Psychologists often complain that neuroscientists get a disproportionate share of the glory when the mainstream media reports on their studies. It seems to some that an important new psychology study is often neglected or ignored entirely, while neuroscience studies of similar importance are hailed as “groundbreaking.” What is it about pictures of brains that are so appealing?
A while back, were excited to hear of a study which promised to show that people are more impressed by neuroscience explanations of research results than nonneural psychology explanations. Paul Bloom’s article about the then-unpublished research suggested that even experts were more impressed with explanations of psychological phenomena that included irrelevant references to brain activity.
But the study was unpublished, so we didn’t report on the results here. Now, finally, the study has been published by a team led by Deena Skolnick Weisberg. However, the results, though still intriguing, were a little different from what Bloom’s account promised.
The researchers began by asking 81 non-experts to read descriptions of 18 different psychological phenomena like Attentional Blink and the Curse of Knowledge. Then they read an explanation of the phenomenon that either included some bit of neuroscience or did not. Here, for example, are two explanations of why the curse of knowledge occurs:
Without neuroscience: The researchers claim that this “curse” happens because subjects have trouble switching their point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their own knowledge onto others.
With neuroscience: Brain scans indicate that this “curse” happens because of the frontal lobe brain circuitry known to be involved in self-knowledge. Subjects have trouble switching their point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their own knowledge onto others.
Even though both of these explanations are accurate, the neuroscience explanation in fact offers nothing to help understand the phenomenon. The non-experts also read
Without neuroscience: The researchers claim that this “curse” happens because subjects make more mistakes when they have to judge the knowledge of others. People are much better at judging what they themselves know.
With neuroscience: Brain scans indicate that this “curse” happens because of the frontal lobe brain circuitry known to be involved in self-knowledge. Subjects make more mistakes when they have to judge the knowledge of others. People are much better at judging what they themselves know.
They were asked to rate each explanation on a seven-point scale from -3 (very unsatisfying) to +3 (very satisfying). Here are the results:
While there was no significant difference in the results for good explanations, people rated the bad explanations significantly better when they included irrelevant neuroscience. The team repeated the experiment on college undergraduates who were enrolled in an introductory neuroscience class, and the results were similar, both at the beginning and the end of the semester. The students actually rated all the explanations significantly better when neuroscience was included, whether or not the explanations themselves were good.
Finally, the study was repeated on neuroscience experts: people who had completed undergraduate or graduate neuroscience or cognitive psychology degrees. Here are those results:
While there was a slight trend to rate the bad explanations with neuroscience better, it did not rise to the level of significance. Good explanations with neuroscience were actually rated worse by the experts than explanations without neuroscience content. So contrary to Bloom’s article, the final result of the study did not find the same effect for experts and non-experts. Perhaps preliminary data had been significant, but when more participants were tested, the effect went away.
Still, Weisberg et al. point out that their results are troubling: experts have a different view of what makes a good explanation of psychology research results. This could mean that they are ineffective in explaining their work to the public. Indeed, as we’ve seen, even after a semester-long neuroscience course, students are still impressed by irrelevant neuroscience explanations of research.
Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., Gray, J.R. (2008). The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477.