Neuroscience explanations are more believable than mere psychological ones

"The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations," published in 2008 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, experimentally verifies the hypothesis that laypeople find explanations for psychological phenomena compelling because adding "neuroscience" makes them sound true:

In line with this body of research, we propose that people often find neuroscience information alluring because it interferes with their abilities to judge the quality of the psychological explanations that contain this information. The presence of neuroscience information may be seen as a strong marker of a good explanation, regardless of the actual status of that information within the explanation. That is, something about seeing neuroscience information may encourage people to believe they have received a scientific explanation when they have not. People may therefore uncritically accept any explanation containing neuroscience information, even in cases when the neuroscience information is irrelevant to the logic of the explanation.

To test this hypothesis, we examined people’s judgments of explanations that either do or do not contain neuroscience information, but that otherwise do not differ in content or logic. All three studies reported here used a 2 (explanation type: good vs. bad) × 2 (neuroscience: without vs. with) design. This allowed us to see both people’s baseline abilities to distinguish good psychological explanations from bad psychological explanations as well as any influence of neuroscience information on this ability. If logically irrelevant neuroscience information affects people’s judgments of explanations, this would suggest that people’s fascination with neuropsychological explanations may stem from an inability or unwillingness to critically consider the role that neuroscience information plays in these explanations.

(via Kottke)

(Image: DSCN0746, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from niels_olson's photostream)



  1. Fascinating! I wonder what neurological basis would be responsible for this effect.

    Quite seriously though: many an internet debate has been filled with arguments riddled with extraneous details, submitted in the hopes of being more convincing; and a good amont of the time the gambit seems to succeed. Why is that? I rather suspect that it’s part of how people evaluate claims: by adding the right amount of detail (enough to suggest a foundation in reality, but not enough to bore), we find that stories, descriptions of behaviour, and claims of mechanism alike become more convincing. The added detail itself doesn’t have to be functional, though, in order to convince people who aren’t thinking about it too hard: it just has to sound “likely enough to be pertinent”, or seem “hard to invent”.

    Getting to the root of that would capture a lot of how we behave as reasoning animals.

    1. The article treats it as if it were a negative, but frankly, I’d *hope* that people treat studies with hard data and plausible mechanisms as more believable than those without it, even if the conclusions and logic are the same. Yes, not all such studies are well done; it’s possible that researchers are misinterpreting data and their conclusions are not actually supported by the data, and yes, the general public doesn’t necessarily understand how to know whether a result is statistically significant, but in general, putting trust in data isn’t unwarranted.

      1. I think the researchers in this case went to great lengths to make sure that the neuro and non-neuro explanations were substantively the same, giving readers no real basis for preferring the neuro ones. There were also a few other studies that year (Gurley & Marcus 2008; McCabe & Castel 2008) that showed similar effects.

        (I know about those studies because I published two papers this year trying to figure out whether this means that neuroscience-based evidence would be similarly biasing to jurors. Interestingly,  I was not able to find any such bias.)

        1. Yes, I *understand* that the authors created artificial situations where the neuroscience data didn’t contribute; my point is that is a very artificial situation and doesn’t reflect reality. To use an analogy, you could come up with artificial humanities studies where the authors put in spurious citations and compare it to the same study without any citations at all and say “Hey, people believed the one with spurious citations more; citations are therefore rubbish”.

      2. I think the point is that just putting brain words in an article doesn’t necessarily mean hard data and plausible mechanisms. If the neuroscience is unrelated to the conclusions then you shouldn’t hope people are more likely to believe it when it’s there. Otherwise the next time anyone wants to publish a study they’ll put in spurious neuroscience just for the sake of it.

  2. This is probably because ‘neuroscience’ has ‘science’ in it. Psychology does not. 

    I kid.

    Honestly, though, I do tend to have more faith in chemical and biological explanations than ‘we did a big survey’ or ‘we put some people in a room’ explanations. That’s my bias, only strengthened by some pro-physical-sciences brainwashing in college. I hope I wouldn’t be fooled by irrelevant arguments, but guess what, I’m a human, and humans make stupid reasoning mistakes.

    I’m interested how this affects my ability to judge accuracy of wikipedia articles. I have to apply a heuristic judgement, because if I were an expert on the article in question I wouldn’t have looked it up. I think most of the ‘truth feel’ I get from an article has to do with organization and writing quality. This is unfair to English as a second language speakers and doesn’t catch clever liars, but judging articles by writing quality and organization is still probably a good filter. However, I also look for what look like scientific facts and plausible reasoning from the same. And this may not always work…

  3. I could only pay attention long enough to look at the picture. So the problems come from little people playing golf in my head?

  4. Psychology is to Neuroscience what Astrology is to Astronomy. Or at least that’s my laypeople’s notion of it.

    1. Psychology is definitely not similar to astrology; it is a rigorous observational science, but relies on neuroscience for any mechanistic explanation of these observations.

      Perhaps a better analogy would be Psychology is to Neuroscience what Meterology is to Thermodynamics.

    2. That’s probably the exact layperson’s interpretation that leads to the effect described in the article. 

  5. “For novices and students, the addition of such neuroscience information
    encouraged them to judge the explanations more favorably, particularly
    the bad explanations.”

    In this case, assuming something is logical and scientific because it appears logical and based in the ‘physical sciences’ is favored over the actual valid claim in the conceptual sphere. This seems to imply that, as said jocularly above, it’s more believable because it has the word ‘science’ in it, and not because it’s rigorously understood.

    Marketing / Bullshitting Tactic: Make it seem scientific. Throw in some irrelevant data. Add some  decimals and variable names.

    Our culture (human-kind?) clearly holds the appearance of science (even clearer: the physical sciences) dearer than the actual process of science. Here, on this blog, people are more apt to be critical thinkers, but for most people saying “scientifically proven” (whatever that is supposed to mean) is a sure way to build trust.

    Interesting that neuroscience students would believe neuroscience claims over psychological ones. Wonder how psychology students would go…

    @sarcasmatron Phrenology is to Neuroscience what Astrology is to Astronomy. Psychology is to Neuroscience what Astronomy is to Astrophysics.

  6. I spent a month summarizing journals for Alzheimer’s research and within the firs two days found that, far from being artificial, this is pretty much the norm for cognitive neuroscience experiments. MRIs are fantastic for mapping structural brain data,  like tracking neurdegeneration of the cortex. However, if you want to connect functional structural data to a psychological process, the data becomes much more ambiguous and that leads to a lot of specious claims.

  7. I’ve recently gotten interested in allegedly-scientific studies based on pathetically-small samples. It looks like a disproportionate number of these are on the psychology–neuroscience border. I’ve looked  at 16 studies so far and, by neuroscience standards, I could publish something.

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