The “seductive allure of neuroscience

The “seductive allure of neuroscience explanations” (SANE) refers to the phenomenon, observed in past research findings, that people show greater trust in studies with neuroscience language, graphs, and especially brain images.

Now, a study by Soo-hyun Im and colleagues at the University of Minnesota demonstrates that this effect applies to educational research as well. The article, published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, showed that participants rate explanations of education research as more “credible” if they include images of the brain with large structures highlighted.

The current study included 245 laypeople, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They were tasked with reading brief articles about educational psychology. There were four types of articles: 1) those that included no neuroscientific information; 2) those that included a verbal neuroscientific explanation; 3) those that included both the verbal explanation and a graph; and 4) those that included the verbal explanation as well as brain images. The participants were then tasked with rating credibility of these articles.

According to the researchers, the participants tended to rate the articles as most credible when they included both verbal descriptions of neuroscience and brain images. The verbal description alone did not make a significant effect, nor did the inclusion of the graphs. It seems the addition of brain imagery was what accounted for the jump in perceived credibility.

This effect was not limited to people with no knowledge of psychology or neuroscience. According to the researchers, the result “persisted even after controlling for individual differences in familiarity with education, attitude towards psychology, and knowledge of neuroscience.”  In fact, the effect appeared to be greater when participants had some knowledge of the subject matter and neuroscience.

Previous research corroborates this surprising finding, finding that psychology students are particularly susceptible to this effect. Researchers theorize that psychologists prefer neuroscience explanations for human behavior because they consider them to be more in-depth, more causal explanations. However, this mindset appears to cause them to be more easily misled by the addition of irrelevant neuroscience.

Previous researchers have suggested that brain images provide a reductionistic explanation that makes it easier for the public to make sense of a complex experience (such as education). However, the popular press often misuses (or misunderstands) neuroscience—which can lead both laypeople and professionals to develop beliefs in neuroscience myths—such as the chemical imbalance theory of mental illness.

It should be noted that other studies have altered the methods of these experiments, and found that this effect only occurs in certain conditions. That is, when it is apparent that the neuroscience context is irrelevant, people appear somewhat less susceptible to being misled. However, in most cases, neuroscientific explanations are presented as if they are relevant to the findings.

Another limitation of the present study is that the addition of neuroscientific explanations and brain images increased the length of the article. Thus, longer, more image-rich articles might be perceived as more credible. However, if this study suggests that padding article length and including irrelevant images increases perceived credibility, that is also a significant finding.

Finally, a limitation of this study is that the extra neuroscientific content could be viewed as relevant—in that it is framed as “corroborating” the psychological finding. However, the researchers did not find the effect on credibility when only the verbal neuroscientific explanation was added. Only when the brain image was added did the result appear. That is, the addition of a brain image makes a study seem more credible, while the actual explanation of the neuroscience does not.

The authors write that there have been many approaches to education policy that have been justified by questionable neuroscience, and which have turned out to be unsupported by further evidence. In this context, they suggest that policymakers be more careful before assuming that brain images make a study more credible.

Im, S., Varma, K., & Varma, S. (2017). Extending the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations effect to popular articles about educational topics. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(4), 518-534. (Link)