When you can’t convince the public, try zapping or manipulating them.

A disturbing paper appeared in PNAS recently: “Selectively altering belief formation in the human brain.”  Why would anyone want to do that?  The abstract explains,

Humans form beliefs asymmetrically; we tend to discount bad news but embrace good news. This reduced impact of unfavorable information on belief updating may have important societal implications, including the generation of financial market bubbles, ill preparedness in the face of natural disasters, and overly aggressive medical decisions. Here, we selectively improved people’s tendency to incorporate bad news into their beliefs by disrupting the function of the left (but not right) inferior frontal gyrus using transcranial magnetic stimulation, thereby eliminating the engrained “good news/bad news effect.” Our results provide an instance of how selective disruption of regional human brain function paradoxically enhances the ability to incorporate unfavorable information into beliefs of vulnerability.  (Sharot et al., PNAS, September 24, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205828109.)

Much as altruistic people might like to help the misinformed learn to exercise better judgment in financial decisions and disaster preparedness, or to alleviate the sufferings of those with phobias or schizophrenia, this Frankenstein method of “magnetic stimulation” to alter beliefs resurrects visions of psychopolitics (think Soviet Russia or North Korea).  People with knowledge of 20th century history might be justly alarmed by scientists who come with promises, “we just want to help you.”  Why not put the magnets away and try reasoning with people as fellow human beings?

A reference to “the evolution of overconfidence” reveals where these psychologists are coming from.  Evolution, they say, has left us vulnerable to bad beliefs.  Humans don’t engage in good Bayesian reasoning.  They don’t update our beliefs when presented with new information.  “The consequences of readily integrating good news into our beliefs while underweighting bad news are likely to be considerable for an individual and for society.”  This raises fearsome questions about what should be done – and by whom.  Yikes; look at what they did to their subjects, right out of Frankenstein:

TMS [trans-cranial magnetic stimulation] pulses were delivered by a Magstim Rapid2 Stimulator (Magstim) at 40% of the maximum stimulator output using a small TMS coil (figure-of-eight shape, 50-mm diameter). We used an off-line continuous cTBS protocol, which consisted of three pulses at 50 Hz repeated at 200-ms intervals for a total duration of 40 s. A 5-min rest period was implemented after the termination of cTBS before participants started the task….

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