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

Sunday, July 31, 2022

What is 'purity'? Conceptual murkiness in moral psychology

Gray, K., DiMaggio, N., Schein, C., 
& Kachanoff, F. (2021, February 3). 


Purity is an important topic in psychology. It has a long history in moral discourse, has helped catalyze paradigm shifts in moral psychology, and is thought to underlie political differences. But what exactly is “purity?” To answer this question, we review the history of purity and then systematically examine 158 psychology papers that define and operationalization (im)purity. In contrast to the many concepts defined by what they are, purity is often understood by what it isn’t—obvious dyadic harm. Because of this “contra”-harm understanding, definitions and operationalizations of purity are quite varied. Acts used to operationalize impurity include taking drugs, eating your sister’s scab, vandalizing a church, wearing unmatched clothes, buying music with sexually explicit lyrics, and having a messy house. This heterogeneity makes purity a “chimera”—an entity composed of various distinct elements. Our review reveals that the “contra-chimera” of purity has 9 different scientific understandings, and that most papers define purity differently from how they operationalize it. Although people clearly moralize diverse concerns—including those related to religion, sex, and food—such heterogeneity in conceptual definitions is problematic for theory development. Shifting definitions of purity provide “theoretical degrees of freedom” that make falsification extremely difficult. Doubts about the coherence and consistency of purity raise questions about key purity-related claims of modern moral psychology, including the nature of political differences and the cognitive foundations of moral judgment.


Purity is an ancient concept that has moved from historical religious rhetoric to modern moral psychology.  Many things have changed in this leap—Dr. Kellogg would never have imagined a scientific discipline catalyzed by loving incest—but purity still seems to be a heterogeneous concept with diverse understandings. This diversity makes purity an exciting topic to study, but our review suggests that purity lacks a common core, beyond involving acts that are less-than-obviously harmful.  Without a consistent and non-tautological understanding of purity, it is difficult to argue that purity is a unique and distinct construct, and it is impossible to argue for a mental mechanism dedicated to purity. It is clear, however, that purity is featured in moral rhetoric and can help shed light on cultural differences. Moving forward, we suggest that the field should unpack the richness of purity and individually explore its many understanding. When conducting this research, we should consider not only what purity isn’t, but what it really is.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

The global belief that "life gets better and better"

Busseri M. A. (2022).
Journal of personality and social 
psychology, 123(1), 223–247.


National-level differences in individuals' ratings of their recollected past, current, and anticipated future life satisfaction (LS) were examined using results from two pioneering projects comprising national-level results for 14 countries (Cantril, 1965) and 15 regions of the world (Gallup International Research Institutes & Charles F. Kettering Foundation, 1976; Study 1), as well as sequential results from the Gallup World Poll based on 137 countries representing a broad range of nations from around the world surveyed from 2005 to 2018 (Study 2). Results from both studies revealed a robust belief that "life gets better" over time (i.e., recollected past < current < anticipated future LS) in nations around the world. Such beliefs were examined in relation to objective and subjective indicators of societal-level functioning. Results replicated across studies in showing that nations with less positive societal functioning and prosperity were characterized by less recollected past improvements in LS, and yet greater anticipated future improvements in LS. Results from Study 2 also revealed that such expectations were positively biased compared to changes over time in national levels of LS; further, greater bias was related to less positive societal-level functioning. In conclusion, examining national-level differences in LS from a subjective temporal perspective provides valuable new insights concerning human development and prosperity across countries, over time, and around the world. 

From the General Discussion

Together, such findings suggest that the belief that life gets increasingly satisfying over time, particularly into the future, is nearly universal at a national level. What might explain the widespread (but typically erroneous) conviction that life becomes increasingly satisfying over time? This belief may be a reflection,
in part, of the positive historical trajectory of human development and economic prosperity found around the world. Indeed, as suggested by the historical trends observed both in Study 1 across a 10-year period during the 1960s and 1970s, and in Study 2 across a 13-year period between 2005 and 2018, objective indicators of human development and socioeconomic prosperity generally increased consistently over time. The inclining subjective LS trajectories observed in nations around the world may thus reflect widespread awareness of such global improvements in societal functioning. Critically, however, in Study 2 very high levels of stability were found for each of the indicators of societal functioning and a high preponderance of variance in such indicators was observed between nations, rather than within countries over time.

Further, despite the general trend toward improvements in societal level functioning over time, many nations were not characterized by statistically reliable changes (decreases or increases) across the three
periods examined. Also noteworthy, results concerning unique associations between national-level differences in the subjective LS trajectories and societal-level functioning were inconsistent across periods and functioning indicators. Thus, it appears that the widespread belief that LS gets better and better is not merely a reflection of how life generally changes over time.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Thematic analysis and natural language processing of job-related problems prior to physician suicide in 2003-2018

Kim, K., et al. (2022). 
Suicide & life-threatening behavior
Advance online publication. 


Introduction: Although previous studies have consistently demonstrated that physicians are more likely than non-physicians to experience work-related stressors prior to suicide, the specific nature of these stressors remains unknown. The current study aimed to better characterize job-related problems prior to physician suicide.

Methods: The study utilized a mixed methods approach combining thematic analysis and natural language processing to develop themes representing death investigation narratives of 200 physician suicides with implicated job problems in the National Violent Death Reporting System database between 2003 and 2018.

Results: Through thematic analysis, six overarching themes were identified: incapacity to work due to deterioration of physical health, substance use jeopardizing employment, interaction between mental health and work-related issues, relationship conflict affecting work, legal problems leading to work-related stress, and increased financial stress. Natural language processing analysis confirmed five of these themes and elucidated important subthemes.

Conclusions: This is the first known study that integrated thematic analysis and natural language processing to characterize work-related stressors preceding physician suicide. The findings highlight the importance of bolstering systemic support for physicians experiencing job problems associated with their physical and mental health, substance use, relationships, legal matters, and finances in suicide prevention efforts.

These six themes are:
  • an incapacity to work due to deterioration of physical health, 
  • substance use that was jeopardizing employment, 
  • the interaction between mental health and work-related issues, 
  • relationship conflicts affecting work, 
  • legal problems, and 
  • increased financial stress.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Justice Alito's bad theology: Abortion foes don't have "morality" on their side

E. M. Freese & A. T. Taylor
Originally posted 26 JUL 22

Here is an excerpt:

Morality has thus become the reigning justification for the state to infringe upon the liberty of female Americans and to subjugate their reproductive labor to its power. An interrogation of this morality, however, reveals that it is underpinned by a theology that both erases and assumes the subjugation of female gestational labor in procreation to patriarchy. We must shatter this male-dominant moral logic and foreground female personhood and agency in order for every American to be equally free.

According to Alito, moral concern for "an unborn human being" apparently exempts pregnant people from the right to "liberty" otherwise guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. In other words, the supposed immorality of abortion is weighty enough to restrict bodily autonomy for all pregnant people in this country and to terrorize potentially pregnant females more broadly. This logic implies that pregnant people also lack 13th Amendment protection from "involuntary servitude," contrary to the strong argument made by legal scholar Michele Goodwin in a recent New York Times op-ed. Consequently, the court has now granted permission to states to force pregnant people to gestate against their will.

To be clear, the 13th and 14th Amendments are specifically about bodily autonomy and freedom from forced labor. They were created after the Civil War in an attempt to end slavery for good, and forced reproduction was correctly understood as a dimension of slavery. But Justice Alito asserts that abortion morality puts pregnant bodies in a "different" category with fewer rights. What, exactly, is the logic here?

At its heart, the theological premise of the anti-abortion argument is that male fertilization essentially equals procreation of a "life" that has equal moral and legal standing to a pregnant person, prior to any female gestation. In effect, this argument holds that the enormous female gestation labor over time, which is literally fundamental to the procreation of a viable "new life," can be ignored as a necessary precursor to the very existence of that life. On a practical level, this amounts to claiming that a habitable house exists at the stage of an architectural drawing, prior to any material labor by the general contractor and the construction workers who literally build it.

Abortion opponents draw upon the biblical story of creation found in the book of Genesis (chapters 1-3) to ostensibly ground their theology in tradition. But Genesis narrates that multiple participants labor at God's direction to create various forms of life through a material process over time, which actually contradicts a theology claiming that male fertilization equals instant-procreation. The real political value is the story's presumption of a male God's dominance and appropriation of others' labor for "His" ends. Using this frame, abortion opponents insert a "sovereign" God into the wombs of pregnant people — exactly at the moment of male fertilization. From that point, the colonization of the female body and female labor becomes not only morally acceptable, but necessary.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Blots on a Field? (A modern story of unethical research related to Alzheimer's)

Charles Pillar
Science Magazine
Originally posted 21 JUL 22

Here is an excerpt:

A 6-month investigation by Science provided strong support for Schrag’s suspicions and raised questions about Lesné’s research. A leading independent image analyst and several top Alzheimer’s researchers—including George Perry of the University of Texas, San Antonio, and John Forsayeth of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)—reviewed most of Schrag’s findings at Science’s request. They concurred with his overall conclusions, which cast doubt on hundreds of images, including more than 70 in Lesné’s papers. Some look like “shockingly blatant” examples of image tampering, says Donna Wilcock, an Alzheimer’s expert at the University of Kentucky.

The authors “appeared to have composed figures by piecing together parts of photos from different experiments,” says Elisabeth Bik, a molecular biologist and well-known forensic image consultant. “The obtained experimental results might not have been the desired results, and that data might have been changed to … better fit a hypothesis.”

Early this year, Schrag raised his doubts with NIH and journals including Nature; two, including Nature last week, have published expressions of concern about papers by Lesné. Schrag’s work, done independently of Vanderbilt and its medical center, implies millions of federal dollars may have been misspent on the research—and much more on related efforts. Some Alzheimer’s experts now suspect Lesné’s studies have misdirected Alzheimer’s research for 16 years.

“The immediate, obvious damage is wasted NIH funding and wasted thinking in the field because people are using these results as a starting point for their own experiments,” says Stanford University neuroscientist Thomas Südhof, a Nobel laureate and expert on Alzheimer’s and related conditions.

Lesné did not respond to requests for comment. A UMN spokesperson says the university is reviewing complaints about his work.

To Schrag, the two disputed threads of Aβ research raise far-reaching questions about scientific integrity in the struggle to understand and cure Alzheimer’s. Some adherents of the amyloid hypothesis are too uncritical of work that seems to support it, he says. “Even if misconduct is rare, false ideas inserted into key nodes in our body of scientific knowledge can warp our understanding.”


The paper provided an “important boost” to the amyloid and toxic oligomer hypotheses when they faced rising doubts, Südhof says. “Proponents loved it, because it seemed to be an independent validation of what they have been proposing for a long time.”

“That was a really big finding that kind of turned the field on its head,” partly because of Ashe’s impeccable imprimatur, Wilcock says. “It drove a lot of other investigators to … go looking for these [heavier] oligomer species.”

As Ashe’s star burned more brightly, Lesné’s rose. He joined UMN with his own NIH-funded lab in 2009. Aβ*56 remained a primary research focus. Megan Larson, who worked as a junior scientist for Lesné and is now a product manager at Bio-Techne, a biosciences supply company, calls him passionate, hardworking, and charismatic. She and others in the lab often ran experiments and produced Western blots, Larson says, but in their papers together, Lesné prepared all the images for publication.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

U.S. drug overdose deaths reached all-time high in 2021, CDC says

Berkeley Lovelace Jr.
Originally posted 11 MAY 22

More than 107,600 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, the highest annual death toll on record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

Overdose deaths increased 15 percent in 2021, up from an estimated 93,655 fatalities the year prior, according to a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which collects data on a range of health topics, including drug use.

While the total number of deaths reached record highs, the increase appeared to slow compared to the change seen from 2019 to 2020, when overdose deaths rose 30 percent, according to the report.

It's still too early to say whether that slowdown will hold, said Farida Ahmad, a scientist at the health statistics center. The agency's latest report is considered provisional, meaning the data is incomplete and subject to change.

Even if the increase in overdose deaths is smaller compared to last year, the 2021 total is still a huge number, Ahmad said.

The data helps illustrate one of the consequences of the pandemic, which has seen an uptick in substance abuse amid widespread unemployment and more Americans reporting mental health issues.

Overdose-related deaths were already increasing before the pandemic, but there was "clearly a very sharp uptick during the pandemic," said Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. He published research in April that found drug overdose deaths among teenagers rose sharply over the last two years.

According to the NCHS report, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, was involved in the most overdose deaths in 2021: 71,238.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Morally Exhausted: Why Russian Soldiers are Refusing to Fight in the Unprovoked War on Ukraine

Tіmofеі Rоzhаnskіy
Originally posted 23 July 22

Here is an excerpt:

I Had To Refuse So I Could Stay Alive

Russia’s troops in Ukraine are largely made up of contract soldiers: volunteer personnel who sign fixed-term contracts for service. The range of experience varies. Other units include troops from private military companies like Vagner, or specialized, semiautonomous units overseen by Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The discontent in Kaminsky’s 11th Brigade is not an isolated case, and there are indications that Russian commanders are trying different tactics to keep the problem from spiraling out of control: for example, publicly shaming soldiers who are refusing to fight.

In Buryatia, where the 11th Brigade is based, dozens of personnel have sought legal assistance from local activists, seeking to break their contracts and get out of service in Ukraine, for various reasons.

In the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk, on the home base for the 205th Cossack Motorized Rifle Brigade, commanders have erected a “wall of shame” with the names, ranks, and photographs of some 300 soldiers who have disobeyed orders in the Ukraine war.

“They forgot their military oaths, the ceremonial promise, their vows of duty to their Fatherland,” the board reads.

In conversations via the Russian social media giant VK, several soldiers from the brigade disputed the circumstances behind their inclusion on the wall of shame. All asked that their names be withheld for fear of further punishment or retaliation by commanders.

“I understand everything, of course. I signed a contract. I’m supposed to be ready for any situation; this war, this special operation,” one soldier wrote. “But I was thinking, I’m still young; at any moment, a piece of shrapnel, a bullet could fly into my head.”

The soldier said he broke his contract and resigned from the brigade before the February 24 invasion, once he realized it was in fact going forward.

“I thought a long time about it and came to the decision. I understood that I had to refuse so I could stay alive,” he said. “I don’t regret it one bit.”

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Overblown Implications Effect

Moon, A., Gan, M., & Critcher, C. R. (2020). 
Journal of personality and social psychology,
118(4), 720–742.


People frequently engage in behaviors that put their competencies on display. However, do such actors understand how others view them in light of these performances? Eight studies support an overblown implications effect (OIE): Actors overestimate how much observers think an actor's one-off success or failure offers clear insight about a relevant competency (Study 1). Furthermore, actors overblow performances' implications even in prospect, before there are experienced successes or failures on which to ruminate (Studies 2 and 3). To explain the OIE, we introduce the construct of working trait definitions-accessible beliefs about what specific skills define a general trait or competency. When actors try to adopt observers' perspective, the narrow performance domain seems disproportionately important in defining the general trait (Study 4). By manipulating actors' working trait definitions to include other (unobserved) trait-relevant behaviors, we eliminated the OIE (Study 5). The final 3 studies (Studies 6a-6c) more precisely localized the error. Although actors and observers agreed on what a single success or failure (e.g., the quality of a single batch of cookies) could reveal about actors' narrow competence (e.g., skill at baking cookies), actors erred in thinking observers would feel this performance would reveal a considerable amount about the more general skill (e.g., cooking ability) and related specific competencies (e.g., skill at making omelets). Discussion centers on how the present theoretical account differs from previous explanations why metaperceptions err and identifies important open questions for future research.

From the General Discussion

People care how others view them. However, without direct access to others’ perceptions, understanding how we are perceived entails guesswork. Across eight studies, we provided evidence for an overblown implications effect. Actors see their own performance as having more evaluative impact on observers than it actually does. By introducing the construct of working trait definitions, we were able to localize this error to a difference in how metaperceivers and observers were defining the broader competencies (partially) on display.



As people navigate through their personal and professional lives, they aim not merely to passively estimate but also to actively manage others’ impressions (e.g., Jones & Pittman, 1982; Leary & Kowalski, 1990; Schlenker & Weigold, 1992). Thus, metaperceptions are important barometers of whether people (think they) are doing so effectively. When people’s metaperceptions are inaccurate, they may make suboptimal decisions about how best to invest in further impression management. Those who make a single inane comment during a work meeting may go to unnecessary lengths to redeem themselves in the eyes of their colleagues, and those who offer a single stroke of genius may be mistaken about how much they can rest on these (thin) laurels (see Anderson, Ames, & Gosling, 2008; Elfenbein, Eisenkraft, & Ding, 2009). We may do well to keep in mind that although our specific competencies are sometimes on full display, our broader abilities almost never are.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Concrete Over Abstract: Experimental Evidence of Reflective Equilibrium in Population Ethics

Schoenegger, P. & Grodeck, B. 
(forthcoming). In H. Viciana, F. Aguiar, 
& A. Gaitan (Eds.), Issues in Experimental Moral 
Philosophy. Routledge.

One central method of ethics is narrow reflective equilibrium, relating to the conflict between intuitions about general moral principles and intuitions about concrete cases. In these conflicts, general principles are refined, or judgements in concrete chases change to accommodate the until no more conflicts exist. In this paper, we present empirical data on this method in the context of population ethics. We conduct an online experiment (n=543) on Prolific where participants endorse a number of moral principles related to population ethics. They also judge specific population ethical cases that may conflict with their endorsed principles. When conflicts arise, they can choose to revoke the principle, revise their intuition about a case, or continue without having resolved the conflict. We find that participants are significantly more likely to revoke their endorsements of general principles, than their judgements about concrete cases. This evidence suggests that for a lay population, case judgements play a central revisionary role in reflective equilibrium reasoning in the context of population ethics.


Our main result is that when participants’ choices result in a conflict between their endorsed abstract principles and their judgements on concrete cases, they prefer to revoke their previously endorsed principle rather than changing or revoking their judgement regarding the concrete population ethical case. Our findings are relevant to theorizing of reflective equilibrium.  Specifically, we take these results to indicate that for lay moral reasoning, case judgements do play a major revisionary role. While we find that some participants want to maintain consistency with the abstract principles, the evidence shows that participants do put more weight on their concrete choices. 


As a secondary interest, we also tested whether presenting participants with the abstract principles first and then the concrete cases or the reverse changes their endorsement rates of these principles. We found no statistically significant effects in the Control, Person Affectism, or Pareto, though for both versions of Utilitarianism we did find order effects. This drop in endorsement rates provides further evidence for the case above that once participants are presented with some concrete cases that they can form judgements on, they are less likely to endorse the principles (and if they already endorsed them, more likely to revoke their endorsement). This adds to both the literature on order effects in social psychology and experimental philosophy, as well as to our understanding of folk utilitarian morality.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Neoliberalism and the Ideological Construction of Equity Beliefs

Goudarzi, S., Badaan, V., & Knowles, E. D. (2022). 
Perspectives on Psychological Science. 


Researchers across disciplines, including psychology, have sought to understand how people evaluate the fairness of resource distributions. Equity, defined as proportionality of rewards to merit, has dominated the conceptualization of distributive justice in psychology; some scholars have cast it as the primary basis on which distributive decisions are made. The present article acts as a corrective to this disproportionate emphasis on equity. Drawing on findings from different subfields, we argue that people possess a range of beliefs about how valued resources should be allocated—beliefs that vary systematically across developmental stages, relationship types, and societies. By reinvigorating notions of distributive justice put forth by the field’s pioneers, we further argue that prescriptive beliefs concerning resource allocation are ideological formations embedded in socioeconomic and historical contexts. Fairness beliefs at the micro level are thus shaped by those beliefs’ macro-level instantiations. In a novel investigation of this process, we consider neoliberalism, the globally dominant socioeconomic model of the past 40 years. Using data from more than 160 countries, we uncover evidence that neoliberal economic structures shape equity-based distributive beliefs at the individual level. We conclude by advocating an integrative approach to the study of distributive justice that bridges micro- and macro-level analyses.

From the Conclusions section

The extant literature in psychology conceptualizes neoliberalism as a belief system that can vary dispositionally and situationally (Beattie et al., 2019; Bettache & Chiu, 2019). Bay-Cheng and colleagues (2015) developed a Neoliberal Beliefs Inventory that taps into four subfacets of neoliberal thinking: System Inequality, conceptualized as views about the existence and the extent of inequality in society; Competition, which measures the extent to which one views competition as natural and beneficial; Personal Wherewithal, defined as attributing outcomes and success to personal dispositions such as hard work and merit; and Government Interference, which gauges the extent to which state intervention is seen to constrain personal freedom and endanger the meritocratic ideal. In another attempt, Grzanka and colleagues (2020) created the single-facet Anti-Neoliberal Attitudes Scale using items from existing inventories. Moreover, the endorsement of neoliberal policies has been shown to predict other orientations and belief systems that legitimize group and system inequalities (Azevedo et al., 2019). Becker (2021) examined the situational effect of neoliberal beliefs and found that exposure to neoliberal messages that prioritize freedom over justice and equality, individual success over public spirit, and distributions according to ability over need induced antielite sentiment and that this was mediated by feelings of threat, unfairness, and hopelessness.

Although the research described above is informative, from a cultural-psychological perspective, the notion of ideology also includes laws, policies, institutions, and practices embodying prescriptive and descriptive ideas about fair socioeconomic arrangements. Therefore, a sociocultural model of neoliberal ideology entails empirically investigating the dynamics of neoliberal belief systems (at an individual level) with neoliberal laws, institutions, and cultural practices and products, as in the present analysis. To our knowledge, the empirical analysis presented in this article is the first illustration within psychology and related fields of how neoliberal macro structures influence distributive preferences and beliefs.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Testing heritability of moral foundations: Common pathway models support strong heritability for the five moral foundations

Zakharin, M., & Bates, T. C. (2022). 
European Journal of Personality.


Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) predicts that moral behaviour reflects at least five foundational traits, each hypothesised to be heritable. Here, we report two independent twin studies (total n = 2020), using multivariate multi-group common pathway models to test the following three predictions from the MFT: (1) The moral foundations will show significant heritability; (2) The moral foundations will each be genetically distinct and (3) The clustering of moral concerns around individualising and binding domains will show significant heritability. Supporting predictions 1 and 3, Study 1 showed evidence for significant heritability of two broad moral factors corresponding to individualising and binding domains. In Study 2, we added the second dataset, testing replication of the Study 1 model in a joint approach. This further corroborated evidence for heritable influence, showed strong influences on the individualising and binding domains (h2 = 49% and 66%, respectively) and, partially supporting prediction 2, showed foundation-specific, heritable influences on Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity and Purity/Sanctity foundations. A general morality factor was required, also showing substantial genetic effects (40%). These findings indicate that moral foundations have significant genetic bases. These influenced the individual foundations themselves as well as a general concern for the individual, for the group, and overall moral concern.

From the General Discussion

Two of the highly heritable common factors in our model clearly correspond to the binding (Ingroup/ Loyalty, Authority/Respect and Sanctity/Purity) and individualising (Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity) moral domains theorised by Graham et al. (2011), thereby supporting their model. At the same time, three out of five specific genetic effects were non-significant, which was unexpected. This may suggest that differences between individual foundations, for example, distinctions between Authority and Ingroup – are purely learned in origin. At this point, however, an equally plausible hypothesis is that we simply lacked the power to distinguish all the effects in the moral foundations. The sample size, but more particularly the abbreviated measures used in both datasets with reduced ability to detect facet-specific variance mean that this possibility cannot be ruled out. Future studies investigating these issues using larger, extended and even longitudinal twin designs and a wide range of measures would be valuable. In particular, it will be of value to explore whether the five distinct foundations reflect, at a genetic level, different combinations of these two major domains. Another area of interest for future research would be an analysis of distinctions between individualising measures such as Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity and motivations such as compassion in other evolutionary models (e.g. Lin & Bates, 2021; Sznycer et al., 2017).

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Knowledge before belief

Phillips, J., Buckwalter, W. et al. (2021)
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 44, E140.


Research on the capacity to understand others' minds has tended to focus on representations of beliefs, which are widely taken to be among the most central and basic theory of mind representations. Representations of knowledge, by contrast, have received comparatively little attention and have often been understood as depending on prior representations of belief. After all, how could one represent someone as knowing something if one does not even represent them as believing it? Drawing on a wide range of methods across cognitive science, we ask whether belief or knowledge is the more basic kind of representation. The evidence indicates that nonhuman primates attribute knowledge but not belief, that knowledge representations arise earlier in human development than belief representations, that the capacity to represent knowledge may remain intact in patient populations even when belief representation is disrupted, that knowledge (but not belief) attributions are likely automatic, and that explicit knowledge attributions are made more quickly than equivalent belief attributions. Critically, the theory of mind representations uncovered by these various methods exhibits a set of signature features clearly indicative of knowledge: they are not modality-specific, they are factive, they are not just true belief, and they allow for representations of egocentric ignorance. We argue that these signature features elucidate the primary function of knowledge representation: facilitating learning from others about the external world. This suggests a new way of understanding theory of mind – one that is focused on understanding others' minds in relation to the actual world, rather than independent from it.

From the last section

Learning from others, cultural evolution, and what is special about humans

A capacity for reliably learning from others is critically important not only within a single lifespan, but also across them—at the level of human societies. Indeed, this capacity to reliably learn from others has been argued to be essential for human’s unique success in the accumulation and transmission of cultural knowledge (e.g., Henrich, 2015; Heyes, 2018). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the argument we’ve made about the primary role of knowledge representations in cognition fits nicely with this broad view of why humans have been so successful: it is likely supported by our comparatively basic theory of mind representations.

At the same time, this suggestion cuts against another common proposal for which ability underwrites the wide array of ways in which humans have been uniquely successful, namely their ability to represent others’ beliefs (Baron-Cohen, 1999; Call & Tomasello, 2008; Pagel, 2012; Povinelli & Preuss, 1995; Tomasello 1999; Tomasello, et al., 1993). While the ability to represent others’ beliefs may indeed turn out to be unique to humans and critically important for some purposes, it does not seem to underwrite humans’ capacity for the accumulation of cultural knowledge. After all, precisely at the time in human development when the vast majority of critical learning occurs (infancy and early childhood), we find robust evidence for a capacity for knowledge rather than belief representation (§4.2).

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Their own worst enemy? Collective narcissists are willing to conspire against their in-group

M. Biddleston, A. Cichocka, et al.
The British Journal of Psychology
First published: 06 May 2022


Collective narcissism – a belief in in-group greatness that is not appreciated by others – is associated with using one's group for personal benefits. Across one pilot and four studies, we demonstrated that collective narcissism predicts readiness to conspire against in-group members (rmeta-analysis = .24). In Study 1, conducted in Poland (N = 361), collective narcissism measured in the context of national identity predicted readiness to engage in secret surveillance against one's own country's citizens. In Study 2 (N = 174; pre-registered), collective narcissism in UK workplace teams predicted intentions to engage in conspiracies against co-workers. In Study 3 (N = 471; pre-registered), US national narcissism predicted intentions to conspire against fellow citizens. Furthermore, conspiracy intentions accounted for the relationship between collective narcissism and beliefs in conspiracy theories about the in-group. Finally, in Study 4 (N = 1064; pre-registered), we corroborated the link between Polish national narcissism and conspiracy intentions against fellow citizens, further showing that these intentions were only directed towards group members that were perceived as moderately or strongly typical of the national in-group (but not when perceived in-group typicality was low). In-group identification was either negatively related (Studies 1 and 2) or unrelated (Studies 3 and 4) to conspiracy intentions (rmeta-analysis = .04). We discuss implications for research on conspiracy theories and populism.

Practitioner points
  • Analysts should monitor cases of public endorsement of collective narcissism, which is a belief that one’s in-group (e.g. nation, organisation, or political party) is exceptional but underappreciated by others.
  • As we show, collective narcissism is associated with a willingness to conspire against fellow in-group members and with support for in-group surveillance policies.
  • Thus, groups cherishing such a defensive form of in-group identity are threatened from the inside, thereby warranting education aimed at identifying and avoiding potential exploitation from otherwise trusted members within their own groups.

From the General Discussion

Collective narcissism compensates for frustrated needs (Cichocka et al., 2018; Golec de Zavala et al., 2019). Thus, for those scoring high in collective narcissism, it is the group that serves the individual, rather than the individual who serves the group (Cichocka, 2016). As those scoring high in collective narcissism are more firmly invested in the in-group, they should be more likely to try to satisfy their needs via taking advantage of the group. This implies that those high in collective narcissism might be ready to sacrifice in-group members and collude against them, if this helps them further their agendas (see Douglas & Sutton, 2011). These conspiratorial efforts seem directed towards in-group members perceived as typical of the in-group. Our findings add to the growing literature showing that collective narcissism does not only predict hostile outgroup attitudes, but that it is also linked to problematic relations within the in-group (Cichocka et al., 2021; Cichocka & Cislak, 2020; Gronfeldt et al., 2022; Marchlewska et al., 2020).

Monday, July 18, 2022

The One That Got Away: Overestimation of Forgone Alternatives as a Hidden Source of Regret

Feiler, D., & Müller-Trede, J. (2022).
Psychological Science, 33(2), 314–324.


Past research has established that observing the outcomes of forgone alternatives is an important driver of regret. In this research, we predicted and empirically corroborated a seemingly opposite result: Participants in our studies were more likely to experience regret when they did not observe a forgone outcome than when it was revealed. Our prediction drew on two theoretical observations. First, feelings of regret frequently stem from comparing a chosen option with one’s belief about what the forgone alternative would have been. Second, when there are many alternatives to choose from under uncertainty, the perceived attractiveness of the almost-chosen alternative tends to exceed its reality. In four preregistered studies (Ns = 800, 599, 150, and 197 adults), we found that participants predictably overestimated the forgone path, and this overestimation caused undue regret. We discuss the psychological implications of this hidden source of regret and reconcile the ostensible contradiction with past research.

Statement of Relevance

Reflecting on our past decisions can often make us feel regret. Previous research suggests that feelings of regret stem from comparing the outcome of our chosen path with that of the unchosen path.  We present a seemingly contradictory finding: Participants in our studies were more likely to experience regret when they did not observe the forgone outcome than when they saw it. This effect arises because when there are many paths to choose from, and uncertainty exists about how good each would be, people tend to overestimate the almost-chosen path. An idealized view of the path not taken then becomes an unfair standard of comparison for the chosen path, which inflates feelings of regret. Excessive regret has been found to be associated with depression and anxiety, and our work suggests that there may be a hidden source of undue regret—overestimation of forgone paths—that may contribute to these problems.

The ending...

Finally, is overestimating the paths we do not take causing us too much regret? Although regret can have
benefits for experiential learning, it is an inherently negative emotion and has been found to be associated with depression and excessive anxiety (Kocovski et al., 2005; Markman & Miller, 2006; Roese et al., 2009). Because the regret in our studies was driven by biased beliefs, it may be excessive—after all, better-calibrated beliefs about forgone alternatives would cause less regret. Whether calibrating beliefs about forgone alternatives could also help in alleviating regret’s harmful psychological consequences is an important question for future research.

Important implications for psychotherapy....

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Prosocial correlates of transformative experiences at secular multi-day mass gatherings

Yudkin, D.A., Prosser, A.M.B., Heller, S.M. et al. 
Nat Commun 13, 2600 (2022).


Humans have long sought experiences that transcend or change their sense of self. By weakening boundaries between the self and others, such transformative experiences may lead to enduring changes in moral orientation. Here we investigated the psychological nature and prosocial correlates of transformative experiences by studying participants before (n = 600), during (n = 1217), 0–4 weeks after (n = 1866), and 6 months after (n = 710) they attended a variety of secular, multi-day mass gatherings in the US and UK. Observations at 6 field studies and 22 online followup studies spanning 5 years showed that self-reported transformative experiences at mass gatherings were common, increased over time, and were characterized by feelings of universal connectedness and new perceptions of others. Participants’ circle of moral regard expanded with every passing day onsite—an effect partially mediated by transformative experience and feelings of universal connectedness. Generosity was remarkably high across sites but did not change over time. Immediately and 6 months following event attendance, self-reported transformative experience persisted and predicted both generosity (directly) and moral expansion (indirectly). These findings highlight the prosocial qualities of transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings and suggest such experiences may be associated with lasting changes in moral orientation.


Stories of profound personal transformation have long captured the human imagination, yet such experiences are difficult to recreate in the laboratory. Here, we adopted a lab-in-the-field approach to study transformative experiences as they were occurring at several secular multiday mass gatherings in the US and UK. Self-reports of such experiences at these events were common, increased over time, and endured at least six months following attendance. The most prevalent qualities of transformative experience were prosocial in nature and were correlated with increased feelings of connectedness between the self and all human beings. Consistent with these reports, participants showed an expanded moral circle with every passing day, an effect partially mediated by feelings of universal connectedness and transformative experience. Meanwhile, we observed high levels of generosity at mass gatherings, but generosity onsite did not increase over time and was unrelated to the transformative experience. These effects were robust to controlling for expectations and desires for transformative experience as well as substance use, and were consistent across mass gatherings with market economies as well as gift economies. In the weeks and months following event attendance, transformative experience directly predicted generosity and indirectly predicted moral expansion via universal connectedness.

Our results build upon and extend past work on collective effervescence and prosocial behavior, which suggests that mass gatherings played a functional role in human evolution by increasing people’s willingness to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the group. Some research suggests such prosocial behavior is psychologically mediated by experiences of personal transformation, yet thus far research on the prosocial correlates of transformative experiences has mainly relied upon retrospective approaches, which are subject to the limitations of autobiographical memory. Here, in order to better understand how such experiences may be associated with prosocial change, we examined the qualities of transformative experiences as they occurred, and measured their association with prosocial behavior. We found that reports of such experiences did indeed increase over time, and were correlated with an expanded circle of moral regard. This shows not only that such experiences are associated with changes in moral orientation, but also that, in certain contexts at least, such changes may be characterized by feelings of universal moral inclusion.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

988 becomes the new 3-digit suicide prevention hotline on July 16: What to know

Christine Fernando
USA Today
Originally posted 8 JUL 22

Here is an excerpt:

Here's what you need to know:

How does 988 work?

What to know: After dialing or texting 988, you'll be connected with a trained mental health professional at a local or regional crisis center. If your local center cannot connect you to a counselor, national backup centers can pick up the call. The lifeline is administered by the nonprofit Vibrant Emotional Health.

That's how it has worked for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, and the setup will continue after 988 is launched.

What experts say: The shortened, more accessible lifeline marks "a transformative moment in terms of thinking about approaching crisis care," said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, an assistant secretary at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, on Thursday.

The launch also comes amid what experts have called a mental health crisis in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are states prepared?

What to know: For many advocates, 988 represents an opportunity to expand services but also a challenge because of possible added pressure on already strained mental health crisis response systems. Some advocates have questioned whether states will be ready for the increased call volume projected after the switch to the 988 model.

In the first year of 988's implementation, the number of contacts for the lifeline is expected to increase to 7.6 million – a twofold increase compared with the 3.3 million calls, texts or chats in 2020, according to a report in December 2021 from SAHMSA.

What experts say: Delphin-Rittmon acknowledged that some crisis response centers are worried about the size of workforces in their states and about resources for this launch. She said she has been working with state representatives on funding and to "assess their overall readiness." .

The launch of 988 provides "an opportunity to expose gaps and weaknesses in our system," which would allow centers to see where additional investments may be needed, said Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"Will it work perfectly?" she said. "No. Because changing crisis response won't happen overnight."

Friday, July 15, 2022

How inferred motives shape moral judgements

Carlson, R.W., Bigman, Y.E., Gray, K. et al. 
Nat Rev Psychol (2022).


When people judge acts of kindness or cruelty, they often look beyond the act itself to infer the agent’s motives. These inferences, in turn, can powerfully influence moral judgements. The mere possibility of self-interested motives can taint otherwise helpful acts, whereas morally principled motives can exonerate those behind harmful acts. In this Review, we survey research showcasing the importance of inferred motives for moral judgements, and show how motive inferences are connected to judgements of actions, intentions and character. This work suggests that the inferences observers draw about peoples’ motives are sufficient for moral judgement (they drive character judgements even without actions) and functional (they effectively aid observers in predicting peoples’ future behaviour). Research that directly probes when and how people infer motives, and how motive properties guide those inferences, can deepen our understanding of the role of inferred motives in moral life.

From Summary and future directions

Moral psychology has long emphasized the importance of actions and character in moral judgements. However, observers frequently go beyond judging actions and seek to understand peoples’ motives. Moral psychology paradigms often feature cues to motives which carry moral weight, such as an agent’s desire to harm others physically, or their lack of motivation to pre-vent harm to others. The inferences people draw about others’ motives are crucial for moral judgement in two respects. First, the mere presence of certain motives can drive moral judgements of character, even in the absence of any action. Second, inferred motives shape what an agent’s actions reveal about their character to observers, and thereby allow observers to better pre-dict others’ future actions. To integrate past work and guide future research in moral psychology, we reviewed research connecting motives with actions, character and other key constructs. These insights can enrich our understanding of moral judgement, and shed light on emerging social phenomena that are relevant to moral psychology (see Box 1). The motive properties reviewed (motive strength, direction and conflict), as well as motive and action multiplicity, offer a guide for future work.

From Box 1

Motives and emerging social challenges researchers and ethicists are expressing growing concern about autonomous technologies and their rapidly increasing role in human life. robots and other artificial agents are perceived as less driven by motives than humans. these agents are increasingly tasked with decisions that have moral implications, such as allocating scarce medical resources, informing parole decisions and guiding autonomous vehicles. understanding the influence of motives in moral judgement can shed light on how the motiveless existence of artificial agents influences how people respond to the decisions of such artificial agents. On the one hand, people are averse to having artificial agents make morally relevant decisions, which can be explained by people perceiving robots as lacking helpful motives. On the other hand, people see artificial agents as less capable of discrimination, and are less outraged when they do discriminate, which can be explained by people perceiving robots as lacking harmful motives, such as prejudice.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

What nudge theory got wrong

Tim Harford
The Financial Times
Originally posted 

Here is an excerpt:

Chater and Loewenstein argue that behavioural scientists naturally fall into the habit of seeing problems in the same way. Why don’t people have enough retirement savings? Because they are impatient and find it hard to save rather than spend. Why are so many greenhouse gases being emitted? Because it’s complex and tedious to switch to a green electricity tariff. If your problem is basically that fallible individuals are making bad choices, behavioural science is an excellent solution.

If, however, the real problem is not individual but systemic, then nudges are at best limited, and at worst, a harmful diversion. Historians such as Finis Dunaway now argue that the Crying Indian campaign was a deliberate attempt by corporate interests to change the subject. Is behavioural public policy, accidentally or deliberately, a similar distraction?

A look at climate change policy suggests it might be. Behavioural scientists themselves are clear enough that nudging is no real substitute for a carbon price — Thaler and Sunstein say as much in Nudge. Politicians, by contrast, have preferred to bypass the carbon price and move straight to the pain-free nudging.

Nudge enthusiast David Cameron, in a speech given shortly before he became prime minister, declared that “the best way to get someone to cut their electricity bill” was to cleverly reformat the bill itself. This is politics as the art of avoiding difficult decisions. No behavioural scientist would suggest that it was close to sufficient. Yet they must be careful not to become enablers of the One Weird Trick approach to making policy.


Behavioural science has a laudable focus on rigorous evidence, yet even this can backfire. It is much easier to produce a quick randomised trial of bill reformatting than it is to evaluate anything systemic. These small quick wins are only worth having if they lead us towards, rather than away from, more difficult victories.

Another problem is that empirically tested, behaviourally rigorous bad policy can be bad policy nonetheless. For example, it has become fashionable to argue that people should be placed on an organ donor registry by default, because this dramatically expands the number of people registered as donors. But, as Thaler and Sunstein themselves keep having to explain, this is a bad idea. Most organ donation happens only after consultation with a grieving family — and default-bloated donor registries do not help families work out what their loved one might have wanted.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Dangerous as the Plague

Samuel Huneke
The Baffler
Originally posted 23 JUN 22

Here is an excerpt:

There is not enough space here to enumerate all of the similarities and differences between National Socialism and today’s right, but the place of Christianity in each movement is instructive. The churches were always on tenuous terms at best with Hitler’s state. Many Nazi leaders were openly hostile to Christianity and to the “traditional” family. Homosexuality posed a threat to Nazism not in moral terms, but rather in social and political terms, threatening to undermine its homosocial order. In stark contrast, the American right today remains in thrall to white Christian nationalism, which openly seeks to impose its own version of morality on the nation. The threat queerness poses to this version of patriarchal Christianity, coupled with broader anxieties about loss of social status, is what appears to motivate the new right’s transphobia and homophobia.

The endurance of these tropes also highlights the limits of the professionalized LGBTQ political movement in this country, which has prioritized visibility and assimilation—eschewing more revolutionary strategies that would encompass the needs of the most marginalized. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign have been successful up to a point, but their strategies were always predicated on the notion that if queer people were visible and showed that they weren’t actually that different, prejudice would seep away. Because its aim was assimilation, this tactic fundamentally upheld the division between normal and abnormal on which animus rests. Instead of contesting that very division, it sought to put certain queer people on the “right” side of it. In this way, it also misunderstood hatred as a product of ignorance rather than a political strategy or an expression of sublimated anxieties.

Now animus against queer people—especially trans people—is back with a vengeance. From the conspiracy-addled world of QAnon, in which a shadowy cabal of pedophiles, juiced on the blood of children, runs the world, to the mendacity of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFs), a growing segment of the population seems willing to entertain the notion that lesbians, gay men, and trans people are “recruiting” children. The bestseller Irreversible Damage, published in 2020 and reaching audiences well beyond the fringe right, insisted that girls were being seduced by a “transgender craze” that it termed a “contagion.” Just before Pride month, U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has embraced the rhetoric of “grooming,” predicted that in “four or five generations, no one will be straight anymore.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Donald Trump and the rationalization of transgressive behavior: The role of group prototypicality and identity advancement

Davies, B., Leicht, C., & Abrams, D.
Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Volume 52, Issue 7, July 2022
Pages 481-495


Transgressive leadership, especially in politics, can have significant consequences for groups and communities. However, research suggests that transgressive leaders are often granted deviance credit, and regarded sympathetically by followers due to perceptions of the leader's group prototypicality and identity advancement. We extend previous work by examining whether these perceptions additionally play a role in rationalizing the transgressions of a leader and whether deviance credit persists after a leader exits their leadership position. The present three-wave longitudinal study (N = 200) addresses these questions using the applied context of the 2020 US Presidential election. Across three survey waves administered during and after Donald Trump's election loss, Republicans perceived three transgressive behaviors (sharing false information, nepotism, and abuse of power) as less unethical when committed by Donald Trump than when the same behaviors are viewed in isolation. Perceptions of Trump's identity advancement, but not his group prototypicality, predicted the extent to which Republicans downplayed the unethicalness of his transgressions. Decreases in identity advancement across time were also related to increases in perceptions of Trump's unethicalness. Implications for the social identity theory of leadership, subjective group dynamics, and the broader consequences of deviance credit to transgressive leaders are discussed.


This study aimed to understand how followers of transgressive leaders rationalize their leader's behavior, to what extent group prototypicality and identity advancement encourage this rationalization, and whether these effects would persist after a leader exits their leadership position. Specifically, we expected that Republicans would downplay the perceived unethicalness of behavior by Donald Trump relative to the same behavior when unattributed, and that this downplaying would be predicted by perceptions of Trump's group prototypicality and identity advancement. We also expected that, following his election loss, Donald Trump would be perceived as less prototypical and less identity advancing, and concomitantly as more unethical. In partial support of these hypotheses, we found that Republicans did indeed downplay the perceived unethicalness of Donald Trump's behavior, but that this was only predicted by perceptions of his identity advancement, and not his group prototypicality. In contrast to expectations, perceptions of Donald Trump's prototypicality and identity advancement, after controlling for his encouragement of the Capitol riots, did not decrease after his election loss, and neither did perceptions of his unethicalness increase. However, we found that intra-individual drops in perceptions of Trump's identity advancement (but not group prototypicality) did correspond with increases in perceptions of his unethicalness for two of the three transgressive behaviors. Evidence from the cross-lagged analysis is consistent with the interpretation that initial perceptions of identity advancement influenced later evaluations of Donald Trump's unethicalness, rather than the reverse. Overall, these results provide an important extension of previous deviance credit theory and research, highlighting the role of identity advancement and presenting the rationalization of a leader's behavior as a novel mechanism in the support of transgressive leaders. The applied and longitudinal nature of this study additionally demonstrates how social psychological processes operate in real-world contexts, providing a much-needed contribution to more ecologically valid behavioral research.

Editor's note: Contemplate this research as you watch the J6 committee findings today and in the future. I wonder if these perceptions will change after the J6 hearings, in their entirety.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Moral cognition as a Nash product maximizer: An evolutionary contractualist account of morality

André, J., Debove, S., Fitouchi, L., & Baumard, N. 
(2022, May 24). https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/2hxgu


Our goal in this paper is to use an evolutionary approach to explain the existence and design-features of human moral cognition. Our approach is based on the premise that human beings are under selection to appear as good cooperative investments. Hence they face a trade-off between maximizing the immediate gains of each social interaction, and maximizing its long-term reputational effects. In a simple 2-player model, we show that this trade-off leads individuals to maximize the generalized Nash product at evolutionary equilibrium, i.e., to behave according to the generalized Nash bargaining solution. We infer from this result the theoretical proposition that morality is a domain-general calculator of this bargaining solution. We then proceed to describe the generic consequences of this approach: (i) everyone in a social interaction deserves to receive a net benefit, (ii) people ought to act in ways that would maximize social welfare if everyone was acting in the same way, (iii) all domains of social behavior can be moralized, (iv) moral duties can seem both principled and non-contractual, and (v) morality shall depend on the context. Next, we apply the approach to some of the main areas of social life and show that it allows to explain, with a single logic, the entire set of what are generally considered to be different moral domains. Lastly, we discuss the relationship between this account of morality and other evolutionary accounts of morality and cooperation.

From The psychological signature of morality: the right, the wrong and the duty Section

Cooperating for the sake of reputation always entails that, at some point along social interactions, one is in a position to access benefits, but one decides to give them up, not for a short-term instrumental purpose, but for the long-term aim of having a good reputation.  And, by this, we mean precisely:the long-term aim of being considered someone with whom cooperation ends up bringing a net benefit rather than a net cost, not only in the eyes of a particular partner, but in the eyes of any potential future partner.  This specific and universal property of reputation-based cooperation explains the specific and universal phenomenology of moral decisions.

To understand, one must distinguish what people  do in practice, and what they think is right to do. In practice, people may sometimes cheat, i.e., not respect the contract. They may do so conditionally on the specific circumstances, if they evaluate that  the actual reputational benefits  of  doing  their duty is lower than the immediate cost (e.g., if their cheating has a chance to go unnoticed).  This should not –and in fact does  not  (Knoch et al., 2009;  Kogut, 2012;  Sheskin et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2013) – change their assessment of what would have been the right thing to do.  This assessment can only be absolute, in the sense that it depends only on what one needs to do to ensure that the interaction ends up bringing a net benefit to one’s partner rather than a cost, i.e., to respect the contract, and is not affected by the actual reputational stake of the specific interaction.  Or, to put it another way, people must calculate their moral duty by thinking “If someone  was looking at me, what would they think?”,  regardless of whether anyone is actually looking at them.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Situational factors shape moral judgements in the trolley dilemma in Eastern, Southern and Western countries in a culturally diverse sample

Bago, B., Kovacs, M., Protzko, J. et al. 
Nat Hum Behav (2022).


The study of moral judgements often centres on moral dilemmas in which options consistent with deontological perspectives (that is, emphasizing rules, individual rights and duties) are in conflict with options consistent with utilitarian judgements (that is, following the greater good based on consequences). Greene et al. (2009) showed that psychological and situational factors (for example, the intent of the agent or the presence of physical contact between the agent and the victim) can play an important role in moral dilemma judgements (for example, the trolley problem). Our knowledge is limited concerning both the universality of these effects outside the United States and the impact of culture on the situational and psychological factors affecting moral judgements. Thus, we empirically tested the universality of the effects of intent and personal force on moral dilemma judgements by replicating the experiments of Greene et al. in 45 countries from all inhabited continents. We found that personal force and its interaction with intention exert influence on moral judgements in the US and Western cultural clusters, replicating and expanding the original findings. Moreover, the personal force effect was present in all cultural clusters, suggesting it is culturally universal. The evidence for the cultural universality of the interaction effect was inconclusive in the Eastern and Southern cultural clusters (depending on exclusion criteria). We found no strong association between collectivism/individualism and moral dilemma judgements.

From the Discussion

In this research, we replicated the design of Greene et al. using a culturally diverse sample across 45 countries to test the universality of their results. Overall, our results support the proposition that the effect of personal force on moral judgements is likely culturally universal. This finding makes it plausible that the personal force effect is influenced by basic cognitive or emotional processes that are universal for humans and independent of culture. Our findings regarding the interaction between personal force and intention were more mixed. We found strong evidence for the interaction of personal force and intention among participants coming from Western countries regardless of familiarity and dilemma context (trolley or speedboat), fully replicating the results of Greene et al.. However, the evidence was inconclusive among participants from Eastern countries in all cases. Additionally, this interaction result was mixed for participants from countries in the Southern cluster. We only found strong enough evidence when people familiar with these dilemmas were included in the sample and only for the trolley (not speedboat) dilemma.

Our general observation is that the size of the interaction was smaller on the speedboat dilemmas in every cultural cluster. It is yet unclear whether this effect is caused by some deep-seated (and unknown) differences between the two dilemmas (for example, participants experiencing smaller emotional engagement in the speedboat dilemmas that changes response patterns) or by some unintended experimental confound (for example, an effect of the order of presentation of the dilemmas).

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Techno-Optimism: An Analysis, an Evaluation and a Modest Defence

Danaher, J. 
Philos. Technol. 35, 54 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-022-00550-2


What is techno-optimism and how can it be defended? Although techno-optimist views are widely espoused and critiqued, there have been few attempts to systematically analyse what it means to be a techno-optimist and how one might defend this view. This paper attempts to address this oversight by providing a comprehensive analysis and evaluation of techno-optimism. It is argued that techno-optimism is a pluralistic stance that comes in weak and strong forms. These vary along a number of key dimensions but each shares the view that technology plays a key role in ensuring that the good prevails over the bad. Whatever its strength, to defend this stance, one must flesh out an argument with four key premises. Each of these premises is highly controversial and can be subjected to a number of critiques. The paper discusses five such critiques in detail (the values critique, the treadmill critique, the sustainability critique, the irrationality critique and the insufficiency critique). The paper also considers possible responses from the techno-optimist. Finally, it is concluded that although strong forms of techno-optimism are not intellectually defensible, a modest, agency-based version of techno-optimism may be defensible.

Here is an excerpt:

To be more precise, a modest, agency-based view of techno-optimism entails the following four claims. First, it is epistemically rational to believe that it is at least possible (perhaps probable) that technology plays a key role in ensuring that the good prevails over the bad. Second, whether this possibility materialises depends to some meaningful extent on the power of collective human agency. If we select the right goals, make the concerted effort, and build the necessary institutions, there is a chance that the possibility materialises. Third, by believing that we can, collectively, achieve this, we increase the likelihood of this possibility materialising because we make it more likely that we will act in ways that ensure the desired outcomes (this is the adaptation of Bortolotti’s agency-based optimism to the case for techno-optimism). Fourth, it follows from that that we should cultivate the belief that we can achieve this and act upon that belief. In other words, that our optimism should not simply be an inert belief but, rather, a belief that actually motivates our collective human agency.

If the agency-based view is incorporated into it, techno-optimism can then be an intellectually defensible view. It need not be an irrational faith in the inexorable march of technology but, rather, a realistic stance grounded in the transformational power of collective human agency to forge the right social institutions and to translate the right ideas into material technologies.

Friday, July 8, 2022

AI bias can arise from annotation instructions

K. Wiggers & D. Coldeway
Originally posted 8 MAY 22

Here is an excerpt:

As it turns out, annotators’ predispositions might not be solely to blame for the presence of bias in training labels. In a preprint study out of Arizona State University and the Allen Institute for AI, researchers investigated whether a source of bias might lie in the instructions written by dataset creators to serve as guides for annotators. Such instructions typically include a short description of the task (e.g., “Label all birds in these photos”) along with several examples.

The researchers looked at 14 different “benchmark” datasets used to measure the performance of natural language processing systems, or AI systems that can classify, summarize, translate and otherwise analyze or manipulate text. In studying the task instructions provided to annotators that worked on the datasets, they found evidence that the instructions influenced the annotators to follow specific patterns, which then propagated to the datasets. For example, over half of the annotations in Quoref, a dataset designed to test the ability of AI systems to understand when two or more expressions refer to the same person (or thing), start with the phrase “What is the name,” a phrase present in a third of the instructions for the dataset.

The phenomenon, which the researchers call “instruction bias,” is particularly troubling because it suggests that systems trained on biased instruction/annotation data might not perform as well as initially thought. Indeed, the co-authors found that instruction bias overestimates the performance of systems and that these systems often fail to generalize beyond instruction patterns.

The silver lining is that large systems, like OpenAI’s GPT-3, were found to be generally less sensitive to instruction bias. But the research serves as a reminder that AI systems, like people, are susceptible to developing biases from sources that aren’t always obvious. The intractable challenge is discovering these sources and mitigating the downstream impact.