What do you think are the most interesting / surprising / perspective-changing findings in social/cognitive psychology?
October 28, 2010 2:37 PM   Subscribe

What do you think are the most interesting / surprising / perspective-changing findings in social/cognitive psychology? I'm preparing a talk for a German hacker conference (27c3), mainly about cogsci & socpsych. Bonus points if it's something that has some element of demonstrating bias / illusion / manipulability, or if it can have a quick actual demonstration, since I try to make my talks as audience-interactive as possible.

FWIW, I'm a grad student in social neurosci, so I know a decent amount about it, but I'm sure there are things I'm going to forget about that make for great demos.

PS If you're curious about the conference, see http://events.ccc.de/congress/ or my talk & paper from last year, http://media.ccc.de/browse/congress/2009/26c3-3520-en-conlanging_101.html / http://conlang.org/26c3.pdf

It's "hacker" in the sense we hackers use it (see wikipedia and e.g. http://www.paulgraham.com/gba.html), not as in 'computer criminals'. So the talks and audience backgrounds are very diverse. Feel free to ask if you want to know more.
posted by saizai to Science & Nature (25 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Here are some on the list so far:

* Milgram experiment and variations
* Stroop effect / implicit association test
* Necker cube
* Moving-through-time manipulation under anger, enter/exit travel
* mirror neurons / simulation theory of empathy / amygdala damage selectively impairing fear empathy
* law of small numbers / gambler's fallacy / understimation of unlikely events
* base rate neglect
* paredolia / false pattern matching
* reward externalization / Israeli daycare test / rewarded performance on creative vs rote tasks
* wason card selection task / contextualization & good analogy effects / confirmation bias
* attentional neglect / change blindness / gorilla-basketball video
* Tuftian visual presentation effects
* loss aversion / personal involvement aversion / train switching gedankenexperiment
* warmth / pulse association w/ higher attraction (jumping jacks?)
* unskilled & unaware of it
posted by saizai at 2:38 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

How about Conformity? This guy also has other interesting videos which might be inspiring.
posted by spr at 2:49 PM on October 28, 2010

Though it might fit into some of the things on your list, Bruce Schneier linked to a study a while back where they found people tended to feel that any story about a potential terrorist threat with lots of specific details was more likely than the exact same scenario described in a general way. I comment on it here. It's a great way to hack the Homeland Security budget so you can get a sweet contract for a system that will catch a terrorist who drives a white trucks and wears a turbans 99.98% of the time but will never catch a terrorists who goes with a ball cap and drives a yellow Mercury.

Authors have used this for years to drag us into a novel via various framing bits, like the "I found this journal in our upstairs boarder's room after he moved out and I don't know it it's true or not but..."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:58 PM on October 28, 2010

Response by poster: KC: I was trying to remember that earlier, and it got overwritten by something else. Yeah, should definitely include availability bias / conjunction fallacy. They're fun.
posted by saizai at 3:16 PM on October 28, 2010

Response by poster: Also FWIW: don't worry about fitting into my list (since that's just what *I* have availability bias for).

I'm looking for anything that you think is interesting, surprising, perspective-changing, and/or has a good demo that's related to psychology or neuroscience.
posted by saizai at 3:19 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a paper that we worked on that connects perception and psychology directly to computer security. I wouldn't say it is foundational work in the same sense as the other ideas you cite, but in talks I've given, it does appeal well to security folk because it shows how to apply psych ideas to their work.

S. Egelman, L. Cranor, and J. Hong. You've Been Warned: An Empirical Study of the Effectiveness of Web Browser Phishing Warnings. CHI 2008.

We evaluated why certain kinds of security warnings did and didn't work in web browsers. A surprise finding was that even in cases where people saw the warning, they didn't believe the warning and still continued to fall for our simulated scam.

This paper by Stajano and Wilson look at psychological principles as to why people fall for scams. It's based on the TV show The Real Hustle, and looks at the techniques that con artists and criminals use to trick people.

A third thing I've found personally useful for my research is the book Influence, by Robert Cialdini. Cialdini examines subtle ways of manipulating and influencing people to do what you want.
posted by jasonhong at 3:35 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe something to do with distortion of memories / formation of false memory? If you can implant your audience with a false or distorted memory of something from the start of the talk then, at the end of the talk, prove that their memory is wrong.

I find this -- that even when our perceptions can be trusted, our memories of those perceptions are freakishly malleable -- to be a real eye-opener, and put all sorts of things like witness statements into a new light for me.

One example I saw years ago was a (grainy) video showing the surface of Loch Ness, on which you see a black pole protrude from the water's surface then go back down. Everyone saw this, but thanks to repeated references throughout the discussion to the "head" of the monster, the waving movement it made, whether it had something in its mouth etc., most of the audience were left with a memory of a much more detailed, complex video than the one they actually saw. When the video was played back, some refused to believe that it was the same video.

So maybe play a video clip before your talk with no announcement -- so they see it but aren't looking for anything in particular -- then make a few references to specific (and imaginary) details during the course of your talk. As the last item, get people to replay the video in their imagination (maybe get one or two to come onstage and describe what they saw?), then compare their memories with the actual video.

Also, this sounds like a cool talk. What language will you be speaking in and will video of it appear online?

posted by metaBugs at 3:41 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was going to come in and say the incredible unreliability of eyewitness accounts/how bad we are at doing lineups, that sort of thing, paired with how much stock juries etc. put into these things that have extraordinarily low validity -- upon entering the thread, sort of what metaBugs said.
posted by brainmouse at 3:47 PM on October 28, 2010

Response by poster: MetaBugs: That sounds like a neat vid, and that is exactly the kind of audience participation I want to do. Any chance you could find it for me? (I'll look too; I just figure you're more likely to find it.)

The talk will be in English (most are, and ich spreche keine Deutsch anyway), and it'll be online both streaming and (after a week or so) downloadable. See the link for my previous talk for the probable location, and the 27c3 wiki (during the conference, Dec ~27-30) for the streaming info.

jasonhong: Sounds interesting; will need to read the papers to see if I can make a neat demo out of it. Mind that a hacker audience already is very familiar with phishing etc, and I'd need to find something that's actually surprising/informative to them.
posted by saizai at 3:52 PM on October 28, 2010

Something I think about often: how people seem fundamentally terrible at predicting what will make them happy, a specific and infamous example being the Brickman et al study which compared lottery winners and victims of accident-induced paralysis. Long-term effects on happiness: not much.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:29 PM on October 28, 2010

There are no easy ways to demonstrate it in a talk, but I think one fascinating, but not well known, finding is the "hidden profiles" effect in group decision making. Essentially, it was found that when people have to make decisions in groups, information that all group members share will have a lot more effect on the outcome than information that only some group members know. This flies in the face of a lot of what we intuitively believe about group decision making – that we can make group decisions by having different people who know different things come together. It's also affected by things like social status and seniority. Basically, if you get someone junior to find out a crucial piece of information to share with the group, that information will likely be ignored when making the decision.

There is a decent summary of a bit of the research here:

Stasser, G., & Titus, W. (2003). Hidden Profiles: A Brief History. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 14(3), 304 - 313.

This also ties into "transactive memory" – the idea that groups will tend to implicitly assign areas of expertise to different people. It also has implications for confirmation bias, as it can actually be easier to debias a group, but it only works if you debias all of them, or else the debiasing information will fall victim to the hidden profiles effect.

As I said, though, as interesting as it is, it doesn't really fall into the easily-demonstrable "stupid human tricks" (to use Richard Larrick's term) category like other examples you already have.
posted by damonism at 5:36 PM on October 28, 2010

Dan Ariely sounds like he might be the man for you. His two TED talks are all about why we do the things we do. They are full of examples and experiments and they're fascinating. He also has a book, Predictably Irrational.
posted by JackarypQQ at 2:27 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, the first talk is here.
posted by JackarypQQ at 2:51 PM on October 29, 2010

IANA scientician, but I like the Dunning-Kruger effect, which leads incompetent people to overestimate their abilities because they are incapable of recognizing their own errors. It also reduces the self-confidence of competent people who, because they are aware of their own shortcomings, believe that the confidence of others reflects an accurate self-assessment rather than ignorant self-assurance.
posted by Mendl at 4:31 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

A demo I've found useful in teaching human factors to engineers is the irreversiblity of recognition/pattern matching. Essentially 'what has been seen cannot be unseen'.

Show a poorly contrasted, black and white, or otherwise difficult-to-recognize image. Let the audience experience confusion. Next, show a more easily interpreted version of the image. Then return to the original confusing image. Everyone will recognize and perceive it immediately.

In many design situations, engineers (and hackers?) are not aware of how being too familiar with work projects impairs their judgment in anticipating and properly designing for novice user interactions. Open Source Software's notoriously bad usability is the result.
posted by anthill at 4:35 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

The image I linked to here has unfortunately gone gone away.
posted by anthill at 4:37 PM on October 29, 2010

Response by poster: anthill: Sounds great. I've emailed the author of that presentation, but not found a better version. Any chance you could find the images from remembering their content?

Mandl: Dunning-Kruger is on my list already - that's "unskilled and unaware of it". ;-)

JackarypQQ, damonism: Will go through that, thanks for the refs. I did see Ariely's vids before, but had totally forgotten who/what/where, so it's good to have the pointer.

dephlogisticated: People suck at this kind of empathy in general, I think? What you point to is an excellent example. I wonder how I could make a more compelling point from that, though; if possible I'd like people to *experience* every phenomenon I go through, rather than merely telling them about it. I find that makes much more of an impact.
posted by saizai at 10:43 PM on October 29, 2010

saizai - I haven't been able to dug up the video, unfortunately. All I can remember is that it was used in a British TV show (possibly one about nessie rather than about perception problems) some years ago, to demonstrate the possibility that reported sightings could be heavily embellished by people who genuinely believe that they're reporting completely accurately. If it's online anywhere, I can't trawl up any detailed memories about the programme that would help me to search for it.

Also, I just wanted to say that I greatly enjoyed your talk on conlangs - fascinating stuff. I'm more interested in how language got where it is (and its consequences) than in inventing new ones, but I can see how learning to build a language could be a great toolkit for understanding those that already exist. So thanks for that! I've since picked up a couple of linguistics books to try to get a little bit more depth.
posted by metaBugs at 11:44 AM on November 1, 2010

Response by poster: metaBugs: Re. books, I very strongly recommend starting w/ the ones on http://library.conlang.org/books/ - all three are excellent. If you want linguistics part, start with Describing Morphosyntax; it is probably the best book I have ever seen for explaining grammar in breadth both accessibly and with sophistication. Srsly, go get it.

Also you may be interested in http://kck.st/cws7AW

Will see if I can find a source for that vid, or something equivalent. It's nice in that the shtick is reasonably broadly applicable. So I have to lie to the audience a bit; I'll debrief them afterwards so it's okay. ;-)

Memory implantation is probably one of the most disturbing things to grok your vulnerability to.
posted by saizai at 8:52 PM on November 1, 2010

Response by poster: So here's the final proposal I just submitted. Suggestions for improvement still very much appreciated, of course - it's not final until I get on stage. ;-)

I haven't yet had time to read all the cool stuff queued from above that I didn't already know about, so don't interpret their noninclusion here as a judgment against.

I think it should be pretty kickass. Will see if the content committee agrees it's worth my airfare... :-P

This talk goes through as many interesting, surprising, perspective-changing findings from the cognitive sciences as I can fit in one hour while ensuring that as much as possible has a real, live demonstration that the audience participates in (rather than merely being told about).

It's not just 'stupid human tricks' (though I'll be using lots of those for examples); it forms a coherent narrative about surprising ways in which humans are flawed, how these aren't just things that happen to "other people", and how one might go about improving the situation at least for oneself. Every single point will be supported by good science, with references to papers for those who care to read up more about them.

Basic narrative per category:
1. Experience this interesting bug
2. Here's why it works / general pattern
2. Here's what feature it's a side effect of / how it came about
3. Here's a way to use it as a feature (e.g. self-control, social engineering, alternate perspectives, improving own rationality, identifying others' biases, etc)

Overall story:
1. General intro to cogsci; huge field, recent, many subfields, many crossovers
* show 'nessie' video on loop
* recruit volunteers to queue at stage
* tell people who know current topic to shut up, signal (raised crossed arms?), and talk to me later
* shout immediately for clarification questions, hold anything with >15 second response for end
* call/response test of audience responsiveness

2. Perceptual illusions
* Necker cube, illusory movement, false leaning towers
* Tuftian visual presentation effects
* Weber's law / weight ID of coin + book vs coin + paper
3. Priming
* native-language Stroop effect / foreign-language Stroop effect / implicit association test
* attentional neglect / change blindness / gorilla-basketball video
* Meeting Wednesday moved two days forward / Moving-through-time manipulation under anger, enter/exit travel
* nessie memories / priming / false memory
* paredolia / false pattern matching
4. Biases
* wason card selection task / contextualization & good analogy effects / confirmation bias
* availability bias / conjunction fallacy
* unskilled & unaware of it / camel has two humps
5. Heuristic errors
* law of small numbers / gambler's fallacy / understimation of unlikely events
* base rate neglect
* loss aversion / personal involvement aversion / train switching gedankenexperiment
6. Unconscious influences
* Milgram experiment and variations / prediction of behavior vs actual
* warmth / pulse association w/ dichotomized attraction (jumping jacks?)
* adrenaline interpretation as fear vs excitement & intentional use of this to improve public speaking (... and perceived enjoyment of talk ^^)

7. Humans have tons of bugs / Most are unknown and undocumented / Bugs can be features, at least sometimes
8. Q&A, wrapup, pointer to extended Q&A and meditation workshop

Other potentials (not sure if demoable):
* stereotype threat / kindergarten fake IQ outcomes
* interference tasks / analysis paralysis w/ work singing vs. repetitive action recall aid / mental occupation vs food choice / spock syndrome
* reward externalization / Israeli daycare test / rewarded performance on creative vs rote tasks
* mirror neurons / simulation theory of empathy / amygdala damage selectively impairing fear empathy
posted by saizai at 8:12 AM on November 3, 2010

Response by poster: Talk has been accepted. W00t.
posted by saizai at 6:13 PM on November 7, 2010

Congratulations on the talk acceptance! Good luck, I look forward to watching it online when it appears.

Thanks for the recommendations, I'll check them out when I've cleared a bit of my reading backlog. The ones I picked up are Metaphors We Live By (although a later edition than the one I've linked) and The Articulate Mammal. Both a bit of a departure from the topics in your talk (although I think you mentioned MWLB), but they look very interesting. I'm about halfway through MWLB at the moment: slightly hard going for my very hard science-oriented brain, but fascinating and thought-provoking stuff.
posted by metaBugs at 12:50 PM on November 8, 2010

Response by poster: I took two classes w/ Lakoff, actually. I think that Women, Fire, & Dangerous Things was a more interesting book of his - but metaphoricity to me is just overdone-obvious, so if it's new to you then you might not have the same reaction. ;-)

Not familiar with the latter book or its author; does it have anything new to say?
posted by saizai at 6:56 PM on November 8, 2010

Well, while the idea of metaphors in language and that they influence how we think isn't entirely new to me -- like most people I expect, I already had some half-crystalised ideas on the subject floating round in the back of my head -- I've never seen it discussed rigorously. So while it might be a bit humdrum to you, it's very novel to me. Also, after a lifetime spent obsessing over the physical sciences, adjusting to something with more of a humanties bent is surprisingly challenging, which I'm enjoying enormously.

As to the second book, while I'm not the best placed person to judge I doubt there's anything particularly new in it. I haven't started reading it yet, but the blurb on the back and its reviews pitch it as as a fairly wide-ranging introduction to the field of neuro-/psycho-linguistics, rather than as a more focused treatment of a new thesis. From the handful of pages I read in the bookshop it seems very readable and from the contents pages it looks well-structured, so I'm optimistic that it'll be a handy introduction.
posted by metaBugs at 4:47 PM on November 16, 2010

Response by poster: I'm now on the Fahrplan: http://events.ccc.de/congress/2010/Fahrplan/events/4276.en.html
posted by saizai at 10:37 PM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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