Persuasive Power of Neuroimages

04 Apr 2018

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Neuroimage effect and repeated exposure: The contextual origin of neuroimage’s persuasive power

  • Bethany Waites
  • Erica Chastain


If you were to open up a newspaper, or visit an online news source, there is good chance that you will come across a media coverage story of a scientific research study, and that article will probably contain an image to help facilitate complicated scientific information to the reader (McCabe and Castel, 2008). Many of the popular media articles describing the latest scientific research simplify the findings for the general public, accompany these findings with neuroimages, and more often than not, these findings are oversimplified or misrepresented (Morling, 2012, p.18). In 2008, it was suggested that judgments on the credibility of scientific reasoning behind research conclusions can be positively influenced (or persuaded) by the supplementary presence of neuroimages depicting cognitive processes described in the scientific research presented by media research articles (McCabe and Castel, 2008) – a finding which many have focused on replicating and discovering the for this power (Schweitzer et al., 2013; Weisberg et al., 2008; Schweitzer et al., 2013). If the contextual origins of the documented significant power that neuroimages exert on the credibility judgments of the scientific reasoning (henceforth called the Neuroimage Effect or NIE) can be discovered, there would be implications not only in the fields of psychology but across the scientific field in general. The scientific community is dependent on the popular media to correctly facilitate scientific information and findings to the general public, and if there are in fact contexts out of which NIE can arise, it would be imperative for the scientific community to discover and prevent them from occurring in popular media so that scientific information has a better opportunity of being correctly conveyed to the general public.

In 2008, McCabe and Castel’s groundbreaking study introduced the idea of NIE after explicitly examining the persuasive power neuroimages had on the perceived credibility of cognitive neuroscience data and argued that the tendency for images to be intuitively interpreted as scientifically credible representations of various cognitive activities may be due to the reductionist nature of humanity. In their tri-experimental study, they: (1) examined whether the presence of the neuroimages led to higher ratings of flawed scientific reasoning in cognitive neuroscience research compared not only to their absence, but also to the presence of another widely-used visual representations of data such as bar graphs and a text-only control group; (2) examined whether brain images affected credibility judgments because they were more visually complex than bar graphs and whether it was this complexity that influenced judgments, and (3) attempted to generalize the findings of the first two experiments by using a real news article with scientifically sound reasoning to depict material encountered in the real world (McCabe and Castel, 2008). They concluded that the presence of neuroimages had a statistically significant positive influence on judgment ratings of the credibility of scientific reasoning (NIE) than with the presence of bar graphs and text-only groups, and that they may be more persuasive not because of their visual complexity but because they provide tangible physical explanations of cognitive processes appealing to the reductionist nature of humanity.

Following the publication of McCabe and Castel’s study, several research studies have attempted to replicate these findings, some with over-exaggerated success (Michael et al., 2013), while others failed to do so overall (Michael et al., 2013; Schweitzer et al., 2013). While a general failure to replicate the original findings of McCabe and Castel’s original study is prominent, these failures were not complete and have produced interesting and surprising results that have prompted the exploration into finding the origin of the marginal persuasive influence of the presence of a neuro-image on the judgments of scientific reasoning (Schweitzer et al., 2013). There are a handful of speculated contextual sources of the persuasive power of neuro-images including: the methodological design of repeated measures (Schweitzer et al., 2013; Weisberg et al., 2008), the quality of the article’s scientific reasoning (Schweitzer et al., 2013; Weisberg et al., 2008), and the presence of criticism, which calls into question the validity of the article’s conclusions (McCabe and Castel, 2008; Michael et al., 2013).

The first two speculated sources of NIE previously mentioned were examined in the fifth experiment of the Schweitzer et al. (2013) study. The repeated measures effect (RME) is the suggested underlying contextual variable which produces NIE by introducing a comparative opportunity for participants in which they base their judgments of scientific reasoning in subsequent articles on the quality of scientific logic presented in the initial article (Schweitzer et al., 2013, Weisberg et al., 2008). The second mentioned underlying source, the quality of the article’s scientific reasoning, has been argued by Weisberg et al.(2008) to play a role in the influential power of neuroscience information and that the optimal condition for NIE was the use of non-scientific language, a weak argument, and high-impact images (Schweitzer et al., 2013)

Schweitzer et al. (2013) designed the fifth experiment to satisfy the optimal conditions presented by Weisberg et al. and others as well as to test RME, and argued its presence would be found in the 2nd block of the experiment, as participants would have been previously exposed to scientific reasoning of the 1st block. They concluded that the study demonstrated a significant NIE in the presence of weak scientific reasoning, but only in the 2nd block after participants were presented with a comparison on which to base their judgments of scientific reasoning credibility, indicating RME as a critical contextual origin. Because there was not a significant NIE in the first block, the authors concluded that faulty arguments were not a critical contextual source. However, it is noteworthy to again mention the fact that McCabe and Castel (2008) used faulty scientific reasoning as a control within their first two experiments which did produce a significant NIE, and coupled with the arguments of Weisberg et al. (2008), it would be unwise to not deem it a potential source of NIE.

The final potential source of NIE within the scope of this study is effect that the presence of criticism has on NIE which was introduced by McCabe and Castel (2008) but was iterated upon by Michael et al. in 2013. The original study’s design allowed the researchers to control the participant’s level of reasonable doubt about the credibility of scientific reasoning behind research conclusions by the presence of obviously flawed scientific reasoning within the first 2 articles, and by the presence of criticisms in the last experiment which called into question the validity of the article’s conclusions and counteracted NIE (McCabe and Castel, 2008; Michael et al., 2013). McCabe and Castel (2008) reported that the presence of criticism did not influence the participant’s ratings on the credibility of the article’s conclusions, but upon further investigation of the original data, Michael et al. (2013) discovered that the brain images were more influential when critiques were present to question the validity of conclusions – a notable find which counteracted the claims made by the original investigators (Michael et al., 2013). While Michael et al. discovered the discrepancy regarding the role criticism played in NIE and conducted five experiments that included a criticism manipulation, they did not elaborate on the effects of criticisms as they performed a meta-analysis of the original 2008 data and the data from their 10 experiments, to more precisely estimate NIE (Michael et al., 2013). Because this interesting discrepancy was not explicitly investigated, it does pose an intriguing possibility that neuroimages are more influential as they provide evidence against a criticism contradicting the article’s conclusions.

The present study attempts to not only examine the persuasive power that neuroimages exert on the perceived credibility of the conclusion’s scientific reasoning (or the Neuroimage Effect; NIE) but also the relationship between NIE and the three potentially critical contextual origins. It is our goal to demonstrate that neuroimages exert a statistically significant positive influence on participant’s ratings of scientific reasoning, and based on prior research, expect to find a significant NIE in each of the three contextual variables. It is also our goal to discover which of those variables produces the most significant NIE, and purpose that NIE is the most influential when participants are presented with a comparative opportunity in which they are able to base their ratings on the credibility of scientific reasoning in subsequent articles on the quality of the reasoning presented in the initial article.


McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343-352.

Michael, R. B., Newman, E. J., Vuorre, M., Cumming, G., & Garry, M. (2013). On the (non)persuasive power of a brain image. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(4), 720-725. doi:10.3758/s13423-013-0391-6

Morling, Beth. Research methods in psychology: evaluating a world of information. New York, NY: Norton, 2012. Print.

Schweitzer, N. J., Baker, D. A., & Risko, E. F. (2013). Fooled by the brain: Re-examining the influence of neuroimages. Cognition, 129(3), 501-511. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2013.08.009

Weisberg, D., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. R. (2008). The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477.

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