Why does this spongy mass fascinate us so much? The Egyptians certainly didn’t consider brains to be particularly worthwhile – they disposed of them before sending their relatives to the afterlife. To them, the heart was the centre of emotion, thought and personality. The brain was just a grey, gooey blob.
No longer. Now brains are everywhere. They are the object of marketing campaigns, political interest, economic gain, and even romantic desire. They appear in news articles, books, art exhibitions, and advertisements. We have a brain bias.
The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience
Brains have such a seductive allure that the inclusion of unnecessary or irrelevant neuroscience can even sway opinions, according to a study by Deena Weisberg and colleagues.
The researchers asked members of the public to judge whether explanations of real life psychological phenomena were good or bad. For instance, people were told that:
experiments have shown that doing mathematics and watching television both activate the temporal lobes of the brain. Therefore, watching television can help to improve your math skills.
The good news is that the participants were capable of distinguishing between good and bad explanations. However, when a bad explanation was paired with a completely irrelevant reference to a specific brain region, people found this “explanation” more satisfying than when no reference to the brain was included. Somehow neuroscience made a bad explanation more believable and even more satisfying.
A Celebrity Endorsement from the Brain
In other words, the researcher’s findings suggest you will be easily deceived by nerdy talk about the frontal lobes and brain circuits when you shouldn’t be. You will find the neuro-sports drink more appealing, the neuro-chocolate sweeter, and the neuro-vitamins just working better. You’ve fallen victim to a celebrity endorsement from the brain!
To see if this “seductive allure” affected everyone equally, Weisberg and her colleagues tested two additional groups: students studying neuroscience and neuroscience experts. Remarkably, the students were just as taken in as the general public although the experts were not. In fact, the experts always judged a bad explanation as bad and were actually less satisfied with good explanations that included irrelevant neuroscience.
Very few people are neuroscience experts but for the rest of us there is reason for hope. With all cognitive biases, knowledge is power. As we become aware of and familiar with our brain bias, it is likely to have less influence on our behaviour.
Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E. & Gray, J. R. (2008) The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20:3, 470-477.
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