The 4 Most Interesting Psychological Questions to Ask People

Psychology is a subject of questions and the things which unite most psychologists is the curiosity which makes us ask questions about the behavior of people around us. Those questions then generate research which seeks to answer the original questions and sometimes it does. If we ask ourselves questions about our own likely behavior the truth is often surprising as these questions and answers demonstrate.

Would you obey an order to hurt someone?

Adolph Eichmann was one of the architects of the Nazi Holocaust.  At the end of the war he was arrested and would have been put on trial with other war criminals but he escaped.  Over the next fifteen years, like many ex-Nazis on the run, he lived a very ordinary life in Argentina. Eventually he was tracked down by Mosad agents and taken to Israel to stand trial for horrific war crimes. His defence was so simple it was banal. When asked:  “why did you do it?” his response was “I was only obeying orders”.

A young psychologist called Dr. Stanley Milgram heard about this and wondered if his response could be true at all.  He devised and experiment where innocent participants would be “tricked” into thinking they had given lethal electric shocks to another person by obeying orders from an authority figure.  Before publishing his results he asked a team of experts their predictions on how many participants would knowingly give lethal shocks to another? The response was that only about one in a hundred people would.  They were so very wrong, the real figure was more than 60%.  So when good people are put under pressure to obey by an authority figure, most will.

This excuse didn’t wash for Eichmann, he was the guy giving the orders and they hanged him.

Would you ever steal?

Lawrence Kohlberg was interested in the development of intellect and particularly moral reasoning. He suggested that as we grow and mature, our capacity for making decisions about increasingly complex moral and ethical dilemmas matures with us.  A young child is motivated to do what is right merely because of fear of punishment or self-interest, usually reward. Later children and young adults move through a stage morality based on relationships and obeying social conventions.  The last and highest stage according to Kohlberg is, post-conventional.  This is the stage where black and white absolutes cease to matter and are replaced by a relative concept of morality which is dependent on circumstances…  His most famous test of higher moral reasoning is the Heinz dilemma, as encapsulated below:

Heinz was an ordinary man and was married.  One day his wife became ill and was dying.  There was however a drug which had been made by a local pharmacist, which was guaranteed   to save her. The raw ingredients were expensive and cost £100, but the pharmacist was selling the drug for £1000.  Heinz went to all of his friends and family to borrow the money but could only raise £200. He took the £200 to the pharmacist and asked to buy the drug for £200 or pay by instalments. The pharmacist refused saying it was his invention and he had worked hard to develop the drug, putting in time and effort. He felt he deserved the profits from his hard work. Heinz tried to persuade him but he wouldn’t budge. He left, knowing that his wife would die without the drug”

What would you do?

Would you be a good eyewitness to a crime? 

Adolph Beck was a Norwegian national who by a circuitous route had ended up in Victorian Britain where he was an investor in a business venture which did not work out.  One day in 1896 as he was leaving his lodgings a woman approached him claiming he was a fraudster who had tricked her out of several items of jewellery. He was arrested and put on an identity parade where he was identified as the man who had conned up to ten women out of valuables or money. The testimony of so many people was enough to convince a jury and he was imprisoned.  He was released in 1903, only to be arrested again in 1904 and again identified as a fraudster.  He would have been returned to jail if it were not for a police officer who spotted a similar looking man who when arrested, confessed to all of the crimes.   The two men looked quite similar but when together were easy to tell apart. Beck was pardoned and compensated, but he died a broken man of pleurisy in 1909.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and her collaborators have done endless work on the reliability of eyewitness testimony and have discovered that many factors including language of the investigators, leading questions and whether or not there was a level of fear at the time can all influence the testimony of witnesses to crimes.  Her research has led to changes in the way cases are prosecuted and now, eyewitness testimony is rarely used alone as sufficient evidence for a conviction.

Would you help someone in trouble?

It is sad to say, but our tendency to help someone usually depends on how many other people are around.  It sounds completely counter intuitive, but the more people are present the less likely we are to help.  The effect of a crowd upon individual desire to help is called the “bystander effect “.  Piliavin et al conducted several experiments to explore what it was that prevented people from intervening. They suggested there were two key factors. The first is called diffusion of responsibility that is, if there a lot of people present an individual’s responsibility for negative consequences is less.  Secondly, a phenomenon known as “pleuralistic ignorance” where people watch the reactions of others around contributes to bystander inactivity. This means that if they notice that others are not treating the matter as an emergency they won’t either.  So everyone remains calm in a situation which no one should.

Interest in this line of research was sparked by the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. On her way home from work at 3.15 am she was stalked and attacked by a serial rapist and murderer. She cried out as she was stabbed.  The whole attack lasted half an hour.  After the death there was outrage that many people heard her screams and few responded.

More recently in 2011 Raymond Zak, aged 53 walked out into the sea Robert Crown Memorial Beach and stood neck deep. His foster mum called the emergency services and they turned up but did not help and claimed to be waiting for the coast guard.  Lots of people watched the spectacle from the beach and when at last after an hour he collapsed in the water, a Good Samaritan swam out and brought him ashore. He died shortly after from hypothermia. All of those people literally watched a man die.

Are you so sure you would help now?


Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Loftus, Elizabeth(1975) “Leading questions and the eyewitness report”. Cognitive Psychology 7: pp560–572.

Milgram, Stanley (1963). “Behavioral Study of Obedience”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 (4) pp371–8

Piliavin, I.M., Rodin, J.A. & Piliavin, J. (1969) Good Samaritanism: An underground phenomenon? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol13  pp289 -99


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