Will to Fight: Devoted Actors and the Spiritual Dimension of Human Conflict Atran has written extensively on terrorism, violence, and religion. He is Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Professor at the University of Michigan, and co-founder of ARTIS International. He also works at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University.

Scott’s talk focuses on today’s global terrorism, examining it in terms of ‘Devoted Actors’ who adhere to sacred or transcendent values, that generate actions that are out of proportion. Explaining how devoted actors come to sacrifice for cause and comrade not only is a scientific goal, but also a practical imperative to prevent and resolve seemingly intractable intergroup disputes that can spiral out of control in a rapidly interconnecting world.

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The (unpredictable?) rise of global terrorism

In September 2014, President Obama acknowledged the U.S.’s mistaken underestimation of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But was Isis’ ability to fight imponderable and unpredictable? What general lesson might we learn from the peculiar evolution of the Islamic State? Anthropologist Scott Atran presented the results of fieldwork jointly conducted with experts of different disciplines, ranging from psychology to biology and foreign politics. Atran warned against interpreting Isis simply as a nihilistic form of violent terrorism, and introduced his explanatory hypothesis (the Devoted Actors Hypothesis), grounded on interviews with political and military leaders, lab experiments and surveys in Iraq and Syria with members of the Islamic State and their opponents. According to the hypothesis, global terrorism is partially led by Devoted Actors, who are willing to jointly defend the transcendental values of the social group they belong to, and whose personal identities are fused within the collective one. When these two conditions (adhesion to sacred values and identity fusion) are satisfied, people are prone to extreme actions and sacrifices, which are resistant to any material trade-off, and normative influence. Such collective empowerment must be taken into account as part of the explanation of the rise of global terrorism.[1] The interaction between these factors largely determines who is likely to become a devoted actor: the ability to see one’s own identity as fused to that of the group is the best predictor of the willingness to fight.


The privilege of absurdity

Among living creatures, only men are subjected to the privilege of absurdity. Atran quoted Thomas Hobbes’ acknowledgment of the power of the absurd as a conceptual tool to understand contemporary social phenomena. During the history of mankind, humans accepted inherently absurd concepts as natural. As an example, we defend human rights and equality, turning apparently absurd ideas into fundamental pillars of modern western societies.

We can start from this assumption in order to interpret some characteristics of global terrorism. The Islamic State represents an incredibly efficient war machine, with no real competitors in the rest of the Islamic world. Despite losing men and territories and being surrounded by enemies, it remains the largest volunteer fighting force – mainly composed by self-organised networks or radicalised friends and kin, and including women and foreign individuals – able to continuously attract supporters who are willing to die for it. But why do people ultimately go to the front line and refuse any political compromise or exit strategy? In writing to the British evolutionist A. R. Wallace, Charles Darwin expresses his sense of astonishment at the human attraction to heroism and martyrdom, which seem to go beyond what is taught by the Golden Rule – which prescribes that one should treat others as one wishes to be treated oneself.

Does this undeniable characteristics of humans constitute evidence against the idea that we can understand evolution only in materialistic terms? And how to explain what Atran calls “Jihad’s fatal attraction for violence”? It is a visceral and physical phenomenon, steeped in emotion and identity, far from the nature of current modern ideologies, which would rather favour reason and logical argumentation. Indeed, in many cultures, violence against other groups has been considered as a sacred and sublime form of moral virtue, which cannot be exchanged for money. As an example, Atran recalled that, after the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws, the Nazi party chancery received thousands requests for Aryanization from wealthy Jewish families, able to offer conspicuous sums of money to be “reclassified”. Receiving over 2,100 applications in 1939, Hitler granted only 12.


The inscrutable logic of religion

Beside the lack of field experience of most experts, a major problem in the interpretation of global terrorism is connected to the difficulty of reducing the phenomenon to the logic of utilitarian and rational thinking. We should not underestimate the peculiar role of religion as a facilitator and a multiplier of large-scale cooperation, Atran claimed. How can we impart reason to an inscrutable belief, which is able to galvanise in-group solidarity and to strengthen the social bond? Paradoxically perhaps, fully reasonable social contracts have been proven more liable to collapse than religious ties.

However, while economic-decision making has been extensively investigated, we seem to lack deep knowledge about morally motivated behaviour. Sacred values appear to be so difficult to scrutinise because they are insensitive to quantities – the number of lives to be sacrificed, the prospect of success, the costs and consequences –, temporal discounting, and material trade-off. As a matter of fact, in many contexts, sacred values have been proven to defy cost-benefit logic and real-politik.

Such a mentality offers extraordinary proof of the well-known backfire effect, according to which, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger. In particular, introducing material incentives that go against sacred values is likely to strengthen the opposition to any form of compromise. Atran tested the force of the backfire effect in different populations, including Palestinians, Israeli settlers, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans and Iranians. A clear example is offered by a study conducted in the West Bank and Gaza: a group of Palestinian refugees holding a “Right of Return” to their previous homes in Israel would have been willing to abandon their right in response to an apology from Israel. In contrast, a group of refugees who were offered material incentives, in the absence of apologies, in order to abandon their right were violently opposed to any form of compromise.[2]


The Islamic State and the construction of democracy

It would be also mistaken to interpret people’s adhesion to global terrorism as the effect of brainwashing. For many people, the Caliphate constitutes a real and powerful attractor, the ending point of the history of salvation. In order to understand the rise of violent extremism, we have to interpret it as the most influential and politically creative force on the world scene. In 1940, in his review of Mein Kampf, George Orwell acknowledged that “Hitler […] knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice”. Hitler understood that sometimes people need to feel the sense of the transcendental. Because of the current geopolitical situation, the Islamic State might have better chances of surviving than the Third Reich. However, as it happens to the Nazi Germany – the best fighting force during World War II – the Islamic State will probably collapse due to number of his enemies. However, in the attempt to export democracy, the Western world should not underestimate differences between historical contexts. In Europe, the construction of liberal democracy took hundreds of years and its values were relatively easy to re-establish after World War II, but nothing like that existed in Syria before the Islamic State. How can you replicate democracy? The U.S. historically has a very poor history of successes, including only Japan and, again, Germany. Only in those two cases, the U.S. were able to “flip” the culture. Beyond historical differences, we must also interrogate ourselves about disturbing similarities. As in the twenties and thirties, the values of democracy are rapidly losing ground. Even beyond our need to face the Islamic State, this should be a key point in our future political agenda.

[1] Scott Atran, The Devoted Actor: Unconditional Commitment and Intractable Conflict across Cultures. Current Anthropology 57, no. S13 (June 2016).

[2] Atran, S. & Ginges, J. (2013). Religious and sacred imperatives in human conflict. Science, 336:855-857.


Source: Agency, Morals and the Mind Report

They [Islamic State] accuse the West especially of lacking moral metaphysics of any kind. There are no moral red lines in our culture.

– Scott Atran (31:50)

What kind of revolutionary fervour, what kind of willingness to sacrifice, what kind of transcendental ideas have brought us to the present and where might we be going?

– Scott Atran (10:40)

We work on the hypothesis that I developed some years ago called the Devoted Actor Hypothesis. The idea is that most of the strategy of our political leaders especially since World War II are based on rational actor paradigms… The Devoted Actor Hypothesis is to try to explain what’s driving current conflicts across the world and what’s driven revolutionary movements throughout history

– Scott Atran (11:45)

When sacred values become embedded in fused social groups, then members of these value-driven groups become willing to defend or advance those values through costly sacrifices and extreme action

– Scott Atran (13:00)

How comes it that values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground to those of narrow nationalism and radical Islam in a tacit alliance sundering the European middle class (the mainstay of open democracy) in ways similar to the hatchet job on republican values by the fascists and the communists in the 1920s and 30s? For the future of liberal democracies, even beyond the threat from violent jihadis, that may be the core existential issue.

– Scott Atran (50:20)


Responsibility as a Social Construction Wilson is the Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York. She looks at the relationship between historical and contemporary development in the empirical sciences. Catherine’s research is focused on the relationship between historical and contemporary developments in the empirical sciences, including physics and the behavioural and life sciences, and some traditional problems of philosophy. 

In this talk Catherine takes discusses human agency in terms of the distinction between doings and happenings and how we punish people for what we regard as deliberate offenses, including moral offenses and criminal actions.

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Responsibility. Old and new threats

The problem of responsibility and control has been extensively treated both from a scientific and from a philosophical point of view. We have been told that we are different from non-human animals because, unlike them, we are not slaves of our desires and inclinations, said philosopher Catherine Wilson. At least according to the mentality of Western culture, we have free will, and we believe in the afterlife and in the existence of God. Historically, the existence of an omniscient God created problems for how to understand individual responsibility. During the last few decades, the threat to responsibility came from a different perspective. How do we assign and how should we assign responsibility to living beings? How do we control what we do? Following Darwin, humans are organisms with an internal system able to represent what is happening in the outside world. This seems to be the basis for the uniquely human ability for self-control and free will. However, this very traditional view has been deeply challenged. From the one side, researchers are willing to ascribe awareness also to other, non-human, living beings. From the other side, it has been shown that much of what humans can do can be accomplished even without awareness. We show many automatic behaviours that do not reach the threshold of consciousness. Of course there are many tasks that require a very specific form of awareness, including interacting with conspecifics, attending unexpected events, dealing with unpredictable situations, or mentally processing instructions. The “invention” of consciousness expands widely the number of activities we can do, and permits more plastic responses to new situations.


Body ownership, sense of self, and responsibility

People have a very specific sense of ‘mineness’ with respect to their own body. Different pathologies, including neglect, could alter or destroy one’s sense of self. In contrast, individuals born without a limb can show a predisposition to feel the ownership of the phantom one. The sense of self is important to distinguish what happens to me from what I did. It is the feedback from the environment that tells us what we can and cannot do. However, it seems hard to give a definition of what is “mine” or what is “me” that goes beyond the level of physiology. We seem to obtain a very illusive notion of those concepts. Am I responsible, for example, for occupying the role I have now? Are we responsible for what we do if everything is caused by the multiple influences surrounding me? What if my feeling of making a decision is what my nervous system decides I have to do? Reasons we create a-posteriori appear to be the causes of our actions. As Thomas Nagel wrote, if we decided to do something else, a different justifying reason would suddenly appear. Why should I be blamed or rewarded if I am the victim of the circumstances? Regarding this topic, there seems to be no real fact of the matter that philosophy or science can teach or discover.


Responsibility in the social domain

Despite its lack of success in reforming behaviour, and its tendency to increase the recidivist rate, traditional punishment has been often invoked as an educational tool. Other justifications for punishment are needed – claims Wilson. We often ascribe responsibility on the basis of irrational parameters. How do we judge, for example, accidental mistakes? Is Jocasta to be blamed for the incest with her son Oedipus given that they were both unaware of their bond? How to explain our tendency to blame the inanimate objects, like murder weapons, that were involved in crimes? Why, as Adam Smith reminds us, do we judge on the basis of outcomes and not of intentions? The tendency to blame the victim – and oneself in particular, or that woman with a short skirt in a dodgy part of the town – is a subtle and dangerous habit. When we perform very simple actions – for example when we pick up a glass – it is relatively easy to determine if we were in control of our behaviour or not. The social realm is much more complicated than this, and philosophy has always struggled in the attempt to offer respectable criteria for responsibility. Those criteria remain inevitably vague. It is only by doing things, in the practical domain, that we will progressively understand what we are able to do and what we are not. In relation to punishment, we might take a more empirical approach: it might work in some circumstances, but this cannot be assumed a priori.


Source: Agency, Morals and the Mind Report

I just fell into this hole. It isn’t something that I did. This branch just fell on me. It isn’t something that I did. And for the animal to know “what can I do and what physical tasks are beyond me. Can I actually climb this tree? Can I actually jump that fence? So there is some way in which by trying things out and receiving feedback from the environment, the animals gets to know that these are the things that I can do and these are the things that I can’t do.

– Catherine Wilson (13:00)

Now we seem to have a new threat to notions of responsibility, which are very important, not only because it effects how we think about and treat people who commit criminal offences, but also just in ordinary life… How do we assign and how should we assign responsibility?

– Catherine Wilson (01:30)

People are realising how much of what humans do can actually be accomplished without any kind of awareness. Tasks such as hammering, riding a bicycle or driving can become automated or semi-automated, as you know when you suddenly realise that you’ve been driving down a highway jammed with cars and not paying attention because your mind has been focussed on some inner object.

– Catherine Wilson (05:15)

We assume that imposing very harsh punishments on people who have done something terribly wrong will provide feedback that will improve them. But it has been shown over and over that punishment does not reform criminals… Only to the extent that prison can effectively teach its inhabitants the skills and attitudes to function in the world on a better footing can imprisonment and punishment reduce criminality.

– Catherine Wilson (18:50)

It can be sort of useful to over-ascribe responsibility to the victim, especially when the victim is yourself, in order to be more prudent and more careful… On the other hand, when we look at bad social outcomes, the habit of blaming the victim is really really poisonous since it causes us to look away from general social factors and to blame people, to suppose that is something in their make up and their characteristics that is causing their behaviour

– Catherine Wilson (23:20)

The moral: there are no philosophically respectable, precise, criteria for assigning responsibility… Getting a firmer understanding of the physiological, positive, emotional and social inputs in to our decisions and actions should I think help us to think in a more rational way about punishment and perhaps about our more ordinary social interactions and achievements.

– Catherine Wilson (28:45)

Volition and Influence

How does the Behaviour of Others Influence what we do? Flynn is Professor and Deputy Head of Faculty (Research) in the  School of Education, Durham University. Emma researches various aspects of socio-cognitive development including social learning, the acquisition, transmission and evolution of cultural behaviours. 

In this talk, Emma presented on how we become members of a cultural group looking at aspects such as how we learn the traditions of a society and in particular how young children learn from other individuals in their social group.

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Becoming a social being

A developmental psychologist working with children and animals, Emma Flynn is interested in how children become social beings. We are born embedded in different cultures and social worlds: what are the specific mechanisms through which we adopt social behaviours? What is the importance of culture beyond the mere possibility of being part of a group? We have to navigate the physical space, constantly receiving information from society, symbolic language and the social structures surrounding us. We are able to deal with the complex problems posited by the environment not only because we are clever, but also because culture helps us deeply. Flynn recalled Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic, and Burke and Wills’ disastrous attempt to cross Australia: in those cases, the price of lacking knowledge of the local culture and environment was extreme. Moreover, far from being a static item, cultural evolution allows us to build up: it is largely due to the efforts of our predecessors – to incremental discoveries and big changes – if we are able to produce extraordinary technological breakthroughs.


The mechanisms of social learning

Social mechanisms are also extremely complex, and culture can be opaque. How do children become able to deal with this? Flynn’s hypothesis is that, in contrast to non-human animals, children tend to over-imitate, by reproducing series of complex, and task irrelevant, actions. In sets of experiments in which children and chimpanzees were presented simple demonstrations with many irrelevant details, Flynn and colleagues discovered that, while monkeys rarely copy irrelevant elements, children (3 and 5-year-old) copied redundant actions, as if they did not have the ability to filter irrelevant details. For example, children were shown a video or a live model illustrating how to obtain a reward from a clear or an opaque box. Crucially, only some of the actions in the operational sequence were causally relevant to get the reward, whereas others were irrelevant. The clear box made the causally irrelevant actions visible, whereas the opaque box prevented them from being seen. With some differences depending on age, both 3- and 5-year-old children imitated the irrelevant actions regardless of the availability of causal information. To explain over-imitation, Flynn and colleagues suggest that imitation “develops to be such an adaptive human strategy that it may often be employed at the expense of task efficiency”.[1] Interestingly, children seem to copy irrelevant intentional actions, in particular if presented by an adult, more than accidental ones. The effect is also amplified if the demonstrator is still present in the room where the child is performing the task. And it does not disappear when children are required to be quick and to compete with others, or if they think that the experiment is over. In general, both children and adults tend to adopt the opaque behaviour of others even when the imitative behaviour implies a cost. Such adaptive behaviour is supported both by social and by cultural motivations, including the need to act appropriately in a new social context.

When do children stop imitating useless causal information in order to produce novel solutions? Flynn introduced a study where children aged 4–9 years were presented a puzzle box, the Multiple-Methods Box (MMB), and social demonstrations of the tools, access points and exits they could employ to extract a reward from the box. The results showed that children tend to imitate quite irrespective of the efficacy of the method and that innovation is a rarity. Indeed, only 12.4% of children innovated by discovering at least one novel reward exit.[2]


The mechanisms of cultural transmission

What sort of mechanism allows the transmission of social behaviour? Who is learning from who? Where do the rules we employ come from? Studies show that children copy the methods they witness. Flynn and her team ran a series of “broken telephone” experiments. The first child was taught a skill, for example getting a treat out of a puzzle box, by the experimenter. In series the children were introduced to the skill and were able to see a demonstration offered by the previous child. Flynn examined how faithfully the skill was transmitted, and whether at some point redundant actions were omitted, or novel actions were introduced. She found that imitation was remarkably faithful, with only few innovators emerging over time. In a follow up study in a natural setting (a kindergarten), two popular children, one from each group, were taught two different types of behaviour. In the following weeks, Flynn and her team examined how these behaviours were transmitted. Once again, imitation was found to be faithful within the social circle of each popular kid. Kids that had friends in both social groups played the roles of innovators as they allowed one behaviour to leak to the other team.

Variance and deviations from the standard are developed by microcultures or small-scale traditions inside the group.[3] Cultural transmission can take different forms, ranging from direct observation to teaching. If copying is such a common occurrence, could we use its mechanisms for transmitting positive normative behaviour? Quite independently from the characteristics of the task, children appear to be very good at coordinating with each other: cooperation is infectious. But how does the behaviour of others influence what we do? We tend to copy more in specific circumstances, including situations of uncertainty or sedimented habits. Society seems to need innovators to survive, but in relatively small numbers. Given the way in which we are influenced by others, is agency a myth? Why is the influence of others so powerful? How does this vary across cultures? Who is able to innovate and in which contexts?

[1]  McGuigan, N., Whiten, A., Flynn, E. & Horner, V. (2007). Imitation of causally-opaque versus causally-transparent tool use by 3- and 5-year-old children. Cognitive Development, 22:353-364.

[2] Carr, K., Kendal, R.L. & Flynn, E.G. (2015). Imitate or Innovate? Children’s Innovation is Influenced by the Efficacy of Observed Behaviour. Cognition, 142:322-332.

[3] Whiten, A. & Flynn, E. (2010). The Transmission and Evolution of Experimental Microcultures in Groups of Young Children. Developmental Psychology, 46(6):1694-1709.


Source: Agency, Morals and the Mind Report

Culture allows us do something more than survive and simply function. It allows us to be able to build up our knowledge within the culture that we are working within. This is called cultural evolution.

– Emma Flynn (03:41)

The question that I’m asking within my particular field of research is about… how children become social beings, how children learn traditions, who they learn them from. I’m also interested in bigger questions around this: what is the importance of culture in our lives?

– Emma Flynn (00:50)

Children are learning to engage and integrate themselves in to very complex social mechanisms and norms… Much of what we have within a culture is opaque. How do children deal with this opacity?

– Emma Flynn (05:40)

If high fidelity copying is such a common occurrence among children, can we transmit positive normative behaviour?… Could cooperation be infectious among children?

– Emma Flynn (26:40)

What we found across chains of children was that it did not matter what the characteristics of the task were, children are really good at learning from other children how to coordinate their actions, even if they are different actions, and even if it is a social rather than a functional task…. Yes, cooperation among children is infectious!

– Emma Flynn (29:30)

From theories of cultural evolution we have learnt that what we need to have is the majority of individuals conforming or copying certain types of behaviours, and then rare instances of innovation, and that’s what I see in my open diffusion work. Lots and lots and lots of copying, with small elements of innovation over time. If we don’t see that, then what we have is chaos.

– Emma Flynn (31:30)

Volition and Value

patrickPatrick Haggard is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the ICN, University College London. His work is concerned with conscious will and self representation. His research on the cognitive neuroscience of voluntary action attempts to link the subjective experience of intending and performing manual actions to the brain processes that occur before and after actual movement. 

In this lecture, Patrick discusses the issue of volition, its neuroscientific basis, and its role in providing us with a sense of agency.

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Neuroscientific basis of volition

Patrick Haggard discussed the neuroscientific basis of volition – the process of generating voluntary movements. A crucial turning point in the scientific literature about voluntary actions is represented by Benjamin Libet’s work on the neural antecedents of endogenous actions. Famously, Libet’s experiments showed increased brain activity prior to the generation of a voluntary movement, called Readiness Potential (RP). Since their appearance, Libet’s studies have been criticized in two ways: an ontological critique has been moved mainly from a neuroscientific perspective (is RP just averaged noise? RP looks like a brain signal causally involved in voluntary actions but it might be something else). On the other side, philosophers have questioned the ecological validity of Libet’s model of voluntary actions (poor approximation, minimal laboratory abstraction, action processes and experiences must be reasons-responsive). In the light of the former critique, Haggard introduced a line of research dealing with the following question: what is RP? What is its causal role? Two main hypotheses regarding brain signals underlying voluntary movements have been outlined in the literature. According to the first view, endogenous actions are preceded by a gradual buildup of neuronal activity. In this case, RP is thought to reliably precede voluntary self-initiated movements. The competing hypothesis is that voluntary actions are preceded by stochastic fluctuations in neural activity. The precise moment in which an action occurred depends on when those spontaneous fluctuations surpass a threshold: if you average the random brain activity preceding the action, you have the impression of a signal, but what you really have are just stochastic fluctuations.[1]


Causal role of readiness potential

To test these hypotheses, Haggard and his team used an experimental design in which voluntary movements and cued movements were embedded in one task, keeping experimental context constant. On every trial in this experiment participants had to complete a visual detection task. On some trials the visual stimuli appeared after a long latency. Participants could wait for the stimuli to appear and make their decision, and have the opportunity to gain a high reward, or opt to skip the trial and settle for a lower reward. As the experiment lasted a fixed amount of time, to maximize your rewards it was worthwhile to skip some trials and cut the waiting time. Importantly, ‘skip’ responses were voluntary and self-initiated, while detection responses were cued. By using EEG, researchers measured brain activity locked in time to cued and uncued movements. They showed that RP, an elevation in signal prior to action associated with preparation period, was displayed before voluntary actions, but not before cued actions. In addition, before voluntary, but not cued, actions brain signal showed a reduction in variability. This indicated a consistent preparatory brain activity, supporting the hypothesis of preparation rather than fluctuation as the source of voluntary actions.


Causality, learning and the sense of agency

Haggard and his team were also interested in the sense of agency, the feeling that you are in control of the external world through your actions. In the lab environment, sense of agency is usually measured by referring to explicit (such as self-report) and implicit measures (which do not rely on participant’s explicit ratings). Among implicit measures, the so-called intentional binding has been considered a reliable tool for assessing individual sense of agency. Intentional binding refers to a widely observed phenomenon, characterised by the compression of the subjective temporal interval between a voluntary action and its effects (temporal attraction of the action towards the effect and of the effect towards the action).[2]

To examine how the sense of agency developed over time in a specific context, Haggard and colleagues used a learning paradigm in which participants learned about the probability of getting a reward in an elaborate and stochastic environment. In a two stage decision task, participants could choose whether to go left or right in a maze. The decisions were stochastic in the sense that, after choosing ‘right’, participants still had 20% probability of ending up on the left. After two decisions you were given a reward. How is sense of agency – measured by intentional binding – modulated by learning? Participants were asked to report when an outcome was presented to them after the second choice in the maze paradigm, using a clock presented on a screen. Participants showed a boost in binding, i.e. perceived the outcome as appearing earlier, on trials following an error. This finding suggests that learning enhances the sense of agency: people use feedback to make reasons-responsive choices. People who learn more tend to show more post error boost in action binding.

Haggard suggested a unified model of voluntary actions, in which intentions to act are followed by preparation and action, the process of volition, and movement is followed by a perceived effect, which is mediated by the sense of agency. As actions, outcomes and perception follow each other, the link between volition and agency becomes stronger.

[1] Schurger, A., Sitt, J.D., and Dehaene, S. (2012). An Accumulator Model for Spontaneous Neural Activity prior to Self-Initiated Movement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 42:E2904–13.

[2] Haggard P., Clark, S. & Kalogeras, J. (2002) Voluntary action and Conscious Awareness. Nature Neuroscience, 5: 382-385.


Source: Agency, Morals and the Mind Report

There is something about each of us which indicates something about our susceptibility to learn from errors which also gives us an increased sense of agency on the next trial. I think of this as some kind of brain process related to if at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try again.

– Patrick Haggard (34:22)

What is the reported brain activity which is somehow linked to volition? Is it the cause of our actions? Is it the cause of our conscious experience of our actions? How should it be understood conceptually in its relation to agency and mind?

– Patrick Haggard (02:10)

In philosophy the concept is that we make actions for a reason. Getting reasons in to laboratory experiments has been possible, but only if you throw volition out the window. How can you have both reasons and volition?

– Patrick Haggard (03:10)

There is a post-error boost in sense of agency, but only when you can learn, through your errors, to increase your control over the world, to get more rewards… This produces another rather interesting opportunistic correlation. If you classify people according to whether they learn more after an error or after a reward, it turns out that people who learn more from negative feedback tend to show stronger post-error boosts in action binding… I think about this as some kind of brain process related to ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again’.

– Patrick Haggard (33:10)

We can attempt a new operational definition of volition and brain potentials which is both internally generated and reasons responsive… We might say that volition is neuro-ontologically respectable.

– Patrick Haggard (34:20)

Maybe one of the problems of volition is that we think about it in the context of the word ‘will’. Maybe the word ‘trying’ is actually more appropriate.

– Patrick Haggard (35:55)

Getting out of your Head - Addiction and the Motive of Self-Escape O’Brien is Professor of Philosophy at University College London and the co-editor of Mind. Her work is focused predominately on the philosophy of mind and action, in particular on self-consciousness and self-knowledge. She has authored Self-Knowing Agents (OUP 2007) and co-edited, with Matthew Soteriou, Mental Actions (OUP 2009). Her current work looks at interpersonal, rather than personal, self-consciousness and the nature of the self-conscious emotions.  

In her talk Lucy discusses self-consciousness and self-knowledge, and the way in which pleasure and self-escape co-exist in patterns of addictive behaviour.

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Liking and pleasure in addictive behaviour

Philosophy is always concerned with what is like to be me. How do the ways in which we apprehend ourselves enter into our behaviour? Presenting her joint work with Daniel Morgan, Lucy O’Brien suggested that, in many cases, consumption of an addictive substance can alter our self-perception, allowing us to act in a manner that we would not approve while sober. Addictive behaviour is contrary to a person’s view of how he should act. But what underlies addictive desires? Work by Berridge and Robinson on rats suggests that elevated dopamine levels were associated with addictive behaviour. [1] Interestingly, dopamine levels seemed to be dissociated from liking the substance and the pleasure it brings. O’Brien suggested a model, by which substance S is desirable as it is good for wellbeing, it brings relief from pain, or it fixes or fulfils desires. According to Berridge and Robinson’s data, addictive substance can bypass the pleasure system, elevating dopamine levels directly. Lucy presented a hypothetical situation, in which two substances ‘balcohol’ and ‘calcohol’ have different features of alcohol. ‘Balcohol’ has taste and feel of beer, but does not affect dopamine levels, whereas ‘calcohol’ has no taste but effects dopamine level. The dopamine assumption will suggest that only ‘calcohol’ will be addictive. If dopamine assumption is taken to its limit, why are we not all addicts?


Addiction as self-escape

O’Brien pointed out that we should assume a pluralist perspective regarding addiction. Indeed, also personal history and social factors play a crucial role in addictive behaviour. Especially in situations in which – being in a costly emotional state such as the feeling of being oppressed by others or depression – one needs an escape from negative self-consciousness.[2] In those situations, addictive substances tend to secure ‘self-escape’, a relief from one’s emotional state. This suggests an additional motivation for addictive behaviour, having to do with the experience addictive substances promote, rather than with their subsequent increased dopaminergic level. In this sense ‘balcohol’ will be addictive as it provides the ‘self-escape’ experience of alcohol.

[1] Berridge, K.C., Robinson, T.E. (1998). What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience? Brain Research Reviews, 28 (1998): 309-369.

[2] Hull, J. G., & Reilly, N. P. (1983). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and alcohol consumption: A reply to Wilson. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 92:514-519; Randles, D., & Tracy, G.L., Nonverbal Displays of Shame Predict Relapse and Declining Health in Recovering Alcoholics, Clinical Psychological Science April 2013 vol. 1 no. 2:149-155


Source: Agency, Morals and the Mind Report

There’s one thing that no one seems to talk about. That alcohol changes what it is like to be conscious. They get you out of your head, they change what it is like to be a conscious being. That fact it seems to me must play some role in why we over-consume them in various ways.

– Lucy O’Brien (03:20)

I’m now trying to think about ways in which self-consciousness is mediated through the consciousness of others; it’s consciousness of yourself through apprehensions of the consciousness of others. I want to look at the ways in which that form of apprehending ourselves enters in to our experience but also our behaviours

– Lucy O’Brien (01:00)

There is one thing that no one talks about – that alcohol, and other drugs, change what it is like to be conscious. They’re intoxicating, they get you out of your head, they take you away… That fact, it seems to me, must play some role in why we over-consume them in various ways… I think there is a particular role that they play, which is that they facilitate self-escape

– Lucy O’Brien (03:00)

What is an additive desire? A desire that you will act on even if the outcome might be terrible… They are to that extent dysfunctional.

– Lucy O’Brien (04:40)

Let’s say we have two substances. I’ll call them Balcohol and Calcahol. Balcahol is going to act directly on the dopamine system, but it’s not going to get you out of your head…. Calcahol is going to get you absolutely tipsy, and and your self-consciousness will fall away, but it’s not going to effect the dopamine system. Then our question is going to be: will human beings get addicted to these substances?

– Lucy O’Brien (30:00)

External Resources

A collection of resources on the subject of memory gathered from across the internet.

Agency, Morals and the Mind Report (September 2016)

The sense of agency – the feeling that we are in control of our thoughts and actions – is a central feature of the human mind How can we define the relation between agency, moral responsibility and the brain? Can cognitive explanations shed light on the subjectivity and voluntariness of action? How can the science of evolution help us understand the nature of ethical constructs, and address the possibility of moral progress? What turns the mere control of bodily movements into conscious acts of morality or immorality?