Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Monday, May 31, 2021

Disgust Can Be Morally Valuable

Charlie Kurth
Scientific American
Originally posted 9 May 21

Here is no an excerpt:

Let’s start by considering disgust’s virtues. Not only do we tend to experience disgust toward moral wrongs like hypocrisy and exploitation, but the shunning and social excluding that disgust brings seems a fitting response to those who pollute the moral fabric in these ways. Moreover, in the face of worries about morally problematic disgust—disgust felt at the wrong time or in the wrong way—advocates respond that it’s an emotion we can substantively change for the better.

On this front, disgust’s advocates point to exposure and habituation; just like I might overcome the disgust I feel about exotic foods by trying them, I can overcome the disgust I feel about same-sex marriage by spending more time with gay couples. Moreover, work in psychology appears to support this picture. Medical school students, for instance, lose their disgust about touching dead bodies after a few months of dissecting corpses, and new mothers quickly become less disgusted by the smell of soiled diapers.

But these findings may be deceptive. For starters, when we look more closely at the results of the diaper experiment, we see that a mother’s reduced disgust sensitivity is most pronounced with regard to her own baby’s diapers, and additional research indicates that mothers have a general preference for the smell of their own children. This combination suggests, contra the disgust advocates, that a mother’s disgust is not being eliminated. Rather, her disgust at the soiled diapers is still there; it’s just being masked by the positive feelings that she’s getting from the smell of her newborn. Similarly, when we look carefully at the cadaver study, we see that while the disgust of medical students toward touching the cold bodies of the dissection lab is reduced with exposure, the disgust they feel toward touching the warm bodies of the recently deceased remained unchanged.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Win–Win Denial: The Psychological Underpinnings of Zero-Sum Thinking

Johnson, S. G. B., Zhang, J., & Keil, F. 
(2020, April 30).


A core proposition in economics is that voluntary exchanges benefit both parties. We show that people often deny the mutually beneficial nature of exchange, instead espousing the belief that one or both parties fail to benefit from the exchange. Across 4 studies (and 8 further studies in the Supplementary Materials), participants read about simple exchanges of goods and services, judging whether each party to the transaction was better off or worse off afterwards. These studies revealed that win–win denial is pervasive, with buyers consistently seen as less likely to benefit from transactions than sellers. Several potential psychological mechanisms underlying win–win denial are considered, with the most important influences being mercantilist theories of value (confusing wealth for money) and theory of mind limits (failing to observe that people do not arbitrarily enter exchanges). We argue that these results have widespread implications for politics and society.


From the Discussion

Is Win–Win Denial Rational?

The conclusion that voluntary transactions benefit both parties rests on assumptions, and can therefore admit exceptions when these assumptions do not hold.  Voluntary trades are mutually beneficial when the parties are performing rational, selfish cost–benefit calculations and when there are no critical asymmetries in information (e.g., fraud).  There are several ways that violations of these assumptions could lead a transaction not to be win–win.  Consumers  could have inconsistent preferences over time, such that something believed to be beneficial at one time proves non-beneficial later on (e.g., liking a shirt when one buys it in the store, but growing weary of it after a couple months). Consumers could have self-control failures, making an impulse purchase that proved unwise in the longer  term.  Consumers could  have other-regarding  preferences, buying something that benefits someone else but not oneself. Finally, the consumer could be deceived by a seller who knows that the product will not satisfy their preferences (e.g., a crooked used-car salesman).

These  are  of  course  more  than  theoretical  possibilities—many demonstrations of human irrationality have been demonstrated in lab and field studies (Frederick et al., 2009; Loewenstein & Prelec, 1992; Malmandier & Tate, 2005 among many others). The key question is whether the real-world prevalence of irrationality and fraud is sufficient to justify the conclusion that ordinary consumer transactions—like those tested here—are so riddled with incompetence that our participants were right to deny that transactions are typically win–win. We respond to this challenge with four points. 

First, an empirical point. It is not just the magnitude of win–win denial of interest here, but how this magnitude responds to our experimental manipulations. It is hard to see how the effects of time-framing or cueing participants to buyers’ reasons would produce the effects that they do, independent of the mechanisms we have proposed for win–win denial (namely mercantilism and theory of mind). It is especially difficult to see why people would claim that barters make neither party better-off if the issue is exploitation. Thus, even if the magnitude of the effects is reasonable in some conditions of some of our experiments because people’s intuitions are attuned to the (allegedly) large extent of market failures, some of the patterns we see and the differences in these patterns across conditions seem to necessitate the mechanisms we propose.

Second, a sanity check. We tested intuitions about a range of typical consumer transactions in our items, finding consistent effects across items (see Part A of the Supplementary Materials). Is it really that plausible that people are impulsively hiring plumbers or that their hair stylists are routinely fraudsters? If such ordinary transactions are actually making consumers worse-off, it is very difficult to see how the rise of market economies has brought prosperity to much of the world—indeed, if win–win denial correctly  describes most consumer transactions, one should predict a negative relationship between well-being and economic activity (contradicting the large association between subjective well-being and per capita income across countries; Stevenson & Wolfers, 2013). In our view, one can acknowledge occasional consumer irrationalities, while not thereby concluding that all or most market activity is irrational, which, we submit, would fly in the face both of economic science and common sense. Actually, to claim that consumers are consistently irrational threatens paradox: The more one thinks that consumers are irrational in general,  the more  one  must  believe that participants in the current experiments are (rationally) attuned to their own irrationality.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Comparisons Inform Me Who I Am: A General Comparative-Processing Model of Self-Perception

Morina N.
Perspectives on Psychological Science. 
February 2021. 

People’s self-concept contributes to their sense of identity over time. Yet self-perception is motivated and serves survival and thus does not reflect stable inner states or accurate biographical accounts. Research indicates that different types of comparison standards act as reference frames in evaluating attributes that constitute the self. However, the role of comparisons in self-perception has been underestimated, arguably because of lack of a guiding framework that takes into account relevant aspects of comparison processes and their interdependence. I propose a general comparative model of self-perception that consists of a basic comparison process involving the individual’s prior mental representation of the target dimension, the construal of the comparison standard, and the comparison outcome representing the posterior representation of the target dimension. The generated dimensional construal is then appraised with respect to one’s motives and controllability and goes on to shape emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses. Contextual and personal factors influence the comparison process. This model may be informative in better understanding comparison processes in people’s everyday lives and their role in shaping self-perception and in designing interventions to assist people overcome undesirable consequences of comparative behavior.

Concluding Remarks

Comparisons inform people about their current selves and their progress toward end goals. Comparative evaluations are omnipresent in everyday life, appear both unintentionally and intentionally, and are context sensitive. The current framework defines comparison as a dynamic process consisting of several subcomponents. The segmentation of the subcomponent processes into activation of comparison, basic comparison process, valuation, as well as emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses is not rigid; however, the taxonomy should prove conceptually useful because it breaks down the comparison process into testable constituent subprocesses. A better understanding of comparative behavior processes will enhance the knowledge of self-perception and help identify effective strategies that promote more adaptive comparisons.

Friday, May 28, 2021

‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation

Max Fisher
The New York Times
Originally published 7 May 21

Hereis an excerpt:

We are in an era of endemic misinformation — and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. 

But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”

Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping — a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.

Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.

“At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans,” which has “seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation,” Dr. Nyhan wrote in an earlier paper.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

How Adobe’s Ethics Committee Helps Manage AI Bias

Jared Council
The Wall Street Journal
Originally posted 5 May 21

Review boards can help companies mitigate some of the risks associated with using artificial intelligence, according to Adobe Inc. executive Dana Rao.

Mr. Rao, Adobe’s general counsel, said one of the top risks in using AI systems is that the technology can perpetuate harmful bias against certain demographics, based on what it learns from data. Ethics committees can be one way of managing those risks and putting organizational values into practice.

Adobe’s AI ethics committee, launched two years ago, has been able to review new features for potential bias before those features are deployed, Mr. Rao said Wednesday at The Wall Street Journal’s Risk & Compliance Forum. The committee is made up of employees of various ethnicities and genders from different parts of the company, including legal, government relations and marketing.

“It takes a lot of people across your company to help figure this out,” he said. “Sometimes we might look at it and say there’s not an issue here,” he said, but getting a diverse group of people together can help identify issues product developers might miss.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Before You Answer, Consider the Opposite Possibility—How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes

Ian Leslie
The Atlantic
Originally published 25 Apr 21

Here is an excerpt:

This raises the question of how a wise inner crowd can be cultivated. Psychologists have investigated various methods. One, following Stroop, is to harness the power of forgetting. Reassuringly for those of us who are prone to forgetting, people with poor working memories have been shown to have a wiser inner crowd; their guesses are more independent of one another, so they end up with a more diverse set of estimates and a more accurate average. The same effect has been achieved by spacing the guesses out in time.

More sophisticated methods harness the mind’s ability to inhabit different perspectives and look at a problem from more than one angle. People generate more diverse estimates when prompted to base their second or third guess on alternative assumptions; one effective technique is simply asking people to “consider the opposite” before giving a new answer. A fascinating recent study in this vein harnesses the power of disagreement itself. A pair of Dutch psychologists, Philippe Van de Calseyde and Emir Efendić, asked people a series of questions with numerical answers, such as the percentage of the world’s airports located in the U.S.. Then they asked participants to think of someone in their life with whom they often disagreed—that uncle with whom they always argue about politics—and to imagine what that person would guess.

The respondents came up with second estimates that were strikingly different from their first estimate, producing a much more accurate inner crowd. The same didn’t apply when they were asked to imagine how someone they usually agree with would answer the question, which suggests that the secret is to incorporate the perspectives of people who think differently from us. That the respondents hadn’t discussed that particular question with their disagreeable uncle did not matter. Just the act of thinking about someone with whom they argued a lot was enough to jog them out of habitual assumptions.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Thought experiments and experimental ethics

Thomas Pölzler & Norbert Paulo (2021)
DOI: 10.1080/0020174X.2021.1916218


Experimental ethicists investigate traditional ethical questions with nontraditional means, namely with the methods of the empirical sciences. Studies in this area have made heavy use of philosophical thought
experiments such as the well-known trolley cases. Yet, the specific function of these thought experiments within experimental ethics has received little consideration. In this paper we attempt to fill this gap. We begin by describing the function of ethical thought experiments, and show that these thought experiments should not only be classified according to their function but also according to their scope. On this basis we highlight several ways in which the use of thought experiments in experimental ethics can be philosophically relevant. We conclude by arguing that experimental philosophy currently only focuses on a small subcategory of ethical thought experiments and suggest a broadening of its research agenda.


Experimental ethicists investigate traditional ethical questions with nontraditional means, namely with the methods of the empirical sciences. Studies in this area have made heavy use of philosophical thought experiments such as the well-known trolley cases. Yet, for some reason, the specific function of these thought experiments within experimental ethics has received little consideration. In this paper we attempted to fill this gap. First, we described the function of ethical thought experiments, distinguishing between an epistemic, an illustrative and a heuristic function. We also showed that ethical thought experiments should not only be classified according to their function but also according to their scope. Some ethical thought experiments (such as the veil) can be applied to a variety of moral issues. On the basis of this understanding of thought experiments we highlighted several ways in which the use of thought experiments in experimental ethics can be philosophically relevant. Such studies can in particular inform us about the content of the intuitions that people have about ethical thought experiments, these intuitions’ sensitivity to irrelevant factors, and their diversity. Finally, we suggested that experimental ethics broadens its research agenda to include investigations into illustrative and heuristic thought experiments, wide-scope thought experiments, de-biasing strategies, atypical thought experiments, and philosophers’ intuitions about thought experiments. In any case, since experimental ethics heavily relies on thought experiments, an increased theoretical engagement with their function and implications is likely to benefit the field. It is our hope that this paper contributes to promoting such an engagement.

Southern Baptists are forcing out followers who don’t pledge allegiance to Trump

John Gallagher
Originally published 23 May 2021

White evangelicals have always been the core of Donald Trump’s support. Once they got over their unease with his fungible approach to morality, conservative Christians found in Trump the political warrior — or mega-bully — that they have long been seeking. The only thing they disliked about him was that he curses.

After acting like a political party through the Trump presidency, it’s no surprise that evangelicals are now following the GOP’s template of purging their ranks of anyone who does not worship at Trump’s altar. The latest case in point: the departure of Russell Moore from the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Moore held one of the top positions in evangelical Christianity. As head of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, he has been a fervent advocate for the denomination’s right-wing positions. He has been a staunch opponent of LGBTQ rights, especially marriage equality, and has pushed hard for religious liberty exemptions that would gut existing protections.

However, Moore has never been a fan of Donald Trump. Unlike other prominent evangelicals, like Franklin Graham and Tony Perkins, Moore was unwilling to trade his religious beliefs for access to power and Supreme Court appointments.

When Trump was running for president in 2016, Moore accurately described him as “someone who not only characterizes sexual decadence and misogyny, brokers in cruelty and nativism, and displays a crazed public and private temperament — but who glories in these things.”

For his honesty, Moore very nearly lost his job in 2017. Now he’s leaving, apparently voluntarily, as the SBC makes adherence to Trumpism a higher priority than adherence to articles of faith.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The evolutionary origin of human hyper-cooperation

Burkart, J., Allon, O., Amici, F. et al. 
Nat Commun 5, 4747 (2014). 


Proactive, that is, unsolicited, prosociality is a key component of our hyper-cooperation, which in turn has enabled the emergence of various uniquely human traits, including complex cognition, morality and cumulative culture and technology. However, the evolutionary foundation of the human prosocial sentiment remains poorly understood, largely because primate data from numerous, often incommensurable testing paradigms do not provide an adequate basis for formal tests of the various functional hypotheses. We therefore present the results of standardized prosociality experiments in 24 groups of 15 primate species, including humans. Extensive allomaternal care is by far the best predictor of interspecific variation in proactive prosociality. Proactive prosocial motivations therefore systematically arise whenever selection favours the evolution of cooperative breeding. Because the human data fit this general primate pattern, the adoption of cooperative breeding by our hominin ancestors also provides the most parsimonious explanation for the origin of human hyper-cooperation.


Our results demonstrate that the extent of allomaternal care provides the best explanation for the distribution of proactive prosociality among primate species, including humans. This conclusion is not affected when using different ways of quantifying allomaternal care. Importantly, we find no support for any of the other hypotheses, even when more refined analyses of within-species, dyad-level variation are conducted. The adoption of extensive allomaternal care by our hominin ancestors thus provides the most parsimonious explanation for the origin of human hyper-cooperation.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Moral concerns are differentially observable in language

Kennedy, B., et al. (2020, May 7). 


Language is a psychologically rich medium for human expression and communication. While language usage has been shown to be a window into various aspects of people's social worlds, including their personality traits and everyday environment, its correspondence to people's moral concerns has yet to be considered. Here, we examine the relationship between language usage and the moral concerns of Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity as conceptualized by Moral Foundations Theory. We collected Facebook status updates (N = 107,798) from English-speaking participants (n = 2,691) along with their responses on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Overall, results suggested that self-reported moral concerns may be traced in language usage, though the magnitude of this effect varied considerably among moral concerns. Across a diverse selection of Natural Language Processing methods, Fairness concerns were consistently least correlated with language usage whereas Purity concerns were found to be the most traceable. In exploratory follow-up analyses, each moral concern was found to be differentially related to distinct patterns of relational, emotional, and social language. Our results are the first to relate individual differences in moral concerns to language usage, and to uncover the signatures of moral concerns in language.


Among the five moral foundations (Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity),Purity concerns are most traceable in social media language. Fairness concerns, on the other hand, are least traceable. Individuals who highly endorsed Purity shared religious and spiritual content on Facebook, whereas people who scored higher on Fairness were slightly more likely to share content related to social justice and equality. High levels of Care, Loyalty, and Authority were found to motivate a mixed collection of socially-oriented language categories. The link between moral concerns and language was found to extend beyond exclusively moral language. Overall, this research establishes a missing link in moral psychology by providing evidence that individual-level moral concerns are differentially associated with language data collected from individuals’ Facebook accounts.

1. Moral concerns are observable in language.
2. This signal is differential: each moral domain maps onto a distinct linguistic signature.
3. Exclusive moral language is not a great predictor of individuals' moral concerns.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

A normative account of self-deception, overconfidence, and paranoia

Rossi-Goldthorpe, R., Leong, et al.
(2021, April 12).


Self-deception, paranoia, and overconfidence involve misbeliefs about self, others, and world. They are often considered mistaken. Here we explore whether they might be adaptive, and further, whether they might be explicable in normative Bayesian terms. We administered a difficult perceptual judgment task with and without social influence (suggestions from a cooperating or competing partner). Crucially, the social influence was uninformative. We found that participants heeded the suggestions most under the most uncertain conditions and that they did so with high confidence, particularly if they were more paranoid. Model fitting to participant behavior revealed that their prior beliefs changed depending on whether the partner was a collaborator or competitor, however, those beliefs did not differ as a function of paranoia. Instead, paranoia, self-deception, and overconfidence were associated with participants’ perceived instability of their own performance. These data are consistent with the idea that self-deception, paranoia, and overconfidence flourish under uncertainty, and have their roots in low self-esteem, rather than excessive social concern. The normative model suggests that spurious beliefs can have value – self-deception is irrational yet can facilitate optimal behavior. This occurs even at the expense of monetary rewards, perhaps explaining why self-deception and paranoia contribute to costly decisions which can spark financial crashes and costly wars.

Friday, May 21, 2021

In search of the moral status of AI: why sentience is a strong argument

Gibert, M., Martin, D. 
AI & Soc (2021). 


Is it OK to lie to Siri? Is it bad to mistreat a robot for our own pleasure? Under what condition should we grant a moral status to an artificial intelligence (AI) system? This paper looks at different arguments for granting moral status to an AI system: the idea of indirect duties, the relational argument, the argument from intelligence, the arguments from life and information, and the argument from sentience. In each but the last case, we find unresolved issues with the particular argument, which leads us to move to a different one. We leave the idea of indirect duties aside since these duties do not imply considering an AI system for its own sake. The paper rejects the relational argument and the argument from intelligence. The argument from life may lead us to grant a moral status to an AI system, but only in a weak sense. Sentience, by contrast, is a strong argument for the moral status of an AI system—based, among other things, on the Aristotelian principle of equality: that same cases should be treated in the same way. The paper points out, however, that no AI system is sentient given the current level of technological development.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Behavioral and Neural Representations en route to Intuitive Action Understanding

L. Tarhan, J. De Freitas, & T. Konkle
doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.04.08.438996


When we observe another person’s actions, we process many kinds of information – from how their body moves to the intention behind their movements. What kinds of information underlie our intuitive understanding about how similar actions are to each other? To address this question, we measured the intuitive similarities among a large set of everyday action videos using multi-arrangement experiments, then used a modeling approach to predict this intuitive similarity space along three hypothesized properties. We found that similarity in the actors’ inferred goals predicted the intuitive similarity judgments the best, followed by similarity in the actors’ movements, with little contribution from the videos’ visual appearance. In opportunistic fMRI analyses assessing brain-behavior correlations, we found evidence for an action processing hierarchy, in which these three kinds of action similarities are reflected in the structure of brain responses along a posterior-to-anterior gradient on the lateral surface of the visual cortex. Altogether, this work joins existing literature suggesting that humans are naturally tuned to process others’ intentions, and that the visuo-motor cortex computes the perceptual precursors of the higher-level representations over which intuitive action perception operates.

From the Discussion

Intuitive Action Representations in the Mind

Our primary finding was that judgments about the similarity of actors’ goals was the best predictor of intuitive action similarity judgments. In addition, these goals accounted for the most unique variance in the intuitive similarity data. We interpret this to mean that humans naturally and intuitively process other actors’ internal motivations and thoughts, even in the absence of an explicitly social task. This conclusion adds to a rich literature showing that humans automatically represent others in terms of their mental states, even from a very young age (Gergely and Csibra, 2003; Jara-Ettinger et al., 2016; Liu et al., 2017; Reid et al., 2007; Thornton et al., 2019a,b). In addition, we found that similarity in the actors’ movements also predicted intuitive judgments moderately well and accounted for a smaller amount of unique variance in the data. This finding goes beyond our current understanding of the factors driving natural action processing, to suggest that kinematic information also contributes to intuitive action perception. In contrast, similarity in the videos’ visual appearance did not account for any unique variance in the data, suggesting that lower-level visual properties such as color, form, and motion direction do not have much influence on natural action perception.

A natural extension of these findings is to investigate the specific features that we use to calculate actors’ goals and movements. For example, how important are speed, trajectory, and movement quality (e.g., shaky or smooth) for our assessment of the similarity among actions’ movements? And, do we consider physical variables – such as facial expression – when inferring actors’ goals? Digging into these specific feature dimensions will bring further clarity to the cognitive processes driving intuitive action perception.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Population ethical intuitions

Caviola, L., Althaus, D., Mogensen, A., 
& Goodwin, G. (2021, April 1). 


We investigated lay people’s population ethical intuitions (N = 4,374), i.e., their moral evaluations of populations that differ in size and composition. First, we found that people place greater relative weight on, and are more sensitive to, suffering compared to happiness. Participants, on average, believed that more happy people are needed to outweigh a given amount of unhappy people in a population (Studies 1a-c). Second, we found that—in contrast to so-called person-affecting views—people do not consider the creation of new people as morally neutral. Participants considered it good to create a new happy person and bad to create a new unhappy person (Study 2). Third, we found that people take into account both the average level (averagism) and the total level (totalism) of happiness when evaluating populations. Participants preferred populations with greater total happiness levels when the average level remained constant (Study 3) and populations with greater average happiness levels when the total level remained constant (Study 4). When the two principles were in conflict, participants’ preferences lay in between the recommendations of the two principles, suggesting that both are applied simultaneously (Study 5). In certain cases, participants even showed averagist preferences when averagism disfavors adding more happy people and favors adding more unhappy people to a population (Study 6). However, when participants were prompted to reflect as opposed to rely on their intuitions, their preferences became more totalist (Studies 5-6). Our findings have implications for moral psychology, philosophy and policy making.

From the Discussion

Suffering is more bad than than happiness is good

We found that people weigh suffering more than happiness when they evaluate the goodness of populations consisting of both happy and unhappy people. Thus, people are neither following strict negative utilitarianism (minimizing suffering, giving no weight to maximizing happiness at all) nor strict classical utilitarianism (minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness, weighing both equally). Instead, the average person’s intuitions seem to track a mixture of these two theories. In Studies 1a-c, participants on average believed that approximately 1.5-3 times more happy people are required to outweigh a given amount of unhappy people. The precise trade ratio between happiness and suffering depended on the intensity levels of happiness and suffering. (In additional preliminary studies, we found that the trade ratio can also heavily depend on the framing of the question.) Study 1c clarified that, on average, participants continued to believe that more happiness was needed to outweigh suffering even when the happiness and suffering units were exactly equally intense. This suggests that people generally weigh suffering more than happiness in their moral assessments above and beyond perceiving suffering to be more intense than happiness. However, our studies also made clear that there are individual differences and that a substantial proportion of participants weighed happiness and suffering equally strongly, in line with classical utilitarianism.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Moderators of The Liking Bias in Judgments of Moral Character

Bocian, K. Baryla, W. & Wojciszke, B. 
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 


Previous research found evidence for a liking bias in moral character judgments because judgments of liked people are higher than those of disliked or neutral ones. The present article sought conditions moderating this effect. In Study 1 (N = 792), the impact of the liking bias on moral character judgments was strongly attenuated when participants were educated that attitudes bias moral judgments. In Study 2 (N = 376), the influence of liking on moral character attributions was eliminated when participants were accountable for the justification of their moral judgments. Overall, these results suggest that even though liking biases moral character attributions, this bias might be reduced or eliminated when deeper information processing is required to generate judgments of others’ moral character. Keywords: moral judgments, moral character, attitudes, liking bias, accountability.

General Discussion

In this research, we sought to replicate the past results that demonstrated the influence of liking on moral character judgments, and we investigated conditions that could limit this influence. We demonstrated that liking elicited by similarity (Study 1) and mimicry (Study 2) biases the perceptions of another person’s moral character. Thus, we corroborated previous findings by Bocian et al. (2018), who found that attitudes bias moral judgments. More importantly, we showed conditions that moderate the liking bias. Specifically, in Study 1, we found evidence that forewarning participants that liking can bias moral character judgments weaken the liking bias two times. In Study 2, we demonstrated that the liking bias was eliminated when we made participants accountable for their moral decisions. 

By systematically examining the conditions that reduce the liking influences on moral character attributions, we built on and extended the past work in the area of moral cognition and biases reduction. First, while past studies have focused on the impact of accountability on the fundamental attribution error (Tetlock, 1985), overconfidence (Tetlock & Kim, 1987), or order of information (Schadewald & Limberg, 1992), we examined the effectiveness of accountability in debiasing moral judgments. Thus, we demonstrated that biased moral judgments could be effectively corrected when people are obliged to justify their judgments to others. Second, we showed that educating people that attitudes might bias their moral judgments, to some extent, effectively helped them debiased their moral character judgments. We thus extended the past research on the effectiveness of forewarning people of biases in social judgment and decision-making (Axt et al., 2018; Hershberger et al., 1997) to biases in moral judgments. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

New York City’s new sex work policy isn’t only about changing morals

Noah Feldman
Milford Daily News
Originally published 27 April 21

Here is an excerpt:

Sexual morality from the early modern period into recent decades tended to condemn the people — especially women — who accepted money in exchange for sexual services, depicting them as morally corrupt. Those who paid for sex — especially men — were often let off the hook by the same (hypocritical) standard. In this now out-moded worldview, taking money for sex amounted transformed a woman’s social status, while paying for sex had little or no effect on a man’s.

Today, we are increasingly willing to acknowledge that people who accept money for sex may often have had little or no choice in the decision. We recognize the realities of trafficking and substance dependence. We’re more aware of power disparities based on sex, race, gender identity and income. It has come to seem primitive to blame those who sell sex rather than those who purchase it.

To be sure, Manhattan — like Baltimore and Philadelphia, which have adopted similar policies — has not adopted the view promoted by some activists, namely that we should take morality out of the equation altogether and simply legalize and regulate all forms of sex work. The association between sex and morals remains as strong as ever in the new policy. But the moral calculus has changed.

On its own, however, this change in beliefs probably would not have sufficed to bring about a policy change. For that, what was required was a major reduction in the geographical prominence of sex work in Manhattan. Long-time residents of the island know this story well. As late as the 1980s, sex work, including prostitution, played a major role in the economy of the extended Times Square area. (The short-lived HBO series "The Deuce" sought to capture the atmosphere of this urban phenomenon in its late heyday.)

Over time, aggressive policing coupled with rezoning and extensive development moved sex work out of midtown. As Manhattan grew ever wealthier in the 1980s, and property values rose, sex work was also pushed out of other neighborhoods, like the Meatpacking District. Eventually, sex work in Manhattan reached the point where it is today: peripheral and relatively invisible rather than openly flourishing in particular neighborhoods.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Death as Something We Make

Mara Buchbinder
Originally published 8 April 2021

Here are two excerpts:

While I learned a lot about what drives people to MAID (Medial Aid in Dying), I was particularly fascinated by what MAID does to death. The option transforms death from an object of dread to an anticipated occasion that may be painstakingly planned, staged, and produced. The theatrical imagery is intentional: An assisted death is an event that one scripts, a matter of careful timing, with a well-designed set and the right supporting cast. Through this process, death becomes not just something that happens but also something that is made.


MAID renders not only the time of death but also the broader landscape of death open to human control. MAID allows terminally ill patients to choreograph their own deaths, deciding not only when but where and how and with whom. Part of the appeal is that one must go on living right up until the moment of death. It takes work to engage in all the planning; it keeps one vibrant and busy. There are people to call, papers to file, and scenes to set. Making death turns dying into an active extension of life.

Staging death in this way also allows the dying person to sidestep the messiness of death—the bodily fluids and decay—what the sociologist Julia Lawton has called the “dirtiness” of death. MAID makes it possible to attempt a calm, orderly, sanitized death. Some deliberately empty their bladder or bowels in advance, or plan to wear diapers. A “good death,” from this perspective, has not only an ethical but also an aesthetic quality.

Of course, this sort of staging is not without controversy. For some, it represents unwelcome interference with God’s plans. For people like Renee, however, it infuses one’s death with personal meaning and control.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Moral zombies: why algorithms are not moral agents

Véliz, C. 
AI & Soc (2021). 


In philosophy of mind, zombies are imaginary creatures that are exact physical duplicates of conscious subjects for whom there is no first-personal experience. Zombies are meant to show that physicalism—the theory that the universe is made up entirely out of physical components—is false. In this paper, I apply the zombie thought experiment to the realm of morality to assess whether moral agency is something independent from sentience. Algorithms, I argue, are a kind of functional moral zombie, such that thinking about the latter can help us better understand and regulate the former. I contend that the main reason why algorithms can be neither autonomous nor accountable is that they lack sentience. Moral zombies and algorithms are incoherent as moral agents because they lack the necessary moral understanding to be morally responsible. To understand what it means to inflict pain on someone, it is necessary to have experiential knowledge of pain. At most, for an algorithm that feels nothing, ‘values’ will be items on a list, possibly prioritised in a certain way according to a number that represents weightiness. But entities that do not feel cannot value, and beings that do not value cannot act for moral reasons.


This paper has argued that moral zombies—creatures that behave like moral agents but lack sentience—are incoherent as moral agents. Only beings who can experience pain and pleasure can understand what it means to inflict pain or cause pleasure, and only those with this moral understanding can be moral agents. What I have dubbed ‘moral zombies’ are relevant because they are similar to algorithms in that they make moral decisions as human beings would—determining who gets which benefits and penalties—without having any concomitant sentience.

There might come a time when AI becomes so sophisticated that robots might possess desires and values of their own. It will not, however, be on account of their computational prowess, but on account of their sentience, which may in turn require some kind of embodiment. At present, we are far from creating sentient algorithms.

When algorithms cause moral havoc, as they often do, we must look to the human beings who designed, programmed, commissioned, implemented, and were supposed to supervise them to assign the appropriate blame. For all their complexity and flair, algorithms are nothing but tools, and moral agents are fully responsible for the tools they create and use.

Friday, May 14, 2021

The Internet as Cognitive Enhancement

Voinea, C., Vică, C., Mihailov, E. et al. 
Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2345–2362 (2020). 


The Internet has been identified in human enhancement scholarship as a powerful cognitive enhancement technology. It offers instant access to almost any type of information, along with the ability to share that information with others. The aim of this paper is to critically assess the enhancement potential of the Internet. We argue that unconditional access to information does not lead to cognitive enhancement. The Internet is not a simple, uniform technology, either in its composition, or in its use. We will look into why the Internet as an informational resource currently fails to enhance cognition. We analyze some of the phenomena that emerge from vast, continual fluxes of information–information overload, misinformation and persuasive design—and show how they could negatively impact users’ cognition. Methods for mitigating these negative impacts are then advanced: individual empowerment, better collaborative systems for sorting and categorizing information, and the use of artificial intelligence assistants that could guide users through the informational space of today’s Internet.


Although the Internet is one of the main drivers of change and evolution, its capacity to radically transform human cognition is exaggerated. No doubt this technology has improved numerous areas of our lives by facilitating access to and exchange of knowledge. However, its cognitive enhancement potential is not as clear as originally assumed. Too much information, misinformation, and the exploitation of users’ attention through persuasive design, could result in a serious decrease of users’ cognitive performance. The Internet is also an environment where users’ cognitive capacities are put under stress and their biases exploited.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Technology and the Value of Trust: Can we trust technology? Should we?

John Danaher
Philosophical Disquisitions
Originally published 30 Mar 21

Can we trust technology? Should we try to make technology, particularly AI, more trustworthy? These are questions that have perplexed philosophers and policy-makers in recent years. The EU’s High Level Expert Group on AI has, for example, recommended that the primary goal of AI policy and law in the EU should be to make the technology more trustworthy. But some philosophers have critiqued this goal as being borderline incoherent. You cannot trust AI, they say, because AI is just a thing. Trust can exist between people and other people, not between people and things.

This is an old debate. Trust is a central value in human society. The fact that I can trust my partner not to betray me is one of the things that makes our relationship workable and meaningful. The fact that I can trust my neighbours not to kill me is one of the things that allows me to sleep at night. Indeed, so implicit is this trust that I rarely think about it. It is one of the background conditions that makes other things in my life possible. Still, it is true that when I think about trust, and when I think about what it is that makes trust valuable, I usually think about trust in my relationships with other people, not my relationships with things.

But would it be so terrible to talk about trust in technology? Should we use some other term instead such as ‘reliable’ or ‘confidence-inspiring’? Or should we, as some blockchain enthusiasts have argued, use technology to create a ‘post-trust’ system of social governance?

I want to offer some quick thoughts on these questions in this article. I will do so in three stages. First, I will briefly review some of the philosophical debates about trust in people and trust in things. Second, I will consider the value of trust, distinguishing between its intrinsic and extrinsic components. Third, I will suggest that it is meaningful to talk about trust in technology, but that the kind of trust we have in technology has a different value to the kind of trust we have in other people. Finally, I will argue that most talk about building ‘trustworthy’ technology is misleading: the goal of most of these policies is to obviate or override the need for trust.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

How pills undermine skills: Moralization of cognitive enhancement and causal selection

E. Mihailov, B. R. López, F. Cova & I. R. Hannikainen
Consciousness and Cognition
Volume 91, May 2021, 103120


Despite the promise to boost human potential and wellbeing, enhancement drugs face recurring ethical scrutiny. The present studies examined attitudes toward cognitive enhancement in order to learn more about these ethical concerns, who has them, and the circumstances in which they arise. Fairness-based concerns underlay opposition to competitive use—even though enhancement drugs were described as legal, accessible and affordable. Moral values also influenced how subsequent rewards were causally explained: Opposition to competitive use reduced the causal contribution of the enhanced winner’s skill, particularly among fairness-minded individuals. In a follow-up study, we asked: Would the normalization of enhancement practices alleviate concerns about their unfairness? Indeed, proliferation of competitive cognitive enhancement eradicated fairness-based concerns, and boosted the perceived causal role of the winner’s skill. In contrast, purity-based concerns emerged in both recreational and competitive contexts, and were not assuaged by normalization.


• Views on cognitive enhancement reflect both purity and fairness concerns.

• Fairness, but not purity, concerns are surmounted by normalizing use.

• Moral opposition to pills undermines user’s perceived skills.

From the Discussion

In line with a growing literature on causal selection (Alicke, 1992; Icard et al., 2017; Kominsky et al. 2015), judgments of the enhanced user’s skill aligned with participants’ moral attitudes. Participants who held permissive attitudes were more likely to causally attribute success to agents’ skill and effort, while participants who held restrictive attitudes were more likely to view the pill as causally responsible. This association resulted in stronger denial of competitive users’ talent and ability, particularly among fairness-minded individuals. 

The moral foundation of purity, comprising norms related to spiritual sanctity and bodily propriety, and which appeals predominantly to political conservatives (Graham et al., 2009), also predicted attitudes toward enhancement. Purity-minded individuals were more likely to condemn enhancement users, regardless of whether cognitive enhancement was normal or rare. This categorical opposition may elucidate the origin of conservative bioethicists’ (e.g., Kass, 2003) attitudes toward human enhancement: i.e., in self-directed norms regulating the proper care of one’s own body (see also Koverola et al., 2021). Finally, whereas explicit reasoning about interpersonal concerns and the unjust treatment of others accompanied fairness-based opposition, our qualitative analyses data did not reveal a cogent, purity-based rationale—which could be interpreted as evidence that purity-based opposition is not guided by moral reasoning to the same degree (Mihailov, 2016). 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

How personality shapes third-party moral judgment

Schwartz, F., Djeriouat, H., & Trémolière, B. 
(2021, March 17).


Although recent research in the moral judgment field has explored third-party judgment, much less is known as to how personality influences these judgments. The present preregistered study addresses this issue by exploring the influence of various personality traits, namely honesty-humility, emotionality, and conscientiousness. Adult participants recruited online (N = 405) read short narratives describing the interaction between two protagonists (“agent” and “victim”). We manipulated the intent of the agent (intent to harm or not) and the outcome for the victim (harmful consequences or no harm). Participants indicated the extent to which they perceived the agent’s behavior as acceptable and blameworthy, and how much punishment they felt the agent deserved, before filling the HEXACO questionnaire. Our results point to a moderate role of honesty-humility, emotionality, and conscientiousness on acceptability of the agent’s behavior, with their relative weight depending upon the type of moral transgression. While higher honesty-humility scores were associated with lower acceptability of moral transgressions overall, higher emotionality was associated with reduced acceptability when the agent attempted to harm, and higher conscientiousness was associated with lower acceptability ratings only when the agent harmed intentionally. We also found a moderate effect of extraversion and emotionality on decisions of punishment and blame of an agent who harmed or attempted to harm. The results suggest that third-party moral judgment is modestly, yet selectively modulated by personality traits and the type of moral transgression.

From the Discussion

However, contrary to our hypothesis, we found that emotionality predicts acceptability of attempted harm, but not accidental harm. Moreover, after adding extraversion to the model in exploratory analyses, emotionality also tended to predict punishment decisions and blame of intentional harm. These results suggest that emotionality may sometimes modulate the intent-based process as much as (or even more so than) the outcome-based process when deciding about moral wrongness. This is consistent with some recent revisions of the dual-process model of moral judgment (Cushman, 2013), which posit that affect may influence both processes. The present findings further converge with the recent observation that distinct emotions may be triggered by the intent to harm on the one hand, and the victim’s harm on the other hand (Hechler & Kessler, 2018). More specifically, anger at an agent who intends to harm is distinct from empathic concern for the victim (Hechler & Kessler, 2018). 

Why did emotionality fail to predict judgment of accidental transgressions in the current study? We see two potential explanations: the contact principle and the action/ omission distinction, which are critical to the judgment of moral transgressions (Cushman, 2013). First, the contact principle of moral judgment suggests that someone who inflicted harm directly (by physical force) is judged more severely than someone who harmed indirectly (Cushman, 2013; Greene et al., 2009). In short, not only the presence of harm induces an emotional response, but also how it has been done (i.e., giving someone poisonous food versus beating someone).The fact that harm is not inflicted directly in all our scenarios may explain why individual differences in emotionality don’t explain the judgment severity of accidental harm. Second, when (accidental) harm results from an action, the transgression is judged more severely than when (accidental) harm results from an omission, an effect known as the “omission bias” (Baron & Ritov, 2004; Spranca et al., 1991). In our study, the victim’s harm resulted mostly from omissions. As a consequence, emotionality may have contributed less to the moral condemnation of harmful omissions than it would have for harmful actions.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Do Brain Implants Change Your Identity?

Christine Kenneally
The New Yorker
Originally posted 19 Apr 21

Here are two excerpts:

Today, at least two hundred thousand people worldwide, suffering from a wide range of conditions, live with a neural implant of some kind. In recent years, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Bryan Johnson, the founder of the payment-processing company Braintree, all announced neurotechnology projects for restoring or even enhancing human abilities. As we enter this new era of extra-human intelligence, it’s becoming apparent that many people develop an intense relationship with their device, often with profound effects on their sense of identity. These effects, though still little studied, are emerging as crucial to a treatment’s success.

The human brain is a small electrical device of super-galactic complexity. It contains an estimated hundred billion neurons, with many more links between them than there are stars in the Milky Way. Each neuron works by passing an electrical charge along its length, causing neurotransmitters to leap to the next neuron, which ignites in turn, usually in concert with many thousands of others. Somehow, human intelligence emerges from this constant, thrilling choreography. How it happens remains an almost total mystery, but it has become clear that neural technologies will be able to synch with the brain only if they learn the steps of this dance.


For the great majority of patients, deep-brain stimulation was beneficial and life-changing, but there were occasional reports of strange behavioral reactions, such as hypomania and hypersexuality. Then, in 2006, a French team published a study about the unexpected consequences of otherwise successful implantations. Two years after a brain implant, sixty-five per cent of patients had a breakdown in their marriages or relationships, and sixty-four per cent wanted to leave their careers. Their intellect and their levels of anxiety and depression were the same as before, or, in the case of anxiety, had even improved, but they seemed to experience a fundamental estrangement from themselves. One felt like an electronic doll. Another said he felt like RoboCop, under remote control.

Gilbert describes himself as “an applied eliminativist.” He doesn’t believe in a soul, or a mind, at least as we normally think of them, and he strongly questions whether there is a thing you could call a self. He suspected that people whose marriages broke down had built their identities and their relationships around their pathologies. When those were removed, the relationships no longer worked. Gilbert began to interview patients. He used standardized questionnaires, a procedure that is methodologically vital for making dependable comparisons, but soon he came to feel that something about this unprecedented human experience was lost when individual stories were left out. The effects he was studying were inextricable from his subjects’ identities, even though those identities changed.

Many people reported that the person they were after treatment was entirely different from the one they’d been when they had only dreamed of relief from their symptoms. Some experienced an uncharacteristic buoyancy and confidence. One woman felt fifteen years younger and tried to lift a pool table, rupturing a disk in her back. One man noticed that his newfound confidence was making life hard for his wife; he was too “full-on.” Another woman became impulsive, walking ten kilometres to a psychologist’s appointment nine days after her surgery. She was unrecognizable to her family. They told her that they grieved for the old her.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

For Whom Does Determinism Undermine Moral Responsibility? Surveying the Conditions for Free Will Across Cultures

I. Hannikainen, et. al.
Front. Psychol., 05 November 2019


Philosophers have long debated whether, if determinism is true, we should hold people morally responsible for their actions since in a deterministic universe, people are arguably not the ultimate source of their actions nor could they have done otherwise if initial conditions and the laws of nature are held fixed. To reveal how non-philosophers ordinarily reason about the conditions for free will, we conducted a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic survey (N = 5,268) spanning twenty countries and sixteen languages. Overall, participants tended to ascribe moral responsibility whether the perpetrator lacked sourcehood or alternate possibilities. However, for American, European, and Middle Eastern participants, being the ultimate source of one’s actions promoted perceptions of free will and control as well as ascriptions of blame and punishment. By contrast, being the source of one’s actions was not particularly salient to Asian participants. Finally, across cultures, participants exhibiting greater cognitive reflection were more likely to view free will as incompatible with causal determinism. We discuss these findings in light of documented cultural differences in the tendency toward dispositional versus situational attributions.


At the aggregate level, we found that participants blamed and punished agents whether they only lacked alternate possibilities (Miller and Feltz, 2011) or whether they also lacked sourcehood (Nahmias et al., 2005; Nichols and Knobe, 2007). Thus, echoing early findings, laypeople did not take alternate possibilities or sourcehood as necessary conditions for free will and moral responsibility.

Yet, our study also revealed a dramatic cultural difference: Throughout the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, participants viewed the perpetrator with sourcehood (in the CI scenario) as freer and more morally responsible than the perpetrator without sourcehood (in the AS scenario). Meanwhile, South and East Asian participants evaluated both perpetrators in a strikingly similar way. We interpreted these results in light of cultural variation in dispositional versus situational attributions (Miller, 1984; Morris and Peng, 1994; Choi et al., 1999; Chiu et al., 2000). From a dispositionist perspective, participants may be especially attuned to the absence of sourcehood: When an agent is the source of their action, people may naturally conjure dispositionist explanations that refer to her goals, desires (e.g., because “she wanted a new life”) or character (e.g., because “she is ruthless”). In contrast, when actions result from a causal chain originating at the beginning of the universe, explanations of this sort – implying sourcehood – seem particularly unsatisfactory and incomplete. In contrast, from a situationist perspective, whether the agent could be seen as the source of her action may be largely irrelevant: Instead, a situationist may think of others’ behavior as the product of extrinsic pressures – from momentary upheaval, to the way they were raised, social norms or fate – and thus perceive both agents, in the CI and AS cases, as similar in matters of free will and moral responsibility.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

When does empathy feel good?

Ferguson, A. M., Cameron, D., & Inzlicht, M. 
(2021, March 12). 


Empathy has many benefits. When we are willing to empathize, we are more likely to act prosocially (and receive help from others in the future), to have satisfying relationships, and to be viewed as moral actors. Moreover, empathizing in certain contexts can actually feel good, regardless of the content of the emotion itself—for example, we might feel a sense of connection after empathizing with and supporting a grieving friend. Does this feeling come from empathy itself, or from its real and implied consequences? We suggest that the rewards that flow from empathy confound our experience of it, and that the pleasant feelings associated with engaging empathy are extrinsically tied to the results of some action, not to the experience of empathy itself. When we observe people’s decisions related to empathy in the absence of these acquired rewards, as we can in experimental settings, empathy appears decidedly less pleasant. Empathy has many benefits. When we are willing to empathize, we are more likely to act prosocially (and receive help from others in the future), to have satisfying relationships, and to be viewed as moral actors. Moreover, empathizing in certain contexts can actually feel good, regardless of the content of the emotion itself—for example, we might feel a sense of connection after empathizing with and supporting a grieving friend. Does this feeling come from empathy itself, or from its real and implied consequences? We suggest that the rewards that flow from empathy confound our experience of it, and that the pleasant feelings associated with engaging empathy are extrinsically tied to the results of some action, not to the experience of empathy itself. When we observe people’s decisions related to empathy in the absence of these acquired rewards, as we can in experimental settings, empathy appears decidedly less pleasant.

Friday, May 7, 2021

'Allergic reaction to US religious right' fueling decline of religion, experts say

Donald Trump with religious leaders for a national day of prayer in September 2017.
Adam Gabbatt
The Guardian
Originally published 5 Apr 21

Here is an excerpt:

“Many Americans – especially young people – see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically,” Campbell said.

“Since that is not their party, or their politics, they do not want to identify as being religious. Young people are especially allergic to the perception that many – but by no means all – American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.”

Research by Campbell shows that a growing number of Americans have turned away from religion as politicians – particularly Republicans – have mixed religion with their politics. Campbell says there has always been an ebb and flow in American adherence to religion, but he thinks the current decline is likely to continue.

“I see no sign that the religious right, and Christian nationalism, is fading. Which in turn suggests that the allergic reaction will continue to be seen – and thus more and more Americans will turn away from religion,” he said.

The number of people who identify as non-religious has grown steadily in recent decades, according to Michele Margolis, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of From Politics to the Pews. More than 20% of all Americans are classed as “nones”, Margolis said, and more than a third of Americans under 30.

“That means non-identification is going to continue becoming a larger share of population over time as cohort replacement continues to occur,” Margolis said. But she agreed another factor is the rightwing’s infusion of politics with theism.

“As religion has been closed linked with conservative politics, we’ve had Democrats opting out of organized religion, or being less involved, and Republicans opting in,” she said.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A chip off the (im)moral block? Lay beliefs about genetic heritability predicts whether family members’ actions affect self-judgments

Peetz, J., Wohl, M. J. A., Wilson, A. E., 
& Dawson, A. 
(2021, March 18).


The idea of heritability may have consequences for individuals’ sense of self by connecting identity to the actions of others who happen to share genetic ties. Across seven experimental studies (total N=2,628), recalling morally bad or good actions by family members influenced individuals’ moral self among those who endorse a lay belief that moral character is genetically heritable, but not among those who did not endorse this belief (Study 1-5). In contrast, recalling actions by unrelated individuals had no effect, regardless of lay beliefs (Study 2, 5), the endorsement of other relevant lay beliefs did not moderate the effect of parent’s actions on self-judgments (Study 3). Individuals who endorsed heritability beliefs also chose less helpful responses to hypothetical helping scenarios if they had recalled unhelpful (vs. helpful) acts by a genetically-related family member (Study 5). Taken together, these studies suggest that lay beliefs in the role of genetics are important for self-perceptions.

General Discussion 

In the present research, we examined whether a person’s convictions about their own moral character might be shaped, in part, by the actions of others. Across seven studies, we found evidence that past actions by genetically related family members, and specifically parents, can influence an individual’s sense of moral self –but only if that individual believes that the critical aspect of the self (in our studies, moral character) is genetically inherited (Study 1-5). Past actions by genetically unrelated individuals such as friends or strangers (Study 2), and unrelated family members (Study 5) did not affect participants’ moral self-judgment in the same way, and other lay beliefs(i.e., socialization and the malleability of morality) did not moderate the influence of parents’ actions in the same way (Study 3).

Theoretical Contributions

Self and Identity

This research helps disentangle some of the questions about whether and when other people’s action may influence individuals’ self-concept.  Although the existing literature has demonstrated that the actions of others can indeed have an impact on the self (e.g., people may feel threatened, embarrassed, proud or guilty when reminded of the actions of others and may sometimes believe they will be judged on the basis of others’ actions), past work has not focused on how actions of others might affect self-concept. Further, prior research in this vein has not typically systematically considered whether the effects of others’ actions on the self is the result of that relation being chosen (i.e., friendship), being due to group membership, or being due to genetics(i.e., family). We extend past knowledge in this field by examining whether people’s beliefs about genetic heritability can determine the degree to which family members’ actions predict one’s own self-judgments.   

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Top German psychologist found to have fabricated data—University Investigation Finds Anxiety Expert Pressured Whistleblowers

Hristio Boytchev
Science  09 Apr 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6538, pp. 117-118
DOI: 10.1126/science.372.6538.117

Here is an excerpt:

Wittchen was one of the top epidemiologists of psychiatry, and TU Dresden “has benefited greatly from him,” says Jürgen Margraf, a psychologist at Ruhr University, Bochum, who has collaborated with Wittchen. “If the commission’s findings turn out to be true, they are very disturbing for the entire field, and that would also have an impact on TU Dresden.” Thomas Pollmächer, director of the mental health center at Ingolstadt Hospital, says the allegations are “startling.” He worries about other possible irregularities in Wittchen’s extensive publication record. “Some time bombs may be ticking,” he says.

The study in question was a €2.4 million survey of staffing levels and quality at nearly 100 German psychiatric facilities. Working for TU Dresden’s Association for Knowledge and Technology Transfer (GWT), Wittchen was the principal investigator of the effort, which aimed to examine workloads at the clinics and inform government regulations.

But in February 2019, German media reported allegations, stemming from whistle-blowers close to the survey project, that study data had been fabricated. The university launched a formal investigation, led by law professor Hans-Heinrich Trute.

After 2 years of work, the commission, in its final report, has found that only 73 of 93 psychiatric clinics were actually surveyed. For the others, the report says, Wittchen instructed researchers to copy data from one clinic and apply them to another.

 “The violations were intentional, not negligent,” the report says. “Wittchen wanted to appear more successful than he was.”

Wittchen told Science he would not answer detailed questions “because they are the issue of legal proceedings.” But he denies any wrongdoing and says the study in question was “scientifically correct.”

The investigation report also shows how Wittchen sought to avoid repercussions. 

In April 2019, he sent an email to Hans Müller-Steinhagen, president of TU Dresden at the time, warning him to “stay out of the project” and stop the investigation, because otherwise there would be a “national political earthquake.” 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Human cells grown in monkey embryos reignite ethics debate

Nicola Davis
The Guardian
Originally published 15 Apr 21

Monkey embryos containing human cells have been produced in a laboratory, a study has confirmed, spurring fresh debate into the ethics of such experiments.

The embryos are known as chimeras, organisms whose cells come from two or more “individuals”, and in this case, different species: a long-tailed macaque and a human.

In recent years researchers have produced pig embryos and sheep embryos that contain human cells – research they say is important as it could one day allow them to grow human organs inside other animals, increasing the number of organs available for transplant.

Now scientists have confirmed they have produced macaque embryos that contain human cells, revealing the cells could survive and even multiply.

In addition, the researchers, led by Prof Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte from the Salk Institute in the US, said the results offer new insight into communications pathways between cells of different species: work that could help them with their efforts to make chimeras with species that are less closely related to our own.

“These results may help to better understand early human development and primate evolution and develop effective strategies to improve human chimerism in evolutionarily distant species,” the authors wrote.

The study confirms rumours reported in the Spanish newspaper El País in 2019 that a team of researchers led by Belmonte had produced monkey-human chimeras. The word chimera comes from a beast in Greek mythology that was said to be part lion, part goat and part snake.