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.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Bulimia as an Addiction

Today's post is by Polly Mertens (pictured below) who talks about her experience with bulimia, and her recovery. Polly's website is Get Busy Thriving.


I started binging and purging when I was 14 after I had been restricting food to lose weight. I felt like I was missing out on foods I enjoyed. When I tried to stop my binging and purging cycles a year later, I couldn’t control the urges. I later learned I had bulimia.

Over the next 20 years I could manage stopping the binging for a few weeks or months, but the urges always came back and I felt helpless to stop them. At my worst I would binge and purge 10 times a day.

On the outside I seemed like a healthy and normal person. I went to the gym, ate pretty healthy and had an average body weight. With friends I only ate normally, but alone I was completely out of control around food. I felt ashamed and extremely frustrated with my addiction.

Bulimia is a hidden habit and most people wouldn’t know someone was bulimic because they are good at keeping their secret. Bulimics are usually very normal on the outside and often high achievers so they can appear to have it all together. Yet on the inside they are struggling with inner urges that drive them to overeat.

When I was 34 I was resigned to living my life as a bulimic. I stopped trying to overcome my bad habit. Thankfully the urges weren’t as frequent or out of control as they were at my worst period. That year I attended a personal transformation workshop (The Landmark Forum) and it changed the course of my future. I regained my power. I became more conscious and responsible for my thoughts. I decided to stop that day and haven’t binged or purged since 2005.

Today I eat normally and all of the patterns surrounding my bulimia habits are gone. I’ve done a lot of study since my first workshop including introducing spiritual practices, learning more about mindfulness, willpower, goal setting and much more. Recovering from bulimia was the start of my journey to learn how to create a great life.

Having been through bulimia I know it is not a disease. I see it as an addiction. My hope is in the near future the neurological habit patterns that are a part of bulimia will be better understood so those with it can be taught how to stop more quickly and easily.

As a recovery and life coach I work with clients so they see their own habituated patterns so they can make the changes to stop, too. I struggled for a long, long time because I misunderstood how to stop my addictive behavior. Once I understood things better I regained my power and took responsibility for what happens in my life.

I know it’s possible for a person who’s had bulimia for 20, 30, 40 or more years to stop for good. I’m glad there are videos, books and blogs talking about how to overcome bulimia in new ways. My hope is more counselors and centers will learn about and embrace new methods of helping people understand what causes the addictive behavior and empower people to choose their recovery.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency

Today's post is by John M. Doris, Professor in the Philosophy–Neuroscience–Psychology Program and Philosophy Department, Washington University in St. Louis. Doris has been awarded fellowships from Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, the National Humanities Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities (three times), and is a winner of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology’s Stanton Prize. He authored Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (Cambridge, 2002) and Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency (Oxford 2015). With his colleagues in the Moral Psychology Research Group, he edited The Moral Psychology Handbook (Oxford, 2010). At Washington University, Doris’ pedagogy has been recognized with an Outstanding Mentor Award from the Graduate Student Senate and the David Hadas Teaching Award for excellence in the instruction of first year undergraduates. 

In the current post John discusses Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency.




If you’ve worked in an office, you’re probably familiar with “honor box” coffee service. Everyone helps themselves to stewed coffee, adds to the lounge’s growing filth, and deposits a nominal sum in the honor box, with the accumulated proceeds being used to replenish supplies. Notoriously, this system often devolves into a tragedy of the commons, where too many people drink without paying. Unless some philanthropic soul goes out of pocket to cover freeriders, the enterprise goes in the red, and everyone’s back to extortionate prices at the cafe.

Fortunately, the tragedy of the honor box may be readily ameliorated; if images of eyes are placed prominently near the coffee service, deposits increase. Or so Bateson and her colleagues (2006) found: the take in a Psychology Department’s honor box (computed by amount contributed per liter of milk consumed) was nearly three times as large when the posted payment instructions were augmented with an image of eyes as when they were augmented with an image of flowers.

Fig. 1: The Eyes Have It: honor box contributions higher with eyes than with flowers (Pounds paid per liter of milk consumed as a function of week and image type; from Bateson et al. 2006: 413)

An extensive experimental literature, together with the large family of “dual process” theories attempting to make sense of it, suggests the widespread presence of “incongruent parallel processing” where two (or more) cognitive systems (with “cognitive” capaciously construed) issue in divergent outputs with regards the some same object. (The size of the literature and the existence of supporting theory, I argue in the book [e.g., 44-50] is critical, given the recent “RepliGate” controversy in psychology.) This incongruence raises the prospect of “defeaters” for morally responsible agency, where the causes of a behavior (namely, those causal factors that appropriately figure in a well formed psychological explanation of a behavior) would not be counted by the actor as reasons for that behavior. Where defeaters obtain, I argue, agency is imperiled, so in those cases where we cannot confidently rule out the presence of defeaters, the attribution of agency is not warranted. Thus, I claim, skepticism about agency threatens.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Gender Disparity and Epistemic Self-trust


This post is by Boudewijn de Bruin (pictured above), Professor of Financial Ethics in the faculties of Economics and Business, and Philosophy, at the University of Groningen. In this post he writes about gender disparity and epistemic self-trust. 

Women pay about half a percentage point higher interest rates on comparable mortgages than men. Why is that? Is it discrimination? And are the countless similar disparities among many other different social groups discrimination?

Research is still going on, but the received opinion among economists writing on what they call gender disparity seems to be that, no, there is no discrimination. (And they are the ones informing policymakers.) Their argument is that the disparity can be attributed to differences in tastes or preferences among men and women have about ‘search behaviour’ rather than on the mortgage lender actively discriminating against women.

Men, according to this explanation, have a preference for searching the web for the best mortgage deal. Women, by contrast, approach their friends and acquaintances with a question of where to find the best deal. But what is a good deal for your friend is probably not a good deal for you (unless you have very similar households, wealth, income, etc. and want buy very similar houses).

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Man Who Wasn’t There

This post is by Anil Ananthaswamy, science journalist and author, and consultant for New Scientist magazine. He has previously worked as a staff writer and deputy news editor at New Scientist’s London offices. He teaches an annual science journalism workshop at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, and has been a guest editor at the University of California Santa Cruz’s science writing program. In this post, Anil presents his new book, The Man Who Wasn't There.



Many people have asked me why I wrote The Man Who Wasn’t There (which examines what neuropsychological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia tell us about the human sense of self), especially since neuroscience is far removed from the topic of my previous book, The Edge of Physics, which dealt with cosmology and astroparticle physics. Curiosity and a desire to write brought me to science journalism—and I went where they took me. The quest to understand the universe and our place in it, and indeed our quest to understand ourselves, has no boundaries.

Oddly, the human sense of self is about boundaries—between the self and non-self, between me and the not-me. How real is this perceived boundary? How much of it is fabricated? Is there a fabricator? Our phenomenal self—the self that each one of us perceives oneself to be—is obviously real. The phenomenal self has a perceived unity to it. There’s the unity of experience in the present moment—where all experiences feel as if they are being had by the same entity. There’s also the unity of experience over time: if you were to remember a younger self or imagine a future self, the remembering or imagining also feel as if they are being experienced by the same entity. But is this entity, or self, real, in the same way that fundamental particles of nature are real? Philosophers and theologians have been trying to ask and answer such questions.


Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Emotional Actions


This post is by Mary Carman (pictured above), who will be joining Thumos, the Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Values and Norms as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in April. Mary works on emotions and action, and as part of her previous Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, she started working on topics in Bioethics. In this post, she writes about the rational role in action emotions can play.

In my PhD thesis and a paper currently under review, I develop an account of emotional actions that gives emotion a rational role in action. In this brief post, I outline how such an account might look.

Let’s start with an example of an impulsive emotional action from Elisabeth Pacherie (2002): I am fearfully running away from a bear, spot a crack in the rocks too narrow for the bear to fit, and climb through. In such cases, we act on the basis of an emotion without first forming beliefs and desires related to what to do. These actions can be under our control, in execution if not in initiation, and we have at least a de re awareness of what we are doing and why. And, often, such actions are in line with what we would take to be reasons favouring the action if we had deliberated more fully. Superficially, then, many of these actions are candidates for rational action (see another paper under review).

Now, acting rationally is traditionally thought to require that we act on beliefs and desires related to some goal we aim to achieve with the action. If one form or another of this picture is correct, then these emotional actions are not rational. This traditional picture, however, fails to take into account certain things we now know about emotion.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Tricked by Memory: Arts and Science Festival 2016

The 2016 edition of the Arts and Science Festival at the University of Birmingham, whose theme was memory and forgetting, took place between 14th and 20th March. The festival showcased research and collaboration at the University through talks, exhibitions, performances, workshops and screenings. Project PERFECT and the Costs and Benefits of Optimism project hosted a lunchtime event open to the public, Tricked by Memory, organised and chaired by Lisa Bortolotti. 



The talk by Magdalena Antrobus (pictured below) was entitled: "Sometimes I get lucky and forget. Depression, memory and negativity bias". First, she explored the relation between depression and the way we remember things. Magdalena discussed the phenomenon of depressive realism and asked whether suffering from low mood may enhance the accuracy of our memories. Second, she presented evidence suggesting that in severe forms of depression people remember their past in an overly negative way: they concentrate on painful experiences and ruminate their failures. This may affect both their well-being and their knowledge, leading to psychological and epistemic costs. Finally, Magdalena asked whether, in the light of the evidence she presented, memory loss in depression might be seen as adaptive.




Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Instrumental Rationality in Psychopathy: Implications from Learning Tasks


This post is by Marko Jurjako (pictured above) and Luca Malatesti (pictured below), collaborators on the project Classification and explanations of antisocial personality disorder and moral and legal responsibility in the context of the Croatian mental health and care law (CEASCRO), funded by the Croatian Science Foundation and based in the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Rijeka (Croatia). Marko is a junior researcher on the project and his interests lie in moral psychology and evolutionary approaches to metaethics. Luca is assistant professor of philosophy and works mainly in philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychiatry. In this post they summarise their paper ‘Instrumental Rationality in Psychopathy: Implications from Learning Tasks’, forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology.


Psychopathy is a personality disorder that involves traits such as pathological lying, manipulativeness, superficial charm, no or little concern for the interests of others, a grandiose sense of self, and, usually, a long history of offences and encounters with justice. In the last twenty years this condition has attracted a mounting interest by philosophers (see the online bibliography PhilPapers: psychopathy).

Some debate the significance of psychopathy for adjudicating between different accounts of our moral psychology. While sentimentalists maintain that empathic and emotional deficits explain the limited moral understanding and motivation of psychopaths (Nichols 2004; Prinz 2006), rationalists explain these limits in terms of rational deficits. Specifically, amongst the rationalists, Heidi Maibom in her seminal paper ‘Moral Unreason: The Case of Psychopathy’ (2005) argues that empirical studies on the instrumental learning of psychopaths show that they are irrational insofar they fail to use the means at their disposal to accomplish their goals.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Optimism Workshop

Here I am reporting from "Optimism – Its Nature, Causes, and Effects" (#optimismbias2016), an interdisciplinary workshop organised by Anneli Jefferson and myself as part of the Costs and Benefits of Optimism project. It took place in Senate House, London, on 25-26th February 2016, and featured both philosophers and psychologists as speakers and participants.

We wanted to investigate whether the notion of unrealistic optimism is coherent and how its different manifestations relate to one another. For instance, does the disposition to discount evidence against the success of one’s performance lead to the acquisition of positive illusions about the self? In addition, we wanted experts to comment on the empirical evidence suggesting that unrealistic optimism has both costs and benefits.



On day 1, Tali Sharot (UCL) kicked off the workshop. Tali (pictured above) asked how the human brain forms optimistic beliefs and reported recent findings from her lab. She focused on the biases in the updating of beliefs: when the news is good, we tend to change our beliefs accordingly,  but when news is bad, we do not incorporate that information into our estimates to the same extent. In general, undesirable information is given less weight, but those who are low on optimism are better at tracking information that is worse than expected. 

Biases are also found in the process by which we seek information: whereas we actively seek positive information, we avoid negative information. These behaviours are flexible to some extent and help us adapt to different circumstances: we tend to be more optimistic in safe environments, but when it is important to identify threats and danger, we are more ready to update beliefs in the face of negative information. Indeed, it has been shown that people who are stressed learn better from negative information.