Friday, December 16, 2011

Flow Chart, Part 10

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Flow Chart, Part 9

Psychology of Belief, Part 9: Agenticity

While it may be true that earthquakes are devastating and terrifying events, there is definitely nothing supernatural about them.  For example, it is a well-documented fact that the entire nation of Japan lies squarely on top of a major subduction zone caused by the intersection of no less than four tectonic plates [1].  It is therefore no surprise that the Japanese people have been forced to suffer through dozens of severe earthquakes and volcanic eruptions throughout their recorded history, and it should come as no further surprise when just as many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions continue to occur in the future.  It is, after all, the natural behavior one should expect when given the geological conditions below.  It simply cannot help but happen.

So why is it that so many people will happily attribute such events to the wrath of some mysterious deity when there is an obvious natural cause?

Consider the following experiment [2]…

I’m going to show you a movie.  As you watch the movie, describe what you see happening.  Ready?  Let's begin.

"Well, let’s see.  There is a triangle moving around inside of a rectangle.  Oh, here comes a circle and a little triangle.  Big triangle exits the rectangle… now big triangle and little triangle are colliding with each other … circle is now inside the rectangle… some more general bumping and poking going on …"

And so on and so on…

[Actual quote from subject:  "A large solid triangle is shown entering a rectangle. It enters and comes out of this rectangle, and each time the corner and one-half of one of the sides of the rectangle form an opening. Then another, smaller triangle and a circle appear on the scene. The circle enters the rectangle while the larger triangle is within. The two move about in circular motion and then the circle goes out of the opening and joins the smaller triangle which has been moving around outside the rectangle. Then the smaller triangle and the circle move about together and when the larger triangle comes out of the rectangle and approaches them, they move rapidly in a circle around the rectangle and disappear....” ]

In short, a bunch of geometric objects enter the scene, move around for a while, and then leave.  How much simpler could it get?  It should therefore come as no surprise whatsoever when over 95 % of subjects describe the footage in the exact same way, right?

Well, actually, YES IT SHOULD!

If you are like most people, this movie probably feels like more to you than mere cardboard cutouts undergoing stop-motion animation.  For example, you might suppose that Big Triangle and Little Triangle are engaged in some sort of conflict.  Little Triangle and Circle are apparently friends, or maybe even lovers.  Perhaps you even think the Big Triangle is a bully or a jealous husband.  Yet despite this apparent perception, the movie is still nothing more than lifeless geometric objects moving around on a screen.

[Actual quote from another subject: “A man has planned to meet a girl and the girl comes along with another man. The first man tells the second to go; the second tells the first, and he shakes his head. Then the two men have a fight, and the girl starts to go into the room to get out of the way and hesitates and finally goes in. She apparently does not want to be with the first man. The first man follows her into the room after having left the second in a rather weakened condition leaning on the wall outside the room. The girl gets worried and races from one corner to the other in the far part of the room. Man number one, after being rather silent for a while, makes several approaches at her; but she gets to the corner across from the door, just as man number two is trying to open it…”]

This is a phenomenon called “anthropomorphization.”  Not only will most people describe these objects in terms of animate creatures, but many of us will even come to perceive them as actual human beings, complete with a full set of emotions, motives, genders, personalities, and back stories.  In fact, this perception is so universal, that failure to do so can almost be consideed a sign of brain damage.  For example, autistic subjects who view this same animation will generally describe it more in terms of geometric objects rather than motivated characters [3].  Similar results have also been reported in the victims of severe head trauma [4].  Personification of the external world is therefore a ubiquitous facet of human nature with deeply seeded roots in our socially-focused neurology.  Most of us cannot help but exhibit this behavior, and it is important to recognize this fundamental bias in our perception.

So what does all of this have to do with earthquakes?

Recall from Part 8 of this video series that many human beings possess high levels of need for cognitive closure.  That means whenever some event cries out for an explanation, the natural tendency is to latch on to whatever answer happens to come along first.  However, as we have just learned from the Heider and Simmel experiment, a very pervasive tendency among people is to spontaneously perceive the world in terms of deliberate, emotionally-motivated characters.  The net result is therefore a process called “agenticity" [5].  When confronted with a mysterious and dramatic event like, say, an earthquake in Japan, there exists a strong urge to fill the void of uncertainty with the conscious actions of human-like agents.

[Agenticity: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents]

Now, armed with this new appreciation for a common bias in human perception, let us examine one of the more commonly-used arguments for God’s existence.

[Show clip from apologist video about William Paley]

Arguments like these can come in a wide variety of forms, but are all generally part of a larger class known as Teleological Arguments or simply Arguments from Design.  These arguments are wildly popular among religious apologetics, even though a casual scrutiny immediately exposes serious flaws.  For example, one variation will argue that the fundamental constants of the universe itself must have been "finely tuned," because slight perturbations to these constants would prevent the emergence of life.  Aside from the fact that this is obviously nothing more than a classical “God of the Gaps” argument, cosmologists have already refuted the premise entirely.  One famous study has even demonstrated a perfectly feasible universe, complete with heavy elements and carbon-based chemistry, in the total absence of a weak nuclear force [6]!

Worse still, it is hard to imagine how our universe is supposed to be "fine tuned for life" in any meaningful sense.  Between the cosmic shooting galleries of meteor impacts, cosmic radiation, volcanic activity, black holes, and supernova explosions, the universe seems far more interested in snuffing out life altogether rather than helping it flourish.  The entire argument is literally predicated on the existence of some cosmic uber-fairy with the power to precisely define the intrinsic laws of nature to his very choosing, yet completely happy with the vast, overwhelming majority of his own universe being completely hostile to the very thing it was allegedly “designed” to support!

In short, the real question we should be asking is not, “who designed the universe?”  Rather, a far more compelling question is “Why are teleological arguments so freakishly popular?”

Consider the following experiment [7]:

[The following is the warm-up demo given to subjects in order to help them distinguish between "made for something" and "not made for anything" concepts.]

This is a pencil.  It was made by a human for the express purpose of writing.  This is a pencil sharpener.  It was also made by a human for the express purpose of sharpening pencils.  These, however, are pencil shavings.  They have no purpose.  They are not made for anything.  It is just a pile of stuff that is there.  Maybe someone can use it for something, but it is not made for anything.  Is this distinction clear?  Good.

[This next section with the tiger is also directly taken from the article.]

“See this?  This is a tiger.”

“Ben says a tiger is made for something.  It could be that it’s made for eating and walking and being seen at the zoo, or it could be that it’s made for other things.  But Ben is sure that a tiger is made for something and that’s why it’s there.”

“Jane says that this is silly.  A tiger isn’t made for anything.  Even though it can eat and walk and be seen at the zoo, that’s not what it’s made for.  They’re just things it can do or people can do with it.  Jane is sure that a tiger can do many things but they aren’t what it’s made for and they aren’t why it’s here.”

“Point to who you think is right.  Ben who thinks a tiger is made for something or Jane who thinks that’s silly because a tiger isn’t made for anything.”

Once you finish with the tiger, repeat this little game using pictures of anything else you can think of.  You can use clocks, noses, bunnies, bicycles; anything you want.  Just be sure that buried within your pictures are examples of natural objects with no meaningful function.  For example, you might want to include a mountain top.  In every literal sense imaginable, this object is nothing more than a pile of dirt and rocks that happened to rise up as a result of geological forces.  It has no purpose whatsoever and only came into existence through purely aimless, random, natural causes.

Surely, no grown-up would be silly enough to assign deliberate design to completely natural objects, would they?


When administered to young adults, it is perfectly common for 30% of the responses to agree with the “made for something” position while viewing completely natural objects.  This perception of design is even greater when presented with biological organisms like tigers and rabbits.  Yet in all frankness, a tiger has no more intrinsic purpose for existing than a mountain does.  Tigers are, after all, nothing more than the end result of a long chain of inherited allele variations in reproductive populations subject to natural selection.  So although such a process is certainly capable of producing complex structures with apparent survival advantage, there is no meaningful “purpose” to this any more than there is with geological forces as they pile up a mountain of dirt.

Now let’s shake things up a bit.

The mere fact that these numbers are anything other than zero is interesting enough on its own, but that’s still only half of the story.  To make things even more interesting, go and get yourself a group of 5-year-old children and then repeat the entire experiment with them.  Surely, the un-corrupted minds of young children will not be so prone to teleological thinking, would they?


In actuality, young children make very little distinction between the alleged purposes of man-made artifacts, biological organisms, and completely natural objects.  This makes teleological thinking a pervasive bias in human perception that is virtually hard-wired into our neurology at birth.  It is only through years of disciplined education and real-world experience that such perceptions tend to diminish.

So what does all of this have to do teleological arguments?

Here’s how it works.

As we have already shown, agenticity is a process whereby human beings tend to infer the existence of deliberate agents as the ultimate movers and shakers behind events in our environment.  A natural product of this perception is the general tendency to see objects in the natural world as being deliberately “designed” for some ultimate purpose, even when most of these objects demonstrably serve no purpose at all.  This perception is especially ubiquitous among children, and only tends to disappear as people get older and wiser.  Consequently, the teleological argument for God is, in a very literal sense, childish!  It has no empirical basis whatsoever, and serves only as an appeal to our intrinsic perception of causal agents that influence the world around us.

So are earthquakes and tsunamis really a sign of divine retribution against sinful mortals?  Is the universe really finely-tuned for the express purpose of supporting life?  Or are these concepts merely the cognitive manifestations of a tendency to perceive human characteristics in otherwise perfectly natural events?

[1] Barnes, G. L., “Origins of the Japanese islands: the new ‘big picture,’” Japan Review, Vol 15, pp. 3-50 (2003)

[2] Heider, F. and Simmel, M., “An experimental study of apparent behavior,” The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 57, No 2, pp 243 – 259 (1944)

[3]  Bowler D. M., and Thommen, E., "Attribution of mechanical and social causality to animated displays by children with autism," Autism, Vol 4, No 2, 147-171 (2000)

[4] Heberlein, A. S. and Adolphs, R. "Impaired spontaneous anthropomorphizing despite intact perception and social knowledge,"  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Vol 101, No 19, pp 7487 - 7491 (2004)

[5] Shermer, M. "Agenticity: Why people believe that invisible agents control the world,"  Scientific American, Vol 300, No 6, pp 36 (2009)

[6] Harnik, R., Kribs, G. D., and Perez, G., “A universe without weak interactions,” Physical Review D, Vol 74, 035006 (2006)

[7] Kelemen, D., “The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children,” Cognition, Vol 70, No 3, pp. 241 - 272 (1999)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

[Script] Psychology of Belief Part 5: Compliance Techniques

NOTE:  Full video can be viewed here.


[Begin with Ray Comfort clip(s) getting a guy to admit that he is a murderer]

If I were to ask you directly, “are you a murderer at heart?” what would your answer be?  And how would your answer be affected by the mere virtue that somewhere, sometime in your life, you once felt anger towards another human being?  Does that actually make you a genuine murderer?  No, of course it doesn’t!  The very idea is absurd beyond all reason.  So what is it about this conversation that compels a man to happily agree to the accusation of murder?


Suppose next Monday morning you receive a phone call from a man claiming to represent an organization called the “California Consumers’ Group.”  The reason this man is calling is because he would like to know if you are willing to participate in a survey regarding the various household products you use daily.  All he needs is 2 hours of your time and free access to your home, while a group of, say, 5-6 men rummage through your stuff and take inventory.

Now obviously, this is a wildly intrusive request, so it is no wonder that only 22 % of the subjects agreed to take part in the survey.

Now let’s shake things up a bit…

Suppose that instead of rummaging through your stuff, the surveyor wants to know if you would be willing to answer a few basic questions over the phone about which brands of soap you use to clean your kitchen.  That’s not so bad, right?  Answer a few questions, thank you for your time, and you’re done. 

Three days later, the gentleman contacts you again and asks you to take another survey.  All he needs is 2 hours of your time and free access to your home, while a group of, say, 5-6 men rummage through your stuff and take inventory.

In all respects, this is exactly the same unreasonable request as before.  The only difference is that it has now been pre-conditioned by an agreement three days prior to answer eight mundane questions about soap.  Surely, such a flimsy pretext would have no affect on compliance, right?


The mere act of securing a minor agreement more than DOUBLED the success rate [53 %] for the intrusive request.  This is the basis for what is called the “Foot in the Door” technique.  The probability of generating compliance with any request is greatly increased when agreement is first secured to a much smaller commitment.
[Show Ray Comfort again.  Give play by play captions as he secures the minor agreement before pulling the intrusive agreement to “murder”]

Now let’s examine another experiment [2]:

Suppose you are a freshman student in psychology 101.  As part of an extra credit assignment, you are invited to take part in an experiment on “thinking processes.”  All you have to do is show up at the perfectly reasonable hour of 7am on a school day.  Piece of cake, right?

No, of course not!  Very rarely is any college student going to drag himself out of bed at 7am just for a few measly extra credit points; so it is no surprise that only 24% of the students actually complied. 

Now let’s shake things up a bit…

Rather than be frank about the unreasonable hour, suppose we first secure a verbal agreement to participate in the extra credit work before bringing up the 7am time frame.  Again, in all respects, this is exactly the same request as before, but with a minor rearrangement in when information is given.  Surely, such a minor detail would not elicit greater compliance to a 7am experiment, would it?


By waiting until after a verbal agreement has been reached, compliance with the 7am time frame nearly doubled to 53 %.  This is the basis for a technique known as “low-balling.”  The probability of generating compliance with a request may be dramatically increased simply by waiting until after an agreement has been reached before revealing the hidden cost.

Let’s do another one.  Consider yet another experiment [3]:

Suppose you are at a bake sale and stumble across the following offer:  One cupcake and two cookies for the low-low price of $0.75.  Sounds like a real bargain, right?  So it is no surprise that 40 % of control subjects took the deal.  Yummy!

Now let’s shake things up a bit.

Suppose you come across the following offer: One cupcake for $0.75.  No, wait.  Hang on a second… My mistake, that’s supposed to be one cupcake and two cookies for $0.75.

Once again, this is exactly the same offer.  The only difference is that I have artificially inflated the value of the offer by starting with the cupcake alone, and then adding the cookies to it.  Surely, no one is stupid enough to fall for such a cheesy ploy, are they?

By now, you probably see what’s coming.  By simply offering the cookies on top of the cupcake, 73 % of subjects took the offer.  This is the basis for what is known as the “That’s-not-all” technique (TNA), where the probability of compliance is greatly increased simply by artificially inflating the apparent value of the offer.

At this point, one painful fact should start feeling very apparent.  Namely, PEOPLE… ARE… SUCKERS.  And I’m not just talking about kids and old ladies here.  This applies to everyone.  You, me, your neighbors, your friends, your family, everyone.  All of us are suckers to varying degrees.  Worse yet, these techniques are just a tiny sampling of the various methods by which people can manipulate the compliance of their fellow human beings. Anyone who would knowingly employ such tactics is nothing more than a marketer trying to sell something.

So how does such research apply to matters of faith?  Is this the kind of man sharing valuable knowledge with an evidentiary basis in reality?  Or is this man nothing more than a clever salesman attempting to generate belief through methods that are well-known for their power to instill compliance?  And what does this all say about this poor dope right here? [show street patsy].  Is this guy being won over by the power of the Holy Inspired Word?  Or is he just another patsy falling victim to textbook psychological manipulation?

  1. Freedman, J. L. and Fraser, S. C., "Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 4, No. 2, 155-202 (1966)
  2. Cialdani, R. B., Bassett, R., Cacioppo, J. T., and Miller, J. A., "Low-ball procedure for producing compliance: commitment then cost," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 36, No. 5, 463-476 (1978)
  3. Burger, J. M., "Increasing compliance by improving the deal: the that's-not-all technique," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 51, No. 2, 277-283 (1986)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Mysterious Black Box of Carl and Richard.

Imagine two friends, Carl and Richard, hiking together in the woods on a summer afternoon.  While stopping to rest on a tree stump, Carl happens to notice a peculiar object half-buried underneath some leaves and twigs nearby.  After clearing out the debris, the two boys are amazed when they discover a small, black, wooden box.  Intrigued by this discovery, they immediately begin to hypothesize over what the mysterious box contains.

“I’ll bet it’s treasure!” says Richard.  “No one would hide a box out here in the woods unless it contained something very valuable.”

But Carl disagrees.  “You are wrong,” he says.  “The box must contain the remains of someone’s pet.  Nobody buries treasure anymore.  It is just a little coffin.”

Yet Richard is un-moved.  “That makes no sense at all.  Who buries their pets out here in the middle of the woods?  No one, I say.”

Carl swiftly moves again to counter Richard.  “You’re just being stubborn.  Look around you.  It is obvious that the burial was intended to be in a natural environment.  Who wouldn’t want to bury their former pets in a place like this?”

However, Richard is insistent.  “Why are you arguing what you already know is wrong?  It is only stolen gold that makes any real sense.  The thieves obviously wanted to leave it slightly exposed so they could easily retrieve it later.  We just got lucky and found it first.”

Yet once again, Carl is quick to rebut.  “Use your reasoning,” he says.  “There are plenty of good hiding places for stolen treasure that would be far more accessible.  There is no logic in leaving it out here in the middle of the woods where random guys like us could stumble into it.  The odds are far too improbable.”

For hours, Carl and Richard continue in this cycle.  For every argument offered up by Carl about his dead pet theory, Richard forms a seemingly rational dismissal.  Then for every logical deduction offered by Richard that the box must contain treasure, Carl produces a well-reasoned retort. 

And all the while, the box itself remains unopened…

How many times have you witnessed an exchange that was similar to this?  From political debates to theological discussions, it is very common to find people engaging in dialogs that closely resemble the scene between Carl and Richard.  Yet no matter how confident either may be in their reasoning, it should be obvious that no amount of logical conjecture can ever derive the contents of the box.  The box might contain a deceased animal, or it might contain gold coins.  It might even contain both at once.  It might contain something entirely unforeseen or perhaps even nothing at all.  But when all is said and done, the ultimate arbiter of the box’s contents is the box itself.  So rather than spend hours arguing over what the box should logically, sensibly, or probably contain, a far more constructive endeavor is to simply open the box and inspect its contents directly.

Now let us consider a twist in the story of Carl and Richard.  Suppose instead that the box is locked, and neither one possesses the tools to pry it open.  Such a scenario is a very useful analogy for understanding human perceptions of nature.  For example, no one has ever truly seen an individual electron, and we cannot be absolutely certain that such things even exist, let alone of how they behave.  The entirety of quantum theory itself is, in fact, nothing more than a vast construct of human imagination.  It might be an accurate description of reality, or it might be dead wrong.  The realm of sub-atomic particles is so completely beyond our perspective that none of it can be observed in any direct fashion.  Consequently, no matter how hard we may try, some boxes can never be truly opened, and an absolute determination of reality is forever beyond our reach.

So what happens to the discussion now?  Given a locked box, are the boys forever doomed to pointlessly argue in ignorance about the true state of its contents?

Fortunately, the answer is no.  Even if we cannot directly observe the innards of the mysterious box, there are still other ways of determining its contents with a high degree of certainty. To see how, suppose that Richard were to pick up the box and shake it.   

In science, we call this act an “experiment.”  The goal of this action is to test the box for behavior that is consistent with a particular explanation.  If Richard is indeed correct about the buried treasure, then the expected sound should be that of hard metal objects clinking around inside.  If Carl is correct about the dead animal, then the expected sound should be that of a soft bag of bones sliding back and forth.

Once again, it is important to emphasize that the truth of the box’s contents is not a matter of logical debate or reasoned argument.  The final determinant of the box’s contents is still always the box itself.  The only difference is that now we cannot determine those contents with absolute certainty.  The very best we can hope to do is to indirectly infer the box’s contents by observing its behavior under targeted stimulus.

Now imagine that as Richard shakes the box, both boys indeed perceive the sound of clinking metallic objects.  What information is gained from this outcome?

First, it is important to emphasize that Richard is not necessarily correct about his buried treasure.  Just because the box emits clinking noises, there is no guarantee that the box actually contains gold coins.  For example, the box could just as easily contain something mundane like steel nuts and bolts.  Such contents would still emit a sound that is consistent with the buried treasure and yet be far removed from that explanation.  We can even demonstrate this physically by filling another box with those exact contents and then observing the reaction directly.  Nevertheless, such an outcome still tells us something very significant.  Because the reaction was inconsistent with the dead pet hypothesis, we can say, with absolute certainty, that Carl is wrong.

This thought problem illustrates two very fundamental aspects of proper scientific thinking.  The first is the idea that no theory or hypothesis can ever be positively proven to be true.  No matter how hard Richard may shake, smell, weigh, or otherwise probe the locked box, no set of positive results can ever conclusively demonstrate the reality of the treasure.  Without the ability to directly open the box itself, we simply cannot know for sure what the box actually contains.  Even if every experiment we ever run on the box were to perfectly coincide with our expectations, there will always exist the philosophical possibility of some other hidden object producing the same results.  All positive conclusions in science are therefore tentative at best.

The second concept to learn from our box scenario is crucial to scientific progress, though often overlooked when formulating ideas about reality.  Although we cannot know for sure what the box absolutely contains, we can say with absolute certainty what the box does NOT contain.  This concept has a name in science, and it is called “falsifiability.”  In order for an explanation to be considered scientific, there must exist some sort of test that has the potential to disprove its validity.  If the reaction coincides with our expectations, then the hypothesis is merely supported.  But if the reaction fails to meet our expectations, the hypothesis is immediately refuted.  No matter how much sense or logic a particular explanation may carry, the box itself is never wrong, and we would be wise to adjust our beliefs accordingly.

This concept of falsification is crucial to the process of generating knowledge in the real world.  Scientific theories are not held because they are “true” in any philosophical sense.  Rather, they are held because they are able to withstand a continuous barrage of attempts at falsification.  So even though the ultimate theory may still be fundamentally flawed, it eventually shares so much in common with the truth that it loses all practical distinction.  Once every conceivable hypothesis has been cut away, whatever is left over must contain at least some degree of correspondence with reality.

As a final twist in our story, let us now consider what would happen if the box were not resting on the ground, but were instead perched high up in a tree where the boys could not reach it.  So even if they did manage to devise a series of experiments to subject upon the box, the boys physically cannot ever hope to perform them.  At best, all they can say is that a box exists in a tree and that its contents are unknown. 

But let us take it one step further.  Suppose that, despite this setback, Carl still holds to his dead pet hypothesis anyway, and even lists a series of specific details about the box's contents.

"Not only does the box contain a deceased pet,” says Carl, “but the animal itself was a female calico cat named Fluffy.  She was especially friendly with children, she loved being scratched on her belly, and her favorite toy was a ball of yarn." 

As absurd as such a scenario sounds, it is still very analogous to typical human behavior when framing beliefs of a spiritual nature.  For example, how often have you watched people attempt to tackle heavy questions, like: Why is there something instead of nothing?  What happened before the Big Bang?  What is the meaning of life?  Despite the unverifiable nature of these questions, many people will happily invoke a mysterious deity with oddly specific properties in order to answer them.  For example, many Christians will tell you that a singular deity named Yahweh not only created the universe, but did so specifically with human beings as the ultimate goal in mind.  Not only that, but Yahweh is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, and deeply personal.  Yahweh is a He, not a She, and not a They.  After we die, our souls will be subjected to judgment by this Yahweh character and then sent to places called Heaven and Hell.

It is interesting how, despite all of these intricate details, there does not exist a single falsifiable experiment that would potentially invalidate any of them.  For instance, on what empirical basis are we to conclude that Yahweh is, in fact, a “He?”  Aside from the words written down by potentially superstitious, biased, and hallucinatory men in a series ancient texts, what observations support or invalidate the singular male gender of the supreme deity of the universe?  If anything, the very whole of Christianity itself is based on nothing more than blind speculation over the contents of a box that cannot even be accessed.  The only thing we can say for sure is that we do not yet know what the contents are, and that perhaps in the future we may eventually be able to subject the box to testing.

This simple analogy is, by far, the ultimate failing of all spiritual beliefs.  Without exception, religious faith is predicated on the idea that staunch certainty may be formed and upheld in the total absence of (or even in conflict with) physical evidence.  Yet without a potentially falsifiable foundation on which to build our knowledge, there is no functional difference between a God that genuinely exists in reality and a God that was fabricated out of pure imagination.  A box that cannot be opened or tested is a box that may as well contain anything or, just as easily, contain nothing.  It is a simple mathematical premise that the set of all conceivable realities is infinitely greater than the set of all physical realities.  Consequently, any beliefs formed in the absence of empirical rigor may be immediately deemed wrong by default. 

So the next time you find yourself taking part in a political, philosophical, or theological discussion, remember the lesson of Carl and Richard.  For every black box we may encounter in our lives, no amount of human reason, logic, or intuition can ever unlock the true state of reality.  No matter how confident we may be in our capacity for intellectual thought and common sense, empirical observation always supersedes human deduction. So if truth matters, knowledge must be grounded in proper empirical justification, lest we find ourselves locked in endless, pointless debates over the contents of an unopened, unexamined box.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

[Script] Psychology of Belief Part 4: Misinformation Effect

Personal testimonies.  They can often be a very powerful tool of persuasion, so there is no wonder why religious folks are so happy to share them in an attempt to win over converts.  But despite their emotional potency, can we really trust personal anecdotes as objective descriptions of real events?

Consider the following experiment [1]:

Suppose you are shown the following film footage of an automobile accident. [show collision].  If I were to ask you, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” what would your guess be?  25 miles per hour, maybe?  Or perhaps 35? 

Well, as it turns out, people are actually not very good at visually estimating the speed of impact for automobile accidents such as this.  So even though the true speed was only 25 mph, most control groups tend to estimate values on the order of 34 mph.

Now let’s shake things up a bit.  Although it is interesting that people tend to over-estimate the collision speed, we are here for another reason.  Suppose I replace the word “hit” with the word “smashed.”  In all respects, this is exactly the same question as before, but now I’ve inserted a verb with just a slightly more potent connotation.  Surely, the mere phrasing of a question would not influence the answer a subject gives, would it?


As it turns out, simply replacing the word “hit” with the word “smashed” can bias the subjects’ responses to over 40 mph.  And to make matters even more interesting, a whole continuum of values can be obtained from a whole slew of verbs.  This is the basis for what is called a “leading question,” wherein the question itself actually biases the response given. 

Now after performing an experiment such as this, there are basically two ways to interpret the results.  One possibility is that subjects are simply uncertain in their response, and the nature of the question biases the answer.  For example, suppose you’re not sure if the speed was closer to 30 mph or 40 mph.  When you hear the word “smashed,” you might subconsciously take it as a subtle hint that the speeds were relatively high, and so you respond accordingly.

An alternative explanation is that the question itself actually “tricks” the subject’s memory into seeing the accident as being more violent than it really was.  That is to say, when you retroactively review the video footage in your mind, the word “smashed” conjures up a memory of an event that was more intense than reality.  If this view is correct, then the very nature of the question may actually create new, peripheral memories around the event to coincide with the added intensity.

To test these explanations, the experimenters gathered three groups of 50 and again showed them a film depiction of an automobile accident.  The first group was asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other; the second group how fast when they “hit” each other, and a third group was not asked about speeds at all. 

One full week later, the subjects returned for another series of follow-up questions.  Buried within the survey was the question “did you see any broken glass?”  Now in reality, there was no broken glass in the film, so it is reasonable to expect that very few of the control subjects would respond with a “yes.”  And this is exactly what happened.  Out of 50 control subjects, only 6 of them reported seeing any broken glass.  Subjects conditioned by the “hit” question also responded reasonably well, with only 7 out of 50 answering “yes” to the broken glass.  Yet the subjects who were pre-conditioned with the word “smashed” answered with over twice as many “yeses” as the other two groups. 

Now isn’t that interesting?

So it seems that not only does the question itself bias the responses given, but it can also physically generate commensurate memories of events that never occurred.  This phenomenon is called the “misinformation effect,” wherein post-event misinformation can actually integrate itself into a person’s memory of a real event.  And that’s just what happens from simple, leading questions.  Imagine what could happen if we are also placed under social pressure to mis-remember events.  For example, when asked to recall any broken glass, suppose that you must first sit and listen as another subject confidently asserts, “yes I absolutely saw broken glass.”  These situations have also been well-studied [show papers], and all of them show a significant tendency for social pressure to increase the level of memory distortion.

So how do such experiments apply to the case of these folks here?  Can we really trust them at their word when they speak about miracles from God?


At best, these people simply experienced intense emotional arousals during times of heavy psychological duress.  If we then sprinkle in a little social pressure from other believers to ascribe such events to the hand of God, we are statistically guaranteed to insert, omit, and distort important details from our memories.

This is why eyewitness testimony is universally regarded as the weakest form of evidence.  It is not because these folks are deliberately lying to us in some organized conspiracy, but rather because we have a well-documented tool by which social pressure and mis-information can combine to create specific memory details with no physical correspondence in reality.  Even the mere act of retelling the modified story can combine with insufficient justification effects to further solidify any distortions [insert model with memory].  Unless these people can devise a quantifiable model for their experiences and then reproduce their effects on demand, we have no choice but to be skeptical of all personal testimonies.

So the next time you hear stories from people about the time they felt the power of the Holy Spirit, witnessed the hand of God, or took part in miracle cures, ask yourself:  Can I really trust the validity of such a story?  Or is this person just another poor sucker who fails to appreciate his own power of self-deception?

  1. E. F. Loftus and J. C. Palmer, "Reconstruction of automobile destruction: an example of the interaction between language and memory,"  Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, Vol 13, No 5, pp 585 - 589 (1979)