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Over the holidays it’s best to avoid any arguments, whenever possible. But if you can’t, you may want to bring some scientific ammunition for your side of the discussion.
It turns out that if you want to convince someone that your explanation for something is the best way to explain it, you might want to tack on some useless (though accurate) information from a tangentially related scientific field.
It turns out that when you tack on additional information from a respected field of study, people think that makes an explanation more credible.
That strategy can be devised from the findings of a recent study conducted by University of Pennsylvania researchers that was published in the journal Cognition.
And while this is a new finding, it’s just one of several cognitive biases we have in favor of certain types of explanations. We think longer explanations are better than short ones and we prefer explanations that point to a goal or a reason for things happening, even if these things don’t actually help us understand a phenomenon.
As the authors behind this most recent paper note, previous research has also shown that we prefer explanations of psychology when they contain “logically irrelevant neuroscience information,” something known as the “seductive lure effect.”
As former Tech Insider correspondent Drake Baer put it covering an earlier study on the same topic, “if you’re trying to explain why someone did something, you can count on neurobabble to make you sound more convincing.” All those references to the brain sound like they can really explain the ways our minds work, even if neuroscience is still a field we know little about.
- Human Connectome Project, Science, March 2012.
But until now, researchers haven’t known if this argument-winning strategy was limited to using neuroscience to “explain” psychology or if it could be used to explain other areas of science as well. The UPenn team theorized people might in general prefer arguments that refer to more fundamental science, even if those references don’t contribute to the explanation. They call this type of argument a reductive explanation (reducing one science to more fundamental parts).
To test this theory, the researchers created a hierarchy of sciences, going from least to most fundamental: social science, psychology, neuroscience, biology, chemistry, and finally physics. They recruited undergraduate students and people from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk work marketplace and presented them with a survey designed to figure out whether useless reductive information made them consider explanations “better.”
In each case, the researchers offered four possible explanations for a scientific concept: a good explanation, a good explanation that included the additional reductive information, a bad explanation, and a bad explanation that included reductive information.
- REUTERS/Mike Stone
As a general rule, their hypothesis panned out – people think explanations that have useless information containing details about a more “fundamental” science are usually better.
But there are some interesting exceptions and additional takeaways here.
- Good explanations matter, and were rated better than bad explanations (even if the bad explanations had reductive information). Adding useless reductive information made the biggest difference when researchers added neuroscience to an explanation of psychological science. Participants trusted psychology the least and – in the one exception to the general rule – didn’t think adding psychological explanations to social science made those explanations more credible (though these particular findings weren’t statistically significant). Study participants actually considered neuroscience more rigorous and prestigious than the sciences considered more fundamental by researchers (biology, chemistry, and physics). This could explain the big effect that neuroscience explanation has when added to explanations of psychological science. Mechanical Turk respondents thought the explanations with reductive information were better than undergraduates thought they were. That information made a big significant difference for them, but it was less of a big deal for undergraduates. Different groups of people are going to evaluate information in different ways, and neither of these groups of people can accurately represent the way the entire population evaluates information. People who were better at logical reasoning were better at evaluating explanation accurately (they gave less credence to reductive information). The researchers think this could mean that philosophers who have studied logic are less susceptible to this cognitive bias. People who knew more about science were also better at telling good explanations from bad explanations.
So the next time you read an explanation of something, check to see if the author is adding useless information to support an argument, making you more inclined to believe them for all the wrong reasons.
And if you want to convince someone of something, you can see if adding some background scientific details helps sway the argument your way. Just try to rely on a science other than psychology.