Miserable people understand people better

People are surprising. It’s a good job: if we and others always behaved in the way we’d expect, there wouldn’t be any psychologists. Studies on social loafing, obedience and biases are interesting because the results are counterintuitive to most of us.


Do people prefer to interact with others who are similar to them or different to them? Do people expend more effort when in a group or working alone? Does being rich or having lots of friends make people happier?


Anton Gollwitzer and John Bargh, at Yale, gave over a thousand people a quiz with just such questions.


They found that, on average, people aren’t great at understanding how other people work. They got thirteen questions out of twenty right, which isn’t a huge amount better than picking answers at random.


But they also found considerable variation in people’s scores, and this difference persists. Set somebody a quiz on one day, and then re-test them a fortnight later, and they obtain a similar score. Some people are better at this stuff than others. But what sort of people?


If you’d asked me the question cold, I’d have predicted happy, extroverted types. We have to deal with others all day long, and I’d have thought that being able to understand others’ behaviour would help us to do this better. If you’re good at people, surely you’re good with people.


But I would have been wrong. As well as quizzing their volunteers, the researchers tested their personality and asked about their background.


Having attended a basic social psychology course bumped up people’s scores, which is fortunate. Reading popular psychology books didn’t, which perhaps isn’t a surprise given that they focus on a narrow area (or how poor some of them are).


But the most interesting result was the personality types who did better at the quizzes. It wasn’t the happy, extroverted ones who did better, it was the melancholy and introverted.


We don’t know why this should be so. Maybe introverted people spend more time reading psychology papers. If I was a happy-go-lucky type who wanted to be around people all day, I wouldn’t be sitting in my study writing this. That’s the positive spin.


An alternative reason might be that understanding how people tick makes you unhappy. Social life rests on pleasant fictions. If you cut through these and get to how people really work, what you find doesn’t necessarily make you happy.


Chris Paley holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and is the author of Unthink. FHM said Unthink will make you ‘happier than a rabbit on a carrot farm’, but what do they know?