The Mystery of the Decline Effect

Text and picture depicting propositions and scienticfi method

(c) 2009 Dave Gray (

There is a very, very strange phenomenon in scientific literature called the decline effect. For some inexplicable reason, many positive scientific effects seem to decline over time as more and more research into the effect is conducted. A theory that seems to be initially supported by overwhelmingly positive evidence can eventually wind up seeming significantly less supported; in some kind of weird way, it may seem like facts are becoming less factual over time.

For example, initial parapsychological research seemed to indicate evidence for psychic ability (ESP in particular), but this effect declined with subsequent studies. A subject of Joseph Banks Rhine who’d initially be able to guess cards vastly over chance in repeated tests gradually became worse at doing so. In fact, over the years this subject became able to guess cards barely above chance.

Jonathan Schooler, who posited the theory of verbal overshadowing, i.e. describing something impairs the ability to remember it more so than just observing something, noticed a similar decline in his results. Since the initial publication of verbal overshadowing theory in 1990, he’s found it increasingly harder to demonstrate positive results. He called it “cosmic habituation”, and joked that the cosmos was interfering in his studies.

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Drugging the Family this Christmas

With sleigh bells ringing and festive joy sweeping the nation many people will have their minds firmly set on relaxing this Christmas. However, when we look into the physiological and psychological effects Christmas can have on the body, we may be interested to learn it can have an ever so slightly less than positive effect. Dissecting the most common of Christmas day activities and looking at them under the microscope, we uncover a cataclysmic cocktail of drugs coursing through the veins of our nearest and dearest. Prepare for the most depressing article you will ever read about Christmas…

Sleep Deprivation

Very tired man

Credit: Kevin Lawver
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Internet addiction and the techniques that stick

(Written by WillB)

This article is about internet addiction, the techniques used to amplify and exploit it, and how the exploitation of these techniques is a business imperative for companies that make their money online.

Internet addiction is a growing concern, and there are quite a few writers who’ve written on the topic. Damien Thompson  identifies how technologists are getting better and better at “the distilling of pleasures”. Bill Davidow writes about the rewards that exist for web companies to ramp up the addictiveness of their sites in an online world where users are always connected, and hence there are no physical barriers to indulging in addictive behaviour.

Few though have written about the actual techniques that are used to retain users’ attention, which is what I will be writing on here. My aim isn’t to say they are all inherently bad; after all they work because they appeal to us. However, I think it is useful to recognise what they are, and to recognise their role in driving compulsive behaviour.
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The expectation that any art should be liked

(Written by Pete F, a Philosophy & Literature graduate who is currently studying for an MPhil in Philosophy at UCL. Interests include language, art and Wittgenstein)

Andrew Hirst wrote here a little while ago about the expectation that certain (read:’classic’) art must be liked. I think the phenomenon he described is importantly symptomatic of an expectation that the most appropriate reaction to art in general is enjoyment or pleasure.

Hume and Kant

Such prominent writers on aesthetics as Hume and Kant more-or-less took it for granted that aesthetic experience, at least of beauty, was pleasurable in and of itself, or was perhaps itself a special form of pleasure. Of course they acknowledged that not everyone will take pleasure in the same art, but largely attributed this to, say, prejudice, lack of sensory refinement or a less-than-wholly disinterested attitude. On these sorts of assumptions, taking pleasure in art is a condition on proper aesthetic judgement of art. Claiming not to take pleasure in a play of Shakespeare’s, then, will be tantamount either to saying that it is not good art, or that one is not a good judge.

Of course both Hume’s and Kant’s positions are much more subtle and interesting than the caricature sketched above, but I think that the prominence of the idea of pleasure and enjoyment as an appropriate aesthetic response holds in their thought has had a huge effect on the way we often frame issues of enjoyment and understanding in art.

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The Psychology and Politics of Opposition to Obamacare

Two pills, blue and pink coloured(Editor’s note: the views and opinions of the authors are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editor or other authors)

The debate over the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is one of the most intense and complex debates in American history. With polls showing that just over half of Americans oppose the law and just under half support it, the debate seems destined to continue. Many observers in the UK, Western Europe and other parts of the world where government-funded, single-payer healthcare systems have been in place for decades are genuinely confused by this debate. In particular they wonder why half of the American population is resistant to greater access to healthcare for those who don’t now have that access or who find themselves struggling with the current system. It seems incomprehensible that this would be the case.

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How would we behave if we truly believed free will did not exist?

London 2012 Olympic gold medal, free will

If free will does not exist, then we should not praise good behaviours.

Can we behave as though free will doesn’t exist? What would we do if we believed that all human behaviour (and everything else, for that matter) was determined by causal chains which stretch back to the Big Bang? What would we make of other people’s behaviour? Would we still judge them for bad actions and praise them for good actions? Would we ever punish any criminals? Would we award prizes to those who’ve performed well?

Scientific evidence

After all, if we don’t believe in free will, all of these actions are not caused by the person themselves. They are caused by a series of causal chains affecting their bodies, brains, and everything else around them, which stretch back a great distance into the past. Unless we’re willing to state that souls or other spiritual entities exist and have some as yet unknown effect on causality, all the best scientific evidence we have points to the fact that free will is illusory. Plenty of people in the world believe this to be the truth. The problem is, however, that these same individuals walk around judging people, praising people, assigning moral and political responsibility as though everyone still has free will. Why?
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Daddy loves dubstep: what children can teach us about our music tastes and listening habits

The beautiful simplicity of the video above, in which a Kindness song is broken down and demonstrated to a young boy, is effective because it explores the dynamic of young children being introduced to contemporary ‘adult’ culture. Videos working on this theme have been repeatedly popular over the past few years. Whether they are candidly reviewing Skrillex at a makeshift disco, harmonising their way through Ariel Pink tracks or simply waking up and having an instinctive bop to Waka Flocka Flame, there is clearly something we find endlessly fascinating about children interacting with music from outside the mainstream cultural frame, which would otherwise be unlikely to enter their sphere.

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