Biology? You should try Psychology my friend.

Aug 18 2009 Published by under Cognition, Neuroscience, Psychology

Greg Laden has an absolutely fantastic post up on "The Falsehoods" in which he observes:

Biology is harder to learn than quantum physics. Why? Because most people think they totally get biology, but everyone knows nobody gets quantum physics. Therefore, any effort to explore quantum physics will result in new learning, but people rarely learn new biology. The bottom line is that our brains are full of biology, which would be good if most of it did not consist of falsehoods.

This is great stuff.


One more perfect line:

The things that people know already often need to be removed from the brain prior to teaching new stuff.

The post is full of examples, mostly about evolutionary biology and assorted Laden favored topics. I say bravo. Why?
Because my end of biology is about eleventy times more subject to firmly false knowledge than any other. The list of topics that people "know" the answers to about psychology are unending. I tend to limit my conversations around here to substance use and my regular readers will be familiar with at least one part of what I am talking about from that context. Our introspection, especially based as it is on a biased viewpoint of a limited number of anecdotes in highly selected populations, can be mistaken.
I trained at at least one stage in a more generalized psych department. These tend, as a class, to be fond* of the word "counterintuitive". You hear this a lot as an undergraduate student taking your courses across the subdisciplines of psychology but the concept really dominates in cognitive and social psychology. It comes up in this generalized situation.
You speculate about how people would behave under certain conditions. People will have a tendency, unprompted and un-suspicioned-by-being-a-psych-major, to predict a particular behavior. Then, when you actually perform studies in random samples, appropriately blinded to condition, etc you find out that, huh, people do something else entirely.
The Milgram experiments are one such example, the bystander effect another. There are studies of eyewitness identification, false memory and circumstantially modified perception of events. Studies of pre-conscious visual processing and attentional allocation. Studies of people being subject to both operant and classical conditioning in various scenarios. Heck, even the concept of the visual saccade and trichromatic vision are probably still counter-intuitive to some people.
The response to someone being informed that the data support something other than the most intuitive conclusion is frequently "Oh yeah, I knew it all along". (One of the Sb bloggers, Rebecca Skloot, seems inordinately fond of this sort of dismissive Twitt** of research studies for example.) Of course, they didn't. When the Psych101 instructor surveys the freshman class before actually presenting the study, you can be assured the result is indeed counterintuitive. If you read a few of these studies in your Psych class, you can later go on to amuse yourself with strangers and random acquaintances further verifying the counterintuitiveness of a given study.
Go read Greg's post if you didn't yet.
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*overfond some might say. Nay, obsessed.
**Sometimes studies are indeed obvious or the results intuitive. I would caution that it takes an appreciation of the body of studies in which the obvious was not the conclusion, and indeed had dramatic socio-political implications (such as Milgram and the bystander effect), to confidently dismiss a study with intuitive results as obvious or useless.

14 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    Pedagogical researchers, who might be classified as working in a field close to psychology, are increasingly showing up in STEM departments, and they often get similar dismissals.* Every idiot out there thinks that they know as much as the pedagogical researchers, and at some undergraduate institutions a lot of people on the path toward deadwood status start to advertise themselves as experts on pedagogical research, because "Well, I spend a lot of time on teaching!" It annoys the hell out of the ones who actually do very careful statistically-controlled studies informed by a deep mastery of the educational psych literature. And it makes it all the harder for the ones with actual backgrounds in the field to get recognition as experts when everybody else in the department is claiming to be a pedagogy expert as well.
    I actually collaborated with one of them on a project, and came away convinced that their research area is harder than mine. I limit my skepticism to asking whether results obtained under carefully controlled conditions are immediately generalizable to my own classroom, but I'd say the same to a scientist who found a nice effect in the lab and is thinking of turning it into a product that we can all use.
    *In defense of the detractors, there is a sub-community of pedagogical researchers who behave like a cross between a time-share salesman and a religious missionary, but that's a separate topic.

  • neurolover says:

    Amen, sister, or whatever we athiests are supposed to say when talking to a man. But, I think the reason why those results you cite are so dismissed has less to do with knowledge than, with, surprise, psychology again. I think people find it fundamentally, nearly impossible, to accept that their beliefs about how and why they behave as they do can be fundamentally flawed. I think there's an ideological/philosophical component, related to people's belief in free will that comes into play. The Milgram experiments are a key example, since they challenge people with the idea that all of us can be evil, given the right circumstances.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I do not disagree neurolover. I believe that the use of "intuition" captures both specific knowledge (which may be real, flawed, etc) and general knowledge (about human behavior) used to predict in the absence of specific knowledge.

  • Keely says:

    I love that you made that point Alex. In fact, I think that exact problem is a large part of why education is so hard to improve. Everyone has experience with education on the student end at the very least, so everyone thinks they at least somewhat know what they are talking about, if they aren't convinced that they're an expert. Therefore the people actually doing the research get drowned out. (Of course, politics at all levels are also a huge barrier when it comes to improving education. But then, that's largely because politics tends to get run by sound bites and opinions, and often cares little for evidence.)
    And as for the rogue pedagogy researchers? Ugh, don't get me started. They tend to be responsible for a lot of education fads that are often both costly and useless or flat-out harmful. One of them apparently got their hands on our assistant dean not all that long ago, because she got all excited about largely-discredited work on vaguely defined "learning styles" a few years ago and has been working on contaminating the curriculum with it ever since. And the woman is supposed to be a scientist. Yuck.

  • daedalus2u says:

    Whose intuition are you talking about?
    The term “counterintuitive” is also extremely prevalent among MIT freshmen, in all disciplines. It is the attempt to externalize the “fault” of not understanding the concept onto the concept so as to prevent the narcissistic injury due to not understanding a concept immediately or a priori. All concepts therefore (are stated to) fall into one of two categories, counterintuitive or intuitively obvious.
    When I don’t know something, my intuition is that I do not know it. When my intuition is wrong, I change my intuition. I see my intuition as a non-algorithmic process for trying to figure out an answer. It is often a good starting place to then apply the algorithm of “facts and logic” to verify (or not) that the intuition is correct. If not, then the non-algorithmic neural network must be retrained so it will give a correct intuition the next time.
    Different individuals have different facility at changing their neural networks in this way and modifying their intuition. There is a fundamental gulf in this ability between people at the two ends of the autism spectrum. People on the spectrum have a better “theory of reality”, which makes their intuition about reality, such as mathematics, physics and such things pretty good. It can get better over time because it can be modified with experience. This ability is incompatible with having a good “theory of mind” with which people who are NT use to intuit the mental states, beliefs and actions of others who are NT. I think the “theory of mind” is less subject to change than is a “theory of reality”.
    I discuss some of this in my post on how this occurs in the autism spectrum.
    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2008/10/theory-of-mind-vs-theory-of-reality.html

  • lylebot says:

    Linguistics is pretty bad too. Everyone speaks some language, so they all think they know something about it. Smart non-linguists actually tend to be the worst, because they memorize and internalize all the phony "rules of grammar" that are actually stylistic preferences held by certain people or communities rather than rules that languages actually adhere to. Like all those people that insist that the English word "data" is still a plural, or that there is no singular gender-neutral pronoun in English, or that infinitives can't be broken, or that sentences can't end in prepositions. None of these assertions are supported by the data!

  • leigh says:

    and the science of drug abuse, too. you mean personal anecdote collections, and perceptions gathered while perceptions are altered are somehow less than the full story?

  • Greg Laden says:

    Psychology may be worse than Biology ... after all, many people have a cat (and thus understand animal behavior) or an uncle who had surgery (and thus they understand medicine) but EVERYBODY has a mind (or thinks they do).
    I am absolutely fascinated, DM, with the idea that you have not written about topics along these lines that you might have written about (on this blog at least). Do you plan to?

  • Nigel says:

    I would be very interested if DrugMonkey or anyone else has any evidence (including anecdotal evidence) to support the claim that some people find the concept of the visual saccade (or more accurately, I guess, the fact that we very frequently make saccades during normal vision) counterintuitive. I mean, for instance, any account of how someone, on being told about saccades, expressed amazement, or refused to believe it.
    I am not trying to be snarky. I am inclined to think that what DM says about this is probably true, and I would like to have some evidence or even a good anecdote or two to back it up.
    [Actually, my impression is that many visual scientists, especially, perhaps, computational cognitive theorists, although they are perfectly well aware of the reality of saccades, tend to forget about them (or consider them only as an afterthought) when they develop their visual theory. It is as if even they still find saccades counterintuitive.]
    Anyone who has anything on this, please contact me at: njtt at earthlink dot net

  • DrugMonkey says:

    GL: When I started blogging my read was that there were lots and lots of psych bloggers. So I more or less put those experimental psych topics off my blog plate.
    Nigel, start talking with people you run across and see if they've heard about saccades...

  • Mike Olson says:

    I always kind of figured psych was a subject that was largely unrefined and the variables so numerous that no real accurate prediction could be made. I'd also agree that studies/effects such as those mentioned are shocking when they are first encountered. My own interest in psych demonstrated to me that I was a lousy clinician(Rogerian program, I wanted to solve problems not give unconditional love and acceptance) and that I might have been better served by gearing towards research. Ultimately, psych research does more to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship and eliminates as many variables as possible. Not to mention that many theories are rife with the theorists own religious beliefs, philosophical ideas and cultural interpretations. Many of these ideas simply can't be proven or disproven in a reasonable fashion.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I always kind of figured psych was a subject that was largely unrefined and the variables so numerous that no real accurate prediction could be made.
    Many people make this assumption; it is incorrect.
    It is also fascinating (to harken back to Greg's point about quantum physics) that people are full willing to accept predictions in other systems that are fabulously variable and complex, even when those predictions are only statistically accurate. The colloquial acceptance of what is "accurate" is similarly subject to false knowledge.

  • Mike Olson says:

    You're right, of course. It is made worse by the fact that later in the same comment I indicated that human behavior could be predicted by experiment...if not by a particular theory(I'm really old school...Rogers, Adler, Jung, Frued, Piaget)...it seems all general theories come up short in some fashion or another.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    MO: I will admit that I am not a big fan of general theories of the psychodynamic nature. I do respect their attempts to find general principles which could explain behavior- this after all is the foundation of all study of brain/behavior relationships and mechanisms. Other traditions have had much more success in mapping their constructs (such as "reward" or "reinforcement", types of memory, psychophysical phenomena ) onto physiological or cellular processes of the brain.

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