Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Does Choice Blindness imply Ignorance?

In this post, I discuss the relationship among confabulation, choice blindness, and self knowledge. That is the theme in a new open access paper by Ema Sullivan-Bissett and myself, published in Synthese, as part of a special issue entitled: "Knowing the Unknown: Philosophical Perspectives on Ignorance".

Ema and Lisa

When subject to the choice-blindness effect, an agent gives reasons for making choice B, moments after making the alternative choice A. Choice blindness has been studied by the Choice Blindness Lab in Lund in a variety of contexts, from consumer choice and aesthetic judgement to moral and political attitudes. Below you see an image of the set up of one of the studies where people were shown photos of strangers and asked to choose the most attractive face.

Which face is most attractive?

Choice blindness is often described as a form of confabulation. When people confabulate they tell a story that they believe to be correct, but the story is not grounded in the evidence. That is because people are not aware of some of the causal factors responsible for their choice. Clearly, there are important similarities between confabulation and choice blindness, and both phenomena have been discussed in the philosophical literature to argue for the limitations of self-knowledge claims.

However, we believe that the phenomena of confabulation and choice blindness are significantly different. In confabulation Anna chooses chocolate ice-cream because her sister did, but when she is asked about her choice, she explains it by appealing to different reasons, e.g., that chocolate is her favourite ice-cream flavour. There is no doubt that Anna is aware of what her choice was, but what she gets wrong is the causal process leading to her choice. Anna confabulates reasons for her choice.

In choice blindness Anna is asked by her mum whether she wants vanilla ice-cream or chocolate ice-cream and she says: “Chocolate”. Her mum mishears her and replies: “Vanilla is an excellent choice, my dear. Why did you choose it?” Anna answers that vanilla is a more delicate flavour than chocolate. Now, it is not clear whether Anna knows what her choice was, because she seems to consent to her mum’s incorrect choice attribution and, further, provides reasons for a choice that is different from the choice she explicitly made.

In the second scenario, to say that Anna confabulates reasons for her choice does not sound right. Rather, there are two ways in which we can describe what happens to Anna. She either attributes to herself (and gives reasons for) a choice she did not make, ignoring what her ‘real’ choice was (choice error); or she makes two different choices in quick succession, and she only gives reasons for the latter (choice change). 

Not only is the challenge to self-knowledge different in the two scenarios—as confabulation does not threaten the correctness of one’s choice attribution but simply the groundedness of the explanation provided for it—but it is also unclear in what respect choice blindness involves confabulating reasons.

In our paper, Ema Sullivan-Bissett and I argue that many cases of choice blindness involve choice change as opposed to choice error. Why should it matter what the best interpretation of choice blindness is? 

In choice error, we are manipulated into misattributing choices to ourselves, and in choice change we are manipulated into reversing our choices. If we were mistaken about what our choices are, then other people would be justified in questioning whether choices really are a clue to the kind of people we are. If we were ignorant about our choices, this would show that choices are not (always) reliable surface manifestations of our ‘deeper selves’.

If, however, we were manipulated into reversing our choices in the space of minutes, then it is not our claim to self-knowledge as such that would be threatened, but our stability and coherence as agents. We would not fail to realise what our choices are, but we would still fail to realise that our choices changed. 

Measures to prevent manipulation would need to be significantly different in the two cases: in choice error, we would need to avoid failures of self-knowledge by enhancing our capacity to recognise and remember which choices we made and keep track of the preferences that justify those choices; in choice change, we would need to avoid behavioural inconsistencies by resisting inaccurate third-party attributions and enhancing our stability and coherence.

On both interpretations, though, choice blindness implies a form of ignorance. In choice error, we are ignorant about what our choice is; in choice change, we are ignorant about the fact that we changed our choice and about the factors contributing to the change. To learn more and decide between the two interpretations, read our open access paper!

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