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Cognitive psychology 5/5

If all this were true it would have two consequences. First, it would require a strict distinction between what a person reports their perception to be and what that perception actually is. The act of perceiving a perception in order to describe or render it would be understood as a skill, subject to cultivation. What cognitive psychology identifies as a bias of human perception would be no more than an untrained clumsiness. And second, it would regard the ways that cognitive psychology identifies to influence human behavior as weaknesses to be compensated by education, not intrinsic handles to pull in a desirable direction.

All this essaying is futile, I know. Even if I were right, no one would ever call me right, except in retrospect; and I am very likely wrong. In doubting a large field of scientific work I am certain to sound like a crank. I can only note that I am not nailing up theses; and that if I am wrong I am only hurting myself.

Postscript 2014

Since I wrote this essay I have participated, as a subject, in several experiments in cognitive psychology. In consequence, I now regard cognitive psychology as a pseudoscience.

I still think cognitive psychology is interesting. It is philosophically interesting, not because it uses science to cast light on the problems of philosophy, but simply because it is interesting philosophy. Its scientific pretensions are false.

Here is the problem: in order to avoid the appearance of shirking, the subject has no choice but to express preferences in the absence of preference and beliefs in the absence of belief. Even without financial stakes, ordinary social conventions compel the subject, in order to be kind to the experimenter, to deceive them.

It goes like this. The experimenter asks, “Does this make me look fat?” The subject says, “No.” And the experiment concludes: “Human beings are incapable of accurate estimation of one another’s weight.” Soon books are written about “cognitive weight bias.” “For our ancestors,” the press release begins, “underestimating one another’s weight was an important survival strategy.” This is what cognitive psychology is, and it is all cognitive psychology is: the heedless elaboration of a social solecism.

To put it another way: professors should not experiment on students for the same reasons professors should not date students. (Effectively all cognitive psychology is done by professors experimenting on students; where the subjects are not students, they are still acting in the role of students.) Between professors and students there are power differentials that preclude sexual consent. But someone who cannot give an honest answer to a sexual proposition certainly cannot give an honest answer to a personality inventory. If it is a bad idea for professors to date students, it is a far worse idea for professors to experiment on them.