Skip to content
29 November, 2010 / Ash

Cognitive Dissonance

Ash standing in front of an image of a brain

Image courtesy of Paul Hagon

I recently had the opportunity to speak at TEDxCanberra.

When Stephen Collins first approached me for this event, I was going to speak about the disgraceful state of Australian pharmacies – who now sell more snake oil, fad diets, cosmetics and alternative therapies than science-based medicine. Instead, I opted to go for the root of the problem: faulty reasoning – especially that caused by cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by attempting to hold ideas, beliefs, or behaviours that conflict. Our minds quickly act to relieve this dissonance by discarding or minimising the impact of one of the ideas, beliefs or behaviours by employing cognitive biases – and this can lead to faulty reasoning.

Being aware of how cognitive dissonance and cognitive biases affect us doesn’t stop them, but it can make us think twice before acting. I thought that was an idea worth spreading.

6 October, 2010 / Ash

Memory & recall

The most common metaphor for how memory works is a movie. Our eyes and ears watch the movie, and our minds store it away like a video. This video can then be replayed on demand – and that is a memory.

No Movies

Image courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski

Unfortunately, this is a really bad metaphor on two levels.

First, we don’t actually see and hear everything in the first place. Our perception is an interpretive process. We only take in essential bits of experiences, and our mind fills in the rest to give us a cohesive image of the world around us.

Second, when we remember something, we only recall certain snippets of the event – certain sights, sounds, emotions, textures – and again, our minds seamlessly fill in the gaps for the rest without us being aware. Every time we remember, we construct that event in our minds from those snippets. Next time we recall the event, it will be based on that new construction. The more often we remember something, the more divergent it is from reality.

The constructive nature of episodic memory means our memories are open to bias, suggestion, or as Elizabeth Loftus‘s research has demonstrated, even complete fabrication leading to innocent people being imprisoned. This is why memories ‘recovered’ under hypnosis – from ritual abuse, to alien abductions – are now inadmissible as evidence in most courts.

So perhaps the metaphor for memory should be more like a collage? We start with a few cut out pictures, and use paper and pen to arrange the pictures and connect them in a meaningful way.

Further reading

WNYC’s Radiolab Memory and Forgetting

Schacter & Addis (2007) The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future (PDF, 410kB)

The British False Memory Society Twelve Myths About False Memories

27 May, 2009 / Ash


Although we “believe it when we see it with our own eyes”, there are many holes in both input and interpretation of our senses.

Sometimes its hard to get noticed

Sometimes it's hard to get noticed

A favourite perceptual flaw of mine is inattentional blindness: the inability to see things right in front of our eyes, because we’re attending to something else.

There was a famous experiment on this subject by researchers at the Visual Cognition Lab. Students were asked to watch a video and count the number of times one team passed a basketball to another. After the video, the researcher asked the students how many times the ball was passed. Some said 12, many said 13, some said 14.

Next, the researcher asked if anyone noticed anything strange in the video. Some said boys passed it boys more than girls. Some said the girls didn’t move as much.

He asked them to watch the video again: this time not to count the passes, just watch. Almost nobody believed it was the same video. It all looked the same, but in this one, a gorilla walked to centre stage, beat his chest, waved his arms, and walked off again. The students had simply failed to notice this blatant gorilla play right in front of their eyes, because their focus was on counting the number of passes.

27 May, 2009 / Ash

Seeing patterns

Our brains are good at finding patterns. In fact, they can sometimes be too good, and find patterns that just aren’t there. In cognitive science, this is known as apophenia.  It can be as simple as creating a pattern from a random distribution, or as complex as recognising faces from random markings.

People are convinced of streaks in gambling

People are convinced of 'streaks' in gambling

The industry of gambling preys on a type of apophenia known as the ‘clustering illusion’: the tendency to see clusters, or ‘streaks’ in small samples. We all know that if you flip a coin 100 times, it will end up roughly 50 times on heads, and 50 times on tails. Unfortunately, we can’t see the big picture, so the first 10 flips of the coin might not be 5 heads and 5 tails; it might be 10 heads! What does that mean for the next flip? Is it more likely to be heads or tails? Contrary to what we may believe, the next flip is still a 50/50 chance.

Another form of apophenia that is often the basis of religious fervour is pareidolia: finding images or sounds in random stimuli. This is where people see faces in mars, UFOs in the sky, and religious icons in anything from water stains to toast burn patterns.

Seeing religious icons in the burn patterns of toast

Seeing religious icons in the burn patterns of toast

Pareidolia is often primed. From birth we have a bias to recognising faces, even from fuzzy images. People more easily discern images of faces they are familiar with. Listening to random sounds like variable static or records being played backwards, we can recognise random words here and there, but prime someone with the words they ‘should’ hear and they can become quite clear.

Do you have any other examples of seeing patterns in random stimuli?

25 May, 2009 / Ash

Weasel Words

Weasels cunningly suck the contents of eggs, leaving them looking untouched.

Weasels cunningly suck the contents of eggs, leaving them looking untouched.

Weasel words are words and phrases carefully chosen to create the illusion of clear, direct communication, but semantically and legally are ambiguous.

These misleading terms are used extensively in the marketing of suspect products to avoid the legal implications of false claims.

Weasel words get their namesake from the alleged behaviour of weasels: making a small incision in eggs, sucking out the contents, and leaving the empty shell looking like nothing has happened to it.  In much the same way, a weasel word is an empty shell which on the surface seems to be whole.

They can be simple words like:

Helps; assists; promotes; can; may; strengthen; boosts; natural; etc.

You see them all the time. Sometimes strung together “May assist in boosting the body’s natural immunity.”

They can also be empty phrases without reference or evidence, such as:

Studies show…; 9 out of 10 people agree…; Critics claim…; etc

‘Woo’ industries rely almost entirely on weasel words, including:

  • Cosmetics
  • Vitamins
  • Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)


The following are some examples (with the weasel words in bold and explanations in square brackets) taken from websites today:


A blatant photo touch-up used to promote skin repair from Elite Laser and Spa

A blatant photo touch-up used to promote skin repair from Elite Laser and Spa

Every apparent claim in cosmetics to stop or reverse ageing must be made with weasel words as there is no proven way to do this.  They all contain a scientific sounding miracle ingredient, and all use multiple devices (images of teenagers’ or digitally touched-up skin, scientific looking animations of molecules, and plenty of scientific sounding, yet meaningless weasel words).

SkinCeuticals [making the company sound scientific, like pharmaceuticals] scientists [what qualifications? PhD in Biochemistry from Oxford, or Diploma of Skin Science from the Happy herbal Institute?] and formulators [people who create things] have refined ways to stabilize [what determines stability?] and deliver additional amounts [how much?] of key [what makes them key?] antioxidants [anything that inhibits oxygen reactions – a very broad spectrum of the known Universe] into skin, thus adding to the bodys natural reservoir [unmeasurable] of antioxidants. Continued research has demonstrated that properly formulated [what is improperly formulated?] antioxidant combinations work synergistically [in combination] to provide enhanced [unmeasurable] benefit [what kind of benefit?]. Recent studies [what studies?] show [How? Causally? Anecdotally? Falsely?] that topical [applying] application of optimized [for what?] antioxidant combinations can [but may not] provide up to [but may be zero] eight-fold antioxidant protection [protection from oxidants, or from antioxidants?], ninety-six percent reduction of sunburn cells [normal sunblock], and prevent the formation of thymine dimers in UV irradiated skin [normal sunblock].

ref: SkinCeuticals Antioxident Serum

Most even use weasel words in their taglines or names:

Olay: Help fight the 7 signs of ageing [what are the ‘7 signs’ and how does Olay help fight them?]

HydroPeptide Cellular Transformation Growth Serum [Hydropeptide is a brand name made to sound scientific. All cells grow and transform. Serum is an amber, watery fluid, rich in proteins, that separates out when blood coagulates.]


Vitamins are touted as cure alls and immunity boosters

Vitamins are touted as cure alls and immunity boosters

The nutraceutical industry is mostly predicated on people believing that vitamins will be beneficial to their health, whilst in the vast majority of cases they are completely inert.

An easy to swallow liquid suitable for both adults and children, traditionally used [not tested or proven to work] for the relief of coughs, colds, flu, sore throats and to help [to what extent?] reduce fevers.

ref: Blackmore’s Olive Leaf Extract

This potent [compared to what?] formulation helps [to what extent?] break the pain cycle [what is a ‘pain cycle’?] by relaxing [to what extent?] sore, tight muscles and nerves, while aiding [how?] in the repair [to what extent?] and protection [how can it be shown to protect or not?] of cartilage between the spinal vertebrae for better ‘cushioning’ and impact absorption. It also helps repair and renew damaged tendons, connective tissue and joints.

ref: Nature’s Way Back Pain Relief

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Complementary medicine is woo, based mainly on pre-science concepts of spirits and mystic forces.

Complementary medicine is woo, based mainly on pre-science concepts of spirits and mystic forces.

All claims in this field have to be carefully worded, since any complementary and alternative medicine that’s actually proven to work simply becomes real medicine.

Homœopathic treatment strengthens a person’s health [how can ‘health’ be measured for strength?], acting as a catalyst [scientific sounding, but meaningless], stimulating and directing the body’s ability  to fight infection as well as resolving any underlying susceptibility to disease [all of these words are ambiguous]. Homœopathy views many symptoms in its quest to treat [not actually treating] underlying tendencies [underlying tendencies can’t be measured] to ill health. In this context, mental and emotional symptoms can [but may not] sometimes play an important part [how often?] in understanding this susceptibility [but not treating it].

ref: Australian Homeopathic Association

Trademarks and Company Names

Whilst looking through this, I also found the use of Trademarks and company names quite prevalent.  Whilst these are legally meaningless, they can be made to look like a claim.

Eat What You Want and Still Lose Weight™ is the trademark of weight loss pill company, Aväkar.

Subway’s brand is under, and recommended by, Doctor’s Associates Inc.

Further reading

For a full dictionary of American weasel words (2600), you may be interested in Weasel Words By Paul Wasserman, Don Hausrath.

Australia’s Don Watson has addressed this issue in a stream of books (including his own dictionary of weasel words) found on his aptly named website, Weasel Words.

You can also watch Watson deliver an entertaining lecture on The Absurdity of Corporate Speak.

I think the Gruen Transfer provided some great insight cosmetics advertising, and in part explains the use of weasel words:

Please let me know of any good examples you come across.


Thanks to Dr. Rachel Dunlop, I also came across this gem: a parody of cosmetic companies made for Choice’s 2009 Shonky Awards

20 May, 2009 / Ash

What makes us believe beyond reason?

X-Files: Mulder & Scully dancing

Let's do the 'irrational belief dance'

I’ve just been engaged in an extended discussion with Creationists on the Catalyst website.  I say “discussion” instead of “debate”, because there is no way to debate a true believer.

People believe many things for many reasons.  I’d like to boil it down to one in particular:

Our brains naturally take shortcuts.

Although we all believe that what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste are good representations of the world, they’re not.  Over the next few posts, I’m going to explore how our brains are wired for taking shortcuts we normally wouldn’t notice in:

%d bloggers like this: