Category Archives: Learning

Classic book: “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger

Recently, a self-described evangelical preacher named Harold Camping received much media attention after predicting that, in line with his interpretation of the Christian Bible, the world would end on May 21. (As far as I can tell, the world’s still here). I’ve long had an interest in apocalyptic cults because of the incredible complexity with which members of such social groups look at the world – psychologically speaking, they’re fascinating.

It’s no surprise, then, that such group have received much scholarly attention over the years. One work stands out – When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. First published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails tells the story of Dorothy Martin, a Chicago homemaker who claimed to receive telepathic messages from the alien planet Clarion warning that the Earth would end on December 21, 1954. Led by Martin, a group of followers gave up their possessions, jobs, and family ties to follow Martin, who told her group that ‘true believers’ in the aliens’ warning would be evacuated from Earth a few hours before the end via flying saucer.

Festinger, the lead researcher and a social psychologist at the U. of Minnesota (later, he moved on to Stanford), used the Martin group as a case study of his theory of cognitive dissonance, which argued that humans tend to generate belief systems and worldviews that conform to their actual behaviors in order to reduce the dissonance – or conflict – caused by holding incompatible beliefs simultaneously. In the case of the Martin UFO group, after the world did not end (and they were not saved by a flying saucer), only some members of the group abandoned Martin. Others came to believe that their actions (spreading the word about the impending end of the world) actually caused the end to NOT happen – that is, rather than concluding that they had accepted a mistaken belief, many of Martin’s followers instead concluded that the end would have happened but for their actions.

When Prophecy Fails was recently reprinted and is available from various booksellers, including Amazon.

The “science of self-delusion”

 

Update: My original post omitted the link to Mother Jones’ article. Sorry for any confusion. —MGS

Mother Jones Magazine reports:

An array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

The human inclination to gossip might have evolutionary benefits, new study suggests

Many psychologists argue that psychological traits found in modern human beings exist not merely by happenstance but because our distant ancestors who possessed a given trait were better adapted to their environment and thus survived (at least long enough to propagate their genes) while humans possessing other, less well-adapted traits died out.

USA Today reports on a new study in this vein:

Gossip, whether “delicious or destructive,” serves a function, according to the study [by Anderson et. al.], to be published online May 19 by the journal Science. In lieu of direct experience, social tittle-tattle allows people to learn about others across a very wide group, the team say. That, in turn, gives people cues on who to befriend (or not) without having to actually have to spend lots of time with them first.

The Anderson et. al. article is available online here (subscription required).

TIME Magazine on the nature of masculinity

TIME Magazine reports:

Manhood is a social status, something a guy earned historically, through brutal tests of physical endurance or other risky demonstrations of toughness that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. But while that masculinity is hard-won, it can be easily lost.

Once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action. In modern society, that may no longer mean, say, killing the meatiest wooly mammoth, but there are equivalent displays of masculinity: earning a decent living or protecting one’s family. One misstep — losing a job, for instance, or letting someone down — and that gender identity slips away.

The phenomenon helps explain why men are so touchy about their masculinity. Women don’t have the same problem, of course. Womanhood is largely seen as something innate, immutable: girls become women through puberty; once achieved, womanhood sticks.

In a series of studies, psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello at the University of South Florida decided to probe this idea further. Specifically, they wanted to know, do modern men still use physical action and aggression to prove their manhood?

The Bosson & Vandello article cited by TIME is available here (PDF-subscription required).

‘Motivated reasoning’ and our pre-existing beliefs

[Hat tip to Dr. Eric Snow for letting me know about this article.]

Mother Jones reports:

an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

How do you know that you actually know what you think you know?

The New York Times reports:

Psychologists have long known that people’s instincts about how well they’ve learned a subject are often way off. The feel of a study session can be a poor reflection of its nutritional value: Concepts that seem perfectly clear become fuzzy at exam time, and those that are hard to grasp somehow click into place when it counts.

In recent years, researchers have begun to clarify why this is so, and in some cases how to correct for it. The findings are especially relevant nowadays, experts say.

“So much of the learning that we do now is unsupervised, on our own,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, “that it’s crucial to be able to monitor that learning accurately; that is, to know how well we know what we know, so that we avoid fooling ourselves.”

April 18 cognitive science news round-up

  • Writing in the New York Times a few months ago, physician Perri Klass reviewed recent research to counter myths our society has about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Among Dr. Klass’s arguments was a statement that seemed to rule out cultural influences as possible contributing factors to ADHD. In this op-ed piece in the Huffington Post, neuroscientist Russell Poldrack argues that our ‘information culture’ can indeed contribute to ADHD.
  • A new study by a global consortium of researchers found that among a pool of study participants from around the world, a majority reported failure in their efforts to ‘unplug’ from information technology such as mobile phones and the Internet. Some study participants even reported feeling symptoms akin to those suffered by substance abusers going through withdrawal.  [U. of Maryland International Center for Media & the Public Affairs]
  • “A survey of hundreds of drinkers found that on average people could tell good wine from plonk no more often than if they had simply guessed.” [The Guardian]