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
Showing posts with label Development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Development. Show all posts

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Meaning from movement and stillness: Signatures of coordination dynamics reveal infant agency

Sloan, A. T., Jones, N. A., et al. (2023).
PNAS, 120 (39) e2306732120


How do human beings make sense of their relation to the world and realize their ability to effect change? Applying modern concepts and methods of coordination dynamics, we demonstrate that patterns of movement and coordination in 3 to 4-mo-olds may be used to identify states and behavioral phenotypes of emergent agency. By means of a complete coordinative analysis of baby and mobile motion and their interaction, we show that the emergence of agency can take the form of a punctuated self-organizing process, with meaning found both in movement and stillness.


Revamping one of the earliest paradigms for the investigation of infant learning, and moving beyond reinforcement accounts, we show that the emergence of agency in infants can take the form of a bifurcation or phase transition in a dynamical system that spans the baby, the brain, and the environment. Individual infants navigate functional coupling with the world in different ways, suggesting that behavioral phenotypes of agentive discovery exist—and dynamics provides a means to identify them. This phenotyping method may be useful for identifying babies at risk.

Here is my take:

Importantly, researchers found that the emergence of agency can take the form of a punctuated self-organizing process, with meaning found both in movement and stillness.

The findings of this study suggest that infants are not simply passive observers of the world around them, but rather active participants in their own learning and development. The researchers believe that their work could have implications for the early identification of infants at risk for developmental delays.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the study:
  • Infants learn to make sense of their relation to the world through their movement and interaction with their environment.
  • The emergence of agency is a punctuated, self-organizing process that occurs in both movement and stillness.
  • Individual infants navigate functional coupling with the world in different ways, suggesting that behavioral phenotypes of agentive discovery exist.
  • Dynamics provides a means to identify behavioral phenotypes of agentive discovery, which may be useful for identifying babies at risk.
  • This study is a significant contribution to our understanding of how infants learn and develop. It provides new insights into the role of movement and stillness in the emergence of agency and consciousness. The findings of this study have the potential to improve our ability to identify and support infants at risk for developmental delays.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Making psychiatry moral again: the role of psychiatry in patient moral development

McConnell D, Broome M, Savulescu, J.
Journal of Medical Ethics 
Published Online First: 19 August 2022.
doi: 10.1136/jme-2022-108442


Psychiatric involvement in patient morality is controversial. If psychiatrists are tasked with shaping patient morality, the coercive potential of psychiatry is increased, treatment may be unfairly administered on the basis of patients’ moral beliefs rather than medical need, moral disputes could damage the therapeutic relationship and, in any case, we are often uncertain or conflicted about what is morally right. Yet, there is also a strong case for the view that psychiatry often works through improving patient morality and, therefore, should aim to do so. Our goal is to offer a practical and ethical path through this conflict. We argue that the default psychiatric approach to patient morality should be procedural, whereby patients are helped to express their own moral beliefs. Such a procedural approach avoids the brunt of objections to psychiatric involvement in patient morality. However, in a small subset of cases where patients’ moral beliefs are sufficiently distorted or underdeveloped, we claim that psychiatrists should move to a substantive approach and shape the content of those beliefs when they are relevant to psychiatric outcomes. The substantive approach is prone to the above objections but we argue it is nevertheless justified in this subset of cases.


Helping people elaborate a conception of morality has little risk of coercion and damage to the therapeutic relationship because the patient is requesting that content and is not committed to a conflicting moral position. Of course, it would be wrong to simply indoctrinate the patient so, to avoid that, the process of moral development should be patient-led as much as possible. However, if the moral views the patient gravitates towards in this process are clearly unreasonable, then the psychiatrist has an obligation to guide the patient’s views back within the bounds of reasonableness.

Psychiatrists are well placed to affect substantive moral growth. Their skill for helping people understand and elaborate their subjective worlds can reveal where the moral growth required to treat mental illness and support flourishing might be most easily achieved. We suggest a pluralist approach where the psychiatrist draws on any moral reasons, arguments or insights that help the patient achieve moral growth. In order to tailor moral reasons to the patient, psychiatrists would benefit not only from training in normative moral theories (eg, contractualism, deontology, consequentialism) but also from familiarity with a diverse range of autobiographical or fictional narratives that illustrate how different moral views are experienced and put into practice. The latter would also provide material that the psychiatrist could draw on to help the patient develop moral aspects of their own self-narrative. In the near future, the substantive approach could also benefit from pharmacotherapies, such as psychedelics, which might help patients who consent to such treatment become more receptive to new moral reasons, beliefs and emotions.

Friday, March 25, 2022

How development and culture shape intuitions about prosocial obligations

Marshall, J., Gollwitzer, A., et al. (2022).
Journal of experimental psychology. 
General, 10.1037/xge0001136. 
Advance online publication.


Do children, like most adults, believe that only kin and close others are obligated to help one another? In two studies (total N = 1140), we examined whether children (∼5- to ∼10-yos) and adults across five different societies consider social relationship when ascribing prosocial obligations. Contrary to the view that such discriminations are a natural default in human reasoning, younger children in the United States (Studies 1 and 2) and across cultures (Study 2) generally judged everyone-parents, friends, and strangers-as obligated to help someone in need. Older children and adults, on the other hand, tended to exhibit more discriminant judgments. They considered parents more obligated to help than friends followed by strangers-although this effect was stronger in some cultures than others. Our findings suggest that children's initial sense of prosocial obligation in social-relational contexts starts out broad and generally becomes more selective over the course of development.

From the General Discussion

Other than urban versus rural, our cross-cultural samples varied on a variety of dimensions, including (but not limited to) Westernization, collectivism versus individualism, and SES. Again, because of our samples do not vary systematically on any of these dimensions, we cannot directly examine the role of certain cultural factors in the development of prosocial obligation judgments. But we do suspect that variation in societal values related to collectivism and individualism may shape children’s emerging sense of prosocial obligation. This proposal is motivated by the finding that participants in more collectivistic societies(Japan, India, Uganda) exhibited broader senses of obligation than  those  in  more  individualistic societies (Germany,  United  States) (see Hofstede, 2011; Rarick et al., 2013).

How would collectivism and individualism shape the development of our sense of obligation?After all, collectivism in a theoretical sense tends to emphasize obligations to the group—not  necessarily to  strangers  (e.g.,  Brewer  &  Chen,  2007). It is possible, however,  that participants across societies view strangers in our stimuli as part of the cultural in-group. After all, the  characters in the stimuli are all the  same  ethnicity and also presumably live in the  same community. The variance in responses we find, then, might be variance in the degree to which they consider individuals obligated to help in-group strangers—and this in turn, may depend on cultural values, such as collectivism. Future research is best suited to address this question by examining how  group  membership  and  social relationship  independently  impact the development of obligation judgments across societies.

Regardless of which societal values ultimately impact children’s sense of obligation, the findings raise the question of how this process occurs during childhood.Adults and trusted others may explicitly or implicitly teach children about societal values either via testimony or observation(e.g., Maccoby, 2007; Pratty & Hardy, 2014; see Dahl, 2019 for a useful review). Through this process, children may then absorb this information, which ultimately alters children’s obligation judgments. Alternatively, and in line with more of a Piagetian constructivist view(Piaget, 1932), children may update  their  beliefs  about  obligation through  exploring how  individuals  in  their community act toward one another and eliciting information about obligation from others (Dahl et al., 2018; Turiel, 2015, 1983).We hope future research will investigate these questions in greater detail. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Neural computations in children’s third-party interventions are modulated by their parents’ moral values

Kim, M., Decety, J., Wu, L. et al.
npj Sci. Learn. 6, 38 (2021). 


One means by which humans maintain social cooperation is through intervention in third-party transgressions, a behaviour observable from the early years of development. While it has been argued that pre-school age children’s intervention behaviour is driven by normative understandings, there is scepticism regarding this claim. There is also little consensus regarding the underlying mechanisms and motives that initially drive intervention behaviours in pre-school children. To elucidate the neural computations of moral norm violation associated with young children’s intervention into third-party transgression, forty-seven preschoolers (average age 53.92 months) participated in a study comprising of electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements, a live interaction experiment, and a parent survey about moral values. This study provides data indicating that early implicit evaluations, rather than late deliberative processes, are implicated in a child’s spontaneous intervention into third-party harm. Moreover, our findings suggest that parents’ values about justice influence their children’s early neural responses to third-party harm and their overt costly intervention behaviour.

From the Discussion

Our study further provides evidence that children, as young as 3 years of age, can enact costly third-party intervention by protesting and reporting. Previous research has shown that young children from age 3 enact third-party punishment to transgressors shown in video or puppets9,10. In the present study, in the context of real-life transgression experiment, even the youngest participant (41 months old) engaged in costly intervention, by hinting disapproval to the adult transgressor (why are you doing that?) and subsequently reporting the damage when being prompted. During the experiment, confounding factors such as a sense of ‘responsibility’, were avoided by keeping the person playing the ‘research assistant’ role out of the room when the transgression occurred. Furthermore, when leaving the room, the ‘research assistant’ did not assign the children any special role to police or monitor the actions of the ‘visitor’ (who would transgress). Moreover, the transgressor was not an acquaintance of the child, and the book was said to belong to a university (not a child’s school nor researchers), hence giving little sense of in-group/out-group membership11,60. Also, the participating children would likely attribute ‘power’ and ‘authority’ to the visitor/transgressor, as an adult26. Nevertheless, in the real-life experimental context, 34.8% of children explicitly protested to the adult wrong-doer.


It should be emphasized that parent’s cognitive empathy was not implicated in the child’s neural computations of moral norms or their spontaneous intervention behaviour. However, parents’ cognitive empathy had a positive correlation with a child’s effortful control and their subsequent report behaviour. This distinct contribution made by two different dispositions (cognitive empathy and justice sensitivity) suggests that parenting strategies necessary to enhance a child’s moral development require both aspects: perspective-taking and understanding of moral values. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies

B. Verhulst, L. J. Evans, & P. K. Hatemi
Am J Pol Sci. 2012 ; 56(1): 34–51.


The assumption in the personality and politics literature is that a person's personality motivates them to develop certain political attitudes later in life. This assumption is founded on the simple correlation between the two constructs and the observation that personality traits are genetically influenced and develop in infancy, whereas political preferences develop later in life. Work in psychology, behavioral genetics, and recently political science, however, has demonstrated that political preferences also develop in childhood and are equally influenced by genetic factors. These findings cast doubt on the assumed causal relationship between personality and politics. Here we test the causal relationship between personality traits and political attitudes using a direction of causation structural model on a genetically informative sample. The results suggest that personality traits do not cause people to develop political attitudes; rather, the correlation between the two is a function of an innate common underlying genetic factor.

From the Discussion section

Based on the current results, the claim that personality traits lead to political orientations should no longer be assumed, but explicitly tested for each personality and political trait prior to making any claims about their relationship. We recognize that no single analysis can provide a definitive answer to such a complex question, and our analysis did not include the Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness Five-Factor Model measures. Future studies which use different personality measures, or other methodological designs, including panel studies that examine the developmental trajectories of personality and attitudes from childhood to adulthood, would be invaluable for investigating more nuanced relationships between personality traits and political attitudes. These would also include models which capture the nonrandom selection into environments that foster the development of more liberal or conservative political attitudes (active gene-environment covariation) as well as the possibility for differential expression of personality traits and political attitudes at different stages of the developmental process that may illuminate “critical periods” for the interface of personality and attitudes.

A link to the pdf can be found on this page.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Children’s evaluations of third-party responses to unfairness: Children prefer helping over punishment.

Lee, Y., & Warneken, F. (2020, June 13).


Third-party punishment of selfish individuals is an important mechanism to intervene against unfairness. However, there is another way in which third parties can intervene. Rather than focusing on the unfair individual, third parties can choose to help those who were treated unfairly by reducing inequality. Such third-party helping as an alternative to third-party punishment has received little attention in studies with children. Across four studies, we examined the evaluations of third-party punishment versus third-party helping in N = 322 5- to 9-year-old children. Study 1, 3 and 4 showed that when asked about the agents directly, children evaluated both helpers and punishers positively, but they preferred helpers over punishers overall. When asked about the type of intervention itself, children preferred helping over punishment, suggesting that their preference for the type of intervention corresponds to how children think about the agents performing these interventions. Study 2 showed that children’s preference for third-party helping is driven by distributive justice concerns and not a mere preference for giving or resource maximization as children consider which type of third-party intervention decreases inequality. Together, this series of studies demonstrate that children between 5 and 9 years of age develop a sophisticated understanding of punishment and helping as two adequate forms of intervention but also display a preference for third-party helping. We discuss how these findings and prior work with adults supports the hypothesis of developmental continuity, showing that a preference for helping over punishment is deeply rooted in ontogeny.

From the Discussion:

The current study contributes to the literature by moving beyond the focus on punishment alone and probing children’s thinking about punishment and helping side by side. Prior developmental research focused on comparing punishers with third parties such as onlookers who choose not to intervene after witnessing a transgression (e.g., Vaish et al., 2016) or givers who reward a transgressor(e.g., Hamlin et al., 2011), which might have led to inflating children’s preference for punishers. Instead, the current study compared punishment with helping, a valid and common form of third-party intervention. Additionally, our study assessed children’s evaluations of punishment intervention per se and revealed a subtle but meaningful difference in understanding punishers vs. punishment, which was especially remarkable in young children. With the use of various measures and comparisons, the current study provided a more comprehensive understanding of the development of third-party punishment in children

Monday, September 30, 2019

Connecting the dots on the origins of social knowledge

Arber Tasimi
in press, Perspectives on Psychological Science


Understanding what infants know about social life is a growing enterprise. Indeed, one of the most exciting developments within psychological science over the past decade is the view that infants may come equipped with knowledge about “good” and “bad,” and about “us” and “them.” At the heart of this view is a seminal set of studies indicating that infants prefer helpers to hinderers and similar to dissimilar others. What a growing number of researchers now believe is that these preferences may be based on innate (i.e., unlearned) social knowledge. Here I consider how decades of research in developmental psychology can lead to a different way to make sense of this popular body of work. As I make connections between old observations and new theorizing––and between classic findings and contemporary research––I consider how the same preferences that are thought to emanate from innate social knowledge may, instead, reflect social knowledge that infants can rapidly build as they pursue relationships with their caregivers.  I offer this perspective with hopes that it will inspire future work that supports or questions the ideas sketched out here and, by doing so, will broaden an understanding of the origins of social knowledge.

The paper is here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Mozilla’s ambitious plan to teach coders not to be evil

Katherine Schwab
Fast Company
Originally published October 10, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

There’s already a burgeoning movement to integrate ethics into the computer science classroom. Harvard and MIT have launched a joint class on the ethics of AI. UT Austin has an ethics class for computer science majors that it plans to eventually make a requirement. Stanford similarly is developing an ethics class within its computer science department. But many of these are one-off initiatives, and a national challenge of this type will provide the resources and incentive for more universities to think about these questions–and theoretically help the best ideas scale across the country.

Still, Baker says she’s sometimes cynical about how much impact ethics classes will have without broader social change. “There’s a lot of power and institutional pressure and wealth” in making decisions that are good for business, but might be bad for humanity, Baker says. “The fact you had some classes in ethics isn’t going to overcome all that and make things perfect. People have many motivations.”

Even so, teaching young people how to think about tech’s implications with nuance could help to combat some of those other motivations–primarily, money. The conversation shouldn’t be as binary as code; it should acknowledge typical ways data is used and help young technologists talk and think about the difference between providing value and being invasive.

The info is here.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Just deserts

A Conversation Between Dan Dennett and Gregg Caruso
Originally published October 4, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

There are additional concerns as well. As I argue in my Public Health and Safety (2017), the social determinants of criminal behaviour are broadly similar to the social determinants of health. In that work, and elsewhere, I advocate adopting a broad public-health approach for identifying and taking action on these shared social determinants. I focus on how social inequities and systemic injustices affect health outcomes and criminal behaviour, how poverty affects brain development, how offenders often have pre-existing medical conditions (especially mental-health issues), how homelessness and education affects health and safety outcomes, how environmental health is important to both public health and safety, how involvement in the criminal justice system itself can lead to or worsen health and cognitive problems, and how a public-health approach can be successfully applied within the criminal justice system. I argue that, just as it is important to identify and take action on the social determinants of health if we want to improve health outcomes, it is equally important to identify and address the social determinants of criminal behaviour. My fear is that the system of desert you want to preserve leads us to myopically focus on individual responsibility and ultimately prevents us from addressing the systemic causes of criminal behaviour.

Consider, for example, the crazed reaction to [the then US president Barack] Obama’s claim that, ‘if you’ve got a [successful] business, you didn’t build that’ alone. The Republicans were so incensed by this claim that they dedicated the second day of the 2012 Republican National Convention to the theme ‘We Built it!’ Obama’s point, though, was simple, innocuous, and factually correct. To quote him directly: ‘If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.’ So, what’s so threatening about this? The answer, I believe, lies in the notion of just deserts. The system of desert keeps alive the belief that if you end up in poverty or prison, this is ‘just’ because you deserve it. Likewise, if you end up succeeding in life, you and you alone are responsible for that success. This way of thinking keeps us locked in the system of blame and shame, and prevents us from addressing the systemic causes of poverty, wealth-inequality, racism, sexism, educational inequity and the like. My suggestion is that we move beyond this, and acknowledge that the lottery of life is not always fair, that luck does not average out in the long run, and that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control.

The info is here.

I clipped out the more social-psychological aspect of the conversation.  There is a much broader, philosophical component regarding free will earlier in the conversation.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’

Abeba Birhane
Originally published April 7, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’ Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929). Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.

Accepting that others are vital to our self-perception is a corrective to the limitations of the Cartesian view. Consider two different models of child psychology. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development conceives of individual growth in a Cartesian fashion, as the reorganisation of mental processes. The developing child is depicted as a lone learner – an inventive scientist, struggling independently to make sense of the world. By contrast, ‘dialogical’ theories, brought to life in experiments such as Lisa Freund’s ‘doll house study’ from 1990, emphasise interactions between the child and the adult who can provide ‘scaffolding’ for how she understands the world.

A grimmer example might be solitary confinement in prisons. The punishment was originally designed to encourage introspection: to turn the prisoner’s thoughts inward, to prompt her to reflect on her crimes, and to eventually help her return to society as a morally cleansed citizen. A perfect policy for the reform of Cartesian individuals.

The information is here.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Frankenstein’s paperclips

The Economist
Originally posted June 25, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

AI researchers point to several technical reasons why fear of AI is overblown, at least in its current form. First, intelligence is not the same as sentience or consciousness, says Mr Ng, though all three concepts are commonly elided. The idea that machines will “one day wake up and change their minds about what they will do” is just not realistic, says Francesca Rossi, who works on the ethics of AI at IBM. Second, an “intelligence explosion” is considered unlikely, because it would require an AI to make each version of itself in less time than the previous version as its intelligence grows. Yet most computing problems, even much simpler ones than designing an AI, take much longer as you scale them up.

Third, although machines can learn from their past experiences or environments, they are not learning all the time.

The article is here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Cultural Evolution As Dialectic

By John Hartigan
Savage Minds
Originally posted April 21, 2015

Here is an excerpt:

A primary outcome is the recognition that culture “is an evolutionary player,” in the words of Kevin Laland. That is, culture drives and shapes so many aspects of evolution that it can destabilize reductivist assertions about human biology. The dialectic possibilities involve thinking about the key concept of phenotypic plasticity and how that vacillates along a continuum of fixity and fluidity, particularly as influenced by domestication (whether the version practiced by humans or not). And this gets back to a point the Fuentes stressed: “The mutual mutability of form and function in becoming human with other humans and nonhuman others is a central tenet in human evolution and should be recognized as a locus for the anthropological gaze …one where we can influence scientific practice in fields outside our own.” The way to challenge and change the way evolution operates in public discourse as an explanatory frame—see evolutionary psychology and economics—won’t improve until we fashion a more cultural account of how it operates.

The entire article is here.