Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the The University of Warwick's online course, The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds One of the things that’s a real puzzle to psychologists is just how inept people appear to be as soon as you put them into a laboratory. Under controlled, carefully monitored conditions, people’s performance for just about every task seems to be astoundingly poor in relation to the remarkable things human beings can clearly do. Our ability, our intelligence vastly exceeds other creatures’, and it vastly exceeds any machine we could build. And yet in the lab, the most elementary tasks seem to fool us. We’ve come across some examples already. Let’s just think about a couple. One is very basic perception. We’ve seen that we’re not very good at knowing how absolutely bright or absolutely heavy something is.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 seconds So it’s the case, in fact, that we think that a pound of feathers weighs really a very different amount to a pound of lead. That’s really odd. Put someone in a lab. Give them various objects, get them to weigh them. They’re absolutely hopeless at doing it, and they’re confused by factors like is this a fluffy cushion or is it a solid object? In a way, that seems completely bizarre. Let’s take a more abstract example.

Skip to 1 minute and 15 seconds If you give people various gambles, give various opportunities to take risks, they seem to behave in a very, very incoherent and unreasonable way, which would seem to indicate that if you could only put them in a casino, or put them at the racetrack, you’d be able to make vast amounts of money out of them at every turn. Now of course, to some extent this is true. Casinos do exist. Racetracks do exist. And they do make a profit. But in the real world, people seem to behave in a much less irrational, much less systematically mysterious and puzzling way than they do in the lab. Now why is this?

Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds Well, one suggestion is that lab tasks, because they’re very carefully controlled, because they’re very special, because everything about the real world has been stripped away to simplify the problem to an essential core, the lab task is very different from the kind of tasks we normally do. Now you might think they’d be easier. On the face of it, if I give you a stripped-down, simplified task, you should find it easier than a really rich, complicated task. Let me give you a simple illustration. Supposing I say to you, think about these two premises. If a then b, we assume that’s true. And also, assume that b is true. Now what else follows from that?

Skip to 2 minutes and 34 seconds And most of us– in many experiments this has been demonstrated– most of us have an urge to say, well, if a then b, and b, I suppose probably a? Now, this is actually– from a logical, rational point of view– a bit of a wild stab. For example, if I say that if something is a dog it is an animal– which is certainly true– and then I say, oh, something is an animal. So that’s just the structure that we talked about before. If dog, then animal, and animal. You certainly don’t think, ooh, crumbs. They must be a dog. That would be a crazy thing to think.

Skip to 3 minutes and 9 seconds So by stripping down the task, making it just about A’s and B’s, making it more abstract, suddenly we become confused and puzzled. If we had a context, if it was about dogs and animals, we wouldn’t become confused. No one thinks, if it’s a dog, therefore it’s an animal. It’s an animal, therefore it’s a dog. No one thinks all animals are dogs. That’s crazy. But in an abstract context, where you strip away the meaning of the task– put it under controlled conditions, if you like– then we have a problem. And I think that’s a bit of a metaphor for, generally, what’s going on under lab conditions. In the real world, we don’t make each decision separately.

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 seconds And we use our background knowledge of all the other things we’ve ever thought, all the things people have ever told us, and all the decisions we’ve ever made to help us with the decision we’re working with. If you strip out all of that complexity, all of that background and give us that isolated decision, just an isolated patch of colour floating in a sea of black or an abstract reasoning task about A’s and B’s, we’re lost. I think that’s very interesting for psychologists, because it suggests that we should be very careful in drawing radical conclusions from laboratory tasks about human failings. But I think it’s also telling us something really deep about the way our minds work.

Anomalies in the lab

An interesting fact about research experiments into human behaviour under laboratory conditions is that they tend to produce very poor results. People’s performance seems to be astoundingly poor in relation to the remarkable things human beings can actually do.

In this video I explain some of the factors that contribute to this anomaly, and we begin to explore what it might tell us about the workings of the mind.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

The Mind is Flat: the Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: