Neurobabble Proves to be Highly Persuasive


BPS Research Digest discusses a study from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The study found that adding even completely irrelevant information about neuroscience made any written psychological theory seem much more convincing to psychology students.

“Across four studies, they asked dozens of US psychology students to rate the quality of short explanations (some were sound, others were circular) for psychological phenomena such as ‘face recognition’ and ’emotional states’,” reports the Digest. “The main take-away is that when superfluous neuroscience information (i.e. information that offered no further insight) was added to the end of these explanations, the students rated the explanations more highly. The students with superior analytical skills were just as prone to this effect. The students’ religious and other philosophical beliefs (such as their endorsement of mind-body dualism) also made no difference.”

Conversely, adding information sourced from other hard sciences did not impress the students. “The researchers say all this suggests there is something uniquely convincing about neuroscience in the context of psychological phenomena,” the Digest states. “They believe the most plausible reason is that psychology students endorse a ‘brain-as-engine-of-mind’ hypothesis – that is, they ‘assign to neuroscience a privileged role in explaining psychological phenomena not just because neuroscience is a ‘real’ science but because it is the most pertinent science for explaining the mind.'”

The Register also reports on the study, adding a brief history of neurobabble.

Psychology students are seduced by superfluous neuroscience (BPS Research Digest, April 17, 2015)

Neurobabble makes nonsense brain ‘science’ more believable (The Register, April 21, 2015)


  1. We have to pour it on about the trivialities like this studied in great earnestness while the very thought of re-education requirements for mental health practitioners getting determined chiefly on critical input from survivors remains suppressed. Could this sort of everyman interpretation serve any more foreordained conclusion than it does? Could it be any more general than it completely is? Was one whole step to studying this problem ever at risk of being taken?

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  2. In a way it’s true even on this site. Lots of content here is presented in a certain way. I’m not saying it’s not great information given out by obvious experts, but I sometimes wonder why they don’t write in a more plain manner.

    Just saying this after only looking a this on the surface and not looking at the full details of the study:

    Anyway, just from reading this there’s a few things that are ??? Like it’s not just the data, it’s where the data comes from and who it’s going to. Authority. Like of course psychology students are going to be more impressed with neuroscience stuff instead of “hard science” and what I think is funny too is how much weight researchers often place on what is essentially surveys. People can lie in a survey, or answer in a way to appear to impress or curry favor for their teacher or organisation they work for or need something from for instance.

    What student is going to be the one jeopardizing their grades or future whatever over a stupid survey ? The student might think the teachers like their ego stroked over the waffly sciency stuff there, but they might still think it’s actual bullshit.

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  3. Barrab – I liked what you got here. The in between stages are still curious to me, so that how you ended up with the sharp focus is sort of a mystery to me. You and Ted had a similar first reaction, I thought, and one I agree is worth considering. But my initial reaction is that the project is not structured right and avoids the obvious in order to invoke the aura of objectivity. We have watched this phenomena develop for many decades, and such researchers as these are not suddenly going to isolate it now. As you said in addition, the phenomena has more than one natural form depending on motives of perhaps tired, bored, impatient youths. They can’t get anywhere separating the logical from the personal taste factors or either of those from the issue of motive. This is the usual big problem with point of view in psychology and its researches. Sartre said it can only explain the irrational, not the rational and true character of someone’s thought and ideas and way of being. Nietszche said we’re all too human, and that to me seems like enough psychology to get by on, in principle.

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  4. This effect is the very reason psychiatrists are required to be medical doctors – to be persuasive. As regular visitors to this website know all too well, psychiatry does not actually use medical knowledge in the course of practice. By having the credibility of a medical doctor , they can persuade subjects to consume costly and toxic pharmaceuticals to their detriment.

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