Author Archives: tomstafford

For argument’s sake

I have (self) published an ebook For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. It is the collection of two essays that were originally published on Contributoria and The Conversation. I have revised and expanded these, and added a guide to further reading on the topic. There are bespoke illustrations inspired by Goya (of […]

Phantasmagoric neural net visions

A starling galley of phantasmagoric images generated by a neural network technique has been released. The images were made by some computer scientists associated with Google who had been using neural networks to classify objects in images. They discovered that by using the neural networks “in reverse” they could elicit visualisations of the representations that […]

Power analysis of a typical psychology experiment

Understanding statistical power is essential if you want to avoid wasting your time in psychology. The power of an experiment is its sensitivity – the likelihood that, if the effect tested for is real, your experiment will be able to detect it. Statistical power is determined by the type of statistical test you are doing, […]

Irregularities in Science

A paper in the high-profile journal Science has been alleged to be based on fraudulent data, with the PI calling for it to be retracted. The original paper purported to use survey data to show that people being asked about gay marriage changed their attitudes if they were asked the survey questions by someone who […]

Sampling error’s more dangerous friend

As the UK election results roll in, one of the big shocks is the discrepancy between the pre-election polls and the results. All the pollsters agreed that it would be incredibly close, and they were all wrong. What gives? Some essential psych 101 concepts come in useful here. Polls rely on sampling – the basic […]

When society isn’t judging, women’s sex drive rivals men’s

Men just want sex more than women. I’m sure you’ve heard that one. Stephen Fry even went as far as suggesting in 2010 that straight women only went to bed with men because sex was “the price they are willing to pay for a relationship”. Or perhaps you’ve even heard some of the evidence. In […]

An instinct for fairness lurking within even the most competitive

It stings when life’s not fair – but what happens if it means we profit? As Tom Stafford writes, some people may perform unexpected self-sabotage. Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, is the unlikely star of a viral video. His academic’s physique, grey jumper and glasses aren’t the usual stuff […]

Mind Hacks excerpts x 2

This month, Business Insider have republished a couple of chapters from Mind Hacks the book (in case you missed it, back before the blog, Mind Hacks was a book, 101 do-it-at-home psychology experiences). The excerpts are: 1. Why one of these puzzles is easy and the other is hard – which is about the Wason […]

Radical embodied cognition: an interview with Andrew Wilson

The computational approach is the orthodoxy in psychological science. We try and understand the mind using the metaphors of information processing and the storage and retrieval of representations. These ideas are so common that it is easy to forget that there is any alternative. Andrew Wilson is on a mission to remind us that there […]

Downsides of being a convincing liar

People who take shortcuts can trick themselves into believing they are smarter than they are, says Tom Stafford, and it comes back to bite them. Honesty may be the best policy, but lying has its merits – even when we are deceiving ourselves. Numerous studies have shown that those who are practised in the art […]

The scientist as problem solver

Start the week with one of the founding fathers of cognitive science: in ‘The scientist as problem solver‘, Herb Simon (1916-2001) gives a short retrospective of his scientific career. To tell the story of the research he has done, he advances a thesis: “The Scientist is a problem solver. If the thesis is true, then […]

The smart unconscious

We feel that we are in control when our brains figure out puzzles or read words, says Tom Stafford, but a new experiment shows just how much work is going on underneath the surface of our conscious minds. It is a common misconception that we know our own minds. As I move around the world, […]

Anti-vax: wrong but not irrational

Since the uptick in outbreaks of measles in the US, those arguing for the right not to vaccinate their children have come under increasing scrutiny. There is no journal of “anti-vax psychology” reporting research on those who advocate what seems like a controversial, “anti-science” and dangerous position, but if there was we can take a […]

You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win

“You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win” is the title of Allen Newell‘s 1973 paper, a classic in cognitive science. In the paper he confesses that although he sees many excellent psychology experiments, all making undeniable scientific contributions, he can’t imagine them cohering into progress for the field as a whole. He describes […]

What gambling monkeys teach us about human rationality

We often make stupid choices when gambling, says Tom Stafford, but if you look at how monkeys act in the same situation, maybe there’s good reason. When we gamble, something odd and seemingly irrational happens. It’s called the ‘hot hand’ fallacy – a belief that your luck comes in streaks – and it can lose […]

Is public opinion rational?

There is no shortage of misconceptions. The British public believes that for every £100 spent on benefits, £24 is claimed fraudulently (the actual figure is £0.70). We think that 31% of the population are immigrants (actually its 13%). One recent headline summed it up: “British Public wrong about nearly everything, and I’d bet good money […]

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