Thursday, 20 July 2017

Interview with Dan Zahavi on Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology

In this post I interview Dan Zahavi, Professor of Philosophy at University of Copenhagen.


VM: In an interesting study published in Qualitative Health Research you used a phenomenological approach to understand the experiences of self, other, and the world in patients who had recently suffered a stroke and were experiencing hemispatial neglect. Could you say a bit more about the study, and expand on the idea that the findings show the importance of meaning and meaningmaking in the process of rehabilitation?

DZ: That study was investigating first person accounts of neglect soon after a stroke. These were the results from open-ended interviews of 12 participants. Stroke is closely related long-term disability and mortality. And many stroke patients experience hemispatial neglect. What happens is that people no longer notice the left side of their body and the perceptual field. Half of the universe looses meaning and no longer exists for them.

But the interesting part is that even when those parts are now outside of conscious reach, they still make an impact on the experience of self, of others and of the patient's world. And this not only impacts the persons' experiences but also those of their families’ and carers.  So when interviewing the patients, we used the guide of phenomenological accounts of embodied subjectivity to explore the impairments that affected the patients’experiences. 

From the findings we gathered that the patient experience several difficulties that challenge their life experience. For example, people struggle to remember events, to incorporate new knowledge. The person notices the difference between her abilities prior to the stroke and after it. These are very strange experiences and the patients were mostly reluctant to communicate their bodily sensations. 
Many of the problems that we found such as failure to recognize the left side of the body and space or strange bodily perceptions were already present in the neglect literature.

But we analyzed the data from a perspective that took into account the impact of changes and loss in interpersonal relations and spatial freedom (all concepts present in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’ phenomenology) in the embodied experience of neglect. This enhanced the picture that we previously had and supplemented the existing literature for understanding the patients’ subjective experiences.

It is not easy for people to say that they cannot find their hand. People are mostly concerned with being targeted as drunk, delusional, etc. And this not wanting to share unusual bodily sensations creates feelings of alienation from others and loneness. This of course potentially results into the person loosing ability to maintain close interpersonal relationships. So what do we mean when we say that the findings from the phenomenological approach emphasize the importance of meaning and meaningmaking in the entire process of rehabilitation? 

We noticed that the patients’ ability to attend to the left hemispace was enhanced with  reminders that the patient found of some sort of significance. There is the example of a mother with neglect who could hold her baby with the left arm but forgot to attend to other things which were less important and meaningful to her. Some patients responded better to challenges to explore the left when prompts were coming from close friends and family which shows the importance of emotional stimuli. And that is why we propose that people who are experiencing neglect as well as their relatives and close friends need to be able to become more familiar with the manifestations of the experience. And this is possible by understanding patient’s interests, particular life history together with clinical observation.  

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Is Smell an Aesthetic Sense?


Ann-Sophie Barwich (pictured above) is an empirical philosopher and historian of science and the senses at Columbia University. She investigates olfaction as a new model system for neuroscience and looks at the nature of smell for philosophical inquiry about perception (Barwich 2016). For this, she works in close collaboration with the neuroscience laboratory of Stuart Firestein, in addition to interactions with other olfactory labs.

The human sense of smell has a remarkably bad reputation. We are often told to have too poor a nose to appreciate the richness of sensory information that is conveyed through small volatile molecules in the air. Over the past two decades, however, scientific insight has proven many of the predominantly pejorative beliefs about human smell perception wrong. It turns out that our olfactory system is much more elaborate than previously thought, both in its physiological and cognitive functions (Shepherd 2004; 2012; Gilbert 2008; Barwich 2016; Majid 2016; McGann 2017). Still, we also know notably little about our oldest sense. To date, many of the key questions remain unresolved: Is there a natural order underlying the classification of the multitude of odors? How are smells represented in the brain?

In a recent article (Barwich 2017), I addressed one of the most persistent preconceptions about the human nose: Can our sense of smell be a source of aesthetic perception? The majority of opinions in aesthetic studies will give you a negative verdict or ignore the sense of smell altogether. In response, I looked at the reasons for dismissing odors in past aesthetic discourse. These reasons were largely twofold. First, aesthetic experience is commonly considered to be about features of objects, not personal preferences (Carroll 2001). In this context, the assessment of odor quality is held as being heavily subjective. Odors seem to represent phenomenological 'feels' instead of objects (Batty 2010). Second, aesthetic perception has a strong cognitive load. By contrast, olfactory percepts may not possess sufficient differentiation in their content. Rather, they are seen as presenting us with a synthetic experience of an immediate but undifferentiated sensation (Lycan 2000).

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Cognition, Affect, and Motivation

On June 9th, the University of Birmingham hosted a workshop, "Cognition, Affect, and Motivation: Conceptual and Empirical Issues", sponsored by Project PERFECT and the Mind Association. The conference brought together academics and students from philosophy and related disciplines, as well as members of the public, who were interested in issues relating to the interaction between cognition, affective responses and motivation. It aimed to foster interdisciplinary discussion around philosophical questions about the relation between these three drivers of human behaviour.



Maura Tumulty’s talk focussed on how we can take control over our mental states, especially those with strong affective content. Many of our mental states are controlled by our judgements. However, Tumulty discussed states that are in tension with our sincerely endorsed judgements. 





Say, for example, that a person is predisposed to be attracted to smoking although she sincerely endorses the judgement that smoking is bad for her health. Or suppose that someone harbours an implicit bias associating Black people with violent crime but explicitly judges that the bias is wrong.

In such cases, we cannot control our mental states through our judgements. We will continue, for example, to have positive affective responses that are associated with smoking, and negative affective responses that are associated with Black people, that are recalcitrant in face of conflicting judgements. Tumulty discussed how we can take managerial control when our judgements fail to control our mental states, we can adopt methods that control our mental states. For example, I might try to associate smoking with negative imagery by looking at pictures of unhealthy lungs whenever I encounter a person smoking.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The cognitive structure of social stereotypes


My name is Matthew Hammond, and I research social cognition, romantic relationships, and stereotyping in the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand).

A recent project with Andrei Cimpian (New York University) investigated the cognitive structure of social stereotypes. We aimed to refine the current psychological definition of stereotypes—which is simply that stereotypes are “beliefs about groups.” This definition underspecifies the kind of beliefs that make up stereotypes. Our research question involved distinguishing between statistical beliefs and generic beliefs as elements of stereotypes, drawing upon research in philosophy, cognitive science, and linguistics.

Statistical beliefs are about the prevalence of features within groups, such as believing that 1 in 3 humans have brown eyes. Generic beliefs, such as the belief expressed by the statement “sharks attack swimmers,” are not about any specific quantities or frequencies but rather consist of generalizations about a category considered as a whole (e.g., sharks).

Relative to statistical beliefs, generic beliefs are developmentally prior, less cognitively demanding, and less tied to reality: People tend to agree that “sharks attack swimmers” even though shark attacks are very rare, but they don’t think that “Americans are right-handed” even though most are.

In a paper recently published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, we describe four studies that tested whether stereotypes of social groups are primarily comprised of generic beliefs or statistical beliefs.

We used a functional criterion to answer our question: The function of stereotypes is to guide people’s judgments about the social world, so we deemed that whichever belief (generic or statistical) more strongly guided people’s social judgments is also more central to stereotypes.

We first asked a group of participants to list common stereotypes (e.g., politicians are liars). Then, we measured the extent to which a separate group of participants endorsed these stereotypes in generic form (e.g., agreement with generic statements such as “politicians are liars”) and statistical form (e.g., answers to prevalence estimation questions such as “what percentage of politicians are liars?”).

We used participants’ responses to predict a social judgment: the perceived likelihood that an unfamiliar group member behaves stereotypically. For example, participants were told “Person Y is a politician,” and asked “How likely is it that Person Y is a liar?” In sum, we measured people’s (1) generic beliefs, (2), statistical beliefs, and (3) social judgments of applying a stereotypical behavior to a target, for a range of social stereotypes.

Using multilevel models, we then analyzed whether people’s judgments about social targets were predicted more by their corresponding generic beliefs or statistical beliefs. We found that generic beliefs were a consistently stronger predictor of people’s social judgments than statistical beliefs across four samples. 

In addition, moderation tests indicated that the link between generic beliefs and social judgments was particularly strong for people with intuitive, low-effort cognitive styles, which is consistent with the fact that generic beliefs are developmentally primitive and cognitively simple. This finding suggests that generic beliefs may be more prominent in stereotypes because these beliefs simplify the social world.

Together, our results suggest an improved definition of stereotypes: Stereotypes may be primarily made up of generic beliefs about social groups.

Because generic beliefs about groups don’t map consistently onto objective, quantifiable facts about those groups, our evidence is incompatible with recent claims that stereotypes are accurate (for an extended argument against stereotype accuracy, see here). Furthermore, the fact that the core component of stereotypes (generic beliefs) was overweighted in the judgments of people who tend to think shallowly is another reason to doubt their accuracy.

Finally, our results have implications for the ways that researchers design interventions to reduce prejudice. For example, prejudiced judgments toward outgroup members may be more strongly influenced by targeting their generic beliefs (e.g., prompting consideration of targets membership to multiple group categories) rather than their statistical beliefs (e.g., presenting statistical facts intended to disconfirm negative portrayals of groups).

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Subdoxastic Attitudes, Imagination and Belief Workshop

Today I report from a workshop organised by Anna Ichino and Bence Nanay at the University of Antwerp (pictured below) on 31st May, 2017. The themes included subdoxastic attitudes, imagination, and belief.




I (Lisa Bortolotti, Birmingham) was the first speaker and discussed costs and benefits of confabulated explanations of one’s attitudes and choices. I started defining confabulation and providing several examples from the clinical and non-clinical literature. Then, I considered the standard philosophical reaction to confabulation, that it is evidence for a failure of self-knowledge, and rejected it.

Next, I argued that confabulated explanations of attitudes and choices involve ignorance and ill-grounded causal explanations. Finally, I looked at potential psychological and epistemic benefits of confabulated explanations, and applied to them the framework of epistemic innocence developed at part of project PERFECT

I concluded by saying that some confabulated explanations can be epistemically innocent, depending on whether they have benefits for epistemic agency and on whether there are better-grounded explanations available to the person. Another important consideration is whether the confabulation involves the adoption of other ill-grounded beliefs.

Lars Danzer (Essen) talked about subdoxastic states, subpersonal states, and the relationship between the two distinctions. Some subdoxastic states are subpersonal, but not all of them are. Danzer focused on tacit knowledge of linguistic rules as the principal case. What are subpersonal states? Following Zoe Drayson (2012), the distinction is between level of description or explanation, not between kinds of processes

Personal-level is the level of folk-psychology (e.g. beliefs). Subpersonal level is the level of computational psychology and neuroscience (e.g. neural states). The subpersonal level is supposed to provide vertical explanations of personal-level facts. But drawn this way, the distinction is not exclusive. If you hold an identity theory, there are no two different categories.

Are subdoxastic states (inaccessible to consciousness and inferentially insulated) located only at the subpersonal level? No! Certain subdoxastic states may be found only at the personal level (e.g. in rationalising explanations).

Anna Ichino (Antwerp) presented her thoughts on imagination and its relation to belief based. She started with some examples of conspiracy theories and superstitions to show how common they are, and referred to several robust results from psychological studies. This magical way of thinking differs from the scientific view of the world and sometimes it involves ontological confusion (it is scientifically impossible, not just implausible).

What sort of attitudes/mental states are these, and how do they affect behaviour? Ichino listed four options: (1) standard belief account (or in-between believing and not-believing); (2) direct imagination account; (3) indirect imagination account; (4) novel state account (aliefs or credences). Ichino argued that for most cases the direct imagination account is the best, and openly argued against the belief account. The standard belief account is endorsed by psychologists (‘Believing in Magic’ by Vyse, ‘Supersense’ by Hood) and based on the motivational power of superstition and magical thinking.

For Ichino this is not a sufficiently good reason to endorse (1), because superstitions and magical thinking do not meet the other constraints on belief: sensitivity to evidence and inferential integration. She used the case of conspiracy theories on Lady Diana’s death and other examples to make this point. Finally, she explains how the formation of magical and superstitious thoughts proposed by Risen(2016) and her Psychology of Belief and Judgement Lab fits with her interpretation of them being a form of imagination: system 2 detects the intuition offered by system 1 but does not correct it (acquiescence).


Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What Makes Delusions Pathological?


My name is Valentina Petrolini and I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati. I work in philosophy of psychiatry, where my research focuses on the nature of mental disorders and on pathologies of belief such as delusions.

In my paper “What Makes Delusions Pathological?” I draw on Lisa Bortolotti’s work to suggest that delusional beliefs are irrational in a particular way. I accept the Continuity Thesis that Bortolotti proposes, namely the idea that beliefs lie on a continuum of rationality with delusions at the most irrational end. Yet, this formulation leaves an important problem unsolved. If delusions cannot be distinguished from other irrational beliefs by their failure to live up to rational norms, what makes delusions distinctively pathological? My solution consists in fine-tuning the notion of rationality to explore the influence that processes like emotions and relevance detection have on belief formation.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Rationality of Perception

In this post, Susanna Siegel, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, introduces her book, The Rationality of Perception.

On a traditional conception of the human mind, reasoning can be rational or irrational, but perception cannot. Perception is simply a source of new information, and cannot be assessed for rationality. I argue that this conception is wrong. Drawing on examples involving racism, emotion, self-defense law, and scientific theories, The Rationality of Perception makes the case that perception itself can be rational or irrational.


The Rationality of Perception argues that reasoning and perception can be deeply intertwined. When unjustified beliefs, fears, desires, or prejudices influence what we perceive, we face a philosophical problem: is it reasonable to strengthen what one believes, fears, or suspects, on the basis of an experience that was generated, unbeknownst to the perceiver, by those very same beliefs, fears, or suspicions? I argue that it is not reasonable-even though it may seem that way to the perceiver. In these cases, a perceptual experience may itself be irrational, because it is brought about by irrational influences.




Here’s a simple example. Jill fears (without good reason) that Jack is angry with her. As a result of her fear, Jack’s face looks angry to her when she sees it. If you saw Jack, you’d see his neutral expression for what it is. There’s no need for Jill to jump to conclusions from what she sees. Her fear’s influence on perceptual experience makes it simpler for her: she can just believe her eyes.

Let’s suppose that Jill has no idea that her fear has influenced her perceptual experience. To her, she’s simply seeing Jack, and following common sense in believing her eyes - since as far as she can tell, she has no reason not to believe her eyes.

Is it reasonable for Jill to believe her eyes, when her visual experience is a projection from an unreasonable fear or presumption? It might seem that the answer is Yes. What else is Jill supposed to believe, given that she has no idea her fear has been projected onto her experience? In countless other situations, it’s reasonable to believe what you see. If you want to know whether there’s mustard in the fridge, for instance, then if you see some mustard (and have a visual experience of a sort that typically goes with seeing mustard), it’s clearly reasonable to believe that the fridge contains mustard.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Implicit Stereotypes and the Effortful Control of the Mind


This post is by Tillmann Vierkant (pictured above), who is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He works on mental actions, conscious will, self control, mindreading, and lots of other stuff in the philosophy of cognitive science. Here, he summarises a paper written with Rosa Hardt (pictured below), who also works in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and recently completed her PhD on the role of emotions in moral agency. 


Intuitively, we might want to say that what is special about our conscious beliefs is that they are conscious, because we can only use our rationality to deliberate about them if we are conscious of them. But this can’t be quite right by itself. We can obviously be conscious of other attitudes like gut feelings, phobias and implicit biases as well. However, as Levy argues, there is an important difference near by. While it is true that we can be aware e.g. of our spider phobia or our stereotypes about women this does not mean that we automatically thereby think that they accurately represent reality. On the contrary, we often notice phobias because they seem to force us to behave in ways that we think of as irrational and we are worried about implicit biases because we know that they make us behave in sexist ways we abhor without us even noticing. Conscious beliefs are special then not because we can be conscious of them, but because they express our view of the world as agents.

We argue, that unfortunately Levy’s argument does not work. We doubt that it is true that only conscious beliefs express our view of the world. There are cases like phobias where this seems convincing, but many similar attitudes are not like that. Famously, Huck Fin acts on a gut feeling against his moral judgment that he acquired growing up in a slave holder society, when he saves the runaway slave Jim. This is just one very prominent example of the general point. Gut feelings we cannot give reasons for even after deliberating might nevertheless express our view on the world.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Mental Capacity in Relationship

Camillia Kong is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent and Research Associate at the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford. She researches and has published on moral and political philosophical issues around the medico-juridical concept of capacity, mental disorder, and intellectual impairment. Her recent work also examines ethical issues around psychiatric genomics.



What should medical and legal professionals do when a person with intellectual impairment chooses to remain within an abusive and disabling environment? Should these professionals even be considering the difference between relationships and care environments which promote or disable the autonomy of individuals with a learning disability or mental disorder? Or is this paternalism gone one step too far?



In my new book Mental Capacity in Relationship: Decision-making, dialogue, and autonomy I explore these complex issues through the prism of mental capacity legislation in England and Wales and human rights conventions. Legal developments have revealed a number internal and external criticisms around the concept of mental capacity: in England and Wales medico-juridical professionals protect the right of autonomy of those who pass a legal functional test of mental capacity, but how this test should be interpreted is subject to internal debate.

Some legal judgments suggest an intrapersonal focus of mental capacity, whilst others indicate that the promotion of autonomy amongst those with impairments should have an interpersonal focus, where mental capacity will depend on the relationships and communities around the individual in question. Moreover, with the advent of the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), external critiques charge that the concept of mental capacity represents outdated, paternalistic, and discriminatory attitudes towards those with impairments, fundamentally designed to undermine their right of autonomy.

Both these internal and external critiques are addressed in my defense of a relational concept of mental capacity, where relationships and intersubjective dialogue have an important impact on the decisional capacity of individuals with impairments. In the book, I recommend caution against disposing with the concept of mental capacity as endorsed by the ‘will and preferences’ interpretation of Article 12 in the CRPD and further argue that mental capacity cannot be reducible to abilities ‘within one’s own head’, despite this pre-eminent understanding in both theory and practice. Core philosophical ideas that are operationalised within mental capacity law – such as rights, rationality, autonomy, and beneficence – need not presume an individualistic focus, but can be interpreted relationally.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Unencapsulated Nature of Episodic Memory



Johannes Mahr (pictured above) is a PhD student in the Department of Cognitive Science at Central European University in Budapest. His work centers on the question of how the capacity for complex forms of communication has shaped higher cognition in humans. During his PhD he developed a novel account of the nature and function of episodic memory, which focuses on its role in communication. You can read about it here.

We usually think that when we remember the past, we form beliefs based on whatever we remember. When you remember that you went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of champagne yesterday, you take yourself to believe that this is indeed what you did because you remember it. Similar to perception, it seems to us that remembering provides us with evidence on the basis of which we form our beliefs. In the case of perception it has been widely argued that the processes by which we perceive our environment are encapsulated from what we already believe. That is, just because you might believe that there is a bottle of champagne behind your computer screen, you will not suddenly perceive one when you walk around your desk. Rather, perceptual input will inform your higher-level beliefs so as to cause you to revise your mistaken belief about the location of the champagne.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

PERFECT 2017 Memory Workshop


On May 5th, Project PERFECT hosted our workshop at the University of Cambridge. In a previous post on the workshop, the individual talks were summarised, so the current post focuses on some of the common themes that emerged in the talks and discussion: (a) the active nature of episodic memory and its potential to generate knowledge; (b) the implications of the existence of observer memories; (c) the role of others in the generation of knowledge through episodic memory.




It seems obvious that we have knowledge of past episodes in our lives, but Kourken Michaelian and Dorothea Debus highlighted how humans are active in the process of forming our memories. This might seem to show that we cannot have knowledge through episodic memory because episodic memory systems do not passively represent the past. Michaelian discussed this point through the lens of work on the reconstructive nature of memory. In the cognitive sciences, it is now widely accepted that episodic memories are constructed from traces of information stored in memory. The process of construction involves activity from the person doing the remembering.

Debus focused on how people have to exert efforts to ensure that they remember a particular event, thinking, for example, What was it that I did last Sunday? Both Michaelian and Debus aimed to reconcile the activity involved in episodic memory with this memory producing knowledge. Michaelian argued that the reconstruction involved in remembering produces representations that are true to events as they occurred (even if they do not exactly replicate the experiences that people had of the events), so can produce accurate memories, and knowledge, of those events. Debus argued that as long as an active intervention does not interfere with the believer meeting epistemic norms, those that lead to accurate beliefs, the intervention does not prevent the formation of the memory leading to knowledge.



Relatedly, I argued that evidence of the activity involved in the formation of memory is not only consistent with memory systems producing knowledge, it provides reason for thinking that memory systems bring significant epistemic benefits. I discussed the idea that people actively construct memories and showed that this feature of human memory systems increases the chance of true beliefs belief formed about things other than past experiences.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning





This post is by Hugo Mercier, Cognitive Scientist (French National Center for Scientific Research) and co-author (with Dan Sperber) of The Enigma of Reason. In this post, he discusses the argumentative theory and refers to some of his most recent publications (1; 2; 3). 

It is easy nowadays to find long lists of biases (such as this one). In turn, these lists of biases have given rise to numerous attempts at debiasing. The popular system 1 / system 2 framework has been useful in framing these attempts at debiasing. System 1 would be a set of cognitive mechanisms that deliver quick, effortless intuitions, which tend to be correct but are prone to systematic mistakes. System 2 would be able to correct these intuitions through individual reflection. Teaching critical thinking, for instance, can then be thought of as a way of strengthening system 2 against system 1.

The problem is that, as Vasco Correia noted in a recent post, debiasing attempts, including the teaching of critical thinking, have not been quite as successful as we might like. He suggests that instead of trying to change individual cognition, we should manipulate the environment to make the best of the abilities we have.

Essentially, this is the point that Maarten Boudry, Fabio Paglieri, Emmanuel Trouche, and myself have made in a recent article. We ground our analysis in the argumentative theory of reasoning. According to this theory, reasoning is not a system 2 like homunculus that would be able to oversee other cognitive mechanisms. Instead, it is just another intuitive mechanism among many others. Its specificity is to bear on reasons: reasoning evaluates and finds reasons. By contrast, the vast majority of our inferences go one without any reasons being processed.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Self-Injury, Medicine and Society

This post is by Amy Chandler, a sociologist currently holding a Chancellor’s Fellowship in Health, through Arts, Design and Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. In this blog she introduces her book, Self-Injury, Medicine and Society: Authentic Bodies, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Find out more about Amy's research.




The book is the culmination of over 10 years research, and a much longer period of engagement and interest, in the practice of self-injury. In the book I focus on the different ways that people make sense of self-injury, through an analysis of accounts – or narratives – about the practice. 

Self-injury is commonly associated with mental ill-health, seen as ‘irrational’ or ‘impulsive’. As such, the ways in which self-injury is explained might be understood by some as an example of an ‘imperfect cognition’. People report injuring their bodies in order to make themselves feel better – how could this be possible? In the book, I explore the diverse ways that people attempt to explain, justify or excuse self-injury, highlighting the central role of broader cultural ideas about bodies, emotions, and medicine in shaping what can (and cannot) be said about self-injury.




One increasingly common way that self-injury is explained suggests that the act of injuring the outside of the body (usually via cutting) serves to ‘transform’ emotional pain into physical pain. This narrative rests on a number of assumptions: that ‘emotional’ and ‘physical’ pain are or can be separate; that, simultaneously, these potentially separate pains are irrevocably linked – since causing ‘physical’ pain affects the intensity or presence of ‘emotional’ pain.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Role of Epistemic Virtue in the Realization of Basic Goods


Anne Baril (pictured above) has research interests in ethics and epistemology, and is currently writing a book in which she argues for the moral and prudential importance of epistemic virtue. Starting in Fall 2017, she will be a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. In this post, she summarizes a paper she recently published in Episteme.

Folk wisdom holds that ignorance can be bliss. We’re happier not knowing how many germs are on our toothbrushes or how many calories were in that cupcake. Likewise for personality traits, such as being disposed to be too curious or too strict about the truth. The kind of person who is disposed to press her spouse to say what he really thinks about his attractive colleague is in for some hurt feelings. And without a degree of self-deception – about others, and about ourselves – wouldn’t we just be too depressed?

Sometimes the work of psychologists is put forward in support of the claim that self-deception is good for us, such as Taylor and Brown’s (1988) paper, in which they argue that there are ways of being systematically biased in one’s perceptions of oneself that are predictive of criteria traditionally associated with mental health, such as perceived and actual popularity among peers, and having more positive mood after success at a task and less negative mood after failure. Being the kind of person who cares too much about the truth, it seems, carries a heavy price tag.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Brain Architecture and Biased Beliefs


Today's post is by Christina Moutsiana (pictured above), who is Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Westminster. Her research focuses on perceptual and cognitive biases which she investigates using a variety of neuroscience tools, behavioural paradigms, and psychophysics. In this post she discusses some of her recent research on belief updating and brain architecture (see Moutsiana et al. 2015 for more details).

We make decisions every day, some of which are critical to our health and wellbeing. These decisions are driven by the beliefs we hold. But do we form beliefs in an accurate manner that allow us to avoid harm and maximize reward? Cognition is not impervious to error, especially when emotion comes into play. One of the most robust cognitive biases is asymmetric belief updating; the tendency for healthy individuals to alter beliefs about their future to a greater extent in response to good information compared with bad information.

Decision neuroscience research suggests that updating beliefs involves not only brain regions known to perform complex cognitive functions, but also key structures for emotion. I therefore wanted to know if individual differences in brain connectivity between these structures relate to biased belief updating. To investigate that I exploited DTI (diffusion tensor imaging) that enables tracking of neural pathways, together with the belief update paradigm (Sharot et al., 2011). The belief update paradigm allows us to compute individual differences in updating self-relevant beliefs about possible life events.

Let's imagine you hold a belief about the likelihood of having a bike accident. I provide you with evidence that this event is more likely than you had initially expected (bad news). I later ask you again how likely you are of have a bike accident, so that I can assess whether you had integrated the information I gave you to adjust your belief. I do the same with your friend. I can then calculate how you differ in your ability to update your beliefs and learn relative to your friend. Replicating previous findings, I found that people learnt better in response to good news than bad news.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

In this post, Colin Feltham, Emeritus Professor of Critical Counselling Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, and also an External Associate Professor of Humanistic Psychology, University of Southern Denmark, discusses his new book Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Some of his work that bears on similar themes includes Death (In The Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, in press); Anthropathology: the abiding malady of the species (In The Evolution of Psychopathology, in press); Keeping Ourselves in the Dark (2015); Failure (2012).




Although my academic and professional background was rooted in counselling and psychotherapy, my writing for the past ten years has also focused on what I call anthropathology (the principle of evolved, pervasive human pathology); on philosophies of failure and pessimism; on aspects of evolutionary psychology; and on the inescapably depressing features of human existence, most notably death.




In Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives I hijack the narrow psychological concept of depressive realism (DR) to look very broadly and pessimistically at human evolution and history, religion, philosophy, psychology and psychotherapy, socio-cultural phenomena, and science and technology. Undeniably, this book often adopts a stance that can be accused of grandiosity, grim cherry-picking and dogmatic negativity, but it is in line with the original claim that mild depressives are ‘sadder but wiser’ individuals.

It’s clear that DR is at odds with the cognitive behaviour therapy assertion that negative thinking is mostly erroneous and depressogenic. Indeed, much of my argument here is at odds with the essentially pro-life ethos of everything from religious faith, through philosophy and politics and everyday life.

I pursue the observation raised by the Buddha and later surfacing in philosophers like Schopenhauer, Cioran, Zapffe, Benatar and Brassier, that life is characterised by suffering, absurdity, and senescence, and is ultimately always annihilating. Some similar material is found in Ernest Becker and the terror management psychologists, and is certainly unmissable in writers like Giacomo Leopardi, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Foreign Language and Moral Judgment


Janet Geipel (pictured above) is currently a Postdoc at the VU University Medical Center Amsterdam. In this post, she summarises a paper she recently published in the journal Cognition, which is based on her doctoral studies at the University of Trento.

Imagine yourself in the following situation. You are standing on a footbridge next to a large man. Underneath the footbridge, a runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks and will soon kill 5 unsuspected workmen. But there is a way out. You could push the large man off the footbridge and onto the path of the runaway trolley. The person would die but the five workmen would be saved. Is it morally permissible to do so? Now consider what seems to be an insignificant variation. Instead of reading the story in your native language you read it in a non-native language that you understand well. Would this affect your moral evaluation?

Studies conducted by our research group and others suggest that it might. Overall, foreign language descriptions promoted higher moral permissibility ratings for this so-called “footbridge dilemma” than descriptions written in one’s native language. The most prominent explanation for this language effect is that the use of a foreign language attenuates (negative) emotions, facilitating colder, outcome-focused moral evaluations to surface. Another, possibly complementary explanation, is that foreign language directly prompts deliberative thinking, which in this context amounts to performing a cost-benefit analysis.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Human Sense of Smell


On Thursday 13 April 2017, a workshop organized at Columbia University by the Centre for Science and Society and the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America sought to explore an important and still partly unresolved question: How does our brain make sense of scents and flavors?


Importantly, a key goal of the exploration was to debunk some myths about the human sense of smell. Most notably, it targeted the view that our olfactory abilities are underdeveloped and lack cognitive significance. An eminent advocate of this proposition was Immanuel Kant, who wrote the following:
"Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems to be the most dispensable? The sense of smell. It does not pay to cultivate it or refine it at all in order to enjoy; for there are more disgusting objects than pleasant ones (especially in crowded places), and even when we come across something fragrant, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell is always fleeting and transient" (2006 [1798], 50-51)
The panel sought to bring together different perspectives to show how this view turns out to be incorrect and to investigate the human sense of smell in its many dimensions and from different angles. After some introductory remarks by David FreedbergPamela Smith, and by Ann-Sophie Barwich (who will present her new research on this blog in the next few weeks), it was philosopher Barry Smith who started by addressing the role of the sense of smell in perception and conscious experience.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Delusions and Responsibility for Action

Together with Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Matteo Mameli and Matthew Broome, I have written a chapter on delusions for a new volume on gradualism in psychiatry: Vagueness in Psychiatry, edited by Geert Keil, Laura Keuck and Rico Hauswald for Oxford University Press.

Matteo Mameli

In the paper we argue that it is difficult to distinguish pathological and non-pathological beliefs on the basis of their epistemic features. Then we consider some of the moral and legal implications of our thesis, focusing in particular on the role of beliefs in the attribution of moral responsibility and legal accountability for criminal actions that are motivated by those beliefs.

Ema Sullivan-Bissett
Delusions fail to meet many epistemic standards. It might look like they are not beliefs which are aimed at truth or governed by a norm of truth, that they are not responsive to evidence in the ways which ordinary beliefs typically are. But non-delusional beliefs also share such features. For instance, most people are vulnerable to positive illusions, considering themselves (and sometimes their romantic partners) to be above average, or better than most other people, when asked about positive traits and abilities. Moreover, people tend to exhibit unrealistic optimism about their future underestimating their likelihood of experiencing negative events, and overestimating their likelihood of experiencing positive events.

Matthew Broome


Here is another example: in self-deception beliefs include a motivational element which can involve the misreading or ignoring of evidence in coming to a belief. Consider the person who has the false and motivated belief that his wife is faithful. There may be evidence available to the person that his wife is unfaithful (he sees that she arrives home late, that she is uninterested in him, and so on). But he is highly motivated to believe that his wife is faithful.

The epistemic feature of delusions that is considered most distinctive—resistance to counterevidence—is actually a very common feature of beliefs. Once they adopt a hypothesis, people are very reluctant to abandon it, even when copious and robust evidence against it becomes available. Given that delusions share many epistemic features with non-delusional beliefs, are we justified in considering the presence of delusions as a sufficient reason to determine whether agents are morally responsible and legally accountable for their actions?

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Children, Grief and Depression

In this post I am interested in the depiction of mental health issues in books aimed at young children. There are two interesting books addressing the issue of what the depression of a loved one means for the children involved. The first is The Colour Thief, by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Wayland 2014). The second is Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault (Kids Can Press 2016).


 


There are some interesting similarities in how depression is described in the two books. In both books, the point of view is that of a child. In The Colour Thief, a boy observes his father as he gradually falls prey to depression. The father soon gets to the point where he does not go out anymore and stays in bed all day. In Virginia Wolf, a book inspired by the relationship between the author Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa, a child called Vanessa witnesses a curious transformation in her beloved sister Virgina. Virginia becomes, quite literally, a wolf.

Another common point is that depression is described as a change in a person's behaviour but also in the world around the person. In The Colour Thief the sky becomes grey and all other colours disappear as the boy's father's depression deepens. Depression stole all the colours from the world.
He said that all the colours had gone. Someone had stolen them away.
Similarly, in Virginia Wolf Virginia's mood changes, from happy to sad at the start of the story, and from sad to happy at the end of it, are presented as changes in light, from bright to dim and from dim to bright.
Up became down
Bright became dim
Glad became gloom
In both books the children witnessing depression want to do something to improve the situation and feel to some extent responsible for the changes their loved ones are experiencing. In The Colour Thief the son often wonders whether it is his fault that his father is sad, and in Virginia Wolf Vanessa tries everything in her power to make her sister feel better. There is an attempt to show what the effects of depression are on children who are sensitive and full of compassion.

Both books end with the people affected by depression "finding themselves again": they enjoy being outside after being locked inside, they desire closeness after avoiding all social contact. Father and son go for a walk, Vanessa and Virginia go out to play.




A book focusing on the lasting effects of grief is The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins 2010). In the story, a little girl who was full of curiosity and imagination decides to take her heart out of her chest and keep it in a bottle tied around her neck after her dad dies. All the curiosity and the imagination disappear from her life -- she lives in the same house, close to the same sea and the same stars that before filled her with wonder, but she experiences nothing at all.

I am not sure whether the book is supposed to be about depression, but seems to capture another important aspect of it in a way that is intriguing for children, and with illustrations so beautiful that take your breath away.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Aliens, Fairies, Donkey-Conspiracies: When Does Belief Break the Rules?


This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s main research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post, he talks about some recent work in epistemology.

On the basis of no evidence at all, Jo comes to the private belief that aliens from another planet are helping her navigate the social world. Without that belief, Jo would experience profound social anxiety, develop paranoid tendencies, and come to suffer worse delusions that would severely impact her ability to maintain her physical wellbeing, personal relationships, employment, and so on. With her belief, Jo does pretty well for herself.

Overall it is probably good Jo has this belief about aliens. There are certainly comparative benefits to having this belief. The overall quality of Jo's cognitions is improved by having this belief. She is closer to the truth, has fewer false cognitions, is better at predicting how others will respond, is better enabled to carry out her projects and everyday tasks, more accurately understands the mental states of others, and so on, than she would if she didn't have this belief about aliens.

This will be familiar to readers of this blog as a case of a flawed cognition which might be thought to be epistemically innocent in some important respects.

The question I am interested in is, epistemically speaking, was forming this belief about aliens the epistemically right thing to do? Or does it somehow go against what is epistemically allowed? This is a different way of understanding the idea of epistemic innocence than that used by the PERFECT team [e.g., 1, 2]. But, one way to be innocent is to have not broken the rules, to have done nothing wrong, to have stuck to what was allowed. 

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Melancholic Habits





In this post, Jennifer Radden, Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Massachusetts, introduces her new book: Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences.

When the process of writing a book is long and slow, as this was, one enters not entirely sure where one will end – or at least, expecting mind-change as the result of the process. For me, for this book, that change was considerable, and so incremental that it is hard to identify the moments it occurred or the sequences engendering it. Some of the befores and afters stand out, though.

I’d read Burton for years, and alluded to aspects of his Anatomy of Melancholy in earlier writing. But the recognition that it was possible to find a coherent model of mind and disorder (“disease,” in his pre-modern sense) implicatively related not to the actual detail of his remedies but to his remedial principles, emerged slowly as I worked through the first and second Partitions.




My unorthodox and ahistorical approach was itself part of the hindrance to seeing this coherence. I wasn’t sure, am still not, whether this is a legitimate way to approach any historical text. It certainly wouldn’t usually be. Yet the inchoate and elusive nature of the subject matter, combined with the sheer, bamboozling and distracting detail Burton willfully introduces at every turn, seemed to allow, and perhaps require, something unusual.

Then I stumbled on Christopher Tilmouth’s writing about the Anatomy, which seemed to support the idea that a partly-submerged foundation lies in there somewhere, from which a coherent picture can be discerned. To the extent that Tilmouth undertook that excavation, he seemed to see the picture as I did, moreover, although there was clearly much more journeyman work to be done, especially in tying the ideas about mind, body and disorder with the remedial end of things.

So: grateful and emboldened, although remaining cognizant that such cherry-picking was dangerous, and may be unwarranted, I continued. If it had a warrant, was my idea, then it was because despite the differences between melancholy then and today’s mood disorders, these conditions today are so little understood, so costly in terms of human suffering, so widespread and epidemic in their effects (depression is often said to be the “common cold” of mental disorders), that extreme measures might be permitted - and help, from any quarter, might be pursued. If there were even a chance that Burton may have hidden some answers in the Anatomy (however inadvertently), we may need to cut corners to find them.


Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Disbelief in free will and prosocial behaviours


My name is Emilie Caspar and I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences at Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. My work is mostly dedicated to understand what guides people’s decisions to perform actions that are morally acceptable or not. My current research focuses on the extent to which coercion influences the experience of being the author of one’s own actions and how this affects immoral behaviours. To achieve this goal, I combine techniques from both experimental psychology and cognitive neurosciences.

Most of us consider that we have “free will”, the power to make our own choices and to control our actions. This experience stems in part from the fact that our conscious experience of intention precedes the moment we act. Feeling ‘free’ greatly influences one’s own perception of individual responsibility: We say we are responsible for our actions if we “could have done otherwise”. Does this perception of responsibility influence moral behaviour? Many studies have highlighted the prosocial benefits of believing in free will. For instance, inducing a belief in free will reduces cheating behaviour and increases one’s willingness to make efforts. However, things are not that simple. Believing in free will has also been associated with stronger retributive attitudes towards others: if you judge that a person who committed a crime was truly free to decide how to act, then that person should be punished more severely than if there are mitigating circumstances that partially explain the crime.

In our recent study, we used a paradigm that engages morality in which two participants (the ‘agent’ and the ‘victim’) took turns to administer (or not) electrical shocks to each other in order to receive a small financial benefit. To study to what extent belief in free will influences the number of shocks delivered to the ‘victim’, we used an experimental manipulation known to induce disbelief in free will, — reading an excerpt that challenges the existence of free will (e.g, by claiming that human behaviour is totally determined by genetics). Half of our participants read such an excerpt; the other half read a neutral text without any mention of free will.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Arts and Science Festival 2017

Each year, the University of Birmingham hosts the Arts &Science Festival, a week-long celebration of research, culture and collaboration across campus and beyond. During the festival, those involved in different aspects of university life deliver a programme of concerts, exhibitions, screenings, talks and workshops around a common theme. This year’s theme “Land and Water” had us at project PERFECT thinking about perceptions of climate change, and in the following, I report on a lunchtime event that we hosted on this topic, in which we were joined by Ulrike Hahn (Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Birkbeck, below) and Anna Bright (‎Chief Executive at Sustainability West Midlands).


Why should those researching imperfect cognitions be interested in perceptions of climate change? Well, it turns out that the former frequently feature in, and shape, the latter. We see lots of things, beyond the consideration of climactic data, influence whether people believe climate change is happening. For instance, numerous studies show that people who are politically Conservative are less likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change than people who are politically Liberal (McCright and Dunlap 2011; Kahan et al. 2011). 

There are likely multiple reasons for this, but the discomforting dissonance that comes from (i) championing free market economics (as Conservatives tend to) and recognising the oil trade as a central feature of the global market, and (ii) acknowledging that reliance on oil is causing climate damage, probably plays a part in downgrading the credence placed in climate science. So, the tendency to irrationality in order to preserve consistency features prominently in climate perceptions, rendering this topic of interest to researchers of imperfect cognitions. You can watch a video of my talk here:


Ulrike Hahn gave our second talk, adding another layer to the narrative, by demonstrating that when people deliberate about whether or not anthropogenic climate change is happening, they’re rarely making this judgement on the basis of the scientific findings, but believing on the basis of the testimony of someone else. For instance, many people will read about climate science from a reporter writing in a newspaper, who may themselves only read executive summaries of climate science reports. Others still will be one further step removed, learning about climate science through what their friends have read in the paper. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Legitimate Lies: Omission, Commission, and Cheating


My name is Andrea Pittarello, and I am an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). I am mainly interested in behavioral ethics (e.g., cheating) and I seek to understand what leads people from all walks of life to bend the rules and serve their self-interest.

In a recent paper with Enrico Rubaltelli (University of Padova) and Daphna Motro (University of Arizona), we asked whether people are more likely to lie by withholding the truth (i.e., a lie of omission) or by actively breaking the rules (i.e., lie of commission). Imagine that you are selling your car and the engine is on its last legs. A lie of commission would be telling a potential customer that the engine works perfectly, whereas a lie of omission would be failing to mention the problem and let the customer find out about it on his own. From a utilitarian point of view, the two lies should be the same: After all, lying is always wrong, and the way it is brought about should not affect our judgments. However, philosophers and psychologists found that the two lies are considered differently by observers and by the law. To date, most of the work on omission and commission focused on moral judgment, and we know very little about how this distinction is reflected into actual cheating behavior.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Self-attribution Bias and Paranormal Beliefs

This post is by Michiel van Elk who works in the Religion, Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Amsterdam and is currently a Fullbright Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. He recently published a paper on the self-attribution bias and paranormal beliefs in Consciousness and Cognition. 



My name is Michiel van Elk and I am intrigued by religious and spiritual experiences. Why do some people have paranormal encounters? What causes people to experience the feeling that another invisible being is present? How do mystical experiences and feelings of transcendence come about? As a researcher working at the Religion, Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Amsterdam, I aim to answer these questions. I often go into the field to study religious experiences, but also conduct lab-based studies using a variety of different psychological and neurocognitive techniques.

Together with my colleagues we found for instance that mystical experiences can be induced through the use of an alleged God Helmet, capable of inducing such experiences. However, unbeknownst to our participants the helmet was actually a placebo device and all experiences that people reported were self-generated, based on prior expectations and by using sensory deprivation (i.e., participants were blindfolded and were wearing headphones on which white noise was presented). In another study we showed that when participants had a self-transcendent experience, their brain showed decreased activation in regions involved in self-referential processing. This indicates that a key feature of the awe-experience is a reduced focus and awareness of the self – in line with recent studies showing similar effects when participants used psychedelics (e.g., psilocybin).

In a recently published paper – also building on our earlier work - we were specifically interested in the psychological mechanisms underlying belief in paranormal phenomena (e.g., seeing auras, Tarot card reading, Psi etc.). We investigated to what extent believers in paranormal phenomena showed a tendency to take credit for positive outcomes in a game of chance. In the scientific literature this phenomenon is known as the self-attribution bias. It has been argued that the self-attribution bias reflects a motivated and adaptive tendency to maintain a positive image of oneself. Following the observation that many psychic believers often tend to attribute positive outcomes (e.g., ‘I found the partner of my life’) to a specific paranormal activity they undertook (e.g., ‘That must have something to do with me visiting the astrologist’), we hypothesized that psychics would be more willing to take credit for positive outcomes that were in fact determined by chance.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Interview with Thomas Sturm on the Science of Rationality and the Rationality of Science

In this post I am pleased to interview Thomas Sturm (pictured below), ICREA Research Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB) and member of the UAB's Center for History of Science (CEHIC). His research centers on the relation between philosophy and psychology, including their history. Here, we discuss his views on empirical research on human rationality.


AP: The psychology of judgment and decision-making has been divided into what appear to be radically different perspectives on human rationality. Whilst research programs like heuristics and biases have been associated with a rather bleak picture of human rationality, Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleagues have argued that very simple heuristics can make us smart. Yet, some philosophers have also argued that, upon close scrutiny, these research programs do not share any real disagreement. What is your take on the so-called “rationality wars” in psychology?

TS: Let me begin with a terminological remark. I would like to refrain from further using the terminology of “rationality wars”. It was introduced by Richard Samuels, Stephen Stich, and Michael Bishop (SSB hereafter) in 2002, and I have used their expression too without criticizing it. In academic circles, we may think that such language creates no problems, and I hate to spoil the fun. But because theories of rationality have such a broad significance in science and society, there is a responsibility to educate the public, and not to hype things. Researchers are not at war with one another. Insofar as a dispute becomes heated, if fights for funding and recognition play a role, then we should speak openly about this, tame down our language, and not create a show or a hype. We should discuss matters clearly and critically, end of story.

Now, I study this debate, which has many aspects, with fascination. It’s fascinating because they concern a most important concept of science and social life, adding fresh perspectives to philosophical debates that have occasionally become too sterile. And the debates are so interesting because they provide ample materials for philosophy of science.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Strategic Thinking, Theory of Mind, and Autism


My name is Peter Pantelis. I study “theory of mind”—our ability to reason about other people’s mental states. Years ago, I became interested in an economic game called the Beauty Contest, because I think it taps into theory of mind very elegantly:

You are going to play a game (against 250 undergraduate psychology students). Each player will submit a whole number from 0 to 100. The winner will be the player whose number is closest to 2/3 of the mean number selected by all the players.

What number do you submit?

(I’ll wait for you to think about it for a moment)