Critical Thinking about Psychology
Lecture Two
Don’t Believe Your Eyes
Room change
Wednesday 9am seminar is in W0.01
Seminars start next week!
Last time…
 We talked about how common beliefs about
behaviour can be wrong
 How much of the findings of psychological
research are counter-intuitive
 Illusion of explanatory depth.
 This week we will go on to discuss other reasons
why people’s conceptions about behaviour are
 Seeing patterns where none exist
 Lack of self-knowledge
We lack self-knowledge
 Often the reasons for our behaviour are not accessible to
Nisbett and Ross (1977)
 asked participants to judge the quality of different pairs of
 all of the tights were in fact identical
 the order in which the tights were presented varied
 Results
 participants always chose the last pair presented
 However, they always generated plausible explanations “this pair
was a better quality” or “a nicer colour”
 None stated that they had chosen them because they were the last
Modelling Behaviour
 children and neonates model the behaviour of
 similar things occur with smiling, nodding in
conversations, mirroring body postures, etc.
Provine (1986)
 55% of participants yawned within 5 minutes of
watching a yawn video
 contagious yawning
Why do we engage in such modelling
Chartrand and Bargh (1999)
 Participants interacted with confederates during an experiment
 Confederate 1: shook foot
 Confederate 2: rubbed face
 Participant responses matched confederate behaviour
Dabbs (1969)
 Confederates who mimicked them were rated as having good
ideas and being well-informed
 If we act like other people then they will like us more!
Seeing patterns where none exist
 Often we can be fooled into thinking that a
relationship exists between two variables when in
fact none exists
 E.g. lunar effects
 This tendency underpins many curious examples
from pseudoscience and parapsychology
The Face on Mars!
 Viking 1 in 1976 took the
following image of an
apparent face on Mars
 Perhaps, built by martians
and indicating an ancient
 Perhaps by the same people
who built the ancient airstrips
in Peru?
 Or by those who made crop
circles in Wiltshire?
Ancient Astronauts!
Crop Circles
Kermit the Frog on Mars?
The Face on Mars revisited
 Photos from later missions sadly revealed that the
face was just a bunch of hills.
 These terms can be used interchangeably to
describe the tendency for us to see patterns in
random data
 It is particularly pronounced when we try to
make sense of obscure, out of focus or partial
 It highlights the use of “top-down” processing
in cognition
 We are using our knowledge of the world to try to
make sense of ambiguous data
What is this?
 At first we just see
random dots
 Then a picture of a
dog emerges
 Clearly being able
to make sense of
information is
 But it sometimes
leads to error…
Religious artefacts
 Images of mother Theresa in cinnamon buns
Mother Theresa
A cinnamon bun
Hearing voices
 We also make errors with ambiguous sounds.
 In this next section we will examine some related
 Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)
 backward masking of hidden messages in rock
Electronic Voice Phenomena
 When people die they become spirits – sources
of energy
 They interact with electronic recording equipment
to leave messages…
Hidden Messages
 In the 1970s there was much consternation that
satanic messages were hidden in popular music
 These messages only became apparent when
they were played backwards
Interpreting ambiguous sounds
 Our language systems are highly developed at making
sense of ambiguous sounds.
 For example, Warren (1970) examined the phoneme
 Replaced a phoneme with a cough in the following
 It was found that the (cough)eel was on the axle
 It was found that the (cough)eel was on the orange
 It was found that the (cough)eel was on the fishing-rod
 It was found that the (cough)eel was on the table
 We make sense of ambiguous sounds using our prior
So what have we learned today?
 Explaining human behaviour isn’t always
 We don’t always have insights into our
 We often see patterns which do not actually
 In order to draw sensible conclusions about
the nature of behaviour we need to think
critically about psychology.
It’s my second week here and I really want
to do some background reading…
 Alcock, J.E. Electronic Voice Phenomena: Voices of the Dead?
Skeptical Enquirer
Available online at:
 Stafford, T. (2007). Isn’t it all just obvious? The Psychologist, 20,2,94-
Wilson, Timothy D. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the
Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.
Chapter 5.

Critical Thinking about Psychology