Psychology students are seduced by superfluous neuroscience

It seems as though neuroscience is particularly popular and seductive. Not only is the discipline enjoying some eye-spinningly massive new grants, there are also ever more brain-branded products (like brain games and brain drinks), there are new disciplines like neuroleadership, and there’s a growing obsession about the brain among many journalists, many of whom invoke brain science in odd contexts (check out “The neuroscience of ISIS” for a recent example).

This atmosphere has led to a near-consensus among commentators that there is something distinctly persuasive about neuroscience. In fact, besides anecdotal argument, there is little solid evidence to suggest this is true (and some that it’s not). A landmark paper from 2008 showed that images of the brain are particularly compelling, but this effect has failed to replicate.

Another key study, also from 2008, demonstrated the seductive allure of neuroscience – participants found circular explanations for psychological phenomena more convincing when they contained superfluous written neuroscience information. Unfortunately, this study had issues. For example, it’s possible the addition of the neuroscience information simply acted to conceal the circularity of the explanations.

Enter Diego Fernandez-Duque and his colleagues. 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”. 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.

Fernandez-Duque found the convincing influence of superfluous neuroscience information applied both to good quality and circular explanations. However, the additional presence of brain imagery did not add to the appeal of the explanations, thus confirming recent failures to replicate the allure of brain pictures.

It’s not just that extra, spurious neuroscience information made psychological explanations more convincing by making them longer. The addition of superfluous social science information did not increase the students’ ratings of the explanations. Neither is it simply that neuroscience is seen as a “hard science” adding weight to purely psychological explanation. When the researchers tested the addition of superfluous chemistry-based, maths, genetic or physics information (i.e. science disinclines also considered “hard” or prestigious), this did not lead the students to rate the explanations of the psychological phenomena more highly (this despite the fact that, on their own, these extra superfluous snippets were considered just as high quality as the extra neuroscience information).

The researchers say all this suggests there is something uniquely convincing about neuroscience in the context of psychological phenomena. 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.” That the students who endorsed dualist beliefs (seeing the mind as separate from the brain) were just as wooed by superfluous neuroscience information somewhat undermines this interpretation.

It will be interesting to test whether these findings hold true for the general public, and for people in other cultures for whom the brain might be considered less important. If the allure of neuroscience is found more widely, it’s a worrying situation. As the researchers explain: few, if any, mental phenomena have single causes. “As such, infatuation with any single source explanation – whether it is the brain or something else – may impede humans’ progress to find and accept more complete explanations.”


Fernandez-Duque, D., Evans, J., Christian, C., & Hodges, S. (2015). Superfluous Neuroscience Information Makes Explanations of Psychological Phenomena More Appealing Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27 (5), 926-944 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_00750

further reading
People are quicker to dismiss evidence from psychology than neuroscience

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.