A Psychologist Gives 3 Examples Of When Our Intuition Leads Us Wrong

Psychological paradoxes provide an important window into the inner workings of the human mind.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 17, 2022

Humans are paradoxical creatures. We often find that the thing we thought would save us is our path to destruction – and vice versa.

This isn't just true for the average person, but researchers and leading experts in psychology frequently observe phenomena that turn their hypotheses upside down.

Here are three such examples that challenge our intuition and leave us with a newfound appreciation for the subtleties of human behavior.

#1. Focusing on happiness destroys it

The pursuit of happiness is a journey but is happiness really a destination? New research published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences doesn't think so.

Psychologist Felicia Zerwas of the University of California, Berkeley says that "people who value happiness to an extreme degree are less likely to attain happiness in both the short term and the long term."

Her study showed that valuing happiness to an extreme degree relates to lower positive emotion in specific moments and lower levels of psychological well-being and life satisfaction overall.

To illustrate, Zerwas cites a study where researchers showed one group of participants a fake newspaper article focused on happiness to induce valuing happiness while another group read about a topic unrelated to happiness.

The study found that people who were induced to value happiness were less happy compared to people in the other group.

"An over-attentiveness to our own feelings of happiness and contentment causes us to focus on life's 'what-ifs' and 'why-nots' to a counterproductive degree," explains Zerwas.

Zerwas also mentions two common fallacies that people run into while pursuing happiness that can set them up for disappointment:

  1. People don't always know what will bring them happiness which leads them to engage in strategies that are not actually useful. For example, most people believe that spending money on oneself (versus someone else) should promote happiness but empirical research suggests the opposite: people who spend money on themselves are not as happy as those who spend it on other people.
  2. Societal pressures can sometimes encourage the fallacy that people must feel happy all of the time. Research suggests this is not the case. Accepting one's emotions (whether those emotions are positive or negative) can increase well-being over time.

For anyone who finds themselves stuck in this paradoxical happiness treadmill, Zerwas describes two interventions that could help:

  1. The first is an intervention focused on teaching individuals effective strategies for successfully pursuing happiness. Mental health practitioners can help people identify which happiness exercises might be most effective for someone's specific situation.
  2. The second is an intervention focused on mindfulness practices to decrease the pressure of setting emotional goals and decrease the likelihood of feeling badly about one's emotions while pursuing happiness.

#2. Nightmares exist to make our waking lives better

We all have bizarre and disturbing dreams. And, the first thing we want to do after having them is to forget about them completely. A study published in the academic journal Dreaming led by Olivia Tousignant highlights that disturbing nightmares actually play an important emotional role in our waking lives.

According to her, some nightmares and bad dreams help us:

  • Focus our attention toward the mental negativity of how we orient to and frame the day. The combination may indicate distress. This may cause us to resolve or share (e.g., with a psychotherapist) what is contributing to increased stress so that it can be processed and released.
  • Decrease our negative emotions upon waking through relativity. In the morning, the individual feels better compared to the stress of the prior day that might have elicited the nightmare.

If you have been experiencing disturbing nightmares lately, Tousignant has the following advice for you:

  1. Work with a psychotherapist who can support your pacing and sharing about your dreams to notice patterns over time and process related life stressors.
  2. Journal your dream and/or illustrate the dream in detail. Whether verbally or visually, you could then change the dream's ending. After that, each evening before bedtime, you could narrate the new dream aloud, not the old dream, for about 10-20 minutes. This process of recording, changing, and rehearsing is the premise of evidence-based nightmare recovery therapies.
  3. Having comfort objects to engage with (e.g., a calming voice to listen to, a teddy bear to hug, a soothing scent to smell) when you wake up from the nightmare can guide you to a greater sense of emotional security and safety.

"Stay curious about your mind, with compassion for its attempts to support your survival," says Tousignant. "Remember that dreams are uniquely yours. They are not reality but instead are the art on your mind's inborn canvas. Ultimately, it is the dreamer's authority to decide what their dreams mean."

#3. Mass trauma saves communities

We might assume that experiencing mass trauma like a terror attack or a natural disaster might push an already depressed or anxious person over the edge. But the results of a recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, led by psychologist Anthony Mancini of Pace University, offers a different take.

Mancini and his colleagues conducted a study on new students adapting to college when, coincidentally, Hurricane Sandy hit their university campus.

This placed Mancini in the unique position to do a before-and-after mental health study on students who faced the hurricane, and even gave him the chance to compare hurricane-exposed students to students who had no hurricane exposure.

"Both comparisons showed that the hurricane cohort was doing better," he says. "When we compared their functioning before and after, the hurricane cohort experienced reduced distress, negative emotion, and attachment avoidance."

This phenomenon, termed 'psychosocial gains from adversity' by Mancini, resulted in more social support, less attachment anxiety, and less attachment avoidance. The results made clear the hurricane cohort was actually better off as a result of the hurricane.

According to him, stress can have surprising psychological benefits, especially in the sense that it encourages us to bond with others in our community.

"Obey the instinct to affiliate with others after stressful experiences," instructs Mancini. "You may find that you have forged a new relationship or strengthened an existing one, both of which will be to your benefit in the future."