Tuesday 31 May 2016

On Knowing One’s Own Resistant Beliefs

This post is by Cristina Borgoni (pictured above), Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Graz. Here she summarises her recent paper 'On Knowing One's Own Resistant Beliefs', published in Philosophical Explorations. 

I have two lines of research in philosophy: one is on self-knowledge and the other is on beliefs. In self-knowledge, I am part of a research trend that tries to expand the philosophical agenda in order to incorporate human concerns on the topic. Everybody knows that knowing oneself (e.g., one’s values or one’s deep desires) can be very difficult. However, philosophy has not been concerned with such difficulties. Philosophy has rather traditionally focused on a different issue, namely, on explaining how we know some of our thoughts in an apparently immediate and almost infallible way (e.g., if someone asks whether you believe it is raining now, you will have no problems in knowing immediately what you believe). However, the aspects of our psychological life that are not known in such a special way are left out from the philosophical agenda, including our resistant beliefs.

A resistant belief is a recalcitrant cognition that persists in the person’s psychology despite the person’s epistemic reasons against the belief. I have examined the nature of this type of belief in a number of papers, which belong in my research on beliefs. An example of a resistant belief is the following. Imagine that you have learnt since very early that women are not fit for politics. Perhaps, you have grown up in a community with only a few, or even no, women politicians. Or, perhaps, you learnt it from your family and friends, who explicitly acknowledged that women were very good for a variety of tasks but not for politics; men were the ones to represent your society collective interests. Today, however, you know and actually defend the idea that men and women are equally fit for politics. Nevertheless, your early-inculcated prejudicial belief might still be part of your psychology, and might still guide some of your automatic thoughts and emotional reactions. In this imaginary situation, you have a resistant belief.

Monday 30 May 2016

PERFECT Focus Group 1: On Belief

As part of our ERC-funded project, PERFECT, we promised to run three focus groups with mental health service users and providers on the themes of the project. The first of these focus groups was held in Birmingham on 12th May 2016, organised and facilitated by Magdalena Antrobus and Michael Larkin.

Three service users and three service providers were invited to give feedback on PERFECT's research on the potential benefits of false or irrational beliefs. This happened via a game. They were presented with some statements and asked to locate them on a poster, where some areas indicated strong or moderate agreement, some strong or moderate disagreement, and other area no particular opinion. They were then asked to explain their choices.

Some notes follow on the parthcipants' views and discussion.

Some mental health difficulties may have positive outcomes. EVERYONE AGREED

Reasons for this choice included: Some mental health difficulties allow dialogue to happen, and are part of a larger scale change. They provide a context for re-evaluating life circumstances: the period of recovery can be understood as a period of discovery where people find a way of relating to the world. With self-harm, people who get better realise that the anxiety they experienced makes them stronger (growth). Also, self-awareness can be a positive outcome. People work through their beliefs to understand why they are important to them, and new knowledge about oneself is acquired.

Mental health problems are primarily a matter of human suffering. MIXED REACTIONS

Reasons for this included the thought that ‘suffering’ is an unhelpful word. Thinking in terms of suffering implies that the person can’t cope, can’t do anything about what is happening to her. Maybe ‘distress’ is a better word as it does not have the same connotation of passivity. Some participants also asked what the statement means. That mental health is an existential struggle? Or that human suffering causes mental health problems? Mental health problems are not always a matter of distress. And thinking that they are may be excessively individualistic.

Delusions may help us understand what is going on in a person’s life.

Reasons for this included the idea that delusions are not always un-understandable but can reflect individual and social issues. Some participants talked about their clinical experience and their research to support their views. In clinical experience, often delusions are related to a person’s life experiences (such as bullying). The content of delusions is helpful to understand people. Sometimes delusions have value, contrary to society’s norms. At times they are helpful and at other times they are not. They can give us clues about what the person is feeling and why she is struggling. Many people do not want their delusions to be regarded as symptoms to be eradicated. Delusions can also be protective mechanisms.

Unusual beliefs are often clinical symptoms of severe mental illness. UNANIMOUS STRONG DISAGREEMENT

Reasons for this included the thought that many unusual beliefs are present in the general population and do not indicate mental illness. Moreover, what is considered to be unusual changes all the time. For instance, homosexuality was being treated as a mental illness in the seventies.

Thursday 26 May 2016

New Perspectives on Depression: Lifting the Veil AISB 2016

The AISB Convention is an annual conference covering the range of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, organised by the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour. The convention is structured as a number of co-located symposia on a wide variety of topics, together with a number of plenary talks and events. This year’s convention took place on 4-6 April at the University of Sheffield and included a most interesting symposium on new approaches to depression. Below I briefly summarise the content of the symposium talks.

Joel Parthemore (University of Skövde, Sweden, pictured above) opened the symposium with his talk ‘Depression viewed from an enactive perspective: It’s the context, stupid.’ He pointed at some most commonly spread myths about depression, which contribute to the popular misunderstanding of the illness and may lead to stigmatization. These include a belief that depression always involves anhedonia or a belief that changes in brain chemistry cause depression. Parthemore argued that depression can be seen as adaptive: it is a warning sign of other psychological problems as well as a motivational force to creative responses and solutions.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

How Distinctive Is Philosophers’ Intuition Talk?

This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post he summarises his paper ‘How Distinctive Is Philosophers' Intuition Talk?’

There’s a bomb on the funicular railway. It is about to go off. It’s a tragic disaster in the making.
There are two carriages connected by a rope. In the carriage nearest the pier, headed down the cliff, there is a party of schoolchildren with buckets and spades. In the carriage nearest the bandstand, headed up the cliff, there is a bomb planted by ecoterrorists. The carriages are currently alongside each other. If the carriages are stopped, … 

Philosophers use intuitions. They use them a lot. This much is beyond question. If you have ever studied any philosophy or talked about philosophy with a philosopher you will doubtless have noted the tendency of philosophers to pepper their conversation and writing with hypothetical cases like this which are designed to elicit your intuitions.

What about these slightly different claims? (1) Philosophers use intuitions as evidence. And (2) Philosophers use intuitions as evidence in a way that other academics do not. These are not so obvious. But both are tempting. Intuitions do seem to form parts of arguments for philosophical theories in the same way observations serve as support for scientific theories. It is sometimes difficult to see what else philosophers could use to support their theories. Whereas, in other fields, there is lots of other evidence—so they do not need to rely on intuitions.

If (1) and (2) are right, philosophy might seem to be in a particularly sticky situation. Why? Because, there are various experiments which suggest that such intuitions are unreliable (for discussion see here). (There are debates we could have here, e.g. my earlier post on this blog, but let us suppose philosophical intuitions are unreliable.)

Thursday 19 May 2016

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016

In this post we are providing some information about Mental Health Awareness Week (16-22 May 2016).

The Mental Health Foundation has decided to focus on relationships this year, based on the fact that good relationships are essential for mental health. The foundation invites us to make some new "relationships resolutions": see the details here.

Mind, the mental health charity, follows the lead of the Mental Health Foundation, and focuses on the quality of personal relationships: it invites us to look after each other better, by supporting people who might have mental health issues, in the family, among friends, and at work.

Rethink Mental Illness encourages people to become involved by hosting a tea party and read their series of guest blog posts by people with experience of mental health issues.

Michael Larkin, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Birmingham and investigator in PERFECT, has worked extensively on the role of relationships in mental health and here are two of his recent publications you may find interesting: The experience of empathy by Rita Meneses and Michael Larkin; and an account of the experiential impact of hospitalisation on families which Michael wrote with several collaborators, including our network member Zoë Boden.

Please leave further suggestions for mental health awareness initiatives or useful readings in the comments!

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Psychopathy: Madness or Badness?

This post is by Marion Godman (pictured above), researcher at the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of Social Sciences (TINT) at Helsinki University. In this post she draws on a discussion she lead at the Moral Psychology Interdisciplinary Workshop, CRASSH, on 9th October 2015. 

As intriguing as reasoning about psychopathy is, it is also bound to make us uneasy. People with the condition commit a disproportionate number of crimes compared to other psychiatric groups (Coid et al. 2009) and are also over-represented in the criminal statistics concerning recidivism, predatory violence and serial killings (Hare 1999). So for legal and policy purposes, it is imperative to think about these far from perfect minds prone to manipulation and violence. But at the same this makes it difficult to keep one’s head cool when approaching psychopathy. How do we think about the disorder without disapproval and disdain clouding our judgment? Or could it be that these moral attitudes are actually unveiling something important?

In my recent work I have been puzzling over whether something systematic can be said about what makes people with psychopathy more prone to do bad things. Research into this area suggests that if there is anything that seems more distinctive for this group in their violent and criminal tendencies (as compared to, for example, groups with anti-social personality disorder), it is their proactive aggression. Briefly, proactive aggression can be distinguished from reactive aggression, where the former aggression is instrumental or encouraged by the agent and the latter is a reaction to a threat or provocation (Crick and Dodge 1996).

Recent work also suggests distinctive neurological correlates behind this proactive aggression and fearlessness commonly displayed in psychopathy. In psychopathy, there is a particular prediction error about the implications of one’s actions: it seems that past punishments – but not rewards – does not inform the decision-making and planning as compared to controls and individuals with anti-social personality disorder (without psychopathy) (see Gregory et al. 2015). If this is right, different forms of punishment and social sanctions, like blame and condemnation will fail to get a proper grip in minds of people with psychopathy. As a result we have a mechanism that can explain why individuals with psychopathy will be less deterred from using aggression and violence in pursuit of their ends.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Emotional Insight: The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience

Michael Brady is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He is currently a principal investigator on the The Value of Suffering Project, alongside David Bain. His main research area is the philosophy of emotion. One area of his research focuses on the epistemic status of emotion. He is interested in the idea that emotions have value and can perform an epistemic role. In this post, he introduces his book on these themes, Emotional Insight, which was published by Oxford University Press.

My book tries to reconcile two commonsense intuitions: that emotions have considerable epistemic value (we should sometimes ‘listen to our heart’), and that emotions often lead us astray epistemically (emotions lead to epistemic biases). I approach the issue by examining a theory of emotion that is relatively new on the scene but has increasing support: the perceptual model of emotion. On this account, emotional experience is a kind of, or is at least akin to, perceptual experience.

An important point of similarity is the claim that perceptual and emotional experience play a similar epistemic role: just as perceptual experiences constitute, in normal conditions, sufficient reasons to believe things about the external world, so too do emotional experiences constitute sufficient reasons to believe things about the evaluative realm. So my emotional experience of fear when confronting a bull in the farmer’s field is a sufficient reason to believe that I am in danger, in much the same way that my visual experience as of the car in the outside lane is a sufficient reason to believe that there is a car in the outside lane.

I argue that the perceptual model both overstates and understates the epistemic importance of emotion. This is because emotional experience is, on the one hand, never by itself a sufficient reason for evaluative judgements: whereas perceptual experiences ‘silence the demand’ for further justification, emotional experience motivates us to seek out further evidence that bears on our evaluative situation. 

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Working out who’s gonna die. Or why suicide risk assessment is a waste of time.

This post is by Chris Ryan (pictured above), a psychiatrist and Clinical Associate Professor with the University of Sydney and its Centre for Values Ethics and the Law in Medicine. Though primarily a clinician he maintains an active research agenda focusing on issues at the interface of ethics, law, and psychiatry. In this post he writes about his recent work on risk assessment for suicide.

Imagine you are me – a psychiatrist working in a hospital with a large emergency department. This morning, like most mornings, you arrive at work to find that ten people have been seen overnight after presenting in some sort of psychological crisis. Many have attempted suicide. How do you work out who should be admitted to hospital and who should go home? On what basis should you make that call?

Here is one tempting answer: admit the people that are at the highest risk of actually killing themselves in the future. If this strikes you as a sensible approach, you’re in good company – indeed many psychiatrists are inclined to that opinion. In fact ‘suicide risk assessment’, often aided with a series of checkbox tools, is often seen as a mandatory component of proper clinical care.

If, on the other hand, you think that trying to categorise patients into those at relatively high and low risk of future suicide is a fool’s errand, you are in even better company – I couldn’t agree more.

Since many people have difficulty seeing why this is so, let me spell out the reasoning.

It’s all about the math. Risk is probability multiplied by loss. If we are talking about suicide risk assessment then the magnitude of loss is held more or less constant. Though there will be exceptions to this, most people will agree that most suicides will be a very significant loss, so significant they can be treated as more or less of the same magnitude of badness. If we are prepared to except that the loss is a constant, then all we are doing when we do a suicide risk assessment is trying to gauge the probability of this person suiciding with a certain period T.

If you want to put your emergency department patients’ probability of suicide into context, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that, as a class, your ten patients are at a greatly increased probability of suicide at some point in the future compared to people that have never presented to a emergency department in a psychiatric crisis. Studies vary, but it is reasonable to regard the population of such patients at about 30 times the population-likelihood of eventual suicide. The good news is that each individual patient is at quite a low absolute probability of suicide. Though the probability will vary as T varies, and again empirical studies vary, its probably reasonable to say that, as a class, such patients have about a 1% likelihood of dying by suicide within twelve months and about a 1 in 20,000 probability of dying by suicide tomorrow.

If you were a fan of the risk assessment approach to this dilemma, you probably opted for it because you thought that there might be a useful way of determining which of the ten patients (who as a group are all at very high relative risk and very low absolute risk) were more ‘at risk’ than others. You probably reasoned ‘there must be a factor (or combination of factors) that allow one to usefully categorise these patients by their likelihood’. If you did think that, it was a reasonable first pass assumption, but it was wrong.

Thursday 5 May 2016

Farewell to Epistemic Angst!

Duncan Pritchard is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, and the Director of the Eidyn research centre. In this post, he introduces his new book.

Philosophically speaking, the problem of radical scepticism—that is, the challenge to explain how knowledge is even possible—is both my first love and my true love. It was this puzzle that first drew me into philosophy, and it’s also this topic that I have returned to throughout my academic career. My thinking has finally been distilled into a book, entitled EpistemicAngst: Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Our Believing (Princeton UP, 2015). In this work I offer a comprehensive—and completely novel—response to the (Cartesian) paradox of radical scepticism.

The book falls into four parts. In part one, I argue that the reason why the radical sceptical paradox has been so hard to resolve is that it is in fact two logically distinct paradoxes in disguise—one formulation that turns on the ‘closure’ principle, and a distinct formulation that turns on the ‘underdetermination’ principle. It follows that what might be an adequate solution to one of these formulations of the paradox need not thereby be an adequate solution to the other formulation. This leads me, in parts two and three, to offer a new way of thinking about two controversial responses to radical scepticism.

Tuesday 3 May 2016


This post is by Sarah Robins (pictured above), an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and affiliate member of the Cognitive and Brain Sciences Program in Psychology at the University of Kansas. Her research is at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, with a primary focus on memory. In this post she summarises her recent paper ‘Misremembering’, published in Philosophical Psychology.

Thanks, Ema, for the invitation to talk about my recent paper ‘Misrememberingwith Imperfect Cognitions readers.

The paper began from my fascination with one of the most common experimental techniques for eliciting memory errors: the Deese-Roediger-McDermott, or DRM, paradigm (Deese 1959; Roediger and McDermott 1995). I am fascinated because these errors display a blend of success and failure (on which I will elaborate on below). In the paper, I argue that they are best viewed as a distinct type of error, misremembering. I go on to argue that we lack a theory of memory that can explain misremembering. I divide theories of memory into two broad groups: traditional Archival accounts and contemporary Constructive ones. Each is insensitive to the explanatory demands of misremembering errors, but in a distinct way. In short, Archival accounts do well at explaining memory’s successes and Constructive accounts do well at explaining memory’s failures. But since misremembering errors involve success and failure, they present a challenge to both.

Monday 2 May 2016

Are Positive Illusions Epistemically Innocent?

A belief is epistemically rational if it is well supported by evidence and responsive to counter-evidence. But do epistemically rational beliefs contribute to our psychological wellbeing? Some believe that epistemic rationality contributes to psychological wellbeing, and that epistemic irrationality is often responsible for psychological distress (for a version of the traditional view, see Healthy Personality, by Jourard and Landsman, 1980). Others believe that psychological wellbeing requires epistemic irrationality, and that there are circumstances in which epistemic rationality is responsible for psychological distress (for a version of the trade-off view, see e.g. Positive Illusions, by Taylor, 1989).

The traditional view tells us that people who are psychologically healthy have cognitions that are constrained by evidence and are accurate, that is, they track how things actually are. Their memory reports are reliable, their beliefs well-grounded, and their predictions realistic. People who experience psychological distress have cognitions that are not constrained by evidence and are inaccurate, that is, they do not track how things actually are. Their memory reports are distorted, their beliefs ill-grounded, and their predictions unrealistic. This view obviously has some implications for the goals of psychological therapy: psychological health is enhanced when epistemic rationality is restored. 

The trade-off view suggests that epistemic irrationality is often not inimical, but conducive to psychological wellbeing. People who are psychologically healthy are unreasonably optimistic when they form beliefs about their skills and talents, when they assess their capacity to control external events, and when they predict their future. Interestingly, people who are affected by low mood do not share such an inflated conception of their skills and talents, they do not overestimate their capacity to control external events, and they predict their future more realistically than people without low mood. This view also has implications for the goals of psychological therapy: psychological wellbeing is improved when the right kind of distortion (such as a doxastic bias towards self-enhancement) is introduced or re-instated.