Lazy Brains

Many of us already know about confirmation bias, the psychological phenomenon that makes people fit incoming data into their own worldview.  The same news article, in other words, could make the liberal and the conservative each nod their heads, seeing things in the article that confirm their own biases, but skipping over the facts that point in the opposite direction.

Now, it turns out that sometimes, we don’t think at all.  According to researchers at Emory University, people’s brains sometimes “shut off” when they are given “expert advice”:

Results showed that brain regions consistent with decision-making were active in participants when making choices on their own; however, there occurred an offloading of the decision-making process in the presence of expert advice,” says Jan B. Engelmann, PhD, Emory research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and first author of the study.

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“The expert provided very conservative advice, which in our experiment did not lead to the highest earnings. But the brain activation results suggested that the offloading of decision making was driven by trust in the expert,” explains C. Monica Capra, PhD, an economist in the Department of Economics at Emory and coauthor of the study.

“This study indicates that the brain relinquishes responsibility when a trusted authority provides expertise, says Berns. “The problem with this tendency is that it can work to a person’s detriment if the trusted source turns out to be incompetent or corrupt.”

What do these facts of psychology mean for us, as Catholics?  Does this pattern of thought, for example, explain why the priests in the Legionnaires of Christ allowed Fr. Maciel’s actions to continue?  Is there a danger of following a particular priest (or other religious leader) so closely that you view all of his utterances as virtually infallible?  Were the people who supported Obama so fervently during the 2008 election actually acting without thought?  At what points do we, ourselves, allow our brains to “turn off” and just accept the advice of the “experts” on the blogosphere?


Why, though, does “expert advice bias” (I have no other name for it) exist as a fact of the Creation?  And why confirmation bias?  Could these two phenomena actually be gifts from God?  Is part of being a good Catholic (which we’re all created to be) listening to the experts and doing what they say, and seeing all things as reinforcing your own Catholic perspective?  Is it all gift, intended to keep us faithful?  Do the two behavior patterns only trouble me because of my post-Descartes worldview?

And, of course, I ask these questions online, trusting that there’s some expert out there who will reply in the comments, saving me the effort of thinking it out myself.

HT: The Motley Fool


  • Eric Pavlat

    Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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