A picture of the thinker statue beside a functional MRI of someone in the thinker pose.

A Dissertation About Reflective Reasoning in Philosophy, Morality, & Bias

One of the things that I worked on in 2018 was a dissertation about the roles of reflective reasoning in philosophy, morality, and bias. Pending a follow-up study for one chapter, every chapter is written and has enjoyed at least one round of comments—and some of the chapters are under review. As the chapters find homes in journals, I will be sure to post preprints and links to the online publication on my blog and in my social media feeds. So, ya know, follow those if you want more updates. In this post, I’ll give you drafts of the abstracts for each chapter, so that you can get a birds-eye view of the dissertation project.†

1. Multi-Stage, Bounded Reflection

Reflection is a staple in the history of ideas. For instance, philosophers have made reflection central to their views about agency, induction, justice, justification, knowledge, and normativity. Reflectivists hold that reflection is necessary for good judgment and decision-making. Anti-reflectivists hold that reflectivists are wrong. However, it is not clear that reflectivists and anti-reflectivists mean the same thing by ‘reflection’. Further, some reflectivists admit some of the criticisms of anti-reflectivists and yet they hesitate to fully abandon reflectivism. This paper advances this debate in three ways. First, it offers a falsifiable and realistic account of reflection that captures what most reflectivists and anti-reflectivists seem to mean by ‘reflection’. Second, the paper uses this account of reflection to offer a more sensible, middle way between reflectivism and anti-reflectionism—bounded reflectivism. Third, the paper defends bounded reflectivism.

2. Not All Measures Of Reflection Are Equal

There are many tasks that reveal individual differences in the disposition to reflect (vs. rely on what some call ‘intuition’). Differences in dispositions to intuit vs. reflect correlate with differences in economic, moral, political, religious, and other judgments and decisions. However, some of the tasks that measure reflection are mathematical (e.g., Frederick, 2005), some are logical (e.g., Janis & Frick, 1943), and some are not obviously mathematical or logical (e.g., Thomson & Oppenheimer, 2016; Sirota et al., forthcoming). So, some measures of reflection confound reflection with other domain-specific skills more than others—e.g., mathematical measures of reflection may partially confound reflection with numeracy. Further, some measures of reflection assume, a priori, reflective and non-reflective processing are perfectly inverse such that increases in reflection are proportional to decreases in intuition. As a result, it is often unclear to what degree correlates and measures of reflection track reflection per se vs. a confounding factor or an a priori commitment about reflection. This paper explains two methods that can improve the measurement of reflection: verbal report protocols (á la Ericsson & Simon, 1998) and process dissociation (á la Jacoby, 1991). Since not every measure of reflection is so prone to confounds, this paper also explains when and why verbal report protocols and process dissociation will improve measurements of reflection.

3. Maybe Great Minds Do Not Think Alike

Researchers have repeatedly found that differences in reflection predict differences in philosophical beliefs and judgments (e.g., Hannikainen & Cova, forthcoming; Pennycook et al., 2016). Researchers have also found that studying philosophy correlates with greater reflection (e.g., Kuhn, 1991; Livengood et al., 2010). So, one might wonder if differences in philosophical beliefs and judgments will cease differing significantly in a sample of highly reflective philosophers. Two large studies investigated this question. The data reveal near optimal levels of reflection among people with at least doctoral training in philosophy—significantly higher than others in the sample. Nonetheless, differences in reflection among philosophers predicted significant differences in their views about god, personal identity, language, and science—even when controlling for factors that often correlate with reflective reasoning. This suggests that the relationship between reflection and philosophy could be robust among philosophers and non-philosophers.

4. Not All Who Ponder Count Costs

Sacrificial moral dilemmas present actions that directly cause harm but prevent greater harm. Theory suggests that accepting such actions (consistent with utilitarian philosophy) involves more reflective reasoning than rejecting such actions (consistent with deontological philosophy). However, past findings do not always replicate, confound different kinds of reflection, and employ conventional dilemma analyses that treat utilitarian and deontological decisions as opposites. In two studies, we examined whether past findings would replicate when employing process dissociation to assess deontological and utilitarian inclinations independently. Findings suggested two categorically different impacts of reflection: measures of arithmetic reflection, such as the Cognitive Reflection Test, predicted only utilitarian, not deontological, response tendencies. However, measures of logical reflection, such as performance on logical syllogisms, positively predicted both utilitarian and deontological tendencies. These studies replicate some findings, clarify others, and reveal opportunities for additional nuance in dual process theorist’s claims about the link between reflection and dilemma judgments.

5. Associations, Reflection, & Implicit Bias

The received view of implicit bias holds that it is associative and unreflective. Recently, the received view has been challenged. Some argue that implicit bias is not predicated on “any” associative process, and it is unreflective. These arguments rely, in part, on debiasing experiments. They proceed as follows. If implicit bias is associative and unreflective, then certain experimental manipulations cannot change implicitly biased behavior. In fact, these manipulations can change such behavior. So, implicit bias is not associative and unreflective. This paper finds philosophical and empirical problems with that argument. When the problems are solved, the conclusion is only half right: implicit bias is not necessarily unreflective, but it seems to be associative. Further, the paper shows that even if legitimate non-associative interventions on implicit bias exist, then both the received view and its recent contender would be false. In their stead would be interactionism or minimalism about implicit bias.

Going Forward

Presenting these chapters at conferences has been fun. Admittedly, it has involved a great deal of travel. For instance, I have spent only 10 of the last 45 nights at home and I missed about one third of my classes last semester. This semester, I’d like to focus more on getting the rest of these chapters (and other papers) submitted to journals than presenting the chapters at conferences.


† In principle, the content and order of the chapters could change. However, all of the chapters are written and most have received multiple rounds of comments, so I imagine that the penultimate outline of the dissertation chapters will be reasonably similar to what is above.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog