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Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

Professor Mark Leary Ph.D.
Duke University
Course No.  1626
Course No.  1626
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Scientific mysteries are everywhere around you. At the bottom of the deepest oceans. On the frontiers of the known universe. But some of life's greatest scientific mysteries lie much closer than that: inside the recesses of the human mind.

Every day of your life is spent surrounded by mysteries that involve what, on the surface, appear to be rather ordinary human behaviors.

  • What makes you happy?
  • Where did your personality come from?
  • Why do you have trouble controlling certain behaviors?
  • What does your self-esteem do?
  • Why do you behave differently as an adult than you did as an adolescent?

Since the start of recorded history, and probably even before, people have been interested in answering questions about why we behave the way we do. In fact, many fields of human endeavor—such as philosophy, psychology, and even theology—are focused on finding explanations for the nature of human behavior. But it's only in recent decades, with the emergence of advanced scientific methods and tools, that researchers can finally approach, understand, and solve the mysteries of emotion, thought, and behavior in the same way that oceanographers investigate the ocean depths or astronomers study the stars above our heads.

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Scientific mysteries are everywhere around you. At the bottom of the deepest oceans. On the frontiers of the known universe. But some of life's greatest scientific mysteries lie much closer than that: inside the recesses of the human mind.

Every day of your life is spent surrounded by mysteries that involve what, on the surface, appear to be rather ordinary human behaviors.

  • What makes you happy?
  • Where did your personality come from?
  • Why do you have trouble controlling certain behaviors?
  • What does your self-esteem do?
  • Why do you behave differently as an adult than you did as an adolescent?

Since the start of recorded history, and probably even before, people have been interested in answering questions about why we behave the way we do. In fact, many fields of human endeavor—such as philosophy, psychology, and even theology—are focused on finding explanations for the nature of human behavior. But it's only in recent decades, with the emergence of advanced scientific methods and tools, that researchers can finally approach, understand, and solve the mysteries of emotion, thought, and behavior in the same way that oceanographers investigate the ocean depths or astronomers study the stars above our heads.

To understand the secrets of human behavior is to better know yourself and the people around you—whether they're friends, family members, coworkers, or just acquaintances. Not only will you have a more solid understanding of what it means to be human, you will also have a stronger foundation from which to live more effectively with others and to grasp their intricate behaviors and quirks.

Join award-winning Professor Mark Leary of Duke University, a preeminent force in social psychology and neuroscience education, on a fascinating journey into the complex heart of who you are with Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Using the latest theories and research from psychology and other behavioral sciences, you'll find answers—many of them startling—to provocative questions about a variety of rather ordinary (but often quite puzzling) aspects of human behavior. With the powerful insights you'll find in these 24 intellectually scintillating lectures, you'll start looking at your own and other people's behavior with a little more insight and curiosity. And undoubtedly a little more wonderment as well.

Enjoy a Multidimensional Approach to Behavior

"We usually don't think much about our everyday behaviors, even though they can be quite fascinating,"notes Professor Leary. "These things are such a part of human nature that they seem ordinary and unremarkable. And maybe they are, in the sense that we do them regularly. But they are also puzzling and fascinating. Human beings are very unusual animals.”

According to Professor Leary, many of the answers to the puzzles of our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions lie in three broad themes that, taken together, provide us with a more thorough, multidimensional approach for understanding human behavior.

  • Evolution: In some cases, a behavior that is difficult to understand today makes sense when you consider the possibility that the behavior dealt with a particular problem our ancestors faced in the distant past.
  • Self-awareness: No other animal can think consciously about itself with such abstraction as we can. Self-awareness is an important lens through which to view human behavior because much of what you do is influenced by your self-image, your future goals, and your concerns with what other people think, each of which requires abstract self-awareness.
  • Culture: Often, we do odd things because our culture has taught us to. Many puzzling behaviors that appear inexplicable when seen through the eyes of one culture may be understandable when seen through the eyes of another.

Throughout these lectures, you'll also learn about the various interacting forces that influence your behavior. These include your genetic blueprint, your personal experiences, your upbringing, and the people and social groups surrounding you.

Answers to Pressing Questions about Yourself

Every lecture of Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior examines a central question about human behavior we've all experienced at one time or another and that only now, with the aid of scientific research, we can actually explain in ways our ancestors never could.

  • Why do your feelings get hurt? Like physical injury, a loss of social connection compromises your well-being. The brain areas involved in hurt feelings from rejection overlap with the areas involved in the experience of physical pain. Neuroscientists believe that the social pain system was built on top of the older system that mediates physical pain.
  • Why do you sometimes forget things? One explanation for forgetfulness holds that a memory trace in your brain has deteriorated over time. In fact, the brain appears designed to allow disused memories to become less accessible so that you're not overwhelmed with memories that are unimportant or that interfere with the acquisition of new information.
  • Why do you fall in love? Research suggests that romantic love has three components—intimacy, passion, and commitment. Neuroscientists studying the biochemical bases of love have discovered that adrenalin, dopamine, and other chemicals are responsible for physical attraction, the desire for closeness, energetic feelings, and other symptoms of being in love.
  • Why do you blush? Many people think of blushing as a social signal that communicates a nonverbal apology for breaking some social rule. But why do we sometimes blush when we are complimented or praised? Research suggests that blushing is analogous to appeasement displays in other animals. Humans blush when we receive unwanted social attention—negative or positive.

Of course, not all of the mysteries of human behavior have been completely solved. You'll also explore behaviors that still need more definitive study, such as dreaming, kissing, consciousness, and even the creation and appreciation of art and music.

Explore Fascinating Experiments, Case Studies, and Stories

Experiments and case studies (involving both humans and primates) form the backbone of the scientific study of our behavior. Appropriately enough, Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior is filled with fascinating research and anecdotes that shed much-needed light on the subject—stories that are not only illuminating but also intriguing and, sometimes, even shocking.

  • Potato-washing monkeys: In 1952, scientists began feeding sweet potatoes to macaque monkeys on an island off the Japanese coast. In one instance, a female monkey washed sand off her potatoes in the water; other monkeys started imitating her and within a few years, virtually all of the young monkeys in the group were washing their potatoes. These observations showed scientists how culture and behavior—in monkeys and humans as well—can be transmitted from generation to generation.
  • Competitive summer camp: A famous study concerns the recruitment of a group of 12-year-old boys for a summer camp—all of them from the same socioeconomic background. Randomly assigned to two groups, the boys began competing with one another in sports. As time wore on, the groups became so aggressive that researchers had to keep them separated so no one would get hurt. This study helped illustrate the processes that underlie discrimination and conflict.

Uncover the Mysteries of Everyday Life

As Professor Leary shines a sharp light into the human mind, he demonstrates just why he is so respected by his scholarly peers. Winner of the Lifetime Career Award from the International Society for Self and Identity and a Scholarly Book Award from the Speech Communication Association, he has a way of drawing you into the psychology of human beings and unearthing the captivating features of seemingly mundane aspects of our lives.

After finishing the lectures of Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior, you'll realize how much about everyday life you take for granted, develop a deeper understanding of yourself and others, and see how much has yet to be fully explained.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Solving Psychological Mysteries
    Many of the answers to puzzling aspects of human behavior lie in some of the fundamental characteristics of the human species. In this introductory lecture, focus on three broad themes you’ll follow throughout the course: evolution, self-awareness, and culture. x
  • 2
    How Did Human Nature Evolve?
    Much of what you’re motivated to do, you do because evolution built those motives into human nature. Investigate five key areas of our behavior in which evolution plays a critical role, then focus on behavioral adaptations that create problems for us living in a world far removed from our Stone Age ancestors. x
  • 3
    Where Do People’s Personalities Come From?
    Scientists now know with certainty that genes have a pronounced effect on people’s personalities, thanks to insights provided by behavioral genetics. See heritability at work in everyday traits ranging from extraversion and neuroticism to smoking, divorce, and even political beliefs. x
  • 4
    How Can Siblings Be So Different?
    Continue looking at the relationship between genetics and behavior, this time searching for answers as to why children from the same family often have such different personalities. By probing this question from the angle of genes and environmental influences, you’ll understand the complex processes by which nature and nurture interact. x
  • 5
    Why Do People Need Self-Esteem—Or Do They?
    Does having high self-esteem really result in all of the positive effects that people suggest? In this lecture, dispel popular myths about self-esteem and its role in affecting our behavior. You’ll learn about the function of self-esteem, why low self-esteem is related to dysfunctional emotions and behaviors, and more. x
  • 6
    Why Do We Have Emotions?
    Happiness. Anger. Guilt. Why do we have such a wide variety of emotions? Where do they come from? How do they influence our perception of, and response to, events around us? Learn the answers to these and other questions, then investigate two emotions that remain especially mysterious: shame and schadenfreude. x
  • 7
    What Makes People Happy?
    Unravel the mystery of happiness by looking at what behavioral scientists have recently discovered about this powerful emotion. Among the topics you’ll explore: the causes of happiness; happiness’s relationship with money and attractiveness; our tendency to adapt to new levels of happiness; and our inability to forecast how happy or upset we’ll feel. x
  • 8
    Why Are So Many People So Stressed Out?
    Here, Professor Leary demystifies the subject of stress. You’ll examine the three interrelated reasons we are the only species that experiences chronic stress; take a closer look at the major sources of stress in our everyday lives; and examine personality types highly susceptible to stress. x
  • 9
    Why Do Hurt Feelings Hurt?
    Examine why the saying “it hurt my feelings” is more than just an expression. Here, you’ll learn about the causes of hurt feelings (including criticism, betrayal, and teasing); the evolutionary purpose of being hurt by rejection; and the intricate links between physical pain and social pain. x
  • 10
    Why Do We Make Mountains out of Molehills?
    Overreacting, especially to events that pose little or no tangible threats, takes energy, hurts people’s feelings, damages relationships, and can even result in legal problems—but we do it anyway. Why? Find out in this lecture on the puzzling nature of—and social and evolutionary reasons behind—extreme overreactions. x
  • 11
    Why Is Self-Control So Hard?
    Turn now to a puzzling human behavior with important ramifications for everyday life: the difficulty of practicing self-control. In this intriguing lecture, examine the dual-motive conflict at the heart of self-control failures; explore research-tested ways to resist temptation; and investigate the topic of self-control strength, commonly known as willpower. x
  • 12
    Why Do We Forget?
    We all experience moments of forgetfulness. But why? Discover two general explanations cognitive psychologists have for why we forget (involving decayed memory traces and retrieval interference); delve into the problems of repressed memories, flashbulb memories, and eyewitness identification; and learn why forgetfulness can work to your advantage. x
  • 13
    Can Subliminal Messages Affect Behavior?
    What do recent experiments say about your susceptibility to messages you can’t consciously see or hear? How do subliminal stimuli—such as rapidly flashing words or images, and imperceptible audio messages—work on the brain? Could they be used to influence your attitudes and behaviors? Find out all this and more here. x
  • 14
    Why Do We Dream?
    Ponder possible scientific explanations behind dreaming. One theory holds that dreams are our mind’s efforts to make sense of random activity in the brain. Another theory suggests that dreams help us solve problems that are bothering us. Yet another theory poses that dreams merely store memories from the previous day. x
  • 15
    Why Are People So Full of Themselves?
    The “better than average” effect is one example of what psychologists call self-serving biases in people’s views of themselves. Probe whether these egotistical biases are beneficial or harmful, and go inside the mind-set of personality types that display more biases than others (grandiose and vulnerable narcissists) and fewer (humble people). x
  • 16
    Do People Have Psychic Abilities?
    Venture into the field of parapsychology—the study of anomalous psychic experiences such as extrasensory perception. As Professor Leary reveals what decades of fascinating research (including special approaches such as the ganzfeld and presentiment studies) have uncovered about this phenomena, decide for yourself whether psychic abilities are myth or reality. x
  • 17
    Why Don’t Adolescents Behave like Adults?
    See how developmental psychology and neuroscience explain three patterns typically associated with the tumultuous period of adolescence: conflict with adults, emotional volatility, and risky behavior. Also, consider the neuroscience of peer pressure, the psychological benefits of teenage risk-taking, and the truth behind the public’s perception of teenagers. x
  • 18
    How Much Do Men and Women Really Differ?
    Each of us sees differences in how men and women behave. But the truth of the matter may surprise you. Professor Leary discusses what we now know about how men and women differ (and are similar) when it comes to aspects of personality such as agreeableness, sexual practices, mating behaviors, and ambition. x
  • 19
    Why Do We Care What Others Think of Us?
    We all want to make the best possible impression on others. In this lecture, break down the subject of impression management and gain new insights into why we’re so concerned with others’ thoughts about us. As you’ll discover, concern for your public image can have its upsides—and its downsides as well. x
  • 20
    Why Are Prejudice and Conflict So Common?
    If most of us think of humanity as good, fair, and peace-loving, then why is there so much conflict and prejudice out there? Tapping into a series of intriguing studies and experiments, Professor Leary reveals the roots of our behavioral tendency to view the world in an “Us versus Them” context. x
  • 21
    Why Do People Fall In—and Out of—Love?
    Love is one of human behavior’s all-time mysteries. What’s the difference between companionate love and passionate love (the love we fall in and out of)? Which brain chemicals are activated when we fall in love? Is romantic love a Western invention? Get answers to these questions and many others. x
  • 22
    What Makes Relationships Succeed or Fail?
    Here, explore what behavioral research has revealed about intimate relationships—specifically, why some work and some don’t. Learn some of the determinants of satisfying and unsatisfying relationships; chart the course of satisfaction in most relationships; and come away with some keys to making relationships last. x
  • 23
    Why Do People Blush?
    First, examine what happens biologically when we blush and its evolutionary purpose. Then, look closer at blushing’s role in social interactions, its relationship with undesired attention, and its link to social behaviors in apes. Finally, study the phenomenon of the creeping blush and uncover why some people blush more than others. x
  • 24
    A Few Mysteries We Can’t Explain Yet
    Close out the course with a look at a few other behavioral mysteries that remain difficult for scientists to explain—all of which are so common to everyday life that they probably don’t seem mysterious at all: laughter, kissing, the creation and enjoyment of art, and consciousness. x

Lecture Titles

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Mark Leary
Ph.D. Mark Leary
Duke University

Professor Mark Leary is Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, where he heads the program in Social Psychology and is faculty director of the Duke Interdisciplinary Initiative in Social Psychology. He earned his bachelor's degree in Psychology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and his master's and doctoral degrees in Social Psychology from the University of Florida. He has taught previously at Denison University, The University of Texas at Austin, and Wake Forest University, where he served as department chair. Professor Leary has published 12 books and more than 200 scholarly chapters and articles on topics dealing with social motivation and emotion and the negative effects of excessive egotism and self-focus. He has been particularly interested in the ways in which people's emotions, behaviors, and self-views are influenced by their concerns with other people's perceptions and evaluations of them. Professor Leary's books include Social Anxiety; Self-Presentation: Impression Management and Interpersonal Behavior; The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life; Handbook of Self and Identity; and Introduction to Behavioral Research Methods. Based on his scholarly contributions, the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin designated him among the top 40 social and personality psychologists in the world with the greatest impact. In 2010, he received the Lifetime Career Award from the International Society for Self and Identity. In addition, he was the founding editor of the journal Self and Identity and is currently the editor of Personality and Social Psychology Review. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

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Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 43 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Insightful, Helpful, even Encouraging This is a superbly presented course, with content that is intriguing and insightful. Professor Leary's erudition -- and extraordinary manner of pleasant, informed, and engaging presentation -- is remarkable. What I found most interesting -- and, oddly, hopeful -- was how most of our instinctive behaviors -- including some of our least attractive traits, such as aggression and tendency to categorize and judge others -- can be traced to the long, difficult evolutionary struggle that our primate and human ancestors had to survive. Knowing this, and understanding how these types of behavior were necessary to survive in a hostile environment filled with potential and actual threats, fills me with hope. If more of us could come to understand this, and then be more conscious of our instinctive behaviors, careful to exercise more mental oversight and control over them, we might be much more companionable persons and, just as important, be better oriented to attaining those goals we have set for ourselves, whether they be professional or personal. As a male, I am grateful for increased understanding about some of the behavior characteristics of my gender which can be better understood in terms of what it took to survive -- and to protect those whom we loved -- for most of our evolutionary history. The challenge for modern males is for us to learn to harness those legitimate, but no longer as helpful, instincts in ways that minimize our destructive (to others and ourselves) reactions to today's challenges. All told, the course gave me renewed wonder at the awesomeness of our long journey through time, and reverence for all those who have preceded us. It is imperative that we now better learn how to use our highly evolved brains to intentionally act to build more sane and safe communities, and to foster from day one educational processes that help our young better shape their instinctive behavior toward mutual respect and cooperation. The future of our species is not given; the best possible outcome will only occur if we act together to choose it. Most highly recommended! Bravo to all who had a hand in producing this lecture series! December 2, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Pleasantly surprised by the course. This is my first course in TGC and I was skeptical. Both for the mediocrity of the general field of self-improvement and because of my vast knowledge and experience of layman psychology (I have not studied academic psychology, until recently, and even I still only read the papers). Pleasantly surprised, I was wrong. This course is seriously good. Mr. Leary can explain complex matter in a very simple and easy to digest manner. Also - he stayed strongly objective presenting several major movements in each topics with each of its drawbacks and insights, so we can make our own conclusions ourselves. I am sure he is able to dig severely deep in each topic, but that is not the point of the course. I found that balance perfect. He is very careful not to leave a wrong impression and takes effort to represent the whole picture. What most I liked from the course is that is objective, in academic style and easy to comprehend. It is open in terms of the our knowledge on the topics, revealing what we know and what we don't know. It is an exemplary course. And this is not a statement I put lightly. October 6, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by My favorite course so far (CD review) I have listened to and reviewed more than two dozen courses to date and this one stands out as an exceptional example of how to present current academic material to a wide ranging audience. Professor Leary presents studies and findings in such a way that the conclusions are easy to understand and apply without getting bogged down by unnecessary details of methodology or who conducted the study. I prefer that the instructors synthesize current research in the field and include details for further study in the course book. The lecture on self esteem was especially fascinating. The final lecture was also worth mentioning as it raised a few aspects of human behavior that have not been adequately explained and/or addressed such as laughter, kissing and consciousness. This is one of the few courses that I will likely listen to again. The delivery was nearly flawless and the balance between conversational and informational presentation was exceptional. Perhaps the subject matter and lecture style lent itself more to the audio only format I tend to prefer. I would like to see more offerings from Professor Leary by the Great Courses. July 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by It Is Great to Be Learning again! A wonderful start to exploring "The Great Courses". When I was in college I found many, if not all, of my professors totally predictable! Not Professor Leary! His presentation was never boring; never trite always challenging. If I was 28 not 78 I would be on my way to Duke to see if I could study under this talented professor June 24, 2014
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