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The deceptive allure of neuroscience

This post is also available in Dutch.

An explanation of human behaviour appears to be more attractive when it’s backed by neuroscientific information, even if the explanation is wrong. How is this possible? And how can we resist temptation?

What follows is a description of a psychological phenomenon, followed by two explanations of this phenomenon. Which of these explanations is more convincing to you?

The phenomenon: “We overestimate the number of people that know a fact when we know the fact ourselves. If, for example, you know that Donders Wonders also has bloggers from outside the Donders Institute, you’ll be more inclined to indicate that a great many people also know this (even though they might not). This is called the ‘curse of knowledge’.

Explanation 1: “Researchers say that this ‘curse’ can be attributed to the fact that people find it difficult to imagine what others know, which causes them to unfairly project their knowledge onto others.”

Explanation 2: “Brain scans show that this ‘curse’ can be attributed to a brain circuit in the frontal lobe, which we know is involved in self-knowledge. People find it difficult to imagine what others know, which causes them to unfairly project their knowledge onto others.”

Do you think explanation 2 is stronger and more attractive? Then your answer corresponds to that of most people in a study from famous Yale University. Both explanations are correct, but the second one also provides neuroscientific information. Despite the fact that this neuroscientific information adds nothing to the logic of the explanation, it is seen as the stronger one.

A brain fact can be deceptive
Since both explanations in our example are correct, it’s not so bad that the explanation with information about the brain is deemed more attractive. However, researchers in the study also provided participants with incorrect explanations. Adding neuroscientific information to these bad explanations had an even stronger effect than it had on proper explanations. The inaccuracies in the explanations stood out less, due to the addition of a ‘brain fact’.

The attractiveness of neuroscience can thus be problematic. You could easily mislead someone with wrong information if you simply mention some abracadabra about our grey matter. Deception can also occur on a larger scale, because neuroscience can influence our outlook on matters such as politics, legislation, education and even the way we look at ourselves.

Why can we be misled by neuroscience?
We can be misled by explanations that contain neuroscientific information because we don’t always find it easy to think about explanations. For example, longer explanations or explanations from an expert are generally deemed to be better, regardless of the content. In short, we usually believe an explanation because it is intuitively attractive and not because it’s correct. Adding a pinch of neuroscience makes an explanation just that bit more attractive that we are more inclined to see it as true.

How do we resist deceptions?
The deception can easily be withstood. The more you know about neuroscience, the more difficult it is to be fooled. Experts in the study were not sensitive to the unnecessary information. It is of course important to take non-experts into account as well. Researchers should thus clearly communicate their findings. They have to indicate what can and cannot (yet) be concluded from their results. Even then, researchers’ explanations can be taken out of context. But forewarned is forearmed; after reading this blog, you’re aware of the potentially misleading temptation of neuroscience. So you are at least less susceptible to the allure of the brain.

Highlighted image by Mohamed Hassan via Pixabay

Original Language: Dutch
Author: Angelique
Buddy: Felix
Editor: Floortje
Translator: Wessel
Editor translation: Mónica

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