June 29, 2005

Who you gonna believe? Us or your lying eyes

From the NYT, "What Other People Say May Change What You Believe:"

A new study uses advanced brain-scanning technology to cast light on a topic that psychologists have puzzled over for more than half a century: social conformity. In the new study, subjects were asked to decide if geometric shapes were the same or different.

The study was based on a famous series of laboratory experiments from the 1950's by a social psychologist, Dr. Solomon Asch.

In those early studies, the subjects were shown two cards. On the first was a vertical line. On the second were three lines, one of them the same length as that on the first card.

Then the subjects were asked to say which two lines were alike, something that most 5-year-olds could answer correctly.

But Dr. Asch added a twist. Seven other people, in cahoots with the researchers, also examined the lines and gave their answers before the subjects did. And sometimes these confederates intentionally gave the wrong answer.

Dr. Asch was astonished at what happened next. After thinking hard, three out of four subjects agreed with the incorrect answers given by the confederates at least once. And one in four conformed 50 percent of the time.

The new study tried to find an answer by using functional M.R.I. scanners that can peer into the working brain, a technology not available to Dr. Asch.

The researchers found that social conformity showed up in the brain as activity in regions that are entirely devoted to perception. But independence of judgment - standing up for one's beliefs - showed up as activity in brain areas involved in emotion, the study found, suggesting that there is a cost for going against the group.

"We like to think that seeing is believing," said Dr. Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who led the study.

But the study's findings, he said, show that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe.

That reminds me of a neurological experiment somebody should do. I suspect that in many people, especially those with a lot of book-learning, there is little connection between the part of the brain that processes their visual perceptions and the part that engages in high level abstract word processing.

I spent a couple of hours once talking to the founders of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. They had decided to explain race and racism to the world. So, we talked about race for two hours. For modern Americans, they were remarkably uninformed. What struck me was how immune both of them were to learning anything from just looking at people as they went about their daily business. If they didn't read it in an article in a peer-reviewed academic journal, it didn't register in their heads. Yet, they are enormously successful academic entrepreneurs. And Tooby and Cosmides are, more or less, the good guys in academia -- they've made the study of sex differences a lot more realistic.

I wonder if people with lower Verbal scores on the SAT would be better at noticing the implications of what they see.

For example, way back in the mid-1990s, I drew up a proposal for a book to be entitled: The Words Don't Match the Pictures: Why the Polite Lies We Tell About Race & Sex Are Undermined by What We See on ESPN. But, then I got cancer and by the time I was better, Jon Entine was well along on his similar book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. So, I helped him out a little bit with his book. It turned out well, but it didn't sell terribly well, and it was quickly swept under the rug.

What strikes me now is how naive I was back then to think that there was a sizable market of well-educated readers who believe what they see with their own lying eyes, rather than subscribing to the pre-digested ideologies they are handed in college and told that this is what intelligent people all believe.

For example, look at all the online discussions where you can sign in anonymously, yet whenever the topic of racial differences in sports comes up, how many people believe their lying eyes? Not many.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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