ESSENTIALISM

Bruce Hood [5.17.12]
Topic:

"The self is something that is central to a lot of psychological questions and, in fact, a lot of psychologists have difficulty describing their work without positing the notion of a self. It's such a common daily, profound, indivisible experience for most of us. Some people do manage to achieve states of divided self or anatta, no self, they're really skilled Buddhists. But for the majority of us the self is a very compulsive experience. I happen to think it's an illusion and certainly the neuroscience seems to support that contention. Simply from the logical positions that it's very difficult to, without avoiding some degree of infinite regress, to say a starting point, the trail of thought, just the fractionation of the mind, when we see this happening in neurological conditions. The famous split-brain studies showing that actually we're not integrated entities inside our head, rather we're the output of a multitude of unconscious processes."

BRUCE HOOD is a British experimental psychologist who holds the Chair in Developmental Psychology in Society at Bristol Cognitive Development Centre. He is well known for his ideas on humans being hard-wired for supernatural beliefs. He is the author of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, and most recently, The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Identity. In 2011, he presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, "Meet Your Brain" which was broadcast on the BBC.

Bruce Hood's Edge Bio Page

 


ESSENTIALISM

[BRUCE HOOD:] I've reached a crossroads in my research and in the questions I'm now starting to ask. Part of that was driven by some insight and realization about the direction I was taking, and part of it was also driven by changes in economic circumstances. Notably, the reduction in funding in this country has impacted upon my field quite dramatically (behavioral sciences). The way that that has impacted is that there's far less money to fund research, so the competition to get funding has become very acute. Now we have to justify with a view to application. In the past you could just go off on a flight of fancy studying the things that were of intrinsic interest. 

But now we have to steer our grant applications towards potential application, and certainly we have to write a substantial proportion of the proposal to deal with impact, public engagement. And that's across the board. As I said, if this had been five, ten years ago, there would have been some resistance to that, but increasingly now the research councils feel that we, as a public body funded by taxation, need to be called to account in terms of what we're doing with the money, the taxpayers' money.

This has led me to start thinking more about what I do in terms of its tangible application in the real world? That's the external influences that have been shaping the sorts of questions I'm starting to ask now.

There's been a growing awareness that there have been a lot of problems with the way that psychological research has been going on in the past, very much lab-based type of work. There has been a general issue in the experimental method, what you typically do is you hone in on a question, and you try to refine that question by removing all the extraneous variables to try and make it as clean as possible. But then that does raise the question, to what extent? And does what you eventually find actually have real relevance or validity to the external world? Because in many senses, the complexity of the external world might be part of the problem that the brain is trying to solve.

A number of us have been getting increasingly concerned that the theories that have been derived by purely experimental methods may not necessarily translate into the real world as well. There's a combination of this external pressure to come up with research which is seen to have application, but also a growing concern that maybe some of the findings wouldn’t necessarily translate. That's the kind of major forces that have been changing the way that I do things.

I've also got increasingly interested in public communication and education, engagement, transfer of knowledge, and so there's more of that on my plate these days. I did the Christmas lectures in 2011. That was a great opportunity. I've actually changed my job title, I'm Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society. I see myself continuing with my research career, but trying to find opportunities to take that out to the general public.

To give you a tangible example, one of the things that we study in my laboratory is how children navigate or build up spatial maps of the world. They wander around our laboratory and they try to find targets, which are embedded in the floor as LED switches. It's a very useful experimental measure of foraging. How do you keep track of where you've been? How do you optimize your search behavior? That's led to some interesting ideas and we could have stayed just pursuing that, but now we're starting to say, well, can we see whether those findings actually are relevant to the real world? We're taking those paradigms and testing them out in the local science museum. That provides not only an opportunity to see whether it's relevant in the real world, but also an opportunity to engage the public. It's killing two birds with one stone. It's something that the public can actually do and it seems of importance, contribution, and also trying something that is a little bit more real world. I'm not suggesting that this is a good absolute model for foraging in the forest or the savannah, but it is a way of taking the work that has, up to this point in time, been done on laptops and then trying to make it closer to what a real world situation would be.

The environments we have been looking at are at the science museums and these are dotted around the country, where they're open to the general public, and it's usually a motivated audience that come in to try and find out what's going on in science and there's demonstrations. We've seen this as an opportunity to look at some of the findings that we have in environments that are not within the laboratory. So it's not entirely what you would regard as a field study as such because these are very unusual environments. But it is closer to what would be, certainly a lot further away from the laboratory settings that most work on intentional search has been done. There are other researchers who actually do experiments in supermarkets and different environments. This is the field of ergonomics where they're basically trying to find the best way of solving tasks in a work environment, occupational type of way. We're not really attempting to do that. I'm just finding this, we're just looking for more opportunities to engage the public in a kind of activity which has a credible experimental basis.

This is a new venture for us. This is what we're now starting to turn towards. Up to now I've been doing basically lab-based work. This is the new point in the transition I'm going to make which is to increasingly look for opportunities to do things with the general public. As yet, it's early days. It's driven, as I say, partly by motivation to be seen to be relevant, partly for the fact it's actually cheaper to do research in the real world in terms of getting the numbers through. These are all kind of factors.

The lab has changed, as I said, because the financial situation has changed in the past five years and our field has been hit heavily, I feel, in many ways. Behavioral science and psychology used to be funded by at least seven of the research councils. They've all retracted and there's really only one research council now that funds psychological research. There's greater competition. So that means the labs are getting smaller. We're not taking on as many graduate students, and I think that's probably the right thing because the climate at the moment isn't right. I think it's probably wrong to train our people to a high standard for situations where there aren't actually jobs for them. So that's one issue.

We are doing much more consultancy work. We're doing much more applied applications of the principles that we've been using, the methodologies that we use to study young children, we've been using these in sort of commercial situations. For example, we're just beginning work with Aardman, the animation company. They want questions answered about what children, preschool children and young children, like and find most memorable about some of their projects. Those are empirical questions that you can use our methodologies to unravel. That's an example of an application. The work in the museums, as I say, is the specific example of looking at foraging. 

How it's changed the lab? The training that I'm now giving to the graduate students and the post docs increasingly involves them doing public engagement activity, and that's actually what everyone's asking for. The grant funding bodies, the universities now, as we've seen a change in the funding situation, we're now in this country charging fees, quite substantial fees, and so we're entering into a very competitive situation because all the universities are trying to compete with each other to get the best students. We now have to market ourselves, so there are more of these academics doing videos and snippets and stuff on the web.

What would I do with a million dollar Chair? Well, my big thing is essentialism. Its origins probably can be traced to the notion of ideal forms, which is a platonic idea. I discovered essentialism basically by reading Susan Gelman's work, and essentialism has an experimental tradition, not that old by the way, in naïve biology. The way that children reason about the world, there's a lot of good evidence to suggest that there are domains of knowledge: physical, reasoning about the physical world; reasoning about the living world, the biological one; and reasoning about the psychological world. Those three domains are the physics, the biology and the psychology, and are deemed to cover the majority of what we do when we're thinking about concepts.

In the biological world, people like Gelman have argued that children infer an invisible dimension. When they're making categorical decisions about why dogs are different from cats, for example, they go over and beyond the outward appearances, and infer that there must be some internal property that makes a dog a dog. Irrespective of changing its outward appearance or if you raise it with a litter of kittens, it will still turn out and grow up into a dog. So they kind of understand there's something over and beyond the physical aspect of it. Well, there is, it's DNA, but no four year old knows explicitly about DNA. But they do have this intuition that there is this essential property. Essentialism in the research field, in developmental psychology, started off in biology. But I was interested in essentialism basically almost contaminating to different domains for objects, the way that we treat objects as irreplaceable. This is the issue of authenticity. The authenticity of objects is starting to get into the boundary of what, of an essential property, makes something irreplaceable.

This is work I've done with Paul Bloom. We initially started looking at sentimental objects, the emergence of this bizarre behavior that you find in children in the West. They form these emotional attachments to blankets and teddy bears and it initially starts off as an associative learning type of situation where they need to self-soothe, because in the West we typically separate children, for sleeping purposes, between one and two years of age. In the Far East they don't, they keep children well into middle childhood, so they don't have as much attachment object behavior. It's common, about three out of four children start off with this sort of attachment to particular objects and then it dissipates and disappears.

What Paul and I are interested in is whether or not it was the physical properties of the object or if there was something about the identity or the authenticity of the object which is important. We embarked on a series of studies where we convinced children we had a duplicating machine, and basically we used conjuring tricks to convince the child that we could duplicate any physical object. We have these boxes which looked very scientific, with wires and lights, and we place an object in one, and activate it, and after a few seconds the other box would appear to start up by itself and you open it up and you see you've got two identical objects. The child spontaneously said, "Oh, it's like a copying machine." It's like a photocopier for objects, if you like. Once they're in the mindset this thing can copy, we then test what you can get away with. They're quite happy to have their objects, their toys copied, but when it comes to a sentimental object like a blanket or a teddy bear, then they're much more resistant to accepting the duplicate. Now, of course, we can't actually copy the things, but they think that when the machine starts up there will be another duplicated object. That's how we test their intuitions and inferences on it.

On the basis of that, we've started to, just completed a set of studies looking at copying real things, living things, like hamsters. Because the question is, would a child think that a machine that duplicates objects could duplicate minds? We're getting into the issue about minds being separate or a product of bodies. The work is still under review, so I can't say too much about it, but you can see the obvious link to the philosophical issues about mind-body dualism.

Also, we're getting into the territory of authenticity and identity. There are some fairly old philosophical issues about what confers identity and uniqueness, and these are the principles, quiddity and haecceity. I hadn't even heard of these issues until I started to research into it, and it turns out these obscure terms come from the philosopher Duns Scotus. Quiddity is the invisible properties, the essence shared by members of a group, so that would be the 'dogginess' of all dogs. But the haecceity is the unique property of the individual, so that would be Fido's haecceity or Fido's essence, which makes Fido distinct to another dog, for example.

These are not real properties. These are psychological constructs, and I think the reason that people generate these constructs is that when they invest some emotional time or effort into an object, or it has some significance towards them, then they imbue it with this property, which makes it irreplaceable, you can't duplicate it. In effect, it becomes sacred, and so I think that sacred objects, which exist across various religions, also have this notion of them being unique. You can't duplicate and you can't corrupt them. They have this property that is indivisible. I think essentialism is pervasive in our attitude towards objects, but it's also there in our attitudes to valuation.

Paul has done more work on this about works of art, what makes a masterpiece unique, and it turns out that our intuitions often guided by this sense that there's an additional property over and beyond the actual sort of physical aspects of works of art. But I think you can also see it operating in other things.

For example, a lot of marketing, when you're selling products, whether through design or just by sheer experience, what I think a lot of advertisers have realized is that certain properties, if you emphasize the essential quality of the object, this confers this notion of quality. For example, Coors beer, from what I understand, was going to relocate their brewery, but then there was this concern that they wouldn't have the original source of the water. If you start to think about a lot of luxury products, there's this notion of craftsmanship, this kind of, something of the maker going into the product. So I also think this is a principle or way of thinking which affects and influences the way we think about genetic modification, for example. Tinkering with the essence or the natural properties of things, people don't like the idea of it. It just seems to violate what are core integrity principles.  

I see essentialism everywhere I look now. It just seems to be pervasive. It's one of these ways of seeing the world. People say, oh, it might just be association, but association strikes me as inadequate as an explanation as to why some things seem to have this property. Of course, Paul Rozin'’s work on moral contamination and contagion, again, I think speaks to this idea there are things which you can contaminate with evil, for example, just by wearing a killer's cardigan, things like that. So as I say, I see it everywhere. I'm hoping to continue that kind of work. So that's an example of a philosophical kind of question, or certainly a philosophical domain that I think does lend itself to the empirical studies and, who knows, that might actually turn out to have some application as far as marketers are concerned.

There are actual real colleagues, Susan Gelman and Paul Bloom and George Newman is the psychologist who's now in the Economics School at Yale. We're planning on doing some research looking at advertising and looking at what aspects of it conform to this essentialist principle. I've done some work with my graduate students showing that children have intuitions about ownership of objects. If somebody has put some craftsmanship into it, for example, if you've got some clay and I've got some clay and I take your clay and make something, and if I said, "Who owns it?" an adult would try and probably evaluate that ownership on the basis of how much effort went into it, and also who owned the original material. But young children spontaneously say, well, irrespective of who owned the material, it's actually the person who changed and transformed it. The ownership transfers to the person of the craftsmanship.

That's interesting because that gets to whole questions about intellectual property. Who had the original idea? Is there any such thing as an original idea? To what extent does modification of the idea transfer the ownership of the intellectual property? So, again, there are all these kinds of issues that are, we have intuitions about, and some of them are culturally defined, but I think there's a developmental process. I think that children start off with some basic ideas that then become modified and changed through culture. The detractors of the whole essentialist position are likely to be those from the associative schools who argue that a lot of behaviors can be explained away by simple mechanisms of learning and reinforcement, but that tends to be the older school. Nobody comes to mind about that.

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The self is something that is central to a lot of psychological questions and, in fact, a lot of psychologists have difficulty describing their work without positing the notion of a self. It's such a common daily, profound, indivisible experience for most of us. Some people do manage to achieve states of divided self or anatta, no self, they're really skilled Buddhists. But for the majority of us the self is a very compulsive experience. I happen to think it's an illusion and certainly the neuroscience seems to support that contention. Simply from the logical positions that it's very difficult to, without avoiding some degree of infinite regress, to say a starting point, the trail of thought, just the fractionation of the mind, when we see this happening in neurological conditions. The famous split-brain studies showing that actually we're not integrated entities inside our head, rather we're the output of a multitude of unconscious processes.

I happen to think the self is a narrative, and I use the self and the division that was drawn by William James, which is the "I" (the experience of conscious self) and the "me" (which is personal identity, how you would describe yourself in terms of where are you from and everything that makes you up in your predilections and your wishes for the future). Both the "I", who is sentient of the "me", and the "me", which is a story of who you are, I think are stories. They're constructs and narratives. I mean that in a sense that a story is a reduction or at least it's a coherent framework that has some causal kind of coherence.

When I go out and give public lectures I like to illustrate the weaknesses of the "I" by using visual illusions of the most common examples. But there are other kinds of illusions that you can introduce which just reveal to people how their conscious experience is actually really just a fraction of what's really going on. It certainly is not a true reflection of all mechanisms that are generating. Visual illusions are very obvious in that. The thing about the visual illusion effects is that even when they're explained to you, you can't but help see them, so that's interesting. You can't divorce yourself from the mechanisms that are creating the illusion and the mind that's experienced in the illusion.

The sense of personal identity, this is where we've been doing experimental work showing the importance that we place upon episodic memories, autobiographical memories. In our duplication studies for example, children are quite willing to accept that you could copy a hamster with all its physical properties that you can't necessarily see, but what you can't copy very easily are the episodic memories that one hamster has had.

This actually resonates with the ideas of John Locke, the philosopher, who also argued that personal identity was really dependent on the autobiographical or episodic memories, and you are the sum of your memories, which, of course, is something that fractionates and fragments in various forms of dementia. As the person loses the capacity to retrieve memories, or these memoires become distorted, then the identity of the person, the personality, can be changed, amongst other things. But certainly the memories are very important.

As we all know, memory is notoriously fallible. It's not cast in stone. It's not something that is stable. It's constantly reshaping itself. So the fact that we have a multitude of unconscious processes which are generating this coherence of consciousness, which is the I experience, and the truth that our memories are very selective and ultimately corruptible, we tend to remember things which fit with our general characterization of what our self is. We tend to ignore all the information that is inconsistent. We have all these attribution biases. We have cognitive dissonance. The very thing psychology keeps telling us, that we have all these unconscious mechanisms that reframe information, to fit with a coherent story, then both the "I" and the "me", to all intents and purposes, are generated narratives.

The illusions I talk about often are this sense that there is an integrated individual, with a veridical notion of past. And there's nothing at the center. We're the product of the emergent property, I would argue, of the multitude of these processes that generate us.        

I use the word illusion as opposed to delusion. Delusion implies mental illness, to some extent, and illusion, we're quite happy to accept that we're experiencing illusions, and for me the word illusion really does mean that it's an experience that is not what it seems. I'm not denying that there is an experience. We all have this experience, and what's more, you can't escape it easily. I think it's more acceptable to call it an illusion whereas there's a derogatory nature of calling something a delusion. I suspect there's probably a technical difference which ought to do with mental illness, but no, I think we're all perfectly normally, experience this illusion.       

Oliver Sacks has famously written about various case studies of patients which seem so bizarre, people who have various forms of perceptual anomalies, they mistake their wife for a hat, or there are patients who can't help but copy everything they see. I think that in many instances, because the self is so core to our normal behavior having an understanding that self is this constructive process, I think if this was something that clinicians were familiar with, then I think that would make a lot of sense.

In fact, it's not only in clinical practice, I think in a lot of things. I think neuroethics is a very interesting field. I've got another colleague, David Eagleman, he's very interested in these ideas. The culpability, responsibility. We premise our legal systems on this notion there is an individual who is to be held accountable. Now, I'm not suggesting that we abandon that, and I'm not sure what you would put in its place, but I think we can all recognize that there are certain situations where we find it very difficult to attribute blame to someone. For example, famously, Charles Whitman, the Texan sniper, when they had the autopsy, they discovered a very sizeable tumor in a region of the brain which could have very much influenced his ability to control his rage. I'm not suggesting every mass murder has inoperable tumors in their brain, but it's conceivable that there will be, with our increasing knowledge of how the brain operates, and our ability to understand it, it's conceivable there will be more situations where the lawyers will be looking to put the blame on some biological abnormality.

Where is the line to be drawn? I think that's a very tough one to deal with. It's a problem that's not going to go away. It's something that we're going to continually face as we start to learn more about the genetics of aggression.

There's a lot of interest in this thing called the warrior gene. To what extent is this a gene which predisposes you to violence? Or do you need the interaction between the gene and the abusive childhood in order to get this kind of profile? So it's not just clinicians, it's actually just about every realm of human activity where you posit the existence of a self and individuals, and responsibility. Then it will reframe the way you think about things. Just the way that we heap blame and praise, the flip side of blaming people is that we praise individuals. But it could be, in a sense, a multitude of factors that have led them to be successful. I think that it's a pervasive notion. Whether or not we actually change the way we do anything, I'm not so sure, because I think it would be really hard to live our lives dealing with non-individuals, trying to deal with multitude and the history that everyone brings to the table. There's a good reason why we have this experience of the self. It's a very sort of succinct and economical way of interacting with each other. We deal with individuals. We fall in love with individuals, not multitudes of past experiences and aspects of hidden agendas, we just pick them out.

I think it's unlikely we're ever going to get rid of the Great Selfini, as Dan Wegner has called this character. He's revealed this character, the Great Selfini. I love that. But even when you know that it's likely to be this constructed mental experience, it doesn't give you any insight, it doesn't stop you treating and thinking like that.

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Laurie Santos and I, we go back quite a bit. Laurie was actually a brilliant undergraduate at Harvard when I was visiting at MIT, and we got interested in naïve physics. I'd discovered an unusual error that children make, namely that they assume that when you drop something it always falls in a straight line. We used to test this with an arrangement of tubes, and you drop an object down it, and children typically would search directly below, over and over and over again, so they found it very difficult to overcome this tendency to think that objects fall straight down. I actually thought it was not so much an error, I thought it was a very good, naïve theory to have, because if you do drop something, more often than not it's going to be directly below where you released it. I thought it was a very reasonable way to think about the world. They don't start off with that, so they have to acquire this probably through experience.

The question was, what about nonhuman primates? At the time Laurie was working the labs at Harvard that were doing a lot of these comparisons between the human developmental studies and various nonhuman primates. So that's where we first met up. Then when I moved there Laurie was one of my students and, frankly, was much better at understanding the concepts than I was at actually teaching them. So, from a very early point I knew that she was quite exceptional. Laurie has gone on to establish her self with a remarkable lab.

The questions of interest that we work on together are, we've done some work on object identity looking at Michotte's original observations of the tunnel illusion. Michotte first reported that if you observe an object entering in a tunnel and a different object exiting at the right time, then very often you have this impression that it's the same object that is transformed. It's called the tunnel illusion. She studied this originally with rhesus monkeys, and in a twist of the usual normal order of the way things get done, we actually saw the animal studies and then developed a child paradigm for that, so we tested children with a tunnel task illusion, so they'd see an object go into one tunnel and then reemerge, and then exit into a second hiding place. Now, if they really did believe it was just one object transforming, if they had to go to find it, they'd look at the end of the sequence. But if they understood that in fact there must have been two objects present, they would know to look in the first tunnel and the second tunnel. We use this as a way of testing what their perceptual experiences were. We've been writing that together.                 

More recently, Laurie's been working on the endowment effect which, of course, is now one of the most famous effects from behavioral economics, namely that you overvalue something which you perceive is in your ownership. Laurie has been looking at that with her Capuchins. We've been looking also, I have another graduate student, we've been looking at it in a variety of primates, so we've done the gorillas, the orangs, chimps as well, and actually a couple of labs have been doing this.

What I think is a good consensus of opinion is that you don't find the endowment effect in nonhuman primates in anything other than food. They'll show the effects of ownership and overvaluing the food that's in their possession, but they won't do it for tools and they won't do it for tools to retrieve food. So this thing for objects, I think, is a human attribute. I keep tying this back to my issues about why certain objects are overvalued, and I happen to believe, like James again, that objects are part of the extended sense of self. We surround ourselves with objects. We place a lot of value on objects that we think are representative of our self.

That's area which might tick off those boxes I was mentioning early on, namely that it has application. It's actually theoretically quite interesting as well. It intrigues me. We're the only species on this planet that invests a lot of time and evaluation through our objects, and this has been something that has been with us for a very, very long time.

Think of some of the early artifacts. The difficulty would have been to make these artifacts, the time invested in these things, means that from a very early point in our civilization, or before civilization, I think the earliest pieces are probably about 90,000 years old. There are certainly older things that are tools, but pieces of artwork, about 90,000 years old. So it's been with us a long time. And yes, some of them are obviously sacred objects, power of religious purposes and so forth. But outside of that, there's still this sense of having materials or things that we value, and that intrigues me in so many ways. And I don't think it's necessarily universal as well. It's been around a lot, but the endowment effect, for example, is not found everywhere. There's some intriguing work coming out of Africa.        

The endowment effect is this rather intriguing idea that we will spontaneously overvalue an object as soon as we believe it's in our possession, we don't actually have to have it physically, just bidding on something, as soon as you make your connection to an object, then you value it more, you'll actually remember more about it, you'll remember objects which you think are in your possession in comparison to someone else. It gets a whole sense of attribution and value associated with it, which is one of the reasons why people never get the asking price for the things that they're trying to sell, they always think their objects are worth more than other people are willing to pay for them.

There was the first experimental demonstration by Richard Thaler and Danny Kahneman, and the early behavioral economics, was this demonstration that if you just give people coffee cups, students, coffee cups, and then you ask them to sell it, they always ask more than what someone's willing to pay for it. It turns out it's not just coffee cups, it's wine, it's chocolate, it's anything, basically. There's been quite a bit of work done on the endowment effect now. As I say, it's been looked at in different species, and the brain mechanisms of having to sell something at a lower price, like loss aversion, it's seen as quite painful, triggers the same pain centers, if you think you're going to lose out on a deal.

What is it about the objects that give us this self-evaluated sense? Well, I think James spoke of this, again, William James commented on the way that we use objects to extend our self. Russell Belk is a marketing psychologist. He has also talked about the extended self in terms of objects. As I say, this is something that I think marketers know in that they create certain quality brands that are perceived to signal to others how good your social status is.

It's something in us, but it may not be universal because there are tribes, there are some recent reports from nomadic tribes in central Africa, who don't seem to have this sense of ownership. It might be a reflection more of the fact that a lot of this work has been done in the West where we're very individualistic, and of course individualism almost creates a lot of endowment ideas and certainly supports the endowment, materialism that we see. But this is an area I'd like to do more work with because we have not found any evidence of the endowment effect in children below five, six years of age. I'm interested: is this something that just emerges spontaneously? I suspect not. I suspect this is something that culture is definitely shaping. That's my hunch, so that's an empirical question I need to pick apart.

Another line of research I've been working on in the past five years … this was a little bit like putting the cart before the horse, so I put forward an idea, it wasn't entirely original. It was a combination of ideas of others, most notably Pascal Boyer. Paul Bloom, to some extent, had been thinking something similar. A bunch of us were interested in why religion was around. I didn't want to specifically focus on religion. I wanted to get to the more general point about belief because it was my hunch that even a lot of atheists or self-stated atheists or agnostics, still nevertheless entertained beliefs which were pretty irrational. I wasn't meaning irrational in a kind of behavioral economics type of way. I meant irrational in that there were these implicit views that would violate the natural laws as we thought about them. Violations of the natural laws I see as being supernatural. That's what makes them supernatural. I felt that this was an area worth looking at. They'd been looked at 50, 60 years ago very much in the behaviorist association tradition.

BF Skinner famously wrote a paper on the superstitious behavior of pigeons, and he argued if you simply set up a reinforcement schedule at a random kind of interval, pigeons will adopt typical patterns that they think are somehow related to the reward, and then you could shape irrational superstitious behaviors. Now that work has turned out to be a bit dubious and I'm not sure that stood the test of time. But in terms of people's rituals and routines, it's quite clear and I know them in myself. There are these things that we do which are familiar, and we get a little bit irritated we don't get to do them, so we do, most of us, entertain some degree of superstitious behavior.

At the time there was a lot of interest in religion and a lot of the hoo-ha about The God Delusion, and I felt that maybe we just need to redress this idea that it's all to do with indoctrination, because I couldn't believe the whole edifice of this kind of belief system was purely indoctrination. I'm not saying there's not indoctrination, and clearly, religions are culturally transmitted. You're not born to be Jewish or born to be Christian. But what I think religions do is they capitalize on a lot of inclinations that children have. Then I entered into a series of work, and my particular interest was this idea of essentialism and sacred objects and moral contamination.

We took a lot of the work that Paul Rozin had done, talking about things like killers’ cardigans, and we started to see if there was any empirical measures of transfer. For example, would you find yourself wanting to wash your hands more? Would you find priming effects for words which were related to good and evil, based on whether you had touched the object or not? For me there had to be this issue of physical contact. It struck me as this was why it wasn't a pure association mechanism. It was actually something to do with the belief, a naïve belief there was some biological entity that can somehow, moral contamination can transfer.

We started to look at, actually not children now, but looking at adults because doing this sort of work with children is very difficult and probably somewhat controversial. But the whole area of research is premised on this idea that there are intuitive ways of seeing the world. Sometimes this is referred to as System One and System Two, or automatic and control. It reappears in a variety of psychological contexts. I just think about it as these unconscious, rapid systems which are triggered automatically. I think their origins are in children. Whilst you can educate people with a kind of slower System Two, if you like, you never eradicate the intuitive ways of seeing the world because they were never taught in the first place. They're always there. I suppose if you want to ask me if there any kind of thing that you can have as a theory that you haven't yet proven, it's the idea is, I don't think you ever throw away any belief system or any ideas that have been derived through these unconscious intuitive processes. You can supersede them, you can overwrite them, but they never go away, and they will reemerge under the right contexts. If you put people through stressful situations or you overload it, you can see the reemergence of these kinds of ways of thinking. The empirical evidence seems to be supporting that. They've got wrinkles in their brains. They're never going to go away. You can try and override them, but they're always there and they will reappear under the right circumstances, which is why you see the reemergence under stress of a lot of irrational thinking.

For example, teleological explanations, the idea that everything is made for a purpose or a function, is a natural way to see the world. This is Deb Kelemen's work. You will find that people who considered themselves fairly rational and well educated will, nevertheless, default back to teleological explanations if you put them under a stressful timed kind of situation. So it's a way of seeing the world that is never eradicated. I think that's going to be a general principle, in the same way that a reflex, if you think about reflexes, that's an unlearned behavioral response. You're born with a whole set of reflexes. Many of them disappear, but they never entirely go away. They become typically reintegrated into more complex behaviors, but if someone goes into a coma, you can see the reflexes reemerging.

What we think is going on is that in the course of development, these very automatic behaviors become controlled by top-down processes from the cortex, all these higher order systems which are regulating and controlling and suppressing, trying to keep these things under wraps. But when the cortex is put out of action through a coma or head injury, then you can see many of these things reemerging again. I don't see why there should be any point of departure from a motor system to a perceptual system, to a cognitive system, because they're all basically patterns of neural firing in the brain, and so I don't see why it can't be the case that if concepts are derived through these processes, they could remain dormant and latent as well.

One of the things that has been fascinating me is the extent to which we can talk about the hierarchy of representations in the brain. Representations are literally re-presentations. That's the language of the brain, that's the mode of thinking in the brain, it's representation. It's more than likely, in fact, it's most likely that there is already representation wired into the brain. If you think about the sensory systems, the array of the eye, for example, is already laid out in a topographical representation of the external world, to which it has not yet been exposed. What happens is that this is general layout, arrangements that become fine-tuned. We know of a lot of work to show that the arrangements of the sensory mechanisms do have a spatial arrangement, so that's not learned in any sense. But these can become changed through experiences, and that's why the early work of Hubel and Weisel, about the effects of abnormal environments showed that the general pattern could be distorted, but the pattern was already in place in the first place.

When you start to move beyond sensory into perceptual systems and then into cognitive systems, that's when you get into theoretical arguments and the gloves come off. There are some people who argue that it has to be the case that there are certain primitives built into the conceptual systems. I'm talking about the work of, most notably, Elizabeth Spelke.   

There certainly seems to be a lot of perceptual ability in newborns in terms of constancies, noticing invariant aspects of the physical world. I don't think I have a problem with any of that, but I suppose this is where the debates go. To what extent are concepts built in? There are some people who could spend the next five hours telling you about that, but I'm not prepared to try and do so.

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Shame, to me, is interesting. I've been to Japan a couple of time. I'm not an expert in the cultural variation of cognition, but clearly shame is a major factor in motivation, or avoidance of shame, in eastern cultures. I think it reflects the sense of self worth and value in eastern culture. It is very much a collective notion that they place a lot of emphasis on not letting the team down. I believe they even have a special word for that aspect or experience of shame that we don't have. That doesn't mean that it's a concept that we can never entertain, but it does suggest that in the East this is something that is at least recognized as a major factor of identity.

Children don't necessarily feel shame. I don't think they've got a sense of self until well into their second year. They have the "I", they have the notion of being, of having control. They will experience the willingness to move their arms, and I'm sure they make that connection very quickly, so they have this sense of self, in that "I" notion, but I don't think they've got personal identity, and that's one of the reasons that they don't have much, or very few of us have much memory of our earlier times. Our episodic memories are very fragmented, sensory events. But from about two to three years on they start to get a sense of who they are. Knowing who you are means becoming integrated into your social environment, and part of becoming integrated into your social environment means acquiring a sense of shame. Below two, three years of age, I don't think many children have a notion of shame. But from then on, as they have to become members of the social tribe, then they have to be made aware of the consequences of being antisocial or doing things not what's expected of them. I think that's probably late in the acquisition.

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Let me tell you a little bit about what's happening. As part of this transition in my career, which is to do more public engagement, I've noticed a couple of what I think are growing trends. For example, there is a growing skeptical movement which originated as a grassroots movement just, basically, non-scientist members of the public have become very interested in scientists and speaking to scientists and engaging the scientists. We've seen this rise of, for example, there's one organization called Skeptics in the Pub, and its' a nonprofit organization, there's no money involved, we do it all for the love of it, and we'll turn up and give maybe an hour's presentation in the backroom of a pub. That started off when I started doing this about five years ago, I think there were maybe three or four and now I think there are 30 up and down the country. There are these grassroots movements to try and integrate with science. But I don't think that, certainly my field, and I'm not sure this is the case for other areas of science, but behavioral science has had a very poor reputation in this country. I think that's partly historical, and I think that's partly traced back to the dominance of the psychoanalytic movement in America, and its ridicule in this country.

Psychology has always been regarded as not a science. I have a personal agenda to try and reinforce in people that psychology is actually a really important science and remind them that the last pages of On the Origin of Species, this is the prediction made by Charles Darwin, that the next leap forward understanding the human condition would involve psychology. I keep reminding people that they shouldn't assume that when someone goes on television and tells you how you should try and attract somebody or choose someone for a job, that that is the full extent of psychology. But that, unfortunately, is what the public has been fed as a diet of psychological work. Clearly, as soon as you say you're a cognitive scientist, they don't know what that means, so you can kind of re-describe yourself, but then you start addressing issues about the philosophical problems, behavioral economics. Then it becomes more palatable or more acceptable as a legitimate science.

I feel that there is a shift towards engagement with scientists, and I'm up for that, and I want to do that, and I have a personal agenda to try and make behavioral science much more on a par with the other sciences. It's still very popular with the students in the universities because it's a lot cheaper than undertaking other types of sciences which are that much more expensive. But I think in the States, my impression when I was there, was that we had a much greater social standing in the general public, and I think we're behind the US in that way and we could do with a sort of making up some of that lost ground.