Author Archives: tomstafford

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 […]

Why you can live a normal life with half a brain

A few extreme cases show that people can be missing large chunks of their brains with no significant ill-effect – why? Tom Stafford explains what it tells us about the true nature of our grey matter. How much of our brain do we actually need? A number of stories have appeared in the news in […]

A simple trick to improve your memory

Want to enhance your memory for facts? Tom Stafford explains a counterintuitive method for retaining information. If I asked you to sit down and remember a list of phone numbers or a series of facts, how would you go about it? There’s a fair chance that you’d be doing it wrong. One of the interesting […]

The wrong sort of discussion

The Times Higher Education has an article on post-publication peer review, and whether it will survive legal challenges The legal action launched by a US scientist who claims that anonymous comments questioning his science cost him a lucrative job offer has raised further questions about the potential for post-publication peer review to replace pre-publication review. […]

Distraction effects

I’ve been puzzling over this tweet from Jeff Rouder: Surely, I thought, psychology is built out of effects. What could be wrong with focussing on testing which ones are reliable? But I think I’ve got it now. The thing about effects is that they show you – an experimental psychologist – can construct a situation […]

Explore our back pages

At our birthday party on Thursday I told people how I’d crunched the stats for the 10 years of mindhacks.com posts. Nearly 5000 posts, and over 2 million words – an incredible achievement (for which 96% of the credit should go to Vaughan). In 2010 we had an overhaul (thanks JD for this, and Matt […]

Evidence based debunking

Fed up with futile internet arguments, a bunch of psychologists investigated how best to correct false ideas. Tom Stafford discovers how to debunk properly. We all resist changing our beliefs about the world, but what happens when some of those beliefs are based on misinformation? Is there a right way to correct someone when they […]

Why our faith in cramming is mistaken

You may think you know your own mind, but when it comes to memory, research suggests that you don’t. If we’re trying to learn something, many of us study in ways that prevent the memories sticking. Fortunately, the same research also reveals how we can supercharge our learning. We’ve all had to face a tough […]

Problems with Bargh’s definition of unconscious

I have a new paper out in Frontiers in Psychology: The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. There has been ongoing consternation about the reliability of some psychology research, particularly studies which make claims about unconscious (social) priming. However, even if we assume that the empirical results […]

Talk, 28 Oct 2014: The power of reason

I am giving a talk on 28th October at Off the Shelf, Sheffield’s festival of words. Here is the blurb: Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody […]

Implicit racism in academia

Subtle racism is prevalent in US and UK universities, according to a new paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and released last week, reports The Times Higher Education. Black professors surveyed for the paper said they were treated differently than white colleagues in the form of receiving less eye contact or requests […]

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