Behavior and Belief

published on July 9, 2020

Hey, Mind Field! Vanessa hereJust kidding My nameis actually MichaelThat part when I saidthat I was Vanessathat was a lieSo you're welcomeHumans love liesMore precisely,

We love thingsthat aren't entirely true–because we have toIt's often all we haveCompletely proving somethingcan be difficult,if not impossibleSo instead, we havethe faith of the believer,

The confidence intervalof the scientistWhat we think we know,we really only believe we knowOn this episode of Mind Field, I'm going to take a look ata kind of liewe tell ourselvesAnd I'm going to use beliefto turn a lieinto a truth

( theme music playing )Michael: If I'm going to harness the power of belief, I need to find a good way to study belief and behavior So I'm paying a visit to UCLA's Dr Aaron Blaisdell, who I worked with on last season's "Greater Good" Trolley Problem episode

( train whistle blowing )Dr Blaisdell,great to see you againNice to see you again,MichaelThank you for your helplast season,but I've got this new thingI want to look intoI started thinking a lotabout belief

And how we form themSpecifically beliefs aboutwhat causes our behaviorI want to be ableto break it downand just look at how peoplerespond to the environmentaround themand how it changestheir beliefWell, a Skinner Boxis a great place to start

Because whatI tell my students is,a Skinner Box,for a psychologistlike myself,is like a test tubefor a chemist Dr Skinner, what are you doing with this pigeon? I'm getting ready to demonstrate a fundamental principle of behaviorMichael: Invented by Harvard psychologist BF Skinner,

a Skinner Box is a chamber in which animals can be isolated and exposed to carefully controlled stimuli In one of his landmark experiments, Skinner released food to pigeons in the boxes at regular intervals What he found was that the pigeons seemed to believe

that whatever they happened to be doing just before the food came actually caused the food to appear, and would then repeat that behavior over and over– for example, hopping around or spinning in circles Skinner called this "superstitious behavior"

So what do you want to do–what's your dream test?Basically a replicationof Skinner's superstitiousexperiment,but instead of with pigeons,with peopleI would love to see:will people developtheir own sort ofsuperstitious ritualsor beliefsHave we done thiswith people before?

I don't thinksuch a rigorous testof this has been doneI think primarily, fromthe literature I know,it's pretty much pigeonsBF Skinner's workshowed that if youregularly delivera reward to a pigeon,regardless of howit actually acts,the pigeon won'tfigure that out

Instead, the pigeon will developsuperstitious behaviorsas if it thinksit is in control,despite the lack ofany evidence that it is But what about humans? Watching people form new superstitions might show us how beliefs are created, but here's the thing:

You can't just put a personin a Skinner BoxPeople are quite clever,and so instead,along with Dr Aaron Blaisdell,I have developeda much more elaborate ruseWelcome to Victory Vault ♪

Michael: "Victory Vault" is a fake game show we made up to draw our unsuspecting subjects into taking part in a human Skinner Box To accomplish this, we rented a sound stage and constructed what appeared to be a game show set, but was really our study

We outfitted the room with a checkboard floor, a button that serves no purpose, multiple cameras and a live microphone, all of which have absolutely no connection to winning the game We also included an ATM slot on the wall where, instead of food, dollar bills would be fed into the room

at regular intervals Meanwhile, I would be playing the role of the executive producer of this new game show testing out the concept for a television network Our first subject is RebeccaYes, I know nothingI'm excited

Excellent, excellentWell, I'll you some thingsthat you need to knowOne, you will get to keepall of the moneythat you get todayThe object of the gameis to collect as much moneyas possible- OK ( laughs )- Now, you will have ten minutes,and that's allI'm going to tell you

– Go OK?- OK- Rebecca: OK- Michael (over loudspeaker): All right, Rebecca, beginin three, two, one, go! Blaisdell: Of course, right to the button,but she's not fixated on it,she's definitelylooking around there

Rebecca: I'm tryingto figure outif there's, like, a puzzle,or what this is aboutAm I supposed to just get out?No, not supposed to get out OKOh! OK, there's moneyIs that one clue?Rebecca: I've earned one dollar ( laughs )

See? She's "earned" one dollarEarnedI mean, she thinks shecaused it to happenLet's see I thinkI might be onto something- with this door, maybe? – Uh-huh- OK- Blaisdell: The second dollar billcame out really shortlyafter she manipulated the door

That's what Skinner would call"adventitious reinforcement"She accidentally justhappened to be doing something,- and now look – Hello? Look, it reinforced thatbehavior, look how strong it'sbecomeNow she's doing a lotwith the door, and this dancing, just like one of Skinner's pigeons

– Anything?- See?Michael: For the first two minutes, Rebecca believed a specific combination of the door and the button were triggering the money She had created a superstitious ritual

But when her old ritual ceased to line up with the reward being delivered, she started exploring new actionsWould you like to keepsending money?Is it something with this?Hello, dollar billMichael: This change in Rebecca's behavior indicates that she stopped believing that pressing the button

is associated with money coming out Skinner called this "extinction"( singing )♪ Keep sending money,what if I dance? ♪Michael: Not it seems she believes her new actions might connect to the reward- Five, four, three,- ( Rebecca yelps )

– two, one – Let's try coming out again- zero, stop – And OKI don't think I solvedthis mystery( laughs )Michael: Rebecca!You got some money, huh?- I did!- Come take a seat

So, first of all,how'd it go?Oh! Very confusingI wasn't able tofully figure it out,but it was something to dowith the 20 white squareson the floorSomething to do withthe red button as well,like a pattern, maybe?Oh! Maybe I should have triedclicking on the button20 times

– Yes!- OK, you wanna know what makes the money come out?Yes It's probablysomething really crazy- It's just 30 seconds passing- Blaissdell: Yep- It has nothing to do with what you do- Ohh!You would have gottenthe same amount,but you could just saton the floor and done nothing

– ( laughing )- YeahThis is actuallya psychological experimentbased on some work doneby BF Skinner,and we are looking atthe kinds of behaviorspeople inventthat they thinkcontrols the money- But I think this was fascinating- Blaisdell: Yeah

– And you really do get to keep the money- Yay!- Rebecca, thank you for your help today- Cool Thank you, guysMichael: Rebecca's rituals seemed to indicate that she thought performing for the camera would work the best Her beliefs about TV shows informed

the kinds of superstitions she would create But will other people develop the same superstitions? Or will it depend on the beliefs and expectations they already have?The object of Victory Vaultis to collect as much moneyas you canOh, OK Well, let me takethese accessories off therereally quickly

As soon as that door closes,your ten minutes startsI don't get to ask questions?Not on Victory VaultMichael:See you in ten minutesAll rightWhere's the cash?

It's like an escape roomAm I supposed to push this?Blaisdell: Some people really wanted instructions Michael: YeahContestant: I feel like if I push this, the time is gonna be upMichael: Like Rebecca, all of our subjects immediately gravitated to the useless button

That button is so salientPush the button?Oh, shit! ( Michael, Blaisdell laugh )He was a little surprisedat thatPush the button?

Oh! OK, I think I get itIs it push the button?Will I push the button?Am I supposed topush the button?( rapping ) ♪ If you're gon'push the button, then you'regoin' with the button ♪♪ And I'm pushin'on the button– ♪Michael: It was clear that most of the superstitions began with the button, but evolved into something else

very quickly, including this guy, whose superstitious behavior was doing absolutely nothing Blaisdell: He's just standing there Michael: Yeah Will he do something?( chuckling )

Maybe taking the moneyisbad?I know strippers get singlesfor dancing Blaisdell: Is he gonna dance? I hope he doesn't strip for usI can't dance like thatMaybe I can sweet talkthe machineIt's just giving me moneyat this point

I'm not doing anything( laughs ) Blaisdell: He's no foolHe's not really showingmuch superstitious behavior Even in Skinner's experiments, not all the pigeons showed superstitious behaviors Michael: Obviously there's a game, I called it a game show

But the money's just piling up like it's contagious Oh, look! Uh– Oh He really doesn't want to push itCome onPress it four times,out comes the money- Press it four times?- Out comes the money

( contestant laughing )Press it four times,out comes the moneyShe believes thatpressing the buttonis necessary, is a cause And the ritual consists of a few actions strung together Five, four, three twoone, stop

Can I push the button?- Time is up – DamnStay where you areWe will see you very soonI feel like I wassupposed to push the buttonMichael: Pigeons don't enter a Skinner Box with nearly as many preconceived notions as humans do

Humans come in with a rich diversity of expectations Some think they need to perform for the camera, or make the producers laugh This guy thought that the secret was to just be differentHold it! Oh, I thought–Take a seat- What was that?- Michael : Great work

What made the money come out?This is what I finally thoughtIt was a testnot to push the button,and then as I kept sayinga cer– a word–like phrase and "button,"it kept coming outBut I didn't know howit was supposed to be phrased

Hit that buttonHit it a lotAs if your lifedepended on itI was thinking,"What would people not do?"- Hmm- Probably just stand thereSo I was like, well,let's just stand thereand see what happensMaybe they'll reward patienceover impulsiveness

– You started doing exercises- Man: YeahI don't know if it rewarded youfor just being–doing crazy thingsDid you learn anything?That it was dispensinglike a dollar every,I don't know,like 30 secondsor something

You're rightYou had no controlover when the moneycame outIt's pretty interestingI'm wondering- if that's because of who you are- Yep- Wh-Who are you?- Blaisdell: ElaborateThat's just like my thoughtprocess, I think,

Like I'm just very observantYou came up with this greatentering-and-exiting-the-roomthingTell me about thatBecause the moneydidn't start coming outuntil after I–I waited, I waited, I waited,

And nothing came outuntil after I leftand came back inYou shoulda justleft me in thereto get more money!You made a sistahwork hard for her moneyMichael: Victory Vault,aka humanSkinner Box experimentWhat are your thoughts?

We're really findingthat humans are susceptibleto superstitiousbeliefs or behaviorsYou know what?I totally agreeExcept there were some peoplewho were able to guesswith some degree of confidencethat they didn't have controlSome people were probablyjust skeptical from theget-go

– Yeah- And that's justtheir personalityYeah, the beliefsthat people broughtinto that roomreally affectedwhat beliefs or lack thereof- they created in the roomonce the game started- Yeah We're belief machinesWe're pattern seekersAnd there's evena belief that in psychologyand in anthropology

That may be the waya lot of rituals got started,by accidental reinforcementAnd then it becomescodified into a religionor a cultural practiceHmm ♪Our human-sized Skinner Boxshowed that when confrontedwith uncertainty,

People often behavedsuperstitiously,under the beliefthat they do have controlBut of course,nothing anyone didin that boxwould make the moneycome out any fasterSo those superstitionswere liesBut sometimesif a lie is believed in enough,

It can literally become true,like a placeboNow, I've been watching a lot of horror movies lately,and they gave me an ideaIf I'm able to find justthe right preexisting beliefsto wrap around a placebo,

Could I literallymake people believethat I am possessing themwith a spirit?I want to performa sham reverse exorcism Exorcisms are not some Hollywood fabrication and they didn't only happen hundreds of years ago In fact, in the United States alone,

there are currently 50 priests endorsed by the Vatican's International Association of Exorcists, up from just 12 a decade ago But what's a reverse exorcism? It's something I made up where instead of removing a spirit from someone,

you put one in them I want to do that because I don't think it's ethical to tell someone they're possessed by a demonBut I'll need some help,and I know just who to askMichael: Dr Veissiére, thank you

I had a blast last seasonI think that the work we didand the things you showed merelated to ourpower-of-suggestion worktogether on placeboswas so powerfulWell, Michael,it's a real pleasureI'm honoredto be here again

It also is why you'rethe person I thought offor what I want to do nextBuilding on the workwe did last season,I want to explore beliefand what I canand cannot controlI want to perform an accessory-assisted reverse exorcism

– Hmm- Reverse exorcismbecause I'm not gonna tell youthat you have a demon in youor something in youthat I'm gonna remove–you're fineWhat I can do is make you feellike you're losing controlYou would like toexperimentally inducea spirit possession experience

– Right- I like thatAll right,let's talk details hereAre there things we can doto increase the effectivenessof our reverse exorcism ritual?Yeah I'm thinkingwe could probably usesome tricks from hypnosisIf we went themto have experiences,

We need to suggestthose experiencesto them specificallyWe would be using a lot of propsfrom both religion and scienceto get people'scritical mindsto relax,and then we will throw insome suggestionsSo we've gotreligious iconography,and we've got the paraphernaliaof medical science

Let's do thisMichael: Almost everyone feels a certain way in the presence of medical equipment, and, even though not everyone observes the same religion Swiss psychologist Carl Jung posited that a person's belief in a religious symbol

wasn't necessary for it to exert an influence on them Consciously, they may say it doesn't, but unconsciously, it will With Dr Veissiére onboard, I had Mind Field's art department mock up our lab with plenty of scientific and religious iconography

♪Michael: With our lab dressed to Veissiére's specs, everything is in place for our reverse exorcism Our five test subjects, pre-screened and vetted by a psychologist, arrived at the facility thinking that they were going to take part

in a broad study on the science of religion Immediately, we exposed them to things that would convince them of the seriousness of what they were about to do, such as filling out extensive paperwork( woman making announcement )

Michael: And an extended period of time in the waiting room to increase anticipation and tension We even used a fake participant to talk up his amazing experience in earshot of the real subjects- Woman: Hi- Hi

– How was it?- That was crazy- Yeah?- That was something elseMichael: And to really sell the illusion, we used multiple actors, like a fake receptionist, a nurse to check the patient's vitals, and a pretend priest to add credibility

to the religious angle Dr Veissiére played the role of a scientist fascinated by the power of the ritual This should influence our participants, because how could this all not be real if a guy in a white lab coat is taking it so seriously?

So we are just aboutready to begin Now, I'm watching hidden cameras that we have in the exam room adjacent to usLet's see what sorts ofaltered states of consciousnesswe can create today Now, this is Jeremiah, and Jeremiah's been waiting for about an hourActor/Nurse: So I'm gonna be placing this on your head

It's called an EEG cap,it just measures your brain activityThis is a really important partof sellingthe scientific realnessof what we're doingJeremiah,very pleased to meet youThank you so much for coming

Thank you so much again for your patienceI think it's really importantfor Veissiére to talk abouthow what's about to happenis special,it's not a normal ritualIn fact, it's not a ritualthat any lay people reallyknow about yetSo the name of the study,it's a bit of a mouthful,

So we're looking atneural correlatesand physiologic markersof ritually inducedmystical experiences I have run this experiment about 30 times,and some people enter some kind of encounter with what they may call a divine presence

– Jeremiah: How's it goin'?- Michael: Here comes the priest- I'm Jeremiah Nice to meetyou, sir – Father Callahan"Father Callahan,"the Stephen King characterOK, we mighthave to change thatActor/Priest: Jeremiah, what I'd like you to dois relax, and I'd like youjust to casually stare

At the crucifix,in the centerMichael: We had our "priest" guide Jeremiah through a holy ritual which we told him was a thousand years old But in actuality, Dr Veissiére wrote it himself just before the demonstration

Actor/Priest: And you may feel a tendency that you want to let your hands raisetowards the skyas your body falls awayMichael: Getting someone to literally act possessed is definitely a difficult test of the placebo effect, so I'm not exactly sure what kind of results we can expect

However, I'm at least hoping that we learn from this how to better tap into the power of people's beliefs Actor/Priest: Whatever the spirit needs to speak,it will speakSo now, as you keep relaxing,as the spirit prepares Jeremiah sat very still during the whole ritual,

but we were curious about what he experiencedSo whatdid that feel like?Jeremiah: It was weird, but I could feel like the presence,it's a little graphic,if some, like,cut my head off

– I didn't feel anything below – RightMichael: People don't normally have feelings of decapitation and numbness, so either we've stumbled upon a way to summon a spirit, or our belief manipulation is workingSo we've been working togetheron this project,

And I was observing youfrom the other roomAnd there are tworeally powerfulkinds of symbols in the roomWhich one had the biggestkind of visceral effect on you?I guess it was kind ofa balance, because, like,OK, it's religious,and the nurse comin' in,science– it kindagoes back and forth,so I want to say "even"

Well, more has been going onthan what you knowat this momentJoe–Father Callahan–was not a priest- Mm-hmm- He's an actor,and everything that he readwas written by Dr VeissiéreWe're looking at howa thing that has noknown causal linkto any particular reactionor behavior or feeling

Can nonethelessinduce a feelingMichael: Jeremiah's experience was pretty curious, and since nothing too serious happened– his head didn't spin around– we felt more comfortable pushing things a bit furtherI'm the leadbehavioral scientistin charge of the experiment,this is my colleagueDr Stevens

Michael: First, I interacted with the participants before the ritual, to build up their expectation of something happening– likepossessionSo today, you will belistening to a reverse exorcism- OK- I'm already possessed I'm already possessedMichael: We also decided to dim the lights

to decrease their inhibitions and increase the atmosphere Michael: I think it's gonna be great for our participants and for the whole moodI mean, it's spooky stuffBefore you can fullyexperience the divine,I'll simply just invite youto kind of relaxMichael: And we decided to have Dr Veissiére

lead the ritual instead of our "priest," so that he could use his training in behavioral psychology to harness the power of suggestion The priest continued to serve as an important religious anchor point

for the subject to focus onVeissiére: All of youractions and reactionsgradually fade and disappearas your body is nowapproaching the divineYou may noticeyour fingers tingling a little

You may feel your mouthneeding to tweak a littleHer mouth is openingslowlyAs the divine tries to speak through you, filling your mouth, perhaps,gently, ever so slowlyYou are now awake

GoodMichael: When the ritual ended, each of our participants had something very interesting to reportHe did definitelyhave an aura around him–the FatherWoman: I could feel just

This everlasting joyand peace of Godjust covering meThere was likea glowing figure, man,and then the crosswas like right in front of meWe've got medical scienceand we've got ancientreligious symbolsAnd what we'respecifically looking at

Is how the accessoriesplay into your expectationsI liked the visual partI didn't like the audio part- Interesting- I wasn't connecting with itWoman 2: I've always thoughtthat the kind of traditional,ritualistic parts of church,they just never appealed to meI think it was more the symbolsthat was more comforting,

Because that's justthe way I was raisedMichael: One of the most intriguing was our final subject, MiriamWhat was it like for you?Um, I went to another placeOK, OKI immediately felt my mother's–her spirit with me,

she was telling me- to come towards her- OKAnd when I got close to her,she was comforting me- OK- Um, and I heard an angel say,"I'm here with youI will never leave you" And I continued to see wings

– Wings Interesting- YesMichael: Miriam's experience seemed to have a profound effect on her, but I wanted to hear more about what exactly happened to herWhen you saythat you saw things,describe for mewhat that was

Was it like a daydream,or was it more like, um,really there?It was extremely vividUm, I could feel the windwhen it started going across,I could vividly see my motherstanding there, smiling at me- She looked beautiful- WowMichael: The fact that Miriam had an out-of-body experience

and saw her deceased mother, was almost puzzling, because everything we did in the room was a lie The priest was not real, the ritual was not a thousand years old, the nurse was an actress, but yet Miriam's experience and those of the other participants were real

The thing that surprised methe most todaywas how personalevery single moment wasI think because of a combinationof the powerful imagery,both religious and scientific,it becomes the most powerfulexperience they've hadEven if you'rea very staunch atheist,

A cross and a lectionary,these things,they're pregnant with meaningWe seem to have foundthat by using those cues,people were able to tune invery, very deeply,and to relinquishtheir sense of self-controlHere's a question

What's the differencebetween what we did todayand what an actual priestcan do?That's a reallycontroversial questionUm, I think the differenceis that, unlike the priest,we understand the mechanismsthrough a more psychologicalroute,whereas many priestsmay themselves be convinced

That they are facilitatingcommunication with the divineAnd perhaps they areThe results can be the same,regardless of the intentionsof the facilitatorsThere's no way to provewhether or notGod worked in this room today

I guess ultimately,with the tools of science,no, there isn'tThese are stillsome really difficultphilosophical questionsMichael: So, we have demonstrated thatour brains are belief-makingmachinesRather than accepting confusionand uncertainty,we create superstitionsand beliefs

That make us feel likewe have control over our livesIn fact, to not forma superstitionor belief or guessabout the world around usis to be powerless,even when superstitionsare unconnected to realityThat doesn't meanthey can't be powerful

Our "reverse exorcism" ritualand its practitionerswere all placebosBut the mere existenceof our subjects' beliefs in themmade them realand transformativeSo does that make us all fools?I don't know–but I don't believe so

And as alwaysthanks for watching ♪

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