To err is human. Understanding the mechanisms by which humans repeatedly make errors of judgment has been the subject of psychological study for many decades. Why do people disagree about beliefs despite access to the same evidence, and why does evidence so rarely lead to belief change? Psychological research has examined numerous risks of assessing evidence by subjective judgment. These risks incude information-processing or cognitive biases, emotional self-protective mechanisms, and social biases.
All of these factors play a major role
in both sides of the debate betwen proponents and opponents of psychic
phenomena. No analysis of the controversies surrounding the nature of the
human spirit, and its propensity for greatness, would be complete without
a realistic look at the human proclivity for folly.
The Psychology of Cognitive Biases
The investigation of cognitive biases in judgment has followed from the study of perceptual illusions. Our understanding of the human visual system, for example, comes in large part from the study of situations in which our eye and brain are "fooled" into seeing something that is not there. In the Muller-Lyer visual illusion, for example, the presence of opposite-facing arrowheads on two lines of the same length makes one look longer than the other.
We generally do not realize how subjective this construction is. Instead we feel as if we are seeing a copy of the world as it truly exists. Cognitive judgments have a similar feeling of "truth" -- it is difficult to believe that our personal experience does not perfectly capture the objective world.
With a ruler, we can check that the two lines are the same length, and we believe the formal evidence rather than that of our fallible visual system. With cognitive biases, the analogue of the ruler is not clear. Against what should we validate our judgmental system?
In the 1950s, researchers began to compare how well expert judgments compared with simple statistical combining rules in predicting mental health prognoses and other personal outcomes. Typically, such studies involved providing several pieces of information -- such as personality and aptitude test scores -- about patients or job applicants to a panel of experts. These expert judges would then record their opinion about the likely outcome in each case.
Statistical predictions were obtained using a "best fit" procedure that mathematically combined pieces of information, and determined a cutoff score that would separate "health" from "pathology" or job "success" from "failure."
Predictions from the human judges and the statistical models were then compared with the actual outcomes. The expert judges in these studies were confident that statistical models could not capture the subtle strategies they had developed over years of personal experience. But the actuarial predictions were superior to the expert intuitions. Many studies indicated "that the amount of professional training and experience of the judge does not relate to this judgmental accuracy."
The statistical models that exceeded the computational and predictive power of human judges were not so sophisticated. In fact, the simplest models were the most effective. For example, when clinical psychologists attempted to diagnose psychotics on the basis of their MMPI profile, simply adding up four scales (the choice of the "best fit" criterion) led to better prediction than the expert judgment of the best of the 29 clinicians.
A minor upheaval in psychology occurred in reaction to Minnesota psychologist Paul Meehl's 1955 monograph which reviewed studies demonstrating that prediction methods based on the simple statistical tabulations were almost always superior to expert clinical intuition in diagnosing brain damage, categorizing psychiatric patients, predicting criminal recidivism, and predicting college success. Ironically, the clinicians involved were typically very confident in their intuitive judgment.
One of the basic errors typical to intuitive judgments is called the confirmation bias. If you hold a theory strongly and confidently, then your search for evidence will be dominated by those attention-getting events that confirm your theory. People trying to solve logical puzzles, for example, set out to prove their hypothesis by searching for confirming examples, when they would be more efficient if they would search for disconfirming examples. It seems more natural to search for examples that "fit" with the theory being tested, than to search for items that would disprove the theory. With regard to psychic phenomenon, this bias would explain why "skeptics" always seem to find reasons for doubting alleged instances of telepathy or clairvoyance, while "believers" continually find new instances to support their existing beliefs.
Clinical psychologists have been shown to maintain invalid diagnostic theories based on cultural stereotypes. This occurred prcisely because the clinicians were overly impressed by "successful" pairings of a symptom and a diagnostic outcome and did not notice the many trials where the relationship did not hold. In one study, clinicians were struck by the number of trials where paranoid patients drew staring eyes, but did not consider the number of trials where non-paranoid patients drew staring eyes to be relevant.
People in virtually all professions (except horse-racing handicappers and weather forecasters, who receive repeated objective feedback) are much more confident in their judgments and predictions than their performance would justify. One of the few ways to temper this overconfidence is to explicitly ask people to list the ways that might be wrong -- for, unless prodded, we will only consider the confirmatory evidence.
A dramatic example of the confirmation bias is the problem of the "self-fulfilling prophecy." This now popular phrase refers to the way our own expectations and behavior can influence events. Especially well-known is the study by Harvard psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobson entitled "Pygmalion in the Classroom." Teachers were given false information on the expected achievement of some of their students. Based on the expectations created by this information, the teachers went on to treat the randomly selected "late bloomers" so differently that these students scored especially highly on subsequent achievement tests. Similar situations may occur between employers and their employees, between doctors and their patients, and between psychotherapists and their clients.
In scientific research, the expectancy effect suggests that experimenter's hypotheses may act as unintended determinants of experimental results. In other words, experimenters may obtain the predicted results because they expected their subjects to behave as they did -- even if the theory they were testing had little or no validity.
Although originally fraught with controversy, the existence of interpersonal expectancy effects is no longer in serious doubt. In 1978, Rosenthal and Rubin reported the results of a meta-analysis of 345 studies of expectancy effects. This meta-analysis demonstrated the importance of expectancy effects within a wide variety of research domains including reaction time experiments, inkblot tests, animal learning, laboratory interviews, psychophysical judgments, learning and ability, person perception, and everyday situations or field studies.
Experimenter expectancy effects are a potential source of problems for any research area, but they may be expecially influential in more recent research areas lacking well-established findings. This is because the first studies on a given treatment technique are typically carried out by creators or proponents of the technique who tend to hold very positive expectations for the efficacy of the technique. It is not until later that the technique may be investigated by more impartial or skeptical researchers, who may be less prone to expectancy effects operating to favor the technique.
People who try to determine if others are outgoing ask questions about extroverted qualities -- and discover that most people are, indeed, extroverts. People who try to determine if others are shy ask about introverted qualities -- and discovery that most people are introverts. Men who believe that they are having a phone conversation with an attractive woman talk in an especially friendly way. When they do this, their unseen woman partner responds in friendly and "attractive" ways.
People with strong pre-existing beliefs manage to find some confirmation in all presentations. The biased assimilation of evidence relevant to our beliefs is a phenomenon that seems true of others, but difficult to perceive in ourselves. Consider a classic social psychological study of students' perceptions of the annual Princeton-Dartmouth football game. Students from the opposing schools watched a movie of the rough 1951 football game and were asked to carefully record all infractions. The two groups ended up with different scorecards based on the same game. Of course, we see this in sports enthusiasts and political partisans every day. Yet, the students used objective trial by trial recording techniques and they still saw different infractions if they were on different sides.
Social psychologists at Stanford University presented proponents and opponents of capital punishment with some papers that purported to show that deterrence worked, and other findings showing that capital punishment had no deterrence effect. They reasoned that common sense should lead to a decrease in certainty in the beliefs of both partisan groups. But if partisans accept supportive evidence at face value, critically scrutinize contradictory evidence, and construe ambiguous evidence according to their theories, both sides might actually strengthen their beliefs.
The answer was clear in our subjects' assessment of the pertinent deterrence studies. Both groups believed that the methodology that had yielded evidence supportive of their view had been clearly superior, both in its relevance and freedom from artifact, to the methodology that had yielded non-supportive evidence. In fact, however, the subjects were evaluating exactly the same designs and procedures, with only the purported results varied....To put the matter more bluntly, the two opposing groups had each construed the "box-score" vis a vis empirical evidence as 'one good study supporting my view, and one lousy study supporting the opposite view' -- a state of affairs that seemingly justified the maintenance and even the strengthening of their particular viewpoint.
This result could lead to a sense of pessimism for proponents of science who think that truth may be arrived at by the objective, scientific collection of data, and by a solid, replicable base of research. Giving the same mixed evidence to two opposing groups may drive the partisans farther apart.
Studies of competitive games reveal that people who have beliefs that the world is a hostile place cause others to act in ways that maintains those very beliefs. Aggressive competitors in these studies believed that they had to "get" their opponents before their opponents got them. Sure enough, their opponents responded to their aggressive moves with aggressive countermoves, "proving" the competitive theory of human nature.
Such biases can be created within a very brief period of time. A person who starts out well in a contest is judged more intelligent than a person who gets the same total number of answers correct but starts out poorly.
Why do politicians on all sides of various issues believe that the media is hostile to their side? At first glance, this phenomenon seems to contradict assimilative biases of selectivly choosing supportive evidence. Ross and colleagues speculated that the same biasing construal process is at work. Partisans have such a rigid construction of the truth that when "evenhanded" evaluations are presented, they appear to stress the questionable evidence for the opposition.
Support for these speculations came from studies on the news coverage of both the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections and the 1982 "Beirut Massacre.", These issues were chosen because there were partisans on both sides available as research participants. The opposing parties watched clips of television news coverage which objective viewers tended to rate as relatively unbiased. Not only did they disagree about the validity of the facts presented, and about the likely beliefs of the producers of the program, but they acted as if they saw different news clips:
"Viewers of the same 30-minute videotapes reported that the other side had enjoyed a greater proportion of favorable facts and references, and a smaller proportion of negative ones, than their own side."
Another bias of intuitive judgment is the shortcut strategy (or "heuristic") that defines the most likely alternative as the one which most easily comes to mind. This is called is the availability heuristic. In many cases there is a correlation between the most numerous things in the world and those that come to mind most easily. But some things are easily remembered for reasons having to do with vividness rather than actual frequency.
An example of this is the bias introduced by the proclivity of television, radio and printed news to report on the exciting and bizarre events. People think that more deaths are caused by tornados than by asthma, though asthma kills roughly nine times as many people as tornadoes. People think accidents kill more people than strokes. They do not.
A similar problem arises with specificity: a situation appears more likely as it becomes more detailed, yet each added detail makes it statistically more unlikely. A group of international policy experts was asked to estimate the probability that the U.S.S.R. would invade Poland and the U.S. would break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union within the next year. On average they gave this combination of events a 4% probability. Another group of policy experts was asked to estimate the probability that the U.S. would break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union within the next year. This was judged to have a probability of 1%. When the policy experts had a combination of events that caused them to create a plausible causal scenario, they judged that a combination of events was more likely than one of its components.
Another typical error of intuition is our tendency to overgeneralize and stereotype. People are likely to make strong inferences about groups of people based on a few examples with little regard to the question of whether these sample were chosen randomly or whether they are representative of the larger group. In one particularly unsettling set of experiments, people were willing to make strong inferences about prison guards and about welfare recipients, on the basis of one case study, even when they were explicitly forewarned that the case study was atypical.
At the heart of some possible intuitive misunderstandings about apparent psychic events is a widespread confusion about randomness. People believe the "laws" of chance are stricter in specific instances than they actually are. Processes occurring by chance alone can appear to be extremely usual. For example, the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo once landed on "black" twenty-eight times in a row. While the odds of this event, taken by itself, would seem extremely unlikely -- and almost impossible to predict -- in the larger picture of roulette gambling, such rare events are inevitable.
Another fallacy is to assume that, when a segment of a random sequence has strayed from the expected proportion, a corrective bias in the other direction is expected. In the roulette wheel, "red" is no more likely to have been selected after twenty-eight blacks in a row than after one black. To assume otherwise has been called the gambler's fallacy.
When people see what appear to be patterns in a random sequence of events, they search for more meaningful causes than chance alone. Gamblers and professional athletes are known to become superstitious and attribute the good or bad luck to some part of their behavior or clothing.
Even lower animals such as pigeons have been shown in the laboratory to develop their own form of superstitious behavior. When food is delivered according to a random schedule, the pigeons at first try to control the delivery by pecking on the food dispenser. The pigeons can be in the middle of any action at the moment the food comes, since there is no relation between its action and the food. Yet, they will continue to repeat the action that happened to occur at feeding time -- and eventually their efforts will be "rewarded" by more food. This strengthens the "superstitious" behavior, and it is kept up because it appears to be successful.
An example of our human tendency to discover patterns in random data is the "hot hand" phenomenon in professional basketball. The hot hand phenomenon is the compelling, yet illusory, perception held by both fans and players that some players have "hot streaks" such that a successful shot is likely to be followed by another successful shot, while a failure is likely to be followed by another failure. University players were asked to place bets predicting the results of their next shot. Their bets showed strong evidence of a belief in the "hot hand" but their performance offered no evidence for its validity.
Researchers also examined the shooting records of outstanding NBA players and determined that the hot streaks of successful shots did not depart from standard statistical predictions based on the overall probability of success for each person individually.
The most serious, common error in our understanding of probability is the overinterpretation of coincidence. In order to decide whether an event or collection of events is "unlikely," we must somehow compute a sample space -- a list of all the other ways that the occasion could have turned out. Then we must decide which outcomes are comparable.
For example, if we have a jar with 999 black balls and one yellow ball, the total sample space is made up of 1000 balls. The probability is one in a thousand that we can pick the yellow ball from the jar in one try -- provided that we define in advance that this is our objective. In real life, we do not usually specify in advance. If we reach into the jar and pull out the yellow ball, we may be overly impressed by the unlikelihood of that act. But without defining a success, we have only one set of comparable events. Each ball is equally unlikely or equally likely. Any particular black ball would have been just as unlikely as the yellow one.
Before we attribute unusual and startling events to synchronicity or clairvoyance, we would do well to consider the many surprising ways that events can intersect within the sample space of our activities. It seems more like a miracle than a chance event when we encounter a familiar friend on a street corner in a distant city. We would never have predicted this in advance. The probability of this intersection of elementary events -- being in another city, on a certain street, and meeting this familiar person -- is indeed small. But the intersection of a union of elementary events -- being in some other city, meeting some friend -- is not so unlikely.
In most spontaneous cases of apparent psychic
abilities -- such as precognitive dreams of disaster, or crisis apparitions
followed by the death of a relative -- there is no way of determining the
likelihood of the event happening simply by chance. Therefore, spontaneous
cases -- such as those reported in Section II -- can not be proof either
of the existence or nonexistence of psychic events. Yet all people develop
intuitive judgments about the nature of reality based on personal experience.
The Illusion of Self-Awareness
One source of overconfidence in our own judgments is the belief that we can always search our minds for the evidence and reasoning upon which these judgments are based. We sometimes mistakenly believe we know whether we are biased and emotionally involved or evaluating objectively. Psychological studies indicate that this compelling feeling of self-awareness regarding our decision processes is exaggerated. Psychologists have founcd it surprisingly easy to manipulate preferences, and choices without the awareness of the actor.
Self perception theory builds on the evidence that people do not always have privileged access to their own motivations or low-level decision processes. Instead, this theory claims that people infer their motivation by observing their own behavior. During the process of selling a product, a person observes his claims for that product -- and unless the salesperson is content to conclude that he or she is motivated only by the money -- will likely conclude that he or she has very good reason to believe in the quality of the product.
In a series of behavioral studies, psychologists manipulated a number of dimensions in an attempt to shift their subjects' preferences. Some manipulations -- order of presentation, verbal suggestion, "warmth" of a stimulus person -- measurably affected the subjects' judgments; others -- certain distractions, reassurances about safety -- did not. But the participants were unable to introspectively determine which influences affected them; instead they made up theories about why they preferred the objects they did. These explanations were not accurate reflections of the manipulations but were based on guesses that were similar to those that outside observers made.
In a study of self-deception, subjects were told that certain uncontrollable indices diagnose whether they have a heart that is likely to cause trouble later in life. They were then given an opportunity to take part in a phony "diagnostic task" which supposedly indicated which type of heart they had. The task was painful and unpleasant. Subjects who believed that continuing with the task indicated a healthy heart reported little pain and continued with the task for a long period. Those who believed that sensitivity to pain indicated a healthy heart found themselves unable to bear the discomfort for more than a minute.
Some of the participants were aware that they "cheated" on the diagnosis. Those who were not aware of their own motivation expressed confidence that they had the healthy type of heart. These people were not deceiving the investigator, they were deceiving themselves. Continuing with the painful task could not have caused their heart to be of a certain type; but in order for them to believe the diagnosis, they had to remain unaware that they were controlling the outcome.
Another series of neurophysiological studies arrived at a similar conclusion. These investigations used split-brain patients -- who had had their corpus callosum severed as treatment for epilepsy, and therefore lost the connection between the right and left hemispheres. Certain shapes or pictures were flashed to the right hemisphere which could interpret the pictures but could not communicate verbally. The patients responded to these images through various gestures and behaviors. Yet, when asked to explain these reactions, the verbal explanations were utter guesswork. The patient automatically offered "creative" explanations without cognitive discomfort.
As brain researcher Michael Gazzaniga explains,
"The left-brain's cognitive system needed a theory and instantly supplied
one that made sense given the information it had on this particlar task."
The Illusion of Control
We humans actively distort our perceptions in order to see what we want to see. Psychologists consider it normal behavior to distort our images of reality in order to enhance our own self-image. In fact, the inability to create such protective distortions may lead to depression.
Depressives seem willing to accept that they do not have control over random events. On the other hand, normals maintain an illusion of control over chance events that have personal relevance. Anecdotal examples from gambling are easy to generate: dice players believe their throwing styles are responsible for the high numbers or low numbers and Las Vegan casinos may blame their dealers for runs of bad luck. People will wager more before they have tossed the dice than after the toss but before the result is disclosed -- although the odds have not changed. People believe their probability of winning a game of chance is greatest when irrelevant details are introduced that reminded them of games of skill. Allowing players to choose their own lottery numbers, or introducing a "schnook" as a competitor made people more confident in their likelihood of winning -- without changing the chance nature of the outcome.
While depressives appear to be less vulnerable to this illusion, normal people will see themselves "in control" whenever they can find some reason. In a study of mental telepathy, researchers found that when subjects were able to choose their own occult symbol to send, and when the sender and receiver were able to discuss their communicative technique, they believed that they were operating at a success rate three times the chance rate. But when they were arbitrarily assigned a symbol and had no particular involvement in the task, they believed they were operating at about the chance rate. Actual scores did not deviate from chance throughout the entire experiment.
A similar experiment used a psychokinesis
task to test this hypothesis. Subjects' beliefs in their ability to influence
the movement of a die did vary with active involvement in the task and
with practice at the task.
The Need to be Consistent
One of the most powerful forces maintaining our beliefs in spite of others' attacks, our own questioning, and the challenge of new evidence -- is the need to maintain cognitive consistency and avoid cognitive dissonance. Modern social psychology came to public consciousness with the development of Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance which explains apparently irrational acts in terms of a general human "need" for consistency -- as opposed, for example, to personality abberations.
People feel unpleasantly aroused when two cognitions are dissonant -- when they contradict one another -- or when behavior is dissonant with a stated belief. To avoid this unpleasant arousal, people will often react to disconfirming evidence by strengthening their beliefs and creating more consonant explanations. This drive to avoid dissonance is especially strong wwhen the belief has led to public commitment. This theory caught public imagination both because of its provocative real-life applications and because of the way it explained human irrationality in simple and reasonable terms.
In a dramatic field study of this phenomenon, Festinger and two colleagues joined a messianic movement to examine what would happen to the group when the "end of the world" did not occur as scheduled. A woman in the midwestern U.S. who claimed to be in contact with aliens in flying saucers had gathered a group of supporters who were convinced that a great flood would wash over the earth on December 21, 1955. These supporters made great sacrifices to be ready to be taken away by the flying saucers on that day. They also suffered public ridicule for their beliefs. Festinger hypothesized that if the flood did not occur and the flying saucers did not arrive, the members of the group would individually and collectively feel great dissonance between their beliefs and the actual events.
He felt that the members of the group had three alternatives: they could give up their beliefs and restore consonance; they could deny the reality of the evidence that the flood had not come; or they could alter the meaning of the evidence to make it congruent with the rest of their belief system.
Public commitment made it unlikely that the members of the group would deny their beliefs. Yet, the existence of the unflooded world was too obvious to be repressed or denied. Therefore, the psychologically "easiest" solution was to make the evidence congruent with the prior beliefs. No flying saucers arrived, no deluge covered the earth, but a few hours after the appointed time, the communication medium received a message: the earth had been spared due to the efforts of the faithful group. The "disconfirmation" had turned into a "confirmation."
Overcoming discomfort and actually considering the truth of a threatening idea does not necessarily lead to a weakening of our commitment. In a study of the reaction of committed Christians to scholarly attacks on the divinity of Christ, researchers found that only those who gave some credence to the evidence became more religious as a result of their exposure to the attacks. Only when they thought about the evidence did they become sufficiently distressed to resolve the dissonance by strengthening their beliefs.
A similar situation may exist with regard
to skeptics of psi research. For example, a recent (and highly criticized)
report prepared for National Research Council of the National Academy of
Sciences concludes that "The Committee finds no scientific justification
from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of
parapsychological phenomena." That this conclusion reflects the strengthening
of previously held beliefs, in the face of threatening evidence, is suggested
by many lines of argument. The Committee's review, for example, was restricted
to four selected areas of research conducted over the past twenty years.
And, one of the background papers prepared for the Committee by an eminent
Harvard psychologist ranked the methodological rigor of psi experiments
very favorably in comparison to other areas of psychological research.
The Sleeper Effect
We all make evaluations of information and claims based upon how we perceive the credi` lity of the source. A common-sense finding in research on persuasion and attitude change is that people change their attitudes more readily in response to a communication from an unbiased expert source. But this same research tradition also revealed the sleeper effect -- in which the information received is separated in memory from its source. While claims made by an unreliable source are immediately discounted, the information obtained may become part of the general knowledge of the recipient.
In the classic demonstration of this phenomenon,
students were given persuasive arguments about the use of nuclear power
and were told that the source of the arguments was either Pravda or an
American nuclear scientist. The only students who showed immediate attitude
change were those who read the statements attributed to the scientist --the
credible, trusted source. A dela$d measurement, however, showed that Pravda
had as much effect on attitude change once the source was forgotten.
The Effect of Formal Research
What I do wish to maintain -- and it is here that the scientific attitude becomes imperative -- is that insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.
The research previously cited demonstrates the problems that arise when intuition replaces logic as the arbiter of truth. Intuitive processes based on personal experience sometimes seem designed as much for protecting both our sense of self-esteem and our prior opinions as for generating accurate predictions and assessments.
Organized science can be thought of as an extension of the ways that humans naturally learn about the world -- with added procedures and methods designed to protect against the biasing effects of prior theories, salient evidence, compelling subsets of evidence and other natural pitfalls that beset all humans. The process of relying strictly upon personal experience often leads to certain violations of the protections against error that science affords.
In order to predict and control their environment, people generate hypotheses about what events go together and then gather evidence to test these hypotheses. If the evidence seems to support the current belief, the working hypothesis is retained; otherwise it is rejected.
Science adds quantitative measurement to this process. The procedures and measurements can be explicitly recorded and the strength of the evidence for different hypotheses can be objectively tallied. A key difference between intuitive and scientific methods is that the measurements and analyses of scientific investigations are publicly available for criticism and review, while intuitive hypothesis-testing takes place inside one person's mind.
When can we rely upon folklore, philosophy, spiritual tradition or personal experience without bias? These realms are our only guidance in many areas of life, but they can never be decisive when pitted against objective quantitative evidence. Informal examination of theories developed through personal experience or exposure to tradition is subject to flaws both in the gathering and in the analysis of the data. We cannot be "blind" to our theories when collecting the data, and we always know whether each data point collected supports or weakens the evidence for a theory. Without careful consideration for research design, people inevitably tend to collect samples of data biased in favor of the theories they wish to confirm.
Intuitive self-knowledge of the type required for a wide variety of higher mental functions requires a healthy respect for the our natural human biases of attention and memory. Only if we are aware of these biased processes as they occur, can we begin to know when to trust our intuitive judgments.
While scientists and scientific methods are susceptible to errors of judgment, good research is designed to minimize the impact of these problems. Formal research methods are not the only or necessarily best way to learn about the true state of nature. But good research is the only way to ensure that real phenomena will drive out illusions.
The story of the "discovery" of N-rays in France in 1903 reveals how physics, the "hardest" of the sciences, could be led astray by subjective evaluation. This "new" form of X-rays supposedly could be detected by the human eye in a nearly darkened room. The best physical scientists in France accepted this breakthrough. Within a year of its original "discovery" by Professor R. Blondlot, the French Academy of Science had published nearly 100 papers on the subject.
However, in 1904 the American physicist Robert Wood visited Blondlot's laboratory and discovered, by secretly changing a series of experimental conditions, that Blondlot continued to see the N-rays under circumstances that Blondlot claimed would prevent their occurrence. When Wood published his findings, it became clear that the French scientists had believed so strongly in N-rays that they had virtually hallucinated their existence. Good research can disconfirm theories, subjective judgment rarely does.
An essential aspect of scientific research that is usually neglected when we rely on personal experience is the need for experimental control. Control is used in an experiment to ensure that the only thing that differs between the "present" and "absent" conditions is the particular variable of relevance to our hypothesis.
The need for such control is well-illustrated in the problems of medical experimentation. When new types of surgery come along, physicians sometimes have good, humanistic reasons for violating scientific conditions in providing treatment to experimental patients. Instead they may offer the new surgeries to the patients who would seem to benefit the most. The results of such tests often seem impressive when compared to the survival rates of those who do not recieve the surgery. However, those receiving the surgery start out differently on health variables than those who do not. They know they are receiving special treatment, and are cared for by staff who also understand this. When such uncontrolled field trials are compared with randomized experimental trials, it turns out that about 50% of surgical innovations were either of no help or actually caused harm.
Medical research also demonstrates the necessity for placebo controls. When patients are given a pill of no medical value and told they are participating in research on a new drug (but not told that they are in the "control group"), a substantial proportion will improve simply because of their belief in the possible efficacy of the drug. Therefore, all new drugs or treatments must be compared to a placebo to test whether they are of greater value than simple suggestion.
The analogue to the placebo effect in industrial research is the Hawthorne effect -- named after a classic investigation into methods of improving worker efficiency at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company. The researchers found that every alteration in working conditions led to improved efficiency -- not because the changes in conditions affected productivity but because the attention from the investigators improved the workers' morale. (This study itself, however, has been cited so often as to have become psychological folklore. It is not clear that it holds up under careful experimental scrutiny.)
Similar problems make it extremely difficult to conduct valid research into psychotherapy. Control groups must offer supportive attention without the actual psychotherapy in order to test the effects of a particular therapeutic procedure.
Modern psi research is almost entirely an experimental science, as any cursory look through its journals will demonstrate. Articles published in the Journal of Parapsychology or the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research explicitly discuss the statistical assumptions and controlled research design used in their studies. Most active psi researchers believe that the path to scientific acceptance lies through the adoption of rigorous experimental method.
Psi researchers have amassed a large literature of experiments, and this compendium of studies and results can now be assessed using the language of science. Discussions of the status of psi research hypotheses can be argued on the evidence: quantified, explicit evidence. Our ability, as a culture, to objectively evaluate this evidence is itself a test of the scientific method as a valid tool for understanding the nature of consciousness.
The critical thinking ability of believers and nonbelievers in psychic phenomena was examined in two studies conducted by by James Alcock, a noted skeptic, and his associate Laura Otis. In the first study, believers and skeptics were given Watson and Glaser's Critical Thinking Appraisal Scale as well as Trodahl and Powell's Dogmatism Scale. Skeptics showed a significantly higher level of critical thinking ability than believers and were significantly less dogmatic than believers.
This result might lead some readers who consider themselves to be "believers" to question their own commitment to critical thinking. One might also question whether such a finding is be the result of an expectancy effect. As many skeptics are believers-in-the-negative, they can be expected to show a bias like other beievers.
The second study was carried out to evaluate
the critical thinking ability of believers and skeptics on a task dealing
with the psychokinesis. "Believers" and "skeptics" were asked to critically
evaluate either a research article on psychokinesis or a similar article
on pain tolerance. It was anticipated that believers would show a bias
in favor of the psychokinesis article; however, results indicated that
believers and nonbelievers were equally critical of the psychokinesis article.
This finding, particularly since it was conducted by skeptics, lends support
to the notion that individuals who have accepted the psi hypothesis are
capable of critical, scientific evaluation in this area.
. The material presented under this heading is largely based upon a summary of research prepared by Stanford psychologist Dale Griffin, titled "Intuitive Judgment and the Evaluation of Evidence," commissioned by the National Academy of Science's Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance. Washington, DC: 1987.
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. B. F. Skinner, "Superstition in the Pigeon," Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 1948, 168-172.
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. Daryl J. Bem, "Self-Perception Theory," in L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, 1972, pp. 2-62.
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. Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Social Brain. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
. Ibid., p. 72.
. Griffin, op. cit.
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. Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual. New York: Anchor, 1967.
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. Victor A. Benassi, P. D. Sweeney, & G. E. Drevno, "Mind Over Matter: Perceived Success at Psychokinesis," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1979, 1377-1386.
. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.
. Leon Festinger, H. W. Riecken, & S. Schachter, When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.
. Actually, when one reads Festinger's classic book, When Prophecy Fails, closely it seems that the social psychologists are as much in error as the UFO cultists under study. Most members of the UFO group actually did give up their cult beliefs and drifted away -- contrary to Festinger's predictions. Nevertheless, the theory of cognitive dissonance has survived. Festinger's own behavior in supporting his theory in spite of the evidence may be an example of the confirmation bias. Ironically, this error is often overlooked by social psychologists.
. C. D. Batson, "Rational Processing or Rationalization: The Effect of Disconfirming Information on Stated Religious Belief," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 1975, 176-184.
. D. Druckman & J. A. Swets (eds.). Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories and Techniques. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1988.
. The chairman of the NRC Committee, asked Harvard researchers Monica J. Harris and Edward Rosenthal to withdraw their favorable conclusions regarding psi research. When they refused to do this, the final report of the Committee ignored their presentation. See John A. Palmer, Charles Honorton, and Jessica Utts, Reply to the National Research Council Study on Parapsychology. Research Triangle Park, NC: Parapsychological Association, 1988.
. C. I. Hovland, I. L. Janis, & H. H. Kelley, Communication and Persuasion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953.
. C. I. Hovland, A. A. Lumsdaine, & F. D. Sheffield, Experiments on Mass Communication. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949.
. Blondlot, Rene Prosper. "N" Rays: A Collection of Papers Communicated to the Academy of Sciences, trans. by J. Garcin. London: Longmans, Green, 1905.
. Wood, Robert. The n-rays. Nature, 70, 1904, 530-31.
. J. P. Gilbert, B. McPeek, & F. Mosteller, "How Frequently Do Innovations Succeed in Surgery and Anesthesia?" In J. Tanur, F. Mosteller, W. H. Kruskal, R. F. Link, R. S. Pieters, & G. R. Rising (eds.), Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown. San Francisco: Holden-Day, 1978, pp. 45-58.
. F. J. Roethlisberger & W. J. Dickson, Management and the Worker. New York: Wiley, 1939.
. James E. Alcock & Laura P. Otis, "Critical thinking and Belief in the Paranormal," Psychological Reports, 46, April 1980, 479-482.
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