Eight studies reveal a (possibly universal) bias in human imagination
I’ve always thought that scientific papers needed more things like “That’s replication, baby.😎”
Adam, I really appreciate this. I’m sure it takes some amount of courage as an academic to break the mold like this. Do you think it’s realistic that science could actually be reformed in this direction?… Is it as simple as more people just deciding to write their papers like this? And, what about the downsides? Call me an optimist, but I’m sure there are some good reasons scientific papers are written the way they are. Maybe one is that the more expertise/knowledge you assume of the reader, the easier you can communicate extremely narrow and nuanced ideas that make up the majority of publications, the inch-at-a-time progress in science. That’s not to say that scientists always do this well or scientific writing hasn’t moved beyond this to a different thing. But do you think we will always need hard to read scientific papers?
Fascinating research and as a fellow academic, hell yeah to everything you had to say about scholarly publishing! Learning to write academic papers in grad school (i.e. how to make anything of the slightest interest boring and incomprehensible) almost destroyed me. Thanks for showing how fun science can be.
In addition to the style of the writing, another big difference is the format: screen friendly. The typical publications in 2 columns serif font text published as a pdf is for paper prints and just about the worst experience for reading on a screen, maximizing the scrolling required. It is telling that the format is optimized for a medium that likely represents much less that 1% of the readership.
I wonder if people who practice gratitude rank different in these studies?
About the everyday complaining: My wife and I made up a rule:
If we complain about something we have to follow up immediately with something positive or something that we are grateful for. It really changes the course of the conversation and the mood of the day!
Interesting! Here’s my interpretation:
Most of what our brains are doing is illuminating a “cone of possibilities” around the present. We are doing this both in search of potential rewards as well as potential threats, but we represent these differently. When we feel safe, the cone broadens, and we consider more potential rewards. When we feel threatened, our cone narrows to the most obvious threats. Narrowing is thus the result of focus.
The potential of a specific monetary reward has the effect of narrowing the cone of awareness, and so people see fewer possibilities for things to be better.
So my hypothesis would be that you can also reduce the generation of “better” alternatives if you first scare people or present them with negative stimulus.
The reason this approach makes sense is if you consider replacing “Google” and “pets” (things a person can’t really change) with things a person can change, like “which way am I look right now” or “what posture am I standing in.” As for myself, once I think about my own posture, it immediately starts improving. Anything i shine the light of awareness on, I start seeing how it _could_ be better. For things outside my control this can produce a sense of frustration or desire, but for things inside my control, like my posture or breath or even facial expression, these things suddenly improve on their own.
It seems as if our brains are always trying to “push” the world into a better state.
I really enjoyed reading about your studies and appreciate that you make this accessible to regular people like me. My unschooled opinion is that this is a human function that is related to our survival. We strive to do better, and sometimes we do, and this makes us able to adapt, and hopefully improve our lives.
Amazingly written! I dream of a world in which science is communicated like this by default. I might cite this in my upcoming piece on scientific writing style, I'll keep you posted.
Thanks for publishing this, excellent read. Two bits of feedback:
1. Openness correlating with better imagined outcomes doesn't seem all that mysterious to me. Openness is, roughly speaking, how likely you are to say "yes" when someone says "hey, want to try something different?". If you more strongly imagine differentness to be good, of course you're more likely to say yes.
2. My guess for experiment 8 - you were trying to sample the total space of ways in which something could be different. The hypothesis you were so pleased about disproving was
"When asked to list only one difference, people were more likely to list a positive change. But maybe that's just because there are more positive changes than negative ones that they can think of, and they were choosing one at random. What if we asked people to list as many as they can?"
I am working on my doctorate (in Clinical Psych) and because I love words and love to write, I find myself often getting into trouble for being creative and for using colorful language and metaphors when I write. Given this bias towards the bland in scientific writing, I can understand why can AI system can probably produce passable technical writing. If one takes out the colorful and personal and creative from the end product, who needs a person to do the writing? They just get in the way!
I think at least part of the problem is that the love of words and the love of writing has gotten squeezed out of too many people who "do" science-if it was ever there in the first place! Maybe a creative writing class should be required as part of an higher education degree that is STEM-related.
I loved your paper! I wonder, though, how one moves a bureaucratic behemoth to change? I used to work in a very traditional business industry, and I remember that trying to get anything to change was like trying to turn a supertanker-by the time the turn is made, the need for the turn has been left behind, and at then there is just a new turn needing to be made. I will do my little, probably insignificant, part to change at least my world.
Loved the piece! Wish more science was like this.
I wonder what would happen if a group of meditation practitioners were given these questions?
Thinking about 'how things could be better' could be seen as a pattern of negative thoughts. I wonder if practicing gratitude is one way of reminding one's self that things could be worse, and how good things already are.
So the hypothesis is that people who practice gratitude would be able to list more ways which something can be worse.
I also wonder how this would change based on participant's ideas of linear vs circular time. If participants assume that the direction of the world is 'things always get better', then they might be listing the things that they think more likely to happen.
People with circular conceptions of time may believe that the future could be better OR worse than the past?
I love this so much. I have long thought that scientific papers and studies are too inscrutable for their own good. And each field has their own lingo, so even if someone were smart and interested in multiple fields, it would be difficult for them to study different disciplines. It's like learning different languages. This is laid out so crystal clear that a layman could digest it without issue. I especially love psychology findings being this easy to understand, because literally everyone could benefit from understanding themselves better.
Love this so much. It immediately brings to mind how artists, creators, and makers relate to the work they do. As an artist and crafter, I’ve notice how I feel about my work sometimes depends about how excited I am about the idea in my head, not based on how much time it took or other people’s response to it.
In a past life, I thought I wanted to be a psychometrician, but ended up pivoting to digital design and design research. Now I manage teams of designers and one thing I’ve noticed is designers can do good work and still feel discontent because the thing they made is inevitably not as “good” as the thing they imagined when starting out. This happens for a lot of reasons beyond cognitive bias, but the result is feeling bad about themselves or the work. There’s even a delightful chart about the phenomenon: https://www.dropbox.com/s/1hgv9yewqjt5rar/Photo%20Nov%2015%202022%2C%208%2019%2042%20AM.png?dl=0
Anyway, thanks for the great post!
I'm a prolific user of Prolific (heh) and I remember taking one of these studies! Not sure which one is was though. I enjoyed getting this peek "behind the curtain".
I had a lot of fun reading this paper. After reading it I felt I learnt something, and that surely is a much more engaging way of communicating science, while still following all the "right" and expected ways of carrying out proper research. No need to be stuffy to be taken seriously.
I think sometimes researchers write in obscure ways with the purpose of only sharing with a very narrow group of super specialists, but that is not the best way to advance science.
I look forward to reading more articles from you.
This is the best research article I have read. Ever! Keep up the good work, and thanks for making scientific research and the insights derived therefrom fun, interesting, accessible, understandable. This is the prototype for democratizing knowledge. I am inspired!
Unique, insightful, and very funny! As I read this and kept seeing more studies you did I couldn't help but think of the phrase..."but wait, there's more!".