If it sounds like neuroscience, it must be true

The "seductive allure" of brain studies.

News outlets regularly announce that the brain's signature for love, greed, aggression, or some other behavior has been discovered. "These studies are everywhere in the media," says Deena Skolnick Weisberg, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology. And yet, "I was finding that the explanations really weren't always that convincing."

Weisberg wondered whether information about the brain could be so persuasive that it compromises the public's ability to evaluate research critically. In the March issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, she shows that although people are reasonably adept at identifying bad psychological explanations for human behavior, a dash of neuroscience can make faulty logic sound far more credible.

Weisberg's team began by writing a series of explanations for well-documented psychological phenomena. Some versions were "good," presenting solid reasoning and the scientifically accepted rationale for a behavior, while others were "bad," providing only circular logic. The researchers found that people without any psychology or neuroscience training successfully distinguished the good reasoning from the bad. But when the researchers added an utterly irrelevant mention of the physical brain, subjects' powers of discrimination weakened considerably.

In particular, people judged the bad explanations to be far more believable when they included neuroscience. (The good accounts got only a slight boost.) Only true experts—people with advanced cognitive science training—were immune to what Weisberg and her team call "the seductive allure of neuroscience."

"What would really be helpful is better education about how to read any kind of popular report of science," Weisberg says. But barring that, even just knowing about these cognitive mistakes can help people avoid making them.  

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