Ep 187: I’d Like to Have an Argument Please (critical thinking part 3)

How would you like to have an argument? Turns out that learning how to have a good argument might just be the best way to learn to think critically. In this episode I discuss a neat piece of research in which 7 and 8 year olds are taught how to effectively argue. And they do a darn good job of it as it turns out. Perhaps this is the way to teach our young people critical thinking: give them some great books to read – like The Giving Tree – and have them discuss what they think about it. The key ingredient: making sure that they fully understand the point of view of the other person. This’ll be fun. I promise. Especially since I’ve got a couple funny clips from Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch to help move things along. [Read more…]

Ep 184: Critical Thinking (Part 2) – Important? Yes. But Can We Teach It? Well….

The importance of critical thinking for children

The importance of critical thinking for childrenIn episode 183 I talked about what critical thinking is and why it’s important. Now we talk about why it’s so darn hard to teach and to use critical thinking in our everyday lives. In this episode I’ll discuss Dr. Daniel Willingham‘s advice to teachers on what they can do to effectively teach critical thinking – something that couldn’t be more important in today’s world where misinformation is all around us. Make sure to take a look at the concept map below. [Read more…]

Ep 183: Critical Thinking – Important? Yes. But Can We Teach It? Well….

Critical Thinking Key Ideas

Can We Teach Children to Think Critically?Why does it concern psychologists that the Texas GOP platform recently opposed the teaching of critical thinking? Most of us have been told since we were very young that critical thinking is very important. Psychologists certainly agree and a lot of time spent in most psychology classes is spent learning how to think critically. Why is it such a central part of our classes? And here’s a kicker: it might be a lot harder to teach it than we had hoped. Find out why critical thinking is so central to psychology. Sounds kinda dry? I think you’ll find this a lot of fun (in a mental kind of way…).

Critical thinking is essential if we are to get to the root of our problems and develop
reasonable solutions. After all, the quality of everything we do
is determined by the quality of our thinking. – The Critical Thinking Community

[Read more…]

Episode 70: Coincidence or Synchronicity? You Be The Judge

Have you heard that president Abraham Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and president John F. Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln? In this episode of The Psych Files we explore strange coincidences like this one and we also examine Carl Jung's concept of Synchronicity. Does it mean that everything happens for a reason – or is the idea more complex than that? Let’s find out. Oh and by the way – turns out Lincoln never had a secretary named Kennedy. Don’t believe me? Find out more in this episode of The Psych Files.

  • Correction: I said in the podcast that it would take only a group of 23 people for you to find someone with your birthday. This is incorrect. Thanks to Doug and Leen for emailing me to remind me that I should have said that it would take only 23 people to find two people in the group who had the same birthday. (Note: this has been corrected in the audio as of 9/11/08)

Resources for this Episode

  • The place to go to examine all sorts of urban myths and to check your facts is a website called Snopes. Here is the link to their page about the Lincoln and Kennedy coincidences. Check it out. Very neat site.
  • Leavy, J. (1992). Our Spooky Presidential Coincidences Contest. The Skeptical Inquirer, 16 (3), 316-320.
  • Martin, B. (1998). Coincidences: Remarkable or Random? The Skeptical Inquirer, 22 (5), 23-27.
  • Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stoopid? The Atlantic, July/August.
  • More information about Carl Jung can be found in the journal Quadrant.
  • You can learn more about Carl Jung and the concept of synchronicity on the Carl Jung Resources site.
  • Doug Drinen, a Psych Files listener, sports fan and mathematician, hosts a football blog called Pro Football Reference and in one post he takes a look at the odd number of occurrences of Friday the 13 among football players in 2006. Check it out – very eerie (or just chance).

Similarities Between John McCain and Barack Obama:

  1. They were both born in the month of August
  2. Obama was born on August 4th and McCain on August 29 – 25 days apart
  3. Obama was born in 1961 and McCain on August 29 – 25 years apart
  4. McCain announced his presidency on April 25th of 2007
  5. Time magazine named McCain as one of the “25 Most Influential People in America”
  6. John McCain, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden were named after their fathers and Sarah Palin was named after her mother
  7. Obama wrote a book called Dreams from My Father
  8. McCain wrote a book called Faith of My Fathers
  9. Both Obama’s father and McCain’s father served in World War II.
  10. Barack’s VP candidate’s last name is Biden, McCain’s VP candidate’s last name is Palin. Both of these names have 5 letters and these names rhyme.
  11. Both Obama and McCain have two daughters (of course, McCain also has two sons, but we don’t have to mention that do we?).

Episode 64: A Scientist Goes Looking for a Self Help Book….

Self Help books: why are there so many out there? How do you choose? Can they cure depression? Help you lose weight? Stop smoking? Can they replace psychotherapy? Find out how to weed out the best self-help book from all the others. Here’s a list of the top 14 things that really bother psychologists or any scientists about self-help books.

Self Help Books – When NOT to Trust Them

  1. Make Outlandish claims with no science to back them up (ex: can cure illnesses and lose weight and stop smoking, etc.). Remember that “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”.
  2. Depend on anecdotes and testimonials. Problems with this:
    • Self-serving bias: people take personal credit when things go well in their lives
    • Hindsight Bias: success is judged by looking backward: even psychotherapy can’t be confidently judged as having been helpful in this way (feeling better could be the result of maturation or simply cognitive dissonance)
    • Fundamental attribution error: we think other people are successful because of their internal traits
    • An article was recently published in Scientific American which sheds some light on why anecdotes and testimontials are so convincing. The article is called How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results and was written by well-known skeptic Michael Shermer. Here’s a quote:
      …we have evolved brains that pay attention to anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. So it is that any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.


  3. Claim that "everything happens for a reason": or "nothing happens by chance". Problem: confirmation bias and hindsight bias – we look for information that confirms our beliefs.
  4. Propose solutions to human problems that are too simplistic: “Happiness is a choice”, or (from the movie “The Natural”): “Losing is a disease” or, “Thoughts are habits – you just have to change your habit.”
  5. Make unfalsifiable claims: “you succeed or you fail because of your thoughts” (prob: “you weren’t thinking positively enough”), “I create my reality”, “I create everything in my life.”
  6. Use no references or citations: there has been a lot of research on what makes people happy. Why wouldn’t a self help book discuss some of these findings? Also, some books don’t give credit to the founders and developers of the concepts that are discussed in these books: Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, or Martin Seligman.
  7. Reference something that is not measurable: ex: law of attraction, law of abundance, law of prosperity, or refer to some “force”.
  8. Make statements that can result in blaming the victim. Ex: “That person failed because he/she didn’t think positively enough.”
  9. Make references to authority figures – the Buddha, Christ, shamans, ancient priests, Hopi Indians, etc., and claim that they would all agree with you. It’s not that such people didn’t understand some trughts about life, but is the author hiding behind these people – hoping that no one would attack them because that would mean attacking these famous people. Also, just because someone famous said it doesn’t make it true.
  10. Give out ordinary advice wrapped around a lot of flowery language. Examples: “work hard”, “set high goals”, “learn from your mistakes”, “give customers more than they expect”, etc. – you don’t need to refer to a “law” or some “force” for this advice to work. It’s just plain good advice. Scientists prefer parsimony – the simplest explanation for events.
  11. Have a “slick salesman” appearance: frequent requests for money or subscription to other services.
  12. Mis-represent psychology: “It’s a fundamental law in psychology that you get more of whatever you focus on.” There is no such law.
  13. Overemphasize the role of your thoughts. Your thoughts may not be the cause of your sad feelings. You may need to look inside and examine some emotional trauma, crisis or poor parenting. Or, if you can change some undesirable behavior your thoughts may change as a result. Or, your negative thoughts may be the result of a biochemical imbalance.
  14. Claim that positive thinking can address serious mental illnesses like chronic depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders or PTSD.


  • Why do we like self-help books? They give us a sense of control over our lives. There’s a lot of randomness in life. Bad things happen to good people. That can be a scary thought.
  • It’s uplifting, it’s comforting to listen and to read these books.
  • Humans are pattern seekers – we see patterns even when they don’t exist.
  • We like to feel that life has meaning.
  • Our biases (self-serving, hindsight, fundamental attribution error, etc.) lead us astray.
  • Human behavior is multi-determined and complex
  • Critical thinking is hard. There is value in being a critical thinker; in thinking like a scientist. Some self help books promote “mushy thinking” which can make you gullible. You’re less gullible when you think critically.


  • Apply the ideas above and do your own evaluation. Lots of self-help books so have good ideas.
  • Look for a book that has citations in the back or which discusses the research. You really can study happiness and a lot of research has been done on what helps to make people feel good about themselves. There is plenty of research to cite.
  • Understand the limitations of self help books. They probably are not going to help with serious psychological illnesses.


My colleague professor Blaine Peden pointed out to me that there actually are more than laws in psychology than the two I mention in the episode. Some additional ones include:

  • The Gestalt Laws of Perception (similarity, pragnanz, etc.): as Dr. Peden points out: “At best these are qualitative, and there status as laws is up for debate (but they are listed as such in many textbooks–both introductory and for perception courses)”. I can’t believe I forgot about these Gestalt laws. You can learn more about them in a popular video episode of The Psych Files called Lemon Slices and a New Face on Mars! Gestalt Principles at Work
  • Emmert’s Law: a quantitative relationship regarding the size of an after image and its distance to a surface. Here’s a link to another description from wikipedia.
  • Matching Law: Dr. Peden: Richard Herrnstein published the quantitative statement and it is supported by a large operant literature. More on this law in wikipedia.

Episode 31: Lemon Slices and a New Face on Mars! Gestalt Principles at Work


The gestalt principles of perception – how do they work? How do they explain the fact that we sometimes perceive strange things, and how we can appreciate works of art? In this episode I take a close look at why people see a lot of strange things around them – including me. We’ll see images on lemon slices, on Mars, and on building tops. Why do we perceive these things?

Resources on Gestalt Principles

  • title= Click here or the image to the left to participate in an experiment I created for this episode. You can run this experiment on your friends, or even use it for a project in class. Have fun with it and let me know if you’ve got any feedback/suggestions. NOTE: The control condition is the “condition 1″ button (random pictures which are unrelated to the man on the horse). The experimental condition is the “condition 2″ button (pictures of animals which should help the viewer see the man on the horse in fewer steps than the viewers who were seeing random photos).
  • Here are a few sites which further explain some of the Gestalt principles of organization:

  • Why Do People See Faces in the Moon?
  • You can learn how psychological gestalt principles apply to web design at the Web Design for Instruction site
  • And more about psychological gestalt principles from the Spokane Falls Community College Graphic Design website.
  • Here’s the NASA site where you’ll find the “Face On Mars” pictures.
  • ‘Jesus on toast’ just a sign your brain is doing its job
  • Here’s a good site which describes the gestalt principles. It’s from the Interaction Design website.

Episode 26: Why do Statistics Make Us So Queasy?

Why are we often anxious about or even suspicious of statistics? Let’s take a look at this topic. Along with some interesting examples I’ve got some statistics-oriented jokes I hope you’ll find funny (okay, maybe you’ll just find them…interesting. Humor me). Conquer your fears this week on The Psych Files.

Resources For This Podcast