Institut Jean Nicod

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The Experimental Philosophy Group

Groupe de travail  "Philosophie Expérimentale"


Institut Jean-Nicod. ENS, Pavillon Jardin, 29, rue d'Ulm 75005 Paris. Salle de réunion, RDC.

Contact: Brent Strickland


The Experimental Philosophy group at Jean Nicod will be having its first official meeting this coming Wednesday, November 20th. We will be meeting weekly from there on out. The group looks at philosophically interesting notions like causality, intentionality, reference, and mental files from an empirical angle. The ultimate goal is to get a better understanding of how the mind actually represent these things.

The meetings are composed of philosophers, psychologists, linguists, and sociologists, and many of the groups members are just making their first steps in to experimentation. We hope to build an interdisciplinary group which is asking a lot of original and theoretically rich questions, using solid experimental methods. So if you are a philosopher (or linguist, anthropologist, etc...) and want to learn how to run experiments or are a psychologist and want to think about some new and unfamiliar topics, please join us.


October, 3
Lyn Tieu (LSCP),
"Comparing children’s acquisition of scalar inferences: A look at free choice and embedded questions"

Abstract: A recent approach in the acquisition literature has involved comparing children’s acquisition of scalar implicatures to that of other inferences that have likewise been argued to be scalar in nature. The idea behind such an approach is that two phenomena driven by a common underlying mechanism may be expected to manifest similar developmental profiles. In this talk, I will present two case studies involving phenomena where 4- and 5-year-old children are revealed to be adult-like, in contrast to typical findings of non-adult-like performance on scalar implicatures. The first study reveals an adult-like capacity to compute free choice inferences from disjunction and free choice indefinites (Tieu, Romoli, Zhou, & Crain, under review); the second reveals adult-like sensitivity to the various exhaustive readings of embedded questions (Cremers, Tieu, & Chemla, in prep). Both sets of results force us to examine more closely the theoretical claims about the underlying mechanisms of the respective phenomena. We must either draw the conclusion that the underlying mechanisms differ in nature from those underlying scalar implicatures, or further refine our explanation of how children acquire adult-like competence in the different cases.

October, 17
Mark Sheskin (Institut Jean Nicod)
"Why Moral Behavior Varies Over Development and Cultures"

Abstract: A young child refuses to share toys with another child, while an older child shares perfectly equally. An adult in one culture values commitment to abstract and universal norms over family loyalty, while an adult in another culture values family loyalty more highly. In this presentation, I will provide a simple framework for explaining moral variation across ages and cultures. Specifically, I describe how two contributions from evolutionary biology (biological markets and life history theory) combine to provide a systematic account of many previously puzzling results, and to generate several new predictions for future research in moral psychology.

October, 24
Katharina Helming (Institut Jean Nicod),
"Automatic "group" biases in charitable behavior"

Abstract: Two studies will be presented that investigate the impact of group-manipulations on giving behavior. Research shows that generally quick and automatic responses lead to more generous behavior towards strangers, while reflective thinking is linked to stinginess. The main question is, whether these effects are of more specific nature, depending on the context: Does for example a quick response lead to generous responses only towards strangers that are perceived as part of the in-group, but not towards an out-group? Data that deal with these questions will be presented and discussed.

November, 19
Serge Galam (CEVIPOF - Centre for Political Research, Sciences Po, CNRS),
"Stubbornness as the instrumental key to win a controversial public debate"

Controversial public debates driven by incomplete data or issues where nobody can claim certainty about a given choice, are studied within the frame of sociophysics. To adopt a cautious balanced attitude based on clear but inconclusive data or to be open mind looking for the best choice, appears to be a lose-out strategy. In contrast overstating arguments with incorrect claims which cannot be refuted or keeping deaf to opposite arguments, appears to be a key ingredient to eventually win a public debate. The underlying key mechanisms of these puzzling and unfortunate conclusions are identified using the Galam Unifying Frame (GUF) of opinion dynamics. It reveals that the existence of stubborn agents and their respective proportions are the instrumental parameters to determine the winner choice in a  public debates about issues either uncertain or based on incomplete data. Turning stubborn some of  one's own supporters modifies the topology of the opinion flow diagram making irrelevant the value of initial support. Thus focusing on convincing open-minded agents may turn useless. Accordingly, stubbornness drives  the opinion of the population. The results shed a new but disturbing light on designing adequate strategies to win a public debate.

November, 21
Tristan Thommen and Bianca Cepollaro (IJN),
"Experimental approaches to slurs: brainstorming"

November, 28
Guillaume Dezacache (St. Andrews),
"Modulation of body surface temperature and gestation concealment in pregnant chimpanzees"

Male infanticide is a powerful selection force in many animal species. In chimpanzees, pregnant females have evolved behavioural and physiological strategies to confuse paternity so as to protect their future offspring from the infanticidal tendencies of adult males. Although unable to conceive, they continue to be sexually active and mimic the swelling pattern of non-pregnant females. The extent to which they also mimic other signals of fertility has yet to be investigated. Here, we collected body surface temperature from pregnant and non-pregnant females from a chimpanzee community in Budongo Forest, Uganda, using infra-red thermography. We found that non-pregnant females show a significant temperature rise of the facial and genital areas when proceeding to maximum tumescence. Although pregnant females differ from non-pregnant one in body temperature throughout most of the swelling cycle, their body temperature becomes statistically indifferent from non-pregnant ones when reaching maximum tumescence and males show sexual interest. This suggests the existence of a thermoregulatory mechanism, which may function to deceive males by producing body temperature associated with fertility. Our results also shed light on the putative evolutionary origins of pregnancy concealment strategies in humans, such as the 'pregnancy glow'.

December, 5
Jeremy Zehr & Paul Egré (Institut Jean Nicod),
"Contradictions with polar antonyms".

Abstract: Recent experimental studies (Serchuk et al. [2011], Alxatib & Pelletier [2011], Ripley [2011], Égré et al. [2013]) have shown that even though speakers typically reject contradictions like (i) and (ii) for clear cases of a vague adjective, they tend to accept them as true for borderline cases:

  i. A man of height 5'7'' is tall and not tall.
  ii. A man of height 5'7'' is neither tall nor not tall.

In this paper we investigate whether speakers are similarly prone to accepting such conjunctions with polar antonyms (e.g 'tall' vs. 'short', compared to 'tall' vs. 'not tall'). We discuss two pragmatic approaches of antonyms (one inspired by Horn [1984], another proposed by Krifka [2007]) that derive felicitous uses of sentences like (ii), and like (i) when augmented with an additional pragmatic principle. Both make similar predictions regarding (i) and (ii), but they differ regarding (i') and (ii'). We collected speakers' truth-value judgments regarding descriptions of borderline cases of these forms.

  i'. A man of height 5'7'' is tall and short.
  ii''. A man of height 5'7'' is neither tall nor short.

Our findings replicate the results of the experimental literature insofar as descriptions like (i) and (ii) are accepted to a significant degree for borderline cases. In addition we show that descriptions such as (ii) are accepted significantly more often than descriptions like (i). Besides, descriptions like (i') turn out to be systematically rejected, whereas descriptions like (ii') are systematically accepted. We discuss the consequences of those findings for an adequate account of antonyms, and in particular for the problem whether antonyms should be viewed as contradictories, rather than contraries of each other.

December, 12
Elisa Darriet (Paris 2 - Institut Jean Nicod),
"The European economic crisis"

Abtsract: This study explores the social representations of the European economic crisis generated by lay people. Several studies have described and studied mental and social representations in the economic domain (Leiser et al.,2010 ; Allen et al.,2005 ;Verg?es,1998 ; Savadori, 2001). Economic crises and particularly the current crisis that the European Union is facing, have dramatic consequences (social, political, economic…) and enable speci-fic lay social representations. The aim of this study is to look at these particular economic crisis representations. We examined lay perceptions of the current economic crisis through 130 questionnaires administered via internet. We were able to identify three major explanations of the economic crisis (through a pattern of economic theories).

January, 21, 4 pm- 6 pm
Katharina Helming (University of Trier, IJN)
"Social motivation and early false-belief understanding"

Abstract: First, I will sketch a pragmatic solution to the puzzle about early belief ascription: young children fail elicited-response false-belief tasks, but they demonstrate spontaneous false-belief understanding. I will argue that what makes the standard where-prediction question so taxing for children before the age of four is that it simultaneously requires them to take a third-person perspective on the mistaken agent’s instrumental action, while taking a second-person perspective on the experimenter’s communicative action.

Secondly, in support of this view, I will present novel empirical data showing that 3-year-olds succeed in social versions of the elicited-response false-belief task in which they are asked to take a second-person perspective onto the instrumental action of a mistaken agent. Finally, I will present preliminary data exploring a group paradigm in 3-year-olds: While both, group-membership based on shared beliefs and preferences lead to an in-group bias, young children do not show any group effect when their membership has been assigned randomly.

February, 12, 11:00 - 12:30
Brent Strickland (IJN),
"Compensating for human nature: How to control "core" biases for the sake of better outcomes"

Abstract: At least some biases in human cognition and decision making are a core part of human nature in that they are cross-culturally universal and behave in a law-like manner. Occasionally such biases bring about undesirable outcomes in the form of poor policy decisions, cultural practices, or choices in individual action. Despite their law-like nature, the undesirable outcomes of cognitive biases can be avoided via intelligent and selective intervention. Here I discuss three examples of cognitive bias which illustrate these points: confirmation bias, biases of "social grouping," and a bias to overestimate the probability of encountering a frightening person/outcome. I argue that the negative consequences of each can be avoided by applying common principles of intervention.

February, 19, 14:00 - 15:30
Axel Cleermans (Université Libre de Bruxelles),
"The reach of the unconscious"

Abstract: A great conceptual pendulum oscillates, with a period of about 30 or 40 years, over our understanding of the relationships between conscious and unconscious information processing. Its path delineates the contours of the unconscious mind as well as its contents: Sometimes smart and defining the very fabric of the mind, the unconscious is at other times relegated to taking care of little more than our bodily functions. At this point in time, the pendulum finds itself hovering rather steadily on the side of those who think so many functions are served by the unconscious that they even question the very role that consciousness plays in shaping the human mind.

Here I will suggest that the pendulum has swung a little too far, and illustrate the argument with recent experimental findings that document how challenging it may be to arrive at a satisfactory conception of the relationships between conscious and unconscious information processing. I will focus on two recent studies dedicated to social cognition — one concerns the Unconscious Thought Effect, the other behavioural priming. Both are suggestive that the specific methods we use, as well as the manner in which we interpret the data and other factors such as experimenter bias, are of profound importance with respect to the conclusions we draw about the power of the unconscious.

A few general principles emerge from this skeptical analysis. First, the unconscious is probably overrated today. Second, there is a pervasive and continuing confusion between information processing without awareness and information processing without attention. I suggest that considering how learning and plasticity mechanisms modify conscious contents can reduce this confusion.

March, 20, 15:00-17:00 - Salle de réunion, Institut Jean-Nicod
Markus Kneer (IJN),
"Perspective and Epistemic State Ascriptions"

Abstract: Ascriptions of belief and knowledge give rise to the so-called epistemic side-effect effect (ESEE). Epistemic state ascriptions, that is, vary across scenarios depending on whether an action’s side-effect is positive or negative. In a series of experiments, I investigate whether this asymmetry is influenced by perspective. More generally, the question is whether knowledge and belief ascriptions differ when people assess their own epistemic states rather than those of other people in otherwise indistinguishable scenarios. Belief ascriptions, it turns out, do manifest an impact of perspective: In contrast to other-ascriptions, self-ascriptions of belief do not give rise to an ESEE. Knowledge ascriptions, astonishingly, do not vary with perspective.

March, 27, 11:30-13:00 - Salle de réunion, Institut Jean-Nicod
Natalia Karczewska (University of Warsaw)
"An Attempt to Save Anscombe's Thesis – a Study on the Polish "Intentionally"

Abstract: In their paper "Can One Act for a Reason without Acting Intentionally?" (2009) J. Knobe and S.D. Kelly claim that they have experimentally falsified the so-called Anscombe's Thesis which says that every action done for a reason is an intentional action. They propose such a scenario in which somebody does something and the respondents confirm that he did it for a reason but deny that he did it intentionally. In the study we carried out as the experimental philosophy group at the University of Warsaw, we sought to undermine the conclusion reached by Knobe and Kelly. We believe that, in the face of Anscombe's theory of action, the term "intentionally" might not be the best way of operationalizing the concept of intentionality in a survey. As it happens, the translation of "intentionally" into Polish poses certain problems. However, the use of "świadomie" (knowingly) plays the role that Anscombe's theory seems to require from the concept of intentionality. During my talk, I'm going to present our experiment conducted on the Polish speaking population and discuss our interpretation of the results.

CANCELLED / June, 24, 2.30 pm- 4pm
Julian de Freitas (University of Oxford),
"The True Self and Normative Essentialism"

Do people view others as fundamentally good? Recent work has found that people attribute moral goodness to the ‘true self’ (Newman et al. (2014). Value judgments and the true self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 203–216.). I will present evidence that this belief in a good true self is universal, spanning across cultural differences in the degree to which the self is viewed as independent vs. interdependent, and individual differences in misanthropy. Next, I will show that the true self can also explain well-known — but as of yet unexplained — moral asymmetries in a diverse set of folk judgments, including valuing, happiness, weakness of will, and praise/blame. Finally, I will reveal findings suggesting that this normative view of the self derives from a more widespread way in which people understand the essence of entities in general — human and non-human.

July, 10, 2-3 pm
Annie Wertz, (Ph.D. Naturalistic Social Cognition Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Human Development)

"Plant-relevant cognitive architecture in human infants and nonhuman primates"

Abstract: Plants have been central to human life across evolutionary time as sources of food and raw materials for artifact construction. However, plants also manufacture potentially dangerous chemical and physical defenses (such as noxious oils and thorns) to protect themselves from herbivores. Because the features of edible and poisonous plants vary widely, employing a general strategy that all plants are edible (or poisonous) would be extremely costly. In this talk, I will present a series of recent studies examining whether human infants possess evolved social learning mechanisms that balance the costs and benefits associated with plants. The first set of studies investigates the protective behavioral strategies infants employ prior to receiving social information about a particular plant. These studies show that 8- to 18-month-olds exhibit a striking reluctance to reach out and touch plants compared to other types of entities, a strategy that would minimize their exposure to the type of harm that plants can inflict. However, this initial reluctance can be overturned by social information that a plant is safe. Thus far, my empirical work has investigated social information about plant edibility. The studies show that (i) 6- and 18-month-olds engage in selective social learning of plant edibility, and (ii) 18-month-olds extend socially-learned information about edibility to novel exemplars of the same type of plant. Finally, I will present data from an ongoing project examining whether the plant-relevant strategies found in human infants are shared by nonhuman primate species. Thus far, results indicate that capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) show plant selectivity, but their responses diverge from those of human infants. Taken together, these findings suggest the presence of evolved social learning mechanisms that allow humans to cope with the problems posed by plants in natural environments. I will discuss the broader implications for the evolution of learning mechanisms and the generation of human culture.

July, 10, 3-4 pm
Dave Pietraszewski, (Ph.D. Center for Adaptive Rationality, Max Planck Institute for Human Development)

"Why does the mind perceive race?  A computational account of race perception and categorization"

Abstract: Despite its lack of objective existence from a scientific perspective, the experience that ‘race’ is a feature of the world is a pervasive part of human experience. Why does this happen? Although decades of research in the social sciences had documented the phenomenon of racial categorization and its downstream consequences of stereotyping and discrimination, no unproblematic computational account of racial categorization had been put forward that could either predict real-world distributions of race representation, or generate predictions about experimental manipulations that would modulate racial categorization. In this talk a computational account of racial categorization that has successfully accomplished both is presented. A summary of the largest set of successful experimental reductions in implicit categorization by race will be presented, along with a brief summary of cross-cultural data showing that this model also predicts real-world distributions of race representation. This model and its empirical results have implications for the development of race perception and intergroup bias.