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The Selective Allure of Neuroscientific Explanations


Some claim that recent advances in neuroscience will revolutionize the way we think about human nature and legal culpability. Empirical support for this proposition is mixed. Two highly-cited empirical studies found that irrelevant neuroscientific explanations and neuroimages were highly persuasive to laypersons. However, attempts to replicate these effects have largely been unsuccessful. Two separate experiments tested the hypothesis that neuroscience is susceptible to motivated reasoning, which refers to the tendency to selectively credit or discredit information in a manner that reinforces preexisting beliefs. Participants read a newspaper article about a cutting-edge neuroscience study. Consistent with the hypothesis, participants deemed the hypothetical study sound and the neuroscience persuasive when the outcome of the study was congruent with their prior beliefs, but gave the identical study and neuroscience negative evaluations when it frustrated their beliefs. Neuroscience, it appears, is subject to the same sort of cognitive dynamics as other types of scientific evidence. These findings qualify claims that neuroscience will play a qualitatively different role in the way in which it shapes people's beliefs and informs issues of social policy.

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