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5 Psychological Effects Which Cause People to Believe in Nonsense

Dec

16

by

All of us humans are the result of an unconscious biological process called evolution. Based on the conditions at the time, lots of different pressures selected for certain traits. And after those conditions changed – for example most of us don’t need to prioritize escaping from predators on the savannah anymore – all of the selected-for traits remained. We can’t just say, “Hey! Now that we have houses and locked doors and stuff, I don’t need to wake up in the middle of the night whenever there’s a loud noise because chances are very good that it isn’t a fucking tiger here to eat me and dismember my children!”

Nowadays, lots of these psychological traits have become a target for charlatans and frauds out to scheme you out of your time and money. Here are a few of them to bear in mind the next time one of them approaches you.

The Forer Effect


Carnies like this one depend on at least 60 suckers born per
hour in order to raise a family of four.

***
What it is:

Also known as the Barnum effect, the Forer effect describes our tendency to think that descriptions of a large group are directed at ourselves personally. Bertram Forer performed an experiment on his students where he gave a personality type description to his students, leading them to believe that each were custom designed for each individual when in fact they were all reading the same description. Here’s a snippet:

While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.

People love flattery, and when it’s restrained within some bounds of reason they’ll just eat it right up. This is why you never see astrology newspaper columns which describe what a colossal douchebag Pisces can be, even though we know that there are people of that “sign” who fit that description perfectly.

What it can lead to:

Astrology, Tarot, and most personality tests.

Worst case scenario:

A friendly stranger on the street approaches you and offers you tickets for a “free movie.” Afterwards, she asks you some innocuous-sounding questions while you hold on to a metal bar attached to something which looks like a lie detector, but isn’t. You go on what you believe to be another “date” at her office, where a man in a sailor suit does a high-pressure sales pitch for some excessively overpriced literature. Before you know it, you’re paying a cultish authoritarian institution for the privilege relaying all of your most deviant sexual fantasies to an official record which is then stored away for blackmail purposes in the event that you try to escape. Yes, you have just joined the Church of Scientology.

***

The Placebo Effect

fdsfdsfdsfsdfs“By harnessing my body’s ‘natural energy field,’ this worthless bracelet can help me–ow, my back!”

***

What it is:

We usually think of the Placebo Effect as when we feel better after seeing a doctor, solely from their “bedside manner,” or when subjective and/or psychosomatic symptoms are relieved by something the patient believes is effective medicine, but actually is just a sugar pill. That’s definitely a part of it, but the Placebo Effect also plays a part in the perception of the medical practitioner, not just the patient.

So not only can the Placebo Effect cause patients / customers to be deceived into thinking that an ineffective treatment works, it can do the same to the people who are trying to use science to solve that same problem. So the people doing the studies on, say, homeopathy, can also be Placebo’d by perceiving an improvement in a condition when there isn’t one. This goes a long way towards explaining why certain implausible methods occasionally get written up in respected, peer reviewed publications with vaguely promising results.

What it can lead to:

“Alternative medicine” like homeopathy, acupuncture, most chiropractic, naturopathy, Reiki, psychic surgery, and whatever other form of bogus “treatment” the quack industry invents.

Worst case scenario:

Your dog is scratched by a rabid raccoon, so you head off to your local alt-med store for some homeopathic rabies cure for dogs (hey, homeopathy cured that cold you had for 11 days, so this will work too, right?). After administering it a few times, your pet’s condition seems to be improving…until it bites off your hands. It dies the next day. Also: You can no longer masturbate.

***

The Ideomotor Effect

So there’s this guy.

***

What it is:

It’s very difficult to keep completely still. We’re pretty much always making these involuntary movements. And when you hold, say, a pen, it’s going to move a little even if you were to try very hard to keep it motionless. It’s so subtle that some don’t even believe that they themselves are causing the movements in the object in question.

So if someone can convince themselves that a stick will twitch when they’re standing near a bomb, and if they can then convince a Middle Eastern government to buy $85 million worth of these magical sticks, then the lives of everyone using one of these fake bomb detectors is put at risk.

What it can lead to:

Dowsing, facilitated communication, automatic writing.

Worst case scenario:

Your kids are having trouble saying goodbye to Grandma, so you pick them up a Ouija board. The next night, they “receive” a message from Grandma telling them to take your car to the cemetery. They’re arrested for driving underage. You’re charged with negligence. Your wife leaves you and takes the children. And your house. You end up dying cold and alone.

***

The Clever Hans Effect


Wilbur’s tragic mental illness was exploited to create a classic ’60s sitcom
***

What it is:

Clever Hans was a horse in Germany who lived about 100 years ago. His owner, a guy named Wilhelm von Osten, claimed that Hans was able to do simple math by stamping his foot, which would be a pretty amazing breakthrough in the cognitive abilities of non-human animals if it were true. However, as a study by psychologist Oskar Pfungs demonstrated, what was actually happening was that the crowd watching would unconsciously cue the horse as to when to stop stomping his foot. So instead of adding, say, 7 and 9, the horse would stop stomping his foot after 16 times which is when the crowd’s demeanor would change. The audience was what poker players would call an easy mark.

This kind of observer bias also carries over into psychological studies where surveys are used. People and horses alike are eager to give those performing a study what they believe they want to see instead of a real, honest reaction.

What it can lead to:

Believing that animals are communicating with you.

Worst case scenario:

David Berkowitz and his neighbor’s demon-possessed dog.

***

The Availability Heuristic (Availability Bias)

***

asdasdasd“As the ethnic and religious majority, we are under constant threat of oppression.”

***

What it is:

In general, people don’t deal very well with statistics. Especially when those statistics show that an overhyped phenomenon is much less common than we’d believe solely from news media coverage. We tend to conjure up examples of things which come easily to mind and think about them as if they were common occurrences even when they’re not.

So for example, we here in the US spend a huge amount of money doing something which our political leaders call “fighting terrorism,” while those same political leaders simultaneously tell us that we cannot have a single-payer health care system like the rest of the industrialized world because it is “too expensive.” Someone unfamiliar with any of the statistics of harm caused by terrorism and by a lack of health care coverage might be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that terrorism kills more Americans than not having health insurance. But that’s clearly not the case. It’s just that we prioritize “fighting terrorism” to such an insanely out of proportion degree because it’s easier for us to be rattled emotionally by dramatic, violent events like 9/11. We just aren’t wired to be so moved by more mundane causes of death, even when they’re much more common.

It’s only been very recently in human history that we’ve been able to compile statistics on a large scale. For most of our time here, what comes easiest to mind was really all we had to go on. But that’s not necessarily the most accurate portrayal of reality.

What it can lead to:

Pretty much anything that can be summarized in a cheap, stupid soundbite or a random anecdote.

Worst case scenario:

You hear about The Secret from Oprah, and then waste your money on the book. You learn that you can have whatever you want just by visualizing it. You are arrested, for stealing other people’s property, and raped in prison.

______

Go to Bunting’s blog.
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