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.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Andrea

My name is Andrea Polonioli and I recently joined the Philosophy Department at the University of Birmingham as a Research Fellow. I am extremely excited to be working under the mentorship of Lisa Bortolotti and on this fantastic project exploring the Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts (PERFECT).

Until now, most of my research has focused on the following two questions: What does it mean to be rational? To what extent are we rational? During my PhD at the University of Edinburgh, I explored these questions mainly considering literature on judgment and decision-making in nonclinical populations. As it turns out, researchers in the field of judgment and decision-making often claim that to be rational means to reason according to formal principles based on logic, probability theory, and decision theory. In a few papers of mine, I defended the claim that formal principles of rationality are too narrow and abstract, and that behaviour should be assessed against the goals people entertain (e.g., 2016; 2014). At the same time, I have also argued that the pessimistic claims about human rationality often expressed in psychological research still need to be taken seriously, as people can often be remarkably unsuccessful at achieving their goals (e.g, forthcoming).

My plan for this year is to further explore the topics of human rationality and successful behavior considering both clinical and non-clinical populations. First, I will be focusing on judgment and decision-making in clinical populations, as exploring these populations and comparing them against non-clinical ones offers important ways to push forward the so called “rationality debate” in philosophy and cognitive science. Specifically, there is a significant body of evidence suggesting that clinical populations tend to experience worse life outcomes, and it seems key to disentangle different explanations for reported associations between those populations and negative life outcomes. In particular, I aim to explore the role played by cognitive biases and imperfect cognitions in shaping those associations. 

Thursday 6 October 2016

Interview with Maria Bavetta on Maternal OCD

In this post I interview Maria Bavetta, co-founder of Maternal OCD.

LB: Could you describe maternal OCD, and tell us how frequent it is? Does it often go undiagnosed? How have you become interested in it?

MB: Nearly 13 years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Physically it was incredibly easy however that was where the ease stopped. By the time my daughter was three months old I was experiencing terrifying thoughts (obsessions) and repeatedly carrying out exhausting behaviours (compulsions) – mentally I was very unwell. I was suffering from perinatal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Strictly speaking this is OCD during the perinatal period (conception to a year post birth), however the impact can last longer than that finite period.

Perinatal OCD is an anxiety disorder that can impact up to 2.5% of women and according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Perinatal OCD leaflet the main symptoms of Perinatal OCD are:

Obsessions. These are unwanted thoughts, images, urges or doubts. These happen repeatedly and can make you very distressed. Common examples are:
  • Intense fear that something is contaminated by germs or dirt. Women with Perinatal OCD often worry that their baby will be harmed due to contamination.
  • An image (a picture in your mind), or a thought, of harming someone. You may worry that you will accidentally or deliberately harm your baby, including sexual and violent thoughts. We know that people with OCD don't become violent or act on these thoughts.
  • Perfectionism. You may worry that you have left your doors or windows unlocked, or not sterilised your baby's bottle correctly.
Anxiety and other emotions. You may feel anxious, fearful, guilty, disgusted or depressed. You feel better if you carry out your compulsive behaviour. This doesn't help for long.

Compulsions. These are the things you do to reduce your anxiety or prevent what you fear from happening. They include:
  • Rituals - e.g. washing, cleaning or sterilising repetitively and excessively. This can take up so much time that it stops you doing other things you need to do.
  • Checking - e.g. repeatedly checking your baby throughout the night to ensure he/she is breathing.
  • Seeking reassurance - repeatedly asking others to tell you that everything is alright.
  • Correcting obsessional thoughts by counting, praying or saying a special word over and over again. This may feel as though it prevents bad things from happening. It can also be a way of trying to get rid of unpleasant thoughts or pictures in your mind.
  • Avoidance of feared situations or activities is common. People with OCD often avoid things that may trigger obsessions or compulsions. If you have perinatal OCD, you may avoid nappy changing, hide all your knives. You may not attend mother and baby groups. Some women avoid spending time alone with their baby.
For further details please see the information the Royal College of Psychiatrists has gathered on perinatal OCD. I was lucky, I recovered through specialist CBT for mothers with perinatal OCD.

With Diana Wilson, we set up Maternal OCD, a charity to raise the profile of perinatal OCD amongst health professionals, national decision makers and mothers with their families. We were both acutely aware about the huge misunderstanding and misdiagnoses of perinatal OCD and we both knew this had to change. The aim has always been to ensure that national perinatal mental health decisions include perinatal OCD, clinicians understand the disorder so they can diagnose correctly and that mothers know they can recover with access to the right treatment and support. We also have a Twitter feed. We are grateful to our patron Dr Fiona Challacombe for her support. She published several articles on perinatal OCD.

LB: The question about what it takes to be a good mother is hotly debated in our society. My impression (not as an academic, but as a mother) is that women who are going to be mothers or who have just become mothers feel an incredible amount of pressure to meet unreasonably high expectations. Would you agree about this? If so, to what extent does this make women vulnerable to mental health issues, and how can we change society to support rather than judge women at such a critical time in their lives?

MB: I do believe that women who are going to be mothers or are mothers, are under a huge amount of pressure to deliver a perfect image however as I am neither a researcher or clinician I can’t conclusively say to what extent, if any, this makes women vulnerable to mental health issues.

However, common sense surely dictates that we need to support women, as no human (dads too!) should feel under unnecessary pressure. I carried out a quick straw poll amongst friends to see, as a society, what we could do to support rather than judge, below is a summary of their views:
  • Need to educate at school level that parenting is hard
  • Social media and television – great mediums to change perceptions
  • Women need to be honest with each other, no need to pretend
  • More information during pregnancy so pregnant women have realistic expectations
  • Mums with older children can impart their wisdom to new mums
  • There needs to be ‘real’ images of motherhood, e.g. messy kitchen, beans on toast for dinner, hair needs a wash!
  • Celebrity mums have a responsibility to show reality – not a photo shoot a week after giving birth with a flat tummy
  • It is common to suffer from depression and anxiety and that help and support is there to be used.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Lisa

The third year of our ERC-funded project PERFECT (logo above) has just started and it is time to look back at what we have done in the last year, and make plans for the future.

What we have done in our second year

The PERFECT team delivered many academic and outreach talks in the UK and internationally, wrote papers, and organised a series of interdisciplinary events sponsored by the project, including a mini-workshop on Belief and Emotion in November 2015, a public engagement event called Tricked by Memory for the Arts and Science Festival in March 2016, and a symposium entitled Explaining Delusions at the International Congress of Psychology in Yokohama in July 2016. The main event was our first project workshop, PERFECT 2016, on False but Useful Beliefs, in February 2016.

We had several papers accepted which will be published open access, including Ema's "Malfunction Defended" in Synthese; a chapter on what makes beliefs delusional by Rachel Gunn, Ema and myself, in the volume Cognitive Confusions: Dreams, Delusions and Illusions in Early Modern Culture, published by Legenda; and a chapter on gradualism in psychiatry, illustrated via the case of delusions, by Ema, Matteo Mameli, Matthew Broome and myself, to appear in the volume Vagueness in Psychiatry: Gradualist Approaches to Mental Health and Disease, published by Oxford University Press.

We continued to disseminate our work on the blog, on the Imperfect Cognitions playlist on YouTube, and on an app for iOS and Android, called PERFECT, free to download. I was featured with Michael and Ema in the Birmingham Heroes campaign in November 2015, due to our commitment to address key issues relevant to the stigmatisation of mental health, and wrote two Birmingham Briefs on relevant themes, "Them and Us" no longer: mental health concerns us all and Mental health care is still awaiting its revolution. I also participated with Richard Bentall in an episode of the Philosofa podcast where I discussed the theoretical basis for rejecting the stigmatisation of psychological distress, namely the fact that there is no clear line between mental health and mental illness.

Monday 3 October 2016

The Hubris Hypothesis

This post is by Vera Hoorens (Leuven University) who recently wrote a paper entitled, "The Hubris Hypothesis: The Downside of Comparative Optimism Displays", together with Carolien Van Damme, Marie Helweg-Larsen, and Constantine Sedikides. 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.


Optimism has many positive consequences. This makes one expect that people encourage and admire other individuals’ optimism. We speculated, however, that the extent to which they do so depends on how these individuals display their optimism. They may express absolute optimism, saying that their future will be good, or comparative optimism, saying that their future will be better than other people’s futures. Based on the hubris hypothesis, we predicted that this distinction would determine how observers respond.

The hubris hypothesis states that observers respond more unfavorably to individuals who express self-superiority views comparatively than to those who express self-superiority views non-comparatively, because observers infer that the former hold a more disparaging view of others and particularly of observers. With comparative optimism being an instance of self-superiority beliefs, we predicted more unfavorable observer reactions to a comparatively optimistic claimant than to an absolutely optimistic claimant, due to observers’ inference of a more disparaging view of them in the former case than in the latter. We tested these predictions in two experiments.


Experiment 1 tested the prediction that observers respond more unfavorably to expressions of comparative optimism than to expressions of absolute optimism, even though they may generally respond more favorably to optimism than to pessimism. Participants (observers) saw likelihood ratings that a claimant had allegedly made for a set of events on a questionnaire about future expectations. These ratings were absolute or comparative, and they expressed optimism, pessimism, or neutrality.

Experiment 2 tested the prediction that individuals expressing comparative (vs. absolute) optimism come across as holding more unfavorable future expectations for the observers, and that this is the reason why observers respond more unfavorably to expressions of comparative optimism than to expressions of absolute optimism. Participants again saw likelihood ratings that a claimant had allegedly made. These ratings were always optimistic, and they were either absolutely or comparatively so. Participants in both experiments evaluated the claimant on warmth and competence, and indicated their affiliative preferences for her or him. In Experiment 2, among other additional measures, they also indicated (i.e., inferred) how likely the claimant thought the events were in their (i.e., the participants’) future.