Psychology and humour – a personal perspective and a unifying theory

Over the winter of 2012/2013, I spent many of my Sundays laughing my way through an excellent stand up comedy course run by Logan Murry.

I wrote up a summary of my experience, and the British Psychological Society’s official magazine, The Psychologist, published my thoughts on humour and psychology in their April special edition all about humour.

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You can read my article here in their archive. I’d highly recommend the other articles on humour too.

Happy reading!

Rob

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Is graphology a valid recruitment method?

In October, BBC Radio 4 ended a broadcast of the Today Programme with what was meant to be a light-hearted article on graphology .

Unfortunately it appeared from the show that Auntie Beeb was promoting the daft pseudoscience that is handwriting analysis. Even worse, they seemed to have realised what they’d done, but did nothing to correct themselves. I was a bit disturbed about this, because I worry about people having to submit their handwriting for analysis in job selection. This is simply wrong, because handwriting has nothing useful to say about job performance, so has absolutely no place in a recruitment situation. In an economic climate where so many are desperate to get jobs, I hate to think of unfair practices standing in the way of deserving candidates.

With my work hat on, I wrote about what silly nonsense it all is. You can read the blog here.

Enjoy!

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A Parable of Flat-Earthers

I find it interesting to debate opinions with people, because so often this throws up interesting (but often predictable) insights into the way that the human mind works. This after all, is why I studied psychology in the first place.

A common topic that I like to debate is homeopathy. The reason for this is that homeopathy is so conclusively wrong, yet there is still a large minority (by number of people, not by proportion of the population) who still believe in it.

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As a result, it’s a brilliant, current example of an erroneous belief held in modern society, and therefore offers wonderful insights into the errors that any of us could make. Once a debate on this topic is underway, and I’m sure that what we’re debating is homeopathy, but not herbal remedies (which are different), then I’m used to hearing a fairly standard pattern of responses. I find these responses fascinating, because they illustrate how an incorrect belief can take grip, then will be defended illogically by those who hold this belief.

When people say to me “I believe in homeopathy”, or “Homeopathy works for me”, this is what it sounds like this to me:

I believe the Earth is flat”, or

Knowing that the Earth is flat has been very beneficial to my life.

As a result, this blog presents a fictional debate between me and a Flat-Earther, following the same response patterns I’ve grown so used to…

The earth is flat.

Erm… no it’s not. It’s round.

That’s an extreme view.

Erm… no it’s not. The earth is round, or more accurately: spherical. That’s the truth. It’s not extreme to say it’s round, because it’s true.

Ah, but who can really say that we know the truth – reality is just a construction we make through our flawed senses. Since that’s the case, it’s just as true to say that the Earth is round or flat.

I doubt you think like that when you book your tickets for a foreign holiday.

Who’s paying you to say the Earth round? Is it the airlines? They just want to rip us off.

No one’s paying me. I’m saying it because it’s true.

You’re so cynical.

No, I’m not. I’m interested in the truth. I think it’s very useful to know that the Earth is round. It helps understand the world better. Understanding the truth has led to all sorts of useful things, such as accurate navigation systems, like the one you use in your car.

Ancient, wise texts tell us that the Earth is flat.

Unfortunately they didn’t know any better, but now we know that the Earth is round. It doesn’t mean that the ancient texts were wrong about everything, but on this point they certainly were.

A friend of mine has been up in an aeroplane and says that he could see from up there that the Earth is flat.

If he’d looked at the horizon, he might have seen the curvature of the Earth. But he probably just looked down.

There’s a group of people called the Flat Earth Society. Are you seriously telling me that they are all wrong too?

Yes.

Knowing that the Earth is flat makes me happy and healthy.

But it’s not true. Therefore you are basing your happiness and health on an illusion.

My dog, cat and baby child think that the Earth is flat and this gives them an enormous sense of wellbeing and helps them to recover from illness.

It’s possible that you are reading a lot into the state of an animal or child that can’t actually speak for itself. You are most likely reading ambiguous cues in a way that merely confirms your existing beliefs.

My doctor thinks that the Earth is flat.

Well he’s only human, so he’s just as likely to make mistakes like the rest of us.

You’re very closed-minded.

No I’m not. If you can show me concrete proof that the Earth is flat, I’ll need to look at that seriously and reappraise my views – which appears to be something you’re not willing to do.

You’re so biased!

Biased in favour of the truth. Yes – guilty as charged!

Here’s a website that proves that the Earth is flat.

The website has obviously been written by a madman.

You’re a psychologist, not a geologist. How would you know if the Earth is flat or not?

You don’t have to be a geologist or psychologist to logically work out that the Earth is round or that something funny’s going on in the minds of Flat-Earthers. You’re not a geologist or a psychologist and you’ve decided that the Earth is flat.

My local bookstore sells maps of the world. They are flat. The bookstore is reputable, so they wouldn’t be selling something that’s untrue.

Firstly, the maps are flat, because it makes them easier to carry, transport, use and sell. Secondly, the bookstore will be full of some great books but also a lot of them that contain inaccuracies, myths and lies – the bookstore’s purpose is to make money, not check and review every book to judge how true it is.

You should take a more balanced view. Each side of the argument, flat Earth and round Earth, deserves the same amount of respect and debate.

Not really. The Earth is round. You’re wrong. Giving your side of the argument equal airtime is just a waste of time. It’s likely to mislead others who haven’t learnt to think critically about this issue.

It sounds like you are ignorant of the true facts about the flat Earth. You should read more about it and understand it properly before you criticise it.

You don’t need to read more than a few paragraphs before you can spot the flaws in the idea of a flat Earth and realise that it’s not true. However, despite that, I have read a huge amount about it, including: the claims for a flat Earth; the scientific evidence for and against; the beliefs of flat-Earthers; and the psychological reasons why flat-Earthers come to believe, then get stuck believing untruths. The reality is that even if you’ve graduated with a degree in flat Earth studies, I have a better-informed grasp of the facts than you.

Even if I’m wrong, what’s the harm in me believing that the Earth is flat?

Apart from the fact that it makes you look like a dick? Well, I suppose that it’s because you aren’t learning to think critically and you’re investing energy in something that isn’t actually doing any good for anyone. Why not channel your energy into something that is true and could be even more effective in helping us to respond positively to the world?

Science can only tell us so much. Why do you believe so much in science? It’s just a belief system.

No, it’s not. It’s a method for testing ideas. Thankfully scientific endeavour has shown, beyond doubt, that the Earth is round. Scientists have built your mobile phone, improved your healthcare, given you greater life expectancy, shown the link between smoking and cancer; but Flat-Earthers simply stick to disproven nonsense. I think I know who is more likely to be correct.

But scientists have made the nuclear bomb and guns.

That doesn’t make the Earth flat.

You must be a really unhappy, bitter person to go around telling people that the Earth is round.

No. I’m a very happy, fulfilled person. That has very little to do with the Earth being round.

God tells me that the Earth is flat. It’s part of my religious beliefs, so you should respect this.

Well, as God is omniscient, I think He or She would know that the Earth is round. You and your religion seem to be attributing your own mistaken beliefs to God. That might just piss Him or Her off; I don’t think He or She will really appreciate you spreading nonsense around and then claiming that He or She said that. As for respecting your views – I don’t. I respect your right to hold stupid views, but I have no reason to respect the views themselves, especially when they are so obviously wrong.

The pictures of the Earth taken from space are just fakes. You can’t prove these are real. They’ve been made by evil people who want to make a fool of you in order to turn people away from the beautiful truth that the Earth is flat.

Get a grip.

I don’t really care if the Earth is round or flat because when I think about how the Earth is flat, it makes me feel better.

I suggest you take a long walk to the edge of the Earth and then a little further – you’re getting irritating. You obviously do care about your erroneous view that the Earth is flat, but now you’re disingenuously distancing yourself from it just because we’re having a debate. As soon as my back is turned you’ll be banging on about a flat Earth again.

Well, Hitler was a vegetarian!

Uh?! What?!… What’s that got to do with the Earth being round? What an irrelevant distraction!

Claiming that the Earth is round is just nasty pseudoscience designed to turn people away from the truth. You ought to be given an ironic award for your horrible lies.

Is your mirror broken?

Knowing that the Earth is flat will cure you of cancer. There’s so much money tied up in cancer research that nobody wants you to know this truth: that this free belief in a flat Earth will cure you.

Please just go and fuck yourself.

The fact that you’ve just got sweary completely undermines your argument.

No it doesn’t. Sorry for swearing. All that it shows that I’m at the end of my tether with your stupid views and intransigent position. Shall we talk about something else?

Glad to see that I’ve won the argument.

You haven’t. I lost my temper, but you didn’t win the argument. No matter how often you repeat your incorrect views, or how frustrated I get, the Earth will remain round, and you will remain wrong.

Further reading:

If I make the time, I might write a little more about the errors, biases and motivations behind this the various kinds of argument presented above, but in the meantime, a few interesting reads are:

Believing Bullshit – by philosopher Stephen Law – this examines how people get stuck in ‘intelletual black holes’ as they come to believe and try to defend nonsense

The Invisible Gorilla  – by psychologists Christopher Chabris, Daniel J. Simons – this takes a fascinating look at common errors of thinking that affect us all

Bad Science – by doctor Ben Goldacre – a ranty polemic against terrible pseudoscience

Trick or treatment – by CAM expert Edzard Ernst and journalist Simon Singh – looks at which alternative therapies work and which don’t

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