The most controversial studies in psychology?

Research results in applied psychology often have a big impact on the general public because those works address questions that people can directly relate to. Who isn’t interested in what we are like and how we relate to others? Sometimes the research results cause great controversy and can even lead to rapid changes in public policy.

This article lists ten studies that the author asserts are the most controversial. Of course there is no way to objectively judge which are the most controversial and any such list is purely an opinion. But the title worked as clickbait with me and I looked at the list. I found that I was familiar with six of them (1,2,3,4,6,10), suggesting that the list was at least pretty good at identifying studies that received wide publicity. A good feature of the list is that it discusses both the claims and the counter-claims and provides links to both sides.

I am not sure whether the list is ordered in terms of importance or reverse importance or just random but I would say that #10 (the studies that suggest the absence of free will) are the most controversial because the idea of free-will is so engrained in our sense of self that to challenge it will cause many people to recoil.


  1. Trickster Goddess says

    I think that the free will experiment shouldn’t be controversial. It only is if you define free will as including only decisions made by the conscious part of your mind. But we already know that a lot of the processing in the mind is carried out by the subconscious, so defining “you” as being your conscious self and your subconscious as being “not you” is a false dichotomy.

    Whether the decision is made consciously or unconsciously, it is still you who is deciding, your own will being carried out. Not someone else’s or some outside force or predetermination.

  2. kumasama says

    The free will study is interesting to me for a few reasons. First, it was one of the first “religious” issues that I really considered deeply, which ultimately led to me becoming an atheist. Second, as a language teacher, the gap between conscious language knowledge and unconscious use is one of the key features of my field. Second language acquisition research seems to show that words are activated subconsciously, and the best we can do consciously is suppress some of them. The idea that decisions are made subconsciously and then the conscious mind has a filtering or rationalizing role seems similar. Finally, it seems consistent with how our brains have evolved, with the oldest parts being the least conscious and most autonomous. It seems natural to me that a decision to move, for example, starts off at a very instinctual level and then the conscious level just follows along as if it were in control (or maybe hits the override button occasionally). We’re very used to thinking about other animals in this way.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Trickster Goddess,

    Yes, but for many people free will is the decision made by the conscious mind. While the subconscious is part of ‘you’, people tend to think that it is their conscious mind, the one that we are aware of, that is making the decisions and that we could have made another decision than the one we just did.

  4. corwyn says

    While the subconscious is part of ‘you’, people tend to think that it is their conscious mind, the one that we are aware of, that is making the decisions…

    And these studies show that this is, wrong.

    …and that we could have made another decision than the one we just did.

    Which is still an open question.

  5. corwyn says

    If I were to try to prove that I have free will, and so proclaim from my conscious mind, that I would do one thing if a coin came up heads and another if it came up tails. And did so. Would that show that my conscious mind had made a decision BEFORE my subconscious mind decided to follow it? How would a determinist characterize that process, consistent with no free will?

  6. Mano Singham says


    The determinist position does not mean that people behave randomly. It was the subconscious mind that told you to make that heads/tails decision rule, and the same subconscious mind that told you to follow through on it.

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