I heartily believe in studying dry, abstract psychological concepts through super-boring, totally unrealistic experiments for the sake of #science. I built my degree around this process. I'm kind of an expert at it.
But every once in a while psychologists (and other researchers) can gain insights about people from unexpected places. Some offer new ways of thinking about human psychology, while others offer unique, concrete ways of explaining dense topics. Here is a small sampling of some of my favorite fun sources of insight into human psychology.
In true hindsight bias fashion, the thing that surprises me most about researching magic is that it has only recently entered cognitive science as topic of study (within the past decade or so). Magic provides unique insight into human cognition because its effects often created by capitalizing on human cognition, such as perception, attention, and expectations. Misdirection, for example, makes use the fact that we can really only be aware of a fraction of what we can see. By directing our attention from what the magician doesn't want us to notice, the magician can perform tricks right in front of us (1). This can be achieved in multiple ways, such as capitalizing on our tendency to look where others are looking (i.e., where the magician is looking). We look where the magician looks, and fail to notice what's going on with the hands elsewhere. Alternately, a magician may set expectations about where an action will take place (such as throwing a ball up into the air multiple times); because we have a tendency to attend where we expect an action to occur, the real action can take place elsewhere and we will miss it entirely (e.g., while we are looking up where we think a ball was just thrown). Researchers have begun looking to magic as a means of exploring human cognition and even co-authoring review articles with well-known magicians (2). If you want to learn a lot more about the connection between cognitive neuroscience magic, you can check out the book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions (Macknik, Martinez-Conde, & Blakeslee, 2011).
Watch Penn and Teller break down slight of hand point-by-point:
This one was actually first brought to my attention through my colleague here at QIC, Tarah Daly, who alerted me to a study investigating personality differences among participants who were sorted into different houses based on the online Pottermore sorting quiz (3). This particular study seems to suggest that some of the expected personality traits (based on the description of the houses in the books) do pan out: Hufflepuffs were more agreeable than the other houses, Ravenclaws were higher in need for cognition, and Slytherins scored higher on narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
However, the use of Harry Potter as an area of study doesn't stop with testing whether different houses really have different personality traits. Researchers are using Harry Potter as a research tool to study a wide variety of topics. For example: a neuroscience study where participants read Harry Potter in an fMRI experiment to investigate the neural correlates of feeling 'immersed' in a book (4); social psychology, where it was found that reading Harry Potter reduced attitudes of prejudice (5); and cognitive psychology, where Harry Potter was used to investigate how people engage in causal reasoning (6) (short summary: people prefer explanations for events that have a narrower latent scope, that is, how many types of events the explanation could account for). The lesson here is, I think, that everyone loves Harry Potter. Brand new information, I know.
For ethical reasons, we can't really dig up people and try to turn them into zombies. And they probably wouldn't be very cooperative research participants. However, in the book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep (Vestynen & Voytek, 2014), two neuroscientists explain how the brain works through the lens of diagnosing the symptoms of zombies. For example, why do zombies walk the funny way that they do? Well, clearly there is something wrong somewhere in the brain circuitry that plans and executes movements. However, given the types of problems they have (e.g., they are capable of movement and they don't stall in the middle of a movement, but the movements are lumbering and uncoordinated), the zombie shuffle is linked to dysfunction in the cerebellum. What about fast zombies, you ask, like in 28 days later? Don't worry, there's an explanation for that, too, as well as the many other recognizable symptoms of being a zombie.
Have you learned something interesting about human behavior from an unusual source? We’d love to hear about it!
1. Kuhn, G., Amlani, A. A., & Rensink, R. A. (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(9), 349-354.
2. Macknik, S. L., King, M., Randi, J., Robbins, A., Thompson, J., & Martinez-Conde, S. (2008). Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(11), 871.
3. Crysel, L. C., Cook, C. L., Schember, T. O., & Webster, G. D. (2015). Harry Potter and the measures of personality: Extraverted Gryffindors, agreeable Hufflepuffs, clever Ravenclaws, and manipulative Slytherins. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 174-179.
4. Hsu, C. T., Conrad, M., & Jacobs, A. M. (2014). Fiction feelings in Harry Potter: haemodynamic response in the mid-cingulate cortex correlates with immersive reading experience. Neuroreport, 25(17), 1356-1361.
5. Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2015). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(2), 105-121.
6. Khemlani, S. S., Sussman, A. B., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2010). Harry Potter and the sorcerer's scope: latent scope biases in explanatory reasoning.
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These posts are written or shared by QIC team members. We find this stuff interesting, exciting, and totally awesome! We hope you do too!