Guest post by Kindred Spirits
The Vagaries of Religious Experience
Psychology experiments showing how logic can be short-circuited in our brains:
The Vagaries of Religious Experience, Edge, 2005,by Daniel Gilbert
…First, explanations that rely on the inexplicable are not explanations at all. They have the form of explanations, but they do not have the content. Yet, psychology experiments reveal that people are often satisfied by empty form. For instance, when experimenters approached people who were standing in line at a photocopy machine and said, “Can I get ahead of you?” the typical answer was no. But when they added to the end of this request the words “because I need to make some copies,” the typical answer was yes. The second request used the word “because” and hence sounded like an explanation, and the fact that this explanation told them nothing that they didn’t already know was oddly irrelevant.
In another study, experimenters approached people in a library, handed them a card with a $1 coin attached, and then walked away. Some people received the card on the top, and some received the card on the bottom:
Although the two extra questions on the bottom card —- “Who are we?” and “Why do we do this?” — provide no information whatsoever, they do give one the sense that puzzling questions have been posed and then answered. The results of the study showed that the people who received the bottom card were, in fact, less curious and less delighted twenty minutes after receiving it than were people who received the top card because only the latter felt that something wonderful and inexplicable had happened. In short, what William Paley did not realize is that statements such as “God made it” can satiate the appetite for explanation without providing any nutritional value.
Read the full article for additional examples of how our brain sees agency in random events.
Why are We Happy?
Another example of how many of our projections of how we would react to events turn out to be wildly wrong is a TED talk by Gilbert titled The Surprising Science of Happiness:
Or, for those that prefer reading, there is an interactive script of Gilbert’s speech. (If you click on any phrase, it takes you to that part of the video):
From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. This almost floors me — a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.
And of course, in psychological studies, there is the infamous Milgram Experiment, and the Stanford Prison Experiment, neither of which I’ll get in to, but you’re welcome to follow the hot links for more information
The overall point though is this: how our brains actually work and make decisions is not nearly as logical as we’d like to think it is. We’re all subject to these strange decision processes, and are largely unaware of them.