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UMN studies whether brain images make people more likely to believe information

The original study was published in 2017 and a follow-up study is currently taking place in the Netherlands.
Illustrated by Jane Borstad
Illustrated by Jane Borstad

A new study by University of Minnesota researchers is looking into whether teachers are as susceptible as the general public to believing arguments in an article if they include brain imagery.

The ongoing study, taking place in the Netherlands, explores how receptive teachers are to believing a psychological argument depending on presence of both neuroscience evidence and brain-scan images.

“My interest is in [seeing] if our teaching training might [do] a good job of training educators to be critical consumers of brain-based products and interpreting it,” said Soo-hyun Im, the primary researcher and a University doctoral student in educational psychology.

The study is a follow-up to a 2017 study by the same team of researchers. The original study found the general public is more likely to believe educational articles when neuroscience evidence and brain images were present, according to a press release.

“When we had the brain pictures as part of the articles, people’s judgments on how credible the article was increased,” said Sashank Varma, co-author of the research and a University professor.

This finding is known as the seductive allure of neuroscience findings, meaning “people overweight psychological arguments when framed in terms of neuroscience findings,” according to the original study.

Based on the findings in the original study, Varma said it’s problematic that people in the general population, like parents, may falsely believe they are making good decisions on educational products for their children.

“The follow-up study … will be looking to see if these same effects hold in pre-service teachers, who presumably know more about education, are getting good training and [know] the best ways to teach,” Varma said.

These findings may suggest the general public is susceptible to the effects of brain images, highlighting the importance of thinking critically about articles, said Danika Kurisko, a University junior studying psychology.

“[It shows] that people should be reading articles like that more critically, and shouldn’t be so warped by something as trivial as a brain,” she said.

The new study’s focus on teachers reflects the researchers goal to gain insight on what to change about the way they teach, without being swayed by factors like brain images.

“Our concern is people [may] overgeneralize the findings into classroom practice, so there is some gap,” Im said.

In addition to the portion of the follow-up study taking place in the Netherlands, another portion will take place on the University campus this spring.

“As college students, we just need to be aware of the human capacity to overlook things like that and overestimate the validity of things,” Kurisko said.

Im and Varma said they don’t know what the conclusion is going to be, whether educators are more susceptible or less so, but it will better inform educators either way.

“It’s part of a larger story in society,” Varma said. “How do we get the public to use and understand and responsibly interpret scientific studies?”

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