The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations

That’s the title of a peer-reviewed study published this month by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, courtesy of Ken Pope’s listserv. The study has an interesting finding — given bad information subjects were more likely to judge it credible if accompanied by irrelevant neuroscience information. This finding is particularly relevant to science reporting as neuroscience “information” has the aura of scientific objectivity that the media loves to invoke. People tend to assume that if something is related to scientific hypothesis that it is “proven”, a fallacy covered here before. Often this information includes non-facts such as the idea that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” a theory that while widely touted remains unsubstantiated, unproven. (The chemical imbalance theory has also been covered on this blog, here.)

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

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 naïve 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 nonexpert 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 nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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