Thursday, 18 May 2017

Children, Grief and Depression

In this post I am interested in the depiction of mental health issues in books aimed at young children. There are two interesting books addressing the issue of what the depression of a loved one means for the children involved. The first is The Colour Thief, by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Wayland 2014). The second is Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault (Kids Can Press 2016).


There are some interesting similarities in how depression is described in the two books. In both books, the point of view is that of a child. In The Colour Thief, a boy observes his father as he gradually falls prey to depression. The father soon gets to the point where he does not go out anymore and stays in bed all day. In Virginia Wolf, a book inspired by the relationship between the author Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa, a child called Vanessa witnesses a curious transformation in her beloved sister Virgina. Virginia becomes, quite literally, a wolf.

Another common point is that depression is described as a change in a person's behaviour but also in the world around the person. In The Colour Thief the sky becomes grey and all other colours disappear as the boy's father's depression deepens. Depression stole all the colours from the world.
He said that all the colours had gone. Someone had stolen them away.
Similarly, in Virginia Wolf Virginia's mood changes, from happy to sad at the start of the story, and from sad to happy at the end of it, are presented as changes in light, from bright to dim and from dim to bright.
Up became down
Bright became dim
Glad became gloom
In both books the children witnessing depression want to do something to improve the situation and feel to some extent responsible for the changes their loved ones are experiencing. In The Colour Thief the son often wonders whether it is his fault that his father is sad, and in Virginia Wolf Vanessa tries everything in her power to make her sister feel better. There is an attempt to show what the effects of depression are on children who are sensitive and full of compassion.

Both books end with the people affected by depression "finding themselves again": they enjoy being outside after being locked inside, they desire closeness after avoiding all social contact. Father and son go for a walk, Vanessa and Virginia go out to play.

A book focusing on the lasting effects of grief is The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins 2010). In the story, a little girl who was full of curiosity and imagination decides to take her heart out of her chest and keep it in a bottle tied around her neck after her dad dies. All the curiosity and the imagination disappear from her life -- she lives in the same house, close to the same sea and the same stars that before filled her with wonder, but she experiences nothing at all.

I am not sure whether the book is supposed to be about depression, but seems to capture another important aspect of it in a way that is intriguing for children, and with illustrations so beautiful that take your breath away.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Aliens, Fairies, Donkey-Conspiracies: When Does Belief Break the Rules?

This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s main research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post, he talks about some recent work in epistemology.

On the basis of no evidence at all, Jo comes to the private belief that aliens from another planet are helping her navigate the social world. Without that belief, Jo would experience profound social anxiety, develop paranoid tendencies, and come to suffer worse delusions that would severely impact her ability to maintain her physical wellbeing, personal relationships, employment, and so on. With her belief, Jo does pretty well for herself.

Overall it is probably good Jo has this belief about aliens. There are certainly comparative benefits to having this belief. The overall quality of Jo's cognitions is improved by having this belief. She is closer to the truth, has fewer false cognitions, is better at predicting how others will respond, is better enabled to carry out her projects and everyday tasks, more accurately understands the mental states of others, and so on, than she would if she didn't have this belief about aliens.

This will be familiar to readers of this blog as a case of a flawed cognition which might be thought to be epistemically innocent in some important respects.

The question I am interested in is, epistemically speaking, was forming this belief about aliens the epistemically right thing to do? Or does it somehow go against what is epistemically allowed? This is a different way of understanding the idea of epistemic innocence than that used by the PERFECT team [e.g., 1, 2]. But, one way to be innocent is to have not broken the rules, to have done nothing wrong, to have stuck to what was allowed. 

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Melancholic Habits

In this post, Jennifer Radden, Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Massachusetts, introduces her new book: Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences.

When the process of writing a book is long and slow, as this was, one enters not entirely sure where one will end – or at least, expecting mind-change as the result of the process. For me, for this book, that change was considerable, and so incremental that it is hard to identify the moments it occurred or the sequences engendering it. Some of the befores and afters stand out, though.

I’d read Burton for years, and alluded to aspects of his Anatomy of Melancholy in earlier writing. But the recognition that it was possible to find a coherent model of mind and disorder (“disease,” in his pre-modern sense) implicatively related not to the actual detail of his remedies but to his remedial principles, emerged slowly as I worked through the first and second Partitions.

My unorthodox and ahistorical approach was itself part of the hindrance to seeing this coherence. I wasn’t sure, am still not, whether this is a legitimate way to approach any historical text. It certainly wouldn’t usually be. Yet the inchoate and elusive nature of the subject matter, combined with the sheer, bamboozling and distracting detail Burton willfully introduces at every turn, seemed to allow, and perhaps require, something unusual.

Then I stumbled on Christopher Tilmouth’s writing about the Anatomy, which seemed to support the idea that a partly-submerged foundation lies in there somewhere, from which a coherent picture can be discerned. To the extent that Tilmouth undertook that excavation, he seemed to see the picture as I did, moreover, although there was clearly much more journeyman work to be done, especially in tying the ideas about mind, body and disorder with the remedial end of things.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Disbelief in free will and prosocial behaviours

My name is Emilie Caspar and I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences at Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. My work is mostly dedicated to understand what guides people’s decisions to perform actions that are morally acceptable or not. My current research focuses on the extent to which coercion influences the experience of being the author of one’s own actions and how this affects immoral behaviours. To achieve this goal, I combine techniques from both experimental psychology and cognitive neurosciences.

Most of us consider that we have “free will”, the power to make our own choices and to control our actions. This experience stems in part from the fact that our conscious experience of intention precedes the moment we act. Feeling ‘free’ greatly influences one’s own perception of individual responsibility: We say we are responsible for our actions if we “could have done otherwise”. Does this perception of responsibility influence moral behaviour? Many studies have highlighted the prosocial benefits of believing in free will. For instance, inducing a belief in free will reduces cheating behaviour and increases one’s willingness to make efforts. However, things are not that simple. Believing in free will has also been associated with stronger retributive attitudes towards others: if you judge that a person who committed a crime was truly free to decide how to act, then that person should be punished more severely than if there are mitigating circumstances that partially explain the crime.

In our recent study, we used a paradigm that engages morality in which two participants (the ‘agent’ and the ‘victim’) took turns to administer (or not) electrical shocks to each other in order to receive a small financial benefit. To study to what extent belief in free will influences the number of shocks delivered to the ‘victim’, we used an experimental manipulation known to induce disbelief in free will, — reading an excerpt that challenges the existence of free will (e.g, by claiming that human behaviour is totally determined by genetics). Half of our participants read such an excerpt; the other half read a neutral text without any mention of free will.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Arts and Science Festival 2017

Each year, the University of Birmingham hosts the Arts &Science Festival, a week-long celebration of research, culture and collaboration across campus and beyond. During the festival, those involved in different aspects of university life deliver a programme of concerts, exhibitions, screenings, talks and workshops around a common theme. This year’s theme “Land and Water” had us at project PERFECT thinking about perceptions of climate change, and in the following, I report on a lunchtime event that we hosted on this topic, in which we were joined by Ulrike Hahn (Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Birkbeck, below) and Anna Bright (‎Chief Executive at Sustainability West Midlands).

Why should those researching imperfect cognitions be interested in perceptions of climate change? Well, it turns out that the former frequently feature in, and shape, the latter. We see lots of things, beyond the consideration of climactic data, influence whether people believe climate change is happening. For instance, numerous studies show that people who are politically Conservative are less likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change than people who are politically Liberal (McCright and Dunlap 2011; Kahan et al. 2011). 

There are likely multiple reasons for this, but the discomforting dissonance that comes from (i) championing free market economics (as Conservatives tend to) and recognising the oil trade as a central feature of the global market, and (ii) acknowledging that reliance on oil is causing climate damage, probably plays a part in downgrading the credence placed in climate science. So, the tendency to irrationality in order to preserve consistency features prominently in climate perceptions, rendering this topic of interest to researchers of imperfect cognitions. You can watch a video of my talk here:

Ulrike Hahn gave our second talk, adding another layer to the narrative, by demonstrating that when people deliberate about whether or not anthropogenic climate change is happening, they’re rarely making this judgement on the basis of the scientific findings, but believing on the basis of the testimony of someone else. For instance, many people will read about climate science from a reporter writing in a newspaper, who may themselves only read executive summaries of climate science reports. Others still will be one further step removed, learning about climate science through what their friends have read in the paper. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Legitimate Lies: Omission, Commission, and Cheating

My name is Andrea Pittarello, and I am an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). I am mainly interested in behavioral ethics (e.g., cheating) and I seek to understand what leads people from all walks of life to bend the rules and serve their self-interest.

In a recent paper with Enrico Rubaltelli (University of Padova) and Daphna Motro (University of Arizona), we asked whether people are more likely to lie by withholding the truth (i.e., a lie of omission) or by actively breaking the rules (i.e., lie of commission). Imagine that you are selling your car and the engine is on its last legs. A lie of commission would be telling a potential customer that the engine works perfectly, whereas a lie of omission would be failing to mention the problem and let the customer find out about it on his own. From a utilitarian point of view, the two lies should be the same: After all, lying is always wrong, and the way it is brought about should not affect our judgments. However, philosophers and psychologists found that the two lies are considered differently by observers and by the law. To date, most of the work on omission and commission focused on moral judgment, and we know very little about how this distinction is reflected into actual cheating behavior.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Self-attribution Bias and Paranormal Beliefs

This post is by Michiel van Elk who works in the Religion, Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Amsterdam and is currently a Fullbright Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. He recently published a paper on the self-attribution bias and paranormal beliefs in Consciousness and Cognition. 

My name is Michiel van Elk and I am intrigued by religious and spiritual experiences. Why do some people have paranormal encounters? What causes people to experience the feeling that another invisible being is present? How do mystical experiences and feelings of transcendence come about? As a researcher working at the Religion, Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Amsterdam, I aim to answer these questions. I often go into the field to study religious experiences, but also conduct lab-based studies using a variety of different psychological and neurocognitive techniques.

Together with my colleagues we found for instance that mystical experiences can be induced through the use of an alleged God Helmet, capable of inducing such experiences. However, unbeknownst to our participants the helmet was actually a placebo device and all experiences that people reported were self-generated, based on prior expectations and by using sensory deprivation (i.e., participants were blindfolded and were wearing headphones on which white noise was presented). In another study we showed that when participants had a self-transcendent experience, their brain showed decreased activation in regions involved in self-referential processing. This indicates that a key feature of the awe-experience is a reduced focus and awareness of the self – in line with recent studies showing similar effects when participants used psychedelics (e.g., psilocybin).

In a recently published paper – also building on our earlier work - we were specifically interested in the psychological mechanisms underlying belief in paranormal phenomena (e.g., seeing auras, Tarot card reading, Psi etc.). We investigated to what extent believers in paranormal phenomena showed a tendency to take credit for positive outcomes in a game of chance. In the scientific literature this phenomenon is known as the self-attribution bias. It has been argued that the self-attribution bias reflects a motivated and adaptive tendency to maintain a positive image of oneself. Following the observation that many psychic believers often tend to attribute positive outcomes (e.g., ‘I found the partner of my life’) to a specific paranormal activity they undertook (e.g., ‘That must have something to do with me visiting the astrologist’), we hypothesized that psychics would be more willing to take credit for positive outcomes that were in fact determined by chance.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Interview with Thomas Sturm on the Science of Rationality and the Rationality of Science

In this post I am pleased to interview Thomas Sturm (pictured below), ICREA Research Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB) and member of the UAB's Center for History of Science (CEHIC). His research centers on the relation between philosophy and psychology, including their history. Here, we discuss his views on empirical research on human rationality.

AP: The psychology of judgment and decision-making has been divided into what appear to be radically different perspectives on human rationality. Whilst research programs like heuristics and biases have been associated with a rather bleak picture of human rationality, Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleagues have argued that very simple heuristics can make us smart. Yet, some philosophers have also argued that, upon close scrutiny, these research programs do not share any real disagreement. What is your take on the so-called “rationality wars” in psychology?

TS: Let me begin with a terminological remark. I would like to refrain from further using the terminology of “rationality wars”. It was introduced by Richard Samuels, Stephen Stich, and Michael Bishop (SSB hereafter) in 2002, and I have used their expression too without criticizing it. In academic circles, we may think that such language creates no problems, and I hate to spoil the fun. But because theories of rationality have such a broad significance in science and society, there is a responsibility to educate the public, and not to hype things. Researchers are not at war with one another. Insofar as a dispute becomes heated, if fights for funding and recognition play a role, then we should speak openly about this, tame down our language, and not create a show or a hype. We should discuss matters clearly and critically, end of story.

Now, I study this debate, which has many aspects, with fascination. It’s fascinating because they concern a most important concept of science and social life, adding fresh perspectives to philosophical debates that have occasionally become too sterile. And the debates are so interesting because they provide ample materials for philosophy of science.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Strategic Thinking, Theory of Mind, and Autism

My name is Peter Pantelis. I study “theory of mind”—our ability to reason about other people’s mental states. Years ago, I became interested in an economic game called the Beauty Contest, because I think it taps into theory of mind very elegantly:

You are going to play a game (against 250 undergraduate psychology students). Each player will submit a whole number from 0 to 100. The winner will be the player whose number is closest to 2/3 of the mean number selected by all the players.

What number do you submit?

(I’ll wait for you to think about it for a moment)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Memories: Distorted, Reconstructed, Experiential and Shared

PERFECT 2017 Memory Workshop

We are very excited that on 5th May 2017 Project PERFECT will be holding its second annual workshop, at Jesus College, Cambridge. The workshop will feature leading experts in the field of philosophy of memory. The talks will focus on a wide-range of fascinating issues that dominate contemporary research on memory. The talks will be of interest to philosophers of mind, philosophers of psychology, epistemologists and psychologists, as well as other cognitive scientists interested in how we remember the past.  

Issues to be covered in the talks include how memory can generate knowledge; how false and distorted memories can be useful features of ordinary cognition; the nature of experiential memories; whether we can be immune from error due to misidentifying ourselves in a memory; and the role of shared memories in relationships. 

Many of the talks will have an interdisciplinary angle, highlighting how recent psychological research—e.g. on false and distorted memory, and dementia and grief—should impact on our understanding of human memory.

Two of the talks will focus directly on a concept at the very heart of Project PERFECT: i.e. epistemic innocence. This is the idea that some false and misleading cognitions bring epistemic benefits that could not be possessed in the absence of the cognitions.

Kirk Michaelian will examine the claim that memory can generate new knowledge. He will explore two views that are consistent with this claim, arguing that the views, when combined, support the claim that episodic memories (our memories of individual incidents) are misleading but in a way that makes them epistemically innocent.

On a similar theme, I will present work written in collaboration with Lisa Bortolotti showing that three memory distortions famously studied in the psychological literature can be explained in terms of the presence of cognitive mechanisms that are epistemically innocent.

Dorothea Debus will explore the nature of memories with experiential qualities. She will argue that we give this type of memory special weight, and she will illustrate how we are both passive and active with respect to these memories. We are active because we can prompt ourselves and others to remember events. We are passive because the memories often just come to us.

Jordi Fernández will examine the claim that one cannot have an inaccurate memory as a result of misidentifying oneself in the memory. He will consider how psychological research on observer memories (when people seem to recall a scene in which they featured from the perspective of an observer) and disowned memory might be taken to challenge the claim. Then he will respond to the challenge by drawing on the same psychological research to offer a positive view in support of the target claim.

John Sutton will focus on how the ways people have shared memories that are reflected in and can come to constitute specific close relationships. He will focus on both ongoing relationships and the end of relationships. He will draw on psychological studies on the role of memory in dementia and grief.

For more information about the workshop see here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Bounded Rationality Meets Situated and Embodied Cognition

This post is by Enrico Petracca (University of Bologna), who recently published a paper entitled ‘A cognition paradigm clash: Simon, situated cognition and theinterpretation of bounded rationality’ in the Journal of Economic Methodology. Enrico is involved in a project called ‘embodied rationality’, and pursued with his colleague Antonio Mastrogiorgio (University of Chieti-Pescara). The project aims to integrate the notion of embodied cognition within the framework of bounded rationality.

Bounded rationality has been a hard-to-digest notion in economics and the other social sciences since its introduction by Herbert A. Simon in the middle of the last century. How could ‘rationality’ be ‘bounded’? And – as a typically related concern – would this imply that social sciences should abandon any normative horizon, giving the way to an unappealable ‘irrationality’?

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Surfing Uncertainty

In this post, Andy Clark, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, introduces his new book: Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind.

Sometimes, we are most forcibly struck by what isn’t there. If I play you a series of regularly spaced tones, then omit a tone, your perceptual world takes on a deeply puzzling shape. It is a world marked by an absence – and not just any old absence. What you experience is a very specific absence: the absence of that very tone, at that very moment. What kind of neural and (more generally) mental machinery makes this possible?

There is an answer that has emerged many times during the history of the sciences of the mind. That answer, appearing recently in what is arguably its most comprehensive and persuasive form to date, depicts brains as prediction machines – complex multi-level systems forever trying pre-emptively to guess at the flow of information washing across their many sensory surfaces. 

According to this emerging class of models, biological brains are constantly active, trying to predict the streams of sensory stimulation before they arrive. Systems like that are most strongly impacted by sensed deviations from their predicted states. It is these deviations from predicted states (‘prediction errors’) that here bear much of the explanatory and information-processing burden, informing us of what is salient and newsworthy in the current sensory array. When you walk back into your office and see that steaming coffee-cup on the desk in front of you, your perceptual experience (the theory claims) reflects the multi-level neural guess that best reduces prediction errors. To visually perceive the scene, your brain attempts to predict the scene, allowing the ensuing error (mismatch) signals to refine its guessing until a kind of equilibrium is achieved.

Perception here phases seamlessly into understanding. What we see is constantly informed by what we know and what we were thus already busy (both consciously and non-consciously) expecting. Perception and imagination likewise emerge as tightly linked, since to perceive the world is to deploy multi-level neural machinery capable of generating a kind of ‘virtual version’ of the sensory signal for itself, using what the system knows about the world. Indeed, so strong is the tie that perception itself becomes a matter of what some theorists have called ‘controlled hallucination’.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Helpful Rationality Assessments

Hello, readers! I’m Patricia Rich, and I’m currently a philosophy postdoc on the new Knowledge and Decision project at the University of Hamburg. This post is about a paper stemming from my dissertation, entitled Axiomatic and Ecological Rationality: Choosing Costs and Benefits. It appeared in the Autumn issue of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

My paper defends a specific method of evaluating rationality. The method is general and can be applied to choices, inferences, probabilistic estimates, argumentation, etc., but I’ll explain it here through one example. Suppose I’m worried about my friend Alex’s beliefs regarding current affairs. Her claims often seem far-fetched and poorly supported by evidence. As rationality experts who want to help, how should we evaluate Alex?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Bias in Context Sheffield 2017

In this post Robin Scaife reports from the conference Bias in Context.

On the 25th and 26th of January 2017 the University of Sheffield hosted the 3rd in a series of 4 conferences on Bias in Context. This workshop was supported by the Leverhulme Trust as part of a research project grant on bias and blame. The previous two conferences in the series had focused on how to understand the relationship between psychological and structural explanations. This time the theme was Interpersonal Interventions and Collective Action. The goal was to look beyond individualistic approaches to changing biases and examine how interpersonal interactions and collective action can be used to combat bias.
Experts came from both Philosophy and Psychology and many of those attending also had practical experience of leading diversity training sessions.

The conference began with Dr Evelyn Carter (UCLA) giving a talk about her ongoing research into applying theories of motivation to confronting bias. She argued that it is crucial that we always confront bias because speaking up sets norms. Across a number of studies her research team have found that feedback drawing attention to and condemning bias makes people more favourable to anti-prejudice. Their research indicates that both high and low confrontation feedback can be effective in promoting change.

After lunch Dr Gabriella Beckles-Raymond (Canterbury) talked about developing an ethics of social transformation. She argued that we are more aware of our biases, and in particular what causes them, than is typically assumed. She argued that we cannot use ‘implicit’ as an excuse that we can’t act or our society as an excuse that we are powerless. Instead we must move away from a focus that sees bias as a problem for individuals, to be solved by individuals and use the ethics of empathy to address the deeper social, societal and structural problems.

Then Dr Robin Scaife (Sheffield) presented the findings from a series of experiments examining the effects of administering in person blame for implicit bias. The results indicate that, contra common assumptions about blaming increasing bias or making people resistant to change, the communication of disapprobation for the manifestation of implicit bias has potential benefits and no costs. Those who had been blamed showed similar or slightly reduced levels of implicit bias and had significantly stronger explicit intentions to change their future behaviour than those who had not. 

This was followed by Dr Rosa Terlazzo (Kansas State) who discussed the idea that victims have a duty to other victims to resist their oppression. She argued that if this duty is to end the harm caused by oppressive norms then this is beyond their power, but if the duty is merely not to contribute to the harms then this will do little to limit oppression. Terlazzo argued that instead we should understand victims to have a duty to act as counter-stereotypic individuals in order to weaken the self-regarding biases experienced by other victims and thereby mitigating but not ending the harms of oppressive norms.
The first day of the conference ended with drinks and dinner which provided a great opportunity for all participants to discuss and share their perspectives on bias. 

The second day of the conference began with Dr Yannig Luthra (UCLA) on social prejudice, co-authored with Dr Cristina Borgoni (Graz). He presented several arguments in favour of the claim that an individual counts as violating norms of epistemic and practical rationality directly in virtue of drawing from epistemic and practical problems in her social context. The central idea is that rational life is social in much the same way it is temporal. Your view can be an extension of the view of others in the same way it can be an extension of your own past perspective. In both cases one can be implicated for importing rational failings. However, the diagnosis of the wrong must ultimately be with the social sources of the individual’s bias.

Then Dr Joseph Kisolo-Ssonko, (Nottingham) talked about collective intentionality, bias and constituting a ‘we’. He argued that our capacity to think of ourselves as a ‘we’ is not the voluntary choice it is often presented as being. Instead it is underwritten by normatively loaded social and structural biases and power structures. Because of this he concludes that biases do not just cause us to act irrationally on a pre-existing social stage. Rather, they also found what counts for us as collectively rational.

Professor Sally Haslanger (MIT) gave the final talk of the conferenced titled: ‘If racism is the answer, what is the question?’ She claimed that racism is best understood as a homeostatic system where racism is constituted by the systematic looping of schemas and resources. Practices distribute things of value and disvalue but in turn we learn about what different races “deserve” by looking around us at the result of these practices. Haslanger argued that to end racism we have to stop the systematic looping by dismantle society as we know it and that in achieving this end changing attitudes should not be the highest priority because other methods of intervention are likely to be more efficacious.

The conferences concluded with Dr Jules Holroyd (Sheffield) and Dr Erin Beeghly (Utah) chairing a round table discussion. Much of the discussion focused on how to resist and combat the way that recent election results in both the USA and UK have been perceived as legitimising prejudice. Lacey Davidson (Purdue)  made the exciting announced that she has been awarded a Global Synergy Grant to transform Jenny Saul’s bias project website ( into an ongoing bias web resource. There were lots of promising suggestions for features which could make up part of this resource. Keep an eye out for developments on that front.

The fourth & final conference in the bias in context series will take place on the 12th and 13th of October at the University of Utah. The full program, details, and call for abstracts for the poster session, will soon be/is available at

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Problem of Debiasing

Vasco Correia (pictured above) is currently a Research Fellow at the Nova Institute of Philosophy (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), where he is developing a project on cognitive biases in argumentation and decision-making. In this post, he summarises a paper he recently published in Topoi.

This paper is an attempt to show that there are reasons to remain optimistic—albeit cautiously—regarding our ability to counteract cognitive biases. Although most authors agree that biases should be mitigated, there is controversy about which debiasing methods are the most effective. Until recently, the notion that critical thinking is effective in preventing biases appealed to many philosophers and argumentation theorists. It was assumed that raising awareness of biases and teaching critical thinking to students would suffice to enhance open-mindedness and impartiality. Yet the benefits of such programs are difficult to demonstrate empirically, and some authors now claim that critical thinking is by and large ineffective against biases.

Monday, 3 April 2017

What is Unrealistic Optimism?

This post is the final one in our series summarizing the contributions to the special issue on unrealistic optimism 'Unrealistic Optimism -Its nature, causes and effects'. The paper by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti and Bojana Kuzmanovic looks at the nature of unrealistically optimistic cognitions and the extent to which they are irrational.
Anneli Jefferson

We know that people have a tendency to expect that their future will be better than that of others or better than seems likely on an objective measure of probability. But are they really expressing a belief that the future will be good, or should we see these expressions of optimism as hopes or possibly even just expression of desires for the future? Maybe when I say ‘My marriage has an 85% likelihood of lasting ‘til death do us part’’, what I am actually saying is ‘I really, really want my marriage to last.’ If what is expressed is a desire rather than a belief, we do not need to worry that we are systematically mistaken in our beliefs in the future and that our expectations for our future are insufficiently sensitive to the evidence we have for what is likely to happen. In the paper, we argue that expressions of unrealistic optimism are indeed what they seem to be on the surface, beliefs about what is likely to occur. The fact that optimistic expectations are frequently not well supported by the evidence is a feature that they share with many other beliefs, as we humans are not ideally rational in our belief formation.

Lisa Bortolotti

By definition, unrealistic optimism is a phenomenon that shows us to be insufficiently in touch with reality. However, establishing that we are in fact making an error when assessing the likelihood of future outcomes is surprisingly difficult. In some cases, whether an expectation is correct or not can only be established post factum. Only at the end of the Euro 2016 could we say that Ronaldo’s belief that Portugal would win the European cup had been correct (if indeed he had this belief). Things are more complicated if what we know is that Ronaldo believed that Portugal had a 95% likelihood of winning the European cup. Is this belief validated by the fact that Portugal did win? Not necessarily, as his likelihood estimate may still have been too high given some objective measure of likelihood. Furthermore, it cannot be the case that probabilistic risk estimates are proven or disproven by later outcomes. Otherwise, any risk estimate which isn’t either 0 or 1 will automatically be incorrect, it is just impossible to say whether the error lay in being too optimistic or pessimistic before the actual outcome ensues.

Bojana Kuzmanovic

But the question of whether an individual’s optimistic beliefs are false is in many ways less pressing than the question whether the individual is justified in holding that belief given the evidence available to them. Are unrealistically optimistic beliefs epistemically irrational because they do not take into account available evidence either when the individual forms the belief or when they maintain their belief?

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Philosophy of Early Motherhood: Interview with Fiona Woollard

In this post I interview Fiona Woollard (University of Southampton) about her work in the philosophy of early motherhood.

LB: How did you become interested in the philosophy of pregnancy and early motherhood? Can you describe your research interests in this area?

FW: I’ve been interested in the ethics of abortion since I was an undergraduate. In fact, it was probably my interest in this issue that lead me to a career in philosophy. But once I became pregnant myself, I felt a strange kind of dissatisfaction with most of the existing literature on abortion. With a few notable exceptions – for example, the wonderful work of Margaret Little – the philosophical literature on abortion failed to engage at all with the messy reality of pregnancy: the blood and guts, the stretch marks and vomiting. Imagine that you were a little green alien from alpha centauri trying to learn about human reproduction from the most popular papers on abortion by analytical philosophers.

What kind of picture of pregnancy and birth would you have formed? You might well end up thinking that human reproduction normally involves a woman lying in a clean, white bed for 9 months with a small tube connecting her to a small version of an adult human whom she supports without noticeable change to her own body. In case, you are a little green alien from alpha centauri, let's state for the record that pregnancy is not like that. And it matters that the philosophical literature on abortion ignores what pregnancy is really like. What pregnancy is like, physically and emotionally, matters for understanding what is at stake when we consider whether a woman is required to remain pregnant.

I also found that it was very difficult to get people who had not been pregnant to understand what it was like to be pregnant. Laurie Paul's wonderful paper What You Can't Expect When You're Expecting was doing the rounds among philosophers at this point. Paul argues that some experiences, like becoming a parent, are epistemically transformative: they provide knowledge that cannot be acquired without the experience. I wondered if pregnancy itself was a epistemically transformative experience. If so, this might have important implications for philosophical debate on the ethics of abortion. If what it is like to be pregnant is crucial for understanding the ethics of abortion and those who haven't been pregnant cannot grasp what it is like to be pregnant, can only people who have been pregnant engage in debate about the ethics of abortion?

At around the same time, a new colleague, Elselijn Kingma arrived in the department, with a wonderful project on the metaphysics of pregnancy: is the foetus a separate organism inside the pregnant woman*, like a bun in an oven, or part of her*, like a tail on a cat? Elselijn and had some really fruitful conversations. I was excited by the ethical implications of Elselijn's work - and we were both more generally interested in the ways in which the unique relationship between the pregnant woman* and the foetus might raise challenges for our moral concepts. Most of our moral concepts, like the difference between doing and allowing harm and ideas of autonomy, rights and self ownership, have developed to apply to interactions between separate human beings, with separate bodies and separate interests. The intertwinement of pregnant woman* and foetus means these everyday moral concepts don't easily apply.

My work in the philosophy of pregnancy, led to an interest in philosophy of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood . I became convinced that there are philosophical mistakes in the way we think about motherhood, which influence how we treat pregnant women* and new mothers. This can often lead to very harmful consequences for these vulnerable groups.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Irrational Emotions, Rational Decisions, and Artificial Intelligence

Thomas Ames (pictured above) is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has interests in epistemology, agency, and disorders of selfhood. In this post, he summarizes some of his current research into what role irrational emotions may play when making rational decisions, and what that may mean for the future of artificial intelligence.

Quite a bit has been written on the role of emotion on the decision-making process. Using cases of traumatic brain injuries that have led to defects in both emotion and rational decision-making, several theories with a neurological framework have been proposed about why that may be. One such prominent theory, somatic marker hypothesis (1, 2), introduced by Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California), posits that emotions play an integral neurological role in decision-making. This is because it was found that in cases of specific brain lesions which affect patients’ emotions, their abilities to make decisions were also adversely affected. It follows, then, that the two are connected: there must be some relationship between emotions, decisions, and acting upon them.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Addiction: A Philosophical Perspective

Today's post is by Candice Shelby on her new book Addiction: A Philosophical Perspective.

Candice Shelby is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Denver. She has published in the history of philosophy, philosophy of psychology, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of addiction. She regularly speaks around the U.S. and Europe on the complex problem of addiction, and has recently completed a month teaching on the topic in Beijing, China.

In my new book I argue that most analyses of addiction get off on the wrong foot from the start, by assuming a simple linear cause-and-effect understanding the world. Very little about human beings can be understood in such a straightforward way, and certainly nothing having to do with mind or experience. Like other human phenomena, including mind itself, I believe that addiction is an emergent property of a complex dynamic system. It is better understood as a process than as a disease, a moral problem, or simply an ongoing set of utility evaluations.

Addiction is a process that emerges in some human beings as a function of genetic and epigenetic factors influencing the development of a particular mind/body within a complex, interactive, and specific physical and social milieu. We can speak in an informed way of addiction at the level of neurological structure and function, but we cannot reduce it to just that. We can speak of the family’s influence on one’s vulnerability to addiction, both psychologically and socioeconomically, which is also a viable and autonomous level of analysis, but we cannot assume that such a discussion will encompass all that is involved in addiction. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Imperfect Volitions

My name is Alexandre Billon. I am an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Lille III. My research specialty is philosophical psychopathology, that is, the use of psychopathology to solve perennial philosophical riddles.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, I argue that in order to be happier, people with desires like us must behave irrationally. This might seem plainly paradoxical: being happier is, other things being equal, being better off. Behaving irrationally is not doing what is best for me. How can I be made better off by not doing what is better for me?

Before debunking this paradox let me briefly present my argument. Many philosophers, thinkers and even religions have claimed that unfulfilled desires diminish our level of happiness. This, I believe is not quite right. There are two kinds of interesting counterexamples.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Early Childhood Education Towards Equality

This post is by Natalia Garcez, Brazilian graphic designer currently based in Vienna. If you want to know more about her work, check out her research and the project she discusses in the post.

Contemporary European kindergartens were born in the first half of the 19th century. Pedagogues such as Fröbel and Montessori helped to create a model of education which motivates children to develop all their abilities, giving equal opportunities to every kid to learn what fits better their personal talents and personality.

Though the traditional European methodologies are the closest from a model of education which promotes equity among boys and girls, many early childhood educational spaces still do not guarantee a process of raising children free of stereotypes and gendered roles. One example was observed in a kindergarten located in the east of Germany. The place is deeply inspired in Montessorian methodologies, offering children the most varied spaces which all children have equal access to. Inside, kids are free to be what they want. But the freedom children live inside became a reflection of the traditional behaviours taught by families. 

Even in this open-minded educational space, all girls were wearing shades of pink, and all boys were in dark blue T-shirts. All girls were delicate beings, exploring the art's room, dolls, princess' dresses, and make-up, while boys were running around, throwing themselves into piles of pillows, and pedaling outside. By deeply respecting the preferences of each child, the educational space set aside motivating them to explore different activities, reproducing inside the educational space the stereotypes taught at home.

When turning to America, the system created by Fröbel could not be fully applied due to incompatibilities regarding culture and social development: besides the normal gap between kindergarten and home environments, also seen in Europe, the unprepared educational staff and cultural aspects, such as the use of nicknames, the relation with food, formally addressing adults, and so on, required many alterations in the Fröbelian system, coming up something new. What is seeing there are mainly formal and informal child care spaces which keep the children fed and safe while the family works. There is a lack of commitment to education, to the children's development, and, mainly, to raising them towards equity.

The project Design for Equity: Early Childhood Education Towards Gender Equity approaches the role of education in raising children in more egalitarian ways considering the following aspects: how to open dialogues with adults (families and child care spaces) to raise their children towards equity, and how to come up with a feasible system for developing countries in America, introducing poetry, story, music, games, and activities, in the development of educational materials for kids.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Delusion: Solving for Understanding and ‘Utter Strangeness’

Today's post is by Bill (KWM) Fulford and Tim Thornton. Bill is Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health, University of Warwick.  Tim is Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health at the University of Central Lancashire.

Bill Fulford

Tim Thornton

What is delusion? Few questions have so vexed philosophers in recent philosophy of psychiatry. An invitation to contribute to Thomas Schramme and Steven Edward’s Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine (Springer, 2016) gave us a welcome opportunity to review progress.

The philosopher Naomi Eilan characterized the challenge of delusion as solving simultaneously for understanding and for utter strangeness. Karl Jaspers, the great philosopher-psychiatrist of the early twentieth century and founder of modern descriptive psychopathology, would have approved. He famously thought delusions just too strange to be within the reach of empathic understanding - ‘ununderstandable’ he called them.

Contemporary theories, seeking understanding by explication, fall, we think, broadly into two categories concerned with delusions as aberrations on the one hand of beliefs or other either familiar or bespoke propositional attitudes or, on the other, of the grounds of beliefs or other propositional attitudes. The many variations on these theories each offer important insights. None though meets Eilan’s challenge in full: propositional attitude-focused theories solve (in part) for understanding but at the expense of strangeness; grounds-of-belief theories solve (in part) for strangeness but at the expense of understanding. It may be time therefor for something new. It may be time we suggested to turn our attention to the agential aspects of delusion.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Knowing the Score

In this post, David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London and the City University of New York, introduces his new book “Knowing the Score.”

I have always been a great sports enthusiast. I’ve played many different sports as an energetic amateur, and I follow even more in the newspapers and on television. But, even so, until recently I was never moved to subject sport to philosophical scrutiny. I was happy to leave that to the official philosophers of sport, and to carry on an ordinary fan myself.

In the year of the London Olympics, however, I agreed to contribute to a lecture series on philosophy and sport. When I accepted the invitation, I had in mind that I would have a go at one of the stock topics in the philosophy of sport. But nothing seemed very exciting. So, rather than stick to the official curriculum, I decided to write about something that interested me. If it didn’t count as philosophy of sport, that would be too bad.

The topic I chose was the peculiar mental demands of fast-response sports like tennis, baseball and cricket. When Rafael Nadal faces Roger Federer’s serve, he has less than half a second to react. That’s scarcely enough time to see the ball, let alone to think about how to hit it. Nadal can only rely on trained reflexes. Yet at the same time his shot selection will depend on his consciously chosen strategy, on that day’s plan for how best to play Federer in those conditions. This struck me as puzzling. How can unthinking reflexes be controlled by conscious thought?

I had great fun addressing this conundrum. I didn’t try to hide my enthusiasm as a sports fan, but curiously I ended up with a series of substantial philosophical conclusions. Even though I started with nothing but a few sporting incidents and some everyday questions, I was led to think hard about the connection between conscious decision-making and automatic behaviour, and the result was a series of ideas about the structure of action control that I am still working on.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Simple Rules to Cope with a Changing Climate

The following post is by Astrid Kause (pictured above), who recently completed her PhD at the University of Konstanz, in South of Germany. She continues her research at the University of Leeds (UK), investigating how individuals grasp and behave in face of uncertain phenomena like climate change. In this post, she discusses from a psychological perspective why this uncertain and complex problem does not require a complex solution – but how simple prescriptive decision strategies might help us to behave better in face of climate change.

Climate change is considered one of the most challenging problems humanity has to solve in the 21st century (van der Linden, 2015). What makes it so particularly difficult to grasp climate change? After all, we experience changes in extreme weather like rainfall, learn about climate change consequences like rising sea levels, hear scientists and politicians call for action against climate change or rather sceptic voices downplaying need for action. One reason is that when individuals try to understand climate change, they face various kinds of uncertainty. A second reason might be that they lack concrete strategies of how to behave in face of these uncertainties.

What are the sources of uncertainty we face when trying to understand climate change? We don’t know what we don’t know. Domains of climate sciences largely differ in how well established their findings are. For example, the general mechanisms of human influence on global warming are virtually certain and backed up by an overwhelming scientific consensus (Cook et al., 2013). In contrast, how exactly humans will influence the climate in the future, how the climate system reacts and how this then affects subsequent behaviors is difficult to predict (Schellnhuber, 2015).

As individuals, we are not aware of all factors that have been revealed as influential on the climate system. This is because individuals access different information sources: For example, in different countries, scientific predictions on a changing climate might be communicated differently in the media. Also, our own experiences might only reflect some change of climate – experiences naturally differ between for example citizens in the UK and Northern Africa.

Monday, 6 March 2017

What Can Attention Teach Us about Optimism?

This post is by Adam Harris (University College London) who recently published a paper entitled: "Understanding the coherence of the severity effect and optimism phenomena: Lessons from attention". The paper appeared in a special issue on the nature and consequences of optimism, guest-edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic. In this post, Adam (pictured below) offers a precis of his paper.

Popular belief maintains that humans are prone to an almost universal optimistic bias, including a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of good outcomes and underestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes. Related research findings include (all references are in the paper[AH1] ):

  1. Wishful thinking. For example, estimates of the likelihood of a sports team winning being higher from that team’s supporters than neutral individuals;
  2. Unrealistic comparative optimism. People think they are less likely to experience negative events, such as cancer, than their peers;
  3. Optimistic belief updating. People fail to sufficiently update likelihood estimates in response to bad news.
Given this popular belief, a surprising result is therefore the ‘severity effect’, whereby likelihood estimates for negative events are higher than for neutral events.

At first sight, the severity effect appears clearly at odds with the three optimism phenomena outlined above. My paper proposes a simple framework (inspired by the motivated attention hypothesis from lower level cognition) to determine the degree to which these phenomena are necessarily inconsistent. The framework clarifies the relationships between the phenomena and stimulates future research questions.

A dominant perspective in attention and word recognition is that valenced stimuli (both positive and negative) have attentional primacy over neutral stimuli. One result of this is that both negative and positive words are recognised faster than neutral words (though note that there is some debate over these results, with other researchers finding an advantage solely for negative words). The motivated attention hypothesis explains these results in terms of an attentional bias towards motivationally relevant stimuli – positive and negative.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

AEP and WPA Psychopathology Sessions 2016

In this post, I report from the 20th Annual Meeting of the AEP and WPA Psychopathology Sessions. The symposioum took place at the Hospital Corentin Celton in Paris on the 9th and 10th of December 2016. Researchers in psychopathology and philosophers gathered to present their findings and reflections on the psychopathology of the lived body and its exposure.

On the first day, Luis Madeira talked about abnormal bodily phenomena (ABP) and how these symptoms are experienced in patients with affective disorders, psychosis, and particularly schizophrenia. These features are subjective and at the same time experienced as out of control. In patients diagnosed with manic depression, the body is represented as a nebulous existence, a quasi-inefable constellation of feelings, feelings of inner burden and paralysis which is caused by a lack of motivation, with patients often wondering: “It is in me but, what should I do?”

When the diagnosis is schizophrenia, reports show an increase of mental activity elements which include exaltation of uncontrolled self with patients reporting “desperate vitality”, “irritating emptiness”, “overcharged negative energy” and “internal agitation”. ABP are considered to include several different types of symptoms: disturbed coenesthesia (an assortment of uncanny bodily feelings with or without delusional interpretation), kinesthetic hallucinations and disruptions of body structure and boundaries. Madeira claims that as a group ABP have been absent from diagnostic textbooks due to the fact that psychiatrists lack specific and reliable tools to assess them. Until recently this led psychiatrists to believe that these subjective phenomena may be quasi-ineffable in nature.

Norbert Andersch gave a talk on the ideas of embodiment in Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassirer. He presented the discussion between these authors in the mid 1920s. Aby Warburg regarded ritual action as the basis of culture and gave special attention to the study of emotional expression in gestures and rituals. Cassirer was mainly interested in the logic of categorisation organised on the basis of rituals. Warburg’s emphasis on the primacy of ritual action in the emergence of culture was of great influence for Cassirer. Andersch claims that the study of rituals could also illuminate today’s psychopathological discourse.

The third talk was given by Dr. Femi Oyebode who talked about the role of the body in the formation of self. Oyebode described the functioning of the sensory apparatus and kinesthetic activity involved in embodied perception. Departing from the fact that the human mind evolved in response to interaction with the physical environment, Oyebode claimed that even the most abstract concepts that we use to describe the idea we have of self have their origins in embodied experiences. To illustrate his points he referred to the use of some metaphors such as ‘standing one’s ground’. Without any understanding of what it means to stand and what it feels like to resist a push and hence not fall over, it would be impossible for us to use these as descriptions of our personalities.

Dr. Gilberto Di Petta gave the last talk of the first day. He presented a case study which he described as a strange case of drug abuse and psychosis. Petta claims that there is a contemporary trend of poly-abuse of new psychoactive substances in young people which can lead to intensified states of psychosis. These episodes were characterised by Petta as featuring uncommonly continuous hallucination, formed by a mental automatism syndrome and secondary (or interpretative) delusions. He proposed that new terminology should be considered in order to categorize cases in which patients suffer psychosis as a consequence of some new psychoactive substances.