Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Biased Mind

Michel De Lara (below left) is a researcher concerned with the mathematical and economic aspects of risk. Jérôme Boutang (below right) is a communication professional with expertise in environmental threats such as air pollution and climate change. Together with the Paris School of Economics, they started a research project on risk perception which soon developed into the Biased Mind project. In this post they introduce their new book The Biased Mind, which is published in the Copernicus popular science collection of Springer.



Why is it that the French eat snails but not slugs? What makes the number 7 so special? Will your recent marriage last? Why is it that Batman, Superman and Spiderman fearlessly defeat evil monsters, but are hopelessly shy when it comes to women? And why is it that we crave sugary and greasy food, even though we know it's not healthy? The answer to these questions is that our mind is like a smartphone, filled with adaptive software, whose different modules operate alternatively or engage in struggle among themselves.

Metaphors like this, as well as other short stories, anecdotes and images—the deeply rooted language elements that speak to our mind—are presented in this book to ensure that it is accessible to a wide readership. The book provides insight into the workings of our brain and useful tips on how to steer clear of its pitfalls.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Adaptive Role of Moderate Anxiety in Reacting to Social Threats


This post is by Marwa El Zein (pictured above), currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Social Cognition Group, based in Paris. In this post Marwa summarises her paper ‘Anxiety Dissociates the Adaptive Functions of Sensory and Motor Response Enhancements to Social Threats’, co-authored with Valentin Wyart and Julie Grèzes, and published in eLife.

I investigate the neural mechanisms of contextual influences during social perceptual decisions. Specifically, my work characterizes behaviorally and neurally how personality traits, past experience, and attention modulate facial perception.

In my paper, the adaptive role of moderate anxiety in reacting to social threats is put forward. Neural activity (electroencephalography, EEG) of participants was recorded while they categorized angry and fearful facial emotions. Individual anxiety of participants was assessed thanks to a personality trait questionnaire filled out at the beginning of the experiment (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory).

Importantly, the degree to which facial emotions were threatening to the observer varied through the manipulation of the emitter’s gaze direction (direct or averted toward the observer). Indeed, an angry person looking directly at you signals a direct threat to you (which is not the case if the same angry person was looking at someone else), whereas a fearful person looking aside signals a common (and unknown) threat in the environment.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Bulimia as an Addiction

Today's post is by Polly Mertens (pictured below) who talks about her experience with bulimia, and her recovery. Polly's website is Get Busy Thriving.


I started binging and purging when I was 14 after I had been restricting food to lose weight. I felt like I was missing out on foods I enjoyed. When I tried to stop my binging and purging cycles a year later, I couldn’t control the urges. I later learned I had bulimia.

Over the next 20 years I could manage stopping the binging for a few weeks or months, but the urges always came back and I felt helpless to stop them. At my worst I would binge and purge 10 times a day.

On the outside I seemed like a healthy and normal person. I went to the gym, ate pretty healthy and had an average body weight. With friends I only ate normally, but alone I was completely out of control around food. I felt ashamed and extremely frustrated with my addiction.

Bulimia is a hidden habit and most people wouldn’t know someone was bulimic because they are good at keeping their secret. Bulimics are usually very normal on the outside and often high achievers so they can appear to have it all together. Yet on the inside they are struggling with inner urges that drive them to overeat.

When I was 34 I was resigned to living my life as a bulimic. I stopped trying to overcome my bad habit. Thankfully the urges weren’t as frequent or out of control as they were at my worst period. That year I attended a personal transformation workshop (The Landmark Forum) and it changed the course of my future. I regained my power. I became more conscious and responsible for my thoughts. I decided to stop that day and haven’t binged or purged since 2005.

Today I eat normally and all of the patterns surrounding my bulimia habits are gone. I’ve done a lot of study since my first workshop including introducing spiritual practices, learning more about mindfulness, willpower, goal setting and much more. Recovering from bulimia was the start of my journey to learn how to create a great life.

Having been through bulimia I know it is not a disease. I see it as an addiction. My hope is in the near future the neurological habit patterns that are a part of bulimia will be better understood so those with it can be taught how to stop more quickly and easily.

As a recovery and life coach I work with clients so they see their own habituated patterns so they can make the changes to stop, too. I struggled for a long, long time because I misunderstood how to stop my addictive behavior. Once I understood things better I regained my power and took responsibility for what happens in my life.

I know it’s possible for a person who’s had bulimia for 20, 30, 40 or more years to stop for good. I’m glad there are videos, books and blogs talking about how to overcome bulimia in new ways. My hope is more counselors and centers will learn about and embrace new methods of helping people understand what causes the addictive behavior and empower people to choose their recovery.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency

Today's post is by John M. Doris, Professor in the Philosophy–Neuroscience–Psychology Program and Philosophy Department, Washington University in St. Louis. Doris has been awarded fellowships from Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, the National Humanities Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities (three times), and is a winner of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology’s Stanton Prize. He authored Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (Cambridge, 2002) and Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency (Oxford 2015). With his colleagues in the Moral Psychology Research Group, he edited The Moral Psychology Handbook (Oxford, 2010). At Washington University, Doris’ pedagogy has been recognized with an Outstanding Mentor Award from the Graduate Student Senate and the David Hadas Teaching Award for excellence in the instruction of first year undergraduates. 

In the current post John discusses Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency.




If you’ve worked in an office, you’re probably familiar with “honor box” coffee service. Everyone helps themselves to stewed coffee, adds to the lounge’s growing filth, and deposits a nominal sum in the honor box, with the accumulated proceeds being used to replenish supplies. Notoriously, this system often devolves into a tragedy of the commons, where too many people drink without paying. Unless some philanthropic soul goes out of pocket to cover freeriders, the enterprise goes in the red, and everyone’s back to extortionate prices at the cafe.

Fortunately, the tragedy of the honor box may be readily ameliorated; if images of eyes are placed prominently near the coffee service, deposits increase. Or so Bateson and her colleagues (2006) found: the take in a Psychology Department’s honor box (computed by amount contributed per liter of milk consumed) was nearly three times as large when the posted payment instructions were augmented with an image of eyes as when they were augmented with an image of flowers.

Fig. 1: The Eyes Have It: honor box contributions higher with eyes than with flowers (Pounds paid per liter of milk consumed as a function of week and image type; from Bateson et al. 2006: 413)

An extensive experimental literature, together with the large family of “dual process” theories attempting to make sense of it, suggests the widespread presence of “incongruent parallel processing” where two (or more) cognitive systems (with “cognitive” capaciously construed) issue in divergent outputs with regards the some same object. (The size of the literature and the existence of supporting theory, I argue in the book [e.g., 44-50] is critical, given the recent “RepliGate” controversy in psychology.) This incongruence raises the prospect of “defeaters” for morally responsible agency, where the causes of a behavior (namely, those causal factors that appropriately figure in a well formed psychological explanation of a behavior) would not be counted by the actor as reasons for that behavior. Where defeaters obtain, I argue, agency is imperiled, so in those cases where we cannot confidently rule out the presence of defeaters, the attribution of agency is not warranted. Thus, I claim, skepticism about agency threatens.