Thursday 29 December 2016

The Varieties of Self-Knowledge

Today's post is by Annalisa Coliva on her new book The Varieties of Self-Knowledge.

I am Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. My main interests lie in epistemology, philosophy of mind and the history of analytic philosophy.

The Varieties of Self-Knowledge (Palgrave 2016) is a sustained defence of pluralism about self-knowledge. I argue that, contrary to what behaviourists, several cognitive scientists, theory-theorists and inferential theorists have maintained in the last seventy years or so, there is an asymmetry between first- and third-personal self-knowledge. Hence, empirical studies that tend to show that we can be mistaken about, or ignorant of several mental states of ours do not in fact impugn the existence of first-personal self-knowledge. Rather, they show that the scope of first-personal self-knowledge is more limited than philosophers have thought. Hence, in many cases, we do know our own mental states in a third-personal way.

That is to say, we know our own dispositional mental states and character traits based on third-personal methods. By contrast, when we do know our occurrent phenomenal mental states, but also our intentions, passing thoughts, basic emotions, perceptions and commissive propositional attitudes, we know them in a distinctively first-personal way. Hence, in my view, both first- and third-personal self-knowledge are philosophically interesting and in need of explanation.

In particular, it should be recognized that the ways we gain third-personal self-knowledge are many and diverse. There is not just inference to the best explanation, starting with the observation of our own overt linguistic and non-linguistic behaviour and further inner promptings. There is also inductive inference, simulation, inferential conceptual deployment (or “hermeneutics”) and—last but not least—testimony. Indeed, we can get to know some of our dispositional psychological properties by trusting what other people tell us about ourselves.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Aiming at the Truth and Aiming at Success

In this post, Lubomira Radoilska (pictured above) summarises her paper "Aiming at the Truth and Aiming at Success", which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. The special issue is guest edited by Lisa Bortolotti and Ema Sullivan-Bissett and is inspired by project PERFECT's interests in belief. Lubomira has a new project on Reassessing Responsibility which underlies some of the themes in this post.

Are the demands we face as believers compatible with the demands we face as agents? In other words, is our aiming at the truth consistent with our aiming at success? Since our lives as believers and agents are inexorably intertwined, it seems vital to find out whether and how the normative requirements that apply to us as believers relate to the normative requirements that apply to us as agents.

Until very recently, theorists of normativity discussed the spheres of belief and action as though they were governed by two separate sets of norms with no significant overlap. Yet, on closer inspection, if the relationship between these two sets of norms remains unspecified, it is likely to result in practical contradictions for human beings, who are at the same time believers and agents and so are subject to both sets of norms. This is particularly the case when tracking the available evidence is interpreted as the only way of satisfying the most fundamental norm of belief, which is the truth norm.

I propose a new account, which enables us to resolve these contradictions by establishing the significance of believers’ own agency in satisfying the truth norm of belief, in addition to tracking the available evidence. On this account, there is a robust two-way connection between the requirements we are expected to meet as believers and the requirements we are expected to meet as agents. In sum, this means that it is o.k. to get it right by succeeding, i.e. to acquire a true belief in virtue of achieving one’s goal as an agent.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Relatedness and Relationship Workshop

On 12th September 2016, Zoë Boden and Michael Larkin organised a workshop on Relatedness and Relationship in Mental Health at Park House, University of Birmingham. Experts came from psychology, psychiatry, sociology, philosophy, mental healthcare professions, and there were also several experts by experience, that is, people with lived experience of mental distress and carers. The workshop was the output of a project funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation.

The workshop started with a brief introduction by Zoë and Michael who talked about the themes emerging from a previous series of workshop they had run on relatedness. They listed three:
  1. Relationships can be either good or bad for mental health
  2. Distributed recovery, where recovery is seen as a feature of a system and not of an individual
  3. The contract between independence and dependance, and how the latter gets a bad press.
Further overlapping themes were pictured in the diagram below, delegates discussed them in groups after the more formal presentations:

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Some Benefits of Rationalization

Jesse Summers (pictured above) is Adjunct Assistant Professor at Duke University, where he is also a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and a Lecturing Fellow for the Thompson Writing Program. In this post he writes about rationalization and some of its benefits, summarising his paper "Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Some Benefits of Rationalisation", which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. The special issue is guest edited by Lisa Bortolotti and Ema Sullivan-Bissett and is inspired by project PERFECT's interests in belief.

You really shouldn’t trust me. At the very least, you shouldn’t trust me when I tell you why I’ve acted.

Part of the reason you shouldn’t trust me is that I often—much more often than I realize—don’t know why I’m doing something. The neuroscientist tells you that my brain predisposes me to act. Psychologists, too, assume that many factors and forces move me—my mood, habits from my youth, my environment, etc.—and I cannot hope to understand the way all of them influence me. And our folk psychological explanations of each other’s actions change how we praise and blame each other: “I’ll tell you why she really cancelled her trip to see you…”

Not only am I ignorant, but, despite that, I confidently explain my own actions. I confidently and sincerely explain why I left my current job, though no one else believes the explanation. It’s not just the neuroscientist and the psychologist who doubt my explanation: so does everyone who knows me well.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Eighth Meeting of SEFA

The eighth meeting of the Spanish Society for Analytic Philosophy (SEFA) took place in Oviedo, Spain, from 10th–12th November, 2016. Over 70 speakers presented their research during the three-day conference, and here I summarise just some of the papers given on topics in the philosophy of mind and epistemology.

Juan Comesaña, of the University of Arizona, gave the first keynote talk, on rationality and falsity in belief and action. He proposed that some false beliefs can be rational. Consider, for instance, the pre-Einsteinian belief in the additivity of speed. There is a persuasive sense in which this belief was once rational, even though strictly speaking it is false. In defence of the notion that falsehoods can sometimes be rationally believed, Comesaña argued that rational action requires rational belief, and that we can sometimes act rationally on the basis of false beliefs. He demonstrated that this view survives translation into a traditional decision theoretic framework of credence ascription, and that when we update credences based on false propositions, we can be considered to be doing so rationally.

Matilde Aliffi, of the University of Birmingham, presented her research on the relation between the content of emotions and the content of appraisals. She argued that (i) the content of the emotion is not identical to the content of the appraisal which activated it, and (ii) the content of the emotion supervenes on the value presented in the appraisal. In defence of (i), Aliffi presented a range of situations in which the content of the emotion and the content of the appraisal appear to come apart. In defence of (ii), she demonstrated that which emotion is activated depends on the kind of appraisal that takes place.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Irrational Emotions and their Cognitive Impenetrability

Raamy Majeed (pictured above) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, and a member of the John Templeton Foundation Project ‘New Directions in the Study of Mind’. He is also a By-Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge.  In this post he writes about emotional recalcitrance. 

‘Irrational’ or ‘recalcitrant’ emotions are those emotions that are in tension with our evaluative judgements. For example, you fear flying despite judging it to be safe, you are angry at your colleague even though you know her remarks weren't offensive, and so on. Much of the present philosophical work concerning these emotions involves spelling out the precise nature of the conflict. Some argue that such emotions involve rational conflict, where subjects undergoing such emotions are endorsing two conflicting judgements, e.g. that flying is both safe and unsafe. By contrast, others argue that subjects are undergoing some other form of conflict, say endorsing a judgement that runs counter to an evaluative feeling, e.g. judging that flying is safe and yet feeling negatively towards it.

Thursday 8 December 2016

New Directions in the Philosophy of Memory Workshop

In this post Kourken Michaelian and Chloe Wall report from the workshop New Directions in the Philosophy of Memory.

Funded by a generous grant from the University of Otago's Division of Humanities, researchers from Australasia and Europe gathered in Dunedin, New Zealand on 25-26 October 2016 for a workshop on New Directions in the Philosophy of Memory. The workshop, organized by Kourken Michaelian, was the second of two events linked to a planned book—edited by Michaelian, Dorothea Debus, and Denis Perrin—featuring papers describing new lines of research in this burgeoning field; the first was held at the University of Grenoble earlier in 2016 as part of a broader interdisciplinary event.

The two days of the workshop included eight talks. On the first day, Kourken Michaelian’s “Confabulating, misremembering, relearning: The simulation theory of memory and unsuccessful remembering” argued against taxonomies of memory errors that are based on the causal theory of memory. The talk then developed an alternative taxonomy based on the simulation theory of memory.

Denis Perrin's “The procedural nature of episodic memory” showed that accessing declarative (especially episodic) memory requires skills held in procedural memory. It is therefore mistaken, he argued, to distinguish sharply between declarative and procedural memory, when in fact, procedural memory enables declarative memory.
André Sant’Anna, in “Thinking about events: A pragmatic account of the objects of episodic hypothetical thought”, argued that a pragmatist approach can help to distinguish memory from other forms of episodic hypothetical thought. In particular, he claimed, we can determine whether a given episodic hypothetical thought qualifies as memory by considering the habits of action that it recruits.

Finally, Jordi Fernández, in “Functionalism and the nature of episodic memory”, pointed to a number of problems for existing causal and narrative theories of remembering. The talk then developed an alternative functionalist theory designed to avoid these problems.
The first day of the workshop was followed by a public talk, delivered by John Sutton, on “Situating cognitive futures (and pasts): Small groups and shared histories”.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Irrationality and Pathology of Beliefs

This post is by Eisuke Sakakibara (pictured above), psychiatrist working at The University of Tokyo Hospital and a graduate student of Graduate School of Medicine, The University of Tokyo, Japan. In this post he writes about recently published paper entitled “irrationality and pathology of beliefs” published online in Neuroethics, and its significance for his long-term project in philosophy of psychiatry.

Delusions are an oft discussed theme in philosophy of psychiatry. The most cited work on delusions is Lisa Bortolotti’s Delusions and other irrational beliefs, in which she discussed whether delusions are appropriately construed as a kind of belief.

I assume delusions are beliefs in order to concentrate on another problems about delusions: psychiatrists ponder on whether delusions indicate underlying grave illness, because irrational beliefs (or belief-like mental states) are not always symptoms of illness. Those with pathological delusions do not recognize their delusions as symptomatic of illness. However, differentiating pathological beliefs from normal irrational beliefs is vitally important: If a belief is pathological, psychiatrists must seriously consider treating the patient against her will. If it is not pathological, conversely, involuntary treatments are prohibited because they offend her basic autonomy

Pathological irrational beliefs are distinguished from non-pathological ones by considering whether their existence is best explained by assuming some underlying dysfunctions. Dominic Murphy asserted that the pathology of delusions rest in their uniqueness and un-understandability of their progression. I basically agree with Murphy, and supplemented four other features from which to infer the pathological nature of irrational beliefs: coexistence with other psychophysiological disturbances and/or concurrent decreased levels of functioning; bizarreness of content; preceding organic diseases known to be associated with irrational beliefs; treatment response to medical intervention.

Monday 5 December 2016

Positive and Negative Implications of the Causal Illusion

This post is by Fernando Blanco (pictured below) who recently wrote a paper entitled, Positive and Negative Implications of the Causal Illusion. The paper is to appear in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on unrealistic optimism, guest edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic.

Imagine you are one of the participants in the classic experiment conducted by famous researchers Lauren Alloy and Lynn Abramson in 1979. You sit in front of a device with one button and one lightbulb. Your task is to determine whether you can control the light onset. What would you do? If you are like most people, you would try pressing the button to see if the light comes on. Then, you would realize that pressing the button is very often followed by the light onset. After a series of trials, you would likely feel sure that you are effectively controlling the light with your button-pressings.

In fact, the researchers set up the experiment so that the light came on randomly, regardless of whether the button was pressed. Still, the many (yet fortuitous) coincidences between your actions and the light onset created a powerful belief that the light was under your control. This is an instance of a cognitive bias called “the causal illusion”, which consists of believing that one event is capable of causing another, when they are actually unrelated. Crucially, this is not a psychological disorder; it is just the way our cognitive system works.

In a recent paper, I have reviewed some of the consequences of developing causal illusions. This cognitive bias can clearly entail negative consequences. For instance, it has been proposed to underlie many irrational beliefs such as pseudomedicine usage. If people keep using ineffective treatments, but their health eventually improves (for reasons different from the treatment), the illusion would create a strong, but mistaken, belief that the treatment works, which can be dangerous. Other experiments link the causal illusion to additional negative outcomes, such as paranormal (superstitious) belief and pathological gambling.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Cognitive Decline: Presentations and Representations

In this post, Valeria Motta reports from the workshop Cognitive Decline: Presentations and Representations.

The event took place at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, and was jointly organized by students from Biomedical and Natural Sciences and students from Liberal Arts of the University of Birmingham. The event was offered under the initiative called Café Culturel.

This initiative proposes multidisciplinary discussions on topics of current interest from the arts and the sciences which emerge from the cultural offerings in and around the area of Birmingham. Expert panellists are invited to give 10 minute presentations after which there is room for questions and discussion with the audience. The events are open not only for students but also for the general public; and the talks are meant to reach such wide audience.

In October, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented King Lear on Stratford-upon-Avon. On the occasion of this visit, the event Cognitive Decline: Presentations and Representations proposed a discussion on the topic of how neurodegenerative diseases are represented in the arts and in the clinical sciences. 

Neuroscientist Emil Toescu explained that King Lear has been regarded by the critics as a tragedy of a powerful figure whose material and mental world fall apart piece by piece, and that Lear’s journey could be interpreted an acute depiction of the behavioural changes associated with the cognitive decline produced by degenerative mental diseases.

One of the members of the panel was Dr. Femi Oyebode, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and Consultant Psychiatrist for Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust. Oyebode provided conceptual precision on mental disorders, and talked about what he thinks psychiatrists, Shakespeare and theatre audiences share.

Oyebode explained that dementia is set of symptoms caused by a degenerative brain disease which is progressive and impairs the cognitive domain of the brain. He then distinguished dementia from delirium in that dementia features certain awareness. When asked, Oyebode described the state of awareness as some sort of ‘insight’ which is different from what could be described as a conscious state.

Oyebode's last book Madness at the Theatre investigates the representations of psychiatric disorder(s) in the western theatrical arts from ancient till present times. Oyebode talked about how both psychiatrists and dramatists are concerned with describing and portraying extreme mental states. He explained that Shakespeare’s description of Lear’s awareness of his own cognitive decline is a good example of descriptive psychopathology of the disintegrative disorder in theatre.

Oyebode drew attention to the interesting fact that there was something that made the play be understood and attractive to audiences in the early 600s even when his audience lacked the expertise in disintegrative disorders that have nowadays. Oyebode called this a ‘prior understanding’ which could possibly be explained by Shakespeare using the same system of meaning (perhaps linguistic frame) that his contemporaries were using. 

Tuesday 29 November 2016

The Subjective Perspective in Introspection

This post is by Léa Salje (pictured above), who recently started a lectureship at the University of Leeds, where she was previously a postdoc on the AHRC-funded project Persons as Animals. Léa works in the philosophy of mind on questions about what thought is like, and in particular on questions about self-conscious thought about ourselves. Here she asks, what can the schizophrenic delusion of thought insertion tell us about how we ordinarily find out about ourselves through introspection?


A lot of my work revolves around the notion of immunity to error through misidentification (IEM), and so does this paper. For those with more of a nodding acquaintance with IEM, I have a dim suspicion that it can come across as a slightly fussy notion that threatens to plunge those working on it into ever deepening levels of obscurity, and that refuses to wear its interest on its sleeve. So let me first say something why it’s important.

Roughly speaking, your judgment is IEM when you can’t have got things wrong about what your judgment is about. For example, my visual-demonstrative judgment that pen is leaking might be wrong in all sorts of ways. Maybe it’s not leaking – maybe it’s just a shadow. Or maybe it’s not even a pen, but a novelty marzipan sweet shaped like a pen. But there’s one way it can’t go wrong. It can’t be that I know that something is a pen and leaking, and fail to know that it’s that, the thing I’m looking at. My judgment is IEM.

Why is this important? Clearly, not because of the error we’ve just ruled out. We don’t exactly go around worrying that our demonstrative judgments might be mistaken in this way, and then breathe a collective sigh of relief when the IEM-workers assure us they can’t be. The interesting thing, rather is why that error is ruled out. In our example, it’s because I’m already thinking of the pen in a perceptual-demonstrative (or ‘that’-ish) sort of way. This means that I don’t have to do anything else to form a ‘that’ judgment about it – and in particular, I don’t have to identify the thing that I’m thinking of in the ‘that’-ish way with something I’m thinking of in a different way. (As I would have to if, for example, I instead formed the judgment that Ali’s pen is leaking – in which case I would have to make a kind of cognitive leap between that thing I’m looking at, and the pen I’ve seen in Ali’s pencilcase). So the IEM of the judgment tells us something about the way I’m thinking of the judgment’s object.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Mind Network Meeting 2016

On Friday 21st October, a meeting of the Mind Network was held at the University of Sheffield on the topic of “Action: Knowledge, Emotion, and Commitment”. The meeting was organised by Luca Barlassina and was sponsored by the Hang Seng Centre for Cognitive Studies. In this post I give a brief overview of the three talks given at the meeting.

John Michael, Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick and Affiliated Researcher at the Central European University, gave the first talk, on “The Sense of Commitment”. Whilst the phenomenon of commitment is a cornerstone of human social life, it is not well understood how people identify and assess the level of their own and others’ commitments, nor what motivates them to honor commitments. The aim of his talk was to try and fill in this gap. 

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Elliot Aronson on Hypocrisy

Today's post is by Elliot Aronson (pictured below), Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, and author of The Social Animal and Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), with Carol Tavris.

Social psychologists define hypocrisy as behaving contrary to one’s values or beliefs; in common vernacular, it can be defined as the failure to practice what one preaches.

I think that just about everybody wants to see themselves as a person of integrity. It is a very powerful desire that transcends individual differences due to age, gender, race, socio-economic status, and nationality. This quest to maintain a self-image of integrity is quite touching; at the same time, it often distorts our memory or causes us to stretch to find justifications for actions that might appear hypocritical. Thus, it is far easier to see hypocrisy in others than it is to see it in oneself. If there are individual differences they lie not in the ability to behave hypocritically, but in the ability either to blind oneself to our past behavior or to find ways justify our behavior which unbiased observers might judge to be hypocritical.

People will attempt to defend against seeing themselves as hypocrites through forgetting, compartmentalization, or some form of self-justification. To take one example from contemporary American politics, whenever journalists have confronted Donald Trump about having said something in the recent past that contradicts his current position, he will frequently respond by denying that he ever said that—even though video tape exists of his having said it on national TV—just a week or two ago. Politicians usually avoid telling outright lies that can easily be exposed via video. Accordingly, I am convinced that Trump was not deliberately lying but that he actually did forget that he said the very thing that he now denies having said.

When motivated forgetting fails, people will try to invent reasons that justify their actions. For example, in Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience, he showed that two thirds of his subjects gave what they believed to be near lethal electric shocks to an innocent person in obedience to an authority figure. These people generally regarded themselves as decent human beings. When interviewed afterward, often justified their behavior by claiming that they had no choice because they had committed themselves to participating in the research. Therefore they felt obliged to continue administering shocks—even though they firmly believed they were harming the victim. In addition, many actually convinced themselves that their victim, in some obscure way, deserved what he got.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Relatedness and Relationships: an Interview with Zoë Boden

In this post I interview Zoë Boden (pictured below) on the project she led on ‘Relatedness & Relationships in Mental Health’ which ran from July 2015 to September 2016, funded by the Independent Social Research Fund Flexible Grants for Small Groups.

LB: What were you hoping to achieve with the Relatedness and Relationship in Mental Health project? Do you think the project was successful? 

ZB: This project drew together a range of different disciplinary perspectives to reconsider the role of relationships in the mental health context. We started from the premise that this topic was deceptively simple, and had been overlooked, ignored or denied in much mental health practice, policy and research. Therefore we felt it was ripe for revisiting with an emphasis on both complexity and lived experience.

The project led by myself (Psychology, London South Bank University) and Dr Michael Larkin (Psychology, University of Birmingham) brought together a fantastic group of interdisciplinary researchers and clinicians: Prof Jacqui Gabb (Sociology, Open University), Dr Rex Haigh (Consultant Medical Psychotherapist, Berkshire NHS Trust), Dr Donna Haskayne (Clinical Forensic Psychologist, Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust), Dr Michael Clark (Social Policy, London School of Economics), Prof Jerry Tew (Social Work, University of Birmingham), and yourself (Prof Lisa Bortolotti, Philosophy, University of Birmingham). Members of the core team met for three workshops, each looking at case material and experiential qualitative data.

In September, we held an invited event attended by 38 service-users, carers, and mental health staff working in a variety of services including, psychiatrists, peer-support workers, third-sector employees, and psychologists. There were also a range of academics present, alongside the core group. We had presentations from Jacqui Gabb on mental health and long-term relationships, Donna Haskayne on being the carer of someone in a forensic service, and myself on my research on young people, psychosis and their important relationships. 

Additionally, the funding enabled us to invited Dr Anne Denhov from the University of Stockholm to present on her research on how service-users manage the psychiatrist-patient relationship. We also held six thematic group discussions on the themes of ethics, intimacy, trust, reciprocity, companionship, and caring. These involved some lively debate. At the end of the event, Jerry Tew, Michael Clark, Michael Larkin and you summed up the event and thought about ways forward in a reflective panel.

LB: How do the themes of the project intersect with your own current research? 

ZB: A range of themes developed out of this project, including ‘rights and power’, ‘complexity’ and ‘identities’. We were reminded how incredibly rich this theme is, and how under-researched it has been. With others, I have been involved in a programme of work about relational experiences and their intersection with mental health. My current empirical work, ‘Disrupted relationships: Connectedness, Psychosis and Emerging Adulthood’, certainly intersects with the ideas emerging from this project. 

Going forward, I am interested in thinking more deeply about how and when services intervene in service-users’ relational lives. To this end, Michael and I have applied for some more funding to explore these ideas empirically. In the future, I’m also interested in thinking a little more critically about why these choices are and aren’t made.

The project has also made connections with previous work I have been involved in, particularly the work I have done about trust and intersubjectivity in the context of suicidal experience, and the work that Michael and I have published on involving service-users and carers in co-designing mental health services.

LB: Why do you think that the theme of relationships and their importance for mental health have been neglected by researchers so far?

ZB: Whilst this topic hasn’t been entirely neglected, it has not been given the same degree of attention that other factors in mental health have done. Of course, there has been a lot of work in particular domains – for example attachment, family therapy, or the therapeutic relationship. There is now though also an emerging literature collecting the lived experiences of carers, friends and family members of people with mental health difficulties, specifically focusing on what it is like to be the friend/partner/family member of that person. 

There is less research on how service users themselves experience their relational lives in this context. There are many areas of mental health that impact on relational experience and these all need exploration. For example, I have a PhD student, Sarah Bögle, who is going to be exploring the relational impact of taking psychiatric medication.

LB: What do you think are the implications of your work, and the work of your collaborators on this project, for mental health services?

ZB: Services and mental health policies are starting to think more concretely about the relational lives of the people who use their services, but cultures shift slowly. Relationality is complex and ‘messy’ (another reason why research might be slow in this area) and there is a lot of uncertainty, fear and resistance to considering the whole relational network and all aspects of relationality (consider sexuality for example, an area where issue of risk are particularly relevant. 

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Michael

I’m really looking forward to this next phase of PERFECT. Lots of things are now developing which tie in really well with work that I have been doing with some of our network members, with our PhD students, and with my wider research.

One important theme for me is ‘relatedness’, and I’ll focus on that aspect here, because it connects several areas. This Thursday, network member Dr Zoë Boden will say more in her post about the ISRF ‘Relationships and Mental Health’ project which we have been developing. Zoë and I are involved in a number of research projects exploring people’s experiences of relationships and mental health.

Some of these are exploring individuals’ perspectives on their own relational networks (asking, ‘who talks to whom about what?’ and ‘who does what with whom?’) and others are focused on understanding a shared difficulty (such as psychosis) from the perspectives of several members of the same family or system.

Through the ISRF network events, we’ve been sharing what we’ve been learning with colleagues from other disciplines with similar interests, and with service-users and service-providers, and they’ve been doing likewise. These discussions have set up some really helpful ways of thinking about the work we’re doing in PERFECT. For example, our new doctoral researcher, Valeria Motta, has written this month about her interests in the topic of loneliness, and how her PhD will explore this emotion with a particular focus on the accuracy of emotional perception.

I’m enjoying working with Valeria on this. She brings a phenomenological perspective to her work, which resonates with my own approach. I think that the focus on ‘emotional knowledge’ is very timely, from a psychological point of view. As Valeria says, referring to the perceived-received support literature, ‘Researchers have argued that it would not make a difference whether an individual actually has social connections, what is important is whether she/he feels she/he has them’ [my emphasis].

This is really interesting to me, because what we’ve been seeing in our wider discussions in the ISRF events is that perceived support probably is connected to received support, but perhaps not through the expected route of explicitly supportive, problem-focused behaviours. That is, the things that one might expect to constitute actual support (people stepping in and getting involved when there is a ‘problem’) are not the things which our research participants primarily focus upon. Instead, in our data from various projects, we see lots of evidence that people especially value the everyday behaviours which simply maintain and foster a sense of connectedness.

Thursday 10 November 2016

Interview with Steve Cole on Loneliness

In this post I interview Steve Cole Professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at David Geffen UCLA School of Medicine.

VM: Loneliness has been characterized in reference to feelings of distress and dysphoria resulting from a mismatch between a person’s desired and achieved levels of social relations. In some of your latest papers you suggest that the experience of loneliness is not a uniquely human phenomenon but that, as any other adaptive predispositions, it can be found across phylogeny. In what sense can we say that animals desire social relations and experience loneliness? 

SC: We begin by assuming that certain experiences are privileged to human beings but the more we understand about how human experience arises from the way the brain works, the more we find that there are small or vestigial versions of even the most esoteric human experiences in other animals. Most animals, for example monkeys and mammals, broadly speaking, are to some extent, social. They often have to interact with one another to reproduce, to raise the young. Often they have social strategies beyond just those simple biological processes that involve group defence, group signalling and pack behaviours for defensive purposes or to coordinate on resource acquisition. 

So clearly there is a sociality to animals, even relatively simple animals and I think where people might say there is something distinctive for humans is the way we think about that or the emotional experiences we have. It is difficult to say that these things don’t happen in animals because we cannot talk to animals and understand their emotional states. So, before we knew how emotional systems work or even how social processes affect the body it was easy for us to think that this was distinctive for human beings. Both human and animal research in which social preference is tested illustrate the importance of the discrepancy between conspecific preference and realized social condition. (See here.) 

What we are now coming to believe is that what is distinctive is not necessarily qualitatively distinctive. In other words, animals might have simple versions of many of the kinds of processes that human beings have more elaborate processes of. That’s why looking at loneliness in monkeys does make some sense. When John Cacioppo talks about loneliness, he distinguishes the experience of isolation or whether there is another individual around or not. That’s a description of the external circumstances and those external circumstances are undoubtedly perceived by an animal. But what kind of meaning gets added to that perception is the part that’s probably sort of qualitatively different from human beings.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Valeria

I am excited to join project PERFECT group of brilliant researchers and the stimulating research community at the Philosophy department of the University of Birmingham.

My contribution to project PERFECT will come from my research on the experience of loneliness. I am also interested in crowd emotions and in exploring up to what extent we can talk about shared emotions. This year I will focus on investigating the possibility of talking about ‘inaccurate emotions’ and whether these could carry any epistemic value. Emotions may be the result of an embodied engagement with others and the world and cognition may play a fundamental role in this interaction. A preliminary hypothesis is that just as cognitions, emotions can be erroneous or 'inaccurate'. The experience of loneliness is especially relevant because it has been defined as depending on a particular individual’s perception of the social environment and the world. Researchers have argued that it would not make a difference whether an individual actually has social connections, what is important is whether she/he feels she/he has them. Analysing loneliness can be useful for answering the question of whether there are ‘inaccurate emotions’ which are connected to erroneous cognitions and whether there is any value in these misperceptions.

I was recently awarded my MA in Philosophy of Biology and Cognitive Science. My dissertation was on the phenomenon of thought insertion in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia. I analyzed the canonical comparator model for explaining ownership and agency of thoughts. One of the ideas I argued for was that some features of the experience of thought insertion appear in patients’ reports but are overlooked in current theories. Contrary to what most of the theories propose, the reports show a sense of agency which is intact at the higher-order self-awareness. The reports also express a lack of sense ownership of the inserted thought but this lack of ownership is experienced together with a feeling of absence of possession and a feeling of intrusion. These experiences not only are cognitive but also involve bodily sensations.

Monday 7 November 2016

The Illusion of Moral Superiority

Today's blog is by Ben Tappin (pictured below), a PhD student at the Morality and Beliefs Lab, Royal Holloway, University of London. Part of his research focuses on moral cognition as it relates to the self and others; in particular, how our moral beliefs affect social perception, attitudes, and behaviour.

Suppose you asked a group of people to judge how much they, and how much the average person, possessed certain desirable and undesirable traits. A large majority would likely respond that they possess desirable traits to a greater extent, and undesirable traits to a lesser extent, than the average person. This self-other difference is widely reported, and constitutes the basis of an extensive field of research into the phenomenon of “self-enhancement”—the tendency for individuals to positively inflate their own characteristics relative to their evaluation of others’ characteristics. A large amount of this evidence indicates that self-enhancement is strongest and most widespread for distinctly moral traits—almost everyone believes they are fairer, more honest, and more trustworthy than the average person.

An influential theory advanced in the late 1980’s argued that self-enhancement arises from an inaccurate perception of reality—that is, overly positive self-beliefs are illusory—but they persist because of their beneficial effect on psychological wellbeing. This theory of “positive illusions” specifically contends that such beliefs are disconnected from reality, positively exaggerated, and may thus be considered irrational. 

The problem with inferring irrationality on the part of self-enhancing individuals is that it is, in fact, rational, to make less extreme judgments of what the “average person” is like, compared to judgments of what oneself is like. After all, I have more information about myself than about this ill-defined and anonymous other. As such, what looks like self-enhancement—rating oneself better than average—may be a by-product of rationally cautious judgments of the average person.

In a recent study, we adapted a new method to tease apart the rational and irrational components of self-enhancement across different domains of social evaluation. We were interested in seeing whether (a) self-enhancement was in fact most irrational in the moral domain, after partialling out the rational component, and (b) if so, whether this “illusion of moral superiority” was associated with self-esteem—as the theory of positive illusions would predict.

Thursday 3 November 2016

On Dissociative Identity Disorder: an Interview with Michelle Maiese

In this post, Magdalena Antrobus, PhD student on Project PERFECT, interviews Michelle Maiese (pictured above), Associate Professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel College, whose recent work centres on dissociative identity disorder.

MA: How would you describe Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)?

MM: It formerly was known as multiple personality disorder. Although theorists sometimes describe DID as a case in which two or more subjects inhabit a single body, I find it more plausible to suppose that it involves a single individual who suffers from delusions surrounding identity.

Young children who develop DID experience extreme conflict that seems incapable of resolution and which concerns emotional needs to which they feel deeply attached. Suppose that Sue endures some sort of abuse at the hands of her mother. She develops strong feelings of anger or hatred toward her mother, but also loves her mother and wants to have a close relationship with her. Consistency demands that she modifies or abandons at least one of these stances.

But suppose that Sue is five years old. Because she is so young, she does not yet have a stable sense of self, nor has she developed an ability to manage inner conflict. It is possible that Sue will begin to dissociate and will hand off some of her mental states to different alter-personalities as a way to cope with inner discord. Suppose that over time, dissociation becomes Sue’s habitual coping mechanism and whole chunks of experience become split off from her conscious awareness. This ultimately leads to delusions of disownership: Sue ascribes some of her own mental states to a separate alter-personality, whom she regards as a separate person.

MA: What cognitive processes are involved in the formation of dissociated identity?

MM: Dissociation is central to this disorder. There is a disruption to the usual integration of mental states and processes and certain mental states are blocked from the subject’s self-reflective awareness. The sort of dissociation found in DID can be understood in terms of compartmentalization: there is an attempt to establish boundaries between various aspects of self, so that some mental states are detached from the subject’s psychological history.

Dissociation actually is quite common, and even ordinary subjects use it as a way to cope with their surroundings, e.g., in the form of behaviors they can perform without thinking or paying attention to them. Most of us also compartmentalize on a regular basis. For example, I have a fight with my partner in the morning, but then I have to go to campus and teach my classes. While I’m teaching, I set aside the memory of the argument I and the negative feelings it evoked. Like other defense mechanisms, this kind of compartmentalization can be understood as a way to avoid facing up to a particular subject matter. The difference is that in my case, these mental states remain easily accessible. When classes are over, I likely will start thinking about the argument again. But in cases of DID, the barriers that are erected are much more pronounced. The subject ascribes these mental states to separate selves as a way to hide her ambivalence from herself.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Magdalena

My research focuses on epistemic and pragmatic benefits of depression. More specifically I investigate whether experiences related to depressive illness such as low mood, negativity bias or delusions might have implicit or explicit beneficial outcomes for the subject.

It is widespread news that depression constitutes a modern epidemic. It relates to individual suffering, distorts one’s cognitive, emotional and behavioural processes, and sometimes leads to suicide. However, the results of more recent psychological studies indicate that the experience of depression might be linked to particular benefits for the subject as well as to pain and despair.

I spent my first two years on PERFECT researching epistemic and psychological benefits of low mood and depressive delusions. Low mood occurring in mild and moderate forms of depression is linked to more accurate judgements about the self and self-related circumstances. In the view of trade-off accounts this means that the epistemic benefit of more realistic judgements is achieved at the price of well-being: something has got to give. However, according to empirical research, it is possible for the subject to be psychologically better-off despite other psychological costs. For example, the phenomenon of defensive pessimism, understood as using own anxiety in order to improve performance, seems to be more effective in people suffering from low mood rather than in controls. The experiences such as low mood are linked to psychological suffering, but at the same time they have the potential to make us psychologically better.

The other topic I have been working on relates to depressive delusions. Are there any delusions in depression? If so, how are they different or similar to those occurring in schizophrenia? What role may they play in a personal life story? Are depressive delusions adaptive? Do they carry potential for any other benefits for the subject? These are some of the questions that I address in my research.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Bias and Blame: Interview with Jules Holroyd

In this post, I interview Imperfect Cognitions network member Jules Holroyd, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in the department of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, and Principal Investigator of the Leverhulme Trust funded Bias and Blame project. The project runs from 2014-2017 and the team includes senior lecturer Tom Stafford and postdoctoral researcher Robin Scaife in the department of psychology, and PhD student Andreas Bunge in the department of philosophy.

SS: The Bias and Blame project investigates the relationship between moral interactions, such as blame, and the manifestation of implicit bias. How did you become interested in this topic, and has there been much previous research in this area?

JH: The project looks principally at whether moral interactions, such as blaming, impact on the expression of implicit racial bias. The interest in this  question arose out of the philosophical debates about responsibility for bias, in which two claims seemed to be prominent: first, that individuals are not responsible for implicit bias (for having it, or for manifesting it). I disagreed with this claim, and have argued in various places (here, here and here) that it is not at all obvious that any general exculpating conditions hold in relation to our discriminatory behaviour that results from implicit bias.

Second, authors have claimed that irrespective of individuals’ responsibility, we should not blame individuals, since that would be counterproductive. It might provoke hostility and backlash, and make people less motivated to buy in to the project of tackling discrimination and attendant problems of under-representation. This sort of claim is found in some of Jenny Saul’s early work on implicit bias, and more recently in Manuel Vargas’s work (on his revisionist conception of responsibility in relation to implicit bias). I can see the appeal of this kind of claim, and the reasons for caution with our use of blame. But ultimately the impact of blame on implicit attitudes and individual motivation (explicit and implicit) is an empirical question. There hadn’t been a great deal of empirical research into this issue: some studies looked at the role of moral confrontations in combating the expression of bias (Czopp and Monteith, 2006). Others had examined the role of inducing guilt in blocking its expression (Moskowitz & Li 2011). These findings seemed to indicate that under certain conditions, moral interactions and the provoking of moral emotions could have positive effects on bias mitigation: not the sort of backlash that had been worried about.

Moreover, this kind of intervention – harnessing the resources of our moral interactions with each other – seemed promising in comparison with some of the more individualistic and mechanistic attempts to alter individual cognition (which have been notoriously difficult to replicate and sustain). But no one had yet looked at how blame might impact on implicit biases and their expression. It looked like the sort of question that we could construct an experimental design to test. And this is what we were able to do, with the funds from the Leverhulme Project Research Grant.

SS: One might assume that progress in empirical work on implicit bias is mostly within the purview of psychology, but your research utilises concepts from philosophical study to both inform empirical investigations and to interpret the results. This is obviously something that we’re interested in at PERFECT. In your opinion, what is the value of interdisciplinary work on implicit bias, and co-operation between philosophers and psychologists more generally?

JH: The interdisciplinary nature of our research has been crucial. What we are exploring is essentially an empirical question that arises out of philosophical debate. But the notions deployed in the experimental design – holding morally responsible, expressing blame – are concepts that have been philosophically honed, and it was important that their role in the experimental process adequately reflected the notions that philosophers have been working with (and worrying about).

At the same time, input was needed from the experimentalists on the project (Tom and Robin), since the framing of those notions in the experiment needed to be empirically operational: there is no point deploying concepts that are philosophically rigorous, but opaque or alien to the participants in the studies (who were not philosophers). Later in the process, when we had the data set from the studies, interpreting them and anticipating their significance for a range of philosophical debates, required both statistical analysis and conceptual work, so again, having philosophers and psychologists around the table was invaluable at that stage too.

We are fortunate in that over time, we’ve had various interactions (reading groups, feedback on each other’s work) that enabled us to come to common understandings of terminology and the angles we each approach things from. And we get on really well, so even where there are disagreements they are never (not to date, at least!) irresolvable!

The whole process, from conception of the research question, to experimental design, to interpretation of the findings, has been rigorously interdisciplinary. This has enabled us to do research that we simply could not have done otherwise! And, we’ve reached some preliminary conclusions that, we hope, make a valuable contribution to the philosophical debates…

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Sophie

I’m delighted to join the philosophy department of the University of Birmingham as a Research Fellow working on Project PERFECT as it enters its third year.

In recent research I’ve been investigating the nature of the implicit/explicit distinction, and considering whether there is a role for agency when implicit cognition drives behaviour.

I was awarded my PhD earlier this year, with a thesis on implicit social bias. It’s previously been argued that implicit cognitions do not express our evaluative agency, and that we cannot be held responsible for their manifestation. I’ve argued that just because some cognition bears some or all of the putative features of the implicit, this is not a reliable heuristic for its exclusion from being considered agential. Agency may involve an interplay between implicit and explicit processes, and whether implicit features count as agential might only be illuminated by zooming out and viewing agency as extended over time, against the backdrop of the agent’s other commitments, as I’ve argued here.

This year, I’ll be building on some of the ideas that have come out of this project, as I join Andrea in turning my attention to confabulation. Confabulation is a feature of a number of mental illnesses, but it’s significant that people in the non-clinical population also often fail to identify the implicit origins of their choices or actions, and confabulate about why they think or act as they do. Much of this research focuses on cases where implicit and explicit attitudes diverge, and in this context, one might think that it’s both surprising and epistemically problematic that we more readily tell an inaccurate story that fits with our personal narrative, than recognise a gap.

Part of my research this year will be to investigate how significant a role this narrative-preserving mechanism might play in all cases of cognition: evidence suggests that implicit cognitions which are concordant with explicit attitudes regularly guide behaviour without our awareness. I’m interested in how we interpret and explain what we’re doing in these cases, how they compare with the divergent-attitude cases, and whether there are epistemic benefits and costs common to both cases.

A new direction for me this year will be to start to explore whether the distributed cognition literature, as well as research into how communication shapes cognition, illuminate any benefits of confabulation. If there are benefits to offloading cognitive labour onto our surrounding environment, and in particular, sharing such labour with epistemic peers, then perhaps there are sometimes benefits to confabulating, rather than acknowledging ignorance. It might be that confabulation allows us to preserve a relationship with the people on whom current and future shared epistemic endeavours depend. Of course, there will also be costs to confabulation in these contexts, but if it’s discovered that these relationships yield significant epistemic benefits that could not be easily replicated by other means, then perhaps these cognitions will turn out to be epistemically innocent.

Thursday 20 October 2016

On Memory Errors: An Interview with Sarah K Robins

Today's blog post is an interview by Project PERFECT research fellow Kathy Puddifoot with Sarah K. Robins (pictured below), an expert on false memories and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas.

KP: You are an expert on memory. How did you become interested in this topic?

SR: I became interested in memory as I was starting to put together a dissertation back in graduate school. Originally, my interest was in the personal/subpersonal distinction but I was spinning my wheels a bit. My advisor, Carl Craver, posed a question to help get me going: are memory traces personal or subpersonal? In pursuit of that question (still a difficult one to answer), my interest shifted to memory itself. There were so many interesting philosophical questions about memory—and so little connection with the vast amount of research on memory in both psychology and neuroscience. I was excited about how little work had yet been done on these intersections and that excitement has kept me going to this day.

KP: Your work focuses on cases of memory error, which you call cases of misremembering. What is distinctive about cases of misremembering?

SR: I’m fascinated by memory errors in general because they serve as an instance of a general rule for inquiring into cognitive and biological systems—you can learn a lot about how and why they work by observing what happens when they break. To this end, I’m interested in moving beyond broad discussions of false memory to promote a more refined taxonomy of memory errors that distinguishes all of the various ways that attempts to remember can go awry.

Misremembering errors struck me as a good place to start on this larger project because they are easily produced and distinctive, plus they have a quasi-paradoxical nature that makes them especially appealing to philosophers. Misremembering errors, as I characterize them, are an interesting blend of success and failure—they are errors that rely on retention. Specifically, I define misremembering as “a memory error that relies on successful retention of the targeted event. When a person misremembers, her report is inaccurate, yet this inaccuracy is explicable only on the assumption that she has retained information from the event her representation mischaracterizes” (2016: 434).

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Kathy

During my first year on Project PERFECT I have had the opportunity to explore a number of avenues of research relating to the epistemic benefits of imperfect cognitions.

Falsity-Dependent Truths in Memory and Social Cognition

I have been collaborating with Lisa on a project on memory distortions; cases in which people appear to remember things from the past but the memories are inaccurate. The memories often have a kernel of truth but at least some of the details are false. Many previous discussions of the phenomenon have focused on evolutionary advantages and psychological gains associated with having false memories. For example, it has been emphasised that having false beliefs about the quality of one’s own performance on a task could have psychological benefits by increasing our wellbeing.

Our focus has instead been on identifying epistemic gains associated with having false memories. For example, it has been argued that many false memories are the result of cognitive mechanisms that are useful for imagining the future being used to represent the past, leading us to falsely believe that things that we only imagined really happened. In this case, we focus on how there can be gains in terms of knowledge and understanding that are associated with being able to imagine future events, and how these gains are associated with the distorted memories.

In our upcoming work, we will be applying the notion of epistemic innocence to understand the nature of the epistemic gains associated with memory distortions. Something is epistemically innocent if it meets the following description: although it is epistemically costly because it involves, for example, misrepresenting reality, it can bring substantial epistemic gains that would otherwise be absent. Past discussions of epistemic innocence have focused on the epistemic innocence of cognitions: e.g. the ways that specific delusions or confabulated beliefs can bring epistemic gains. But our research on memory distortion considers how cognitive mechanisms can be epistemically innocent: how it can be epistemically costly to have a particular cognitive mechanism but the possession of the mechanism can bring epistemic gains that would not have been acquired otherwise.

We think that the application of the notion of epistemic innocence to cognitive mechanisms can clarify what occurs in the case of memory distortions and capture the precise nature of the epistemic advantages associated with the phenomenon. For example, where a cognitive mechanism both facilitates the imagination of future events and causes memory distortions, the mechanism can be viewed as epistemically innocent, because it brings benefits in terms of allowing us knowledge and understanding about the future, even if particular distorted memories do not bring benefits.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Interview with Ralph Hertwig on Biases, Ignorance and Adaptive Rationality

In this post Andrea Polonioli interviews Ralph Hertwig (pictured below), director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

AP: According to popular accounts offered in the field of judgment and decision-making, people are prone to cognitive biases, and such biases are conducive to maladaptive behaviour. Based on your research, to what extent the claim that cognitive biases are costly is warranted by available evidence? If you had to identify one particular bias that is especially worrisome, because it typically results in negative real life outcomes, which one would this be?

RH: This is a hotly debated topic in research on behavioral decision making and beyond. Many cognitive biases have been defined as such because they violate coherence norms, under the assumption that a single syntactical rule such as consistency, transitivity, the conjunction rule, or Bayes’ rule suffices to evaluate behavior. I believe that such coherence-based norms are of limited value for evaluating behavior as rational. Specifically, we have argued that there is little evidence that coherence violations are costly, or that if they were, people would fail to learn to avoid them. Second, we have suggested that adaptive rules of behavior can in fact imply incoherence, and that computational intractability and conflicting goals can make coherence unattainable. Yet this does not mean that coherence is without value. I think coherence plays a key role in situations where it is instrumental in achieving functional goals, such as fairness and predictability. But I do not believe that coherence should be treated as a universal benchmark of rationality.

Instead, smart choices need to be defined in terms of ecological rationality, which requires an analysis of the environmental structure and its match with the available cognitive strategies. Of course, this does not mean that people do not make mistakes—but the issue is not whether a cognitive strategy is rational or irrational per se but rather under which environmental conditions a particular strategy works or fails to work. What could happen is that a strategy that used to function well in the past no longer works because the environment has changed. This can indeed lead to costly errors. Take, for instance, the strategy of trusting experts such as doctors. In a world in which doctors’ and patients’ interests were aligned, this was a good strategy. In a world in which their interests can, for various reasons (monetary or legal), be systematically at odds, this strategy will fail.

More on this topic can be found here:

Hertwig, R., Hoffrage, U., & the ABC Research Group (2013). Simple heuristics in a social world. New York: Oxford University Press.