Tuesday, 20 September 2022

Knowledge Resistance: a Conference Report

As part of the Knowledge Resistance project, a conference was organised in Stockholm from 23rd to 25th August 2022 to bring together philosophers, psychologists, media studies researchers, and journalists and discuss recent work on misinformation. This event was organised by Åsa Wikforss (interviewed on knowledge resistance here). 


Stockholm University, Albano


In this report, I will summarise some of the talks.

DAY 1

In his talk entitled “Resistance to Knowledge and Vulnerability to Deception”, Christopher F. Chabris (Geisinger Health System) argued that we need to understand our vulnerabilities to deception in order to appreciate the social aspects of knowledge resistance. He illustrated with many interesting examples of famous deceptions and frauds how deceivers exploit blind spots in our attention and some of our cognitive habits. 


Christopher Chabris


For instance, we tend to judge something as accurate if it is predictable and consistent. We make predictions all the time about what will happen and don’t question things unless our expectations are not met. Deceivers take advantage of this and, when they commit fraud, they make sure they meet our expectations. Another habit we have consists in questioning positions that are not consistent, and we tend not to like people who change their minds (e.g. politicians who change their views on policy issues). Deceivers present their views as consistent to lower our defences.

Another interesting finding is that we trust someone more if we feel we recognise them even when the recognition is illusory: maybe their names sound familiar to us or we can associate them with individuals or organisations that we know and respect. This feature is exploited by fraudsters who make sure they are associated with famous people or create fake organisations with authoritatively sounding names that resemble the names of genuine organisations. We also like explanations that are simple, precise, and told with confidence. Deceivers always exude confidence.

Leor Zmigrod (University of Cambridge) presented a talk entitled “Political Misinformation and Disinformation as Cognitive Inference Problems”. She asked how ideologies colour our understanding of the world, thinking about ideologies as compelling stories that describe and prescribe (e.g., racism, veganism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism). 

Zmigrod studied two important dimensions of ideologies in her empirical research: how rigidly we uphold the dogma and how antagonistic we feel to ideologically different people. The rigidity is strongly related to dogmatism and knowledge resistance. The antagonism has at its extreme cases of violence motivated by differences in ideology. 


Leor Zmigrod


What makes some people believe ideologies more fervently, be more extreme in their endorsement of their ideologies? The results paint a complex picture. Cognitive rigidity predicts more extremist ideologies, independent whether the person is at the right or at the left of the political spectrum. Intelligence and intellectual humility both turn out to be routes to flexibility, although either is sufficient to ensure flexibility without the other. 

Emotional dysregulation (impulsivity), risk taking, executive dysfunction, and perceptual impairments all characterise extremism in ideologies. Zmigrod presented several findings where people with more dogmatic views showed not only lack of flexibility in a variety of tasks but also difficulties in perceptual tasks. She also considered how dogmatic individuals are slower at integrating evidence but make decisions faster, which means that they often act prematurely—before they have the evidence they need.

DAY 2

Joshua Tucker (New York University) presented a talk entitled “Do Your Own Research? How Searching Online to Evaluate Misinformation Can Increase Belief that it is True”. The aim of the research is to evaluate a common tip offered in digital media literacy courses: when encountering a piece of information that we suspect it may be misleading, we should use a search engine to verify that piece of information. This tip is problematic because we do not know what effects searching for a piece of information online (using search engines) has on our belief in the piece of information. The issue is that by searching online for that content we end up with unreliable sources only—because mainstream news outlets do not report fake news and so search engines return low-quality information.


Joshua Tucker

With true information, the return of unreliable sources from research engines is minimal (around 10%). But with false information, the return of unreliable sources from research engines is much greater (around 30%). Which means that when searching online, people are more easily exposed to unreliable sources especially when they are looking for news that are misleading and fake. But are there any individual differences in this phenomenon? Who is most exposed to low-quality information? The answer is older people (not necessarily people who ideological views are congruent with the misleading information and not necessarily people who lack digital literacy).

Another interesting result is that low-quality information is more likely to be returned if we use the headline of the original story or the URL to search for more sources. That's because people who have an interest in spreading fake news "copy and paste" the same content and make it available in several places. A suggestion is that it is not the act of searching itself but the exposure to low-quality sources that makes it more likely that we end up believing the misleading information we did the search on.

Kathrin Glüer presented her take on the relationship between bad beliefs and rationality in the talk "Rationality and Bad Beliefs", focusing on Neil Levy's recent book. According to Glüer, for Levy it is the input to the process of belief formation that is problematic not the process itself. Rational processes tend to get things right and take inputs that are genuine epistemic reasons for their outputs. But the input may come from unreliable sources. How do lay people evaluate the reliability of the sources? 


Kathrin Glüer

People follow social cues of epistemic authority, encompassing competence and benevolence. They tend to trust members of their in-group and mistrust members of out-groups. According to Levy, this is an understandable and even rational choice, because we take members of our group to be competent and benevolent. But when cues of epistemic authority are misleading, then the input leads to the formation of bad beliefs. Glüer raised some concerns about the strong claim that the processes responsible for bad beliefs are "wholly rational" as Levy stated, and about the role of benevolence in judgements about sources of reliability. 

Tobias Granwald and Andreas Olsson (Karolinska Institute) presented a paper entitled “Conformity and partisanship impact perceived truthfulness, liking, and sharing of tweets". What determines whether the tweet is something that we want to share and like and whether it affects our behaviour? In the study researchers asked participants to rate the truthfulness of a news tweet and in one conditions participants are also shown how many people liked the tweet. 



When participants rated a tweet as truthful they were more likely to like it and share it. When participants saw the tweet being liked and shared by others, they were more likely to like it and share it--this effect is bigger if the people liking and retweeting the tweet are from your in-group. Strength of identity does not seem to affect liking or sharing. One interesting question is whether the results will be the same when the selected tweets are more controversial and highly partisan--this will be investigated in future studies.

Kevin Dorst (University of Pittsburgh) asked “What's Puzzling about Polarization?” First, he reviewed a number of features of polarisation that we may think of as problematic (such as deep disagreement) that are not actually reasons to believe that polarisation is irrational. People have different views because they have access to different information and they preserve their own views even after talking to each other because the evidence for their positions is still different. When they are exposed to the same evidence, they may interpret it differently due to their background assumptions. 


Kevin Dorst

What Dorst find puzzling about polarisation is its self-predictability which forces us to choose between two options: either self-predictability is not irrational, or we should embrace political agnosticism and have no political beliefs at all! How does self-predictability raises a puzzle for polarisation? When we predict which beliefs we will have in the future, we end up in a difficult situation: if we have evidence now for the beliefs we will have why not have them now? And if we think that there is no evidence for those beliefs now, then how can we predict that we will be irrational? 

Leaf Van Boven (University of Colorado Boulder) presented a talk entitled: “As the World Burns: Psychological Barriers to Addressing Climate Change and COVID—And How to Overcome Them”. His analysis is that the polarisation we see between liberals and conservatives does not come from deep ideological differences but from the thought that our political position represents who we are ("Party over Policy"). 

Van Boven's research shows that people do value policies in political decision making and when asked what their judgements should be based on, they respond that they think their judgements should be based on the policies. But in practice this does not happen and partly that's because the details of the policies are not accessible to the general public.


Leaf Van Boven

Experimental results show that policies receive better support from the public from all sides of the political spectrum when they are endorsed by nonpartisan experts and bipartisan coalitions of political leaders. This has implications for devising communication strategies that can reduce polarisation. But when elite politicians who are well-known to the public explicitly support some policies, polarisation increases and communication from elite politicians generates feelings of anger and divisiveness on controversial topics like climate change.


DAY 3


Lene Aarøe (Aarhus University) presented a talk entitled: “Do the facts matter? The power of single exemplars and statistical information to shape journalistic and politician preferences”. She started her talk by emphasising how using statistics in providing information to laypeople may not be effective. One reason is that in order to fully understand statistics, people need to have some skills. Another reason is that statistics may be dry and not attract enough attention. 

Exemplars instead are simple to understand and very effective: one engaging story can do a lot to inform the public when used well. We have evolved in small social environments and our cognition is suited to the "intimate village" model. That is why exemplars work: the human mind has a built-in psychological bias to process information carried in exemplars.


Lene Aarøe

Social media are a particular apt means to deliver information and drive engagement via exemplars. Evidence suggests that exemplars make complex issues more understandable and interesting, trigger emotional involvements and increase political engagement. But there are also ethical and normative reasons to use exemplars: stories of ordinary people enable diverse representation of citizens and helps the media move aways from what the elites say. But there are problems too: exemplars cannot be easily generalised and may be the foundation for misperceptions and biased attitude formation. If some exemplars have negative consequences when extreme, why do journalists still use such exemplars?




Journalists prefer extreme exemplar (an exemplar that is characterised by a high degree of statistical or normative deviance from the issue to which it is connected). There are three possible explanations for this preference: (1) education, (2) psychological bias, (3) organisational context. Explanation one is that journalists are trained to value sensationalism as a ways to make news more vivid and concrete. Explanation two is that journalists like the rest of us prefer stories that are more unusual and interesting, stories that surprise us. Explanation three is that journalists need to justify their stories to their editors and some media pursue an attention-seeking strategy to maximise audience. Evidence points to the third explanation as the most convincing.

This suggests that media should be supported so that they are not seeking to increase audiences at the cost of objectivity in the news reported. But what can the public do? They can develop the capacity to regulate their emotions when they are exposed to extreme exemplars. One way to invite them to regulate their emotions and "resist the force of" the extreme examplar is to let them know about the psychological effects of exemplars.

Emily Vraga (University of Minnesota) presented a talk entitled: “What Can I Do? Applying News Literacy and Motivating Correction to Address Online Misinformation”. She reviewed solutions people have proposed on how to address misinformation on social media starting from literacy (what literacy though? science literacy? news literacy?). Literacy is about having knowledge and skills in a given domain. Each domain will determine which skills are needed. Which sources should I use? How can I verify content? How do I correct misinformation?

Emily Vraga

But literacy is very hard to build. It is expensive to teach and must be taught early on in schools. Most people who participate in public life are not in a classroom and needs to be updated all the time to be truly effective. Also, teaching literacy may bring critical thinking but may also lead to cynicism. One alternative is to provide quick tips, short messages, that people can use when they approach social media. But the tips that have been tried so far all seem to have mixed effectiveness. Intervention on social media are hard to make because people tend to ignore them.

Another solution is correction. Correction is when people respond to misinformation by providing correct information instead (give the facts); by describing why the techniques behind misinformation are misleading (question the method); by challenging the credibility of the source (question the motives). Correction can reduce misperceptions in the context of the misinformation. And on social media, even if the correction does not affect the person who spreads the misinformation, it affects everybody else who witnesses the interaction. 




Studies have been conducted to measure the effects of observed correction in terms of reducing misperceptions: and the verdict is that it works. The message is: if you see misinformation, REACT!
Effective corrections are repeated (don't wait for someone else to correct); empathetic (respect other views); explanatory (don't just say "false" but explain what the truth is); credible (sources you use to correct are authoritative); timely (don't wait too long or people will have accepted misinformation as true).
  • Repeat corrections
  • Empathetic replies
  • Alternative explanations
  • Credible sources
  • Timely response

Thanks to the Knowledge Resistance project for organising this amazing event!

Group picture


Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Selfless Memories

Today's post is by Raphaël Millière and Albert Newen. Raphaël is the Robert A. Burt Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University. His current work focuses mainly on the capacities of modern connectionist models, and the nature of self-representation. Albert is full professor of philosophy of mind at the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) and the director of the interdisciplinary Center for Mind and Cognition at RUB. His main research topics include selfhood and agency, understanding others, emotion, perception and cognition, and animal cognition.

Raphaël Millière

A number of authors across philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience have argued that consciousness always involves self-consciousness: to be conscious at all, you have to be conscious of yourself in some way. However, many find this claim implausible. In particular, it is seemingly undermined by reports of "selfless" episodes – conscious episodes lacking self-consciousness – induced by psychopathology, psychoactive drugs, or meditation.

In turn, the reliability of these reports has been called into question on the basis of the following assumption: a subject can only accurately recall and report a past experience as one she lived through if she was self-conscious when she lived through it. This assumption underlies the Memory Challenge, according to which retrospective reports of selfless conscious episodes are partly or wholly inaccurate. If this is right, then there is no reliable evidence for the existence of selfless episodes.


Albert Newen

In a new paper published in Erkenntnis, we push back against the Memory Challenge with a conditional argument: if selfless conscious episodes do occur, then it should be possible for subjects who live through such states to (accurately) recall and report them as conscious episodes they lived through. We start by reviewing recent research on episodic memory. The prevalence of false memories and memory errors casts doubt on the claim that memory is a purely preservative process that consists in storing and retrieving information about past conscious episodes. 

On an alternative view, episodic memory is an active process involving a generative component that bears some similarity to imagination. In line with this idea, we endorse a general account of episodic memory, according to which episodic recall involves both retrieving the gist of a past episode from a memory trace, and enriching it with semantic information to construct a coherent episodic scenario.

Given this account, we ought to carefully distinguish between two kinds of self-representation that may be involved in episodic remembering. One pertains to the first-order content of the recalled episode. For example, you may explicitly remember thinking about yourself. The other pertains to the second-order content of the memory. Episodic memories are typically presented as belonging to one's personal past. They also typically come with a sense of ownership: they are presented in originating in one's own experience. We argue that first-order self-representation in episodic memory is normally retrieved from the memory trace, while second-order self-representation is added to the constructed scenario by enrichment with semantic information.

This helps us make sense of memories of selfless episodes. At face value, they are simply memories of episodes lacking first-order self-representation. They are reported as memories of the subject's own experience merely because they are enriched with (accurate) second-order self-representation. Indeed, there is no good reason to think that the gist of a conscious episode lacking self-representation could not be stored in a memory trace, then retrieved and enriched in an episodic scenario presented as involving the subject and originating in her experiential past.

Consequently, the Memory Challenge ultimately fails to undermine the evidential strength of reports of selfless conscious episodes against the claim that all conscious episodes involve self-consciousness. Investigating the psychological basis for such reports is a fruitful endeavor for future research on self-consciousness and its disruption in various conditions.

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Free Will and Experimental Philosophy

Today's post is by Kiichi Inarimori, who is a PhD student at Hokkaido University, a JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) research fellow, and a new editor of this blog, Imperfect Cognitions. His main research area is the free will debate and experimental philosophy of free will. He is now working on a project which is related to folk intuition about free will. The aim of this project is to identify what intuition people actually have and why they express such intuition, in order to obtain clues for resolving the conflict between compatibilism and incompatibilism.

Kiichi Inarimori

In the free will debate, some argue that the free will necessary for moral responsibility is compatible with determinism, while others argue that it is incompatible. Theorists on both sides have often claimed that their position is intuitive. Meanwhile, since 2000’s, folk intuitions have been the subject of empirical inquiry. So far, some research supports the view that most people have compatibilist intuition (Nahmias et al., 2005; 2006), while others support the view that most people have incompatibilist intuition (Nichols and Knobe, 2007).

There are some interpretations of these results, which explain either of the incompatibilist/compatibilist intuitions as due to some error. For example, Nichols and Knobe argue that most compatibilist intuition is due to performance error caused by emotional response. Some theorists also argue that much of either incompatibilist/compatibilist intuition is caused by comprehension errors. I am currently working on two projects related to these two types of error theory.

The first project is to propose a new interpretation of folk intuition, according to which different intuitions we exhibit are explained not by performance error, but by a kind of framing effect. Some studies show that different framing/representation of a same act (e.g., action/inaction) leads to different causal attribution and this leads to different moral judgment of the same act (cf. Cushman and Young, 2011). 

My hypothesis is that, in the same way, different free will/moral responsibility attribution in each scenario may be mediated by causal attribution due to the different framings/representations of deterministic action, and therefore the process in which different intuition is produced can be understood as free of performance errors. I am currently designing an experiment to test this hypothesis.

The second project is related to comprehension errors. A recent study by Nadelhoffer et al. (2021) has shown that almost all participants in experimental philosophy of free will misunderstand determinism in some way.  If so, empirical studies about folk intuitions are unreliable. In this regard I envisage two possibilities and am designing two studies. 

One is to improve comprehension by using a video which describes a deterministic universe. The other study is to check the validity of the bypassing/intrusion statements used to check comprehension. Agreement with those statements may not reflect a conceptual misunderstanding of determinism. Rather, agreement with the statement may be due to cognitive bias.

I hope that this research will show that both compatibilist/incompatibilist intuition is not explained away by performance/comprehension errors. This would allow us to argue that both compatibilism and incompatibilism are intuitively justified.

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Eating Disorders and Irrational Beliefs

Today's post is by Stephen Gadsby. Stephen is a Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO) postdoctoral fellow, based at the Centre for Philosophical Psychology, Antwerp University. His research employs theoretical and empirical methods to explore a broad range of topics within philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry. These include eating disorders, delusions, self-deception, imposter syndrome, and body representation.


Stephen Gadsby

Sufferers of anorexia and bulimia often believe that their bodies are larger than reality. This appears undeniably irrational. Given that their bodies are not as large as they claim, such beliefs appear untethered to evidence. In my recent paper, I suggest that those who suffer from these disorders are not as irrational as they appear.

The first clue comes from first-person reports. These individuals often report experiencing changes in the physical size of their body, as if their stomach and legs were extended, expanding, or blown-up. Taking these reports at face value generates the question of how such illusory experiences could arise. The answer lies in a particular form of bodily awareness.

Close your eyes and focus on your body. That feeling of your bodily boundaries is your proprioceptive awareness. Proprioception helps us locate our bodies and navigate our environments, but it can also deceive us. For example, when you hit your thumb with a hammer and feel it enlarging.

Proprioception is facilitated by a mental map of the body called the body model. We experience our bodies as a certain size because this model represents us as that size. When the model changes, our experience of body size changes with it.

A clever way to measure the body model is by measuring how people move when navigating environments. Experiments using this method on participants with anorexia and bulimia find that their body models represent them as larger. For example, when walking through variously sized doorways, these participants turn their shoulders as if their bodies were wider. 


An example experimental setup (Metral et al., 2014)


We know that many sufferers of anorexia and bulimia report experiencing their bodies as larger. We also know that the kind of dysfunction that would cause such an experience (an oversized body model) is associated with these disorders. Perhaps then, sufferers believe that their bodies are larger because they experience them that way, through proprioception.

There are a few features of this kind of misperception that are relevant to the question of rationality. Firstly, its persistence. Many sufferers report feeling this way every time they eat, see friends, or even all day long. Secondly, proprioception is a generally reliable source of information about the body. Contrary to appearances, then, sufferers of anorexia and bulimia do have evidence in support of their body size beliefs—a lot of evidence from a reliable source. Consequently, their beliefs are not as irrational as they appear.

Sufferer’s reports of proprioceptive misperception are often dismissed. As a result, attempts to convince them of their true size are unsuccessful. If we hope to change sufferers’ minds about their body size, I suggest, we must engage with the unsettling evidential circumstances that they find themselves in. We must focus on body model distortion and the proprioceptive misperception it induces.

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Dysfunction and the Definition of Mental Disorder

Today's post is by Anne-Marie Gagné-Julien. Anne-Marie is a postdoctoral fellow at the Biomedical Ethics Unit at McGill University and also affiliated with the École normale supérieure (ENS). She works on philosophy of psychiatry and medicine, social epistemology and epistemic injustice. Here, she discusses her recent paper on dysfunction and the definition of mental disorder. 

Anne-Marie Gagné-Julien

One big question in North-American psychiatry (at least) is the meaning of “mental disorder”. This is an issue that goes back to the 1960s-1970s when the discipline was the subject of heated debate. At that time psychiatry was under attack from all sides, but one of the most important criticisms was to show problems with one of its central concepts, “mental disorder”. One of the arguments was that the concept of mental disorder was not based on anything scientific or empirical and was therefore only a tool of social control to regulate social deviance (e.g., depression would not be a “real mental disorder”, but a behaviour socially disvalued in a productivist society).

Since this crisis that psychiatry encountered in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been a desire on the part of psychiatry to demonstrate that its concept of mental disorder was not just a tool of social control, but rather an objective and therefore scientific concept. In the face of these tensions, psychiatry has offered an official and formal definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), stating that a mental disorder must not only be the result of a disagreement between the individual and society. Rather a condition must cause suffering/disability or have an impact on functioning, and it must be the result of an internal underlying dysfunction. This definition has remained more or less the same throughout the years, including in DSM-5 (2013). This was an attempt by psychiatry to counter the previous accusations of medicalization of mere social deviance.

One problem with this definition is that the DSM does not say what a dysfunction is, it simply postulates that a mental disorder should be explicable by the presence of a dysfunction (psychological, neurobiological, etc.). But this notion is what was supposed to ground the scientific and objective basis of the definition. So this might appear to be an incomplete endeavour. Many philosophers have found interest in this issue and have tried to develop accounts of “dysfunction” that would prove its objectivity and scientificity. So far however, most of these accounts have been seen as unsatisfying, since it seems that what a dysfunction is is often related to social and cultural values (e.g., we can identify some psychological or neurobiological processes related to symptoms of depression, but seeing depression or its symptoms as a dysfunction ultimately amounts to normative aspects such as suffering or harm).

My objective in the paper is to demonstrate that it is possible to think that the concept of mental disorder and the notion of dysfunction associated with it are indeed a reflection of our social and cultural norms, but that in spite of this influence, psychiatry can still claim to be a science (with certain modifications to its current practices). Based on recent work in feminist philosophy of science about what “objectivity” means, I claim that recognizing the influence of social and cultural values in psychiatry and on the notion of dysfunction does not mean that it ceases to be objective. If we adopt what is now called “social objectivity”, the notion of dysfunction could reflect social and cultural values, and therefore be value-laden, but also objective if the procedures through which psychiatry defines these concepts were amended. That is, if the DSM revision process was to become more inclusive, transparent, and open to criticisms from different actors in the way “mental disorder” is defined, it would enhance the objectivity of the concept.

Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Narrative, Second-Person Experience, and Self-Perception

Today's post is by Grace Hibshman at University of Notre Dame on her recent paper “Narrative, Second-Person Experience, and Self-Perception: A Reason it is Good to Conceive of One’s Life Narratively” (The Philosophical Quarterly 2022).


Grace Hibshman

In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when Frodo and Sam are struggling to persevere on their quest, they turn to remembering the tales of old and wondering whether their journey will one day be put into songs and tales and told by the firesides of their people. Conceiving of their life narratively in this way as part of a great web of stories helps the hobbits find meaning and courage, and it seems that it can be similarly helpful for people in general as well.

But why might this be? Why might conceiving of one’s life narratively be conducive to one’s flourishing? In my paper, I argue that conceiving of one’s life narratively as a part of the songs and tales of old can prompt one to imagine how an audience might experience hearing one’s life narrative, mediating how someone from a second-person perspective might perceive oneself. This process can yield valuable second-personal productive distance from oneself, enabling one to acquire aspects of a direct I-thou experience of oneself and as result valuable self-understanding.

There are at least two important practical implications of my argument. First, if imagining how an audience would hear our life narratives can transform how we ourselves see ourselves, then we must choose carefully which people we regard as the audience of our lives. If Sam in the Nameless Lands had kept at the front of his mind how someone like Denethor would see his quest, Denethor who had called it ‘madness’ and ‘beyond all but a fool’s hope,’ he may have despaired of his quest after all. Instead, his imagination of how the hobbits in the shire would retell his adventure gave him new hope for his pilgrimage, reshaped how he experienced it, and gave him the strength to in fact bring his quest to a successful completion.

A second practical implication is that if the kind of life narratives we imagine having can shape how we perceive and experience ourselves, then we must choose carefully what narratives to steep ourselves in. The narratives we internalize shape what kind of narrative arcs we can envision for our lives. By steeping himself in the noble tales of old, Sam equipped himself to imagine his life enfolding in a similarly noble fashion, which in turn transformed his experience of the arduous parts of his journey and helped him set his mind on becoming the kind of person who would not turn back. Sam inherited his way of understanding what he was experiencing from a great web of narratives handed down to him by his community. 

The web of narratives in which we choose to immerse ourselves can similarly shape our understanding of our lives. It is worth asking: What stories do we tell ourselves? What stories do we tell those we love?

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Loneliness and Mental Health Public Engagement Event

On 18th May 2022, the Philosophy Department at the University of Birmingham hosted a public engagement event organised by Francesco Antilici and sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy on Loneliness and Mental Health.


Ian Kidd

The event featured three talks and a question and answer session with the audience. In this brief report, I summarise the main contributions of the speakers.


What is the difference that makes a difference to loneliness?

Michael Larkin (Psychology, Aston University) described how our conception of loneliness is moving away from concerns about an isolated self and is reconfiguring loneliness as a social problem that needs to be solved. Rather than focusing on a deficit that affects the lonely individual, we are now much more interested in loneliness as a disruptive social force—acknowledging the importance of social relationships for health and for wellbeing. 

Data driving this new focus includes the proven link between social isolation and mortality: people who are lonely have worse health prospects and they die sooner. Larkin showed how policy documents start taking notice of how the subjective experience of loneliness impacts people’s quality of life. However, psychological accounts of loneliness examine only underlying factors, life triggers, and personal thoughts and feelings.

What is missing? According to Larkin, we need a reflection on structural issues, and in particular issues surrounding the capacity to connect (attachment, emotional regulation, trauma) and the opportunity to connect (social capital, context of equity and equality).

Interventions should not be exclusively aimed at changing people’s behaviour (e.g. by reducing anxiety); they should also aim at changing social policies (e.g. by offering support to people struggling due to parenting or unemployment).




Epistemic injustice and loneliness in late-stage dementia

Lucienne Spencer (Institute of Mental Health, Birmingham) discussed loneliness as a mental health issue and explored the role of non-verbal communication. When we ignore other people’s attempts at communicating with gestures or in other non-verbal ways, they may become vulnerable to non-verbal testimonial injustice which is a serious risk for people who are neurodiverse.

Testimonial injustice occurs when people are not allowed to contribute to the production of knowledge due to negative stereotypes associated with some aspect of their identity: a person who cannot engage in verbal communication may be thought of as stupid or childlike, and thus excluded from exchanges of information. However, they may be able to communicate effectively in a non-verbal way.

Spencer offered examples of residents with late-stage dementia for whom the capacity to communicate verbally is impaired and the opportunity to communicate non-verbally is compromised by other people’s failure to recognise non-verbal expressions of approval or discomfort. 




Loneliness and interpersonal connection

Ian Kidd (Philosophy, Nottingham) argued that there are different types of loneliness that should not be run together: for instance, we can distinguish situational loneliness (which is a temporary experience) from chronic loneliness (with is a more permanent state of being). We can also distinguish the absence of fleeting social encounters from a disruption of close relationships. Finally, in some cases of loneliness the desired connection is absent whereas in other cases it is out of reach. 

But what if some experiences of loneliness don’t just involve absence but the sense that what is absent for us is present for others, the sense that things are out of reach for us but not for everybody else. This absence/presence structure common to many experiences of loneliness—the sense of exclusion—can help us with three tasks: 

  1. identify different types of loneliness and genuine kinds of human experience; 
  2. understand the psychology of loneliness—e.g., whether it is due to individual differences or prejudice; 
  3. capture the moral and emotional dimensions of loneliness—such as bitterness, resentment, envy, and jealousy.




Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Madness: A Philosophical Exploration

Today's post is by Justin Garson. Justin is professor of philosophy at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. He writes on the philosophy of madness, the evolution of mind, and purpose in nature. He also contributes to PsychologyToday.com. Today he writes about his new book, "Madness: A Philosophical Exploration".


Since the 1970s, Western psychiatry has been locked into a disease paradigm of madness. This paradigm has such an ironclad grip on our thinking that it’s sometimes hard to see outside of it. I call this paradigm madness-as-dysfunction. In essence, it sees the forms of madness – delusions, dissociative episodes, depression – as so many different ways that the mind can break down, or fail to function as it should.

We all know the slogans. “Depression is like diabetes.” “Schizophrenia is like cancer.” These give voice to madness-as-dysfunction while investing it with the force of an ethical imperative.

Justin Garson

But what if madness-as-dysfunction is fundamentally limited? What if this perspective is actually beginning to stifle research, produce inefficient treatments, and increase stigma?

What if some forms of madness are designed responses to the problems of life, not diseases? What if they’re purposeful, not pathological? What if delusions, depression, and dissociative episodes, represent the proper functioning of our minds, not their malfunctioning? In short, what if mental disorders are more like calluses than cancer?

I call this paradigm “madness-as-strategy.” We see glimmerings of madness-as-strategy in some contemporary research trends. For example, some see delusions as having a protective role. Or depression, as nature’s signal that something in our lives needs to change. Or autism, as an evolved cognitive style that emerged among early humans to benefit the group.

Such research heralds the birth of a massive paradigm shift.

As a rule, however, contemporary workers in this field don’t see themselves as the cutting edge of a rich intellectual legacy – a legacy with its own founders and figureheads. The purpose of my book, Madness: A Philosophical Exploration, is to unearth that legacy, from the ancient Greek physicians to the evolutionary psychiatrists of today.

Simply being able to see madness-as-strategy as a distinctive intellectual tradition that has always run alongside madness-as-dysfunction is the first step in dislodging the silent dominion of the latter.

Some important figures in this intellectual legacy include Robert Burton, George Cheyne, Johann Christian August Heinroth, Philippe Pinel, Sigmund and Anna Freud, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Harry Stack Sullivan, Kurt Goldstein, and recent evolutionary thinkers like Vivette Glover and Randolph Nesse.

In the course of my research, I found academic historians of psychiatry to be of little help – not because their work isn’t valuable, but because they simply haven’t addressed the question that I’m after. They tend to approach the history of madness in terms of a clash between “mental” and “bodily” perspectives, rather than function and dysfunction perspectives. Instead, my book centers around careful readings of primary texts, some well-known and some obscure.

My goal in this book is not to destroy madness-as-dysfunction, but to force it to make room for another way of seeing, madness-as-strategy. Put differently, I want to make it possible to even raise the question of whether madness-as-dysfunction applies in any particular case. Allowing it to persist as a silent default is bad for research, and it’s bad for people who seek professional help.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Dual Processes, Dual Virtues

This post is by Jakob Ohlhorst (University of Cologne) on his recent paper "Dual processes, dual virtues" (2021, Philosophical Studies).

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has been unabatedly popular in the last decade. It illustratively presents one of the dominant psychological theories of cognition, how we process information: dual process theory. The theory distinguishes two types of cognition: 

Type 1 processes happen automatically, they requires little effort, they are specific to domains, and they use reliable heuristics. This roughly corresponds to the common notion of intuition. A nice example for it is the great amount of information that we gain from simply looking at faces: we can read a person’s mood, recognise the person, estimate their age, and so on. 

Type 2 cognition on the other hand is executed with voluntary control, it requires cognitive effort, it can be applied to any topic, and it operates by explicit inference. For example, solving a high school math problem with pen and paper is a typical Type 2 process. 


Meanwhile, there is a similar distinction in virtue epistemology: reliabilist and responsibilist theories disagree on the exact nature of epistemic virtue. Virtue epistemology in general looks to the agent’s epistemic capacities and abilities rather than her single beliefs and inferences. 

Epistemic successes like knowledge and discovery are explained by the agent’s capacities rather than their evidence and inferences. Marie Curie’s discoveries are not explained as a result of what she had as evidence and so on but as a result of her specific epistemic competences to reason, that is her virtues. 

Virtue epistemologists have disagreed on the exact nature of these virtues: Virtue reliabilists argue that a capacity’s being a virtue is a question of its reliably producing true beliefs. If you recognise people most of the time by simply looking at their faces then your face recognition capacity is a reliabilist virtue. 

Virtue responsibilists, meanwhile, look to Aristotelian virtue ethics to explain epistemic virtue: just as behavioural dispositions like courage are moral virtues, epistemic habits like patience and conscientiousness are epistemic virtues that in turn explain epistemic success. 

You need to exhibit the responsibilist virtues of carefulness and patience, if you want to successfully solve a math problem. Responsibilist and reliabilist virtue theories are usually taken to be incompatible and in competition because they explain entirely different notions of epistemic success and virtues. 

The way that I used my examples shows already, that I propose a different avenue: the two virtue theories are not competitors; instead, they describe the virtue of the different types of cognition. Namely, reliabilist virtue means the disposition of Type 1 capacities to function reliably, and responsibilist virtue means the disposition of Type 2 cognition to function excellently. 

Reliabilist Type 1 virtues need to be reliably true because that is the epistemic good that Type 1 capacities deliver best, meanwhile responsibilist Type 2 virtues deliver a broader range of epistemic goods like understanding, explanation, or justification. Marie Curie was able to make her Nobel Prize worthy discoveries because she possessed both the necessary Type 1 and Type 2 virtues.

This shows us that reliabilism and responsibilism are both right; they simply explain the virtue of different types of cognition. These types of cognition complement each other and, consequently, also Type 1 and Type 2 virtues are complementary: each is able to achieve epistemic goals that the other cannot. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2022

Are Mental Disorders Brain Disorders?

In today's post, Anneli Jefferson discusses her new book, Are Mental Disorders Brain Disorders? (Routledge 2022)She is a lecturer at Cardiff University who works in the philosophy of psychology, moral philosophy, and at the intersection of the two. 




In the last 20 years or so, neuroscience and psychiatry have increasingly been researching what brain differences can be found in people suffering from mental distress, and how these might help to explain and treat mental disorders. There is a long-standing belief that mental disorders must be brain disorders, because whatever psychological dysfunction we find must have some basis in the brain. However, many psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and philosophers strongly resist this idea, and debates about this issue can get quite heated. In my book I set out to get to the bottom of what makes this debate so intractable and provide a way forward in the debate.

I argue that resistance to calling mental disorders brain disorders stems primarily from a very narrow and specific view of what is entailed when we call a condition a brain disorder. This narrow view looks to paradigmatic brain disorders such as brain cancer as a model for what makes a condition a brain disorder. It concludes that a condition can only be a brain disorder if the following conditions are met: dysfunction in the brain is specifiable independently of the psychological level, it causally precedes mental symptoms, and treatment of the disorder targets the brain directly, for example through medication or surgery. (This specification that the brain is targeted directly is important because psychological treatment through talking therapy targets the brain as well, but does so indirectly.)

Anneli Jefferson


The narrow view is unsatisfactory because both the etiology of brain disorders and the treatment involve a plurality of factors (Kendler 2012). Furthermore, somatic dysfunction, too, is not specifiable independently of the adverse effects a structural or functional anomaly in the body has for an organism. It’s therefore unclear why we should demand a higher standard for brain dysfunction. 

Instead, we should say that differences in brain structure or function that we find in mental health conditions are dysfunctional precisely because they realize mental dysfunction. This gives us a more modest notion of brain dysfunction and disorder, which only requires that we find differences in the brain that are sufficient for realising psychological dysfunction. This means that for many psychiatric disorders, brain dysfunction will only be specifiable as such because it realises psychological dysfunction.

The second half of the book considers objections and implications, I address the objection that brain disorder labels are committed to a problematic reductionism and that mental disorders are relational (externalist) in a way that a focus on dysfunction in the brain cannot allow for.

Finally, I discuss worries about how brain disorders affect responsible agency and how the ‘brain disorder’ label might influence people’s self-perception and the way others see them. I argue that while brain disorders do often have an impact on responsible agency, we can and should only assess responsibility by looking at an agent’s psychological profile. Knowledge of brain dysfunction can inform such psychological assessments, but it cannot replace them. 

I then consider the worry that rightly or wrongly, hearing that a person is suffering from a condition that involves dysfunction in the brain will make people see them as unable to do anything to recover from or manage their condition and make them think that person is not responsible for their actions. I discuss two possible explanations for such effects: one is that we draw unwarranted conclusions by drawing analogies to certain paradigm brain disorders such as brain cancer, the other is the hypothesis that we are intuitive dualists, who think of brain and mind as separate. I end by proposing ways to mitigate these undesirable associations.

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Protecting the Mind

Today's post is by Pablo López-Silva who is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology and Research Professor at the Institute of Philosophy, Universidad de Valparaíso, Chile. He is Young Research Fellow at the Millenium Institute for Research in Depression and Personality (Chile). 

Pablo's areas of research are Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Psychology, Psychopathology, and Neuroethics and he's director of the Project FONDECYT 1221058 'The architecture of psychotic delusions'. Here, he discusses his new book, Protecting the Mind: Challenges in Law, Neuroprotection, and Neurorights (Springer 2022, edited by Pablo López-Silva & Luca Valera).




In John Milton’s Comus, the British poet writes “Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind”. With this, the author depicts the human mind as the last bastion of privacy, freedom, and agency. For a long time, this idea remained unchallenged. However, the rapid progress of neurotechnologies with direct access to our neural data has jeopardized the limits of our mind’s privacy and freedom. Large research initiatives around the world (Adams et al. 2020) are mapping with unprecedented degrees of accuracy the neural paths that the brain builds over time to create our experience of reality, and specific mental states such as motor actions, beliefs, memories, and thoughts. 

Importantly, the very possibility of recording with such a precision the neural activity that produce specific mental states might offer scientists and governments the possibility of not only reading, but also controlling the production of mental states in the minds of regular citizens, process that has been called “brain-hacking” (Yuste 2019, 2020a, b). This – almost science fictional - scenario has not only motivated discussions about the ways in which the access and control over our own neural data (mental privacy) could be protected, but also, debates about our very notions of the human mind and the most fundamental anthropological model of ourselves. 

Pablo Lopez-Silva


Protecting the Mind: Challenges in Law, Neuroprotection, and Neurorights is a multidisciplinary effort to think critically about philosophical, ethical, and empirical issues that emerge from the potential misuses of neurotechnologies in medical and non-medical contexts. The contributions contained in the collection cover a wide range of topics, but, altogether, they are able to inform current discussion that local governments are having in light of the many threats posited for the unregulated use of neurotechnologies with access to neural data around the world. 

One of the main concerns that guide this collection has to do with the lack of clear and specific legal frameworks that could protect the mind from external intromission allowed by such neurotechnologies. We believe that important philosophical discussion about how to conceptualize our mind arise from this threat. But, at the same time, we believe that conceptual discussions must be accompanied by specific actions focused on protecting the life of citizens. In this collection, we have tried to maintain an equilibrium between these complementary levels of analysis in order to invite the academic community to keep discussing these matters. Given the ongoing nature of these debates, we hope this collection of essays motivates further discussion to develop comprehensive concepts and to inform contextualized legal frameworks. 

In the last chapter of our collection, we leave open some questions: 

  • Must we protect our mind and persons? 
  • Is this protection only motivated by the fear of the unknown—e.g., the possible consequences that neurotechnologies may have on our society—and by the current lack of knowledge? 

In any case, what is clear, here, is the twofold role of neurotechnologies: “Neuro-technology is developing powerful ways to treat serious diseases, to improve lifestyles and even, potentially, to enhance the human body. However, this progress is also associated with new self-understandings, existential challenges and problems never seen before” (Echarte 2016, 137). The bet we have to make concerns, then, both what we can gain and what we can lose: we could achieve qualitatively better lives but forgetting our vulnerability and losing our “image;” we could be better off, but we would lose the possibility of experiencing authentically. We need to evaluate if such a gamble is convenient and, above all, if it is authentically human.

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

The Misclassification of Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Amy MacKinnon is a graduate student at Western University studying philosophy of psychiatry, mind-brain sciences, and disability. Muhammad Ali Khalidi is Presidential Professor of Philosophy at CUNY Graduate Center. His book, Cognitive Ontology: Taxonomic Practices in the Mind-Brain Sciences, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. 


Amy MacKinnon


Understanding the nature of psychiatric disorders is something that philosophers of psychiatry, as well as practicing psychiatrists and psychotherapists, are concerned about. Every so many years, after a long revision process, a new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is produced by the American Psychiatric Association. In the most recent edition (DSM-5), as in all previous editions, some disorders were removed, some re-named, and some new ones added. With each revision, the hope is that we are gaining validity and reliability. 

As philosophers, we’re interested in the underlying basis of these classifications, so we decided to examine one particular psychiatric disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), to better understand the grounds for psychiatric classification. In the DSM-5, BDD is classified under the category of Obsessive-Compulsive Related Disorders (OCRDs). The main feature of BDD is that it involves persistent and intrusive thoughts about a perceived bodily flaw that is not observable or appears slight to others. 

At some point during the course of the disorder, an individual with BDD will have performed repetitive behaviors (e.g. mirror checking, excessive grooming, skin picking, reassurance seeking) or mental acts (e.g. comparing his or her appearance with that of others) in response to concerns about their own appearance. The preoccupation causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning. Moreover, the preoccupation with appearance is not better explained by concerns with body fat or weight, and symptoms do not otherwise meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.


Muhammad Ali Khalidi


On the surface, it might seem as though BDD is aptly classified as an OCRD in so far as it shares some similar features with the four other disorders in the OCRD category (namely, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding disorder, trichotillomania, and excoriation). But we think that even though BDD does have obsessive and compulsive components, the similarities are superficial. Though BDD and OCD patients both engage in repetitive behaviors that they have difficulty controlling, the underlying causes seem quite different.

Various philosophers of science, from John Stuart Mill to Ruth Millikan, have proposed that the basis of scientific classification ought to be causal and that valid categories in science should track causal relationships. Building on this basic insight, we argue that by focusing on the etiology of the disorder, it becomes apparent that the differences between BDD and OCD are such that they should not both be subsumed under the category of OCRD. We propose a tentative causal model of BDD that sets it apart as a psychiatric disorder and corroborates the claim that it has been misclassified in the DSM-5. Reclassification of BDD on the basis of its causal profile should have implications for the diagnosis and treatment of patients.

We think that there are three causal factors implicated in BDD that do not appear to be present in the disorders that it has been classified with. BDD involves a perceptual deficit that is not apparent in OCD. People with BDD tend to focus on details at the expense of the whole picture or “configural” features. Neuropsychological studies suggest that those with BDD tend to over-focus on minor details when drawing complex figures from memory, compared to those without BDD. This is congruent with other research suggesting that people with BDD are more likely to examine details in visual tasks and less likely to take in the holistic picture. This phenomenon seems to be supported by studies in which people with BDD and controls perform matching tasks (e.g. matching images of inverted faces).

In addition to a perceptual deficit, people with BDD also have distinctive cognitive deficits. Compared to people with OCD, people with BDD show a theory of mind deficit and they engage in referential thinking especially when it comes to social situations. People with BDD tend to have difficulty in understanding others’ intentions and attitudes in social settings. When asked to observe video sequences of a dinner party and report on those people’s attitudes and intentions, people with BDD tend to perform poorly relative to controls. When it comes to referential thinking, people with BDD tend to perceive neutral or even positive stimuli as being negative. A smile from a stranger on the sidewalk is more likely to be perceived as a mocking gesture rather than a friendly greeting.

People with BDD also seem to differ from those with OCD when it comes to level of insight into their own condition. Whereas people with OCD usually have a fair level of insight, those with BDD tend to show poor insight. People with OCD will often report knowing that their behaviour – such as checking the stove 20 times to make sure it is off -- is senseless. They might know that checking once is enough, but they still carry out the ritual of checking repeatedly. By contrast, people with BDD really believe that their body is mis-shaped, and they think that they are justified in mirror-checking as often as they do. In other words, they have different attitudes towards their own behaviours. Moreover, BDD patients also report feeling worse after engaging in repetitive behaviors and experience no reduction in anxiety, as compared with OCD patients, whose rituals seem to relieve their anxiety, albeit temporarily.

Additionally, people with BDD are resistant to others’ attempts at reassurance and reject evidence that contradicts their beliefs. No matter how often someone says, “your nose looks fine,” or provides evidence that their facial features are not asymmetrical, people with BDD do not accept this information. This suggests that they might have a strong version of a confirmation bias, which has also been found in other psychiatric patients with entrenched delusions, such as those with schizophrenia. Meanwhile, OCD patients do not seem to have such entrenched delusions. This cognitive bias may be a third causal factor that is distinctive of BDD and contributes to the occurrence of the disorder.

These contrasts with OCD have led us to posit a causal model of the emergence and persistence of BDD in certain people. We conjecture that their perceptual abnormality may lead them to focus excessively on specific body parts, which may result in dissatisfaction with their appearance. Moreover, their theory of mind deficit may lead them to think that others disapprove of their appearance, further confirming their own dissatisfaction. These negative attitudes may be reinforced by an exaggerated form of confirmation bias, which helps give rise to a full-blown delusion about their appearance that is difficult to dislodge and bring about a lack of insight into their own condition. We conjecture that these three causal factors, when found together in a single individual, result in this distinctive psychiatric condition and set it apart from the disorders that it has been lumped with in the DSM-5. 

This perceptual-cognitive causal account of BDD may serve as a model for other psychiatric disorders, some of which may also emerge as a result of atypical perceptual and cognitive traits. By examining the underlying causes, as well as focusing on the patients’ own perspectives and attitudes, rather than just looking at outward symptoms, it becomes apparent that BDD is sufficiently different from OCD that they should not be classified in the same category. We believe that this is important when it comes to understanding the validity of the classification, and we think this could have important implications for understanding effective treatments in the form of causal interventions.

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.