March 31, 2021 Leave your thoughts

Brain: the Weapon of Mass Explanations

A 3-minute summary of Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson, Jeremy R. Gray; The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. J Cogn Neurosci 2008; 20 (3): 470–477.

When you explain a psychological phenomenon to people, giving them irrelevant neuroscience information seems to work very strongly to persuade them. Take my blog posts here: having a picture of a brain makes them more popular. When I meet people in parties (or rather, when I did in pre-Covid times), telling them that I am a neuroscientist (compared to, say, psychologist or medical doctor) is much more likely to raise eyebrows in awe and admiration. In a wonderful paper in 2008, Deena Weisberg and colleagues reported an empirical finding that many people in cognitive sciences had (uncomfortably) suspected for a long time:

that irrelevant neuroscience information can interfere with people’s judgement of validity of an argument about a psychological phenomenon.

To test this idea, they wrote explanations for 18 psychological phenomena (e.g., why do we fail to see things that do not attract our attention?) for lay readers untrained in psychology and neuroscience. Then for each explanation they created a “good” and a “bad” version of the explanation. The good one was the correct explanation. The bad one contained a logical flaw (e.g. circular reasoning, argument by authority, etc.). Irrelevant neuroscience information was then added to each explanation, all together creating 4 different types (in Figure 4, at the bottom of this post, you can see an example of each case):

  • Good, without irrelevant neuroscience
  • Good, with irrelevant neuroscience
  • Bad, without irrelevant neuroscience
  • Bad, with irrelevant neuroscience

They then presented these explanations to three groups of people and asked them to judge “how satisfying do you find this explanation?” Below you see the results for each group.

Experiment 1: Naive Adults

Adults who did not have any background or education in psychology or neuroscience

Experiment 2: Students of Psychology and Neuroscience

University students who were taking courses in psychology and/or neuroscience

Experiment 3: Experts in Neuroscience

Neuroscience experts
The table shows 2×2 design of (Good vs Bad) explanations in columns combined (with vs without) neuroscience in rows.

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