Category Archives: Psychology

The Possibility of Moral Artificial Intelligence

In case you missed it, at the Atlantic, Patrick Tucker has written an article about the military’s project to create moral artificial intelligence — robots that can make moral decisions.

For instance, in a disaster scenario, a robot may be forced to make a choice about whom to evacuate or treat first, a situation where a bot might use some sense of ethical or moral reasoning.

Wendell Wallach’s book, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong, argues that the quest to build such machines has already begun.


“Robots both domestic and militarily are going to find themselves in situations where there are a number of courses of actions and they are going to need to bring some kinds of ethical routines to bear on determining the most ethical course of action.”

But I would argue moral decision making in humans is not a result of “ethical routines” or any kind of rule following. We act based on evolved emotional reactions to situations and then construct post-hoc rationalizations of our intuitive judgments or emotionally-driven behaviors.

I find myself asking myself whether there is an isomorphism or rather a gap between our gut-based judgments and the reasons we post-hoc construct to justify those judgments. If there is not, then it would seem “okay” to build robots which would operate only for “good” reasons that we accept as justifying those actions. Even though they wouldn’t act in the way we do when we act morally, they would still act justifiably.

Additionally, I wonder if acting ethically takes seeing oneself as worthy of ethical consideration, and then extrapolating one’s own preferences etc to another who one sees as worthy of ethical consideration. If acting ethically worked that way, then these moral robots would have to first see themselves and their kind as worthy of moral consideration. So, eventually, they might run a calculus concluding that the greater good is served by saving the “lives” of 5 artificially intelligent and moral machines by sacrificing 1 human being in, say, the Trolley Problem.

Noel Sharkey at the Huffington Post:

The robot may be installed with some rules of ethics but it won’t really care.

But that is going to seem wrong headed soon. It’s, I think, a little but like saying that since our brains are made of neurons and so on there really isn’t any consciousness there. I think the reason we have the intuition that artificial intelligence does not understand (see Searle) or care is because we know too much about how it works to achieve that understanding or caring. If the thing gets all the behavior right, are we going to say that its behavior doesn’t count as understanding or caring just because we know how its insides work? It might (might!) be that the only reason we continue to possess the intuition that other human beings are conscious is because we do not yet understand the neurological mechanism that underlies the apparently conscious behavior we see. But that would mean that once we do understand that neurological underpinning to our consciousness we will lose the sense that we are conscious and free etc. I think that is the wrong headed move.

Instead, we should recognize that the project is to reconcile the “scientific image” — the image of the universe and of ourselves that the various sciences deliver — and our “humanistic image” — the way that we do indeed conceive of ourselves, and very likely must conceive of ourselves, in order for there to be individual agency and society, which would include conceiving of ourselves as free and responsible and conscious.

An Approach to Psychiatric Disorder at the Neuronal Level

BishopBlog writes:

In 2013, Tom Insel, Director of the US funding agency, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), created a stir with a blogpost in which he criticised the DSM5 and laid out the vision of a new Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project. This aimed “to transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system.”

He drew parallels with physical medicine, where diagnosis is not made purely on the basis of symptoms, but also uses measures of underlying physiological function that help distinguish between conditions and indicate the most appropriate treatment. This, he argued, should be the goal of psychiatry, to go beyond presenting symptoms to underlying causes, reconceptualising disorders in terms of neural systems.

BishopBlog objects to the whole paradigm:

The RDoC program embodies a mistaken belief that neuroscientific research is inherently better than psychological research because it deals with primary causes…

From the RDoC:

Imagine treating all chest pain as a single syndrome without the advantage of EKG, imaging, and plasma enzymes. In the diagnosis of mental disorders when all we had were subjective complaints (cf. chest pain), a diagnostic system limited to clinical presentation could confer reliability and consistency but not validity. To date, there has been general consensus that the science is not yet well enough developed to permit neuroscience-based classification. However, at some point, it is necessary to instantiate such approaches if the field is ever to reach the point where advances in genomics, pathophysiology, and behavioral science can inform diagnosis in a meaningful way. RDoC represents the beginning of such a long-term project.

Second, RDoC is agnostic about current disorder categories. The intent is to generate classifications stemming from basic behavioral neuroscience. Rather than starting with an illness definition and seeking its neurobiological underpinnings, RDoC begins with current understandings of behavior-brain relationships and links them to clinical phenomena.

“Constructs,” i.e., a concept summarizing data about a specified functional dimension of behavior (and implementing genes and circuits) that is subject to continual refinement with advances in science. Constructs represent the fundamental unit of analysis in this system, and it is anticipated that most studies would focus on one construct (or perhaps compare two constructs on relevant measures). Related constructs are grouped into major domains of functioning, reflecting contemporary thinking about major aspects of motivation, cognition, and social behavior; the five domains are Negative Valence Systems (i.e., systems for aversive motivation), Positive Valence Systems, Cognitive Systems, Systems for Social Processes, and Arousal/Regulatory Systems.

Here’s a matrix to illustrate what he’s got in mind:

The columns of the matrix represent different classes of variables (or units of analysis) used to study the domains/constructs. Seven such classes have been specified; these are genes, molecules, cells, neural circuits, physiology (e.g. cortisol, heart rate, startle reflex), behaviors, and self-reports.

In addition, since constructs are typically studied in the context of particular scientific paradigms, a column for “paradigms” has been added; obviously, however, paradigms do not represent units of analysis.

It may be that BishopBlog objects to Insel’s ideas because BishopBlog is more optimistic and less derogatory with respect to psychological intervention. After all, Insel admitted that “a diagnostic system limited to clinical presentation could confer reliability and consistency but not validity.” But what more do you need besides reliability and consistency to treat patients?

The Evolutionary Psychology of Liberalism and Conservativism

At the Washington Monthly there’s a book review by Chris Mooney of two recent works about the psychological and biological differences between liberals and conservatives.

The most rock-solid finding, simply because it has been shown so many times in so many different studies, is that liberals and conservatives have different personalities. Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions, [namely] “openness”: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people…

Jonathan Haidt has covered this territory before. I often show this TED talk by Haidt to my ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ students.

Here’s the talk on YouTube.

NYTimes ‘Room For Debate’ Has Brought Affluenza Back Up

What do “affluenza” and Bat Kid have to do with each other? My essay on the moral psychology of empathy is here. I wrote:

The New York Times’ “Room For Debate” feature has brought “affluenza” back into the conversation.

Remember? A Texas judge gave a lenient sentence to a wealthy 16-year old, Ethan Couch, who killed four people while driving drunk. Rather than the 20-year prison sentence the prosecution had asked for, the judge gave Couch 10 years probation and sent him to a luxury rehab facility at the cost to his parents of $450,000. The defense had argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” which means, apparently, being too rich to know right from wrong. The defense’s psychologist, G. Dick Miller, seems to think that Couch’s rich parents raised him “without ever setting limits” such that he never learned that “actions have consequences.”

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Doctors Are Prescribing Books

Leah Price has written a piece in the Boston Globe about how some doctors in Britain are prescribing books for their mental health patients. The National Health Service set up a program called Books on Prescription, which is just the latest example of a new wave of “bibliotherapy.”

The School of Life, founded by Alain de Botton and Sophie Horwarth, employees philosophers, artists, writers, literary critics and others who offer workshops and classes, focussing on how books can help all of us address basic problems of life.

Indeed, some studies have been conducted which suggest that the written word may promise mental health benefits. Price:

As early as 1997, a randomized trial found bibliotherapy supervised by therapists no less effective in treating unipolar depression than individual or group therapy. More surprisingly, a 2007 literature review by the same researcher found that books treated anxiety just as effectively without a therapist’s guidance as with it. A 2004 meta-analysis comparing bibliotherapy for anxiety and depression to short-term talk therapy found books “as effective as professional treatment of relatively short duration.”

In the last analysis, however, Price concludes that books are only this good: they are better than nothing. And nothing is what lots of people are getting with respect to treatment for their mental health issues, for instance, say, depression.

Whence Shyness?

Some in the blogosphere are wondering about the evolutionary origin of shyness. Why are some people shy and others not? Is there an evolutionary benefit? Maybe it’s a “spandrel” (that is, a by-product of another fitness-making trait).

One study I read somewhere said that shy people as kids have over-active pre-frontal cortexes, which caused them to find it difficult to get out of their own heads. This is a sort of flattering explanation of shyness — shy people are just smarter!

Another explanation is that as social morays came to be more complex there came to be some people who would wonder when they were acting acceptably and this might trip them up from acting at all. Joe Moran writes:

Until a few hundred years ago, life was lived far more in public. For example, it was quite normal for people to urinate or defecate in public places. Even in private houses, whole families would eat, sleep and socialise together in the same room. Then, gradually, bodily functions and aggressive language and behaviour were rendered increasingly invisible in polite society, thanks to what the late sociologist Norbert Elias called the ‘civilising process’ that took place in the Western world from the 16th century onwards. As greater physical and psychological boundaries grew up around individuals, particularly among relative strangers in public, there were more opportunities for awkwardness and embarrassment about when these boundaries should be crossed.

Is that it? That would suggest that at one time there were fewer shy people than there are now. That’s an empirical question but I’m not sure how well it lends itself to scientific research methods.

Another explanation is due to Dr. Zimbardo, author of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo began thinking of shy people as incarcerating themselves in a silent prison, in which they also acted as their own guards, setting severe constraints on their speech and behaviour that were self-imposed although they felt involuntary.

That seems undermotivated. He is just arguing from analogy. It’s a hypothesis without yet any reason to believe it other than it would explain the phenomenon.

Here’s another question. Are we correct to treat shyness as a pathology?

Extreme shyness was redefined as ‘social anxiety disorder’, and drugs such as Seroxat (also known as Paxil), which works like Prozac by increasing the brain’s levels of serotonin, were developed to treat it. As Christopher Lane argues forcefully in his book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness (2007), this was part of a more general biomedical turn in psychiatry, with its ‘growing consensus that traits once attributed to mavericks, sceptics, or mere introverts are psychiatric disorders that drugs should eliminate’

Another more philosophical issue would be the careful definition of shyness, so we can know what we are talking about. To this end, some are careful to say that introversion is not the same as shyness. Introversion means you get tired out by social stimulation. This is apparently not regarded as pathological. Shyness on the other hand is “a longing for connection with other people which is foiled by fear and awkwardness,” Moran writes.

Moran consider whether or not he believes,

that lots of voluble people do not really listen to each other, that they simply exchange words as though they were pinging them over a tennis net — conducting their social life entirely on its surface. A small, self-regarding part of me thinks there is something glib about easy articulacy and social skill.

If you are shy, it’s worth thinking about just what that means, its origins, and whether or not it’s such a bad thing.

Happiness May Be Bad For You

Emily Esfahani Smith at writes about the philosophical distinction that most psychologists make between happiness and well-being. Happiness comes from the satisfaction of desires, wants and goals, while well-being comes from possessing meaning in life, which the psychologists equate to living for a purpose higher than the self.

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of a new study write. The new study concludes that happiness might even be bad for you.

Happiness may not be as good for the body as [previous] researchers thought. It might even be bad.

Most significantly the study showed a correlation between self-reported happiness and the kind of gene expression that occurs in cases of adversity, loneliness, and stress.

When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.


“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — “are about as good for you for as adversity,” says [one of the authors] Barbara Fredrickson.


Steven Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity.

For a lucky few, happiness and meaning are both in their possession.

But for many, there is a dissonance — they feel that they are low on happiness and high on meaning or that their lives are very high in happiness, but low in meaning. This last group, which has the gene expression pattern associated with adversity, formed a whopping 75 percent of study participants.

It’s an age old philosophical question and a part of any philosophical approach to therapy: can you be happy and hedonistic or is there something more?