Thursday, 27 October 2016

Bias and Blame: Interview with Jules Holroyd




In this post, I interview Imperfect Cognitions network member Jules Holroyd, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in the department of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, and Principal Investigator of the Leverhulme Trust funded Bias and Blame project. The project runs from 2014-2017 and the team includes senior lecturer Tom Stafford and postdoctoral researcher Robin Scaife in the department of psychology, and PhD student Andreas Bunge in the department of philosophy.

SS: The Bias and Blame project investigates the relationship between moral interactions, such as blame, and the manifestation of implicit bias. How did you become interested in this topic, and has there been much previous research in this area?

JH: The project looks principally at whether moral interactions, such as blaming, impact on the expression of implicit racial bias. The interest in this  question arose out of the philosophical debates about responsibility for bias, in which two claims seemed to be prominent: first, that individuals are not responsible for implicit bias (for having it, or for manifesting it). I disagreed with this claim, and have argued in various places (here, here and here) that it is not at all obvious that any general exculpating conditions hold in relation to our discriminatory behaviour that results from implicit bias.

Second, authors have claimed that irrespective of individuals’ responsibility, we should not blame individuals, since that would be counterproductive. It might provoke hostility and backlash, and make people less motivated to buy in to the project of tackling discrimination and attendant problems of under-representation. This sort of claim is found in some of Jenny Saul’s early work on implicit bias, and more recently in Manuel Vargas’s work (on his revisionist conception of responsibility in relation to implicit bias). I can see the appeal of this kind of claim, and the reasons for caution with our use of blame. But ultimately the impact of blame on implicit attitudes and individual motivation (explicit and implicit) is an empirical question. There hadn’t been a great deal of empirical research into this issue: some studies looked at the role of moral confrontations in combating the expression of bias (Czopp and Monteith, 2006). Others had examined the role of inducing guilt in blocking its expression (Moskowitz & Li 2011). These findings seemed to indicate that under certain conditions, moral interactions and the provoking of moral emotions could have positive effects on bias mitigation: not the sort of backlash that had been worried about.

Moreover, this kind of intervention – harnessing the resources of our moral interactions with each other – seemed promising in comparison with some of the more individualistic and mechanistic attempts to alter individual cognition (which have been notoriously difficult to replicate and sustain). But no one had yet looked at how blame might impact on implicit biases and their expression. It looked like the sort of question that we could construct an experimental design to test. And this is what we were able to do, with the funds from the Leverhulme Project Research Grant.

SS: One might assume that progress in empirical work on implicit bias is mostly within the purview of psychology, but your research utilises concepts from philosophical study to both inform empirical investigations and to interpret the results. This is obviously something that we’re interested in at PERFECT. In your opinion, what is the value of interdisciplinary work on implicit bias, and co-operation between philosophers and psychologists more generally?

JH: The interdisciplinary nature of our research has been crucial. What we are exploring is essentially an empirical question that arises out of philosophical debate. But the notions deployed in the experimental design – holding morally responsible, expressing blame – are concepts that have been philosophically honed, and it was important that their role in the experimental process adequately reflected the notions that philosophers have been working with (and worrying about).

At the same time, input was needed from the experimentalists on the project (Tom and Robin), since the framing of those notions in the experiment needed to be empirically operational: there is no point deploying concepts that are philosophically rigorous, but opaque or alien to the participants in the studies (who were not philosophers). Later in the process, when we had the data set from the studies, interpreting them and anticipating their significance for a range of philosophical debates, required both statistical analysis and conceptual work, so again, having philosophers and psychologists around the table was invaluable at that stage too.

We are fortunate in that over time, we’ve had various interactions (reading groups, feedback on each other’s work) that enabled us to come to common understandings of terminology and the angles we each approach things from. And we get on really well, so even where there are disagreements they are never (not to date, at least!) irresolvable!

The whole process, from conception of the research question, to experimental design, to interpretation of the findings, has been rigorously interdisciplinary. This has enabled us to do research that we simply could not have done otherwise! And, we’ve reached some preliminary conclusions that, we hope, make a valuable contribution to the philosophical debates…

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Project PERFECT Year 3: Sophie



I’m delighted to join the philosophy department of the University of Birmingham as a Research Fellow working on Project PERFECT as it enters its third year.

In recent research I’ve been investigating the nature of the implicit/explicit distinction, and considering whether there is a role for agency when implicit cognition drives behaviour.

I was awarded my PhD earlier this year, with a thesis on implicit social bias. It’s previously been argued that implicit cognitions do not express our evaluative agency, and that we cannot be held responsible for their manifestation. I’ve argued that just because some cognition bears some or all of the putative features of the implicit, this is not a reliable heuristic for its exclusion from being considered agential. Agency may involve an interplay between implicit and explicit processes, and whether implicit features count as agential might only be illuminated by zooming out and viewing agency as extended over time, against the backdrop of the agent’s other commitments, as I’ve argued here.


This year, I’ll be building on some of the ideas that have come out of this project, as I join Andrea in turning my attention to confabulation. Confabulation is a feature of a number of mental illnesses, but it’s significant that people in the non-clinical population also often fail to identify the implicit origins of their choices or actions, and confabulate about why they think or act as they do. Much of this research focuses on cases where implicit and explicit attitudes diverge, and in this context, one might think that it’s both surprising and epistemically problematic that we more readily tell an inaccurate story that fits with our personal narrative, than recognise a gap.

Part of my research this year will be to investigate how significant a role this narrative-preserving mechanism might play in all cases of cognition: evidence suggests that implicit cognitions which are concordant with explicit attitudes regularly guide behaviour without our awareness. I’m interested in how we interpret and explain what we’re doing in these cases, how they compare with the divergent-attitude cases, and whether there are epistemic benefits and costs common to both cases.

A new direction for me this year will be to start to explore whether the distributed cognition literature, as well as research into how communication shapes cognition, illuminate any benefits of confabulation. If there are benefits to offloading cognitive labour onto our surrounding environment, and in particular, sharing such labour with epistemic peers, then perhaps there are sometimes benefits to confabulating, rather than acknowledging ignorance. It might be that confabulation allows us to preserve a relationship with the people on whom current and future shared epistemic endeavours depend. Of course, there will also be costs to confabulation in these contexts, but if it’s discovered that these relationships yield significant epistemic benefits that could not be easily replicated by other means, then perhaps these cognitions will turn out to be epistemically innocent.