Delusional idiots, choice blindness & jam


I love how stupid the brain can be. The way it’s wired can often result in some pretty stupid behaviour in, say, the human possessing the brain. And I love it. I find it entertaining, in a bizarre and somewhat despairing way, and I find it informative, because it tells us about the elaborate, multi-coloured, lumpy-textured blanket of self-serving sham and deception that our brains crochet for us to protect our precious egos and make us think we’re, like, totally awesome ‘n’ stuff and so much better than, I don’t know, that random guy over there – just look at that idiot. He thinks he’s so good, but he’s not. But I am. Seriously. You probably don’t even know how good I am, because you’re probably an idiot too. Poor, stupid idiot.

My favourite example is the better-than-average effect, a convenient self-serving cognitive bias that means that a lot of people think they’re, hmm, better than average. A lot of people, as in 80% of the population… which is interesting when, by definition, only 50% of people can be better than average. So for things like sense of humour, or driving ability, 80% of the population thinks they’re better than at least 50% of the population. Awesome, well done on the mathematics there.

An extension of the better-than-average effect is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which makes me want to laugh until I vomit in disgust or something, because it is bitterly funny and depressingly amazing. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the tendency for incompetent, unskilled people (i.e. the worse-than-average people on a given task or skill) to completely overestimate their ability. So now it’s not just people thinking they’re kind of more awesome than the majority – it’s the certified idiots thinking they’re great. The effect is perfectly summed up in the title of the original paper by Dunning and Kruger, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. There was also another chap who put it quite nicely, more than a century before:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
-Charles Darwin

(And following on from that, another twist in the story is that competent, skilled people are also unaware of their competence or skill – but they tend to underestimate it. So, basically, we’re mostly kind of useless at judging the difficulty of tasks and at assessing our own competence when it comes to said tasks. There are people who are good at those judgement calls though – people with depression. Sigh.)

So our brains like to protect us from realising how incompetent or inaccurate we are, which isn’t surprising, because if you spent your life not being confident that your judgement in general was at least “adequate”, if not “amazingly blindingly fantastic and infallible”, you’d be crippled by self-doubt and unable to make decisions. Consequently, our brains have become pretty good at telling us “Oh hey, you know that decision you made? Brilliant. Well done, you. No doubt you made the right choice there. Help yourself to some ice-cream or something.”

For instance, you give me two photos to look at briefly:

I have to choose which one I think is more attractive:

Then, in a sleight of hand, you swap the photos without me knowing, and give me the one I didn’t choose:

And you ask me to explain why I chose that one. And I’ll do a fantastic job of explaining, and I won’t have noticed it wasn’t the one I originally chose. This is called choice blindness, and the theory is that I don’t realise there’s been a deception and a swap but I think that I must’ve chosen that particular photo for a reason, so my brain does a fantastic job of retrospectively justifying that “choice” because, hey now, I wouldn’t make a bad choice. Not me. Oh no.

Kind of unsurprisingly, this extends into the realm of taste, flavour and food. In an experiment by Hall and colleagues, participants had to make a choice between two types of jam or two types of flavoured tea. The bit of the experiment that thrills me no end is the way the sleight-of-hand was conducted – jars with secret compartments. Ah, brilliant!

So in one instance of the experiment, there would be two jars and the participant would take a spoonful of jam from an opaque white plastic jar (and maybe it was cinnamon-apple jam) and taste it, and the experimenter would ask the participant to rate how they liked the jam on a scale of 1 to 10. While the experimenter was distracting the participant by asking for the rating, another experimenter surreptitiously turned the jar upside-down. Then the participant tasted a sample from an opaque blue jar, this time containing a different jam (maybe grapefruit). Again the participant was asked to rate how they liked the jam, and again the other experimenter turned the jar upside-down without the participant noticing. And the marvellous thing is that the jars contain two compartments, so when you turn them upside-down and take a sample of jam, you’re getting the other jam – turn the cinnamon-apple jam jar upside down and you get a jam that looks identical, but is actually the grapefruit jam. Turn the grapefruit jam jar upside down and you’ll get the cinnamon-apple jam. Gah! So cunning!

So the participant was then asked to re-sample the jar that they had given the higher rating to out of the pair. Say they rated the cinnamon-apple jam higher. The cinnamon-apple jam jar has now been turned over, and the participant takes a sample of jam (which is now grapefruit jam) from the same jar and tastes it, and now… they’re asked to explain why they preferred that jam to the other one.

And they do explain.

And they generally haven’t noticed that the jam has changed.

In fact, in two-thirds of these jam-tastings, the participants didn’t realise the jam had been changed.

It was the same case when the participants sniffed the flavoured teas. They’re less likely to detect the change when the two samples are somewhat similar (e.g. blackcurrant jam vs blueberry jam) but even when the difference seems like it would be obvious (e.g. cinnamon-apple jam vs grapefruit jam, or aniseed-flavoured tea vs mango-flavoured tea), more than half the time the change was not detected.

In the case of the cinnamon-apple jam vs grapefruit jam, just over 20% of people immediately noticed that the jam had been changed and that they had been given the jam that they hadn’t originally preferred. Another 20% reported, when asked, that some quality of the jam they had preferred had tasted different the second time, so maybe it was a bit stronger or a bit sweeter, but they still didn’t notice the change. And less than 10% said “Hey… umm… was that a different jam?” or something along those lines towards the end of the experiment, well after the change had occurred. For apple pie-flavoured tea vs honey-flavoured tea, the change was only detected immediately about 7% of the time, it was detected retrospectively about 7% of the time, and no other change in the qualities of the tea was reported. So the change went completely undetected 86% of the time. The change between ginger jam and lime jam went completely undetected about 63% of the time. The change between blackcurrant jam and blueberry jam went completely undetected about 80% of the time. Seems kind of unbelievable, doesn’t it?

It’s not that the flavours were difficult to distinguish: another part of the experiment showed that participants had no trouble telling apart the different jam or tea flavours. Participants were often very surprised or voiced disbelief when they were told that the samples had been switched – they genuinely (unless they are very good actors with strange motivations) did not notice the change.

And in addition to this experiment being dastardly and clever (everything you want in an experimental psychology study), the authors are people I want to hang out with, because they made this paper fun to read with its rhetorical questions and random embellishments. I’ll leave it to them to outline the limits of the insight with which this experiment provides us:

Obviously, an experimental finding like choice blindness is bound at the limits by choices we know to be of great importance in everyday life. While it lies close at hand to speculate about couples at the altar solemnly affirming their choice of partner, and then (after the minister pulls some unearthly sleight-of-hand!) bringing home a complete stranger, no one would fail to notice such a change (and this, we hope, includes even those involved in the most hasty of Las Vegas marriages).

So true, Hall et al. (2010), so true.

In my own clunky attempt at sleight-of-hand, I’ve created what I consider a nose-bleedingly amazing triumph: Vegemite in a dessert. These Vegemite caramel pots with dark chocolate ganache are are nose-bleedingly amazing because Vegemite isn’t one of my favourite things (I don’t mind it scraped over water crackers, but that’s about it) yet I have made a dessert that, to be frank, impressed me.

It impressed me because the flavour works amazingly well (Vegemite and caramel – the new flavour pairing that will take the world by storm, just you wait and see) but also… it may be the world’s richest dessert. It’s so rich it could probably buy several hotels in Dubai. The Vegemite jars I served the stuff in that you can see in the photos – that much of this stuff would feed about 4 people. I ate about three tablespoons before I started to feel like my stomach was going to start convulsing in protest. Which means: my work here is done.

Read on for the recipe for Vegemite caramel pots with dark chocolate ganache.

Vegemite caramel pots
125ml (1/2 cup) milk
2 tbs Vegemite
125ml (1/2 cup) thickened cream
1/2 tsp vanilla paste or extract
3/4 cup caster sugar
3 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 150°C.

Put the milk in a small bowl and add the Vegemite. Microwave for about 20-30 seconds to heat it up, then whisk it with a fork so the Vegemite dissolves into the milk.

Whisk together the Vegemite milk, cream and vanilla in a jug and set aside.

Take 1/4 cup of the sugar and put it in a small saucepan with 1 tbs water. Heat it over a low heat until the sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat to medium. Cook the mixture until it starts to turn a caramel colour (usually takes a while, maybe 5-10 minutes). Add the Vegemite milk/cream mixture carefully. Stir this over a low heat until everything is melted. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Use a fork to beat together the egg yolks and remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a large bowl. Add the hot cream mixture into this and stir to mix. Pour though a sieve to strain out any lumps and then allow it to sit for 10 minutes. Some froth will start to settle on top, and you can try to skim this off with a spoon.

Place 4 empty Vegemite jars (about 1 cup capacity) or standard ramekins in a baking pan or roasting tray. Pour hot water into the pan or tray so that it comes about half the way up the outsides of the jars/ramekins. Divide the Vegemite mixture equally between the jars/ramekins. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. The pots are ready when you shake the tray gently and they wobble a bit on top but are a little bit set (they will set further once they have cooled).

Remove from oven, take the jars/ramekins out of the tray and leave to cool for half an hour before placing in the fridge to thicken for a couple of hours.

Dark chocolate ganache
Adapted from Heston Blumenthal’s recipe in The Big Fat Duck Cookbook
25g unsalted butter, softened
250g dark chocolate
225g thickened cream
35g golden syrup
50g water
pinch of salt

Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a microwave or bain-marie (in a bowl sitting on top of a saucepan of simmering water, such that the bowl does not touch the water). Set aside.

Put the cream, syrup, water and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and bring to the boil over medium heat, stirring regularly. Remove from the heat and pour 1/3 of it into the melted chocolate and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add another 1/3, stir to combine, add the final 1/3, and stir again.

Pour/push through a sieve to remove any lumps. Spoon this chocolate ganache into the jars on top of the Vegemite caramel mixture, filling the jars/ramekins to close to the top. Refrigerate until serving, but remove from the fridge about half an hour prior to serving.

References
Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.
Hall, L. et al. (2010). Magic at the marketplace: choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Cognition, 117, 54-61.

18 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Vegemite. in a dessert… one for the visitors from OS!

    Reply
    • Jess

       /  November 12, 2010

      Yeah all the OS people seem to hate Vegemite when they try it, but that’s because for some reason they are usually forced to eat a spoonful of it. Of course it’s going to be awful like that. In a dessert though – a nicer introduction to our lovely little yeast extract, surely.

  2. Oh. My. God. Words cannot express how much I NEED THIS IN MY LIFE AND IN MY BELLY.

    Please start selling this. I would buy crates of it. And eat it on everything. Is it weird that my first thought was ‘I WANT TO PUT THIS ON PASTA!!!!!!!’

    (I also think Promite would work really well, as it’s already kind of sweet, and richer and ‘thick’ tasting…hmmm.. much experimentation needs to be done)

    Reply
    • Jess

       /  November 12, 2010

      Nigella has a Vegemite pasta recipe actually. That’s what gave me the idea to try Vegemite in a form other than thinly scraped over dry biscuits.

      I don’t think I’ve ever tried Promite, but it sounds like it would definitely be worthy of experimentation! I also wonder if Bovril would or wouldn’t be entirely wrong in such a recipe. As if I should be afraid of meat extract in a dessert though. Several of my upcoming recipes are all about meat desserts… as horrifying as that may sound…

  3. I’ve been meaning to make some sort of vegemite dessert for months now – trust you to not only beat me to it, but to do so in such a miraculous way that there’s no point me trying anything different! :D

    Also, I’m definitely better than average, so would absolutely have picked those jam changes straightaway. I’m also an awesome driver, have an extremely good sense of humour, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

    Go ahead, scien-test me. I dare you.

    Reply
    • Jess

       /  November 12, 2010

      Oh man, Chris and I went to a special seminar hosted by my uni’s science faculty that was called Why We’re The Stupid Species. It was a waste of my time (as a neuroscience and psychology graduate who is already well aware of all the cognitive biases and experiments mentioned during the talk) and Chris’s time (as the boyfriend of a neuroscience and psychology graduate who is already etc etc) but the crowd would have mostly been people somehow involved in the science faculty, so it made for some light entertainment to watch almost the whole supposedly well-educated audience give themselves a rating of 6 or higher out of 10 for sense of humour. I mean, the problem with that is not just the better-than-average effect, but the fact that you can’t even define a good sense of humour when you think about it. There are millions of people around the world who enjoy Two And A Half Men, and I would say that they therefore have an absolutely appalling sense of humour (or complete absence thereof, perhaps), but if I showed them something I find side-rendingly funny… they would probably think I was deranged.

    • Two and a Half Men deserves to be hung, drawn, and quartered. And that’s an objective fact. ;)

      I could do without the canned laughter on that clip… but Shaun Micallef! Win!

      (Cat cat cat cat cat cat cat…)

  4. The brain truly is crazy amazing. And I’ve definitely found it to be true that most intelligent people realize just how little they know and the most unintelligent think they know just about everything. Irony at it’s finest.

    I’ve actually never had vegemite but youv’e definitely made me want to try it! I mean, if you combined anything with dark chocolate ganache, I would basically fall in love.

    Reply
    • Jess

       /  November 13, 2010

      Haha it reminds me of how I went to the travel agent and he asked me why I was travelling and I said it was because of the research I do, and then he proceeded to tell me about some absolute garbage that he thought was neuroscience research (that fMRI can detect activation in the brains of Buddhist monks a month after they’ve died… I mean, it’s just not physiologically possible, it’s JUST. NOT.), and when I told him that what he was saying wasn’t possible, he acted as if I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I’m humbled by how much I don’t know about the brain (even in my specific research area), yet he knew basically nothing about the brain but decided he should lecture me on it and not listen to me when I told him that what he was saying couldn’t possibly be true. Sigh!

  5. Oh if you ever come visit Melbourne, pop into a shop in Fitzroy called Shocolate – they do a Vegemite chocolate there and it’s quite tasty. The French chocolate maker, on moving to the country did what many foreigners do and slathered Vegemite on his toast as thick as Nutella – and since then he’s hated the stuff, but had the idea to put it in chocolate. Ha! It works quite well and I’m not the biggest Vegemite fan either. Adds a nice yeasty richness.

    Reply
    • Jess

       /  November 13, 2010

      That sounds fantastic – thanks so much for the recommendation. I will definitely go to Schocolate next time I’m in Melbourne (don’t know when that will be but I hope it’s soon because I love Melbourne).

  6. I’ve never heard of choice blindness, but given how ‘absent minded’ humans are (how little they remember, i.e., how unreliable eye witnesses are)…it makes sense I suppose.
    I think I’ve had vegmite in the past, but I can’t remember how it tastes. Your recipe sounds delicious though, and very unique…and the pics are stunning.

    Reply
    • Jess

       /  November 13, 2010

      I read a book recently called A Mind of Its Own by Cordelia Fine and it’s all about how absent-minded and unreliable and biased the brain is. I wouldn’t be surprised if multiple sequels could be written that cover more areas in which the brain is not so good at judgement or accuracy or whatever. Amazing.

  7. I immediately thought that I would certainly notice the jam jars being changed, but then thought that this probably means I’m overestimating my abilities and thus am below average, but then thought maybe if I think I’m below average I’m actually better than average and now my brain hurts and I want some vegemite dessert. I do not think the brain soreness and my desire for the dessert are linked though.. pretty sure I’d be wanting to try that dessert even without the bleary eyed Sunday intelligence musing.

    Reply
  8. I’ve yet to taste vegemite and am now incredibly curious. You always come up with the coolest treats :) .

    Reply
  9. Here I was just investigating Vegemite chocolate ganache and I’ve been given an amazing insight into the human brain…..I must tell you I am poorer than average when it comes to both my sense of humor and my driving ability. I did enjoy your post thou so I’m not sure what that might say about your sense of humor ;)

    Reply
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