Kaleidoscope January 2018
Have you ever seen a ghost? Get
out of here, no you haven’t, but I bet you know someone who thinks
they have. This is known as ‘agency detection’ in cognitive
science, and is a hot topic in the evaluation of paranormal beliefs
(that’s not the same as the evaluation of the paranormal – that’s
the X-Files). A prominent theory proposes that if we experience
something unusual, we create a belief system around this. Without
wishing to offend anyone, anthropologists argue that this universal
and ubiquitous human trait underlies the emergence of religions. A
fun paper reported in Kaleidoscope tested people by putting them in
a virtual-reality forest and getting them to wander through it to
see if they could detect ‘beings’ within it (in fact, unknown to
participants, there were actually no ‘beings’ at all). There were
two versions: the first had a rather clear forest, and the second
was a very moody and gloomy low visibility one (the full paper
shows photos, and the latter one is rather creepy). So you are
already predicting more ‘beings’ were detected in the dark spooky
forest, and you are right. But here’s the interesting part: the
biggest determinant was how much information participants were
given about the likelihood of encountering ‘beings’. Those given
the strongest nudge by the researchers ‘found’ them. The authors
say our existing theory is the wrong way around: teachings produce
expectations, and expectations lead to detection. This offered me a
sadly irresistible urge to finish the column with a quote from the
aforementioned X-files: Fox Mulder was spot-on – I want to
Finally, let me propose something challenging: you have
felt, at times, a failure in your career. I raise it to
point out something that we don’t often enough appreciate: that
this is universal for us all, but we just don’t talk about it.
Kaleidoscope reports on a study that interviewed a group of
Canadian doctors, and almost all self-identified what is known as
the ‘imposter syndrome’ – feeling, at times, a fraud, and doubting
the use of what they did and how they themselves did it.
Objectively, some of them had been high achievers in their
professions, but that didn’t help: doubt gnaws away at us all.
Problematically, but so very human, most did not tell others about
their sense of inadequacy, and positive feedback from others did
not seem to challenge individuals’ deepest insecurities. Systems in
the NHS are set-up to detect those who are clearly badly
underperforming: but we all underperform in our own heads, and
judge ourselves harshly. As we embark on a New Year, a traditional
time of self-evaluation and reflection, a moment to consider that
you are not alone when you do have such negative feelings – we all
have them – and you are probably doing a better job than you
January 2018 Kaleidoscope monthly Quiz (True or False)
Work on chimpanzees’ ‘theory of mind’ has shown they will emit
their snake-warning call more loudly if they infer from behaviour
that other chimps appear unaware of the danger.
Answer: True, and it adds to data on their
ability to mentalise.
A study of Canadian physicians showed that most evaluated senior
clinicians suffered ‘imposter syndrome’, doubting the validity of
their professional successes and personal worth.
A systematic review in the Lancet has shown four especially
vulnerable groups – homeless, those with substance use disorders,
sex workers, those imprisoned – had mortality rates almost double
that of those in the most deprived areas of the UK.
Answer: False, it was far worse than that: men
in such groups having mortality rates about quadruple that of those
in the most deprived areas, women about five times worse.