Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Cognitive Biases, Error Management Theory, and the Reproducibility of Research Findings

This post is by Miguel A. Vadillo (pictured above), Lecturer in Decision Theory at King's College London. In this post he writes about cognitive biases, error management theory, and the reproducibility of research findings. 

The human mind is the end product of hundreds of thousands of years of relentless natural selection. You would expect that such an exquisite piece of software should be capable of representing reality in an accurate and objective manner. Yet decades of research in cognitive science show that we fall prey to all sorts of cognitive biases and that we systematically distort the information we receive. Is this the best evolution can achieve? A moment’s thought reveals that the final goal of evolution is not to develop organisms with exceptionally accurate representations of the environment, but to design organisms good at surviving and reproducing. And survival is not necessarily about being rational, accurate, or precise. The target goal is actually to avoid making mistakes with fatal consequences, even if the means to achieve this is to bias and distort our perception of reality.

This simple principle is the core idea of error management theory, one of the most interesting frameworks to address systematic biases in perception, judgement, and decision making. From this point of view, our cognitive system is calibrated to avoid making costly errors, even if that comes at the expense of making some trivial errors instead. For instance, a long tradition of research on the illusion of control shows that people tend to overestimate the impact of their own behaviour on significant events. An advocate of error management theory would suggest that falling into this error is perhaps not as costly as the opposite mistake: Failing to detect that one has control over some relevant event. Consequently, evolution has endowed us with a predisposition to overestimate control.

In a way, science is set of tools specifically designed to overcome this bias: Research methods and statistics were conceived to counteract our tendency to see patterns where there is only chance and to ignore alternative explanations of the events we observe. Perhaps these biases were useful to survive in the Savannah, but they are definitely not your friends when you want to discover how nature works. Unfortunately, these refined methods are unlikely to work perfectly if the key asymmetry that gave rise to the biases remains intact. Whenever the evidence is ambiguous, we will always be tempted to interpret it in the most favourable way, avoiding costly errors.

Imagine that you are a young scientist trying to find a pattern in your freshly collected data set. You can think of two ways to analyse your data, both of them equally defensible. Following one route, you get a p-value lower than .05. In the alternative analysis your result is not significant. Maybe you have discovered something or maybe you have not. One of these interpretations will allow you to publish a paper in a prestigious journal and keep your position in academia. If you decide to believe the opposite, you have just wasted several months of data collection in exchange for nothing and you eventually may have problems to make ends meet. None of these beliefs is perfectly sure. But, understandably, if you have to decide what error to make, you will prefer it to be a Type I error.

More than ten years ago (2005), John Ioannidis concluded that most published research findings must be false. Given the asymmetric costs of Type I and Type II errors for researchers, such a terrible bias in the scientific literature is exactly what you would expect to find according to error management theory. The current debate about the reproducibility of psychological science and other disciplines has focused extensively in developing new methods and developing a new culture of open science. However, even if these new practices are badly needed, they are unlikely to put an end to biases in the scientific literature. There will always be contradictory findings, experiments with inconsistent results and analyses leading to opposite conclusions. Biases will persist as long as researchers find some interpretations of the data more useful than others, even if they are inaccurate or overly wrong. Error management theory predicts that scientific ‘illusions’ are the natural consequence of the reward structure imposed by scientific institutions. Without a radical change in the distribution of incentives, all the other measures can only have a limited impact on the quality of scientific research.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Compulsive Skin Picking: a Personal Account

Today's post is by Liz Atkin (pictured below) who is an artist and advocate for Compulsive Skin Picking. To learn more about Liz and what she does, you can access her YouTube channel, listen to her being interviewed by Ted Meyer in 2015, or read this detailed feature in Like-Minded. The post is illustrated with some of Liz's beautiful artworks.

Anxiety is now sited as one of the most common of mental illnesses but some anxiety disorders, Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours such as Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP or Dermatillomania) and Hair-pulling (Trichotillomania) are seldom recognised and treatment is very hard to access. They are much more common than initially thought and among the most poorly understood, misdiagnosed, and undertreated groups of disorders. BFRBs may affect as many as 1 out of 20 people.

Compulsive Skin Picking is a complex physical and mental disorder that often develops in young childhood. It provides comfort, pleasure or emotional release from endlessly picking at often healthy skin but this can often lead to bleeding, infection, scarring and physical deformities, as well as significant emotional and mental distress.

I have lived with Compulsive Skin Picking since I was 7 or 8 years old. For me, from a young age, it was an unconsious action, as well as concious. For more than 25 years it totally dominated my life behind closed doors. My body was littered with wounds and marks beneath my clothes. At it's height, I would regularly lose 5 or 6 hours picking my skin. Some nights I would pick until the early hours of the morning, I would even pick in my sleep. Many times I would be poised at the bathroom mirror, a private space. No one knew about it. I masked and covered the illness from those closest to me, wearing clothes that concealed the parts of my body covered in scabs and scars, making excuses and even using make-up on my body to mask it.

I experienced intense anxiety, followed by guilt and shame about something I was doing that caused harm to my own body yet felt no control or ability to stop. I suffered in silence for a very long time. The illness was actually undiagnosed until my early 30s, and it was only through internet searches that I realised it had a name. I had even hidden it from various Drs over the years. I got to a point where I didn’t want this illness controlling me anymore. There were perpetual cycles of shame, embarrassment and anxiety and I had no choice really to try and help myself because it was destroying me.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Thought in Action

Today's post is by Barbara Gail Montero.

I’m a philosophy professor at the City University of New York (with a rather unusual background since prior to studying philosophy I worked as a professional ballet dancer for a number of years). Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind (Oxford University Press) is a book I’ve written that challenges the widely held view that, once you are good at something, thinking about your action, as you’re doing it, hampers your skill.

In it, I argue that experts think in action—consciously, not merely unconsciously—and, when thinking about the right things, this is in no way diminishes their prowess.

One of my goals in the book is to dispel various mythical accounts of experts who proceed without any understanding of what guides their actions. Those chicken sexers that philosophers are fond of citing who can’t explain why they makes their judgments—they don’t exist. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which supposedly came to him fully formed in a dream, actually took nearly ten years to write. Kekulé’s well known story that in 1862 the idea for the ring structure for benzene came to him in a flash after dreaming of a snake biting its tail, is contradicted by his own lesser known written account that his theory was formed in 1858. Such stories, I argue, are attractive, but misleading.

I also critically analyze research (in both philosophy and psychology) that extrapolates from everyday skills to draw conclusions about expert performance. I argue that experts’ extended analytical training, as well as the relatively higher stakes involved in expert action, make quotidian tasks (such as everyday driving) different enough from expert-level actions (such as professional race-car driving) so as to not warrant extrapolation from the former to the latter. Extended deliberate training, I argue, enables experts to perform while engaging their self-reflective capacities without any detrimental effects; it allows them to think and do at the same time.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Belief, Quasi-Belief, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

This post is by Robert Noggle (pictured above), Professor of Philosophy at Central Michigan University. Robert is interested in psychological conditions that appear to undermine or threaten personal autonomy. His other main interests are in normative and applied ethics. In this post he summarises his recent paper ‘Belief, Quasi-Belief, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder’, published in Philosophical Psychology. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is fascinating because it can lead to a radical disconnect between professed belief on the one hand, and affect, motivation, and behaviour on the other. Someone with OCD might sincerely profess her disbelief in the idea, say, that flipping a light switch poses a significant fire hazard if you do not do it just right. Yet such a person might also feel anxiety when flipping a switch, and a strong urge to flip it repeatedly to get it just right.

Of course, psychologists face the puzzle of how people get into such a state, and how best to help them get out of it. But there is a philosophical puzzle here about how to describe the mental state of such a person. Does she believe that flipping light switches is a dangerous activity, or not? Her verbal reports will typically suggest that she does not believe in the hazards of improperly flipping switches. Yet her anxiety and urge to check and re-flip suggest just the opposite. 

It is tempting to suggest that such a person moves back and forth between believing and not believing in the danger of improperly flipped switches. But this suggestion does not pan out when we look at what goes on in one of the most common and effective treatments for OCD, a treatment called Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP. If our compulsive switch-flipper were to undergo ERP, she would likely be asked to flip a switch once and then leave it alone.

During the early phases of treatment, we would expect her to experience anxiety and a strong urge to re-flip or check the switch. But after repeated treatments, the anxiety and compulsion would likely subside. Here is the puzzling part: During ERP, the patient appears to have contradictory beliefs at the very same instant. The fact that she submits to the treatment at all suggests that she does not believe that improperly flipped switches pose a danger. Yet her anxiety and urges to check or re-flip (which will likely be quite strong at the early stages of ERP) suggest that, at the very same time, she does believe in the danger of improperly flipped switches. Hence, we cannot explain the mental state of an OCD patient during ERP in terms of changing beliefs. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Culture, Extended and Embodied Cognition, and Mental Disorders

The Helsinki Network for Philosophy of Psychiatry organized the symposium ”Culture, Extended and Embodied Cognition and Mental Disorders” on June 30-July 1, 2016, in Helsinki. The symposium was dedicated to cultural issues related to diagnostics, definitions and classifications of mental disorders, as well as phenomenological questions of experience, affectivity and embodiment. The symposium took place in Lapinlahti Hospital that was one of the first modern psychiatric hospitals in Northern Europe when it first opened its doors 175 years ago (on 1st of July 1841) - and now is a cultural venue.

Culture-Bound Syndromes and Mechanisms

Several talks focused on the ways culture affects disorders and their classification. In his introduction, Tuomas Vesterinen argued that definitions of mental disorders are inalienably value-laden, and that socio-cultural forces should be taken into account in explanations and classifications in order not to spread the diagnostic categories inadvertently from culture to culture through looping effects.

In his talk, Dominic Murphy showed how culture-bound syndromes (CBS) can be the linchpin for understanding how to combine cultural and neurobiological explanations. Basically there are three options: (i) CBS’s are not disorders at all; (ii) CBS’s can be incorporated into universal categories (even though there are different manifestations of illnesses, the underlying disorders are the same); or (iii) all mental disorders are to be considered as culture-bound. Murphy argued that both universalism (ii) and particularism (iii) are consistent with the idea that when a particular “culture plugs into psychology”, it creates specific outputs, making proximal mental representations the crucial explanatory system.

According to Murphy, although culture may affect everything in human psychology, it is not always relevant in explaining CBS: “Both social and psychological processes need to be entangled in our general understanding of psychopathology – and not just cross-culturally – it may be that we can imagine a spectrum.” In some cases cultural forces may be the source of explanation. On the other hand, models of cultural epidemiology may neither be suited for explaining how culture influences the non-typical mind nor do they provide relevant information in cases of severe neuropsychological collapse (e.g. advanced psychosis or dementia). This point was echoed by Marion Godman who argued that cultural explanations are needed to understand local coping with disorders but may not enhance our understanding of the disorders themselves.

Speakers were divided on whether underlying mechanisms are needed for classifying mental disorders. According to Harold Kincaid, we should direct our efforts on picking out “objective predictive kinds” instead of relying on robust definitions of natural kinds or underlying mechanisms. Kincaid, and Caterina Marchionni in her talk, maintained that disorder kinds or categories can be identified objectively by consistent shared traits without knowing why they are shared. Furthermore, Kincaid argued that ideally the categories should fit into a predictive causal network, and in order to decide which categories are predictive, we need detailed empirical studies. On the contrary, top-down approaches to mental disorders based on evolution or typical brain functioning play no real role in DSM or in other accounts of disorders. The upshot of both Kincaid’s and Marchionni’s talks was the need for pluralistic approaches to classification.

At the other extreme were Samuli Pöyhönen and Petri Ylikoski, who argued for an all-encompassing view of addiction by integrating different approaches under a matrix of mechanisms. According to their “addiction-as-a-kind” hypothesis, different forms of addiction can be united under a single kind upheld by a matrix of mechanisms that are responsible for the disorders’ typical properties (symptoms, etiology, response to treatment etc.). Moreover, different combinations of the matrix underlying different addictions provide a means for objective classification.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Anhedonia and Situated Cognition

This post is by Alex Miller Tate (pictured below), PhD student at the University of Birmingham. His work investigates the nature of mental illness and emotion, using insights from research into Situated Cognition. His thesis examines the role that situated theories of cognition and emotion can play in explaining and describing various symptoms common in major depression.

Anhedonia is a core symptom of many Psychiatric conditions, most commonly presenting in patients diagnosed with a depressive disorder or schizophrenia (Oyebode, 2014). It is most commonly defined as an absent or diminished ability to experience pleasure from participating in previously enjoyable activities (Treadway & Zald, 2011: 538). As an example, somebody who used to enjoy playing football and listening to David Bowie, but no longer enjoys either of these things, may be said to be exhibiting Anhedonia.

One popular theory of Anhedonia, call it sustainability theory, argues that it is characterised by a diminished ability to sustain pleasurable responses to rewarding stimuli (Tomarken & Keener, 1998; Heller et al., 2009). The immediate response to a stimulus is relatively undiminished, but enjoyment cannot be sustained. My work aims, roughly, to bring the sustainability theory together with the Situated Cognition paradigm, to see what insights into Anhedonia a situated sustainability theory might offer.

My attempts to do this have centred around the notion of affective scaffolds; aspects of our environments that significantly shape our emotional experiences and dispositions (Griffiths & Scarantino, 2009). For instance, music at a funeral may be chosen so as to support the elicitation of sadness in the moment (a synchronic scaffold) and my emotional response of sadness at funerals is (in part) structured by what I have learned is socially expected of me at funerals (a diachronic scaffold).

I draw a comparison with studies that suggest that work classically attributed to internal cognitive processes is better thought of as being offloaded into the agent’s environment via bodily interaction. For instance, skilled bag packers in grocery stores in the USA arrange items spatially by category (heavy, fragile) as they come off the conveyor belt. This later allows for an optimal distribution of items across bags without placing an extreme load on working memory. We might think of the spatial arrangement of items as functioning as a cognitive scaffold for the bag packer; it is an external structure that greatly reduces the task-burden on internal cognitive resources.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Sensing Strange Things Workshop

On 4th–5th June, Arché at the University of St. Andrews held a workshop on Sensing Strange Things, organized by Patrick Greenough. In this post I summarise the seven papers given at the workshop. 

Fiona Macpherson (Glasgow) opened the workshop with her paper, co-authored with Clare Batty (Kentucky), ‘Redefining Illusion and Hallucination in Light of New Cases’. Fiona and Clare identified several new cases which put pressure on traditional accounts of illusion and hallucination. They suggested that such cases ought to be accounted for by theories of experience and perception. In light of these hitherto unidentified instances of illusion and hallucinations, Fiona and Clare offered new definitions of these notions. 

Next was Jennifer Corns (Lancaster) giving a talk entitled ‘Hedonic Qualities, Independence, and Heterogeneity’. Jennifer defended a version of hedonic internalism, the claim that the hedonic is best accounted for qualitatively. She considered the hetereogeneity problem for hedonic internalism, which is that there is no way of identifying what all pleasant or unpleasant experiences share, because such experiences are qualitatively heterogeneous. After considering and rejecting two kinds of response which went via appeals to the determinable—determinate relation, or moving to talk of feeling good and feeling bad, Jennifer offered a new solution. She introduced the Independence Claim: hedonic qualities are proprietary qualities which are qualitatively unique and irreducible to any other qualities. Her solution involved positing a distinct hedonic quality space such that hedonic qualities are characterized by their location in that space, where the dimensions thereof are neither cognitive nor sensory. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Delusions and Language: the Forgotten Factor

This post is by Wolfram Hinzen, who is research professor at ICREA (Catalan Institute for Advanced Studies and Research), currently investigating language as an aspect of human nature, cognition, and biology at the Grammar and Cognition Lab. In this post, he summarises his recent paper "Can delusions be linguistically explained?", co-authored with Joana Rossello and Peter McKenna and published in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry.

Wolfram Hinzen

Explanations of delusions often revolve around meaning and knowledge. Indeed the philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (1959) famously argued that all delusions could be understood as a radical transformation in the awareness of meaning, which became immediate and intrusive attribution. How such an abnormality might give rise to statements such as ‘I am Jesus’, ‘the Royal family are stealing my inventions’ and in extreme cases ‘I have fathered 7,000 children’ or ‘I have invented a machine to run the whole solar system powered by milk’, was never very clear in this account. Nor for that matter do contemporary psychological theories on semantic memory, which contains knowledge about the meaning of words (ie the lexicon) as well as all other knowledge about the world, provide any obvious way via which dysfunction could give rise to the kind of statements deluded patients make.

There is however another level of meaning, whose existence has long been recognized, particularly in philosophy. This is propositional meaning, the kind of meaning that arises from structuring of lexical-semantic information when the level of complexity of full sentences is reached. Some neuro-cognitive system needs to generate propositional meaning, and according to the un-Cartesian hypothesis (Hinzen, Sheehan, 2013), this system is the system that retrieves lexicalized concepts stored in long-term semantic memory and puts them into grammatical configurations. As a result, a new kind of meaning arises that lexical concepts as such do not carry: propositional and referential meaning. Grammar, according to this proposal, is what ultimately enables the ‘world as known’, the world as it appears in the format of propositional knowledge.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Art and Emotion: An Interview with Derek Matravers

In this post Matilde Aliffi, PhD student at the University of Birmingham, interviews Derek Matravers (pictured below), who is professor of philosophy at the Open University, and has interests in aesthetics and philosophy of art. Derek is the author of Fiction and Narrative (OUP, 2014) and has recently completed a book on empathy which will be published by Polity Press.

MA: You are a leading expert in aesthetics and philosophy of art. How did you become interested in these areas?

DM: There were three reasons for my interest. The first was that there were some really inspirational figures working in the area when I first went to University; in particular, Richard Wollheim who had been at UCL just before I arrived. Other greats, such as Bernard Williams, clearly had a keen interest in the topic even if they never wrote about (although Williams did write occasional pieces on opera, which have since been collected into a book). 

Secondly, it was a natural extension of my interest in art. When I started, I hoped it might lead me on the road to being an art critic, but it is probably just as well that it did not. 

Finally, there really are some very difficult problems in aesthetics. One way to think about it is that it has all the problems associated with meta-ethics and then some. There are problems of objectivity and realism, but also problems that stem from the centrality of perception. Nobody thinks that the canonical way to access the moral value (or disvalue) of (say) global inequality is by looking at it. However, that precisely is the canonical way to access the aesthetic value of (say) a Poussin or a Picasso. Why? And how can we get judgements that are binding on others from this basis? There is also something to be said for the view, which has pretty much died out at least in Anglo-American philosophy, that aesthetics is utterly central to philosophy – this view is core to the Scottish Enlightenment, Kantian and post-Kantian German philosophy, and others. This is because it really is about the way we are in the world.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Contact and Mental Health Literacy and Stigma Among Adolescents

This post is by Katharine Chisholm (pictured above), Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. In this post she discusses the study she and colleagues conducted of mental health education for young people, published in their paper 'Impact of contact on adolescents' mental health literacy and stigma: the SchoolSpace Cluster Randomised Controlled Trial' published in BMJ Open. 

Educating young people about mental health and ill-health is important. Mental disorders impact young people disproportionally, with around two thirds of mental illnesses having their onset prior to the age of twenty-five. Young people also tend to have a relatively poor understanding of what mental illness is, and with a lack of mental health education in schools, young people report relying on popular media or cult images to gain an understanding of what mental illness might look like. These representations tend to be sensationalist at best and wildly inaccurate at worst; the Joker from Batman, reports of ‘psycho’ criminals on the news, and the (now regular) outcry from mental health charities as yet again various shopping retailers offer a ‘deranged mental health patient’ as a Halloween costume. 

Knowledge of what good mental health looks like is important in helping young people to maintain their own mental health. An understanding of when an individual might benefit from seeking help for their mental ill-health, and what kinds of help are available, is also beneficial. This kind of knowledge can help adolescents to develop resilience to stressful events, and to feel able to seek support if and when they need it. Reducing stigma and misconceptions of mental illness is of benefit to individuals who already experience mental ill-health, but also may mean that young people in need of support feel more able to seek this help, rather than feeling ashamed or ‘weak’ for not coping.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Hope and Optimism Conference in Colorado

How do hope and optimism benefit our relationships? Does optimism predict post-release outcome for the incarcerated? Can I believe what I hope? Are children optimists or realists? Those were just some of the questions discussed at the hope and optimism midterm collaboratory in Estes Park, Colorado. At this interdisciplinary conference, social scientists and philosophers funded by the Hope and Optimism Funding Initiative presented their research. While the social science projects are halfway through their research, many philosophy projects are nearing the end. In this report, I will describe only a few projects and talks in more detail. (More information on the individual projects can be found here.)

In their project on optimism in children, Laura Hennefield and Lori Markson are investigating whether young children between three and six years of age are optimistically biased and whether this bias is affected by adverse environmental influences. They have designed a number of experiments which assess whether children make unrealistically optimistic predictions regarding themselves, and whether they prefer to learn from individuals who have shown themselves to be realistic or overly optimistic.

In another social science project, Margaret Clark, Elizabeth Clark-Polner and Will Cunningham are looking at the influence of hope and optimism on our relationships. Among other things, they found that the optimism a person felt about a prospective relationship greatly influenced the amount of effort they went to initiate the relationship and the success of these efforts. Optimism was far more predictive of success in relationship initiation than the strength of the desire for such a relationship.

On the subject of hope and belief, Robert Pasnau argued that, contrary to what evidentialists hold, hope sometimes licences us in believing things on insufficient evidence. He pointed out that some beliefs have pragmatic benefits which might justify holding them, this would for example be the case if believing that we could recover from a grave illness would increase our likelihood of doing so. There are however also beliefs which are intrinsically valuable and not merely because of their positive effects, he proposed. One such belief would be the belief in the overall goodness of humanity, despite inconclusive evidence. Hope as an affective state may enable us to hold these beliefs despite comparatively low levels of credence. While this violates the evidentialist principle that we should not believe on insufficient evidence, hopeful believing allows us to live richer, more engaged lives.