The Frontal Cortex

Reductionism is seductive, especially when it comes attached with a nifty sounding brain region:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation
of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naìˆve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

That’s the abstract for a new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. I think this finding could be used to discard a significant percentage of fMRI studies, which sometimes rely on a few distracting anatomical references (the insula! the amygdala! the mPFC!) to mask their banal results. Irrelevant jargon, especially of the reductionist variety, is intellectually intimidating. I should know, since this effect often happens to me.

Language Log has more.


  1. #1 hip hip array
    June 7, 2007

    How do you distinguish between “the allure of neuroscientific explanations” and the attractiveness of apparent authority based on neuroscientific knowledge? The neuroscientific info was defined by the experimenters and experts as irrelevant, so there really wasn’t a really “neuroscientific explanation” to exercise allure. Was the irrelevance evident to the subjects?

  2. #2 hip hip array
    June 7, 2007

    Sorry, one too many “reallys” in there.

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