Monthly Archives: May 2009

You Are Not Your Brain: A Video by Philosopher Alva Noe

Alva Noe , professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, visits Google’s San Francisco, CA office to discuss his book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.  Noe contends that consciousness is not merely the product of billions of neurons firing in our brains, but rather a complex process resulting from our brains constantly interacting with our environment.  This event took place on April 16, 2009, as part of the Authors@Google series.  The video is about 54 minutes long , and unfortunately the sound quality isn’t great so you’ll have to turn up the volume.  Noe’s lecture lasts about 30 minutes; the balance is Q&A. 

UPDATE: Appears that the video is once again accessible. A big ‘thank you’ to the Authors @ Google Series.

Here’s a link to an interview Noe did with

And here’s a review of his book by Jonah Lehrer.




Filed under Videos

The Power of Sorry

sorryThe Child Psychology Research Blog is posting a series of reports on research presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science.  The latest post, highly recommended, is about the effects of apologies on children’s emotions.

The post describes in detail the study methodology and results so I won’t rehash those here, but one finding from the study in particular I think merits more discussion:

Receiving an apology makes the recipient feel better by affecting the recipient’s perception of the wrongdoer’s emotions.

In other words, children in the study who received an apology felt better afterward because the apology indicated that the other person felt bad about what he or she did. Sounds simple enough. From the result, the author draws this conclusion:

It is likely that apologies work because the apology and our perception of the other child’s sadness tell us something about how fair and predictable is our world. That is, thinking that the other child feels sad: 1) may affect our attributions so that we may no longer think that the other child is mean or did it on purpose, or at least not without realizing that it was the wrong thing to do. 2) knowing that the other person agrees that it was the wrong thing to do reaffirms our view of the world as just and predictable, since the other’s sadness tells us that people in general don’t do things like this, because after all, it was the wrong thing to do.

This strikes me as important, if for no other reason than the dual nature of the statement. One one hand, it’s a positive that something as simple as an apology can affirm a view of the world as just and predictable – but on the other hand, the world isn’t just and predictable.  Yet it would be the pinnacle of cynicism to propose that children are deluded by apologies into believing that the world they’re entering is more gentle and orderly than it really is. 

Which makes me wonder, if this conclusion is correct, then are the civil rudiments of human social behavior (like apologizing) a way of keeping each other sane, since an unmitigated appreciation of how unpredictable the world really is would push us closer to the edge of the abyss?  When you apologize to someone, maybe you’re acting as a temporary life preserver whether or not you truly feel bad about what you did.  It seems from this study that we arrive in the world with neural wiring predisposing us to wanting apologies from others, but also to giving apologies to others: both actions provide a benefit.

Then again, there’s this study suggesting that an apology may actually be an obstacle to forgiveness. Go figure.


Filed under About Perception, About Research

The Movies Made Me Smoke It

brad-pitt-smoking-2While media research may still fall short of identifying solid causal links between movies and behavior, it’s getting much better at identifying how we could be influenced by what’s on the screen.  Take smoking, for example; as a single, identifiable behavior, it’s an ideal target for influence research.  In contrast, behaviors like violence take multiple forms and often manifest from a tangle of underlying psychological variables — much harder to tie back to watching a movie. 

Many recent studies have addressed the movies-smoking question with a focus on kids, teenagers and college students.  But before we get into those, here are a few facts: 

  • About 70% of all movies made in the U.S. contain cigarette smoking
  • Roughly 20-25% of adult characters in movies smoke
  • Smokers in movies are typically more affluent than the average adult smoker
  • Smoking is rarely associated with poor health in movies
  • On-screen smoking accounts for 1-2 minutes on average, per movie

The first four points probably don’t surprise you, but the last one surprised me.  If there is an influence on behavior from on-screen smoking, it doesn’t have a very big window of opportunity to assert itself — and the issue of who is smoking in movies and their particular influence becomes all the more important.

One study began addressing the question by identifying how many smoking impressions (how many times a viewer sees someone smoking) children see over the course of several movies.  The finding was that 500 movies delivered roughly 14 billion smoking impressions to U.S. children ages 10-14.  Of that number, 30 actors delivered at least 50 million smoking impressions each. For instance, Mel Gibson had 21 episodes of smoking in his movies, delivering more than 90 million smoking impressions. 

So, clearly kids see a lot of smoking in movies, and it’s being done by a relatively small segment of popular actors.  Studies from the 80s onward have indicated that even brief exposure to smoking in movies influences beliefs about smoking if, that is, those doing the smoking have a high enough social status among the viewers.

Which brings me to what I think is the most interesting study on this topic to date (at least that I’ve come across).  Researchers asked, if a viewer strongly identifies with a particular protagonist in a movie, will that protagonist’s smoking influence the viewer’s thoughts about smoking? 

Turns out, it does.  Greater identification with a smoking protagonist predicted (1) stronger “implicit associations” between the self and smoking for smokers and non-smokers (in other words, associations that they were unaware of or wouldn’t explicitly admit to ), and (2) increased desire for those who already smoke to go light one up.   

julia19The reasons this happens are interwoven with an intriguing dynamic called narrative transport.  When we watch a movie, we often identify more with one character for any number of reasons — our attention is engaged by his/her emotions and behaviors, we slide into the character’s cinematic shoes, and it’s easier to be influenced by someone whose shoes we’re trying on.  The stronger this identification becomes–the theory goes–the more our thoughts are influenced, and change in thinking (about smoking, for example) is a decent predictor of change in behavior.

Up to a point, anyway.  And, important to note, this effect is observably more pronounced among adolescents than adults. As a parting thought, one study found that showing an anti-smoking advertisement just before a movie had a blunting effect on narrative influence — not unlike a short-term thought vaccine — which is why you might see an ad from the Truth Campaign just before the lights go down.


Filed under About Research

Are We Born Believers or Cultural Receivers? A Discussion with Author and Psychologist Bruce Hood

SuperSenseFew topics in psychology are gaining more momentum than the origin of religious beliefs. Questions of whether we’re born with neural apparatus that predisposes us to belief, or whether we learn to becomes believers, or some combination of both, are on the minds of researchers from all quarters.  Bruce Hood, experimental psychologist at Bristol University, is a groundbreaker among the curious. In his new book, SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, Hood argues that we are each born with an innate “SuperSense” rooted in our capacity for intuitive reasoning. Drawing on recent research and historical examples, Hood convincingly makes a case that supernatural belief arises spontaneously well before cultural influences assert themselves.

I recently spent a few minutes with Professor Hood discussing his SuperSense theory and other topics from his book.

DiSalvo: What is the “SuperSense”?

Hood: The SuperSense is a set of related beliefs that there are hidden dimensions to reality manifesting as energies, patterns and forces accounting for paranormal claims and experiences.

How would you describe these “hidden dimensions to reality”?

Hood: People infer from their experience that there are hidden forces, energies and entities operating in the world. From luck to God, people think there are hidden elements.

The main argument of the book is stated as, “Children generate knowledge through their own intuitive reasoning about the world around them, which leads to both natural and supernatural beliefs.”  Do children arrive at supernatural beliefs entirely before culture makes an imprint on their developing minds? If that’s true, then what’s the role of culture, to provide content for these beliefs?

Hood: Not entirely. Rather, children are inclined to those beliefs from culture which resonate with what they believe could be possible. For example, pre-school children do not understand death as a final state. When they are told that something has died they want to know where it has gone, so after-life beliefs either from religion or paranormal accounts are readily accepted.

However, if there was no culture to feed the children with after-life beliefs then the SuperSense theory predicts that such notions would arise spontaneously. What we need is a “Lord of the Flies” scenario to test this prediction but the fact that after-life beliefs are present in all cultures strongly suggests that this is a universal belief.

You discuss the history of supernaturalism and mention a couple of surprising examples: one is the “lion-man” statuette that dates to 32,000 years ago, and another is evidence of ritualistic burials dating back 45,000 years.  What do these examples tell us about our species’ supernatural leanings?

lion manHood: The lion-man statuette found in Germany is a therianthrope – part human part animal. Many of the early religions dealt with such mythical creatures and possibly reflect early man’s pre-occupation with hunting and how to improve success by appeasing the animal gods. This is still present in a number of remaining hunting societies such as the Inuits.

I also think that it is no coincidence that therianthropy resembles young children’s early anthropomorphism which is to attribute human properties to animals, though I neglected to cover this in SuperSense. The early emergence of these beliefs, including ritualistic burials, in the dawn of civilization across differing groups strongly suggests that they are part of our mental machinery.

You say that the number one reason people believe in the supernatural is their own personal experience – and this for many is a sort of permanent inoculation against scientific explanations. In light of that, is all of the time and energy spent by the scientific community and others to dispel supernatural explanations simple going to waste?

Hood: No, education is always a good thing. But my point is that even scientists can seem to fence-ring their supernatural beliefs from their science. For example, I recently attended a conference and discussed the nature of the book with colleagues. What surprised me was that many colleagues admitted to superstitious rituals when it came to submitting grants and papers for review.

What do you think explains religious scientists? 

Hood: Some scientists seem to happily shift from their rational, analytical approach to their topic and the supernatural aspects of their spiritual life. Some endorse religion as a community activity whereas others are quite happy to entertain the possibility of secular supernaturalism.

I find it ironic that psychology, which is often considered a “soft” science, has more skeptics than physics, for example. Maybe psychologists are more familiar with the foibles of the human mind whereas physicists understand the rules that govern the natural world.

You spend some time in the book discussing “intuitive essentialism” and how many supernatural beliefs arise from a sense of “essentialist violation.”  Please explain a bit about this.

Hood: ProfBruceHoodIntuitive essentialism is an untaught notion that children spontaneously develop that living things have an inner substance (essence) that makes something what it truly is. For example, pre-school children understand that there is a ‘doggy’ essence that makes dogs different from cats that have a ‘catty’ essence. Well there is. It’s called DNA, but no pre-school child is taught this. They simply infer this as part of their intuitive essentialism.

This is why apparent violation of the essence–for example, mixing up the species through either weird experiments or genetic modification–presents a violation to our notion that the essential integrity of an individual should not be violated.

How does this tie back to supernaturalism?

Hood: Well, in the book I explain how psychological essentialism helps the child to carve up the living world into different species and that this reflects an inference of essential integrity. Hence, violations (such as genetic modification) challenge the identity of the animal. Psychological essentialism also explains why individuals feel there is something inside living things that can be imbibed or transferred; this property is considered the vitalistic essence of the animal. This is why we eat certain foods for virility or animal strength, for example.

We all have, you say, “totems and sacred objects,” religious or otherwise, and that within each of us is a “sacred super sense.” When I read that, I immediately thought of the pushback you’ll likely receive for using the word “sacred” in reference to the secular. Why does “sacred” fit here for you as a defensible description? 

Hood: I borrowed the term from the economic psychologist, Philip Tetlock who talked about sacred values, a set of taboos and beliefs that members of a social group share. They are sacred because members of group should not violate them and hence they operate to sustain cohesion in the group.

In SuperSense, I argued how sacred values could be the totems, places, objects, rituals and all manner of items that are thought to have supernatural powers. These objects are deemed to be supernatural because of our inherent SuperSense and so they are revered as being profound rather than mundane. Otherwise, they would be just ordinary clumps of matter – which, of course, is exactly what they are, as indeed we all are.


Filed under Interviews

What Enemas and Demonic Possession Have to Do with Developing False Beliefs

confusedIf there’s anything that cognitive psychology studies have made clear over the years, it’s that humans can be exceptionally gullible.  With a little push, we’re prone to developing false beliefs not only about others, but about ourselves with equal prowess — and the results can be, well, hard to believe.

For example, a study in 2001 asked participants to rate the plausibility of having witnessed demonic possession as children and their confidence that they had actually experienced one.  Later, the same participants were given articles describing how commonly children witness demonic possessions, along with interviews with adults who claimed to have witnessed possessions as children. After reading the articles, participants not only rated demonic possession as more plausible than they’d previously said, but also became more confident that they themselves had actually experienced demonic possession as children.

Another (less dramatic) study asked participants to rate the plausibility that they’d received barium enemas as children.  As with the other study, participants were later presented with “credible” information about the prevalence of barium enemas among children, along with step-by-step procedures for administering an enema. And again, the participants rated the plausibility of having received a barium enema as children significantly higher than they had before.

A recent study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology wanted to determine the effect of prevalence information (information that establishes how commonly an event happens, making it seem more likely and therefore more self-relevant) on the development of false beliefs.  Participants were asked to rate the plausibility of 10 events from 1 (not at all plausible) to 8 (extremely plausible), and how confident they were that they’d experienced each event from 1 (definitely did not happen) to 8 (definitely did happen).  The events included a range of the highly plausible (I got lost in a shopping mall as a child) to the highly implausible (I was abducted by a UFO). 

Two weeks later, participants were brought back and given information on four of the events they’d previously rated, all in the low-to-moderate plausibility range (no UFOs). The information included newspaper articles, third-person descriptions, and data from previous study subjects — all of which was designed to establish higher prevalence of the events. 

The results:  High prevalence information from all sources affected the development of false beliefs. In particular, participants given high prevalence information in false newspaper articles became more confident that they had actually experienced the events, testifying to the power of the printed word.

The takeaway here probably has a few prongs. First, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that we’re just as susceptible to developing false beliefs as anyone else walking around this planet.  The brain is a superb miracle of errors and no one, except the brainless, is exempt. On the other hand, knowing that to be true is also the best preventative against chasing the make believe rabbit into his hole. A little error adjustment can go a long, long way.


Filed under About Belief, About Research

Expertise and Problem Solving, General or Specialized?

chessOne of the interesting ongoing debates in the expertise literature is whether general or specialized problem-solving strategies are more effective.  It’s an important question with implications for how skills are taught — most importantly, thinking. 

General problem-solving strategies are context-independent. For example, if Charley the policeman is taught the general strategy for safely disarming criminals, then he should be able to apply it to a general range of situations in which he faces armed criminals.  The general strategy, this argument goes, produces generally applicable problem-solving ability.

On the other hand, with his general strategy for disarming criminals, Charley may in fact be fairly effective– unless and until he encounters a specific situation that trumps his general ability. He may, for example, be expert at taking away a criminal’s handgun — but what happens if he encounters a criminal with another gun tucked in the back of his pants and a knife concealed in his sock?  If Charley never faced or trained for that situation (or one very much like it), he may be in for more than his problem-solving strategy can handle.

The journal Cognitive Science has a new study that backs up the argument for specialization, albeit with a less exciting example than disarming criminals. Expert chess players, specialized in different openings, were asked to recall positions and solve problems within and outside their area of specialization. All of the players’ general expertise was at roughly the same level. 

The results: players performed significantly better in their area of specialization, but not only better — they actually played over their own heads at the level of chess players with much better general skills. In other words, specialization trumped general problem solving and elevated the players’ level of play. 

The takeaway: when figuring out how to tackle a problem, knowledge derived from familiarity with that problem is more important than general problem-solving strategies. The key is memory. We rely on memory of specific experiences to craft solutions to new problems.  If you have expert general ability, but lack context-specific memory, you’re only as effective as general ability will allow – and if you’re Charley, that might not be good enough.

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Fallacy of Conjunction, What’s Your Paranormal Function?

diceYou’re in an airport waiting for your plane to board and decide to buy a magazine. The price, with tax, is $4.59.  Then you decide you could really use a frozen yogurt but aren’t sure you have enough time, so you look at your watch and are surprised to see that it’s 4:59 PM. Finally, you make it to your gate with a few minutes to spare, and only then notice that your flight number has been changed to — you guessed it — 459.  Mean anything to you?

It seems that when events co-occur (which is to say, conjunct) some of us are prone to believe that they were ‘meant’ to co-occur, or at least were more likely to co-occur than a single event occurring alone.  That’s the fallacy of conjunction, and according to a new study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, it’s at the core of belief in the paranormal.

The study set out to answer this question: do paranormal believers make more conjunction errors overall–for normal and paranormal events–than non-believers?  The answer is yes, they do.  And they especially fall prey to the conjunction fallacy when it comes to perceived paranormal events, including dream precognitions, waking precognitions, fortune teller predictions, and the mysterious power of ‘intuition’ (in the most new ageish sense of the word).

200 subjects, ages ranging from 18 to 56, participated in the study, which assessed their level of paranormal belief via questionairres (tested in previous studies for the same purpose). They were then asked to make “scenario judgements” that assessed their reliance on conjunction to explain given scenarios including normal or paranormal events.  At the end of the day, differences in how believers and non-believers responded were large — when two or more events co-occurred, believers were quick to assign significance, while non-believers wrote it up to probability.

And that’s really the heart of the matter: where some of us see celestial conjunction, others of us see regular old randomness doing its thing. Where some see meaningful coincidence, others see probability. Turns out, the less prone you are to relying on probability to explain conjunction, the more prone you are to believing in the paranormal. 

Interesting to note that previous studies have shown that a poor grasp of probability, and statistics overall, is a good predictor of paranormal belief.   Ignorance may be bliss, but it can also lead you to believe that you’re really precoging the future in your dreams, or pay a fortune teller hard-earned cash to caress your palms.

Nevertheless, the conjunction fallacy clearly has its place.  How else can people be expected to pick lottery numbers?

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