Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Erotetic Theory of Delusional Thinking

This post is by Matthew Parrott (pictured above) and Philipp Koralus (pictured below). Here they summarise their recent paper ‘The Erotetic Theory of Delusional Thinking’, published in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry. 

We thank Lisa and Ema for the invitation to introduce our recent paper. In this paper, we appeal to the recently developed erotetic theory of reasoning in order to explain three patterns of anomalous reasoning associated with delusion: mistaking a loved-one for an impostor (as in the Capgras delusion), the well-documented tendency to ‘jump to conclusions’, and surprising improvements in a certain reasoning task involving conditionals (Mellet et. al. 2006).

According to the erotetic theory, the aim of human reasoning is to answer questions as directly as possible (for further discussion and for a formal account of the theory, see Koralus and Mascarenhas 2013). More precisely, according to the erotetic theory, reasoning proceeds by treating an initial premise or set of premises as a question and then treating subsequent information as a maximally strong answer to that question. Here is an informal illustration:

Suppose you are given a premise: there is either beer in the fridge, or there is wine and cheese in the fridge.

Informally, the erotetic theory holds that this premise will be cognitively processed by reasoners as the following question, or issue, that needs to be addressed: Am I in a beer-in-the-fridge situation or in a wine-and-cheese-in-the-fridge situation?

Now suppose the next piece of information you get is that there is cheese in the fridge. If you process that information as a maximally strong answer, resolving the issue you were trying to address, then you will conclude that you are in a wine-and-cheese-in-the-fridge situation

Of course, it would be a fallacy to draw this conclusion based on the information available. Interestingly, it is a form of reasoning that most people are naturally disposed toward (Walsh and Johnson-Laird 2004). The erotetic theory captures this pattern of tempting fallacies, along with various others documented in the experimental literature, and predicts new ones. Crucially, according to the erotetic theory, what allows human reasoners to avoid fallacies is to raise enough further questions as the reasoning process progresses. What characteristically leads us astray when we succumb to fallacies is a lack of inquisitiveness (for details see Koralus and Mascarenhas 2013).

We were curious whether, with the help of the erotetic theory, we could make sense of seemingly outlandish thought patterns associated with delusions as extreme cases of tendencies that are present in all of us. The idea was to explore a model of delusional thinking as being like ordinary thinking except lacking inquisitiveness of a crucial sort.

According to the erotetic theory, delusional thinking is conceptualised in terms of the way individuals ask questions or in terms of how they go about answering those questions. In the paper, we propose that relevant patients entertain roughly the same default questions that most people strongly associate with various external stimuli, but that they either envisage fewer alternative possible answers to these questions or raise fewer follow-up questions as they proceed to try to answer them. This chiefly has a negative effect on the quality of conclusions drawn, but we argue that it can also yield some surprising performance advantages.

In the paper, we describe how lack of inquisitiveness can make sense of various thought patterns associated with delusion. We hope this brief introduction sparks interest in renewing efforts to understand reasoning, both ordinary and delusional, more systematically than we do at present.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice

In this post Maksymilian Del Mar (in the picture above) presents the recent book Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice (Springer 2015), co-edited with William Twining.

Treating Menorca as if it is a suburb of London, or a ship as if it was a person, or pretending that persons who form contracts are made by rational agents with knowledge of the commitments they are making, or that states who take over other states find a land empty of life (as in the doctrine of terra nullius) – or, positing the existence of consent, malice, notice, fraud, intention, or causation when evidence clearly points to the opposite conclusion (or to no conclusion at all)…

All these are example of legal fictions. They fly in the face of reality. And, in the literature on theories of law and legal reasoning, they are not very popular. In this new collection – Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice (Springer, 2015, co-edited by William Twining and Maks Del Mar) – 18 chapters explore another view: that not only are fictions pervasive in legal practice (and in very different legal traditions), they are also considerably more valuable cognitively than we have hitherto appreciated.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

PERFECT Year Two: Michael Larkin

Today's post is by Michael Larkin, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Birmingham and co-investigator in project PERFECT. Michael talks about his research interests for this second year of the project, and focuses on shared experience and parity of esteem.

My colleague Lisa Bortolotti has written recently about Project PERFECT, and the importance of understanding those aspects of human cognition which are common to both those who seek support from mental health services and those who do not. Lisa’s conceptual work illuminates some of the ways in which, at times, we all may hold beliefs which are difficult for others to share, or act upon reasoning which is difficult for others to understand.

Yesterday, I spent a fascinating morning with two clinical psychologists and a group of trainee clinical psychologists, exploring some of the differences and commonalities between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’ in our research and practice. We discussed how the task for the clinical psychologist often involves the gradual building of a bridge – a collaborative process - to span the gap between one person’s view of the world, and another’s. The psychologist is able to draw upon a wide field of knowledge (theory and evidence about the kinds of difficulties which people experience, and the kinds of factors which tend to cause and maintain them, for example), but must work with the service-user to understand which of these elements might be relevant and helpful to understanding their particular circumstances and context. Thus, formal knowledge and informal belief (about experience, and its meaning, for example) are combined. From this shared understanding, a formulation can be developed, which provides the basis for any therapeutic work that the psychologist and service-user might then decide to pursue together.

Lisa’s article about Project PERFECT suggests that once we have mutual understanding, we can see the commonalities in human experience, and we become able to see the difference between ‘someone who uses mental health services’ and ‘someone who does not who use mental services,’ in a new way. We see it then as simply a difference in the intensity or persistence of a particular experience. 

For example, I saw the surreal and rather disturbing film The Lobster this week. The feeling of anxiety which it produced continued to perfuse my experience throughout the next day. Anxiety isn’t an experience which generally causes me too much trouble (I’m probably more prone to low mood), but when – after a good night’s sleep – the feeling had lifted, I did have cause to reflect on what it would have been like to cope with that feeling for longer, or for its effect to have been more pronounced. In circumstances where I had been required to cope with other stresses, and where I did not have recourse to that good night’s sleep, might my reaction have been different?

The intensity or persistence of our distress is often shaped by the context in which we find ourselves. This is generally a more helpful way of thinking about psychological wellbeing than considering the difference between ‘someone who uses mental health services’ and ‘someone who does not,’ to be a difference between two ‘kinds’ of people – something which is generally underscored by the complex findings of genomic research. The importance of PERFECT’s message for anti-stigmatisation therfore is that there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Workshop on Unrealistic Optimism

On February 25th and 26th we will be hosting an interdisciplinary workshop on optimism at Senate House, London.

The first day will be dedicated to the question what unrealistic optimism is and how it is caused. Why is it that we see such a wide-spread tendency to be unrealistically optimistic abour our own future? Are the primary factors motivational or cognitive? What processes allow us to think ‘it won’t happen to me’?

We will be hearing about the brain processes underlying optimistic belief formation patterns and from Tali Sharot; and Bojana Kuzmanovic will be speaking about evidence that optimistically biased belief updating recruits brain areas associated with motivational processes. I will be considering the question whether the wide-spread tendency to be unrealistically optimistic about one’s own future can be explained by the fact that these belief patterns were adaptive in the past. Constantine Sedikides will be discussing unrealistically optimistic beliefs as one type of motivationally driven self-enhancing belief.

On the second day, we turn to the question of what the effects of optimistically biased cognition are. Are they beneficial or do they increase the risk of bad things happening to us because they prevent us from taking precautions? James Shepperd will be reviewing findings from existing research on these questions and suggest explanations for inconsistencies in these findings. Miriam McCormick will be exploring the concept of rational hope and put forward conditions for judging hope as appropriate or inappropriate. Fernando Blanco’s talk will focus on potential health risks of unrealistic optimism and causal illusions and ways of reducing these. Finally, Lisa will be talking about engaged agency as a positive outcome of some cases of unrealistic optimism.