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.