Psychology and the Everyday

I’d like to start off a bit unusually today. Specifically, I’d like to make a request of you, dear reader. Nothing terribly difficult, but I realize it’s strange to have an article ask you to do something. If you’re on board so far, I’d like to ask you to choose a number between 1 and 10. Multiply that number by two. Add 8 to this number. Divide this resultant number by 2, and then subtract your initial number from its quotient. You should now have a number between 1 and 26. Assume that each of these possible numbers corresponds to a letter of the alphabet such that 1 = A, 2=B, C=D, etc. Determine the letter to which your number is matched and think of any country in the world that begins with that letter. Take the letter that comes next in the alphabet (For example, if you started with B, use C now) and think of an animal species whose name begins with that letter. Now, think about what color that animal is. If you are like most people, this sequence of instructions should have resulted in a Gray Elephant from Denmark as your color, animal, and country. This is, of course, far from foolproof, but it demonstrates in a relatively accessible manner one of the things that first enamored me to psychology as a science. Specifically, psychology overturns and explores stones we might not have even realized were there in the first place. A child may realize that there are interesting bugs under rocks, but it takes an exceptional (or exceptionally frustrating) child to realize there are interesting bugs under the loose bricks in the walkway leading to the house. In this way, psychology is like that second child – taking the mundane, the everyday, that which we take for granted and rarely give any thought, and tearing it open to explore its machinations.

The findings of such study are often surprising. Returning to our initial example, the only reason this trick can work is because there is structure and regularity to our thought. Because the object of psychological study is so often that which we ignore or fail to think about, some individuals are more likely to attribute the consequences of this trick to magic than they are to admit that their cognition can be understood through study. Indeed, appeals to Eleanor Rosch’s work on Prototype Theory and connectionist models suggest that we have members of categories that are most representative of that very same category – there is a reason this trick is called the Gray Elephant from Denmark and not, say, the White Egret from Djibouti. Elephant is, arguably, more representative of “Animals that start with E” than is egret, and I’m sure Djibouti’s status as a real place (it is) was questioned by a not insignificant number of people. Whether or not you find this line of work compelling, the point remains – psychology explores the everyday and exposes for us its exceptionality.

As a person with a brain and a mind in a culture somewhere who has a certain set of genes and a personality (yes, dull personalities still constitute having a personality) who speaks and comprehends a spoken and written language (you probably wouldn’t have made it this far if the second weren’t true), you are exposed to each of these constructs every single day. As a consequence, it is hard to appreciate them for their extraordinariness. Much like the smart phone most likely sitting in your pocket, we acclimate to things and eventually fail to appreciate them for their complexity and splendor. The entire internet is sitting in a chunk of plastic in your pants and still, most people fail to appreciate how amazing these things are. Your brain, your mind, your culture, your genes, your personality, and your language – all of these are inordinately complex, compelling constructs ripe for study, but it can be difficult to step outside of these influences, look inward, and appreciate how truly amazing they are. Psychology rips us out of this reverie, this trance of acclimation and familiarity; it aims to make us realize how exceptional and amazing these processes are. Up to this point, I’ve said that psychology deals in studying the mundane, the everyday, which is perhaps not the fairest characterization. The objects of psychological study are not mundane – they are fascinating. Rather, it is our appreciation for these things that psychology alters.