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10 Scientific Explanations For Our Weird Behaviors

S. Grant


Humans do weird stuff. Sometimes, we don’t even realize our behaviors are strange until we really stop to look at ourselves objectively. Then, it’s only natural to wonder why we do that weird stuff. So in the spirit of analyzing ourselves, here are some of the odd things we do every day and the leading explanations for why we do them.

10Not Replacing The Toilet Paper Roll

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On the scale of difficult things to do, replacing the toilet paper roll lands way down near the bottom of the list. Still, for some reason, many of us have a difficult time completing this simple task with any level of consistency. Why is that? The reason for our TP sloppiness, according to a pair of psychologists from the University of New York, isn’t really due to laziness but because replacing the roll isn’t the slightest bit stimulating and offers virtually no intrinsic reward (except to the anal retentive).

Similar chores like taking out the trash or doing the dishes are equally boring and unmotivating, but at least they give us the satisfaction of keeping things stink- and rodent-free. Properly loading the toilet paper might make things look a little better, but so what?

The NYU psychologists, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, say that for humans to be truly motivated to do anything, the task must meet three psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. The chore should be challenging enough to make us feel competent when we complete it. It should make us feel like we have some sort of control over what we’re doing. And it should give us the sense that we’re enhancing our relationships with loved ones. This theory is known as the self-determination theory. Replacing the TP falls far short of meeting those three criteria. The only one it might fulfill is relatedness—that is, if you live in a very “we’re all in this together and we all pitch in with the chores” type of household.

Thus, getting a spouse or roommate to always properly replace the toilet paper or to do any other mundane task is probably a lost cause. Unless you can psychologically convince them that doing so takes a certain level of proficiency, that they’re by no means a “slave” to forever doing the chore, and that it will make them more connected to others. Now that’s a difficult task.



9Desire To Bite Cute Things

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Any time there’s a baby around, someone invariably tells the baby (in the obligatory cutesy voice) that they’re “gonna eat them up” or “bite their toes” or eat some other body part. Similar conversations happen when puppies are around, and you may have even seen someone (or caught yourself) pretend-chomping on a puppy’s paw. What’s the deal with this? Why do we have the urge to jokingly munch on cute things?

Scientists have two main theories for this phenomenon. The first idea is that somehow our pleasure-sensing wires are getting crossed in the brain. When people (women in particular) catch a whiff of a newborn baby, we get a rush of dopamine similar to what happens when eating delicious food. It’s thought that we relate cuteness to this dopamine-inducing scent, which also reminds us of food. This overlap in senses unconsciously gives us the desire to put cute things in our mouths.

The other explanation is that it’s a form of play biting, which is common in many mammals and is a behavior from our animalistic sides. Many animals nip, pseudo-bite, and wrestle in a friendly, playful manner. It’s not entirely clear whether this is done to hone fighting skills, boost motor skills, or simply for fun, but the behavior usually happens between trusted allies. It takes a lot of trust to put your hand in someone’s mouth and let them bite down. So, if for nothing else, play biting is used to increase social bonds, and that could explain why we unconsciously do it when we feel the urge to get emotionally close to something cute.

8Inappropriate Laughing

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Most of us are guilty of laughing inappropriately at one time or another, such as when we see someone fall down and get hurt or when we’re relaying bad news. And although we know there’s nothing funny about Grandma’s death, we may still find ourselves trying to hold back fits of laughter at her funeral. Laughing in these types of situations isn’t necessarily okay by social standards, but it’s apparently fairly common, and there’s a good reason for it.

When we laugh in a solemn circumstance, it doesn’t mean we’re cold-hearted or disrespectful. In fact, it’s likely a sign that we’re under a great deal of emotional stress and our body is using laughter as a way to relieve some of the discomfort or tension. Similarly, chuckling when someone falls down or otherwise gets hurt is believed to be an evolutionary function letting the tribe know that, although the person might be embarrassed or slightly injured, he’s not gravely wounded, and there’s no need for alarm.

Laughing, in general, is rarely a response to something being legitimately funny. Neuroscientist Sophie Scott explains it’s used most often as a method of social bonding—to let people know that we like them, we agree with them, or we’re in the same group. Knowing that, we shouldn’t feel so horrified if our neighbor lets out a chuckle while explaining how he ran over our dog. It’s possible he simply feels really uncomfortable and is instinctively trying to connect with us during an awkward situation.



7Fascination With Psychopaths

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A good size of the population has a fascination with the macabre and specifically psychopaths. Nightly entertainment is chock-full of crazy, psychotic killers, and for some reason, we can’t get enough of them. What might our insatiable interest in the vilest of humans say about us as a people? There are three main theories floating around to explain this obsession.

The first idea is that watching or hearing about psychos allows us to temporarily step out of our conscientious, law-abiding shoes and vicariously step into the shoes of someone who only thinks about himself. He doesn’t do any of the things we automatically do every day, like worrying about others’ feelings or being fair. Imagining ourselves as that person (even unconsciously) temporarily liberates us from these obligations without actually causing any harm.

In contrast, forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy says that psychopaths are a type of predator, and hearing about them connects us with our primal existence of constantly being both the hunter and the hunted. Entertaining ourselves with the stories of human predators allows us to relate with our primal, animalistic selves without experiencing the real danger of the natural world.

Finally, psychiatrist and Harvard professor Ron Schouten says that our draw to psychopaths is similar to our attraction to horror movies or roller coasters. Sometimes we just like to be frightened, and tales of psycho killers can definitely fulfill that need. This is because being frightened sends a rush of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which evokes feelings of pleasure. In an entertainment setting where there’s no real danger, our fear doesn’t last long. On top of the dopamine-induced pleasure, we usually leave the theater or turn off the TV feeling a sense of well-being or justice (depending on how the film or show ends). This type of satisfaction keeps us coming back for more.

6Pretending To Know Stuff

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Most of us have probably been in the situation where someone casually asks, “Hey, have you heard of such and such?” And almost unthinkingly, we respond, “Yeah,” even though if we took time to genuinely think about it, we’d realize we don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Similarly, some folks habitually feign knowledge when they’re well aware they know nothing about the topic at hand. Whether we purposefully pretend to know stuff or if we just sort of do it accidentally, scientists say there’s an explanation for this behavior.

Cornell professor David Dunning has researched this psychological quirk and explains that most people fake it out of convenience or to reaffirm their identity. He says that many of us don’t have a very clear understanding of what we do or don’t know and might unconsciously fake knowledge. This is because in the instant when someone asks us if we know about something, our brains start to infer, assume, and invent explanations for things. In that moment, we may say that we know something (even if we don’t) partly because we don’t want to bog the conversation down with questions and partly because our brains think we should know something about the topic. In short, the feeling of knowing is more of a sensation than it is actually sifting through our brains’ stores of information and coming up with a conclusion.

Another, perhaps more obvious, reason people pretend to know stuff is because they like feeling like a know-it-all. But why?

Neurologist Robert A. Burton explains that our society glorifies knowledge, and to have an awareness of something is a notch on the social belt—especially if you came from know-it-all parents. Being a know-it-all can become kind of an addiction. In fact, the same area of the brain lights up and the same reward pathways shoot dopamine whether we’re rewarded with a right answer or if we’re taking drugs or gambling. Thus, pretending to be the person who knows everything can be a hard habit to break.

5Crying

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Crying seems like an ordinary enough experience and something we don’t really think of as strange. Yet if we really stop to contemplate what’s happening—salt water dripping out of our eyes during emotional moments—it seems a little bizarre. What do tears, eyes, and emotions have to do with each other?

One of the prevailing theories to explain human crying is put forth by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets. He argues that crying is largely a social sign that has its evolutionary roots in distress signals. Most young animals emit some type of distress sound to alert others that they need help. It’s thought that crying started as a way for humans to signify their distress (through tears) without making a predator-alerting scream or other noise. Although human babies usually have audible cries, adults often shed tears with little noise. Evolutionarily, this could have been an advantageous response, since another member of the tribe would only need to glance at the crier to see he was in trouble. Interestingly, humans are the only species to emit emotional tears. Most other animals stop making distress calls after reaching adulthood.

Further evidence that crying may have originated as a response to danger or trouble is that it also works in conjunction with our sympathetic nervous system (or the fight or flight system). For example, in addition to shedding tears, crying speeds up the heart rate, increases sweating, and slows breathing. Emotional tears even contain a natural painkiller, leucine enkephalin, which could partially explain why we sometimes feel better after a good cry.

So, although we can nowadays cry when alone or during harmless, sappy movies, the act may have started as a method of protection.



4Twitch When Falling Asleep

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As much as 70 percent of people twitch or have an involuntary jerk, or hypnagogic jerk, when falling asleep. Other than amusing awake onlookers, it seems there must be an explanation for a behavior that’s apparently so common. Unfortunately, scientists aren’t entirely sure why we have the spasms, but of course, there are some educated hypotheses.

Some scientists believe it’s nothing more than an accidental reaction that happens when our nerves misfire while transitioning from alertness to sleep. This is because our bodies don’t have a definitive on/off switch, where “on” is awake and “off” is asleep. Instead we gradually transition between the state where our reticular activating system (which governs basic physiological processes) is in full force and when the ventrolateral system (which drives sleepiness and influences sleep cycles) is in charge. We can be in the middle of the two states, such as when feeling sleepy, and there can be a bit of a struggle as we firmly position ourselves into one state or another. This back-and-forth struggle is thought to cause the misfiring, and the twitches are the last fights of wakefulness.

In contrast, others believe it’s an evolutionary response left over from our tree-dwelling days, and the jerks are a primate reflex that keeps us from getting too relaxed and falling from branches.

Other types of spasms while sleeping aren’t quite the same as a hypnagogic jerk. Dreaming of falling, for instance, and then jerking oneself awake is more of an example of dream incorporation where the brain intermixes real life and the dream state.

3Gossiping

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Women usually get pegged as the biggest gossips out of the two sexes, but men are guilty of this social offense as well. At least one study says men gossip 32 percent more than women per day. No matter which sex has the biggest blabbermouths, hurtful gossip can come back to bite us, yet it seems we can’t help ourselves when it comes to dishing a little dirt.

The reason for this is that most of us have an inherent desire to bond with those immediately around us—an urge that can overpower any moral obligations we might feel to mind our own business. We want to form social connections to people in our vicinity, and gossiping not only gives us something to talk about, it immediately creates a sense of trust, since the act of gossiping signals that we’re letting the other person in our confidence. In turn, the other person shares secrets, and a rapport is established. As we all know, it also gives us a feeling of superiority, is good for a laugh, and spices up boring situations.

Curiously, gossiping about people’s successes (if there is such a thing) doesn’t have the same effect. Studies show that connecting over shared dislikes creates stronger bonds than discussing shared positives.

Although gossiping means we’re throwing someone else under the bus for the sake of an immediate relationship or gratification, it might not be an entirely bad thing. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says that gossip partly drove the evolutionary development of our brains. He argues that language first developed out of our desire to share gossip, and it enables us to talk about those who aren’t present while indirectly teaching others how to properly relate to the group.

About 60 percent of conversations between adults are about someone who’s not present. Thus, there’s no need to be paranoid that your friends are talking about you when you’re not around, as it’s almost certainly a fact.

2Liking Sad Movies

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Enough grief, misfortune, and other nonsense happens to us on a daily basis that it seems ridiculous that we would want to spend our entertainment hours subjecting ourselves to more sadness. Despite this, we still regularly find ourselves sitting down to watch a guaranteed tearjerker. While it may seem counterintuitive, one reason for this is that watching tragedies actually makes us feel happier in the short term and therefore boosts our enjoyment of the movie.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that watching sad movies causes people to think about their own close relationships, which makes them feel appreciative and satisfied with their lives. Seeing tragedies on the screen causes folks to examine their own lives and count their blessings. However, the researchers point out that this reaction is not the same as those who watch a tragic movie and think something along the lines of, “Sheesh, at least I don’t have it as bad as that guy.” Those viewers have selfish thinking, are more focused on themselves instead of others, and don’t experience any boost in happiness after watching the film.

Also, according to Dr. Paul Zak, seeing movies or hearing stories about others causes us to feel empathy and prompts our brains to release oxytocin, which increases our feelings of caring. Zak even refers to oxytocin as the “moral molecule” because of how it makes us more trustworthy, generous, and compassionate. Right after a sad movie and the ensuing rush of oxytocin, we feel more connected to the people around us and overall more satisfied—even if we are shedding some tears. This feeling keeps us coming back for even more depressing flicks.

1Thinking Silence Is Awkward

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Regardless of whether there is anything of value to say, many of us feel a burning desire to fill every silent moment with some type of conversation. What’s so bad about just sitting quietly with someone, and why does prolonged silence make us feel so awkward?

Like many of our behaviors, it all comes down to our primal desire to belong and fit in with the group. According to psychologist Namkje Koudenburg, when the dance of conversation doesn’t follow the traditional ebb and flow, we start to worry that something might not be right. We may wonder if we’re uninteresting or not relevant, which makes us worry about our position in the group. On the other hand, when the dialogue is bouncing back and forth as expected, we feel socially validated.

That said, not all cultures experience awkward silence in the same ways as Americans and others. For example, in Japan, a long pause can be a sign of respect, especially when considering a serious question. Cross-culture businesspeople are even trained on this etiquette, so they don’t assume a silent Japanese colleague is unsatisfied with the negotiation or whatever else the conversation is about.

The Finnish, Australian Aboriginals, and those in many Asian countries are also known for long, silent pauses in their talk and don’t see them as a sign that the conversation has broken down. Rather, it’s not uncommon for people from these countries to think Americans talk too much and dominate conversations.

Incidentally, for those of us where nonstop talking is the norm, researchers say it only takes four seconds of silence for things to get awkward.

Content and copywriter by day and list writer by night, S. Grant enjoys exploring the bizarre, unusual, and topics that hide in plain sight. Contact S. Grant here.