Mind Field (2017) s03e07 Episode Script

Behavior and Belief

1 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 we have to.
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 only believe we know.
On this episode of Mind 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 lieinto 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.
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.
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 came actually caused the 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.
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.
Oh! OK, there's money.
Is that one clue? Rebecca: I've earned one dollar.
( laughs ) See? She's "earned" one dollar.
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 button were 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.
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 of Victory Vault is 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 on Victory 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 behavior was doing absolutely nothing.
Blaisdell: He's just standing there.
Michael: Yeah.
Will he do something? ( chuckling ) Maybe taking the money isbad? 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 twoone, 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 work hard for her money.
Michael: Victory Vault, 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 they didn't have 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 created in the 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.
Our human-sized Skinner Box showed that when confronted with uncertainty, people often behaved superstitiously, under the belief that they do have 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 up where instead of removing a spirit from someone, you put one in 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 I can do 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 symbol wasn'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 had Mind 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 participant to 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.
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 measures your 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 enter some kind of encounter with what 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 ritual which 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.
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.
Michael: First, I interacted with the participants before the ritual, to build up their expectation of something happening-- likepossession.
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 use his training in behavioral psychology to harness the power of suggestion.
The priest continued to serve as 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.
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.
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.
- 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 were real.
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, to not form 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.