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Apophenia is seeing patterns in randomness, which may be the mechanism behind conspiracy theory generation. If it feels to me like a set of random events are connected and no one is talking about the connection, then conspiracy must be afoot (Poulsen, 2012). Psychiatrist Klaus Conrad is credited with coining this term in 1958 to describe the descent into psychosis, “Borrowing from ancient Greek, the artificial term ‘apophany’ describes this process of repetitively and monotonously experiencing abnormal meanings in the entire surrounding experiential field, eg, being observed, spoken about, the object of eavesdropping, followed by strangers” (as cited in Mishara, 2010).


But this isn’t a post about conspiracy theories or psychosis.


While conspiracy theories and psychosis take our ability to see patterns to whole other level, seeing patterns in randomness is just how our brains work.


The visual version of apophenia is pareidolia. Have you ever seen a rabbit in a cloud formation? That’s pareidolia. Have you seen a face in a piece of toast? Also pareidolia.


After covering the cerebral cortex, tell students that there is an area in the temporal lobe that is especially good at detecting faces: the fusiform face area (FFA).


Show students these 20 objects where faces appear. Ask students to guess whether they think that seeing these objects would cause the FFA to be activated. How could that hypothesis be tested? Give students a minute to think about it, a minute to share with a partner, and then ask for volunteers for their suggestions. This would be a nice time to review independent variables and dependent variables. When you’re ready, tell students that researchers compared such face objects with everyday no-face objects, and found that face-objects activated the FFA (Hadjikhani, Kveraga, Naik, & Ahlfors, 2009).


If time allows, describe prosopagnosia (pro-soap-ag-nose-ee-ya; face-blindness). Do students think that the FFA would be activated when people with congenital prosopagnosia look at faces? Why or why not? The FFA is activated, but it doesn’t show habituation. When people without prosopagnosia are shown faces a second time, the FFA shows decreased activation; “Not interesting; I’ve seen this before.” For those with prosopagnosia, the activation is just as great the second time around; “Hey, this is new!” (Avidan, Hasson, Malach, & Behrmann, 2005).


Again if time allows, do students think the FFA would be activated in people with autism. Why or why not? For the participants in the study, the severity of their autism varied. For those who had impaired face recognition (about half of their sample, 14 out of 27) , the activation of their FFA was weaker.  


For 30 years, researchers have debated whether the FFA is face-specific or whether it is for detecting any complex pattern we’re expert in (Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006). Some recent research has found that the FFA is active when expert chess players look at positions of chess pieces, positions taken from actual gameplay, but not a specific chess piece (Bilalic, 2016). And researchers have also compared expert radiologists with beginner medical students. When the experts looked at X-rays, their FFAs were active (Bilalic, Grottenthaler, Nagele, & Lindig, 2016).


While the jury is still out on whether the FFA is face-specific or not, this is a wonderful example of science in action. Researchers describe a finding. All researchers start thinking about what might be the cause of that finding, and they start devising experiments to test their hypothesized causes.




 Avidan, G., Hasson, U., Malach, R., & Behrmann, M. (2005). Detailed exploration of face-related processing in congenital prosopagnosia: 2. Functional neuroimaging findings. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(7), 1130–1149.


Bilalic, M. (2016). Revisiting the role of the fusiform face area in expertise. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28(9), 1345–1357. 


Bilalic, M., Grottenthaler, T., Nagele, T., & Lindig, T. (2016). The faces in radiological images: Fusiform face area supports radiological expertise. Cerebral Cortex, 26(3), 1004–1014.


Hadjikhani, N., Kveraga, K., Naik, P., & Ahlfors, S. P. (2009). Early (N170) activation of face-specific cortex by face-like objects. Neuroreport, 20(4), 403–407.


Kanwisher, N., & Yovel, G. (2006). The fusiform face area: a cortical region specialized for the perception of faces. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361(1476), 2109–2128.


Mishara, A. L. (2010). Klaus Conrad (1905-1961): Delusional mood, psychosis, and beginning schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 36(1), 9–13.


Poulsen, B. (2012). Being amused by apophenia. Retrieved from

[A growing body of research suggests that true humility helps us grow intellectually and to learn from and connect with each other.]


In his recent essay, “You’re Wrong! I’m Right!,” Nicholas Kristof notes that our polarized culture would benefit from a willingness to engage those who challenge our own thinking and “to hear out the other side.” In a word, our civic life needs a greater spirit of humility. In his recent European Psychologist review of evidence on wise thinking, Igor Grossmann concurs with Kristof: Wisdom, he argues, grows from the integration of “intellectual humility, recognition of uncertainty [and] consideration of different perspectives.”


Humility was the animating idea of John Templeton in founding his science-supportive foundation, which declares: “In keeping with the Foundation’s motto, ‘How little we know, how eager to learn,’ we value proposals that exhibit intellectual humility and open-mindedness.” Thanks partly to support from the Templeton Foundation (which—full disclosure—I serve as a trustee), we have a new generation of humility studies with titles such as “Awe and Humility,” “Humility as a Relational Virtue,” and “Intellectual Humility.” From 2000 to 2017, the annual number of PsycINFO-indexed titles mentioning “humility” has increased from one to 85:



Psychology has a deep history in studying the powers and perils of humility’s antithesis: pride. We have, for example, documented:

  • self-serving bias. We tend to see ourselves (on subjective, socially desirable dimensions) as better than most others—as more ethical, less prejudiced, and better able to get along with people.
  • self-enhancing attributions. We willingly accept responsibility for our successes and good deeds, while shifting the blame elsewhere for our failures and misdeeds.
  • cognitive conceit. We tend to display excessive confidence in the accuracy of our judgments and beliefs.


Humility, by contrast, entails

  • an accurate self-understanding. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, humility is not clever people believing they are fools. Humility allows us to recognize both our own talents and others’.
  • modest self-presentation. When we share and accept credit without seeking attention, we are not (to again paraphrase Lewis) thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less.
  • an orientation toward others. Prioritizing others’ needs helps us regulate our own impulses. With a spirit of humility we can engage others with the anticipation that, on some matters, the other is our superior—thus giving us an opportunity to learn.


True humility can be distinguished from pseudo-humility, which comes to us in two forms. One is the pretense of humility: “I am humbled to accept this award . . . to serve as your president . . . to have scored the winning goal.” No, actually, you are proud of your accomplishment—and deservedly so.


The other is the delightful new research by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton on “the humblebrag.” Humblebragging is boasting disguised as complaining or humility: “I’ve got to stop saying yes to every interview request.” “I can’t believe I was the one who got the job over 300 other applicants!” “No makeup and I still get hit on!” But such self-promotion usually backfires, they report, by failing to convey humility or impress others.


Although religious dogmatism can feed “You’re wrong, I’m right!” attitudes, theism actually offers a deep rationale for the humility that underlies science, critical thinking, and an “ever-reforming” open mind. Across their differences, most faith traditions assume two things: 1) there is a God, and 2) it’s not you or me.


As fallible creatures, we should hold our own beliefs tentatively. And we should assess others’ ideas with openness, using observation and experiments (where appropriate) to winnow truth from error—both in our own thinking and that of others. In a spirit of humility, we can “Test everything, hold fast to what is good” (St. Paul).

Just two days after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, a colleague appeared at my office door on the Highline College campus and said, “I just heard 6 to 8 shots and people screaming.”


We waved people into our small office building, and then secured the doors. And waited. Campus Security sent out periodic computer pop-ups, texts, and emails with updates – 8 in all, from the first alert to the all-clear. The communication was welcome. A colleague locked in a classroom with her students had a live feed from a local news station playing on the classroom computer.


After dozens of police officers spent two and a half hours going over the college’s 80 acres with a fine-tooth comb – no fewer than 8 rifle-bearing officers looked through the shrubbery in front of our building – no victim(s) and no shooter were found. One campus rumor says that it was lunar new year firecrackers, but I haven’t seen anything that looks like an official report yet.


Less than an hour after my colleague came to my door, I got a text from a friend in Harrisonburg, VA asking if I was okay. Harrisonburg is 2,804 miles away; Google Maps says I can drive there in “41 hours without traffic.” I did a news search about halfway into our lockdown and found a report by a UK news outlet. While I understand that we no longer rely on the Pony Express to deliver news, I was still surprised at the speed the news traveled. Especially when there were no known victims. Just the promise of tragedy was enough to send the news around the world.


What happens when you barricade a bunch of social science faculty in a small space? You get an impromptu interdisciplinary panel discussion on gun violence courtesy of a political scientist, sociologist, and psychologist. I imagine this would make for a popular course.


In my Intro Psych class for this coming week, the topics happen to include the availability heuristic and priming. The availability heuristic tells us that hearing about every mass shooting (or non-shooting as it was on my campus) affects our estimates of violence. Our own non-shooting prompted more than one student or family member of a student to report to journalists that they are considering enrolling only in online classes. Being primed with the Parkland shooting likely influenced the perception of the pops heard on my campus as gunshots and the beginnings of a mass shooting. (The pops may have very well been gunshots and not firecrackers, although the police reported finding no shell casings.)


Even though, in the end, it appears that the students and employees of Highline College were never in any danger, that doesn’t erase the terror that so many felt at the time. One student emailed her professor the next day to say that she hasn’t been able to concentrate on studying because of the trauma of running for her life. About 24-hours later, I received a text from a colleague suggesting what we should do differently if we were to experience this again; she’s still processing it. Normal responses.


“Resources for dealing with a school shooting”


The Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (SCCAP; Division 53 of the American Psychological Association) has created a wiki page of resources. They’re working on putting together a Wikipedia page, but in the meantime you can find their resources for professionals, caregivers, educators, and the public on this Wikiversity page. Several of the resources are curated from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). Here’s a direct link to the NCTSN “School Shooting Response” page. The SCCAP Wikiversity page is a work in progress; check it periodically for updates.

My daughter—a socio-behavioural scientist at the University of Cape Town’s Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation—alerted me last April to a possible crisis. Cape Town’s reservoirs were perilously low. Without replenishment from June-to-August winter rains the city could, reports indicated, “really run dry.”


Alas, in this new era of climate change, the hoped-for rains never came. Cape Town, with its nearly 4 million residents, was at risk of becoming the world’s first major city to run dry.


In September, with reservoirs at one-third their capacity, residents were asked to limit their water use to 23 gallons per day per person. But in a real life demonstration of the Tragedy of the Commons, fewer than half met the goal—each reasoning that their comparatively minuscule water use didn’t noticeably affect the whole city.

To heighten motivation, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille attempted fear-based persuasion. “Despite our urging for months, 60 per cent of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 litres per day,” she explained at a January press briefing. “We have reached a point of no return. Day Zero is now very likely.” After the initially predicted Day Zero, April 11th, water taps would continue to flow only in the impoverished informal settlements (which use little water per person), in certain vital facilities, and via public taps in 200 designated locations where residents could line up with jugs. Yikes! What would this mean for life, work, and civic order?


With fears of the looming threat aroused, conservation norms became more salient. (My daughter recycles her laundry water for her very occasional toilet flushes, adhering to the new Cape Town norm: “If it’s yellow let it mellow.”) To activate and empower conservation norms, Capetonians have used all available media to share water conservation strategies (as if mindful of Robert Cialdini’s research on the power of positive conservation modeling). On a Facebook “Water Shedding Western Cape” group, 132,000 people are sharing tips. Even in workplace and restaurant bathrooms, signs now encourage not-flushing.


And to reduce “diffusion of responsibility” (as in the famed bystander nonintervention experiments), the city has posted an online “City Water Map” that can zoom down to individual households and reveal whether their water usage is within the water restriction limit (dark green dot). The effort is not intended to “name and shame,” but rather “to publicize households that are saving water and to motivate others to do the same.” Let’s “paint the town green,” urges Cape Town’s mayor.


Will this social influence campaign—combining fear arousal, social norms, and accountability—work? Time will tell. Recent declining domestic and agricultural water consumption enabled Day Zero to be pushed out to June 4th, by which time we can hope that winter rains will be replenishing those thirsty reservoirs . . . and that, thereafter, continuing water conservation can prevent future Day Zeros.

After covering the memory chapter, provide this excerpt from the Michigan Supreme Court case #155245, People vs. Elisah Kyle Thomas, to your students.


One evening, as the complainant [victim] walked to a nearby restaurant, he passed a man he did not know.  About 15 minutes later, after leaving the restaurant, the complainant was approached by the man he had passed by earlier.  The man pointed a gun at the complainant and demanded that he empty his pockets.  The complainant handed over $10 but the robber wanted more.  The complainant threw a soda can at the robber and ran. The robber followed, firing multiple shots, one of which struck the complainant in his leg. The complainant went to a nearby church and the pastor called 9-1-1. 


In the ambulance, the complainant gave an officer a description of the robber. Another officer canvassed the area and saw the defendant Elisah Kyle Thomas, who matched the description. The officer stopped the defendant but let him go after learning that he had no outstanding warrants. Before letting the defendant go, however, the officer took a photograph of him with her cell phone.  The officer immediately went to the hospital and asked the complainant to describe the robber.  After the complainant gave a description, the officer showed him the photo and asked “was this him?”  The complainant started to cry and said “that’s him.” 


And then add:


The victim “remembered both that the assailant’s weapon was ‘a black and gray nine millimeter handgun and that the assailant held it in his right hand,’” “the identification occurred approximately a half hour to an hour after the crime,” and “the victim identified the person in the photograph as the assailant within a few seconds of seeing the photograph.”


[Note, not to be read aloud to your students: these quotes are from the APA amicus brief. I’d cite it, but citing an amicus brief in APA style is not a straightforward affair. For those of you who love that sort of thing – you know who you are – feel free to figure it out and email it to me at I’ll update this blog post with any version that looks like it could be right.]


Now, ask students to take a couple minutes and consider how much they trust the eyewitness’ memory of the robber. If you use a classroom responses system, ask students to render a verdict based on the evidence given: guilty, not guilty, not sure. In pairs or small groups, ask students to identify why they trust/don’t trust the eyewitness’ memory. Invite volunteers to share their thoughts.


What happened with this case? The trial court found that the “single-suspect lineup” and asking “was this him?” was suggestive and dismissed the charges. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed and allowed the evidence. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, agreed with the trial court and also – and for good – dismissed the charges (Beattey & Calkins, 2018).


The American Psychological Association (APA) filed an amicus brief to the court (read the summary here; read the full amicus brief here) explaining why the identification was suspect: “[t]he victim observed the assailant for a very short time,” “[t]he victim had only a partial view of the defendant’s features,” “[t]he assailant was a stranger to the victim,” and “[t]he robbery was a highly stressful situation.” The reasoning the Court of Appeals gave for reinstating the charges was based on some common misunderstandings of memory. The APA amicus brief addressed these as well: “[t]he victim’s detailed memory of the assailant’s weapon makes his memory less reliable, not more,” “[m]emories degrade very quickly,” and “[t]he victim’s confidence does not indicate that his memory was accurate.”


If your students were ready to convict based on the eyewitness testimony, review what the research tells us about memory as it applies to this court case before leaving the chapter.




Beattey, R. A., & Calkins, C. (2018, February). The legal system follows the empirical evidence on eyewitness identification. Monitor on Psychology, 29. Retrieved from  

David Myers

Killer Immigrants?

Posted by David Myers Expert Feb 9, 2018

Credit President Trump with consistency in cultivating public fears of immigrants:

  • “When Mexico sends its people . . . they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (2015)
  • A January, 2018 ad offered images of an illegal-immigrant murderer while a narrator referred to “evil, illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes,” noting that “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.”
  • “If we don’t get rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill … if we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown,” Trump said two weeks later.


Horrific rare incidents feed the narrative, as in Trump’s oft retold story of the Mexican national who killed a young woman in San Francisco (with a ricocheted bullet), or in his February 6th tweet about the unauthorized immigrant drunk driver who killed a Baltimore Colts linebacker.


The effect of this rhetoric and these publicized incidents appears in a recent Gallup survey: “On the issue of crime, Americans are five times more likely to say immigrants make the situation worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively).” Are they (and the President) right?


With 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., there will, of course, be ample opportunities to illustrate both immigrant horrors and heroism. Mindful that emotionally compelling stories can illustrate larger truths or deceive us, I searched for data that would answer this question: Are the President’s words illustrating a painful fact that justifies anti-immigrant views, or are they fear mongering demagoguery? Here’s what I found (drawn from my contribution to an upcoming social psychology symposium on human gullibility):

Immigrants who are poor and less educated may fit our image of criminals. Yet studies find that, compared with native-born Americans, immigrants commit less violent crime (Butcher & Piehl, 2007; Riley, 2015). “Immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit crimes,” confirms a National Academy of Sciences report (2015). After analyzing incarceration rates, the conservative Cato Institute (2017) confirmed that “immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than natives relative to their shares of the population. Even illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.” Noncitizens are reportedly 7 percent of the U.S. population and 6 percent of state and federal prisoners (KFF, 2018; Rizzo, 2018). Moreover, as the number of unauthorized immigrants has tripled since 1990 (Krogstad et al., 2017), the U.S. crime rate plummeted.


Alas, when pitted against memorable anecdotes, data—which are merely the sum of all anecdotes—often lose. The availability heuristic—the human tendency to estimate the commonality of an event based on its mental availability (often influenced by its vividness) frequently hijacks human judgments. When data on immigrant arrest or prison population proportions are set against this 2.5 minute excerpt from the 2018 State of the Union address—highlighting the teary parents of two daughters reportedly murdered by a gang with illegal immigrant members—which will people more likely remember?


Moreover, social psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Paul Slovic recently noted that the White House has also promoted its immigrants-as-killers thesis with misleading statistics. “Nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born,” the President tweeted last month. But that statement, and the administration report on which it was based, were “deeply misleading” the psychologists explain, for two reasons. First, the report excluded domestic terrorists, whom Americans fear most, and was inflated with tenuously relevant terrorism-related activities such as perjury and petty theft.


Second, the scary-sounding statistic exploited people’s statistical illiteracy. Consider, they say, that 3 in 4 NBA players are African-American. Even so, “a vanishingly small” percentage of African-American men—less than 0.01 percent—play in the NBA. Thus, knowing only that a man is African-American, the chances are 99.99+ percent that he is not an NBA player. And knowing only that someone has been born outside the U.S., you can be similarly confident that the person is not a terrorist, or a killer.


Donald Trump’s fear mongering and repeated misrepresentation of truth has me thinking again of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—a world where repeated falsehoods come to be believed: “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.” “War is peace.” I do wonder: When Trump proclaims these falsehoods, does he know they are untrue, or does he believe what he proclaims?


Pope Francis offered a possible answer, quoting Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others.”


One of my goals in teaching the abnormal psychology chapter in the General Psychology course is to focus less on symptoms and etiology and more on what it is like to live with a psychological disorder. In 2016 I wrote about an assignment tied to the Stigma Fighters website.


In the February 2018 Monitor on Psychology I learned about the Schizophrenia Oral History Project.


This website “is an archive of life stories of persons with schizophrenia.  Our narrators are women and men with schizophrenia who are sharing their lives in an effort to increase understanding and reduce stigma related to mental illness.  Their stories reveal not only their struggles, but their remarkable courage and resilience, their hopes, dreams and talents, and their concern for others.  In addition to documenting their histories, we are sharing their stories in presentations for professionals and the general public.”


At the time of this writing, 38 people have shared their stories.


As an assignment, ask students to read three stories and identify the similarities they find amongst the stories and the biggest differences. At the end of the assignment, ask students to reflect on what they learned from reading the stories. In class, give students an opportunity to speak with each other in small groups to share what they learned. Invite groups to report out to the class.


Pro-tip from my Highline College colleague Ruth Frickle: for the first time out with this assignment, go through the stories yourself to identify ten or so your students can choose from. That will make the number you need to be familiar with manageable. As you use this assignment from term to term, expand the number of stories as you feel comfortable.