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. 

Second, I also intend to continue working on judgment and decision-making in non-clinical populations. In particular, I wish to explore if confabulatory phenomena might further any epistemic and pragmatic goals in non-clinical populations, and whether these phenomena can be "epistemically innocent". Notably, people have been described as prone to confabulation when it comes to the accounts they provide of their own thinking and decision-making. On this view, unconscious processes control our behaviour without us being aware of them doing so, and conscious reasoning is often used for the confabulation of explanations for these behaviours. Whilst some potential benefits have been associated with confabulatory explanations in clinical populations, where these phenomena would enhance coherence, self-confidence, and well-being, the extent to which confabulatory explanations can be associated with positive outcomes in non-clinical populations is largely underexplored.

Third, I also expect my research to both clarify and problematise key concepts deployed in the study of judgment and decision-making. For instance, the concept of bias is one of the most frequently invoked in social and cognitive psychology. Still, not only the question as to what exactly it means to be biased seems far from being resolved, but the concept of bias has recently attracted fierce criticisms: a number of scholars stress that the concept of bias should be abandoned tout court or simply avoid using it. I intend to examine whether this concept should play a role in scientific discussions on human thinking and decision-making, or should rather be eliminated.

For more information, see this video where I talk about my research plans!

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