Behavior and Belief


Hey,Mind Field!Vanessa here. Just kidding. My name
is actually Michael. That part when I said
that I was Vanessa… that was a lie. So you’re welcome. Humans love lies. More precisely, we love things
that aren’t entirely true– because wehaveto. It’s often all we have. Completely proving something
can be difficult, if not impossible. So instead, we have
the faith of the believer, the confidence interval
of the scientist. What we think we know, we really onlybelievewe know. On this episode ofMind Field,
I’m going to take a look at a kind of lie
we tell ourselves. And I’m going to use belief
to turn a lie…into a truth.( theme music playing )Michael:
If I’m going to harness
the power of belief,
I need to find a good way
to study belief and behavior.
So I’m paying a visit to UCLA’s
Dr. Aaron Blaisdell,
who I worked with
on last season’s
“Greater Good”
Trolley Problem episode.
( train whistle blowing )Dr. Blaisdell,
great to see you again. Nice to see you again,
Michael. Thank you for your help
last season, but I’ve got this new thing
I want to look into. I started thinking a lot
about belief and how we form them. Specifically beliefs about
what causes our behavior. I want to be able
to break it down and just look at how people
respond to the environment
around them and how it changes
their belief. Well, a Skinner Box
is a great place to start. because what
I tell my students is, a Skinner Box,
for a psychologist
like myself, is like a test tube
for a chemist.Dr. Skinner, what are you
doing with this pigeon?
I’m getting ready to
demonstrate a fundamental
principle of behavior.
Michael:
Invented by Harvard
psychologist B.F. Skinner,
a Skinner Box is a chamber
in which animals
can be isolated and exposed to
carefully controlled stimuli.
In one of his
landmark experiments,
Skinner released food
to pigeons in the boxes
at regular intervals.What he found was that
the pigeons seemed to believe
that whatever
they happened to be doing
just before the food cameactuallycausedthe food
to appear,
and would then repeat
that behavior over and over–
for example, hopping around
or spinning in circles.
Skinner called this
“superstitious behavior.”
So what do you want to do–
what’s your dream test? Basically a replication
of Skinner’s superstitious
experiment, but instead of with pigeons,
with people. I would love to see:
will people develop their own sort of
superstitious rituals
or beliefs. Have we done this
with people before? I don’t think
such a rigorous test
of this has been done. I think primarily, from
the literature I know,
it’s pretty much pigeons. B.F. Skinner’s work
showed that if you regularly deliver
a reward to a pigeon, regardless of how
it actually acts, the pigeon won’t
figure that out. Instead, the pigeon will develop
superstitious behaviors as if it thinks
it is in control, despite the lack of
any evidence that it is.But what about humans?Watching people form
new superstitions
might show us how
beliefs are created,
but here’s the thing:
You can’t just put a person
in a Skinner Box. People are quite clever,
and so instead, along with Dr. Aaron Blaisdell, I have developed
a much more elaborate ruse. Welcome to Victory Vault.Michael:“Victory Vault”
is a fake game show we made up
to draw our
unsuspecting subjects
into taking part in
a human Skinner Box.
To accomplish this,
we rented a sound stage
and constructed what appeared
to be a game show set,
but was really our study.We outfitted the room
with a checkboard floor,
a button that serves
no purpose,
multiple cameras
and a live microphone,
all of which have absolutely no
connection to winning the game.
We also included
an ATM slot on the wall
where, instead of food,
dollar bills would be fed
into the room
at regular intervals.Meanwhile, I would be
playing the role
of the executive producer
of this new game show
testing out the concept
for a television network.
Our first subject is Rebecca.Yes, I know nothing.
I’m excited. Excellent, excellent. Well, I’ll you some things
that you need to know. One, you will get to keep
all of the money
that you get today. The object of the game
is to collect as much money
as possible. – OK. ( laughs )
– Now, you will have
ten minutes, and that’s all
I’m going to tell you. – Go. OK?
– OK. – Rebecca: OK.
– Michael (over loudspeaker):
All right, Rebecca, begin in three, two, one, go! Blaisdell:Of course,
right to the button,
but she’s not fixated on it, she’s definitely
looking around there. Rebecca: I’m trying
to figure out if there’s, like, a puzzle,
or what this is about. Am I supposed to just get out? No, not supposed to get out. OK. Oh! OK, there’s money.
Is that one clue? Rebecca:
I’ve earned one dollar.
( laughs )
See? She’s “earned” one dollar.
Earned. I mean, she thinks she
caused it to happen. Let’s see. I think
I might be onto something –with this door, maybe?
– Uh-huh. – OK.
– Blaisdell:
The second dollar bill came out really shortly
after she manipulated the door. That’s what Skinner would call
“adventitious reinforcement.” She accidentally just
happened to be doing something, –and now look.
– Hello?Look, it reinforced that
behavior, look how strong it’s
become.
Now she’s doing a lot
with the door,and this dancing, just like
one of Skinner’s pigeons.
– Anything?
See?Michael:
For the first two minutes,
Rebecca believed
a specific combination
of the door and the buttonwere triggering the money.She had created
a superstitious ritual.
But when her old ritual
ceased to line up with
the reward being delivered,
she started exploring
new actions.
Would you like to keep
sending money? Is it something with this?
Hello, dollar bill. Michael:This change
in Rebecca’s behavior
indicates that
she stopped believing
that pressing the button
is associated with
money coming out.
Skinner called this
“extinction.”
( singing )
♪ Keep sending money,
what if I dance? ♪ Michael:Not it seems
she believes
her new actions
might connect to the reward.
– Five, four, three,
( Rebecca yelps )two, one…
– Let’s try coming out again. –zero, stop.
– And… OK. I don’t think I solved
this mystery. ( laughs ) Michael: Rebecca!
You got some money, huh? – I did!
– Come take a seat. So, first of all,
how’d it go? Oh! Very confusing. I wasn’t able to
fully figure it out, but it was something to do
with the 20 white squares
on the floor. Something to do with
the red button as well,
like a pattern, maybe? Oh! Maybe I should have tried
clicking on the button
20 times. – Yes!
– OK, you wanna know what
makes the money come out? Yes. It’s probably
something really crazy. – It’s just 30 seconds passing.
– Blaissdell: Yep. – It has nothing to do
with what you do.
– Ohh! You would have gotten
the same amount, but you could just sat
on the floor and done nothing. – ( laughing )
– Yeah. This is actually
a psychological experiment based on some work done
by B.F. Skinner, and we are looking at
the kinds of behaviors
people invent that they think
controls the money. – But I think
this was fascinating.
– Blaisdell: Yeah. – And you really do
get to keep the money.
– Yay! – Rebecca, thank you
for your help today.
– Cool. Thank you, guys. Michael:
Rebecca’s rituals
seemed to indicate
that she thought performing
for the camera
would work the best.Her beliefs about TV shows
informed
the kinds of superstitions
she would create.
But will other people
develop the same superstitions?
Or will it depend on the
beliefs and expectations
they already have?
The object ofVictory Vaultis to collect as much money
as you can. Oh, OK. Well, let me take
these accessories off there
really quickly. As soon as that door closes,
your ten minutes starts. I don’t get to ask questions? Not onVictory Vault.Michael:
See you in ten minutes. All right. Where’s the cash? It’s like an escape room. Am I supposed to push this? Blaisdell:Some people
really wanted instructions.
Michael: Yeah.
Contestant:
I feel like if I push this,
the time is gonna be up.
Michael:Like Rebecca,
all of our subjects
immediately gravitated
to the useless button.
That button is so salient. Push the button? Oh, shit!( Michael, Blaisdell laugh )He was a little surprised
at that. Push the button? Oh! OK, I think I get it.
Is it push the button? Will I push the button?
Am I supposed to
push the button? ( rapping ) ♪ If you’re gon’
push the button, then you’re
goin’ with the button ♪ ♪ And I’m pushin’
on the button– ♪ Michael:It was clear
that most of the superstitions
began with the button,
but evolved into something else
very quickly,
including this guy,
whose superstitious behaviorwas doing absolutely nothing. Blaisdell:
He’s just standing there.
Michael:Yeah.
Will he do something…?
( chuckling ) Maybe taking the money
is…bad? I know strippers get singles
for dancing. Blaisdell:Is he gonna dance?
I hope he doesn’t strip for us.
I can’t dance like that. Maybe I can sweet talk
the machine. It’s just giving me money
at this point. I’m not doing anything.
( laughs ) Blaisdell:
He’s no fool.
He’s not really showing
much superstitious behavior.Even in Skinner’s experiments,not all the pigeons
showed superstitious behaviors.
Michael:
Obviously there’s a game,
I called it a game show.
But the money’s
just piling up
like it’s contagious.
Oh, look!Uh– Oh.He really doesn’t
want to push it.
Come on.
Press it four times,
out comes the money. – Press it four times?
– Out comes the money.( contestant laughing )Press it four times,
out comes the money. She believes that
pressing the button
is necessary, is a cause.And the ritual consists
of a few actions
strung together.
Five, four, three…two…one, stop.Can I push the button? –Time is up.
– Damn. Stay where you are.
We will see you very soon. I feel like I was
supposed to push the button. Michael:Pigeons don’t enter
a Skinner Box
with nearly as many
preconceived notions
as humans do.
Humans come in with a rich
diversity of expectations.
Some think they need
to perform for the camera,
or make the producers laugh.
This guy thought
that the secret was
to just be different.
Hold it! Oh, I thought– Take a seat. – What was that?
– Michael : Great work. What made the money come out? This is what I finally thought. It was a test
not to push the button, and then as I kept saying
a cer– a word– like phrase and “button,”
it kept coming out. But I didn’t know how
it was supposed to be phrased. Hit that button.
Hit it a lot. As if your life
depended on it. I was thinking,
“What would people not do?” – Hmm.
– Probably just stand there. So I was like, well,
let’s just stand there
and see what happens. Maybe they’ll reward patience
over impulsiveness. – You started doing exercises.
– Man: Yeah. I don’t know if it rewarded you for just being–
doing crazy things. Did you learn anything? That it was dispensing
like a dollar every, I don’t know,
like 30 seconds
or something. You’re right. You had no control
over when the money
came out. It’s pretty interesting.
I’m wondering – if that’s because
of who you are…
– Yep. – Wh-Who are you?
– Blaisdell: Elaborate. That’s just like my thought
process, I think, like I’m just very observant. You came up with this great entering-and-exiting-the-room
thing. Tell me about that. Because the money
didn’t start coming out until after I–
I waited, I waited, I waited, and nothing came out
until after I left
and came back in. You shoulda just
left me in there
to get more money! You made a sistah
workhardfor her money. Michael:
Victory Vault,
a.k.a. human
Skinner Box experiment. What are your thoughts? We’re really finding
that humans are susceptible to superstitious
beliefs or behaviors. You know what?
I totally agree. Except there were some people
who were able to guess with some degree of confidence
that theydidn’thave control. Some people were probably
just skeptical from the
get-go. – Yeah.
– And that’s just
their personality. Yeah, the beliefs
that people brought
into that room really affected
what beliefs or lack thereof… – …they createdinthe room
once the game started.
Yeah. We’re belief machines.
We’re pattern seekers. And there’s even
a belief that in psychology
and in anthropology that may be the way
a lot of rituals got started,
by accidental reinforcement. And then it becomes
codified into a religion
or a cultural practice. Hmm.Our human-sized Skinner Box showed that when confronted
with uncertainty, people often behaved
superstitiously, under the belief
that theydohave control. But of course,
nothing anyone did
in that box would make the money
come out any faster. So those superstitions
were lies. But sometimes
if a lie is believed in enough, it can literally become true, like a placebo. Now, I’ve been watching
a lot of horror movies lately, and they gave me an idea. If I’m able to find just
the right preexisting beliefs to wrap around a placebo, could I literally
make people believe that I am possessing them
with a spirit? I want to perform
a sham reverse exorcism.Exorcisms are not some
Hollywood fabrication…
and they didn’t only happen
hundreds of years ago.
In fact,
in the United States alone,
there are currently
50 priests
endorsed by the Vatican’s
International Association
of Exorcists,
up from just 12 a decade ago.But what’s a reverse exorcism?It’s something I made upwhere instead of removing
a spirit from someone,
you put onein them.I want to do that because
I don’t think it’s ethical
to tell someone
they’re possessed by a demon.
But I’ll need some help, and I know just who to ask. Michael:
Dr. Veissiére, thank you.
I had a blast last season. I think that the work we did
and the things you showed me related to our
power-of-suggestion work
together on placebos was so powerful. Well, Michael,
it’s a real pleasure. I’m honored
to be here again. It also is why you’re
the person I thought of for what I want to do next. Building on the work
we did last season, I want to explore belief and what I can
and cannot control. I want to perform an accessory-
assisted reverse exorcism. – Hmm.
– Reverse exorcism because I’m not gonna tell you
that you have a demon in you or something in you
that I’m gonna remove–
you’re fine. What Icando is make you feel
like you’re losing control. You would like to
experimentally induce a spirit possession experience. – Right.
– I like that. All right,
let’s talk details here. Are there things we can do
to increase the effectiveness of our reverse exorcism ritual? Yeah. I’m thinking
we could probably use
some tricks from hypnosis. If we went them
to have experiences, we need to suggest
those experiences
to them specifically. We would be using a lot of props
from both religion and science to get people’s
critical minds
to relax, and then we will throw in
some suggestions. So we’ve got
religious iconography, and we’ve got the paraphernalia
of medical science. Let’s do this. Michael:Almost everyone feels
a certain way
in the presence
of medical equipment,
and, even though not everyone
observes the same religion.
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung
posited that a person’s
belief in a religious symbolwasn’t necessary for it
to exert an influence on them.
Consciously,
they may say it doesn’t,
but unconsciously, it will.
With Dr. Veissiére onboard,I hadMind Field’s
art department
mock up our lab
with plenty of scientific
and religious iconography.Michael:With our lab
dressed to Veissiére’s specs,
everything is in place
for our reverse exorcism.
Our five test subjects,pre-screened and vetted
by a psychologist,
arrived at the facility
thinking that they were
going to take part
in a broad study on
the science of religion.
Immediately,
we exposed them to things
that would convince them
of the seriousness
of what they
were about to do,
such as filling out
extensive paperwork.
( woman making announcement ) Michael:
And an extended period of time
in the waiting room
to increase anticipation
and tension.
We even used a fake participantto talk up
his amazing experience
in earshot of
the real subjects.
– Woman: Hi.
– Hi. – How was it?
– That was crazy. – Yeah?
– That was something else. Michael:
And to really sell
the illusion,
we used multiple actors,
like a fake receptionist,
a nurse to check
the patient’s vitals,
and a pretend priest
to add credibility
to the religious angle.Dr. Veissiére played the role
of a scientist
fascinated by the power
of the ritual.
This should influence
our participants,
because how could this all
not be real
if a guy in a white lab coat
is taking it so seriously?
So we are just about
ready to begin.Now, I’m watching hidden
cameras that we have
in the exam room
adjacent to us.
Let’s see what sorts of
altered states of consciousness
we can create today.Now, this is Jeremiah,
and Jeremiah’s been waiting
for about an hour.
Actor/Nurse:
So I’m gonna be
placing this on your head.
It’s called an EEG cap,
it just measuresyour brain activity.This is a really important part
of selling the scientific realness
of what we’re doing. Jeremiah,
very pleased to meet you. Thank you so much for coming.Thank you so much again
for your patience.
I think it’s really important
for Veissiére to talk about how what’s about to happen
is special, it’s not a normal ritual. In fact, it’s not a ritual
that any lay people really
know about yet. So the name of the study,
it’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’re looking at
neural correlates
and physiologic markers of ritually induced
mystical experiences.I have run this experiment
about 30 times,
and some people entersome kind of encounter withwhat they may call
a divine presence.
– Jeremiah: How’s it goin’?
– Michael:Here comes
the priest. – I’m Jeremiah. Nice to meet
you, sir.
– Father Callahan. “Father Callahan,”
the Stephen King character. OK, we might
have to change that. Actor/Priest:Jeremiah,
what I’d like you to do…
is relax, and I’d like you
just to casually stare at the crucifix,
in the center. Michael:We had our “priest”
guide Jeremiah
through a holy ritualwhich we told him
was a thousand years old.
But in actuality,
Dr. Veissiére wrote it himself
just before the demonstration. Actor/Priest:
And you may feel a tendency
that you want to
let your hands raise
towards the sky
as your body falls away. Michael:Getting someone
to literally act possessed
is definitely a difficult test
of the placebo effect,
so I’m not exactly sure
what kind of results
we can expect.
However, I’m at least hoping
that we learn from this
how to better tap into
the power of people’s beliefs.
Actor/Priest:Whatever
the spirit needs to speak,
it will speak. So now, as you keep relaxing,
as the spirit prepares…Jeremiah sat very still
during the whole ritual,
but we were curious
about what he experienced.
So what
did that feel like? Jeremiah:
It was weird,
but I could feel like
the presence,
it’s a little graphic, if some, like,
cut my head off. –I didn’t feel anything below.
Right.Michael:People don’t normally
have feelings
of decapitation and numbness,so either we’ve stumbled upon
a way to summon a spirit,
or our belief manipulation
is working.
So we’ve been working together
on this project, and I was observing you
from the other room. And there are two
really powerful
kinds of symbols in the room. Which one had the biggest
kind of visceral effect on you? I guess it was kind of
a balance, because, like, OK, it’s religious,
and the nurse comin’ in, science– it kinda
goes back and forth,
so I want to say “even.” Well, more has been going on
than what you know
at this moment. Joe–Father Callahan–
was not a priest. – Mm-hmm.
– He’s an actor, and everything that he read
was written by Dr. Veissiére. We’re looking at how
a thing that has no
known causal link to any particular reaction
or behavior or feeling can nonetheless
induce a feeling. Michael:
Jeremiah’s experience
was pretty curious,
and since
nothing too serious happened–
his head didn’t spin around–
we felt more comfortable
pushing things a bit further.
I’m the lead
behavioral scientist
in charge of the experiment, this is my colleague
Dr. Stevens. Michael:First, I interacted
with the participants
before the ritual,
to build up their expectation
of something happening–
like…possession.
So today, you will be
listening to a reverse exorcism. – OK.
– I’m already possessed.
I’m already possessed. Michael:We also decided
to dim the lights
to decrease their inhibitions
and increase the atmosphere.
Michael:I think it’s gonna be
great for our participants
and for the whole mood.
I mean, it’s spooky stuff. Before you can fully
experience the divine, I’ll simply just invite you
to kind of relax… Michael:And we decided
to have Dr. Veissiére
lead the ritual
instead of our “priest,”
so that he could usehis training
in behavioral psychology
to harness
the power of suggestion.
The priest continued to serveas an important religious
anchor point
for the subject to focus on.Veissiére: All of your
actions and reactions gradually fade and disappear as your body is now
approaching the divine. You may notice… your fingers tingling a little. You may feel your mouth…
needing to tweak a little. Her mouth is opening…
slowly. As the divine
tries to speak through you,filling your mouth, perhaps,gently, ever so slowly. You are now awake. Good. Michael:
When the ritual ended,
each of our participants
had something very interesting
to report.
He did definitely
have an aura around him– the Father. Woman:
I could feel just
this everlasting joy
and peace of God
just covering me. There was like
a glowing figure, man, and then the cross
was like right in front of me. We’ve got medical science and we’ve got ancient
religious symbols. And what we’re
specifically looking at is how the accessories
play into your expectations. I liked the visual part.
I didn’t like the audio part. – Interesting.
– I wasn’t connecting with it. Woman 2: I’ve always thought
that the kind of traditional, ritualistic parts of church,
they just never appealed to me. I think it was more the symbols
that was more comforting, because that’s just
the way I was raised. Michael:
One of the most intriguing
was our final subject, Miriam.
What was it like for you? Um, I went to another place. OK, OK. I immediately felt my mother’s–
her spirit with me,she was telling me…– …to come towards her.
– OK. And when I got close to her,
she was comforting me. – OK.
– Um, and I heard an angel say, “I’m here with you.
I will never leave you.”And I continued to see wings.– Wings. Interesting.
– Yes. Michael:Miriam’s experience
seemed to have
a profound effect on her,but I wanted to hear more about
what exactly happened to her.
When you say
that you saw things, describe for me
what that was. Was it like a daydream,
or was it more like, um,
really there? It was extremely vivid. Um, I could feel the wind
when it started going across, I could vividly see my mother
standing there, smiling at me. – She looked beautiful.
– Wow. Michael:The fact that Miriam
had an out-of-body experience
and saw her deceased mother,
was almost puzzling,
because everything we did
in the room was a lie.
The priest was not real,the ritual was not
a thousand years old,
the nurse was an actress,
but yet Miriam’s experience
and those of the other
participants
werereal.The thing that surprised me
the most today was how personal
every single moment was. I think because of a combination
of the powerful imagery, both religious and scientific, it becomes the most powerful
experience they’ve had. Even if you’re
a very staunch atheist, a cross and a lectionary, these things,
they’re pregnant with meaning. We seem to have found
that by using those cues, people were able to tune in
very, very deeply, and to relinquish
their sense of self-control. Here’s a question. What’s the difference
between what we did today and what an actual priest
can do? That’s a really
controversial question. Um, I think the difference
is that, unlike the priest, we understand the mechanisms
through a more psychological
route, whereas many priests
may themselves be convinced that they are facilitating
communication with the divine. And perhaps they are. The results can be the same, regardless of the intentions
of the facilitators. There’s no way to prove
whether or not God worked in this room today. I guess ultimately,
with the tools of science,
no, there isn’t. These are still
some really difficult
philosophical questions. Michael:
So, we have demonstrated that
our brains are belief-making
machines. Rather than accepting confusion
and uncertainty, we create superstitions
and beliefs that make us feel like
we have control over our lives. In fact, tonotform
a superstition or belief or guess
about the world around us is to be powerless, even when superstitions
are unconnected to reality. That doesn’t mean
they can’t be powerful. Our “reverse exorcism” ritual and its practitioners
were all placebos. But the mere existence
of our subjects’ beliefs in them made them real
and transformative. So does that make us all fools? I don’t know–
but I don’t believe so. And as always… thanks for watching.




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