Bright Ideas, Big City

20 maj 2010 | In Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Naturalism Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

Tomorrow, I’m giving a short presentation at a lab meeting with the sinisterly named MERG (Metro Experimental Research Group) at NYU. The title is ”Value-theory meets the affective sciences – and then what happens?”. For once, the question tucked on for effect at the end will be a proper one (normally when using this title, I just go ahead and tell the participants what happens). I really want to know what should happen, and how the ideas I’ve been exploring could be translated into a proper research program. I’m constantly finding experimental ”confirmation” of my pet ideas from every branch of psychology I dip my toes in, but there are obvious risk with this way of doing ”research”. The question is whether, and how, those ideas might actually help design new experiments and studies more suited to confirm (or disconfirm) them.

I believe meta-ethics could and should be naturalized, and I have certain ideas about what would happen if it were. Now, we prepare for the scary part.

Moral Babies

8 maj 2010 | In Books Emotion theory Moral Psychology Naturalism parenting Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?


The last few years have seen a number of different approaches to morality become trendy and arouse media interest. Evolutionary approaches, primatological, cognitive science, neuroscience. Next in line are developmental approaches. How, and when, does morality develop? From what origins can something like morality be construed?

Alison Gopnik devoted a chapter of her ”the philosophical baby” to this topic and called it ”Love and Law: the origins of morality”. And just the other day, Paul Bloom had an article in the New York Times reporting on the admirable and adorable work being done at the infant cognition center at Yale.

Basically, we used to think (under the influence of Piaget/Kohlberg) that babies where amoral, and in need of socialization in order to be proper, moral beings. But work at the lab shows that babies have preferences for kind characters over mean characters quite early, maybe as early as age 6 months, even when the kindness/meanness doesn’t effect the baby personally. The babies observe a scene in which a character (in some cases a puppet, in others, a triangel or square with eyes attached) either helps or hinders another. Afterwards, they are shown both characters, and they tend to choose the helping one. Slightly older babies, around the age of 1, even choose to punish the mean character. Bloom’s article begins:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

In a further twist on the scenario, babies (at 8 months) where asked to choose between still other characters who had either rewarded or punished the behavior displayed in the first scenario. In this experiment, the babies tended to go for the ”just” character. This is quite amazing, seeing how the last part of the exchange would have been a punishment (which is something bad happening, though to a deserving agent.) It takes quite extraordinary mental capacities to pick the ”right” alternative in this scenario.

If babies are born amoral, and are socialized into accepting moral standards, something like relativism would arguably be true, at least descriptively. Descriptively, too, relativism often seem to hold: we value different things and a lot of moral disagreement seems to be impossible to solve. In some moral disagreement, we reach rock-bottom, non-inferred moral opinions and the debate can go no further. This is what happens when we ask people for reasons: they come to an end somewhere, and if no commonality is found there, there is nothing less to do.

A common feature of the evolutionary, biological, neurological etc. approaches to morality is that they don’t want to leave it at that. If no commonality is found in what we value, or in the reasons we present for our values, we should look elsewhere, to other forms of explanations. We want to find the common origin of moral judgments, if nothing else in order to diagnose our seemingly relativistic moral world. But possibly, this project can be made ambitious, and claim to found an objective morality on what common origins occurs in those explanations.

If the earlier view on babies is false, if we actually start off with at least some moral views (which might then be modulated by culture to the extent that we seem to have no commonality at all), and these keep at least some of their hold on us, we do seem to have a kind of universal morality.

We start life, not as moral blank slates, but pre-set to the attitude that certain things matter. Some facts and actions are evaluatively marked for us by our emotional reactions, and can be revealed by our earliest preferences. Preferences can be conditioned into almost any kind of state (eventhough some types of objects will always be better at evoking them), so its often hard to find this mutual ground for reconsiliation in adults and that is precisely why it’s such a splendid idea to do this sort of research on babies.

Psychopath College

6 maj 2010 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Neuroscience Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

What is wrong with psychopaths? Seriously? I’m not asking in a semi-mocking, Seinfield-esque ”what is the deal with X” kind of way. I’m seriously interested in finding out. Is there something they’re not getting, or something they don’t care about? And is caring about something really that different from understanding it? (In the Simpsons episode ”Lisa’s substitute” Homer, trying to comfort Lisa, memorably says ”Hey, just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand”).

As most people interested in philosophy, I’ve been accused of being ”too rational” and, by implication, deficient in the feelings department. And, like most people interested in philosophy would, I’ve dealt with this accusation, not by throwing a tantrum, but by taking the argument apart. To the accusers face, if he/she sticks around long enough to hear it. When people tell me I’m a know-it-all, I start off on a ”This is why you’re wrong” list.

So, when it happens that someone compliments me on some human insight or displayed emotional sensitivity, I tend to make the in-poor-taste-sort of-joke ”Psychopath College can’t have been a complete waste of time and money, then”.

Psychopath College, you see, is a fictional institution (Aren’t they all? No.) that I’ve made up. It refers to the things you do when you don’t have the instincts or the normal emotional and behavioral reactions, but still want to fit in. You learn about them by careful observation, you try to find a rationale for them, a mechanism that will help you understand it. In the end, you manage to mimic normal behavior and make the right predictions. (Like all intellectuals, led by the editors of le monde diplomatique, I learned to ”care” about football during the 1998 world cup, not in the ”normal” way, but for, you know, pretentious reasons.)

It’s commonly believed that psychopaths ability to manipulate people depends on precisely this fact: they don’t rely on non-inferred keen instinct and intuition but actually need to possess the knowledge of what makes people behave and react the way they do. And this knowledge can be transferred into power, especially as psychopaths are not as betrayed by unmeditated emotional reactions as the rest of us are.

A recent study reported in the journal ”Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” told that psychopathic and non-psychopathic offenders performed equally well on a task judging what someone whose intentions where fulfilled, or non-fulfilled would feel. But when they do, different parts of the brain are more activated. In psychopaths, the attribution of emotions is associated with activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, believed to be concerned with outcome monitoring and attention. (This said, the authors admit that the role of the OFC in psychopathy is highly debated) In non-psychopaths, on the other hand, the attribution is rather correlated with the ”mirror-neuron system”. In short, psychopath don’t do emotional simulation, but rational calculation, and the successful ones reach the right conclusions.

The task described in the paper (”In psychopathic patients emotion attribution modulates activity in outcome-related brain areas”) is a very simple one, and offers no information on which ”method” performs better when the task is complex, or whether they may be optimal under different conditions.

Since knowing and caring about the emotional state of others is, arguably, at the heart of morality, studies like these are of the great interest and importance. What, and how, does psychopaths know about the emotional state of others? And might the reason that they don’t seem to care about it be that they know about it in a non-standard way? Jackson and Pettit argued in their minor classic of a paper Moral functionalism and moral motivation” that moral beliefs are normally motivating because they are normally emotional states. You can have a belief with the same content, but in a non-emotional, ”off-line” way, and then is seems possible not to care about morality. Arguably, this is what psychopaths do, when they seem to understand, but not to care.

As Blair et all (The psychopath) argues, one of the deficiencies associated with psychopathy is emotional learning. This makes perfect sense: if you learn about the feelings of others in a non-emotional way, you don’t get the kind of emphasis on the relevant that emotions usually convey. Since moral learning is arguably based on a long socialization process in which emotional cues plays a central part, no wonder if psychopaths end up deficient in that area.

What can Psychopath College accomplish by way of moving from knowing to caring? It is not that psychopaths doesn’t care about anything; they are usually fairly concerned with their own well-being, for instance. So the architecture for caring is in place, why can’t we bring it to bear on moral issues? Perhaps we can. Due to the emphasis on the anti-social in the psychopathy checklists, we might miss out on a large group of people that actually ”copes” with psychopathy and construes morality with independent means.

One thing that interests me with psychopaths, who clearly care about themselves and, I believe, care about being treated fairly and with respect is this: Why can’t they generalize their emotional reactions? This is highly relevant, seeing how a classic argument for generalising moral values when there is no relevant difference, at least from Mill, Sidgwick and memorably by Peter Singer, is held to be a pure requirement of rationality. The thought is that you establish what’s good by emotional experiences, and then you realise that if it’s good for me, there is no reason why the same experience would not be good for others as well. So the justification of generalisation is a rational one. But the mechanism by which this generalisation gets its force is probably not, and depends on successfull emotional simulation, a direct, non-considered emotional reactivity (then again, whether you manage to ”simulate” animals like slugs or, pace Nagel, bats, might be a matter of imagination, not rationality or emotionality).

So what does this possibility say about the epistemic status of our moral convictions, eh?

Reasons and Terracotta

3 maj 2010 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?


(Not friends of mine)

Terracotta, the material, makes me nauseous. Looking at it, or just hearing the word, makes me cringe. Touching it is out of the question. One may say that my reaction to Terracotta is quite irrational: I have no discernable reason for it. But rationality seems to have little to do with it – its not the sort of thing for which one has reasons. My aversion is something to be explained, not justified. It is not the kind of thing that a revealed lack of justification would have an effect on, and is thus different from most beliefs and at least some judgments.

The lack of reason for my Terracotta-aversion means that I don’t (and shouldn’t) try to persuade others to have the same sort of reactions Or, insofar as I do, it is pure prudential egotism, in order to make sure that I won’t encounter terracotta (aaargh, that word again!) when I go visit.

So here is this thing that reliably causes a negative reaction in me. For me, terracotta belongs to a significant, abhorrent, class. It partly overlaps with other significant classes like the cringe-worthy – the class of things for which there are reasons to react in a cringing way. The unproblematic subclass of this class refers to instrumental reasons: we should react aversely to things that are dangerous, poisonous, etc. for the sake of our wellbeing. But there might be a class of things that are just bad, full stop. They are intrinsically cringe-worthy, we might say. They merit the reaction. (It is still not intrinsically good that such cringings occur, though, even when they’re apt – the reaction is instrumental, even when its object is not).

Indeed, these things might be what the reactions are there for, in order to detect the intrinsically bad. Perhaps cringing, basically, represents badness. If we take a common version of the representational theory of perception as our model, the fact that there is a reliable mechanism between type of object and experience means that the experience represents that type of object.

Terracotta seems to be precisely the kind of thing that should not be included in such a class. But what is the difference between this case and other evaluative ”opinions” (I wouldn’t say that mine for Terracotta is an opinion although I sometimes have felt the need to convert it into one), those that track proper values? Mine towards terracotta is systematic and resistent enough to be more than a whim, or even a prejudice, but it doesn’t suffice to make terracotta intrinsically bad. Is it that it is just mine? It would seem that if everyone had it, this would be a reason to abolish the material but it wouldn’t be the material’s ”fault”, as it where. Is terracotta intrinsically bad for me?

How many of our emotional reactions should be discarded (though respected. Seriously, don’t give me terracotta) on the basis of their irrelevant origins? If the reaction isn’t based on reason, does that mean that reason cannot be used to discard it? This might be what distinguishes value-basing/constituting emotional reactions from ”mere” unpleasant emotional reactions . Proper values would simply be this – the domain of emotional reactions that can be reasoned with.

Opting out

26 april 2010 | In Happiness research Psychology | Comments?

scales scales2

”The spirit level” made a big (and persuasive, though debatable) point of some well known effects: people tend to care about how they turn out in comparison with others. People tend to compare themselves to people who are better off than themselves. In some interesting cases, people tend to care more about their relative than their absolute level of income, for instance.

Status seems to matter. Almost every publication that covers this topic has a background section about the importance of status relations in the evolution of social animals. Ape’s are brought to the witness stand. De Waal is mentioned. One reason such a section is included is to make a point about the irrepressible presence of this factor in our lives. However we are to cope with the effects of status differences, the anxieties, hostilities and pointless loss of well-being it entails, we cannot get around it: it’s a brute, evolutionary fact. If people are made unhappy by inequality, then we should diminish inequality. Not only in terms of wealth, but in every regard that matters.

But the curious thing is that not everybody cares about status, whether in terms of attractiveness, wealth, knowledge or popularity. Some who are comparably less well off, and aware of this fact, are not bothered by it. Surely, though there are plenty of reasons to believe that diminishing inequality is usually the right thing to do, getting people to care less about inequality when it comes to things that doesn’t really matter should be part of the overall strategy as well. In related news, the detrimental effects of physical ideals derived from advertising and the like may be countered either by influencing their content, or by undermining their ideal-setting status.

One route goes via switching comparison classes: compare yourself to a group in which you come out better.

Another is by switching what is compared: some people have ”more money than taste”, for instance, so you could just switch the comparison that matters from money to taste and in the latter case, you come out on top. The great thing with this particular strategy is that taste is a matter of taste: two people can believe that they come out better in the comparison, and both feel better about themselves. Psychologists will often advise you to have a ”complex sense of self”, because if you have a number of personal characteristics that you care about, failure in one department doesn’t matter that much. In every group you find yourself, you are probably best in some regard, and you can choose to concentrate on that. Others may do the same, and no group has to decide which regard that matters in that group.

But the preferable strategy, it would seem, is often not to care about the outcome of comparisons at all. It doesn’t matter all that much who’s got the better car, or even the better sense, because feeling good about oneself isn’t necessarily a matter of comparison. You may be contented without being smug, even over the fact that you have cracked this particular code. Sure, we usually do compare in order to evaluate, but we don’t have to do this. We may ”satisfice”, pick an alternativ that is good enough, as well as ”maximize” as an overall strategy. Not just when it comes to particular products but as a general life strategy as well.

If wellbeing is to a significant degree and for most people dependent on coming out on top in comparisons, we should choose the kind of currency for comparison that makes the worst off less worse off. The great thing with money is also the problem with it: it buys stuff. If I have a lot of it and you got less I can buy the things that you need, and there is not much you can do about it. If I care for knowledge instead, for instance, and know more than you do, there is not less knowledge for you to get your hands on. The scarcity of job-opportunities aside, it’s hard to see why I should feel bad over the fact that you know more about philosophy and cognitive science than I do. And it’s certainly hard to see that the problem of academic jealousy should best be solved by making the ”top earners” know less, rather than by getting rid of this obsession.

The case for inequality is often based on the premise that we need something to aspire to in order to be motivated. If we can become better off by developing some talent or working harder, we just might do that. Surely, that kind of psychological mechanism exists, even though it isn’t the only game in town. The thing aspired to doesn’t have to be money, and the process does not need to be a zero-sum game.

Certainly, we need to take the problems of inequality and the tendencies mentioned seriously, as factual problems. But we shouldn’t take the psychological tendencies that constitute one of the conditions for these problems as brute, unchangeable facts.

The baby critic

15 april 2010 | In Books Comedy media parenting Psychology Self-indulgence TV | 3 Comments

spegel Through the looking glass, okay?

A few months back, to the great amusement of late night talkshows (US) and topical comedy quiz participiants (UK), a group of scientists lodged a complaint against a trend in current cinematic science fiction: It’s not realistic enough. The sciency part of it is not good enough. Science fiction stories should help themselves to only one major transgression against the laws of physics, argued Sidney Perkowitz. To exceed this limit is just lazy story-telling – time travel being a bit like the current french monarch in most Molieré plays. The best works of science fiction follows that almost experimental formulai: change only one parameter and see how the story unravels.

The criticism that started already in the first season of ”Lost” and has become louder ever since was precisely this: the writers clearly have no idea what they’re on about, they haven’t even decided which rules of physics they have altered. The viewer is constantly denied the pleasure of running ahead with the consequences of the changed premise and then watch how the story runs its logical course. Off course, a writer may add surprises, there is pleasure in that to, but you cannot constantly change the rules without adding a rationale for that change. That’s just cheating (or its playing a different game altogether. That is acceptable, of course, I’m not saying it isn’t, I just think this accounts for a lot of the frustration people experience with shows like ”Lost” or ”Heroes”).

The comedians who ridicule the scientist claim that the latter miss the point: Science fiction is suppose to be fiction. But in fact the point is that even fiction, at least good fiction, is not arbitrary.

It struck me that the point made by this group of scientists is very much the reaction that kids have when you break the rules in their pretend play. (There’s an excellent account of this in the opening chapters of Alison Gopniks book ”The philosophical baby”).

One of the interesting things about kids is their ability to, and interest in, pretend play. They are from a very early age able to follow, or to make up, counterfactual stories and imaginary friends and foes, and the stories that play out have a sort of logic. If you spill pretend tea, you leave a mess that needs to be pretend-mopped up. Many psychologists now argue that this is more or less the point of pretend play: you work out what would happen if something, that does in fact not happen, were to happen. The more outlandish the countered fact, the more work you need to put in to draw the right, or sensible, conclusions, and the more adept you become at reasoning, planning and coming up with great ideas. Stories that doesn’t further that project might be nice nevertheless: literature has other functions, after all. But the decline in this particular quality in current science fiction is still a sound basis for criticism. Even a baby can see that.

A unique set of influences

14 april 2010 | In Books parenting Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

In one of the early notebooks in which I used to put the kind of thought, rants and musing that nowadays makes it into this blogish existence I made some sort of remark about how to overcome the anxiety of influence; the suspicion that all ones work is somehow derivative. ”One can at least aspire” I wrote (or something like that, I obviously didn’t bother to actually find the thing. It’s a notebook, for crying out loud. It doesn’t even have a ”search” function) ”One can at least aspire to be the result of a unique set of influences”. In other words: it doesn’t much matter whether one is little less then the effect of what one has read, seen, heard etc. since the longevity of life in the plastic state makes sure that some originality will ensue even from that process. In addition: to track down the complete set of sources that ”made” a particular author/thinker is excellent fun. One can even toy with that sort of thing in ones writings, provide hints and such (misleading ones, if one wants to be clever).

Anyway, I’m going somewhere with this. Oh, yes: I find that most things I write in hindsight quite clearly is the result of what I was interested in at the time, even when those things were not obviously related to begin with. Thus, for instance, it is highly unlikely that my dissertation would have gone down the way it did, were it not for the fact that I happened to be into cognitive science just before I got the job (much to the dismay of my supervisors). The sort of value theory I was into before that was much more of a dry, conceptual analysis kind of thing.

So I’m pretty sure that something interesting will come from my current preoccupation with the two subjects of Psychopathy and child (infant, actually) psychology. It’s not hard to find a link, obviously: developmental processes are key in both areas, but I’m very likely to make a big point out of this, merely for the reason that these are the things that interests me now.

For instance: one current trend in chid psychology is to stress the wide, undiscriminating attention of infant and toddler (more of a lamp, than a spotlight) which make them better than adults at noticing task-irrelevant features. Psychopaths, according to another book I’m reading, are quite the opposite: one of the cognitive peculiarities of psychopath is their ability to focus, and their inability to remember task-irrelevant features. As pointed out in the previous post, attention may suffer when the amount of information increases, but the reverse is true as well. The inability to shift attention when previously irrelevant information becomes relevant, or shows you that a shift is needed, is clearly a problem in a variable environment, such as our, social one. Infants are in the process of finding out what is relevant, and thus need not to focus attention just yet.

My third current interest is in the cognitive science of literature. I’m likely to find a way to make that relevant to the project as well.


(Currently reading)

Suddenly Susan

30 mars 2010 | In Books Meta-philosophy Psychology Self-indulgence | 2 Comments


First of all: I like Susan Blackmore. In fact, I met her once, at the first proper conference I ever attended (the ”Toward a Science of Consciousness” conference in Tuscon 2004 hosted by David ”madman at the helm” Chalmers). She came and sat next to me during the introductory speech and asked me what had just been said. I said I hadn’t payed that much attention, to be honest, but I seemed to remember a name being uttered. We then proceeded to reconstruct the message and ended up having a short, exciting discussion about sensory memory traces. From now on, I remember thinking (having to dig deeper than just in the sensory memory traces, which will all have evaporated by now), this is what life will be like from now on. It hasn’t, quite.

ANYWAY: So I like Susan Blackmore, but today, I’m using her to set an example.

I recently had occasion to read her very short introduction to consciousness in which she take us through the main issues and peccadilloes in and of consciousness research. One of the sections deals with change blindness and she describes one of the funniest experiments ever devised: The experimenter approach a pedestrian (this is at Cornell, for all of you looking to make a cheap point at a talk) and asks for directions. Then two assistants, dressing the part, walks between the experimenter and the pedestrian carrying a door. The experimenter grabs the back end of the door and wanders off, leaving the pedestrian facing one of the assistants instead. And here’s the thing: only 50% of the subjects notice the switch. The other 50% keeps on giving direction to the freshly arrived person, as if nothing has happened.

This is a wonderful illustration of change blindness, and it’s a great conversation piece. You can go ahead and use it to illustrate almost any point you like, but here comes the problem: there is a tendency to overstate the case, especially among philosophers (I’m very much prone to this sort of misuse myself), due to the fact that we usually don’t know, or don’t care much, about statistics. Blackmore ends the section in the following manner:

When people are asked whether they think they would detect such a change they are convinced that they would – but they are wrong.

We have a surprising effect: people don’t notice a change that should be apparent, and as a result you can catch people having faulty assumptions about their own abilities, and no greater fun is to be had anywhere in life. But Blackmore makes a mistake here: People would not be wrong. Only 50% of them would. It’s not even a case of ”odds are, they are wrong”.

I would use this as an example of some other cognitive bias – something to do with our tendency to remember only the exciting bit of a story and then run with it, perhaps – only I’m afraid of committing the same mistake myself.

(Btw: I also considered naming this post ”so Sue me”)

How do I get happy?

4 februari 2010 | In Emotion theory Happiness research Psychology Self-indulgence | 1 Comment

If you want to sell a book about happiness research/positive psychology, or anything even remotely related to that area, you better be prepared to answer this question. Or at least claim that you are, and then subtly change the subject and hope that no-one notices.

Basically, the answer is this: find out what happiness is, and then, you know, go get that. .

Sometimes when you want something, the best strategy is to find out how people who got it behave, and copy that behavior. This works reasonably well for things like getting in shape, making a bargain, learning how to ride a bike, etc. It does not work as well if what you want is to be tall. It doesn’t help to copy the behavior of tall people, or to wear their clothes or go on the rides only they may ride at the amusement park. If you want to be as good a writer as Oscar Wilde was, to copy every word Oscar Wilde wrote won’t exactly do it (That is not to say that it wouldn’t do anything, I’m sure there are worse ways of learning the style).

Just copying behavior statistically demonstrated to be exhibited by happy people is probably not the best idea (that would be Cargo Cult Science): If we are to learn from the habits of others, we better learn how to generalize correctly, and in order to do that, we need to understand how happiness works. In order to be happy, it’s probably not sufficient to get the things/habits/relations that happy people got. An educated guess is that the relevant factor is that they got things/habits/relations that they like, and so should you. Or you should like the things you’ve already got. Whichever is most convenient.

Parachuters may be the happiest people alive, but the excitement of jumping might upset, bore or kill you. You should do the things that does for you, what parachute-jumping does for them. And note that even ”excitement” might be a wrongly generalized category: maybe excitement is not for you. Maybe you’re a sofa kind of person. It might still be possible for you to be a person for whom excitement or even parachute-jumping is rewarding, but that requires a completely different kind of neural rewiring.

Possibly, what happy people got is the disposition to like what they get, or to find something to like in everything they get and that disposition, rather than the things that they, or you, like, is what you should get. Of course, if you are disposed to like everything, you might stop and appreciate the glorious spectacle of a runaway train moving towards you at speed, and that, you know, would be bad. You shouldn’t have that disposition. Further qualifications are needed, for strategic and individual reasons. This is why we should be very careful when we try to translate science into advice.

As to the neural rewiring: reading about happiness-research might bring about some of the required changes. Learning does occasionally occur as a consequence of reading, after all. But it is likely to do as much good for your happiness as a class on Newtonian mechanics would do for your billiard-playing skills.