Tuesday 30 May 2017

Foreign Language and Moral Judgment

Janet Geipel (pictured above) is currently a Postdoc at the VU University Medical Center Amsterdam. In this post, she summarises a paper she recently published in the journal Cognition, which is based on her doctoral studies at the University of Trento.

Imagine yourself in the following situation. You are standing on a footbridge next to a large man. Underneath the footbridge, a runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks and will soon kill 5 unsuspected workmen. But there is a way out. You could push the large man off the footbridge and onto the path of the runaway trolley. The person would die but the five workmen would be saved. Is it morally permissible to do so? Now consider what seems to be an insignificant variation. Instead of reading the story in your native language you read it in a non-native language that you understand well. Would this affect your moral evaluation?

Studies conducted by our research group and others suggest that it might. Overall, foreign language descriptions promoted higher moral permissibility ratings for this so-called “footbridge dilemma” than descriptions written in one’s native language. The most prominent explanation for this language effect is that the use of a foreign language attenuates (negative) emotions, facilitating colder, outcome-focused moral evaluations to surface. Another, possibly complementary explanation, is that foreign language directly prompts deliberative thinking, which in this context amounts to performing a cost-benefit analysis.

Thursday 25 May 2017

The Human Sense of Smell

On Thursday 13 April 2017, a workshop organized at Columbia University by the Centre for Science and Society and the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America sought to explore an important and still partly unresolved question: How does our brain make sense of scents and flavors?

Importantly, a key goal of the exploration was to debunk some myths about the human sense of smell. Most notably, it targeted the view that our olfactory abilities are underdeveloped and lack cognitive significance. An eminent advocate of this proposition was Immanuel Kant, who wrote the following:
"Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems to be the most dispensable? The sense of smell. It does not pay to cultivate it or refine it at all in order to enjoy; for there are more disgusting objects than pleasant ones (especially in crowded places), and even when we come across something fragrant, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell is always fleeting and transient" (2006 [1798], 50-51)
The panel sought to bring together different perspectives to show how this view turns out to be incorrect and to investigate the human sense of smell in its many dimensions and from different angles. After some introductory remarks by David FreedbergPamela Smith, and by Ann-Sophie Barwich (who will present her new research on this blog in the next few weeks), it was philosopher Barry Smith who started by addressing the role of the sense of smell in perception and conscious experience.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Delusions and Responsibility for Action

Together with Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Matteo Mameli and Matthew Broome, I have written a chapter on delusions for a new volume on gradualism in psychiatry: Vagueness in Psychiatry, edited by Geert Keil, Laura Keuck and Rico Hauswald for Oxford University Press.

Matteo Mameli

In the paper we argue that it is difficult to distinguish pathological and non-pathological beliefs on the basis of their epistemic features. Then we consider some of the moral and legal implications of our thesis, focusing in particular on the role of beliefs in the attribution of moral responsibility and legal accountability for criminal actions that are motivated by those beliefs.

Ema Sullivan-Bissett
Delusions fail to meet many epistemic standards. It might look like they are not beliefs which are aimed at truth or governed by a norm of truth, that they are not responsive to evidence in the ways which ordinary beliefs typically are. But non-delusional beliefs also share such features. For instance, most people are vulnerable to positive illusions, considering themselves (and sometimes their romantic partners) to be above average, or better than most other people, when asked about positive traits and abilities. Moreover, people tend to exhibit unrealistic optimism about their future underestimating their likelihood of experiencing negative events, and overestimating their likelihood of experiencing positive events.

Matthew Broome

Here is another example: in self-deception beliefs include a motivational element which can involve the misreading or ignoring of evidence in coming to a belief. Consider the person who has the false and motivated belief that his wife is faithful. There may be evidence available to the person that his wife is unfaithful (he sees that she arrives home late, that she is uninterested in him, and so on). But he is highly motivated to believe that his wife is faithful.

The epistemic feature of delusions that is considered most distinctive—resistance to counterevidence—is actually a very common feature of beliefs. Once they adopt a hypothesis, people are very reluctant to abandon it, even when copious and robust evidence against it becomes available. Given that delusions share many epistemic features with non-delusional beliefs, are we justified in considering the presence of delusions as a sufficient reason to determine whether agents are morally responsible and legally accountable for their actions?

Thursday 18 May 2017

Children, Grief and Depression

In this post I am interested in the depiction of mental health issues in books aimed at young children. There are two interesting books addressing the issue of what the depression of a loved one means for the children involved. The first is The Colour Thief, by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Wayland 2014). The second is Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault (Kids Can Press 2016).


There are some interesting similarities in how depression is described in the two books. In both books, the point of view is that of a child. In The Colour Thief, a boy observes his father as he gradually falls prey to depression. The father soon gets to the point where he does not go out anymore and stays in bed all day. In Virginia Wolf, a book inspired by the relationship between the author Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa, a child called Vanessa witnesses a curious transformation in her beloved sister Virgina. Virginia becomes, quite literally, a wolf.

Another common point is that depression is described as a change in a person's behaviour but also in the world around the person. In The Colour Thief the sky becomes grey and all other colours disappear as the boy's father's depression deepens. Depression stole all the colours from the world.
He said that all the colours had gone. Someone had stolen them away.
Similarly, in Virginia Wolf Virginia's mood changes, from happy to sad at the start of the story, and from sad to happy at the end of it, are presented as changes in light, from bright to dim and from dim to bright.
Up became down
Bright became dim
Glad became gloom
In both books the children witnessing depression want to do something to improve the situation and feel to some extent responsible for the changes their loved ones are experiencing. In The Colour Thief the son often wonders whether it is his fault that his father is sad, and in Virginia Wolf Vanessa tries everything in her power to make her sister feel better. There is an attempt to show what the effects of depression are on children who are sensitive and full of compassion.

Both books end with the people affected by depression "finding themselves again": they enjoy being outside after being locked inside, they desire closeness after avoiding all social contact. Father and son go for a walk, Vanessa and Virginia go out to play.

A book focusing on the lasting effects of grief is The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins 2010). In the story, a little girl who was full of curiosity and imagination decides to take her heart out of her chest and keep it in a bottle tied around her neck after her dad dies. All the curiosity and the imagination disappear from her life -- she lives in the same house, close to the same sea and the same stars that before filled her with wonder, but she experiences nothing at all.

I am not sure whether the book is supposed to be about depression, but seems to capture another important aspect of it in a way that is intriguing for children, and with illustrations so beautiful that take your breath away.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Aliens, Fairies, Donkey-Conspiracies

This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s main research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post, he talks about some recent work in epistemology.

On the basis of no evidence at all, Jo comes to the private belief that aliens from another planet are helping her navigate the social world. Without that belief, Jo would experience profound social anxiety, develop paranoid tendencies, and come to suffer worse delusions that would severely impact her ability to maintain her physical wellbeing, personal relationships, employment, and so on. With her belief, Jo does pretty well for herself.

Overall it is probably good Jo has this belief about aliens. There are certainly comparative benefits to having this belief. The overall quality of Jo's cognitions is improved by having this belief. She is closer to the truth, has fewer false cognitions, is better at predicting how others will respond, is better enabled to carry out her projects and everyday tasks, more accurately understands the mental states of others, and so on, than she would if she didn't have this belief about aliens.

This will be familiar to readers of this blog as a case of a flawed cognition which might be thought to be epistemically innocent in some important respects.

The question I am interested in is, epistemically speaking, was forming this belief about aliens the epistemically right thing to do? Or does it somehow go against what is epistemically allowed? This is a different way of understanding the idea of epistemic innocence than that used by the PERFECT team [e.g., 1, 2]. But, one way to be innocent is to have not broken the rules, to have done nothing wrong, to have stuck to what was allowed. 

Thursday 11 May 2017

Melancholic Habits

In this post, Jennifer Radden, Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Massachusetts, introduces her new book: Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences.

When the process of writing a book is long and slow, as this was, one enters not entirely sure where one will end – or at least, expecting mind-change as the result of the process. For me, for this book, that change was considerable, and so incremental that it is hard to identify the moments it occurred or the sequences engendering it. Some of the befores and afters stand out, though.

I’d read Burton for years, and alluded to aspects of his Anatomy of Melancholy in earlier writing. But the recognition that it was possible to find a coherent model of mind and disorder (“disease,” in his pre-modern sense) implicatively related not to the actual detail of his remedies but to his remedial principles, emerged slowly as I worked through the first and second Partitions.

My unorthodox and ahistorical approach was itself part of the hindrance to seeing this coherence. I wasn’t sure, am still not, whether this is a legitimate way to approach any historical text. It certainly wouldn’t usually be. Yet the inchoate and elusive nature of the subject matter, combined with the sheer, bamboozling and distracting detail Burton willfully introduces at every turn, seemed to allow, and perhaps require, something unusual.

Then I stumbled on Christopher Tilmouth’s writing about the Anatomy, which seemed to support the idea that a partly-submerged foundation lies in there somewhere, from which a coherent picture can be discerned. To the extent that Tilmouth undertook that excavation, he seemed to see the picture as I did, moreover, although there was clearly much more journeyman work to be done, especially in tying the ideas about mind, body and disorder with the remedial end of things.

So: grateful and emboldened, although remaining cognizant that such cherry-picking was dangerous, and may be unwarranted, I continued. If it had a warrant, was my idea, then it was because despite the differences between melancholy then and today’s mood disorders, these conditions today are so little understood, so costly in terms of human suffering, so widespread and epidemic in their effects (depression is often said to be the “common cold” of mental disorders), that extreme measures might be permitted - and help, from any quarter, might be pursued. If there were even a chance that Burton may have hidden some answers in the Anatomy (however inadvertently), we may need to cut corners to find them.

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Disbelief in free will and prosocial behaviours

My name is Emilie Caspar and I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences at Universit√© libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. My work is mostly dedicated to understand what guides people’s decisions to perform actions that are morally acceptable or not. My current research focuses on the extent to which coercion influences the experience of being the author of one’s own actions and how this affects immoral behaviours. To achieve this goal, I combine techniques from both experimental psychology and cognitive neurosciences.

Most of us consider that we have “free will”, the power to make our own choices and to control our actions. This experience stems in part from the fact that our conscious experience of intention precedes the moment we act. Feeling ‘free’ greatly influences one’s own perception of individual responsibility: We say we are responsible for our actions if we “could have done otherwise”. Does this perception of responsibility influence moral behaviour? Many studies have highlighted the prosocial benefits of believing in free will. For instance, inducing a belief in free will reduces cheating behaviour and increases one’s willingness to make efforts. However, things are not that simple. Believing in free will has also been associated with stronger retributive attitudes towards others: if you judge that a person who committed a crime was truly free to decide how to act, then that person should be punished more severely than if there are mitigating circumstances that partially explain the crime.

In our recent study, we used a paradigm that engages morality in which two participants (the ‘agent’ and the ‘victim’) took turns to administer (or not) electrical shocks to each other in order to receive a small financial benefit. To study to what extent belief in free will influences the number of shocks delivered to the ‘victim’, we used an experimental manipulation known to induce disbelief in free will, — reading an excerpt that challenges the existence of free will (e.g, by claiming that human behaviour is totally determined by genetics). Half of our participants read such an excerpt; the other half read a neutral text without any mention of free will.

Thursday 4 May 2017

Land and Water

Each year, the University of Birmingham hosts the Arts &Science Festival, a week-long celebration of research, culture and collaboration across campus and beyond. During the festival, those involved in different aspects of university life deliver a programme of concerts, exhibitions, screenings, talks and workshops around a common theme.

This year’s theme “Land and Water” had us at project PERFECT thinking about perceptions of climate change, and in the following, I report on a lunchtime event that we hosted on this topic, in which we were joined by Ulrike Hahn (Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Birkbeck, below) and Anna Bright (‎Chief Executive at Sustainability West Midlands).

Why should those researching imperfect cognitions be interested in perceptions of climate change? Well, it turns out that the former frequently feature in, and shape, the latter. We see lots of things, beyond the consideration of climactic data, influence whether people believe climate change is happening. For instance, numerous studies show that people who are politically Conservative are less likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change than people who are politically Liberal (McCright and Dunlap 2011; Kahan et al. 2011).

There are likely multiple reasons for this, but the discomforting dissonance that comes from (i) championing free market economics (as Conservatives tend to) and recognising the oil trade as a central feature of the global market, and (ii) acknowledging that reliance on oil is causing climate damage, probably plays a part in downgrading the credence placed in climate science. So, the tendency to irrationality in order to preserve consistency features prominently in climate perceptions, rendering this topic of interest to researchers of imperfect cognitions. You can watch a video of my talk here:

Ulrike Hahn gave our second talk, adding another layer to the narrative, by demonstrating that when people deliberate about whether or not anthropogenic climate change is happening, they’re rarely making this judgement on the basis of the scientific findings, but believing on the basis of the testimony of someone else. For instance, many people will read about climate science from a reporter writing in a newspaper, who may themselves only read executive summaries of climate science reports. Others still will be one further step removed, learning about climate science through what their friends have read in the paper.

The dynamics of belief update on the basis of testimony depends not simply on the quality of the evidence, but on the credence placed in the source, and so on the model proposed there are several stages at which the people might downgrade their belief in the evidence as a result of low credence associated with the source. Group belief dynamics also demonstrate how a false belief can propagate through a group and engender more members of the group to believe falsely (as in Condorcet’s Jury Theorem). Ulrike pointed out the work already done in this area, and demonstrated that it is territory ripe for further research.

Anna Bright gave the third talk, on the topic of sustainable behavioural change, which you can see again here:

Anna has worked in environmental management for the past fifteen years, and talked us through a number of case studies, with strategies employed by various organisations to promote environmentally sound behaviour. For instance, we heard about the TLC behaviour change programme developed with Barts Health NHS Trust to promote more sustainable behaviour and practices by NHS staff. 

Of particular interest was the 10,000 actions campaign at the University of Manchester. A bespoke online dashboard tool, developed in partnership with Net Positive Futures, enables users to build a profile and load information about their day-to-day around campus, so that people can develop their own tailored action plan to help reduce their environmental impact. As Anna suggested, this allows people to be creative in their approach to sustainability, and the visibility of the data enables people to see what others are doing, encouraging further efforts.

Anna also talked about the power of social norms, and knowing what others around you are doing as instrumental to successful campaigns. In particular, Anna highlighted the use of descriptive norms (those stating, who or how many people in fact perform some action, as opposed to giving the reasons why one should perform some action) to bring about some instances of behavioral change. Anna appealed to a 2008 study, in which hotel guests who read a message stating that “75% of hotel guests have reused their towels’’ reused their own towels more frequently than those who read a message providing environmental reasons to do so. When the message referred to guests in the same room, it was even more effective.

Whilst the effectiveness of this technique may vary for different behaviours, and across different cultures, descriptive norm messaging can play an important role in motivating behaviour change. But it won’t work everywhere - Anna suggested that elsewhere, appealing to people’s core values and intrinsic reasons for acting is likely to promote longer-term behavioural change.

In summary, there is no one-click solution, but successful behavioural change may be brought about though a mix of techniques, appealing to both norms and values, incorporating technology, and promoting creativity and fun.

Tuesday 2 May 2017

Legitimate Lies: Omission, Commission, and Cheating

My name is Andrea Pittarello, and I am an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). I am mainly interested in behavioral ethics (e.g., cheating) and I seek to understand what leads people from all walks of life to bend the rules and serve their self-interest.

In a recent paper with Enrico Rubaltelli (University of Padova) and Daphna Motro (University of Arizona), we asked whether people are more likely to lie by withholding the truth (i.e., a lie of omission) or by actively breaking the rules (i.e., lie of commission). Imagine that you are selling your car and the engine is on its last legs. A lie of commission would be telling a potential customer that the engine works perfectly, whereas a lie of omission would be failing to mention the problem and let the customer find out about it on his own. From a utilitarian point of view, the two lies should be the same: After all, lying is always wrong, and the way it is brought about should not affect our judgments. However, philosophers and psychologists found that the two lies are considered differently by observers and by the law. To date, most of the work on omission and commission focused on moral judgment, and we know very little about how this distinction is reflected into actual cheating behavior.

Monday 1 May 2017

Self-attribution Bias and Paranormal Beliefs

This post is by Michiel van Elk who works in the Religion, Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Amsterdam and is currently a Fullbright Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. He recently published a paper on the self-attribution bias and paranormal beliefs in Consciousness and Cognition. 

My name is Michiel van Elk and I am intrigued by religious and spiritual experiences. Why do some people have paranormal encounters? What causes people to experience the feeling that another invisible being is present? How do mystical experiences and feelings of transcendence come about? As a researcher working at the Religion, Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Amsterdam, I aim to answer these questions. I often go into the field to study religious experiences, but also conduct lab-based studies using a variety of different psychological and neurocognitive techniques.

Together with my colleagues we found for instance that mystical experiences can be induced through the use of an alleged God Helmet, capable of inducing such experiences. However, unbeknownst to our participants the helmet was actually a placebo device and all experiences that people reported were self-generated, based on prior expectations and by using sensory deprivation (i.e., participants were blindfolded and were wearing headphones on which white noise was presented). In another study we showed that when participants had a self-transcendent experience, their brain showed decreased activation in regions involved in self-referential processing. This indicates that a key feature of the awe-experience is a reduced focus and awareness of the self – in line with recent studies showing similar effects when participants used psychedelics (e.g., psilocybin).

In a recently published paper – also building on our earlier work - we were specifically interested in the psychological mechanisms underlying belief in paranormal phenomena (e.g., seeing auras, Tarot card reading, Psi etc.). We investigated to what extent believers in paranormal phenomena showed a tendency to take credit for positive outcomes in a game of chance. In the scientific literature this phenomenon is known as the self-attribution bias. It has been argued that the self-attribution bias reflects a motivated and adaptive tendency to maintain a positive image of oneself. Following the observation that many psychic believers often tend to attribute positive outcomes (e.g., ‘I found the partner of my life’) to a specific paranormal activity they undertook (e.g., ‘That must have something to do with me visiting the astrologist’), we hypothesized that psychics would be more willing to take credit for positive outcomes that were in fact determined by chance.