which subjects were asked to complete a tedious task. The participants were paid either $1 or $20 to lie and tell other participants that the task was actually fun and exciting.

Afterwards, the participants were asked to then rate how fun they found the experiment. People who were paid more were less likely to rate the experiment as fun, but those who were paid less were more likely to say that they actually found the boring task enjoyable.

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What could explain this difference? The task was simply so dull that those who were paid $1 had to find some way to justify why they took part in the study. If it wasn’t for the money, then they must have been doing it for fun, right?

But what impact does this really have on your day-to-day behavior outside of the psychology lab? Cognitive dissonance does have a powerful influence on many our daily actions and decisions.

For example, people often choose to interpret news stories in ways that support their existing beliefs. A news story about a mass shooting, for example, will result in some individuals calling for stricter gun laws while others advocate for increased visibility of guns in public places. Each side chooses to interpret the incident in a way that supports their beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance may even contribute to today’s highly polarized political climate. Each side of an argument seeks out information that supports their existing beliefs while rejecting anything that challenges their ideas. Rather than experience the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance, people are simply more comfortable looking for things that confirm their currently held beliefs.

So what does this tell us about how the mind works?

  • Cognitive dissonance has a powerful influence on the way we think and behave.
  • It is a great example of how we often don’t understand the subtle inner-workings of our own minds.


Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203.

Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1198-1212.

Simons, D.J. & Levin, D.T. (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(4), 644-649.


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