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 Knowledge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Knowledge. Show all posts

Saturday, May 20, 2023

ChatGPT Answers Beat Physicians' on Info, Patient Empathy, Study Finds

Michael DePeau-Wilson
MedPage Today
Originally published 28 April 23

The artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT outperformed physicians when answering patient questions, based on quality of response and empathy, according to a cross-sectional study.

Of 195 exchanges, evaluators preferred ChatGPT responses to physician responses in 78.6% (95% CI 75.0-81.8) of the 585 evaluations, reported John Ayers, PhD, MA, of the Qualcomm Institute at the University of California San Diego in La Jolla, and co-authors.

The AI chatbot responses were given a significantly higher quality rating than physician responses (t=13.3, P<0.001), with the proportion of responses rated as good or very good quality (≥4) higher for ChatGPT (78.5%) than physicians (22.1%), amounting to a 3.6 times higher prevalence of good or very good quality responses for the chatbot, they noted in JAMA Internal Medicine in a new tab or window.

Furthermore, ChatGPT's responses were rated as being significantly more empathetic than physician responses (t=18.9, P<0.001), with the proportion of responses rated as empathetic or very empathetic (≥4) higher for ChatGPT (45.1%) than for physicians (4.6%), amounting to a 9.8 times higher prevalence of empathetic or very empathetic responses for the chatbot.

"ChatGPT provides a better answer," Ayers told MedPage Today. "I think of our study as a phase zero study, and it clearly shows that ChatGPT wins in a landslide compared to physicians, and I wouldn't say we expected that at all."

He said they were trying to figure out how ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, could potentially help resolve the burden of answering patient messages for physicians, which he noted is a well-documented contributor to burnout.

Ayers said that he approached this study with his focus on another population as well, pointing out that the burnout crisis might be affecting roughly 1.1 million providers across the U.S., but it is also affecting about 329 million patients who are engaging with overburdened healthcare professionals.


"Physicians will need to learn how to integrate these tools into clinical practice, defining clear boundaries between full, supervised, and proscribed autonomy," he added. "And yet, I am cautiously optimistic about a future of improved healthcare system efficiency, better patient outcomes, and reduced burnout."

After seeing the results of this study, Ayers thinks that the research community should be working on randomized controlled trials to study the effects of AI messaging, so that the future development of AI models will be able to account for patient outcomes.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Consciousness begins with feeling, not thinking

A. Damasio & H. Dimasio
Originally posted 20 APR 23

Please pause for a moment and notice what you are feeling now. Perhaps you notice a growing snarl of hunger in your stomach or a hum of stress in your chest. Perhaps you have a feeling of ease and expansiveness, or the tingling anticipation of a pleasure soon to come. Or perhaps you simply have a sense that you exist. Hunger and thirst, pain, pleasure and distress, along with the unadorned but relentless feelings of existence, are all examples of ‘homeostatic feelings’. Homeostatic feelings are, we argue here, the source of consciousness.

In effect, feelings are the mental translation of processes occurring in your body as it strives to balance its many systems, achieve homeostasis, and keep you alive. In a conventional sense feelings are part of the mind and yet they offer something extra to the mental processes. Feelings carry spontaneously conscious knowledge concerning the current state of the organism as a result of which you can act to save your life, such as when you respond to pain or thirst appropriately. The continued presence of feelings provides a continued perspective over the ongoing body processes; the presence of feelings lets the mind experience the life process along with other contents present in your mind, namely, the relentless perceptions that collect knowledge about the world along with reasonings, calculations, moral judgments, and the translation of all these contents in language form. By providing the mind with a ‘felt point of view’, feelings generate an ‘experiencer’, usually known as a self. The great mystery of consciousness in fact is the mystery behind the biological construction of this experiencer-self.

In sum, we propose that consciousness is the result of the continued presence of homeostatic feelings. We continuously experience feelings of one kind or another, and feelings naturally tell each of us, automatically, not only that we exist but that we exist in a physical body, vulnerable to discomfort yet open to countless pleasures as well. Feelings such as pain or pleasure provide you with consciousness, directly; they provide transparent knowledge about you. They tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you exist and where you exist, and point to what you need to do to continue existing – for example, treating pain or taking advantage of the well-being that came your way. Feelings illuminate all the other contents of mind with the light of consciousness, both the plain events and the sublime ideas. Thanks to feelings, consciousness fuses the body and mind processes and gives our selves a home inside that partnership.

That consciousness should come ‘down’ to feelings may surprise those who have been led to associate consciousness with the lofty top of the physiological heap. Feelings have been considered inferior to reason for so long that the idea that they are not only the noble beginning of sentient life but an important governor of life’s proceedings may be difficult to accept. Still, feelings and the consciousness they beget are largely about the simple but essential beginnings of sentient life, a life that is not merely lived but knows that it is being lived.

Monday, May 8, 2023

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth"

John Horgan
Scientific American
Originally posted 23 May 12

Here are two excerpts:

Denying the view of science as a continual building process, Kuhn held that a revolution is a destructive as well as a creative act. The proposer of a new paradigm stands on the shoulders of giants (to borrow Newton's phrase) and then bashes them over the head. He or she is often young or new to the field, that is, not fully indoctrinated. Most scientists yield to a new paradigm reluctantly. They often do not understand it, and they have no objective rules by which to judge it. Different paradigms have no common standard for comparison; they are "incommensurable," to use Kuhn's term. Proponents of different paradigms can argue forever without resolving their basic differences because they invest basic terms—motion, particle, space, time—with different meanings. The conversion of scientists is thus both a subjective and political process. It may involve sudden, intuitive understanding—like that finally achieved by Kuhn as he pondered Aristotle. Yet scientists often adopt a paradigm simply because it is backed by others with strong reputations or by a majority of the community.

Kuhn's view diverged in several important respects from the philosophy of Karl Popper, who held that theories can never be proved but only disproved, or "falsified." Like other critics of Popper, Kuhn argued that falsification is no more possible than verification; each process wrongly implies the existence of absolute standards of evidence, which transcend any individual paradigm. A new paradigm may solve puzzles better than the old one does, and it may yield more practical applications. "But you cannot simply describe the other science as false," Kuhn said. Just because modern physics has spawned computers, nuclear power and CD players, he suggested, does not mean it is truer, in an absolute sense, than Aristotle's physics. Similarly, Kuhn denied that science is constantly approaching the truth. At the end of Structure he asserted that science, like life on earth, does not evolve toward anything but only away from something.


Kuhn declared that, although his book was not intended to be pro-science, he is pro-science. It is the rigidity and discipline of science, Kuhn said, that makes it so effective at problem-solving. Moreover, science produces "the greatest and most original bursts of creativity" of any human enterprise. Kuhn conceded that he was partly to blame for some of the anti-science interpretations of his model. After all, in Structure he did call scientists committed to a paradigm "addicts"; he also compared them to the brainwashed characters in Orwell's 1984. Kuhn insisted that he did not mean to be condescending by using terms such as "mopping up" or "puzzle-solving" to describe what most scientists do. "It was meant to be descriptive." He ruminated a bit. "Maybe I should have said more about the glories that result from puzzle solving, but I thought I was doing that."

As for the word "paradigm," Kuhn conceded that it had become "hopelessly overused" and is "out of control." Like a virus, the word spread beyond the history and philosophy of science and infected the intellectual community at large, where it came to signify virtually any dominant idea. A 1974 New Yorker cartoon captured the phenomena. "Dynamite, Mr. Gerston!" gushed a woman to a smug-looking man. "You're the first person I ever heard use 'paradigm' in real life." The low point came during the Bush administration, when White House officials introduced an economic plan called "the New Paradigm" (which was really just trickle-down economics).

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

What Happens When AI Has Read Everything?

Ross Anderson
The Atlantic
Originally posted 18 JAN 23

Here is an excerpt:

Ten trillion words is enough to encompass all of humanity’s digitized books, all of our digitized scientific papers, and much of the blogosphere. That’s not to say that GPT-4 will have read all of that material, only that doing so is well within its technical reach. You could imagine its AI successors absorbing our entire deep-time textual record across their first few months, and then topping up with a two-hour reading vacation each January, during which they could mainline every book and scientific paper published the previous year.

Just because AIs will soon be able to read all of our books doesn’t mean they can catch up on all of the text we produce. The internet’s storage capacity is of an entirely different order, and it’s a much more democratic cultural-preservation technology than book publishing. Every year, billions of people write sentences that are stockpiled in its databases, many owned by social-media platforms.

Random text scraped from the internet generally doesn’t make for good training data, with Wikipedia articles being a notable exception. But perhaps future algorithms will allow AIs to wring sense from our aggregated tweets, Instagram captions, and Facebook statuses. Even so, these low-quality sources won’t be inexhaustible. According to Villalobos, within a few decades, speed-reading AIs will be powerful enough to ingest hundreds of trillions of words—including all those that human beings have so far stuffed into the web.

And the conclusion:

If, however, our data-gorging AIs do someday surpass human cognition, we will have to console ourselves with the fact that they are made in our image. AIs are not aliens. They are not the exotic other. They are of us, and they are from here. They have gazed upon the Earth’s landscapes. They have seen the sun setting on its oceans billions of times. They know our oldest stories. They use our names for the stars. Among the first words they learn are flow, mother, fire, and ash.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The pervasive impact of ignorance

Kirfel, L., & Phillips, J.
Volume 231, February 2023, 105316


Norm violations have been demonstrated to impact a wide range of seemingly non-normative judgments. Among other things, when agents' actions violate prescriptive norms they tend to be seen as having done those actions more freely, as having acted more intentionally, as being more of a cause of subsequent outcomes, and even as being less happy. The explanation of this effect continue to be debated, with some researchers appealing to features of actions that violate norms, and other researcher emphasizing the importance of agents' mental states when acting. Here, we report the results of two large-scale experiments that replicate and extend twelve of the studies that originally demonstrated the pervasive impact of norm violations. In each case, we build on the pre-existing experimental paradigms to additionally manipulate whether the agents knew that they were violating a norm while holding fixed the action done. We find evidence for a pervasive impact of ignorance: the impact of norm violations on non-normative judgments depends largely on the agent knowing that they were violating a norm when acting. Moreover, we find evidence that the reduction in the impact of normality is underpinned by people's counterfactual reasoning: people are less likely to consider an alternative to the agent's action if the agent is ignorant. We situate our findings in the wider debate around the role or normality in people's reasoning.

General discussion

Studies show that norm violations influence a wide range of domains, including judgments of causation, freedom, happiness, doing vs. allowing, mental state ascriptions, and modal claims. A continuing debate centers on why normality has such a pervasive impact, and whether one should attempt to offer a unified explanation of these various effects (Hindriks, 2014). In this study, we found evidence that the epistemic state of norm-violating agents plays a fundamental role in the impact of norms on non-normative judgments. Across a wide range of intuitive judgments and highly different manipulations of an agents' knowledge, we found that the impact of normality on non-normative judgments was diminished when the agent did not know that they were violating a norm. More precisely, the agent's knowledge of the norm violation determined the extent to which abnormal actions increased judgments of causation, decreased attribution of force, increased attributions of intentional action, and so on. In other words, the impact of ignorance appears to be as pervasive as the impact of normality itself. In addition, our study showed that the agent's epistemic state also influenced to what extent people engage in reasoning about alternatives to the agent's action. If the agent was ignorant when they violated a norm, people were less inclined to consider what the agent could have done differently.

At the broadest level, the current results provide evidence that the pervasive impact of normality likely warrants a unified explanation at some level: we considered a specific feature that had been shown to moderate the impact of normality in one domain (causation) and demonstrated that this same feature of the impact of normality can be found across a wide range of other domains. This finding suggests that the impact of norms arises from a shared underlying mechanism that is recruited across domains. Specific accounts may, of course, seek to incorporate agents' epistemic states into their respective theory of how normality influences judgments in one particular domain. However, such an approach will miss out on a generalization and will necessarily be less parsimonious. Accordingly, we turn now to considering two broad approaches to offering a unified account of the pervasive impact of ignorance.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Deeply Rational Reasons for Irrational Beliefs

Barlev, M., & Neuberg, S. L. (2022, December 7).


Why do people hold irrational beliefs? Two accounts predominate. The first spotlights the information ecosystem and how people process this information; this account either casts those who hold irrational beliefs as cognitively deficient or focuses on the reasoning and decision-making heuristics all people use. The second account spotlights an inwardly-oriented and proximate motivation people have to enhance how they think and feel about themselves. Here, we advance a complementary, outwardly-oriented, and more ultimate account—that people often hold irrational beliefs for evolutionarily rational reasons. Under this view, irrational beliefs may serve as rare and valued information with which to rise in prestige, as signals of group commitment and loyalty tests, as ammunition with which to derogate rivals in the eyes of third-parties, or as outrages with which to mobilize the group toward shared goals. Thus, although many beliefs may be epistemically irrational, they may also be evolutionarily rational from the perspective of the functions they are adapted to serve. We discuss the implications of this view for puzzling theoretical phenomena and for changing problematic irrational beliefs.


Why do we hold irrational beliefs that often are not only improbable, but impossible? According to some, the information ecosystem is to blame, paired with deficiencies in how people process information or with heuristic modes of processing. According to others, it is because certain beliefs—regardless of their veracity—can enhance how we think and feel about ourselves. We suggest that such accounts are promising but incomplete: many irrational beliefs exist because they serve crucial interpersonal (and more ultimate rather than proximal) functions.

We have argued that many irrational beliefs are generated, entertained, and propagated by psychological mechanisms specialized for rising in prestige, signaling group commitment and testing group loyalty, derogating disliked competitors in the eyes of third-parties, or spreading common knowledge and coordination toward shared goals. Thus, although many beliefs are epistemically irrational, they can be evolutionarily rational from the perspective of the functions they are adapted to serve.

Is it not costly to individuals to hold epistemically irrational beliefs? Sometimes. Jehovah's Witnesses reject life-saving blood transfusions, a belief most consider to be very costly, explaining why courts sometimes compel blood transfusions such as in the case of children. Yet even here, the benefits to individuals of carrying such costly beliefs may outweigh their costs, at least for some. For example, if such belief are designed to signal group commitment, they might emerge among particularly devout members of groups or among groups in which the need to signal commitment is particularly strong; the costlier the belief, the more honest a signal of group commitment it is (Petersen et al., 2021). However, such cases are the exception—most of the irrational beliefs people hold tend to be inferentially isolated and behaviorally inert. For example, the belief that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one may function for a Christian as a signal of group affiliation and commitment, without carrying for the individual many costly inferences or behavioral implications (Petersen et al., 2021; Mercier, 2020).

Friday, September 16, 2022

Talking with strangers is surprisingly informative

Atir, S., Wald, K. A., & Epley, N. (2022).
PNAS, 119(34). 


A meaningful amount of people’s knowledge comes from their conversations with others. The amount people expect to learn predicts their interest in having a conversation (pretests 1 and 2), suggesting that the presumed information value of conversations guides decisions of whom to talk with. The results of seven experiments, however, suggest that people may systematically underestimate the informational benefit of conversation, creating a barrier to talking with—and hence learning from—others in daily life. Participants who were asked to talk with another person expected to learn significantly less from the conversation than they actually reported learning afterward, regardless of whether they had conversation prompts and whether they had the goal to learn (experiments 1 and 2). Undervaluing conversation does not stem from having systematically poor opinions of how much others know (experiment 3) but is instead related to the inherent uncertainty involved in conversation itself. Consequently, people underestimate learning to a lesser extent when uncertainty is reduced, as in a nonsocial context (surfing the web, experiment 4); when talking to an acquainted conversation partner (experiment 5); and after knowing the content of the conversation (experiment 6). Underestimating learning in conversation is distinct from underestimating other positive qualities in conversation, such as enjoyment (experiment 7). Misunderstanding how much can be learned in conversation could keep people from learning from others in daily life.


Conversation can be a useful source of learning about practically any topic. Information exchanged through conversation is central to culture and society, as talking with others communicates norms, creates shared understanding, conveys morality, shares knowledge, provides different perspectives, and more. Yet we find that people systematically undervalue what they might learn in conversation, anticipating that they will learn less than they actually do. This miscalibration stems from the inherent uncertainty of conversations, where it can be difficult to even conceive of what one might learn before one learns it. Holding miscalibrated expectations about the information value of conversation may discourage people from engaging in them more often, creating a potentially misplaced barrier to learning more from others.

Direct applications to psychotherapy.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues

Light, N. et al. 
Science Advances, 20 Jul 2022
Vol 8, Issue 29
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abo0038


Public attitudes that are in opposition to scientific consensus can be disastrous and include rejection of vaccines and opposition to climate change mitigation policies. Five studies examine the interrelationships between opposition to expert consensus on controversial scientific issues, how much people actually know about these issues, and how much they think they know. Across seven critical issues that enjoy substantial scientific consensus, as well as attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines and mitigation measures like mask wearing and social distancing, results indicate that those with the highest levels of opposition have the lowest levels of objective knowledge but the highest levels of subjective knowledge. Implications for scientists, policymakers, and science communicators are discussed.


Results from five studies show that the people who disagree most with the scientific consensus know less about the relevant issues, but they think they know more. These results suggest that this phenomenon is fairly general, although the relationships were weaker for some more polarized issues, particularly climate change. It is important to note that we document larger mismatches between subjective and objective knowledge among participants who are more opposed to the scientific consensus. Thus, although broadly consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect and other research on knowledge miscalibration, our findings represent a pattern of relationships that goes beyond overconfidence among the least knowledgeable. However, the data are correlational, and the normal caveats apply.

A strength of these studies is the consistency of the main result across the overall models in studies 1 to 3 and specific (but different) instantiations of anti-consensus attitudes about COVID-19 in studies 4 and 5. Additional strengths are that study 5 is a conceptual replication of study 4 (and studies 1 to 3 more generally) using different measures and operationalizations of the main constructs, conducted by an initially independent group of researchers (with each group unaware of the research of the other during study development and data collection). The final two studies were also collected approximately 2 months apart, in July and September 2020, respectively. These two collection periods reflect the dynamic nature of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, with cases in July trending upward and cases in September flat or trending downward. The consistency of our effects across these 2 months suggests that the pattern of results is fairly robust.

One possible interpretation of these relationships is that the people who appear to be overconfident in their knowledge and extreme in their opposition to the consensus are actually reporting their sense of understanding for a set of incorrect alternative facts not those of the scientific community. After all, nonscientific explanations and theories tend to be much simpler and less mechanistic than scientific ones.  As a result, participants could be reporting higher levels of understanding for what are, in fact, simpler interpretations. However, we believe that several elements of this research speak against this interpretation fully explaining the results. First, the battery of objective knowledge questions is sufficiently broad, simple, and removed (at first glance) from the corresponding scientific issues. For example, not knowing that “the skin is the largest organ in the human body” does not suggest that participants hold alternative views about how the human body works; it suggests the lack of real knowledge about the body. We also believe that it does not cue participants to the fact that the question is related to vaccination. 

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).

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Pervasive Impact of Ignorance

Kirfel, L., & Phillips, J. S. 
(2022, January 16). 


Norm violations have been demonstrated to impact a wide range of seemingly non-normative judgments. Among other things, when agents' actions violate prescriptive norms they tend to be seen as having done those actions more freely, as having acted more intentionally, as being more of a cause of subsequent outcomes, and even as being less happy. The explanation of this effect continues to be debated, with some researchers appealing to features of actions that violate norms, and other researchers emphasizing the importance of agents' mental states when acting. Here, we report the results of two large-scale experiments that replicate and extend twelve of the studies that originally demonstrated the pervasive impact of norm violations. In each case, we build on the pre-existing experimental paradigms to additionally manipulate whether the agents knew that they were violating a norm while holding fixed the action done. We find evidence for a pervasive impact of ignorance: the impact of norm violations on non-normative judgments depends largely on the agent knowing that they were violating a norm when acting. Moreover, we find evidence that the reduction in the impact of normality is underpinned by people's counterfactual reasoning: people are less likely to consider an alternative to the agent’s action if the agent is ignorant. We situate our findings in the wider debate around the role of normality in people's reasoning.

General Discussion

Motivated Moral Cognition

On the one hand, blame-based accounts may try and use this discovery to their ad-vantage by arguing that an agent’s knowledge is directly relevant to whether they should be blamed (Cushman et al., 2008; Cushman, Sheketoff, Wharton, & Carey, 2013; Laurent, Nuñez, & Schweitzer, 2015; Yuill & Perner, 1988), and thus that these effects reflect that theimpact of normality arises from the motivation to blame or hold agents responsible for theiractions (Alicke & Rose, 2012; Livengood et al., 2017; Samland & Waldmann, 2016). For example, the tendency to report that agents who bring about harm acted intentionally may serve to corroborate people’s desire to judge the agent’s behaviour negatively (Nadelhoffer, 2004; Rogers et al., 2019). Motivated accounts differ in terms of exactly which moral judgment is argued to be at stake, i.e. whether norm-violations elicit a desire to punish (Clarket al., 2014), to blame (Alicke & Rose, 2012; Hindriks et al., 2016), to hold accountable (Samland & Waldmann, 2016) or responsible (Sytsma, 2020a), and whether its influence works in form of a cognitive bias (Alicke, 2000), or a more affective response (Nadelhoffer,2004). Common to all, however, is the assumption that it is the impetus to morally condemn the norm-violating agent that underlies exaggerated attributions of specific properties, from free will to intentional action.

Our study puts an important constraint on how the normative judgment that motivated reasoning accounts assume might work. To account for our findings, motivated ac-counts cannot generally appeal to whether an agent’s action violated a clear norm, but have to take into account whether people would all-things-considered blame the agent (Driver,2017). In that sense, the mere violation of a norm must not, itself, suffice to trigger the relevant blame response. Rather, the perception of this norm violation must occur in con-junction with an assessment of the epistemic state of the agent such that the relevant motivated reasoning is only elicited when the agent is aware of the immorality of their action. For example, Alicke and Rose’s 2012 Culpable Control Model holds that immediate negative evaluative reactions of an agent’s behaviours often cause people to interpret all other agential features in a way that justifies blaming the agent. Such accounts face a challenge. On the one hand, they seem committed to the idea that people should discount the agent’s ignorance to support their immediate negative evaluation of the harm causing actions. On the other hand, they need to account for the fact that people seem to be sensitive to fine-grained epistemic features of the agent when forming their negative evaluation of the harm causing action.

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Impact of Ignorance Beyond Causation: An Experimental Meta-Analysis

L. Kirfel & J. P. Phillips


Norm violations have been demonstrated to impact a wide range of seemingly non-normative judgments. Among other things, when agents’ actions violate prescriptive norms they tend to be seen as having done those actions more freely, as having acted more intentionally, as being more of a cause of subsequent outcomes, and even as being less happy. The explanation of this effect continue to be debated, with some researchers appealing to features of actions that violate norms, and other researcher emphasizing the importance of agents’ mental states when acting. Here, we report the results of a large-scale experiment that replicates and extends twelve of the studies that originally demonstrated the pervasive impact of norm violations. In each case, we build on the pre-existing experimental paradigms to additionally manipulate whether the agents knew that they were violating a norm while holding fixed the action done. We find evidence for a pervasive impact of ignorance: the impact of norm violations on nonnormative judgments depends largely on the agent knowing that they were violating a norm when acting.

From the Discussion

Norm violations have been previously demonstrated to influence a wide range of intuitive judgments, including judgments of causation, freedom, happiness, doing vs. allowing, mental state ascriptions, and modal claims. A continuing debate centers on why normality has such a pervasive impact, and whether one should attempt to offer a unified explanation of these various effects (Hindriks, 2014).

At the broadest level, the current results demonstrate that the pervasive impact of normality likely warrants a unified explanation at some level. Across a wide range of intuitive judgments and highly different manipulations of an agents’ knowledge, we found that the impact of normality on nonnormative judgments was diminished when the agent did not know that they were violating a norm. That is, we found evidence for a correspondingly pervasive impact of ignorance.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

It just feels right: an account of expert intuition

Fridland, E., & Stichter, M. 
Synthese (2020). 


One of the hallmarks of virtue is reliably acting well. Such reliable success presupposes that an agent (1) is able to recognize the morally salient features of a situation, and the appropriate response to those features and (2) is motivated to act on this knowledge without internal conflict. Furthermore, it is often claimed that the virtuous person can do this (3) in a spontaneous or intuitive manner. While these claims represent an ideal of what it is to have a virtue, it is less clear how to make good on them. That is, how is it actually possible to spontaneously and reliably act well? In this paper, we will lay out a framework for understanding how it is that one could reliably act well in an intuitive manner. We will do this by developing the concept of an action schema, which draws on the philosophical and psychological literature on skill acquisition and self-regulation. In short, we will give an account of how self-regulation, grounded in skillful structures, can allow for the accurate intuitions and flexible expertise required for virtue. While our primary goal in this paper is to provide a positive theory of how virtuous intuitions might be accounted for, we also take ourselves to be raising the bar for what counts as an explanation of reliable and intuitive action in general.


By thinking of skill and expertise as sophisticated forms of self-regulation, we are able to get a handle on intuition, generally, and on the ways in which reliably accurate intuition may develop in virtue, specifically. This gives us a way of explaining both the accuracy and immediacy of the virtuous person’s perception and intuitive responsiveness to a situation and it also gives us further reason to prefer a virtue as skill account of virtue. Moreover, such an approach gives us the resources to explain with some rigor and precision, the ways in which expert intuition can be accounted for, by appeal to action schemas. Lastly, our approach provides reason to think that expert intuition in the realm of virtue can indeed develop over time and with practice in a way that is flexible, controlled and intelligent. It lends credence to the view that virtue is learned and that we can act reliably and well by grounding our actions in expert intuition.

Friday, May 28, 2021

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

Max Fisher
The New York Times
Originally published 7 May 21

Hereis an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 7, 2021

How people decide what they want to know

Sharot, T., Sunstein, C.R. 
Nat Hum Behav 4, 14–19 (2020). 


Immense amounts of information are now accessible to people, including information that bears on their past, present and future. An important research challenge is to determine how people decide to seek or avoid information. Here we propose a framework of information-seeking that aims to integrate the diverse motives that drive information-seeking and its avoidance. Our framework rests on the idea that information can alter people’s action, affect and cognition in both positive and negative ways. The suggestion is that people assess these influences and integrate them into a calculation of the value of information that leads to information-seeking or avoidance. The theory offers a framework for characterizing and quantifying individual differences in information-seeking, which we hypothesize may also be diagnostic of mental health. We consider biases that can lead to both insufficient and excessive information-seeking. We also discuss how the framework can help government agencies to assess the welfare effects of mandatory information disclosure.


It is increasingly possible for people to obtain information that bears on their future prospects, in terms of health, finance and even romance. It is also increasingly possible for them to obtain information about the past, the present and the future, whether or not that information bears on their personal lives. In principle, people’s decisions about whether to seek or avoid information should depend on some integration of instrumental value, hedonic value and cognitive value. But various biases can lead to both insufficient and excessive information-seeking. Individual differences in information-seeking may reflect different levels of susceptibility to those biases, as well as varying emphasis on instrumental, hedonic and cognitive utility.  Such differences may also be diagnostic of mental health.

Whether positive or negative, the value of information bears directly on significant decisions of government agencies, which are often charged with calculating the welfare effects of mandatory disclosure and which have long struggled with that task. Our hope is that the integrative framework of information-seeking motives offered here will facilitate these goals and promote future research in this important domain.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

How to know who’s trustworthy

T. Ryan Byerly
Originally posted 4 Nov 2020

Here is an excerpt:

An interesting fact about the virtues of intellectual dependability is that they are both intellectual and moral virtues. They’re ‘intellectual’ in the sense that they’re concerned with intellectual goods such as knowledge and understanding; but they’re moral virtues too, because they’re concerned with the intellectual goods of others. Indeed, the moral, other-regarding features of these virtues are especially central in a way that’s different to other intellectual virtues, such as inquisitiveness or intellectual perseverance.

It is in part because of the centrality of their other-regarding dimensions that the virtues of intellectual dependability haven’t taken on a larger role in education. The reigning paradigm of what we should aim for in education is that of the critical thinker. But being a critical thinker doesn’t necessarily mean that you possess other-regarding qualities, such as the virtues of intellectual dependability.

While we might lament this fact when it comes to formal education, we can still make efforts to become more intellectually dependable on our own. And we arguably should try to do so. After all, it’s not just us who are in need of dependable guides in our networks – we need to be intellectually dependable for the sake others, too.

If we want to grow in these virtues of intellectual dependability – to become more benevolent, transparent and so on – what can we do? The following are four strategies that researchers tend to agree can help us grow in intellectual virtue.

A first strategy is direct instruction – learning about the nature of particular intellectual virtues that we hope to cultivate. Ideally, we’ll gain an account of what the virtue involves, and we might learn about the vices that oppose it. Part of the reason why direct instruction is important is that it helps to reduce our cognitive load. It gives us a framework to think through our intellectual life. It also helps us set a target to aim for.

A second strategy is to think how intellectual virtues apply in particular situations, considering what the intellectual virtue – and perhaps also its opposing vices – looks like in action. You might select some historical, contemporary or even fictional examples of people who appear to act in accordance with the virtue or its opposing vice. By encountering exemplars, you might gain a taste or sensibility for the virtue, and a person to emulate. More generally, this exercise can help you to practise evaluating scenarios in which intellectual virtues can influence behaviour. When done well, this can help you appreciate the variety of contexts in which intellectual virtues make a difference, and the different kinds of behaviour they lead to.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Intentional Action Without Knowledge

Vekony, R., Mele, A. & Rose, D.
Synthese (2020).


In order to be doing something intentionally, must one know that one is doing it? Some philosophers have answered yes. Our aim is to test a version of this knowledge thesis, what we call the Knowledge/Awareness Thesis, or KAT. KAT states that an agent is doing something intentionally only if he knows that he is doing it or is aware that he is doing it. Here, using vignettes featuring skilled action and vignettes featuring habitual action, we provide evidence that, in various scenarios, a majority of non-specialists regard agents as intentionally doing things that the agents do not know they are doing and are not aware of doing. This puts pressure on proponents of KAT and leaves it to them to find a way these results can coexist with KAT.


Our aim was to evaluate KAT empirically. We found that majority responses to our vignettes
are at odds with KAT. Our results show that, on an ordinary view of matters, neither knowledge nor
awareness of doing something is necessary for doing it intentionally. We tested cases of skilled action
and habitual action, and we found that, for both, people ascribed intentionality to an action at an
appreciably higher rate than knowledge and awareness.

The research is here.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Generosity without borders: The interactive effect of spatial distance and donation goals on charitable giving

A. Jing Xu, M. A. Rodas, C. J. Torelli
Organizational Behavior and 
Human Decision Processes
Volume 161, November 2020, Pages 65-78


Although past research suggests that people are more likely to donate money to nearby causes to maximize their positive impact on others’ lives, donations to foreign causes are growing rapidly. Incorporating both other-focused impact goals and self-focused moral goals into our conceptualization, we propose that an interplay between the accessibility of impact/moral goals and the spatial distance between donors and recipients of charitable causes (e.g., faraway vs. nearby recipients) influences charitable behaviors (e.g., donation amounts and charitable choices). Specifically, when the goal to maintain a moral self-concept (impact recipients’ lives) is accessible, donors experience a more expansive conception of their moral circle (apply the “closeness-equals-impact” heuristic) and donate more money to faraway (nearby) causes. We further demonstrate that moral (impact) goals are more abstract (concrete) motivations, and their effects also emerge when priming an abstract (concrete) mindset. Five studies support these predictions while ruling out alternative interpretations.


• The goal to maintain a moral self-concept leads to higher donations to faraway causes.

• This effect is mediated by perceived expansion of one’s circle of moral regard.

• The goal to impact recipients’ lives leads to higher donations to nearby causes.

• Moral goals are abstract and can be activated by an abstract mindset.

• Impact goals are concrete and can be activated by a concrete mindset.

• Self-importance of moral identity moderates the effect of spatial distance on donations.

The research is here.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die

Ed Yong
The Atlantic
Originally posted 5 August 20

Here is an excerpt:

Immune responses are inherently violent. Cells are destroyed. Harmful chemicals are unleashed. Ideally, that violence is targeted and restrained; as Metcalf puts it, “Half of the immune system is designed to turn the other half off.” But if an infection is allowed to run amok, the immune system might do the same, causing a lot of collateral damage in its prolonged and flailing attempts to control the virus.

This is apparently what happens in severe cases of COVID-19. “If you can’t clear the virus quickly enough, you’re susceptible to damage from the virus and the immune system,” says Donna Farber, a microbiologist at Columbia. Many people in intensive-care units seem to succumb to the ravages of their own immune cells, even if they eventually beat the virus. Others suffer from lasting lung and heart problems, long after they are discharged. Such immune overreactions also happen in extreme cases of influenza, but they wreak greater damage in COVID-19.

There’s a further twist. Normally, the immune system mobilizes different groups of cells and molecules when fighting three broad groups of pathogens: viruses and microbes that invade cells, bacteria and fungi that stay outside cells, and parasitic worms. Only the first of these programs should activate during a viral infection. But Iwasaki’s team recently showed that all three activate in severe COVID-19 cases. “It seems completely random,” she says. In the worst cases, “the immune system almost seems confused as to what it’s supposed to be making.”

No one yet knows why this happens, and only in some people. Eight months into the pandemic, the variety of COVID-19 experiences remains a vexing mystery. It’s still unclear, for example, why so many “long-haulers” have endured months of debilitating symptoms. Many of them have never been hospitalized, and so aren’t represented in existing studies that have measured antibody and T-cell responses. David Putrino of Mount Sinai tells me that he surveyed 700 long-haulers and a third had tested negative for antibodies, despite having symptoms consistent with COVID-19. It’s unclear if their immune systems are doing anything differently when confronted with the coronavirus.

The info is here.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Repetition increases Perceived Truth even for Known Falsehoods

Lisa Fazio
Originally posted 23 March 20

Repetition increases belief in false statements. This illusory truth effect occurs with many different types of statements (e.g., trivia facts, news headlines, advertisements), and even occurs when the false statement contradicts participants’ prior knowledge. However, existing studies of the effect of prior knowledge on the illusory truth effect share a common flaw; they measure participants’ knowledge after the experimental manipulation and thus conditionalize responses on posttreatment variables. In the current study, we measure prior knowledge prior to the experimental manipulation and thus provide a cleaner measurement of the causal effect of repetition on belief. We again find that prior knowledge does not protect against the illusory truth effect. Repeated false statements were given higher truth ratings than novel statements, even when they contradicted participants’ prior knowledge.

From the Discussion

As in previous research (Brashier et al., 2017; Fazio et al., 2015), prior knowledge did not protect participants from the illusory truth effect.Repeated falsehoods were rated as being more true than novel falsehoods, even when they both contradicted participants’ prior knowledge. By measuring prior knowledge before the experimental session, this study avoids conditioning on posttreatment variables and provides cleaner evidence for the effect (Montgomery et al., 2018). Whether prior knowledge is measured before or after the manipulation, it is clear that repetition increases belief in falsehoods that contradict existing knowledge.

The research is here.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Galileo’s Big Mistake

Galileo's Big MistakePhilip Goff
Scientific American Blog
Originally posted November 7, 2019

Here is an excerpt:

Galileo, as it were, stripped the physical world of its qualities; and after he’d done that, all that remained were the purely quantitative properties of matter—size, shape, location, motion—properties that can be captured in mathematical geometry. In Galileo’s worldview, there is a radical division between the following two things:
  • The physical world with its purely quantitative properties, which is the domain of science,
  • Consciousness, with its qualities, which is outside of the domain of science.
It was this fundamental division that allowed for the possibility of mathematical physics: once the qualities had been removed, all that remained of the physical world could be captured in mathematics. And hence, natural science, for Galileo, was never intended to give us a complete description of reality. The whole project was premised on setting qualitative consciousness outside of the domain of science.

What do these 17th century discussions have to do with the contemporary science of consciousness? It is now broadly agreed that consciousness poses a very serious challenge for contemporary science. Despite rapid progress in our understanding of the brain, we still have no explanation of how complex electrochemical signaling could give rise to a subjective inner world of colors, sounds, smells and tastes.

Although this problem is taken very seriously, many assume that the way to deal with this challenge is simply to continue with our standard methods for investigating the brain. The great success of physical science in explaining more and more of our universe ought to give us confidence, it is thought, that physical science will one day crack the puzzle of consciousness.

The blog post is here.