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Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), external critiques charge that the concept of mental capacity represents outdated, paternalistic, and discriminatory attitudes towards those with impairments, fundamentally designed to undermine their right of autonomy.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.

I am a sociologist, currently holding a Chancellor’s Fellowship in Health, through Arts, Design and Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. In this blog I introduce my book, Self-Injury, Medicine and Society: Authentic Bodies, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

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.
In terms of imperfect cognitions and cognitive error, from a global DR perspective drawing on insights from evolutionary anthropathology, I question the implicit assumptions of human progress (as does John Gray) and in doing so inevitably find fault with philosophy, politics and psychotherapy as salvational projects: all turn out to claim much more than they ever deliver, and hence are often dishonest and disappointing. 

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.

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)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Memories: Distorted, Reconstructed, Experiential and Shared

PERFECT 2017 Memory Workshop

We are very excited that on 5th May 2017 Project PERFECT will be holding its second annual workshop, at Jesus College, Cambridge. The workshop will feature leading experts in the field of philosophy of memory. The talks will focus on a wide-range of fascinating issues that dominate contemporary research on memory. The talks will be of interest to philosophers of mind, philosophers of psychology, epistemologists and psychologists, as well as other cognitive scientists interested in how we remember the past.  

Issues to be covered in the talks include how memory can generate knowledge; how false and distorted memories can be useful features of ordinary cognition; the nature of experiential memories; whether we can be immune from error due to misidentifying ourselves in a memory; and the role of shared memories in relationships. 

Many of the talks will have an interdisciplinary angle, highlighting how recent psychological research—e.g. on false and distorted memory, and dementia and grief—should impact on our understanding of human memory.

Two of the talks will focus directly on a concept at the very heart of Project PERFECT: i.e. epistemic innocence. This is the idea that some false and misleading cognitions bring epistemic benefits that could not be possessed in the absence of the cognitions.

Kirk Michaelian will examine the claim that memory can generate new knowledge. He will explore two views that are consistent with this claim, arguing that the views, when combined, support the claim that episodic memories (our memories of individual incidents) are misleading but in a way that makes them epistemically innocent.

On a similar theme, I will present work written in collaboration with Lisa Bortolotti showing that three memory distortions famously studied in the psychological literature can be explained in terms of the presence of cognitive mechanisms that are epistemically innocent.

Dorothea Debus will explore the nature of memories with experiential qualities. She will argue that we give this type of memory special weight, and she will illustrate how we are both passive and active with respect to these memories. We are active because we can prompt ourselves and others to remember events. We are passive because the memories often just come to us.

Jordi Fernández will examine the claim that one cannot have an inaccurate memory as a result of misidentifying oneself in the memory. He will consider how psychological research on observer memories (when people seem to recall a scene in which they featured from the perspective of an observer) and disowned memory might be taken to challenge the claim. Then he will respond to the challenge by drawing on the same psychological research to offer a positive view in support of the target claim.

John Sutton will focus on how the ways people have shared memories that are reflected in and can come to constitute specific close relationships. He will focus on both ongoing relationships and the end of relationships. He will draw on psychological studies on the role of memory in dementia and grief.

For more information about the workshop see here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Bounded Rationality Meets Situated and Embodied Cognition

This post is by Enrico Petracca (University of Bologna), who recently published a paper entitled ‘A cognition paradigm clash: Simon, situated cognition and theinterpretation of bounded rationality’ in the Journal of Economic Methodology. Enrico is involved in a project called ‘embodied rationality’, and pursued with his colleague Antonio Mastrogiorgio (University of Chieti-Pescara). The project aims to integrate the notion of embodied cognition within the framework of bounded rationality.

Bounded rationality has been a hard-to-digest notion in economics and the other social sciences since its introduction by Herbert A. Simon in the middle of the last century. How could ‘rationality’ be ‘bounded’? And – as a typically related concern – would this imply that social sciences should abandon any normative horizon, giving the way to an unappealable ‘irrationality’?

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Surfing Uncertainty

In this post, Andy Clark, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, introduces his new book: Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind.

Sometimes, we are most forcibly struck by what isn’t there. If I play you a series of regularly spaced tones, then omit a tone, your perceptual world takes on a deeply puzzling shape. It is a world marked by an absence – and not just any old absence. What you experience is a very specific absence: the absence of that very tone, at that very moment. What kind of neural and (more generally) mental machinery makes this possible?

There is an answer that has emerged many times during the history of the sciences of the mind. That answer, appearing recently in what is arguably its most comprehensive and persuasive form to date, depicts brains as prediction machines – complex multi-level systems forever trying pre-emptively to guess at the flow of information washing across their many sensory surfaces. 

According to this emerging class of models, biological brains are constantly active, trying to predict the streams of sensory stimulation before they arrive. Systems like that are most strongly impacted by sensed deviations from their predicted states. It is these deviations from predicted states (‘prediction errors’) that here bear much of the explanatory and information-processing burden, informing us of what is salient and newsworthy in the current sensory array. When you walk back into your office and see that steaming coffee-cup on the desk in front of you, your perceptual experience (the theory claims) reflects the multi-level neural guess that best reduces prediction errors. To visually perceive the scene, your brain attempts to predict the scene, allowing the ensuing error (mismatch) signals to refine its guessing until a kind of equilibrium is achieved.

Perception here phases seamlessly into understanding. What we see is constantly informed by what we know and what we were thus already busy (both consciously and non-consciously) expecting. Perception and imagination likewise emerge as tightly linked, since to perceive the world is to deploy multi-level neural machinery capable of generating a kind of ‘virtual version’ of the sensory signal for itself, using what the system knows about the world. Indeed, so strong is the tie that perception itself becomes a matter of what some theorists have called ‘controlled hallucination’.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Helpful Rationality Assessments

Hello, readers! I’m Patricia Rich, and I’m currently a philosophy postdoc on the new Knowledge and Decision project at the University of Hamburg. This post is about a paper stemming from my dissertation, entitled Axiomatic and Ecological Rationality: Choosing Costs and Benefits. It appeared in the Autumn issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

My paper defends a specific method of evaluating rationality. The method is general and can be applied to choices, inferences, probabilistic estimates, argumentation, etc., but I’ll explain it here through one example. Suppose I’m worried about my friend Alex’s beliefs regarding current affairs. Her claims often seem far-fetched and poorly supported by evidence. As rationality experts who want to help, how should we evaluate Alex?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Bias in Context Sheffield 2017

In this post Robin Scaife reports from the conference Bias in Context.

On the 25th and 26th of January 2017 the University of Sheffield hosted the 3rd in a series of 4 conferences on Bias in Context. This workshop was supported by the Leverhulme Trust as part of a research project grant on bias and blame. The previous two conferences in the series had focused on how to understand the relationship between psychological and structural explanations. This time the theme was Interpersonal Interventions and Collective Action. The goal was to look beyond individualistic approaches to changing biases and examine how interpersonal interactions and collective action can be used to combat bias.
Experts came from both Philosophy and Psychology and many of those attending also had practical experience of leading diversity training sessions.

The conference began with Dr Evelyn Carter (UCLA) giving a talk about her ongoing research into applying theories of motivation to confronting bias. She argued that it is crucial that we always confront bias because speaking up sets norms. Across a number of studies her research team have found that feedback drawing attention to and condemning bias makes people more favourable to anti-prejudice. Their research indicates that both high and low confrontation feedback can be effective in promoting change.

After lunch Dr Gabriella Beckles-Raymond (Canterbury) talked about developing an ethics of social transformation. She argued that we are more aware of our biases, and in particular what causes them, than is typically assumed. She argued that we cannot use ‘implicit’ as an excuse that we can’t act or our society as an excuse that we are powerless. Instead we must move away from a focus that sees bias as a problem for individuals, to be solved by individuals and use the ethics of empathy to address the deeper social, societal and structural problems.

Then Dr Robin Scaife (Sheffield) presented the findings from a series of experiments examining the effects of administering in person blame for implicit bias. The results indicate that, contra common assumptions about blaming increasing bias or making people resistant to change, the communication of disapprobation for the manifestation of implicit bias has potential benefits and no costs. Those who had been blamed showed similar or slightly reduced levels of implicit bias and had significantly stronger explicit intentions to change their future behaviour than those who had not. 

This was followed by Dr Rosa Terlazzo (Kansas State) who discussed the idea that victims have a duty to other victims to resist their oppression. She argued that if this duty is to end the harm caused by oppressive norms then this is beyond their power, but if the duty is merely not to contribute to the harms then this will do little to limit oppression. Terlazzo argued that instead we should understand victims to have a duty to act as counter-stereotypic individuals in order to weaken the self-regarding biases experienced by other victims and thereby mitigating but not ending the harms of oppressive norms.
The first day of the conference ended with drinks and dinner which provided a great opportunity for all participants to discuss and share their perspectives on bias. 

The second day of the conference began with Dr Yannig Luthra (UCLA) on social prejudice, co-authored with Dr Cristina Borgoni (Graz). He presented several arguments in favour of the claim that an individual counts as violating norms of epistemic and practical rationality directly in virtue of drawing from epistemic and practical problems in her social context. The central idea is that rational life is social in much the same way it is temporal. Your view can be an extension of the view of others in the same way it can be an extension of your own past perspective. In both cases one can be implicated for importing rational failings. However, the diagnosis of the wrong must ultimately be with the social sources of the individual’s bias.

Then Dr Joseph Kisolo-Ssonko, (Nottingham) talked about collective intentionality, bias and constituting a ‘we’. He argued that our capacity to think of ourselves as a ‘we’ is not the voluntary choice it is often presented as being. Instead it is underwritten by normatively loaded social and structural biases and power structures. Because of this he concludes that biases do not just cause us to act irrationally on a pre-existing social stage. Rather, they also found what counts for us as collectively rational.

Professor Sally Haslanger (MIT) gave the final talk of the conferenced titled: ‘If racism is the answer, what is the question?’ She claimed that racism is best understood as a homeostatic system where racism is constituted by the systematic looping of schemas and resources. Practices distribute things of value and disvalue but in turn we learn about what different races “deserve” by looking around us at the result of these practices. Haslanger argued that to end racism we have to stop the systematic looping by dismantle society as we know it and that in achieving this end changing attitudes should not be the highest priority because other methods of intervention are likely to be more efficacious.

The conferences concluded with Dr Jules Holroyd (Sheffield) and Dr Erin Beeghly (Utah) chairing a round table discussion. Much of the discussion focused on how to resist and combat the way that recent election results in both the USA and UK have been perceived as legitimising prejudice. Lacey Davidson (Purdue)  made the exciting announced that she has been awarded a Global Synergy Grant to transform Jenny Saul’s bias project website ( into an ongoing bias web resource. There were lots of promising suggestions for features which could make up part of this resource. Keep an eye out for developments on that front.

The fourth & final conference in the bias in context series will take place on the 12th and 13th of October at the University of Utah. The full program, details, and call for abstracts for the poster session, will soon be/is available at

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Problem of Debiasing

Vasco Correia (pictured above) is currently a Research Fellow at the Nova Institute of Philosophy (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), where he is developing a project on cognitive biases in argumentation and decision-making. In this post, he summarises a paper he recently published in Topoi.

This paper is an attempt to show that there are reasons to remain optimistic—albeit cautiously—regarding our ability to counteract cognitive biases. Although most authors agree that biases should be mitigated, there is controversy about which debiasing methods are the most effective. Until recently, the notion that critical thinking is effective in preventing biases appealed to many philosophers and argumentation theorists. It was assumed that raising awareness of biases and teaching critical thinking to students would suffice to enhance open-mindedness and impartiality. Yet the benefits of such programs are difficult to demonstrate empirically, and some authors now claim that critical thinking is by and large ineffective against biases.

Monday, 3 April 2017

What is Unrealistic Optimism?

This post is the final one in our series summarizing the contributions to the special issue on unrealistic optimism 'Unrealistic Optimism -Its nature, causes and effects'. The paper by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti and Bojana Kuzmanovic looks at the nature of unrealistically optimistic cognitions and the extent to which they are irrational.
Anneli Jefferson

We know that people have a tendency to expect that their future will be better than that of others or better than seems likely on an objective measure of probability. But are they really expressing a belief that the future will be good, or should we see these expressions of optimism as hopes or possibly even just expression of desires for the future? Maybe when I say ‘My marriage has an 85% likelihood of lasting ‘til death do us part’’, what I am actually saying is ‘I really, really want my marriage to last.’ If what is expressed is a desire rather than a belief, we do not need to worry that we are systematically mistaken in our beliefs in the future and that our expectations for our future are insufficiently sensitive to the evidence we have for what is likely to happen. In the paper, we argue that expressions of unrealistic optimism are indeed what they seem to be on the surface, beliefs about what is likely to occur. The fact that optimistic expectations are frequently not well supported by the evidence is a feature that they share with many other beliefs, as we humans are not ideally rational in our belief formation.

Lisa Bortolotti

By definition, unrealistic optimism is a phenomenon that shows us to be insufficiently in touch with reality. However, establishing that we are in fact making an error when assessing the likelihood of future outcomes is surprisingly difficult. In some cases, whether an expectation is correct or not can only be established post factum. Only at the end of the Euro 2016 could we say that Ronaldo’s belief that Portugal would win the European cup had been correct (if indeed he had this belief). Things are more complicated if what we know is that Ronaldo believed that Portugal had a 95% likelihood of winning the European cup. Is this belief validated by the fact that Portugal did win? Not necessarily, as his likelihood estimate may still have been too high given some objective measure of likelihood. Furthermore, it cannot be the case that probabilistic risk estimates are proven or disproven by later outcomes. Otherwise, any risk estimate which isn’t either 0 or 1 will automatically be incorrect, it is just impossible to say whether the error lay in being too optimistic or pessimistic before the actual outcome ensues.

Bojana Kuzmanovic

But the question of whether an individual’s optimistic beliefs are false is in many ways less pressing than the question whether the individual is justified in holding that belief given the evidence available to them. Are unrealistically optimistic beliefs epistemically irrational because they do not take into account available evidence either when the individual forms the belief or when they maintain their belief?