The Psychology of “The Neuroscience of…”

21 August 2010 by Noah Gray, posted in Uncategorized

With production fast approaching for a brand new edition of LONGSHOT magazine, I suddenly realized that although I actually published a piece in Issue Zero of “The Magazine Formerly Known As 48HR Magazine,” that essay never really made it into cyberspace in any fashion. (For background on all of this name-switching, read this.)

What was 48Hr Magazine? Well, it was self-described as:

“In May 2010, we conducted a two-day media experiment. 8,000 people signed up, 1,500 submissions came in, 35 editors selected 70 pieces to fill a 60-page magazine.”

For a pocket documentary on its making, check out this link.

LONGSHOT, Issue One starts content-gathering and production next weekend.

So here, in all of its unedited glory, was my selected essay:

The Psychology of “The Neuroscience of…”

Noah W Gray

As the most narcissistic of the Great Apes, we are suckers for a gripping human “just so” story. More specifically, we are fascinated by how our minds develop and function the way that they do, and rightfully so, as it is a marvelous product of evolution. Our brains are 4-5 times larger than would be expected for an animal of our size. Thus, we have one of the highest relative brain sizes in the animal kingdom. We theorize that the resulting complex network of 100 billion neurons, making one thousand trillion connections, is what has empowered us to produce language, toil the land and create horrible reality television. So when the opportunity arises to learn something new about how this squishy contraption works, we seize it.

Unlike a mechanistic explanation of why a particular cancer drug works, or the identification of a genetic linkage to a particular disease, psychology and cognitive neuroscience explanations can strongly pique the interest of a broader audience based on its potential for more direct relevance and immediate impact. It can be even more powerful if the piece happens to be describing a trademark behavior or bang-on personality trait of the reader. Most powerful, if the featured science offers a biological explanation for an undesirable behavior or personality trait that seems beyond our control. It often feels like we are desperately looking for explanations and reasons for understanding why we are the way we are. But why? To justify not changing the bad behavior? To avoid digging deep to discover the roots of the maladaptive personality trait?

This is made abundantly clear by the “Most Emailed” lists that news outlets prominently display on their cluttered websites. Look at the top of the list and you’ll see titles such as: “The Neuroscience of Overeating.” “The Neuroscience of Relationships.” “Why We Forget Things.” Both editors and writers alike have discovered this weakness for cognitive neuro-fascination amongst their readers, which is why the mainstream media seems to cover a disproportionate number of brain scanning and neuroeconomics studies. Simple academic curiosity really cannot account for all of this interest. Not when these pieces offer proposed explanations for our behavior, our irrationality and our faults. Rather, perhaps our motivation to seek out these studies is driven by the need to relieve cognitive dissonance, a state in which conflicting ideas are held simultaneously, requiring a resolution of the conflict through dissonance correction or justification for why the dissonance exists.

A simple economics example may sum up this obsession: the concept of “sunk cost.” Our natural propensity is to confidently continue moving forward with any venture in which we have already invested time, money or effort, despite any potential irrationality underlying that strategy. One example, as documented in a field study, noted that individuals who paid more for a season subscription to a theater series attended more of the events, presumably because of the higher sunk cost 1. Additionally, those who incur a sunk cost also tend to inflate their estimate of whether a project will succeed, as compared to those who have not incurred a cost in the same project, thus revealing the warping powers of this fallacy. Returning to cognitive neuroscience, I believe we can incur a sunk cost through the adoption of a particular behavior or trait once it is considered (usually by others) to be part of our persona. Outside pressures to change are thus typically met with resistance, even if the change could be an improvement, since past personal costs are wrongly factored into the current personality cost/benefit analysis. Therefore, individuals may end up in a state of cognitive dissonance in which the dangers and potential damage of their ongoing character-driven behavioral strategy are understood, yet an overwhelming urge to "stay true to one’s self dominates. This conflict could then lead to a search for justification or an attempt to identify potential benefits for these behaviors, rather than adopt a strategy of correcting the maladaptive characteristic. Science to the rescue! Exploring brain function through the lens of “evolutionary psychology” can supply the raw materials for relieving obvious cognitive dissonance of the type described above by offering attractive hypotheses for justification, while simultaneously blinding the skeptical eye to potential shortcomings within the scientific explanation. Therefore, we readily consume any story providing us with such a crutch in great quantities and avoid the hard work of change.

There is no denying our obsession with tales describing “The Neuroscience of X,” however, advertisers and publishers looking to cash in on this readership bonanza should be aware that not all demographics may be so easily captured by such features. The sunk cost fallacy diminishes with age 2, suggesting that eventually we make more corrective and rational decisions, thus diminishing the “hook” of psychology and cognitive neuroscience “just-so” stories.

1 Arkes H. R. & Blumer C. The psychology of sunk cost. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 1985 35:124-140.

2 Strough J, Mehta CM, McFall JP, Schuller KL. Are older adults less subject to the sunk-cost fallacy than younger adults? Psychol Sci. 2008 19:650-2

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