How Neuroscience “Explanations” Make Us Believe What We Hear

This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

I was recently at the annual conference for the Western Region of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and one of the speakers mentioned a fascinating bit of research on the effects of neuroscientific explanations. It seems that when an article explains something by discussing how the brain works, people judge the logic of the argument more favorably.

Or to put it another way, when people read “this is how the brain works”, they tend to believe what the author is saying. In fact, the effect is strong enough that it works even when the neurological explanation is irrelevant. A full semester of a college class in cognitive neuroscience doesn’t overcome it, but experts in neuroscience aren’t fooled. The researchers believe that this is because of  “seductive details”:

Seductive details, related but logically irrelevant details presented as part of an argument, tend to make it more difficult for subjects to encode and later recall the main argument of a text. Subjects’ attention is diverted from important generalizations in the text toward these interesting but irrelevant details, such that they perform worse on a memory test and have a harder time extracting the most important points in the text.

How is this relevant to sex? Think about all of the articles you’ve read about how men’s brains make them want lots of sex partners, while women want monogamy. Think about all of the sex and porn addiction articles that talk about oxytocin and dopamine in order to “prove” their points. I’m guessing that most of these folks aren’t doing it deliberately, but whether they are or not, their use of neuroscientific (or in some cases, neuro-pseudo-scientific) explanations makes it harder for people who don’t have the background to recognize that their claims don’t make as much sense as they seem to.

If you’re interested in an amazing review of the scientific literature on oxytocin, one of the neurochemicals that gets mentioned a lot, check out this article at You’ll see just how much the sex addiction folks misuse the info.

Interestingly, the same conference presenter also explained that when people read articles with neuroscience information, they tend to believe them even more if there’s an image of a brain, especially if the image is color coded to show the “important” bits. So here’s a pretty brain. Do you believe me now?

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3 Responses so far.

  1. Jamie Martin says:

    My brain was used as a pretty brain in a neuro journal once. No joke. I’m sure it seduced many people into believing what the article said.

  2. It tends to have the opposite effect on me! If someone says ‘because our brains mean we are wired to do/be/feel x/y/z’ I tend to ignore what they are saying.

    I am prejudiced against the use of neuroscience in studies on sex/sexuality. But willing to be proven my prejudice is unfounded. Nobody has yet!

  3. Jim says:

    According to credit card transactions, only 1% of all “paying” subscribers to internet porn sites are female.

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