Psychology Is Not Intuitive. k?

What is science? Fundamentally, science is a process of hypothesis-testing. Scientists observe phenomena, propose hypotheses to explain or account for some observed phenomenon, and design experiments to test those hypotheses. Then those or other scientists attempt to replicate the findings. In other words, science is performed in the following manner:

1. Define the question
2. Gather information and resources (observe)
3. Form hypothesis
4. Perform experiment and collect data
5. Analyze data
6. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
7. Publish results
8. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

Psychological Science, then, is the application of the scientific method and hypothesis-testing to behavior or cognition.

Let's get one thing straight: psychology is not easy.

Okay, a second thing: psychology is rarely intuitive. Things that happen below the level of conscious awareness? Even less intuitive. Psychological Science (when done properly) is as scientifically rigorous as any other scientific discipline (when done properly). Even among scientists, psychology is sometimes not perceived as a science. Part of my motivation for going into such detail on the methods for many of my posts (other than the fact that some of the methods are brilliantly clever) is to show the scientific method at work and how carefully the experiments are constructed.


Figure 1: SCIENCE!!

Not convinced that psychology is often non-intuitive? Watch the following video I made out of the supplementary material from this paper. Stare at the red fixation dot in the center. After 30 seconds, the dot arrays will change. Don't read ahead; watch the video first. After the change, which side appears to have more dots? Continue to stare at the fixation cross, after the switch, for the remaining 30 seconds.

If you are like most people, then immediately after the switch, the right side array appeared to have more dots, despite the fact that the two arrays after the switch were the same size. This phenomenon is probably not new to you. It has to do with neural fatigue - the explanation for the complementary color aftereffect is similar. But what happened while you continued to stare at the fixation point? After several seconds, the two arrays which initially seemed unequal started to even out. But, importantly, you likely did not perceive dots popping into or out of existence. Instead, as the previously fatigued neurons that participate in large number enumeration came back online, your perception was altered, below the level of conscious awareness. Many people are surprised that this form of counting - rapid large number enumeration - happens below conscious awareness. This is non-intuitive, inaccessible to experience, and not really simple or obvious.

More like this I see dots everywhere.

So my first undergrad degree was psych, and I still keep up with research when I have time (which is not often, but I keep psych searches on my Pub Crawler!). I could be wrong since I have no evidence to back this up besides the anecdotal, but I would guess that fields like social psych would be the ones most likely to be seen as intuitive. least, I got a perfect score on my social final without studying by answering intuitively :p. (which is not to say it's easy, I found psych research so frustrating that I switched fields entirely)

In your model of the scientific method, what would you say is the main goal of the hypothesis, given that the question was already asked? I mean, if the research question is "On what side will you see the most dots?", then the hypothesis might be "Neither", "Left" or "Right", but regardless of which one you choose, you're still going to look at the results and determine which one would have been correct, right?

I didn't notice the effect in the video by the way. I was half expecting to see that both sides actually did not have the same number of dots, because that would have been unintuitive for not matching my perception. But oh well, most of these illusions don't work on everybody.


I would guess that fields like social psych would be the ones most likely to be seen as intuitive.

You're correct (watch out for a post later this week addressing this question specifically). The interesting issue is not whether or not the intuition is accurate (its not) but why that intuition is so pervasive.


if the research question is "On what side will you see the most dots?", then the hypothesis might be "Neither", "Left" or "Right", but regardless of which one you choose, you're still going to look at the results and determine which one would have been correct, right?

The question isn't "on what side will you see the most dots?" The question is "how does the large number system work?" The dots, rather, are an experiment that can be designed to address one aspect of the question: perhaps, "is explicit counting necessary to enumerate an array of objects?". In most cases you'd obviously need multiple experiments to pick apart all different aspects of a question.

So, if we start out with the left side having more dots, why does the right side appear to have more after the change?

I'm glad that you've made such a point to stress that psychology can be a rigorous, legitimate science when properly and thoroughly documented. Part of the problem, I am sure, is that people in general do not like the idea that someone can "know" what they are thinking. I got more flack when people found out I was taking an undergraduate in Psychology (mind you at the time I was taking an elective in Genetics), it was rather amazing how quickly they shut-down after that factoid came out, when they were so engaged in discussion animal behavior before.

Anyway, you're combining my two favorite subjects, so I'll be checking in often.

I do not doubt that psychological experiments can be rigorous. I often dive into psychological literature to help design my experiments and to get a grasp on observed behavior. You are right, it is not intuitive. But if I just read your post, it does little to reassure me of the rigor. The interpretation of the results, the 'neural fatigue' explanation, just seems to me a wild leap. What evidence do you have linking the phenomenon to this neural activity? I mean, of course there is some neural explanation, but is there psychophysical data linking a specific group of neurons to the perception and to the illusion? Where are these fatiguable cells are located? I am sure there is lots of data between that movie and your explanation; and I realize that this is a blog post and not a peer reviewed article. Furthermore, I do not work in sensory neurophysiology so I do not know the literature. However I write this to highlight a point that I observe among my psychologist colleagues; I see a great deal of rigor in designing experiments, less so when it comes to interpreting the results.

Didn't the BPS research digest have something recently on the idea that psychology is 'easy/common sensical' starting quite young? So it's quite an engrained idea to have to challenge. In fact, my first ever undergrad essay was 'is psychology a science? Discuss' which even as a psych undergrad I found quite hard to overwhelmingly answer yes to.

Good post though, I certainly be pointing people here in future. Especially whoever next tells me that my work is either just common sense, or really obvious.

By teenage dreams (not verified) on 19 Apr 2010 #permalink

This is the argument I always have with my fiancée. She's into psychoanalysis (in Buenos Aires our Psychology Faculty is more like a Lacanian Faculty) and I think it is an outdated pseudoscience. She doesn't think that one can formulate basic laws and rules of behaviour in a similar way that we do with the rest of nature, she also objects that animal studies are useless because humans have culture.

I had an extremely bad reaction to this test. After I stared at the red dot while watching the video, right before the switch I suddenly started feeling very dizzy, and my anxiety was going haywire. I almost threw up on my keyboard.

What is wrong with me? I didn't expect this to happen to me.

william, your comment in number 6 is on the right track, and you are thinking scientifically. This demonstration, by itself, supports the neural fatigue hypothesis, but doesn't prove it. The neural fatigue hypothesis, and our explanation of the basic processes of the visual system at retinal and primary occipital levels comes from multiple studies, using edges, movement, colour, etc., whose joint findings can only be explained by neural fatigue, as well as linking this to anatomical and physiological data (single cell recording, for example). Any one study is interesting, but primarily as it builds on and leads to other findings. This post relies on a lot of unstated background, and thus it can seem speculative, even though it's not presenting anything that would be unexpected from a 1920's list of visual illusions.

Is this why "conservatives" cant see all the problems they cause? Neural fatigue?

By Hippyfreak (not verified) on 20 Apr 2010 #permalink

I perceived both sides to have the same number of dots after the switch, even while staring at the red dot. I guess, yay.

Interesting. At first as you said, it looked like there were more dots on the right side, but instead of it "evening out" for me I just recognised that the patterns were the same.
It's neat though. :)

I was surprised at how fast the changes in my perception happened - well under a second to go from the (apparent) huge swing towards the right, to recognition that the images were identical. I wonder if some people were processing the dots differently: I was seeing them more as an overall shape or shading of colour than as discrete dots.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 25 Apr 2010 #permalink