Voodoo memories

For a little entertainment, and an interesting perspective on the nature of cognition and scientific reasoning, I suggest this clever essay by Jonah Lehrer of Seed:

[Emily] Pronin's experiment was simple: Harvard students were shown a voodoo doll and told that they were part of a study of "physical health symptoms that result from psychological factors...in the context of Haitian Voodoo." (In fact, dolls are not used in Haitian Voodoo but "they were used here to conform to participants' expectations about Voodoo practice.") Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the scientists had recruited a "confederate" as part of their experimental design. The confederate dressed and behaved normally with half of the participants - and very badly with the other half. He arrived late, tossed an extra copy of a consent form toward the trash can, but missed and left it on the floor. While the subjects read the voodoo death article, "he slowly rotated his pen on the tabletop, making a noise just noticeable enough to be grating." In other words, he acted like he deserved a hex.

You'll have to read it to see how it turned out.

It's an interesting study in the psychology of cause-and-effect, which figures not only into the area of scientific reasoning (as it is applied here) but also in the construction of memory.

A number of studies lately have focused on the way that people "fabulate" their memories. It seems that people don't remember the way things actually happened. Instead, they reconstruct a narrative about them based on the things that they do remember. Since these facts are often sketchy, the narrative begins to diverge from reality.

This phenomenon accounts for why different participants in an event usually remember it differently. It also lies at the root of the issue of false "recovered" memories -- since it can be easy to get someone to reconstruct events wrongly, yet vividly, by suggesting to them a few errant facts.

When people reconstruct the course of an event, they do so using knowledge and principles that their minds apply broadly to many kinds of things. In a sense, this process of constructing "causation" is one that is fundamental to our cognitive life. It works just to the extent that the causes we imagine are compatible with reality.

Is voodoo compatible? Well, in the experimental setup, there isn't a way to test whether the hex was real...