Although it is hardly mysterious that members of the public should find psychological research fascinating, this fascination seems particularly acute for findings that were obtained using a neuropsychological measure. Indeed, one can hardly open a newspaper’s science section without seeing a report on a neuroscience discovery or on a new application of neuroscience findings to economics, politics, or law. Research on nonneural cognitive psychology does not seem to pique the public’s interest in the same way, even though the two fields are concerned with similar questions.
The current study investigates one possible reason why members of the public find cognitive neuroscience so particularly alluring. To do so, we rely on one of the functions of neuroscience information in the field of psychology: providing explanations. Because articles in both the popular press and scientific journals often focus on how neuroscientific findings can help to explain human behavior, people’s fascination with cognitive neuroscience can be redescribed as people’s fascination with explanations involving a neuropsychological component.
However, previous research has shown that people have difficulty reasoning about explanations (for reviews, see Keil, 2006
; Lombrozo, 2006
). For instance, people can be swayed by teleological explanations when these are not warranted, as in cases where a nonteleological process, such as natural selection or erosion, is actually implicated (Lombrozo & Carey, 2006
; Kelemen, 1999
). People also tend to rate longer explanations as more similar to experts’ explanations (Kikas, 2003
), fail to recognize circularity (Rips, 2002
), and are quite unaware of the limits of their own abilities to explain a variety of phenomena (Rozenblit & Keil, 2002
). In general, people often believe explanations because they find them intuitively satisfying, not because they are accurate (Trout, 2002
In line with this body of research, we propose that people often find neuroscience information alluring because it interferes with their abilities to judge the quality of the psychological explanations that contain this information. The presence of neuroscience information may be seen as a strong marker of a good explanation, regardless of the actual status of that information within the explanation. That is, something about seeing neuroscience information may encourage people to believe they have received a scientific explanation when they have not. People may therefore uncritically accept any explanation containing neuroscience information, even in cases when the neuroscience information is irrelevant to the logic of the explanation.
To test this hypothesis, we examined people’s judgments of explanations that either do or do not contain neuroscience information, but that otherwise do not differ in content or logic. All three studies reported here used a 2 (explanation type: good vs. bad) × 2 (neuroscience: without vs. with) design. This allowed us to see both people’s baseline abilities to distinguish good psychological explanations from bad psychological explanations as well as any influence of neuroscience information on this ability. If logically irrelevant neuroscience information affects people’s judgments of explanations, this would suggest that people’s fascination with neuropsychological explanations may stem from an inability or unwillingness to critically consider the role that neuroscience information plays in these explanations.