Some questions prompt an intuitive response. When we ask, “How much should I donate?”, our first response might be something like, “whatever feels right.” Of course, we can step back and reflect on this feeling. “Must I donate that much?” “Must I donate anything?” This reflection can change our initial impulse. “Upon reflection, I can give much more.” Intuition and reflection also feature in philosophy and science.[i]

My research clarifies the nature and normativity of intuition and reflection in philosophy, science, and everyday reasoning. By employing both empirical and philosophical tools I advance theory (e.g., social psychology), practice (e.g., education) and democratic goals (e.g., correcting misinformation, transcending polarization, etc.).

Bounded Reflectivism: The Nature & Normativity Of Reflective Reasoning

One innovation of my recent research is an algorithmic model of intuitive and reflective reasoning (Figure 1). The model captures the ways in which reflection can both help and hinder our reasoning—e.g., reflection can lead to equilibrium, but it can also lead to polarization.[ii] The key is that reflection can be bound by ‘epistemic identity’—identities that involve particular beliefs such as religious and political identities. When we feel like our epistemic identity is threatened, we can reflectively defend its beliefs rather than dispassionately submit to the best arguments and evidence. The solution, according to the bounded reflectivist model, is not to suppress epistemic identity but embrace it—e.g., shared, superordinate epistemic identities (Byrd, under review).

The visual algorithm of bounded reflection.
Figure 1. The Bounded Reflectivist Model of Reflective Reasoning.


Some data already align with bounded reflectivism: Sometimes reflective reasoners converge (Byrd & Conway, 2019), but sometimes reflective reasoners diverge (Byrd, in prep.). With time and funding, the tools of philosophy and cognitive science can elaborate descriptive and normative upshots of bounded reflectivism to improve not only our theories (Byrd & Sytsma, in prep.; Byrd, Sytsma, Livengood, & Yaden, in prep.), but our understanding of high-stakes, real-world reasoning—e.g., inner conflict, deliberative democracy, negotiation, and international relations.

Modeling Reflection, Norms, and Identity. When we step back from an impulse to reflect on it, we represent the impulse as well as some reasons for or reasons against the impulse—e.g., the consequences of acting on the impulse.[iii] Fortunately, some computational models shed light on this response—e.g., ARCADIA.[iv] However, there is still an opportunity for a model that incorporates reflection’s antecedents (e.g., perception), its mediators (e.g., epistemic and other partisan identities), or its consequences (e.g., inner conflict, intergroup conflict, and conflict resolution). With funding and time, a more complete computational model can formalize these processes.

Psychology of epistemic identity. In additions to models, experiments can test the effect of epistemic identity on reasoning. There is already some evidence for such an effect: Uhlmann, Pizarro, and Tannenbaum’s (2009) found that cuing patriotism (vs. multiculturalism) had an impact on judgments about moral dilemmas involving foreigners. I propose testing how subordinate (vs. superordinate) epistemic identities such as political party membership (vs. human species membership) may affect reasoning. I also propose testing how this effect interacts with reflection. If reflection can be bound to identity, then it could enhance identity’s effects on reasoning.

Mediators of epistemic identity. The link between reflection and certain beliefs may vary across cultures (Byrd, in prep.).[v] This raises the question of how cultural and other factors might feature in the bounded reflectivist model of reflection. For instance, the effect of reflection on philosophical judgments might be mediated by nationalist (vs. globalist) identity and collectivist (vs. individualist) identity. Another possibility is that unreflective reasoning simply mirrors the predominant norms of agents’ societies. On this possibility, reflective reasoning involves, among other things, considering counter-cultural norms. This can explain why less reflective responding predicts theism and more reflective responding predicts atheism in predominantly theist countries like the US, but not in predominantly atheist countries.

Advancing The Philosophy & Science

Some evidence suggests that improving scientific tools can advance science.[vi] For instance, improved measures of reflection (e.g., Byrd & Conway, 2019) are revealing how existing theories and measurements must be modified. So David Yaden, Derek Anderson, and I are co-founding the Psychology of Philosophy Network—including, e.g., L.A. Paul and Paul Bloom to further improve measures (Byrd & Sirota, in prep.) and clarify existing theory (e.g., Biebel & Byrd, in prep.; Yaden & Byrd, in prep.).


[i] Intuition in philosophy: Chalmers, 2014; Kornblith, 1998; Mallon, 2016. Reflection in philosophy: Goodman, 1983; Hursthouse, 1999; Korsgaard, 1996; Rawls, 1971; Sosa, 1991; Velleman, 1989. Intuition in science: Tallant, 2013. Reflection in psychology: Pennycook, 2018; Sperber, 1997.

[ii] E.g., Kahan, 2013; Kahan et al., 2017; Pennycook & Rand, 2018a; cf. Pennycook & Rand, 2018b.

[iii] Korsgaard, 1996; Frith, 2019

[iv] Bello, Bridewell, Lovett, Briggs, & O’Neill, 2016; Malle, Bello, & Sheutz, 2019

[v] E.g., Gervais et al, 2018.

[vi] E.g., Bickle, 2016; Braganza & Beck, 2018; Sullivan, forthcoming