Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What is optimism?

In this post Anneli Jefferson, research fellow at the University of Birmingham, announces a workshop on optimism in February 2016.

The Costs and Benefits of Unrealistic Optimism project looks at the nature of the optimism bias and at the consequences unwarranted optimism has for individuals and groups. It is a one year project funded by the Hope and Optimism funding initiative.

While there is a large body of research in psychology on the optimism bias, there is not much philosophical engagement with the topic. We (Lisa Bortolotti and Anneli Jefferson) are exploring the following questions: Is unrealistic optimism irrational? Can optimistically biased beliefs be said to be untrue? Why do we have these beliefs? What consequences do they have? Do they carry benefits in terms of resilience and coping? Do they aid or undermine our attempts to act morally? Do they leave us unprepared for harsh reality?

Some of these topics will be explored in an interdisciplinary workshop that will take place at Senate House in London on February 25th and 26th, 2016. We will be hearing from psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers. On the first day, the focus will be on the nature and causes of optimism, with contributions that focus on brain processes underlying optimism, the link between motivation and optimism and evolutionary accounts of unrealistic optimism. On the second day, we will be looking at the consequences of optimism, trying to tease out when these are beneficial and when detrimental. Realistically or not, we are convinced that this will be a great event well worth attending!

If you would like to attend this event, please go to the University of Birmingham online shop to register. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

PERFECT on Memory

This post is by Kathy Puddifoot, Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, working on project PERFECT.

Kathy Puddifoot
Project PERFECT aims to understand the nature of false beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulated explanations. In particular, on the project we are exploring whether there are ever benefits that follow from these mental phenomena. We consider whether false beliefs, distorted memories or confabulated explanations ever have positive practical consequences, and whether they ever enable us to achieve epistemic goals, such as forming true beliefs.

Since October, I am one of the research fellows on the project. One strand of the research I am undertaking on the project focuses on distorted memories. I am studying cases in which individuals form false memories, strongly believing that they recollect things that did not occur. My aim is to get a better understanding of why distorted memories are formed, and to understand their place within the wider human memory system. 

I am currently exploring the hypothesis that at least some distorted memories are outputs of an otherwise efficient memory system working under constraints of time and cognitive capacity. Under this view, the memory system as a whole provides an effective way to produce true memory beliefs, and that memory distortions can be viewed as unfortunate outputs of features of a cognitive system that has distinct epistemic benefits. By understanding distorted memories in this way it will hopefully be possible to challenge the stigma surrounding cases in which memory produces false belief.

A second strand of research I am undertaking on the project focuses on how perception is influenced by memories of past experience. There has been lively debate about this topic in two areas of philosophy. Some discussion has focused on how beliefs can influence the way we perceive the world—something that has become known as cognitive penetration. Other philosophers discuss how stereotypes can determine the way individual members of social groups are perceived. Both the beliefs and the stereotypes that influence perception are the result of memories of past experiences. It seems that, depending on the situation, these states can either increase or decrease the accuracy of our perceptions. 

My project aims to identify the conditions under which accuracy of perception is increased and decreased. As a part of this research I will consider whether, and under what conditions, inaccurate beliefs and stereotypes, based on false memories or accurate memories of false views, can enhance or reduce the accuracy of perception. In the long term I intend to apply insights from this project to medical practice, to provide an account of the conditions under which accuracy of diagnostic and treatment decisions can be increased or decreased by medical practitioners drawing on past experience when perceiving their patients. 

This month project PERFECT features in the Birmingham Heroes campaign launched by the University of Birmingham to highlight research that matters: learn more about the project on the Birmingham Heroes website and follow our updates on Twitter.