Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Italian Heroes: the role of gender specific images in the public discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic

Today's post is by Veronica Valle, philosopher of perception and of the cognitive sciences, who recently completed a doctoral project at the University of Macau. Here she discusses some of her work on the Moral Roots of Quarantine project.

Veronica Valle

The war metaphor has been largely dominating the public discourse around the COVID-19 pandemics worldwide, with many voices having highlighted the potential and factual negative effects of such a rhetoric. Our paper focuses on one aspect that has been overlooked: the interplay between deeply rooted gender stereotypes and the use of the war metaphor.

We carried out an investigation of the embedded use of gender-specific images in the war narrative that characterized the anti-pandemic public discourse in Italy during the first wave. By employing textual semiotics and theories in pragmatics, we analyze a relevant selection of texts (e.g., social advertising ads, newspaper articles, statements made by politicians, etc.). The results of the analysis suggest that the war metaphor and gender-specific images have been jointly employed to reflect the gender biases still permeating the Italian society and culture.

The rhetoric of war is found to be closely linked to a representation of leadership characterized by the stereotypical traits of hegemonic masculinity (e.g., strength, firmness, and bravery). In effect, leading roles in the Italian management of the health crisis were associated with male actors, and the rational and unemotional communication of governmental decisions was entrusted to male politicians, scientists, and doctors. In contrast to the predominantly stereotypically masculine narrative of the leadership, the representation of the ‘heroes’ has been largely symbolic and has widely relied on the employment of feminine images. 

During the first wave, the two pictures symbolizing the health-workers’ heroism depict two women: Elena Pagliarini, a nurse fallen asleep on her desk still wearing PPE, and a fictional female health-worker (drawn by Franco Rivolli) with angel wings, affectionately looking down at the Italian country, which she holds in her arms as a baby. An analysis of these two iconic female images reveals their place – hinged on stereotypical femininity – within the rhetorical narrative of the pandemic as a war. Although female nurses and, less often, doctors have been associated with the word “hero”, they were depicted as fragile and vulnerable, yet resilient, motherly, and always young and beautiful.

Expanding our analysis to a larger set of images, we argue that not only masculine and feminine images are structurally different, but they are also associated to different communicative tones and intentions. Feminine images are associated to strongly emotionally charged textual contents, having the perlocutionary function of triggering emotions (in particular empathy, protectiveness, and gratitude). On the other hand, masculine images are associated to appeals to strength and calm, with the (intended) perlocutionary effect of triggering action.

In the Italian context, the war narrative is embedded in a patriarchal framework where roles are assigned based on gender, complying with the masculine vs feminine patriarchal stereotype. In this context the use of the war metaphor and the employment of stereotypical female images jointly deliver and reiterate a specific hierarchical model and the patriarchal value system that still characterizes the Italian society, leading to – and working as a ready-at-hand justification of – the exclusion of women from the corridors of power.

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

The Moral Roots of Quarantine: Interview with Nevia Dolcini

In today's post, I interview Nevia Dolcini, philosopher of mind based at the University of Macau, on the project The Moral Roots of Quarantine.

Nevia Dolcini

Lisa Bortolotti: What did you set out to investigate in the project The Moral Roots of Quarantine?

Nevia Dolcini: The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic prompted a series of unprecedented events worldwide. As an Italian living in Macau, I first witnessed the effects of the Wuhan outbreak, and I later experienced the first wave and consequent lockdown in Italy. I was bewildered by my observations of the wide-ranging public reactions to the same emergency.

For instance, while masks in Macau were accepted since the first day into the pandemic, in Italy their efficacy was questioned at length. Interestingly, the pandemic discourses across East and West were highly ‘moralized’. These observations inspired the project “The Moral Roots of Quarantine”, funded by the Macau S.A.R. Government Higher Education Fund, which sets out to carry on a comparative investigation of the measures taken by legislators in different countries and the moral justifications provided in their support, as well as the role of shared moral beliefs in shaping the public responses.

LB: So, one of the objectives of the project was to compare various aspects of the quarantine measures imposed during the pandemic in different countries. Can you offer an example of the differences you observed?

ND: In the first phase, while in Europe the compliance with the mandated anti-pandemic measures was monitored in traditional ways (e.g., roadblocks and checkpoints), China combined more traditional with innovative measures, such as contact-tracing apps. A stark difference was noticeable in terms of the community response: the call to download contact tracing apps was coldly received in many Western countries under the concern of potential threats to personal privacy, yet they were more positively accepted in China, where these apps were regarded as a tool for protecting families and the community.

LB: What were the main findings of the project?

ND: We found that the global status of an emergency might not be sufficient to justify a homogeneous response to it. The effectiveness of a measure depends on multiple factors, including the socio-cultural context in which it is implemented as well as the communicative strategies employed. The latter aspect has been given special attention in our work: the effectiveness of the anti-pandemic public discourse depends greatly on the capacity of the public communication to leverage on the community-wide accepted ‘moral outlook’ (e.g., the case of the contact-tracing apps).

Interestingly, we also found that the communication of extraordinarily restrictive measures has often exploited stereotypes and common views that are potentially hurtful to specific groups of the population, in particular women, health-workers, and immigrants.

LB: What impact do you expect the project to have on current and future responses to health threats such as COVID-19?

ND: While it is beyond the scope of this project to assess the scientific value and efficacy of the responses to the pandemic, our aim is to highlight the contribution that the humanities and the social sciences can bring to the table in times of crisis. With this aim in mind, in December 2021, we held an interdisciplinary conference participated by researchers from various countries.

One thing that has emerged is that, for instance, the same preventive measure, e.g., lockdowns as the extreme form of social distancing, while generally backed up by scientific research, have had different outcomes depending on the social, geo-demographic, and cultural context in which they have been enforced. As argued by Alex Broadbent, while lockdowns may be effective in rich countries, they have shown to offer no protection to people living in circumstances in which the risk posed by COVID 19 is lower than other threats to life, so that lockdowns have in fact increased those other risks. This is only one of the many examples of the contribution that non-medical disciplines could bring to the table. 

LB: As part of the project, you created an interdisciplinary network of researchers worldwide. What were the disciplines involved and why was this range of expertise needed?

ND: Beside various branches of philosophy, other disciplines include anthropology, the cognitive sciences, economics, political theory, communication studies, and history. While the study of general cognitive tendencies is a fundamental tool to understand (and possibly predict) the public reaction to given measures, a more comprehensive study of a population – contextualized in its socio-cultural background – may help to shape the public discourse more effectively, and therefore to enhance the chances for a successful intervention.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Expert Shopping: What is it? Why should we worry about it?

This post is by Gabriele Contessa. Gabriele is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His research interests lie at the intersection of social epistemology, philosophy of science, and political philosophy. He is currently working on a book in which he develops and defends a social approach to public trust in science.

Gabriele Contessa

When it comes to specialized knowledge, most of us depend on experts. If we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with our car, we take it to a mechanic, when we are sick, we go to a doctor, and, when it’s time to file our taxes, we hire a tax accountant. But how can we choose which experts to trust without either becoming experts ourselves or falling prey to quacks, shams, or other pseudo-experts? The standard answer is that, when selecting experts, we should carefully consider the evidence for and against their trustworthiness. This might include examining the expert’s credentials, inquiring about their reputation, checking their track record, and, when in doubt, getting a second opinion.

This standard answer, however, makes two crucial assumptions. The first is that we typically choose our own experts; the second is that, when we do, we typically try to choose the most credible ones. However, it is unclear how often both assumptions hold in real-world situations. A particularly interesting set of cases in which one of these assumptions does not hold is when we engage in expert shopping. In general, expert shopping occurs whenever we select a supposed expert because they tell us what we want to hear irrespectively of any evidence that bears on their credibility or on the correctness of their opinions. 

The most familiar kind of expert shopping is what elsewhere I have called cynical expert shopping. A standard example of cynical expert shopping is the defense lawyer who selects an expert witness not because he has reason to believe that her testimony will be true but because he believes her testimony might contribute to instil doubt in the mind of the jurors.

However, while cynical expert shoppers show no interest in the correctness of the expert’s opinion, not all expert shoppers display a comparable disregard for the truth. Unlike cynical expert shoppers, wishful expert shoppers are typically not disinterested in the correctness of expert’s opinion, but they are still willing to disregard the evidence that bears on the expert’s credibility or the correctness of their opinions. A standard case of wishful expert shopping is that of the cancer patients who forgo mainstream medical treatment on the advice of a quack who claims to be able to treat cancer without side effects.

While it might be tempting to dismiss wishful expert shopping as a marginal phenomenon due to individual gullibility, I believe that this assessment underestimates both the extent and the seriousness of problem. I suspect that, in fact, we all engage in wishful expert shopping more often than we would like to admit. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to controversial policy matters, when each side of the debate tends to rely on its “own” experts and tends to regard the experts on the other side as quacks or shills. 

This situation is made even worse by the fact that we often do not even shop for experts ourselves, but, instead, we rely on what elsewhere I have called assisted expert shopping. That is, we let people or organizations we trust (including news organizations, think tanks, politicians, or political parties) engage in expert shopping on our behalf.

Citizens of liberal democracies must rely on experts to form warranted opinions on many policy-relevant issues and to assess the effectiveness of the policy proposals of political candidates and parties. If, as I suggested, expert shopping is a widespread phenomenon in the political arena, then this undermines the possibility of the sort of healthy public debate about policy on which the proper functioning of liberal democracies depends. Far from being a marginal phenomenon caused by individual gullibility, expert shopping, thus, has the potential to undermine the very foundations of liberal democracy.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

AAPP Annual Conference 2022 report

This post is by Eleanor Harris. Eleanor Harris is a Philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research explores Delusions, Epistemic Injustice, and Epistemic Vigilance. Here, she provides a report on The Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry's (AAPP) annual conference.


AAPP conference poster 2022

The Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry (AAPP) held their 33rd annual conference on 21st-22nd May 2022 at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans, Louisiana. Unlike previous years’ conferences that had a set theme which was narrower in focus, the theme for this year’s annual conference was open to all topics that address either philosophical issues that are relevant to psychiatry, or psychiatric issues with relevance to philosophy. Over two days there were a total of 19 talks, on a wide range of topics such as psychiatric euthanasia, policing and the production of the mental health crisis, and issues with defining and taxonomizing mental illness. I give a brief summary of four of the talks below.

On the first day of the conference, I gave a talk entitled ‘Delusions: Epistemic Injustice and Epistemic Vigilance’. I argued that speakers with delusions are vulnerable to epistemic injustice due to the existence of negative stereotypes. I also argued that Sperber and colleagues’ (2010) notion of epistemic vigilance – evolved mechanisms for guarding ourselves against misinformation – could explain why we are epistemically on our guard when evaluating claims issuing from speakers with delusions. 

I suggested that we face a prima facie epistemic-ethical dilemma between preserving the epistemic benefits of epistemic vigilance and avoiding epistemic injustice and its ethical costs. I aimed to dissolve the dilemma by picking out some of the distinctly epistemic costs of epistemic injustice, such as discounting informative testimony, and therefore concluded that epistemic injustice leaves us epistemically, as well as ethically, worse off.

Eleanor Harris

The Edward Wallace Lecture keynote speech was given by Şerife Tekin from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Tekin talked about ‘Ethics of Distributing Psychotherapy Chatbots to Refugees: Stuff WEIRD People Do’. Tekin applied Heinrich’s (2020) exploration of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) people to raise concerns about recent attempts to meet the need for mental health care during refugee crises by using chatbot apps. Tekin argued that distributing AI psychotherapy chatbots to refugees is problematic because such chatbots assume that WEIRD characteristics are universal across cultures, and therefore impose WEIRD standards to understanding and treating mental illness. 

For example, the psychotherapy chatbots Tekin investigated assumed that its users would be analytical (the chatbots suggest users should reason better to help their mental health) and control-oriented (users should “take charge” of their thoughts and feelings). Tekin suggested that characteristics such as analytical and control-oriented are not universal but are instead particular characteristics of WEIRD people. Thus, AI psychotherapy chatbots problematically impose WEIRD standards on treating refugees with mental illness, and there is no conclusive data that using these bots helps refugees. Moreover, Tekin argued that using chatbots rather than actual therapists to treat refugees contributes to dehumanisation.

On the second day of the conference, Kathryn Petrozzo from the University of Utah gave a talk entitled ‘Less Than Whole: Implications of Reduced Agency of Individuals with Psychiatric Disorders’. Petrozzo opened her talk by appealing to the intuition that if someone is less than fully agential, then they are less responsible (and less blameworthy) for their actions. Therefore, if individuals with mental illnesses have reduced agency, then they should be held less accountable for their crimes. However, Petrozzo argued that the suggestion that those with mental illness have reduced agency can actually have negative real-world consequences because of how mental illness is perceived as dangerous. 

For example, Petrozzo cited Hall and colleagues (2019), who found that individuals with a prior diagnosis of a mental illness face 50% longer prison sentences than those without a diagnosis of mental illness. Therefore, Petrozzo argued that we face a “dual-use dilemma” for reduced agency: the notion of reduced agency of individuals with psychiatric disorders was put forward to promote good, however labelling those with mental illness as less than fully agential also has the potential to cause harm.

Justin Garson, from City University of New York, gave the talk ‘Madness and Idiocy: Rethinking the Problem of Defining Mental Illness’. Garson suggested that although we usually define madness via negativa, in opposition to sanity, Late Modern theorists of madness (19th century) distinguished madness from sanity and idiocy. Garson argued that these three concepts (madness, sanity and idiocy) were distinguished in relation to the functioning of the reasoning capacity: sanity involves proper functioning, idiocy involves diminished or even abolished functioning, and madness involves perverse functioning. 

Therefore, madness could not be defined via negativa as a lack of reason, as madness contains reason. Garson presented various Late Modern attempts to solve the following problem: how can madness contain reason, and yet a mad person not be reasonable? For example, Arthur Wigan (1844) suggested that rather one brain with two hemispheres, we have two brains. Madness occurs when one brain is healthy and the other is sick, and therefore madness necessarily involves a clash between reason (the healthy brain) and unreason (the sick brain). Garson concluded that recasting the problem of defining madness as Late Modern theorists did – contrasting madness with sanity and idiocy, rather than sanity alone – encourages us to seek a positive definition of madness, rather than defining madness merely as an absence of reason.

Many thanks to the conference organisers Peter Zachar (Auburn University Montgomery), John Tsou (Iowa State University) and John Z Sadler (UT Southwestern), and everyone at AAPP.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Critical Phenomenology and Hermeneutical Injustice in Mental Health

Today's post is by Rosa Ritunnano (University of Birmingham and Melbourne), consultant psychiatrist and PhD candidate at the Institute for Mental Health, Birmingham, UK. Here she talks her recent paper which has been awarded the 2021 Wolfe Mays Essay Prize for Early Career Researchers by The British Society for Phenomenology (BSP) and the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology (JBSP). 

Rosa Ritunnano

In this paper, I argue that the adoption of a critical phenomenological stance may improve conditions of hermeneutical marginalisation as experienced by individuals who have attracted a diagnosis of psychosis (although I believe that the suggested approach can be transferrable to other conditions).

In cases of hermeneutical injustice, one is unable to understand their own experience or effectively communicate it to others because they lack an adequate conceptual framework for making sense of this experience. The classic example used in the literature on hermeneutical injustice is women’s inability to adequately understand or describe experiences of sexual harassment before the concept ‘sexual harassment’ was coined and entered popular usage.

In mental healthcare, hermeneutical marginalisation may occur for different reasons. On the one hand, the person may start from a position of disadvantage when it comes to having adequate interpretive tools at their disposal. This is because they may already belong to a (environmentally, economically, socially) disadvantaged group whose access to hermeneutic resources is limited, or because their interpretations are (systemically or individually) dismissed. In the latter situation, individuals may have developed their own hermeneutical tools or equipment to make sense of a certain experience but, despite such understanding, their perspective is not given uptake by the listener(s). This is what philosopher Kristie Dotson has called ‘contributory injustice’. To illustrate, contributory injustice in psychiatry can be found in reports of service users who hear voices, where clinicians (for varied reasons) may refuse to acknowledge alternative ‘non-disease’ ways of understanding these experiences, such as those that draw on spiritual or religious narratives.

In either case, the clinical encounter (i.e, the consultation between mental healthcare professionals and patients) can become a “hermeneutical hotspot”. That is a location in social life “where a group’s unequal hermeneutical participation will tend to show up in a localised manner” (Fricker, p. 152). In this situation, rather than thinking about clinician and patient as two separate epistemic agents, I suggest that we also look at the role of the relational context (and the communicative dynamics) in mitigating or amplifying the hermeneutical hotspot created over time by certain cultural and clinical practices.

I suggest that correcting for hermeneutical injustice requires that both clinicians and patients engage in a form of hermeneutical humility and sincere attentiveness towards the person’s own subjectivity and situated meaning-making processes. As well as paying attention to psychopathological experiences linked with a certain mental health condition, clinicians should be alert to the ways in which contingent historical, autobiographical and social structures (such as colonialism, anti-Black racism, and heteropatriarchy) may shape the lived experience and meaning of such a condition.

I argue that critical phenomenology, intended as a praxis of freedom in seeking a deep transformative societal change, may help address hermeneutical marginalisation even within the limited confines of the clinical encounter. Adopting this stance requires the ability, on the part of the listener, to perceive the other as an expressive and trustworthy epistemic agent, even when their experiential world differs in fundamental ways from their reality (as in the case of psychosis). In these circumstances, rather than trying to avoid the epistemic asymmetry by labelling it as a “problem to be treated”, it may be more helpful to actively navigate and manage it with care, empathy and respect.

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Knowledge Resistance: An Interview with Åsa Wikforss

In today's post I interview Åsa Wikforss about her Knowledge Resistance program. Åsa is a professor of theoretical philosophy at Stockholm University, whose research sits at the intersection of philosophy of mind, language and epistemology.

Åsa Wikforss

Kathleen Murphy-Hollies: Hi Åsa. First of all, could you talk a little bit about what the knowledge resistance project is about and what kind of key questions it addresses?

Åsa Wikforss: So it's a large cross disciplinary program with about 30 researchers involved. The full name is ‘Knowledge Resistance: Causes, Consequences and Cures’, and we investigate knowledge resistance from four different disciplinary angles. Philosophically, we do the foundational work of spelling out what we are even talking when we’re talking about knowledge resistance. At a first approximation, we say it's a kind of irrational resistance to evidence, but there's a lot to unpack there. What is the evidence? What kind of irrationality? What kind of resistance? In terms of psychology, we look experimentally at the types of psychological mechanisms involved in resisting the evidence. And how you think of knowledge resistance affects how you design experiments, so we have a close collaboration with the psychologists.

Importantly, knowledge resistance involves psychological mechanisms in interaction with the external environment. What has changed recently isn’t so much the psychology but the environment. In particular, the information environment and the political environment.

For this reason, we also have media and communication scholars who research the new media situation and what that means for how we respond to evidence. They look at how disinformation is spread and the complex role of trust, among other things. And there is a political science team that investigates things like partisanship and polarisation and how those things shape belief formation. From the beginning we thought that we need to have all these disciplines involved, and I think that's proven to be exactly right.

KMH: That all sounds fascinating and very relevant nowadays – so what was it that first got you interested in these issues?

ÅW: Well it was kind of backwards, in that it started with me writing a popular book on these topics. After the political developments in 2016 we saw lack of knowledge, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all have huge political consequences, and I thought this is such philosophical nonsense and I can’t just sit and listen to it! So I wrote a book called ‘Alternative facts: On Knowledge and its Enemies’ where I explore, from the point of view of philosophy and psychology, what's going on!

I also felt very strongly that theories within some parts of the humanities and social sciences which questioned the very idea that there is such a thing as truth or facts added to the unclarity of the situation. The book came out in 2017 in the middle of quickly increasing interest in these issues and I was lecturing everywhere about it. The research on these topics started to really grow around then and I thought, now's the time for a research program which brings all this together! Because the research had been here and there across different disciplines, and no one had brought it together and provided a coherent framework for the study of knowledge resistance.

KMH: As you say, the project so far seems to have only become more and more relevant given political developments in the world. What findings have surprised you the most so far?

ÅW: It’s hard to pick something! Just this morning I read a study by the media group about how conspiracy theories are spread on social media and what kind of platforms are worst for it. You might think that it's all the same but actually the design of various social media platforms matters. Twitter does much better with conspiracy theories but it does worse when it comes to hate and threats. Facebook, on the other hand, is particularly bad for the spread of conspiracy theories. This is important because governments everywhere need to address what we can do to stop this. It might be that tweaking the design matters a lot for how things spread. Another finding by the media group is that people typically learn about fake news from mainstream media. This can be because of fact checking efforts, so it’s well-intentioned, but it shows that there are risks here.

Of particular interest, of course, are questions concerning how to remedy knowledge resistance. The psychologists have been carrying out studies showing that reducing information ambiguity helps. And the political science group has found that people in general are rather skilled at discriminating bad argumentation from good argumentation, even if this is somewhat diminished when it comes to arguments with a strong ideological tendency.

Another interesting thing has been the philosophy of what exactly knowledge resistance is. As we construe it, knowledge resistance involves a form of irrational resistance to available evidence. But people can fail to accept the evidence for other reasons, not because they are irrational but because they have weird background beliefs, perhaps as a result of disinformation. It actually gets very complicated disentangling the two, namely what is knowledge resistance from what is a rational rejection of the evidence. And, how to design experiments to keep these things distinct and avoid confounds.

KMH: This pre-empts my next question which is - what kind or kinds of irrationality do you think are in play when it comes to knowledge resistance?

ÅW: It’s epistemic irrationality, that is the irrationality of belief. Dan Kahan has done a lot of interesting experimental work on motivated reasoning, and in particular on identity protective reasoning which is this idea that we hold on to beliefs that have become marks of identity of the group that we care about. So, if these beliefs are threatened by evidence against them, we will find ways of protecting them and that of course is epistemically irrational, because you don't update beliefs in the light of evidence. But then he also suggests that this is sort of rational because the group is so important to you. Here it is essential to be clear on the distinction between epistemic rationality and practical rationality. Practically it can be rational to resist the evidence if it allows one to reach this goal of being a valued member of the group, but it doesn't mean that it's epistemically rational.

KMH: Do you think that not keeping epistemic and practical rationality distinct can cause problems?

ÅW: There are problems philosophically, but also sort of politically. If it is described as perfectly rational to not alter the beliefs of your group or your conspiracy beliefs because it serves you well, then that obscures what's going on here in a bad way, I think.

A related issue concerns where in the reasoning process the epistemic irrationality is to be located. Going back to the case where a subject fails to accept available evidence in a way that seems irrational but actually is rational given her prior beliefs. Then, usually, there's irrationality ‘upstream’. So, for instance, there might be irrationally placed trust which makes you read and believe bizarre conspiracy sources and as a result you end up with beliefs that make it rational for you to reject evidence from climate scientists. However, if there isn't irrationality upstream either then it's not knowledge resistance, even if the belief seems totally crazy. 

An interesting question is under what conditions this could be the case. One can imagine fundamentalist conditions where the subject lives in an utterly closed, sect-like environment, with no information coming in from outside. Then, you can end up with really bizarre beliefs and totally, but rationally, reject available knowledge. But I think it’s important to stress that fundamentalist conditions are extremely rare. Even in isolated areas in the US where everybody just listens to Fox news, they know that the New York Times exists and that there are other sources ‘out there’ that they do not have reasons to distrust. So, even if someone could in principle have a crazy set of beliefs in a fully rational way, I think that would be an outlier and very rare. But it is of course an empirical question.

KMH: Great. So, last question, what are your future plans or future directions for the program?

ÅW: We are halfway through now, so we have another three years. We’re continuing to develop the cross-disciplinary work because that’s the strength of the program. We have a new volume just out with Routledge called ‘Knowledge Resistance in High-Choice Information Environments’, which brings together people from all the disciplines involved so we're excited about that.

We also have a big mid term conference in August. The conference has the same name as the volume, and it brings together researchers from the four disciplines involved, internal and external. (Info will appear on the Knowledge Resistance website soon). 

KMH: They sound great and I’ll look out for them! Thank you so much for talking with me.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Agency Intersections Conference Report

In this post, Jessica Sutherland (University of Birmingham), Kathleen Murphy-Hollies (University of Birmingham), and Sean Shields (University of Nottingham) report on their two-day conference “Philosophy at the Intersection of Moral Responsibility, Agency, and Regulation”. This conference was held in-person (with online provisions) at the University of Birmingham on 9th-10th May 2022. The conference brought together graduate students and early-career researchers working in the areas of moral responsibility, agency and regulation of behaviour broadly construed.

Day 1

The first keynote talk of the conference was given by Dr Anneli Jefferson (Cardiff University) on “What’s the Point of Blaming the Dead?”. Jefferson offered some reflections on how current discussions of the role of blame do not seem to capture the ways in which we blame the dead. Jefferson offered a prototype theory of blame and argued that blaming the dead is not a paradigmatic case as it does not include some of the key instrumentalist features beyond a minimal moral assessment of the deceased.

Dr Anneli Jefferson

Then, Kathleen Murphy-Hollies (University of Birmingham) stepped in to give a talk after Hannah McHugh (University College London) was unable to present. Murphy-Hollies talked about the ‘know-how’ involved in consistently embodying virtue despite the prevalence of confabulation in a presentation titled “The Know-How of Virtue”. This is a tendency to construct ill-grounded reasons for one’s behaviour after the fact.

Kathleen Murphy-Hollies

Next, Baris C Kastas (Bilkent University) spoke on “Anger Towards Men and Non-Agential Collective Responsibility: A Vindication”. Kastas argued that anger towards men expressed by women and minority groups is a form of backward-looking responsibility-as-accountability aimed at a large and unorganised collective. Kastas then developed an account, drawing on Debe’s empathic sentimentalism under which responsibility practices aimed at disorganised groups makes sense.

Baris Kastas

Christiana Eltiste (Northwestern University) then gave a talk titled “Wronging the Wrongdoer: An Obligation to Hold Wrongdoers Responsible”. Eltiste argued that one’s standing towards a wrongdoer affects their obligation to hold that wrongdoer responsible, and in particular gives them a reason to hold them responsible. In these cases, one does something immoral in failing to hold that wrongdoer responsible and wrongs them.

Christiana Eltiste

The final talk of the first day was given by Thijs Heijmeskamp (Erasmus University Rotterdam) on “Virtues, Situationism, and the Moral Demands of Others”. Heijmeskamp drew on a Deweyan psychology of individuals which emphasises their embeddedness in environments to argue that virtue ought to be seen as essentially comprising our relations with others and the context of our social environment.

Thijs Heijmeskamp

Day 2

In the second keynote talk of the conference, Professor Victoria McGeer (ANU/Princeton) gave a talk on “Empathy Internalized: On the Scaffolding Power of Self-directed Emotion”. McGeer described how empathy can scaffold our own moral agency by generating self-castigating emotions of guilt, shame and remorse. She argued that this process is best facilitated by agents having an empathetic, scaffolding, developing sense of self-blame, rather than a non-empathetic, retributive, final sense of self-blame.

Prof Victoria McGeer

Next, Eric Brown (Tulane University) spoke on “The Best Apology is Changed Behavior: A Signaling Account of Apology”. Brown discussed a number of features we commonly (and not so commonly) see in apologies and argued that a signalling account of apology, which assigns apology the function of regulating our moral relations, best captures them all.

Eric Brown

Next, Dominik Boll (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) gave a talk titled “Responsible Persons, Positive Reactive Attitudes, and the Function of Taking Responsibility”. Boll discussed responsibility-taking and proposed that its function is to strengthen and/or shape norms, which in turn gives rise to positive reactive attitudes such as praise or forgiveness.

Dominik Boll

Next, Kristoffer Moody (University of Edinburgh) spoke on “The New Confabulationist Threat to Moral Responsibility”. Moody described a new confabulationist threat to moral responsibility as confabulation masks automatic social mindshaping which commonly takes place despite agents having no control over it. What agents may have to focus on instead is keeping rational control over their belief formation.

Kristoffer Moody

The final presentation of the conference was Emese Havadtői (Eötvös Loránd University) with a talk titled “Can we let go of our Regrets? Should we?”. Havadtői distinguished between constructive and non-constructive regret, arguing that we should aim to keep only the former. In this form, regret improves well-being, motivates us to repair social relationships, and contributes to moral behaviour.

Emese Havadtoi

A full list of speakers (and abstracts) can be found on the conference website.

A special thank you goes to Midlands4Cities and Mind Association for funding this conference.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Are Conspiracy Beliefs like Delusions?

In recent months, conspiracy beliefs such as COVID-19 denialism have often been described as delusional. Psychologists have suggested a correlation between the acceptance of conspiracy theories and schizotypal traits, that is, traits characterized by psychotic symptoms (Douglas et al. 2017). 

Anna Ichino

In this post, I (Lisa Bortolotti) discuss some of the similarities and differences between conspiracy beliefs and delusions—this is the topic of a paper co-authored with Anna Ichino and Matteo Mameli for Reti, Saperi, Linguaggi.

Surface features 

Both conspiracy beliefs and delusions of persecution involve attributing evil intentions or responsibility for adverse events to an individual or a group that the person does not trust. Conspiracy beliefs, but not delusions, are typically developed as an alternative to an official, authoritative version of the events (Ichino and Räikkä 2020). Both types of belief are regarded as implausible by those who do not share them.

In terms of being supported by evidence, there is considerable variation. Generally, conspiracy beliefs and delusions are poorly supported by the available evidence. However, the suspiciousness or mistrust may be partially explained by adverse experiences in a person’s life (Gunn and Bortolotti 2018) or by the marginalization of the minority group to which the person belongs (Levy 2019). 

In terms of being responsive to evidence, both conspiracy beliefs and delusions are characterized as unshakeable (Shearman 2018): people acknowledge challenges and respond to them but are not open to abandoning or revising their beliefs. Often the belief becomes more elaborated and entrenched when it is challenged (Sunstein and Vermeule 2009).


Causal history

Both types of belief have been explained by predictive processing theories and two-factor models of belief formation. For predictive processing theories (Reed et al. 2020), conspiracy beliefs and delusions of persecution are inferences under uncertainty, a response to situations characterized by ambiguity or threat.

Lisa Bortolotti

For two-factor theories (Pierre 2020), conspiracy beliefs and delusions are explained by two factors: factor one is usually an anomalous experience in the case of delusions and epistemic mistrust in the case of conspiracy beliefs; factor two lies in cognitive biases and motivated reasoning for both types of belief.

Neither account necessarily implies that a cognitive dysfunction is responsible for the adoption of conspiracy beliefs or delusions.


Downstream effects

Conspiracy beliefs are shared and tend to strengthen group belonging and affiliation, whereas delusions are typically idiosyncratic and deeply isolating. So, whereas delusions of persecution can be extremely distressing and disrupt a person’s life, the acceptance of a conspiracy theory is generally comforting. 

But not all persecutory delusions are disruptive, and some can be a source of relief or empowerment (Ritunnano et al. 2021). Moreover, some conspiracy beliefs result in individual and collective harms (Douglas et al. 2019).



It is difficult to draw general conclusions from the comparison between conspiracy beliefs and delusions.

Matteo Mameli

One worry is that highlighting the similarities may lead to an unwarranted pathologization of people who endorse conspiracy beliefs. It is undesirable to extend further the already regrettable stigma commonly associated with having a mental illness for the purposes of excluding dissenting voices from public debate and limiting some citizens’ participation in collective discussion and deliberation.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Empathy, Altruism, and Group Identification

Today's post is by Kiichi Inarimori and Kengo Miyazono at Hokkaido University on their recent paper “Empathy, Altruism, and Group Identification” (2021, Frontiers in Psychology).

Kiichi Inarimori
Kiichi Inarimori

Empathy causes helping behavior. When your best friend in the same college is in financial trouble and has been evicted from her apartment, for example, you might empathize with her (e.g., feel sorry for her) and decide to let her stay in your apartment for a while (e.g., Batson et al., 1981). 

Is empathy-induced helping behavior altruistic? Are you genuinely altruistic when your empathy causes you to let your friend stay in your apartment? According to “the empathy altruism hypothesis” (Batson 1991, 2011, 2018), empathy causes genuinely altruistic motivation for helping others. According to “the self-other merging hypothesis” (Cialdini et al. 1997), in contrast, empathic helping is due to the “merging” between the helping agent and the helped agent. When the helping agent and the helped agent are “merged”, the traditional dichotomy between egoism and altruism is blurred. Empathy-induced behavior is not altruistic, nor egoistic, but nonaltruistic.

Although the self-other merging hypothesis nicely explains empathy-induced helping behaviour, it faces a serious conceptual question; what does it mean exactly to say that the helping agent X and the helped agent Y are “merged”? May (2011, 2018) examines and rejects possible interpretations of self-other “merging”; some interpretations attribute psychologically unrealistic beliefs to the helping agent, while others fail to explain the helping behaviour exhibited in experimental settings. May’s challenge suggests that a plausible interpretation of self-other “merging” must successfully predict and explain the helping behaviour exhibited in experimental settings, and must not posit psychologically unrealistic beliefs, desires, etc.

Kengo Miyazono

Our new paper “Empathy, Altruism, and Group Identification” offers a new interpretation of self-other merging. According to our interpretation, “the group identification interpretation”, self-other merging involves group identification, where group identification is understood as the process in which one achieves a form of self-conception as a group member (Brewer 1991; Turner 1982; Salice & Miyazono 2020). 

X’s act of helping Y is explained by the fact that when X empathizes with Y, X group-identifies with Y and thereby comes to conceive of Y’s welfare as being constitutive of X’s first-person plural (“our”) welfare. The group identification interpretation of the self-other merging hypothesis does not posit psychologically unrealistic beliefs, desires, etc. Also, this interpretation successfully predicts and explains the helping behaviour in the experimental settings.

Empathy-induced helping behaviour, when interpreted by the group identification interpretation, does not fit comfortably into the traditional egoism/altruism dichotomy; it is neither purely altruistic nor purely egoistic. We thus argue that empathy-induced helping behaviour is both altruistic and egoistic at the same time. More precisely, it is altruistic at the individual level (because X is motivated by the concern for Y’s welfare at the individual level) and egoistic at the group level (because X is motivated by the concern for Y’s welfare in so far as it is constitutive of X’s first-person plural welfare).

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Group Beliefs without Group Minds?

Today's post is by Umut Baysan. Umut teaches philosophy at the University of Oxford and works in philosophy of mind and metaphysics. Most of his published work is available on his website.

Umut Baysan

I am grateful to the Imperfect Cognitions blog for inviting me to write a post on my recent publication “Are propositional attitudes mental states?”, forthcoming in Minds and Machines.

In the paper, I explore some implications of the view that some group entities (e.g., clubs, governments, companies) can have beliefs and desires. I argue that if group entities can have beliefs and desires, this would show that beliefs and desires are not mental states. I am not entirely convinced that group entities can really have beliefs and desires---though I think there are some reasons to take this possibility seriously, as I discuss in the paper. What I really want to achieve in the paper is to show that if you are prepared to accept this position, you should be prepared to accept the somewhat surprising conclusion that beliefs and desires are not mental states. If you find this result unacceptable, perhaps you should also find the view that group entities can have beliefs and desires unacceptable.

My main argument is this: If beliefs and desires are mental states, then only minded beings could have them. After all, a physical property can be had only by physical beings. So, by analogy, a mental property or state can only be had by mental, or minded beings. But group entities are not minded beings. In other words, there are no group minds. So, if group entities can have beliefs and desires, then beliefs and desires are not mental states.

Why do I think that group entities are not minded beings? As I explain in the paper, I work with a conception of mind according to which a being is minded only if it is of such a kind that there is something it is like to be it. We are minded beings, and there is something it’s like to be us. In contrast, there is nothing it’s like to be a rock or an electron---sorry panpsychists!---and rocks and electrons are not minded beings. I hold that group entities are like rocks and electrons in this respect.

One interesting implication of this conclusion (i.e., beliefs and desires are not mental states) is that it gives us a way to refute the idea that there is “cognitive phenomenology”, i.e., there is something it’s like to believe that p. My proposal is that beliefs are “multiply realizable” states: they are realized by non-mental states in non-minded beings such as groups, and they are typically realized by mental states in minded beings like us, especially when we have occurrent beliefs. When the state that realizes a belief is a phenomenally conscious mental state, there is something it’s like to be in that relevant mental state. But that relevant mental state is not the belief in question; rather, it is a realizer of the belief. I think this is a good way of rejecting cognitive phenomenology because it acknowledges the intuitive idea that there is often something it’s like to be us when we have beliefs, but it doesn’t entail that there is something it’s like to believe that p.

Another interesting implication of the arguments of the paper is that they make certain claims about group beliefs and desires easier to digest. If I am right, saying that groups have beliefs or desires should not amount to saying that there are group minds. If one has qualms about the idea of a group mind, that shouldn’t thereby be a reason to reject group beliefs or group desires.

Friday, 22 April 2022

Significance and Impact of the Agency Project

This is the last in a series of posts reporting outcomes from a project on Agency in Youth Mental Health, led by Rose McCabe at City University. Today, Rachel Temple, Public Involvement in Research Manager at the McPin Foundation, and members of the Young Person Advisory Group [YPAG] tell us about how the project impacted them. 

In the course of the project, YPAG members provided detailed feedback on the application for funding, shaping research questions and outputs; contributed to the research, analysing videos of interactions between practitioners and young people struggling with their mental health; participated in public engagement events and prepared resources for schools on agency and youth mental health; shared their valuable insights, knowledge, and experience on blog posts and podcasts; and co-authored some of the project publications with the other members of the team. 
Prior to working on the Agency project, I held a lot of shame and secrecy around my mental health difficulties. Although I occupied spaces in psychological research and clinical work, I was always terrified that my lived experience would be somehow ‘found out’, and I would be seen as ‘less than’ by those around me—less competent, less worthy, less able.
Working with the YPAG changed that for me. We were never treated as less knowledgeable or less capable, and our ideas were meaningfully integrated into the project. Having my own experiences (and that of my peers) be seen as valid and worthy of respect by the research team allowed me to find value and meaning in my own lived experience, and showed me how co-production (when done right) can be an empowering and deeply fulfilling process. —M


I have gained a new outlook on how I approach mental health conversations.

Professionally, when discussing my feelings, I can evaluate my sessions and interactions more critically, rather than just using “good” or “bad”. I struggled to put into words how I felt afterwards, whereas hearing and seeing other’s experiences, I can now make sense of them and what may have made me feel that way.

When helping others, I am more mindful of validation. Rather than just looking engaged and being present, I make sure to also follow this up with something like, “That’s completely okay to feel like that.”
– Carmen


Being a part of the project has gained me cognisance. I now appreciate even more, when practitioners and professionals practice positive methods of helping to make you feel that you do have agency. I would feel comfortable educating others on why agency is so important. I'm more aware of how integral a part of treatment agency is.

This project also played a role in my self-development. I feel it's lent me an opportunity to do something sanguine and helpful, in turn, allowing me to look at past negative experiences as muse to draw from.
- Nusaybah


Being part of the project has been such a rewarding experience for me. I joined the YPAG Agency during the start of lockdown in 2020, a time when I was still at university and the whole world was learning how to adjust to new ways of working and communicating online. It was a difficult and often very lonely time for me. But I always looked forward being a part of the YPAG Zoom meetings because I knew I could be myself as everyone held a space for each other to feel seen, heard and validated. – YPAG member

Rachel Temple
I have nothing but gratitude for the Agency project. I’ve worked with wonderful people. Experts in the field, who genuinely value the importance of lived experience in research. As a young person co-applicant, I was anxious that I wouldn’t have anything to offer. If I felt brave enough to contribute a thought or idea, I worried whether it was good enough. But the team always heard me. They embraced my ideas and made me feel valued in the process. And so, I quickly grew in confidence!

The contributions of the YPAG were central to the project. It’s been especially rewarding to work with this group of young people for two years. I’ve had the pleasure of watching them thrive and bring the project to life. Together we have seized the endless development opportunities the project has offered; from research training, public speaking skills, and the space simply to share experiences. United as peers, it’s felt like we have been on a journey of growth together! The Agency project is thus a glowing example of what involvement in research can offer to young people.

Through this project, we have identified some important ways in which to improve youth mental health interactions. Because of this, I am more mindful of my own needs, as well as how I support those around me. How simply saying “that sounds like a lot to deal with” or receiving a nod of understanding can go a long way. And how the absence of these things can be crushing. These are the lessons that I will be taking with me.
- Rachel K Temple

Thursday, 21 April 2022

The Agential Stance

This is part of a series of posts reporting outcomes from a project on Agency in Youth Mental Health, led by Rose McCabe at City University. In the previous post, the project team provided some evidence of epistemic injustice in clinical encounters. Today, Clara Bergen and Lisa Bortolotti discuss a new approach to protecting the sense of agency of young people meeting a crisis team for mental health problems.

Clara Bergen

Lisa Bortolotti

In our project, we wanted to ask: How can practitioners avoid undermining a young person’s sense of agency in a mental healthcare encounter? We adopted an absolutely unique analytic approach to find out the answer.

“We” are a group of six experts in philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, clinical communication, clinical practice, and public involvement in research (Interdisciplinary Academic Researchers), and five young people aged 17-25 with experience of accessing mental health services for diagnoses including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, autism spectrum, and emotional dysregulation (Youth Lived Experience Researchers).

Both groups collaboratively analysed clips from video-recorded mental health encounters for young people seeking crisis support for self-harm or suicidal thoughts (see Bergen & McCabe 2021). During meetings in which the Youth Lived Experience Researchers watched and analysed video data, we identified what aspects of agency were most relevant to these mental health encounters. Five aspects of agency were thought to be important to young people but often undermined in the video-recorded mental health encounters. 

The young person:

1. is a subject of experience and their perspective matters;
2. can take action to change their situation by seeking help;
3. may have multiple and conflicting needs and interests;
4. with adequate support, can contribute to positive change;
5. with adequate support, can participate in decision-making.

Next, we observed which communication practices that supported and undermined these five aspects of agency in the video-recorded mental health encounters we observed. When practitioners use practices that protect the young person's sense of agency in the encounters, we say that they adopt the agential stance towards the young person, that is, they treat the young person as an agent. 

Here, we consider the two aspects of agency that the young people identified as fundamental, validation and legitimisation. 

1. An agent is a subject of experience and their perspective matters.

Validation is a critical tool for showing that the young person’s experiences and perspectives matter. A practitioner can show understanding and acceptance of the young person’s experience, without having to express agreement or approval. Some mental health assessments lack validation, as the main focus is on risk assessment and problem solving. 

You need to say, “You’re really distressed. You’re in a lot of pain.” I think that kind of acknowledgement alone can be really, really powerful.


2. An agent can take action to change their situation by seeking help.

Legitimisation of help-seeking expresses that the young person made the right choice in seeking help. Communication techniques include for the practitioner to clearly state that the young person had genuine grounds for concern and deserves support. However, during assessments for suicidal thoughts, we observed that practitioners often implied that the young person didn’t need help, which could make them feel like they had no genuine concerns and did not deserve support.

With that sort of interaction, of “Oh you’re not planning to do anything now so it’s fine.” … You know, the department said it’s not an issue so it’s fine sort of having these thoughts… You wouldn’t think “Well maybe it’s really serious, maybe I do need to tell someone to help me.”


If you want to know more, the McPin Foundation created a podcast on our study, summarising all the findings.