Thursday 29 September 2016

The Good Life

Michael Bishop is a philosopher at Florida State University. He wrote, with J.D. Trout, Epistemology and the Psychology ofHuman Judgment (Oxford, 2005). And more recently hes written The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychologyof Well-Being (Oxford 2015). The goal in both books is the same: Build a theory that makes sense of what both philosophers and psychologists have to say about normative matters. Bishop is currently working on a number of projects, including one that aims to show how we might improve how we teach critical thinking. You can find more of his writings at his blog.

Theres an old yarn about six people groping in the dark to study an elephant: The tusk was thought a spear, the side a wall, the trunk a snake, the leg a tree, the ear a fan, and the tail a rope. A happy life is like the elephant. It consists of many varied parts. And we philosophers, groping in the dark, hold fast to our little corner of the elephant, confident that weve got the whole thing figured out.

Imagine Felicity: She has a life thats valuable for her. Shes happy, she has well-being. (I will use these expressions interchangeably.) Now, take a few moments and come up with three facts about Felicity that would make you confident she's happy. Did you do it? You didn't, did you? Don't worry. Because when you do do it, you're going to find that every fact you've come up with is some combination of Felicitys:

     positive feelings (pleasure, joy, contentment, satisfaction);
     positive attitudes (optimism, joie de vivre, curiosity);
     positive traits (determination, courage, friendliness); or
     successes (academic or professional accomplishment, good health, strong relationships).

Philosophers have a tendency to be like the person who thinks the elephant is a spear. Hedonists explain Felicitys well-being in terms of her positive feelings (and lack of negative feelings). Aristotelians explain it in terms of her virtues (positive traits) and perhaps enough luck so that her virtues are rewarded. Desire (or preference satisfaction) theorists explain her well-being in terms of her successes, understood as Felicity (suitably informed) getting what she wants.

Objective list theorists do a bit better. They identify happy lives with having a reasonable number of happy life parts (or prerequisites for those parts). But just as an elephant isnt a random assortment of elephant parts, a happy life isnt a random assortment of happy life parts. They have a shape and a structure that objective list theories neglect.

In The Good Life, I try to describe the whole elephant. I start by assuming that positive psychology - the psychology of happy lives - studies happy lives. And then I argue that positive psychology studies enduring causal networks of positive feelings, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments. (You can find more on this reading of positive psychology here.) When youre happy, your good feelings, attitudes and traits work together to contribute to your successes; and those successes in turn feed back into your good feelings, attitudes and traits. In the book, I called these self-maintaining feeling-attitude-trait-success clusters positive causal networks or PCNs. But on the internet, I can throw off the shackles of cautious academic discourse and call them what they really are: positive grooves. You have a happy life - youre in a state of well-being - when youre in a positive groove.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Explanatory Judgment, Moral Offense and Value-Free Science

My name is Matteo Colombo. I am an Assistant Professor in the Tilburg Center for Logic, Ethics and Philosophy of Science, and in the Department of Philosophy at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. My work is mostly in the philosophy of the cognitive sciences, in the philosophy of science, and in moral psychology. I am interested in questions about evidence and explanation, and in how resources from the sciences can help address philosophical puzzles about mind and moral behaviour. I pursue these interests by combining experimental and non-experimental methods.

In a recent experiment study, Leandra Bucher, Yoel Inbar, and I investigated how moral value can bias explanatory judgement. Our general goal was to assess the empirical adequacy of a popular view in the philosophy of science, which contends that scientific reasoning is objective to the extent that the appraisal of scientific hypotheses is not influenced by moral, political, or economic values, but only by the available evidence. In particular, Lea, Yoel, and I wanted to understand how the prior credibility of scientific hypotheses, their perceived moral offensiveness, and the motivation to be accurate in judging their explanatory power affect one’s assessment of a scientific report.

We asked our participants to express their opinions on the quality of a series of scientific reports. Imagine, for example, that you are asked to evaluate a report that provides evidence that being raised by a same-sex couple increases the chances of suffering from certain developmental disorders. This hypothesis does not apparently carry any moral value and can be objectively tested. Although you may find it morally offensive, you are sure that your personal values will not influence your appraisal of the quality of the report. You are also confident that the fact that you have a monetary incentive to properly assess how the evidence bears on the hypothesis will not make any difference in your considered judgement. But will these convictions of yours be borne out in practice? Will your personal values play no significant role in your assessment of the evidence?

In our experiments, we found that the more the conclusion of a scientific report was perceived as morally offensive, the more likely were our participants to judge it as less credible and rigorous. Furthermore, a monetary incentive to be accurate in the assessment of the evidence did not have a mitigating effect on the impact of moral offensiveness on explanatory judgement.

Our findings indicate that people’s judgements about scientific results are often imbued with moral value. While this conclusion suggests that, as a matter of psychological fact, the ideal of a value-free science may not be achievable, it raises important questions about the attainment of scientific knowledge in democratic societies. How can scientific evidence be more effectively conveyed to the public? What is it that drives public controversy over such issues as climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms? Does the prevalent political and moral homogeneity in many present-day scientific communities hinder or systematically bias their pursuit of knowledge?
ent-day scientific communities hinder or
systematically bias their pursui
t of knowledge?

Thursday 22 September 2016

Bias in Context: Psychological and Structural Explanations

On 5th and 6th September the University of Sheffield hosted the conference Bias in Context: Psychological and Structural Explanations, organized by Erin Beeghly and Jules Holroyd (pictured above). Here I summarise the seven papers given at the conference.

Joseph Sweetman (pictured below) opened day one with his paper ‘Evidence-based Social Equality: Current Problems and Future prospects’. The talk was structured around answering five questions related to identifying the phenomenon of social inequality, whether we should do anything about social inequality, and what we should do, what the evidence for social inequality is, and the efficacy of unconscious bias training in Higher Education. After giving answers to the first four questions, Joseph reported on his evaluation of an unconscious bias training programme in order to speak to the fifth. He found that though post-training awareness of unconscious bias was higher in the participants, there were no significant differences on measures of willingness to take action, or on the particpants’ results in an Implicit Association Test for gender and career. In light of this Joseph suggested that we need to focus our attention on interventions targeting unconscious bias, stereotypes, prejudice, and behaviour.

Next up was Robin Zheng, giving her paper ‘Bias, Structure, and Injustice: A Reply to Haslanger’. In her paper, Robin outlined Sally Haslanger’s view that although there is space for attention to implicit bias in social critique, it is only a small space. Haslanger poses a challenge to theorists interested in implicit bias, namely, that theorists pursuing an account of how bias functions need to situate their accounts within a range of social structures and structural injustice. Robin sought to take up this challenge. She distinguished between Attributability and Accountability accounts of responsibility for structural injustice, advocating a version of the latter kind of account.

The penultimate paper of the first day was given by Saray Ayala, entitled ‘Structural Explanations and Agency’. Saray began by outlining two kinds of explanations of social injustice: structural explanations according to which social behaviour is determined by structural forces, and agency explanations according to which such behaviour is determined by individual choices. She discussed a worry with structural explanations, namely that they challenge agency. This is because if what explains some forms of social injustice is structural factors, and not mental states (like, for example, implicit biases), the picture we are left with is one of structures and not agents. Saray argued that structural explanations do not, after all, challenge agency, and that psychological explanations should trigger the same kind of worry, and yet they do not. Saray considered three possible factors which might explain why psychological explanations do not raise this kind of worry, and concluded by raising two problems with psychological explanations. 

Lacey Davidson and Daniel Kelly closed the first day of the conference with their paper ‘Informal Institutions and the Double Life of Social Norms’. They wanted to develop conceptual tools which could be used in social philosophy and ethical theory, in such a way that they could be integrated with and continue to be informed by current empirical work on moral psychology and cognitive science. They drew on Charlotte Witt’s work on social reality, drawing on her notions of social roles, social norms, and her ascriptivism about the relationship between individuals and the roles and norms to which they are bound. They argued that an empirical account of human norm psychology dovetails with Witt’s picture, which together provide a toolkit for thinking about bias.

Alex Madva (pictured above) opened day two of the conference with his paper ‘A Plea for Anti-Anti-Individualism: How Oversimple Psychology Misleads Social Policy’. In his paper Alex was interested in prioritisim, the view that we should focus on changing structures, not individual attitudes. With respect to this claim he wanted to do make two points in the paper. The first point was that the conclusion that we should prioritize structural reforms over individual reforms does not follow, even if we grant the prioritizer’s empirical claims. Specifically, Alex argued that for every structural reform that we should prioritize, there exists some individual reforms to prioritize because those individual reforms promote the structural reform. The second point was that the empirical claims made by prioritizers are contestable after all, and that prioritism fails to appreciate the active role that individuals take in interpreting and reacting to their environments.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Rescuing the ‘Loss-of-Agency’ Account of Thought Insertion

Today's post is by Patrizia Pedrini (University of Florence). Here she summarises her recent paper, “Rescuing the ‘Loss-of-Agency’ Account of Thought Insertion”, which appeared in Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology in 2015.

Every day we think hundreds of thoughts. We form opinions, hold beliefs, develop intentions, feel desires, emotions, sensations, entertain fantasies. All this thinking activity typically comes to our consciousness with a fundamental feature that seems as natural as the thinking it accompanies: our capacity for self-ascription of it. When we think a thought, we also self-ascribe that thought, and such capacity for self-ascription is routine, immediate, unproblematic.

However, this is a capacity that can break down. There is a disorder, known as thought insertion, that occurs in people diagnosed with schizophrenia and related forms of mental illness, the puzzling feature of which appears to amount to the impairment of such capacity. The subject affected by thought insertion experiences his thinking activity as made for or done to herself by someone else – a person or intelligent form other than himself (cf. Graham 2004, p. 89).

In the attempt to specify how the capacity for self-ascription of a thought can break down, thought insertion has also often been explained as a failure of the “sense of agency”, not of ownership, which latter the patient is thought to retain. The “loss-of-agency” view of thought insertion has been held by a number of cognitive scientists, psychiatrists, and also philosophers (e.g., Stephens and Graham 1994a, 1994b, 2000; O'Brien and Opie 2003; Gallagher 2004; Peacocke 2008). Their main hypothesis is that a thought is pathologically “inserted” when it is not voluntarily caused by the subject, that is, when the subject has not formed it qua agent.

Thursday 15 September 2016

University of Tokyo Philosophy of Mind and Mental Illness Symposium

On 30th-31st July, the University of Tokyo hosted a symposium on Philosophy of Mind and Mental Illness at its Komaba Campus. Today's blog post describes the talks presented at the symposium.

Akiko Frischhut’s (Akita International) (pictured below) talk “The Silencing Illusion and Its Philosophical Interpretations” was an investigation of the philosophical significance of the silencing illusion. The illusion seems to provide a counterexample to so-called “naive inheritance thesis” about the experience of temporal properties according to any temporal properties that are represented in experience are the properties of the experience itself too. However, Frischhut rejected this interpretation of the illusion. On the basis of a careful philosophical analysis, she concluded that the interpretation is either impossible or unintelligible.

In his talk “Targetless States: No New Problem for the Higher-Order Theory”, Graham Peebles (Geneva) (pictured below) discussed so-called "misrepresentation problem" for the higher-order theory of consciousness. The problem concerns the possibility that a higher-order thought misrepresents a first-order state, in particular, the possibility that it represents a first-order state that does not exist. After examining different versions of the problem, he claimed that the higher-order theory might just collapse into the first-order theory.

Phenomenology of visual experience was the focus of Kengo Miyazono's (Hiroshima) (pictured below) talk "Perception without Presentational Phenomenology". Many philosophers believe that visual is associated with the phenomenal feeling that objects of the experience are directly before the mind. Miyazono claimed that this phenomenal feeling (“presentational phenomenology”) is not an essential feature of visual experience. It can be lost from visual experience. In particular, the strange experience in the condition of derealization is an example of visual experience without presentational phenomenology.


Tuesday 13 September 2016

The Trauma and Psychosis Paradox

Amy Hardy (pictured above) is a Research Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London and Psychology Lead for Posttraumatic Stress in Psychosis in the Psychosis Clinical Academic Group, South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. 

In this post, Amy describes a paper published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin by the Psychosis Research Partnership that supports the causal role of childhood victimisation in psychosis by demonstrating how understandable reactions to trauma contribute to psychotic experiences.

We know there is a relationship between trauma and psychosis, and research is unraveling the puzzle of how they are linked. Findings point towards childhood victimisation playing a causal role in psychotic experiences, at least for some people. For example, trauma has been shown to occur before the onset of psychosis, trauma severity is associated with the magnitude of psychotic experiences, specific trauma types are linked with particular difficulties, and these relationships have been replicated across studies. 

The obvious implication of this causal relationship is that we can reduce the burden of psychosis by preventing victimisation – a cornerstone of any civilised society. Sadly, however, it is not realistic to assume we can completely stop people harming others. We also know that trauma does not always lead to psychosis or have a negative impact on mental health. Given the right context, people can be resilient in the face of horrific experiences. 

The final piece of the puzzle therefore involves explaining how certain consequences of trauma give rise to psychosis. Why is this important? Because it may be possible to intervene to modify these processes, and in turn reduce distressing psychosis and improve people’s quality of life. 

In a recent paper, our research team tackled this question by investigating the role of trauma-related psychological mechanisms in psychosis, informed by cognitive-behavioural, attachment and neurobiological perspectives. The common thread in these models is that attempts to survive during trauma can become habitual ways of regulating emotions, and that these reactions impact on memory processing. This results in intrusive memories of events and negative views of the self and others. Evidence suggests that being overaroused, avoidant or emotionally numb may contribute to hearing voices, as can traumatic intrusions. Negative beliefs, such as seeing others as dangerous and the self as vulnerable, may directly shape the content of paranoid thoughts.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Explaining Delusions Symposium at ICP 2016

Pacifico, Yokohama
PERFECT was invited to present a symposium at the 31st International Congress of Psychology (ICP), which took place at Pacifico Yokohama in Japan and was attended by over 8000 people from 95 countries. The symposium, entitled ‘Explaining Delusion: Empirical and Theoretical Approaches to Delusion Formation’ featured speakers from philosophy (myself, Rachel Gunn), Kengo Miyazono and Phillip Gerrans) and from psychology (Eriko Sugimori and Rochelle Cox).

Eriko Sugimori’s talk entitled ‘Effects of Positive and Negative Delusional Ideation on Memory’ covered a study where participants were given a learning task in which they were shown 40 adjectives projected one at a time on a screen.  Fifteen minutes later they were shown 80 adjectives and asked to state whether those adjectives had featured in the learning task. The participants were assessed for delusion proneness as well as degree of positive delusional ideation (consisting of traits such as guardedness, self-conceit, sense of specialness, and manipulativeness towards others) and negative delusional ideation (consisting of traits such as alienation, belittlement, persecution, and harming of others).  Participants with high delusional ideation were more likely to indicate that they had learned adjectives that they had not actually learned.

In a second experiment, two forced-choice tests were conducted immediately after the learning phase.  Pairs of words with similar meanings one with a positive and one with a negative connotation (eg: careful-skeptical, adventurous-reckless etc.) were presented. At the initial test phase, when presented with a forced-choice, participants were all relatively accurate in their recall (regardless of score for delusion-proneness). As time passed (when tested daily over several days) the proportion of false alarms increased among those with high proneness to delusional ideation and was correlated with their delusional style (ie those with positive traits had more false alarms with regard to positive adjectives and those with negative traits had more false alarms with regard to negative adjectives). 

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Can We Use Neurocognition to Predict Repetition of Self-Harm?

This post is by Angharad de Cates (pictured above), a Senior Registrar in General Adult Psychiatry and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Unit of Mental Health and Wellbeing at the University of Warwick. Broadly, her research interests are neurocognition, self-harm, mood disorder, and mental health promotion and wellbeing.

In this post, she summarises her recent article “Can we use neurocognition to predict repetition of self-harm, and why might this be clinically useful? A Perspective” co-authored with Matthew Broome, and published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychiatry in January 2016.

The first issue in research about self-harm is to define what it actually is, which in part depends on which style of terminology you wish to use. According to patient and user groups, self-harm as a general catch-all term is preferred, where there is no attempt by clinicians or researchers to restrict by method or intent, but instead to focus on the fact that one has harmed oneself.

However, this is not the case in all spheres, particularly in the United States, where both intent and method of self-harm are used to define people and their difficulties. As well as this being viewed poorly by patients, the merit of it has been hotly debated, as past method does not confirm future method (Owens et al 2015), and past intent does not appear to correlate with future suicide (Owens et al 2002, Brent et al 2011). Therefore, in my opinion, using the term self-harm is a more therapeutically-beneficial and scientifically-useful term to patients and in research.

Monday 5 September 2016

Assessing the Consequences of Unrealistic Optimism

This post is by James Shepperd, Gabrielle Pogge and Jennifer Howell who recently authored a paper entitled, "Assessing the Consequences of Unrealistic Optimism: Challenges and Recommendations", to be published in a special issue of Consciousness & Cognition on unrealistic optimism, guest-edited by Anneli Jefferson, Bojana Kuzmanovic and Lisa Bortolotti. In this post, James, Gabrielle and Jennifer summarise the content of their new paper.


Researchers have argued that unrealistic optimism (UO) can have both desirable and undesirable consequences. Yet, understanding the consequences of UO is a remarkably difficult. We identified eight challenges faced by researchers wanting to understand the consequences of UO.
  • Unrealistic comparative optimism might be overstated. Recent evidence suggests that measurement decisions may exaggerate both the frequency and magnitude of UO in research—UO may neither be as common or sizable as once believed. Accordingly, the potential consequences may be relatively infrequent, and minor when they occur.

  • Separating UO from positive expectations. The most common form of UO occurs when people report they are less likely than their peers to experience undesirable events. Yet studies show that people think only about themselves and little about their peers when making these judgments. Thus, what appears to be UO may actually be a positive personal expectation that may or may not be unrealistic. Researchers wishing to understand the consequences of unrealistic optimism must, therefore, disentangle realistic and unrealistic positive expectations. 

  • Measuring UO independently from its consequences. Often, the criterion for determining whether estimates are unrealistically optimistic is the same as the outcome used to assess the consequence of UO. For example, researchers wishing to examine whether students who display UO about a classroom exam subsequently perform better (or worse) on the exam might be tempted to compare the students’ exam estimate with their exam performance. If the estimate exceeds the performance, then the student displayed UO. They might then examine whether OU predicts performance on the exam. However, because the criterion used to establish UO is the same as the measure of the consequence (exam performance), it impossible to determine whether the predictions affected the outcome. Solving this issue requires careful forethought and multiple objective criterion measures. 

Thursday 1 September 2016

The 7th International Summer School of Affective Science

In this post, Matilde Aliffi (PhD student at the University of Birmingham) reports from the 7th International Summer School of Affective Science (ISSAS) held at Château de Bossey between the 7th and the 14th July 2016. This year ISSAS was entirely dedicated to investigating the role of emotions in fiction and virtual worlds. World leading experts in philosophy, psychology, educational science, neuroscience, affective computing and game design gave their lecture to an audience composed by an international and interdisciplinary community of about forty PhD students. 

During the school, workshops were also held on thought experiments, data-analysis, programming and text-based emotion recognition. Participants were divided in eight teams and had the opportunity to design and present a collaborative and interdisciplinary research project tied to the topics of the school. Alongside the lectures, participants also enjoyed artistic events that complemented nicely the lectures with a more direct personal experience of engagement with fiction and virtual worlds.

What follows here is a brief presentation of the key talks of the summer school.

The talks begun the second day of the school, because the first day was mainly dedicated to socialising and welcoming participants. The theme of the talks of the second day was the relation between emotions and imagination in fictional worlds, and was approached from a philosophical perspective. The speakers offered an answer to questions such as “What distinguishes fiction from non-fiction?” or “What is imagination?”, “Is imagination central to understand fiction?”. 

Aaron Meskin (University of Leeds) presented his philosophical research on imagination and videogames, a new and relatively unexplored area for philosophers. He argued that imagination is central to the understanding of fiction and videogames. He then addressed the distinction between videogames and other forms of fiction, presenting his account of videogames as self-involving and interactive fictions. 

A different stance about how we should understand fiction was offered by Derek Matravers (Open University). He argued that there is no interesting special relation between imagination and fiction, and that imagination has no explanatory role in understanding the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.