Tuesday, 3 May 2016


This post is by Sarah Robins (pictured above), an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and affiliate member of the Cognitive and Brain Sciences Program in Psychology at the University of Kansas. Her research is at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, with a primary focus on memory. In this post she summarises her recent paper ‘Misremembering’, published in Philosophical Psychology.

Thanks, Ema, for the invitation to talk about my recent paper ‘Misrememberingwith Imperfect Cognitions readers.

The paper began from my fascination with one of the most common experimental techniques for eliciting memory errors: the Deese-Roediger-McDermott, or DRM, paradigm (Deese 1959; Roediger and McDermott 1995). I am fascinated because these errors display a blend of success and failure (on which I will elaborate on below). In the paper, I argue that they are best viewed as a distinct type of error, misremembering. I go on to argue that we lack a theory of memory that can explain misremembering. I divide theories of memory into two broad groups: traditional Archival accounts and contemporary Constructive ones. Each is insensitive to the explanatory demands of misremembering errors, but in a distinct way. In short, Archival accounts do well at explaining memory’s successes and Constructive accounts do well at explaining memory’s failures. But since misremembering errors involve success and failure, they present a challenge to both.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Are Positive Illusions Epistemically Innocent?

A belief is epistemically rational if it is well supported by evidence and responsive to counter-evidence. But do epistemically rational beliefs contribute to our psychological wellbeing? Some believe that epistemic rationality contributes to psychological wellbeing, and that epistemic irrationality is often responsible for psychological distress (for a version of the traditional view, see Healthy Personality, by Jourard and Landsman, 1980). Others believe that psychological wellbeing requires epistemic irrationality, and that there are circumstances in which epistemic rationality is responsible for psychological distress (for a version of the trade-off view, see e.g. Positive Illusions, by Taylor, 1989).

The traditional view tells us that people who are psychologically healthy have cognitions that are constrained by evidence and are accurate, that is, they track how things actually are. Their memory reports are reliable, their beliefs well-grounded, and their predictions realistic. People who experience psychological distress have cognitions that are not constrained by evidence and are inaccurate, that is, they do not track how things actually are. Their memory reports are distorted, their beliefs ill-grounded, and their predictions unrealistic. This view obviously has some implications for the goals of psychological therapy: psychological health is enhanced when epistemic rationality is restored. 

The trade-off view suggests that epistemic irrationality is often not inimical, but conducive to psychological wellbeing. People who are psychologically healthy are unreasonably optimistic when they form beliefs about their skills and talents, when they assess their capacity to control external events, and when they predict their future. Interestingly, people who are affected by low mood do not share such an inflated conception of their skills and talents, they do not overestimate their capacity to control external events, and they predict their future more realistically than people without low mood. This view also has implications for the goals of psychological therapy: psychological wellbeing is improved when the right kind of distortion (such as a doxastic bias towards self-enhancement) is introduced or re-instated. 

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Biased Mind

Michel De Lara (below left) is a researcher concerned with the mathematical and economic aspects of risk. Jérôme Boutang (below right) is a communication professional with expertise in environmental threats such as air pollution and climate change. Together with the Paris School of Economics, they started a research project on risk perception which soon developed into the Biased Mind project. In this post they introduce their new book The Biased Mind, which is published in the Copernicus popular science collection of Springer.

Why is it that the French eat snails but not slugs? What makes the number 7 so special? Will your recent marriage last? Why is it that Batman, Superman and Spiderman fearlessly defeat evil monsters, but are hopelessly shy when it comes to women? And why is it that we crave sugary and greasy food, even though we know it's not healthy? The answer to these questions is that our mind is like a smartphone, filled with adaptive software, whose different modules operate alternatively or engage in struggle among themselves.

Metaphors like this, as well as other short stories, anecdotes and images—the deeply rooted language elements that speak to our mind—are presented in this book to ensure that it is accessible to a wide readership. The book provides insight into the workings of our brain and useful tips on how to steer clear of its pitfalls.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Adaptive Role of Moderate Anxiety in Reacting to Social Threats

This post is by Marwa El Zein (pictured above), currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Social Cognition Group, based in Paris. In this post Marwa summarises her paper ‘Anxiety Dissociates the Adaptive Functions of Sensory and Motor Response Enhancements to Social Threats’, co-authored with Valentin Wyart and Julie Grèzes, and published in eLife.

I investigate the neural mechanisms of contextual influences during social perceptual decisions. Specifically, my work characterizes behaviorally and neurally how personality traits, past experience, and attention modulate facial perception.

In my paper, the adaptive role of moderate anxiety in reacting to social threats is put forward. Neural activity (electroencephalography, EEG) of participants was recorded while they categorized angry and fearful facial emotions. Individual anxiety of participants was assessed thanks to a personality trait questionnaire filled out at the beginning of the experiment (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory).

Importantly, the degree to which facial emotions were threatening to the observer varied through the manipulation of the emitter’s gaze direction (direct or averted toward the observer). Indeed, an angry person looking directly at you signals a direct threat to you (which is not the case if the same angry person was looking at someone else), whereas a fearful person looking aside signals a common (and unknown) threat in the environment.