Tag Archives: thoughts


Feeback, not evidence, makes us confident we’re right — even when we’re not

We tend to only look at the most recent feedback when gauging our own levels of competence, a new paper reports. The findings can help explain why people or groups tend to stick to their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


Image credits Mohamed Hassan.

A team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley (UC) thinks that feedback — rather than hard evidence — is what makes people feel certain of their beliefs when learning something new, or when trying to make a decision. In other words, people’s beliefs tend to be reinforced by the positive or negative reactions they receive in response to an opinion, task, or interaction, not by logic, reasoning, or data.

“Yes but you see, I’m right”

“If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” said study lead author Louis Marti, a Ph.D. student in psychology at UC Berkeley.

“If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information,” adds study senior author Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

This dynamic is very pervasive, the team writes, playing out in every area of our lives — from how we interact with family, friends, or coworkers, to our consumption of news, social media, and the echo chambers that form around us. It’s actually quite bad news, as this feedback-based reinforcement pattern has a profound effect on how we handle and integrate new information into our belief systems. It’s especially active in the case of information that challenges our worldview, and can limit our intellectual horizons, the team explains.

It can also help explain why some people are easily duped by charlatans.

For the study, the team worked with over 500 adult subjects recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowd-sourcing platform. Participants were placed in front of a computer screen displaying different combinations of colored shapes, and asked to identify which shapes qualify as a “Daxxy”.

If you don’t know what a Daxxy is, fret not — that was the whole point. Daxxies are make-believe objects that the team pulled out of a top hat somewhere, specifically for this experiment. Participants weren’t told what a Daxxy is, neither were they clued in as to what any of its defining characteristics were. The experiment aimed to force the participants to make blind guesses, and see how their choices evolve over time.

In the end, the researchers used these patterns of choice to see what influences people’s confidence in their knowledge or beliefs while learning.

Participants were told whether they picked right or wrong on each try, but not why their answer was correct or not. After each guess, they reported on whether or not they were certain of their answer. By the end of the experiment, the team reports, a trend was already evident: the subjects consistently based their certainty on whether they had correctly identified a Daxxy during the last four or five guesses, not all the information they had gathered throughout the trial.

“What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident,” Marti said. “It’s not that they weren’t paying attention, they were learning what a Daxxy was, but they weren’t using most of what they learned to inform their certainty.”

By contrast, Marti says, learners should base their certainty on observations made throughout the learning process — but not discount feedback either.

“If your goal is to arrive at the truth, the strategy of using your most recent feedback, rather than all of the data you’ve accumulated, is not a great tactic,” he said.

The paper “Certainty Is Primarily Determined by Past Performance During Concept Learning” has been published in the journal Open Mind.

New thought framework could help psychologists understand mental illness

A new paper from the University of British Columbia proposes a new theory for how the brain processes thoughts, even at rest.

Image credits Jaka Ostrovršnik / Flickr.

Mind-wandering is typically considered as thoughts that stray from the task at hand, but lead author Kalina Christoff, a professor in UBC’s department of psychology believes this definition isn’t correct.

“We believe this definition is limited in that it doesn’t capture the dynamics of thought. Sometimes the mind moves freely from one idea to another, but at other times it keeps coming back to the same idea, drawn by some worry or emotion.”

Understanding what makes some thoughts “free” while keeping others constrained could help us better understand how thoughts behave in the minds of those with mental illness. This could help treat conditions like depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The authors propose that in its default state — mind-wandering — thoughts flow freely. But the mind can impose two types of constraints — one automatic, one deliberate — to influence the flow of thoughts. By compiling data from more than 200 journals, the team explains how the flow of thoughts is determined by an interaction between different brain networks.

“Everyone’s mind has a natural ebb and flow of thought, but our framework reconceptualizes disorders like ADHD, depression and anxiety as extensions of that normal variation in thinking,” said Irving.

“This framework suggests, in a sense, that we all have someone with anxiety and ADHD in our minds. The anxious mind helps us focus on what’s personally important; the ADHD mind allows us to think freely and creatively.”

Inside this framework, spontaneous thoughts — mind-wandering, dreaming, and creative thought — form when the mind is relatively free of automatic or deliberate constraints. In a sense, mind-wandering isn’t that different from creative thinking.

“We propose that mind-wandering isn’t an odd quirk of the mind,” said Christoff.

“Rather, it’s something that the mind does when it enters into a spontaneous mode. Without this spontaneous mode, we couldn’t do things like dream or think creatively.”

The full paper, “Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: a dynamic framework” has been published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Scientists see thoughts – and addiction – forming in the brain

Scientists managed to visualize the very formation of thoughts and addiction.

In a mouse brain, cell-based detectors called CNiFERs change their fluorescence when neurons release dopamine. Photo credits: Slesinger & Kleinfeld labs

A hundred years ago, the brilliant Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov carried out what would become one of the most iconic experiments in science. Basically, before feeding his dogs, he would ring a bell. In time, the dogs associated the ringing of the bell with food and would get excited when they heard the bell ringing. Through a repeated procedure, he conditioned dogs to salivate at the ringing of a bell.

Now, we get to see that very process occurring in the brain. Ultimately, this could allow us to better understand learning, as well as addiction.

In order to study a neural system, you need some kind of stimulation, and then you need to record the effects of this stimulation in space and time. This is not an easy feat, and the team had to create a new type of biosensors.

“We developed cell-based detectors called CNiFERs that can be implanted in a mouse brain and sense the release of specific neurotransmitters in real time,” says Paul A. Slesinger, Ph.D., who used this tool to revisit Pavlov’s experiment. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that transmit messages from one neuron to another.

CNiFERs are “cell-based neurotransmitter fluorescent engineered reporters.” They are the first biosensor which can reliably detect between the nearly identical neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. While the neurotransmitters are almost identical, distinguishing between them is huge, because they are associated respectively with pleasure and alertness — two very different states.

They were also able to measure and image another interesting process: the dopamine surge. Like Pavlov’s dogs, Slesinger’s mice were excited when they knew they were receiving food.

“We were able to measure the timing of dopamine surges during the learning process,” Slesinger says. “That’s when we could see the dopamine signal was measured initially right after the reward. Then after days of training, we started to detect dopamine after the tone but before the reward was presented.”

This kind of dopamine surge is also associated with addiction, and the technology might one be used to assess someone’s addiction to something. Ultimately, Slesinger says they’d like to use this sensing technique to directly measure these neuromodulators, which affect the rate of neuron firing, in real time.

The research was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society and was not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal.