Cognitive dissonance up close: The Million Dollar Challenge

I thought I’d start my coverage of The Amazing Meeting (TAM) with the end, partly because it helps to explain exactly what TAM is. I’ve tried to explain to a couple of people exactly what I was doing in Vegas, and I usually mumble something about skeptics/science/atheists (although I don’t even agree that this is what the community is, especially on the last point, but more about that in a later post). I also hate to say something like “critical thinking” or “logical,” since it can seem elitist, like you’re saying “I use my mind more than you, idiot” (another prevalent problem some people see with our community that many don’t acknowledge is an issue).

But the Million Dollar Challenge explains a couple of things nicely. The challenge is that the James Randi Educational Foundation (Randi is a famous magician who has made a career out of exposing fakes who claim supernatural powers through trickery) has a million dollars for anyone who can prove paranormal ability. Sounds simple right? The challenge has been around, in smaller denominations, since the 70s, reaching a million in 1996, but no-one has claimed it, or even gotten through the preliminary testing phase. One of those initial tests was performed live at TAM on the last evening of the meeting.

A paranormal claim is tested

Commonly, what gets tested is things like psychics, medium, palm readers and the like, but what was tested in this case was a product, that claimed to enhance some sort of “bodily energy” and increase a person’s strength and general athletic ability. I don’t remember the exact details of what the product’s maker claimed was going on, but basically the idea is that a microchip he designed implanted in a bracelet uses nothing more than the body’s energy to create the effect. Think Power Balance, or any of those other kinds of bracelets that claim similar things, and have been seen on athletes and infomercials for a while now. They usually claim something like holograms or ions do the work, and the common demonstration looks something like that pictured here.

[Update: thanks to the pingback, I can now say the claimant was Andrew Needles, selling his “Dynactiv SR Standard.”]

They get someone to stand on one leg, with their arms outstretched, and push on one arm until the person stumbles and drops their leg. Then the volunteer slips on the bracelet, and Hey Presto! they can balance no problem.

The first thing we do as Skeptics (which is what I’ll refer to the community as for now) is ask questions like, What if the person is just better prepared the second time? What if the  guy pressing is actually pressing differently, or less hard, the second time? And what about the placebo effect, the incredibly powerful impact of the power of suggestion, making something work simply because we believe it works? How do we negate the placebo effect? We design a test to circumvent it.

Which is the test we saw on stage. Basically, there were two bracelets, a blue one which is the “real” one, with the microchip that is supposed to enhance ability, and a red one, a fake bracelet with no chip. The bracelets are each placed in an identical box, and the boxes are mixed up. A volunteer picks one out, and the claimant (the product’s designer), performs the balance test. Then, the other box is picked out and the same balance test is applied. The claimant then has to say which box he thinks the “real” bracelet is in, which presumably would be obvious from which one made the volunteer perform better in the balance test. This protocol was agreed to by the claimant (an important point), and he also agreed he would have to get it right 17 out of 20 times to pass the test.

So the test went on, with 10 different volunteers. He got the first one right! Your heart can’t help but leap a little, what if it is true? Of course, if he passed the whole thing, that would have been something, but wait, there is after all a 50/50 chance of getting it right. The next one, he fails. But there’s something more interesting than just passing and failing. Each test he asked to use each boxed bracelet several times, sometimes asking the volunteer to switch hands, sometimes trying hard to make sure the volunteers were “doing it right.” A thought that I heard a lot of times repeated around me was “If this bracelet is supposed to have such a big impact on the volunteer’s ability, wouldn’t it be obvious? Would he really have to test it so many different ways?”

Trying to explain to Banachek what went wrong

The answer was soon given: by the end of the 10th test the claimant had got it right only 4 times. Asked if he was willing to terminate the test, and sign off that he had failed, the claimant agreed. The we get to the interesting  part – the claimant trying to explain what happened.

Cognitive dissonance is the condition of holding two opposing beliefs, values, ideas, etc., such as the claimant now holding simultaneously the notion that his product works, and the test that proves it doesn’t. This is an uncomfortable position for anyone, and the brain tries to sort it out by doing anything it can to get rid of or minimize the new idea that challenges the existing belief. This happens to everyone, and it can be hard to even read information that conflicts with your views. But this is a pretty confronting situation; a whole audience jsut saw you fail.

So what did he say? He talked a lot about this is not how the test is normally done, and it’s stressful for him and the volunteers to be in front of an audience. Sure it is, but that doesn’t explain why it didn’t work at all when the effects are supposed to be so spectacular (and remember he agreed to the protocol). When asked whether he thought it still worked he was adamant it does – citing his own experience with being able to lift more weights, saying that what you can lift is a simple fact. But in reality it’s not – think about all those examples of “super-human” strength illustrated when people are rushed with adrenaline. And so the placebo effect can work in a similar way. So he was asked about the placebo effect, which he professed to understand. He admitted it has a large part to play, but then rambled again about how the stage and the situation added “new variables.” Which really, have nothing to do with the placebo effect.

He was utterly convinced, and he wasn’t really lying, he just needed a way to maintain his belief and not shock his brain. And here is something Skeptics love: understanding the brain in order to overcome the often silly things it does. We love to question, to test and prove, and to understand in order to change. But why? What’s the harm? The harm can be, at the basic level, financial; you’re selling a product that doesn’t work. The harm can be emotional: mediums are a classic example of taking advantage of people’s grief. Some people argue it’s therapeutic, and it can be, but then there are mediums like Sylvia Browne, who has actually claimed to have talked to missing children she said were now passed – which have subsequently been found alive. The harm can also be medical. People use a whole plethora of “alternative” medicines that simply do not work, as shown by clinical trials, in place of proven medicine. This can be seriously dangerous.

There is a whole host of examples and more explanation behind each of these, but this is just a quick introduction through the Million Dollar Challenge. I have scribbled in a notebook a host of other topics from TAM I hope to blog about in the near future, including Skeptic’s relation to atheism, the issue of women in the community, whether science can inform morals, and that neuroscience is frikkin’ cool!


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